• Burnaby teacher encourages her students to get outdoors

    Alana Sawatsky loves to explore places like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, in British Columbia. (Photo: Alana Sawatsky)

Alana Sawatsky takes a climate justice approach to teaching, emphasizing what students can do to make a difference in the world and how geography is relavant to just about any subject. She encourages her students in Grade 10 social studies and Grade 12 geography at Moscrop Secondary in Burnaby, B.C., to get closer to nature to cultivate a sense of wonder and an emotional connection to the planet. She also teaches geography methods at the University of British Columbia. Here, she talks about inspiring her students and why geography is so important.

On teaching appreciation for the planet

I think it’s really important to see the magic in our planet. We care for and protect things that we have an emotional connection to, so my main role is piquing students’ curiosity of the world, showing them incredible places and exploring intricate connections and cycles. My hope is that students will become environmentalists, travelers, or people that camp and hike, and that they’ll have a deep emotional connection to the planet and take steps to protect it.

On her approach in the classroom

We’ve been investigating oceans as a fragile environment. I’ve found it easier to get students to think about their footprint in terms of plastic use and how we’re interacting with our oceans, directly or indirectly. We do a lot of case studies where students will choose a particular location that they want to know more about. Right now they’re working on ultimate vacations. Students choose a fragile environment that they want to visit and talk about eco-tourism there and things like that. With environmental issues, such as microplastics, we did a big collection drive. Students had to do an inventory over the course of two weeks and keep track of all the single-use plastics they used. They had to photograph them to make a visual display, which we put up in the school. And we sold metal straws and reusable bags at school — that was led by the students and they did all the organizing.

It’s about rethinking and reframing our daily lives. For some students, they totally transform their lunches and the way that they deal with waste. And for others, they just maybe think twice. I teach a lot of students from very urban places who are not connected to nature. So if they choose to go for a walk in the forest after taking my class, that's a success.

On meeting challenging issues head-on

I work with teenagers, so they’ve got a lot going on. I want to say they feel overwhelmed, but at the same time, 24 of my students participated in the climate strike. My biggest challenge in teaching geography is how to find safe ways to unpack their feelings and fears. The conventional wisdom in my profession is to always teach positivity and solutions, and I do think that’s very important. But if you’re an adolescent and you feel like everyone is always presenting positive solutions, when do you get to talk about what is sad or unfair? How do we deal with environmental grief? I don’t know what the answer is, but I feel like I have a responsibility to talk about it.

When students learn about climate justice issues, such as the people who are most affected by climate change right now, it’s difficult for them to process the idea of a massive imbalance. Their frustration with not being able to vote is an issue that comes up a lot. They understand that buying an electric car isn’t going to change the world and they realize that it’s about policy changes, but they don’t feel empowered to instigate those changes. But, that feeling is shifting with these climate marches. They ask, "How do I change policy? The government doesn’t care about me." They feel like corporations control the world, and they’re trying to figure out their place. What I’m trying to focus on with them is what they can do in their daily lives to improve their local community, and work on the things that they can control.

On her advice for teachers

I want people to know that geography has the tools to make teaching all other social studies richer. For instance, if you want to understand D-Day in the Second World War, you need to have a sense of place. Studying place and location and grounding history studies makes so much more sense if you use a geographic lens. Geography is the most relevant subject you can take. Students have a deep desire to understand the environment that they walk through every day. It gives them agency and control over their environment. Geography makes people curious to explore different cultures and languages, and makes their lives richer.