• Calgary teacher hiking in Nepal

    Alison Katzko loves to travel and has been involved in tsunami relief, setting up school art exchanges, and volunteering with schools and animal sanctuaries. Here she is pictured on a three-month trek in Nepal. (Photo: Alex Dunkley)

Alison Katzko’s lifelong love of exploration has taken her around the world. As a teacher, she cultivates that same curiosity among her students through field trips to local wetlands, Skype chats with scientists and explorers, and scientific inquiry. Katzko has been a teacher for more than 20 years and currently teaches Grade 5 at Edgemont School in Calgary, Alta. She keeps a log about what she does in the classroom on her blog Inquiry Classroom. Katzko is also on the board of the Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council, working as an editor and workshop organizer.

On exploration and its place in the classroom

I think of myself as an explorer and have always loved exploration and maps. Growing up, my family always joked that my motto in life was “It’s only that far on the map!” And so I got them to hike over the next rise or would take over the family road trip. But as an explorer, the most rewarding journey I take is the journey I go on with my students every year.

I want my students to do what a geographer does, or what a scientist does, and do research and collect data. Having the opportunity to talk face-to-face with explorers and scientists, for example through Explore by the Seat of Your Pants (which facilitates live video chats in classrooms) is amazing, purposeful learning that sparks excitement in students.

This year, I had the opportunity to have Royal Canadian Geographical Society Explorer-in-Residence Adam Shoalts come talk to our class and school. Students not only had a deeper understanding of what exploration, geography and cartography is, but then they themselves wanted to engage in that discovery, to find the waterways in our own local community. We’re planning a wetland exploration later this spring, and I’ve connected with a researcher who studies amphibians in that wetland, so not only are we going as explorers to discover that area but then we’re going to do some science.

On the projects close to her heart

I like to come back to our connection to water. Canada has so much freshwater. Sometimes we learn about the aquatic environment by raising fish and then releasing them. We weren’t able to do that this year because there’s a disease in the waterways, so we’re actually looking at why we can’t and how species are impacted by what’s happening right now. This year, because students are learning about fish and the wetlands, they’re also looking at when Canada's marine parks came about, where they are, and what is their purpose.

On engaging students through inquiry

I want my students to come out of my classroom feeling that they’ve been on a journey of discovery and possibility, feeling awe and delight at the world, but also understanding the issues and problems and having a sense of empowerment and responsibility.

For me, inquiry comes from the questions that students bring up. Students have said to me, “You brought us the topics, but we were the ones to ask the questions.” When they feel that their questions are listened to and taken up in a serious manner, they’re empowered. 

On asking the right questions

When Adam Shoalts visited the classroom, students started by listing places they wanted to explore, but then it turned into actually asking questions like: “What is at the bottom of the ocean?” That kind of question, trying to answer it, that’s really exciting as an educator because it’s moving them to do what explorers would be doing. Guiding them through how to ask those meaningful questions is important and hopefully that’s a life skill that they’ll take into the future.