An Interview with Ryan Monger
Winner of 2015 EPA Presidential Award for Innovation in Environmental Education
Ryan Monger, Sultan High School
Ryan Monger, an environmental education teacher of students in grades 9 through 12 at Sultan High School in Sultan, Washington, uses this small, rural community as an outdoor classroom to encourage his students to explore science and learn about the local ecosystem. Students in Ryan’s classes participate in hands-on projects, including maintaining a salmon hatchery on the school’s grounds and releasing the fish into a local stream, surveying bacteria living on common surfaces such as those in the school’s weight room and on students’ cell phones, tapping maple trees at the school to make maple syrup, identifying trees and growing edible plants in the school greenhouse using environmentally sustainable, small-scale farming practices. Ryan’s students also participate in community-based projects, including environmental restoration projects to mitigate the impact of clear-cutting and the runoff of pollutants, and conducting an ongoing salmon study.
Ryan’s efforts to educate his students about the importance of environmental stewardship has garnered a great deal of support from the community. Local nurseries, hardware stores and seed companies donate supplies for the projects, and his students received recognition for their hard work when a local newspaper wrote a cover story on his unique curriculum. Students in his class are also working to integrate environmental education into the district’s preschool curriculum by involving preschoolers with the salmon hatchery project.
CLEARING: Tell us a little bit about yourself… how did you get started in environmental education?
Ryan Monger: I used to teach a pretty standard science curriculum, which was fun: explosions in chemistry and lasers in physics. However, when I got the job at Sultan, it was just Biology and there was not much money for fancy equipment. What we did have was a nearby river, a greenhouse, open fields, a salmon hatchery and a wonderful forest with trails behind the school. More than anything else, I was just taking advantage of the resources that I had.
CLEARING: Do you recall anything from your childhood growing up (vacations, time in the woods, etc.) that may have played a role in your becoming an environmental educator?
RM: When I was growing up I lived in the suburbs of Bellevue, but there happened to be a few acres of woods right next to our suburban home. I used to walk in those woods every day and I think they made a pretty profound impression on me. I loved catching frogs and salamanders, collecting plants, climbing trees and looking at forest flowers. Ever since, I have felt more at home and at peace in the woods than anywhere else. When I was about 10 the woods were developed into more suburban housing and I can remember feeling very angry and hopeless about this. I suppose I have wanted to do whatever I could to help the forest since that day.
CLEARING: Were you inspired or influenced by anybody in particular or anything you read or saw?
RM: I have been and always will be inspired by the natural world. I have never been into fantasy or science fiction because I always thought the real world was good enough for me.
CLEARING: How long have you been in the classroom?
RM: About nine years. I taught 4 years in England, 1.5 years on the Tulalip Indian Reservation and I have been at Sultan for almost 4 years now.
CLEARING: Talk about the inquiry and community-based projects that earned you the Presidential Award for Innovation.
RM: I think that I received the award for my work in helping to run our school’s salmon hatchery, starting gardens on school grounds, and doing habitat restoration in our forest. The hatchery could not have been successful without the help and guidance of community member Don Foltz. I have also received lots of help from Kelli Mack of Everett Steelhead and Salmon club, Trevor Jenison of the Wallace Falls State Hatchery, and our librarian Conan has helped tremendously by maintaining the trails in our forest. The district has also been helpful in their willingness to maintain the hatchery and our administration has given me the freedom to teach how I feel is right. Our students are also incredible people: helpful, humble, intelligent, and enthusiastic. I could not have done any of these projects successfully without their help.
CLEARING: What do you find most rewarding about inquiry-based learning?
RM: I love watching students figure out problems on their own. I feel like learning to problem solve is far more important than memorizing scientific facts and vocabulary. The only way that I have ever learned in my life is by trying things for myself, so I am trying to give my students that same experience. It is both more enjoyable for me and for them when they get to explore the world around them on their own terms.
CLEARING: Are there any resources (books, curriculum, community-based) that you use that you have found particularly valuable?
RM: I have found the river and the forest to be particularly valuable. They are ever changing and are full of teaching resources. I learn more in one minute in the forest than I could over a lifetime of studying pre-prescribed curriculum. In just the last few weeks, we have seen an owl, a hawk, deer and deer tracks, nursery logs, a forest floor golden with cottonwood leaves, salmon spawning, and the most beautiful mushrooms on earth. What more could you ask for?
CLEARING: What has been the response to your program from parents and the community?
RM: Overwhelmingly positive. As far as I can tell, most (if not all) students love learning outside, even in bad weather. I have received nothing but positive comments from parents and lots of help from people in the community, particularly those listed above. My most important community asset by far has been the help of my students. They have all shown interest and I have had many helpful TA’s. Of particular help have been students who were in the running start program, but have chosen to come back and to help. Jazmen Griggs, Liam McDonell, Olivia Gasselsdorfer, Logan Berti, and Josh Morehead have a spent countless hours helping me in the classroom when they did not have to be there. I would have been lost without them.
