David Joiner had been teaching at St. Andrew's College, in Aurora, Ont., for the past 23 years and has worked his way up to become the head of Canadian and World Studies. Currently, he teaches Grade 9 and Grade 12, and helps prepare students to write the AP human geography exam. Joiner regularly acts as a “reader,” someone who goes down to the United States and grades AP exams. He is also involved with his school’s Reach Club, offers an after-school family history program where he help students learn about ways to research their own family history, and is one of the school’s curling coaches. In 2018, Joiner became a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
On his teaching mantra
I kind of I brainwashed everybody at our school so that everyone coming through has to learn the key phrase, which is: geography is everything. I can even stand up in front of an assembly now and just say, “Geography is…” and all the kids will shout out, “everything!” In 30 years of teaching, I've challenged anybody to come up with a topic that you can't link to geography—nobody can do it, it's impossible. I like to show students how geography is connected to or is important in their personal lives. I try and use a lot of examples of how geography has helped me learn more about either the world or my place in it. For example, for Remembrance Day, I show them how I learned about a great uncle who died in the First World War. I looked at the Commonwealth War Graves registry at one of our Remembrance Day services and I put his name into this database and up came the regiment he was with. And as I researched it, I found that the regiment had a history book and in it they had some maps. One of the maps was actually of the trench area where my great uncle died, so I geo-referenced that map, put it into Google Earth, and then zoomed into the area where the trenches were. To see what it looks like today, I faded away the map and you could actually see in the cornfield the outline of the First World War trench. So I've taken just a little piece of information and used the geographic tools that we teach to students to actually learn more about my family.
We recently did a Grade 9 hike to Haliburton Forest. I gave the kids one of our GPS units and a crash course on how to use it, and then they just take it with them on their hike. They can use it to figure out how far away they are from the point where they're going to have lunch. When we brought the GPS units back, I downloaded all the tracks into Google Earth and then we spent at least half a class reliving the hike they've just been on. All the students downloaded the same data and they learned how to use Google Earth. We could see where everybody was at different times and one kid goes, “Oh yeah, that's where John said we had to go this way and I knew we should have gone that way and we had to walk for 10 minutes before we turned around.” It's showing them that this ties into their real life and the things that they do.
On how the learning focus shifts for older students
In Grade 9, we look at basic geographic concepts like mapping and scale and all that stuff, and then we work through different units on the physical environment and our interactions with it. We look at resources, livable communities, etc. And we look at some of the tools—Google Earth, StoryMaps—and how to use them. By the time we get to Grade 12, I’m helping students understand why the tools they use are designed the way they are. We are really looking at geography as a discipline by this point. I think in Grade 9, I'm just letting them see that I am a guy who's excited about geography and that it is part of all of their lives. That's my main goal. By the time they get to Grade 12, I want them to understand what geography as an academic discipline is like and what can we do with it and what are the different subsets of geography.
On taking the personal approach
In an international school, we have students from 30 different countries here. I remember once we were talking about resource development, and in the textbook, there was something about a steel plant in Russia that was still in use and had a lot of pollution and a lot of environmental hazards for the workers. One of my students from Russia just puts up his hand and said, “You know, my uncle and aunt worked at that plant, and they had to go on disability because of all the medical problems they had.” So I just threw all my other examples out the window and I let this guy talk about the life experience of his family. And I've done that many other times with students from other parts of the world when there were things that linked back into the curriculum, but it was done in a personal way. I remember just letting two kids argue about what was the name of the Sea of Japan—the Sea of Japan or the East Sea. And one of the students was from Japan and the other was from Korea. And at the end of a 15-minute argument between them, I stopped them, turned to everybody else and I said, “Do you guys now see why the name of something is important?” Whenever I can, I look at what are the personal experiences of the students in the class and how can I best tailor the curriculum to what's going to be important in their lives or let them see the curriculum through a lens that is personal to them.
On important takeaways in his classroom
First of all, to remember to always consider that we all have a way of looking at the world that's shaped by our experiences, our families, and by the education we've gone through. Other people in different places have a different background, and that will shape how they look at the world. It's important that we're open to each other enough to be able to talk about our views of the world and look at all the ways they're similar and to appreciate the differences. You just have to be open to listening to somebody else and to understand where they're coming from.
The three questions we use now in geography, certainly in Ontario, are: What is where? Why there? Why care? That's how I start my curriculum—I tell the parents, “It's my job to make sure your kids remember these three questions for the rest of their life.” If I do that, I've accomplished my goal as a teacher. And while we get there, we're going to do some fun things along the way. I had a student the other day say that, “You know you're a very enthusiastic teacher and it's clear you enjoy what you do.” And that was a huge compliment to me.