CLEARING: Have you been able to expand your program?
RM: Yes I have. We continue to restore habitat in the woods, garden, collect mushrooms, and run the salmon hatchery. Every year, we spend more time outside. I am currently applying for grants to build an outdoor classroom and take students to visit old-growth forest.
CLEARING: Can you share a particularly memorable moment from your student projects over the past couple of years?
RM: I love walking through the forest with them. They have taught me so much about life and how to appreciate it. I love kneeling before a tree or a mushroom and admiring them together.
CLEARING: What keeps you motivated to do the work that you do?
RM: The enthusiasm of the students and the serenity of the forest.
CLEARING: Who are your environmental heroes?
RM: Salmon, cedar trees, huckleberry bushes, douglas firs, big leaf maples, black bears, bald eagles, and beavers. Anyone who has done anything to help educate about or preserve our local forests.
CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading?
RM: ‘Salmon’ by Peter Coates and ‘The Final Forest’ by William Dietrich.
CLEARING: Do you have any advise for young teachers just getting started?
RM: Do what you feel is right and make sure your primary feedback comes from the students and the look in their eyes. This will tell you more about your teaching successes than a whole mountain of data will. Also, treat the students with respect and they will do the same to you.
CLEARING: Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?
RM: I love teaching about the forest and the river. I hope to be able to do it until the day that I die.
CLEARING: Thank you so much for your time, and best wishes for your continued success!
An Interview with Monica Nissen
2015 Environmental Educator of the Year
The Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM) has named Monica Nissen as the ‘Outstanding Environmental Education Non-profit Individual’ for 2015. In addition, the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN) has given her the 2015 Environmental Education Award of Excellence. Congratulations, Monica!
A passion for the wilderness and a gift for teaching drew Monica Nissen into the field of environmental education where she has worked both inside and outside the classroom for the past 20 years. From guiding mountaineering trips to designing workshops on sustainability leadership, to describing the life cycle of the spawning salmon, Monica has spent the last two decades developing and delivering educational programs that inspire a love for nature and a stewardship ethic. In the early 90’s, Monica spent several years working as a park interpreter researching, developing, and conducting education programs for visitors to provincial, and municipal parks and conservation areas.
Since earning her teaching from UBC’s West Kootenay Teacher Education Program in 2000, Monica has taken her commitment to environmental education region-wide, supporting classroom teachers throughout the Canadian Columbia Basin with place-based education opportunities for their students..
Initially hired as an Environmental Educator by Wildsight— an organization that advocates for the protection of biodiversity and healthy human communities in Canada’s Columbia and Rocky Mountains ecoregion— Monica now assumes the role of Program Manager, running field trip and classroom -based programs including ‘Winter Wonder’, ‘Classroom with Outdoors’, ‘Beyond Recycling’, and ‘Know Your Watershed’. Monica is also a committed volunteer for the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network, in which she is a Wild Voices for Kids Community Educator and continues to host CBEEN’s Voices for Sustainability Symposium – an annual gathering for environmental educators that she founded nearly a decade ago. She is also a tireless classroom teacher, WildBC facilitator, Know Your Watershed Educator, Kootenay Community Bat Project Educator, Stream of Dreams Educator, Adventure, Tourism, Leadership and Safety Program Leader, and a UBC-West Kootenay Teacher Education Program Instructor, among countless other roles.
Monica has also been an instrumental member on the WildBC team that responded to the Ministry of Education draft curriculum and subsequent request for their recommendations on 21st century learning competencies, science rationale and content that includes ecological literacy, systems thinking, and place-based learning concepts for K-9 Science. —from CBEEN website
CLEARING: Congratulations on being named EECOM’s Non-formal Environmental Educator of the Year. What led you to become an environmental educator in the first place?
Monica Nissen: I remember one of my early jobs as a camp counselor at Camp Chief Hector in Alberta was very inspiring- it was an amazing camp with great out-trip programs; hiking, canoeing, and horse tripping. We also ran school programs, the classic Steve Van Matre ones like ‘Sunship Earth.’ I loved that way of teaching! I also worked at Sea to Sky Outdoor School for Sustainability Education on the Sunshine Coast. What an incredible bunch of educators. That place has always stood out for me as being on the leading edge, and for inspiring me to try and do similar things in my own area, here in the Kootenays.
CLEARING: Did you have a specific experience as a child that connected you to the natural world?
MN: I grew up near Montreal, on the north shore of the Mile-Iles River. There was a forest right out the back door. I had a tree fort and a rope swing, and we could go cross-country skiing from our house. I remember a favourite book for awhile was ‘Mudpies and Other Recipes’. My family used to go camping every summer, places like Algonquin Park and La Mauricie. One summer, we were camping in Vermont, and I remember meeting my first Park Naturalist. I remember learning about turtles and ferns…I was about 10 years old. I couldn’t believe it could be somebody’s job to be outside, learn about nature, and teach it to others. I decided then that that was what I wanted to do!
CLEARING: Do you have a favorite moment in your experience teaching environmental education?
MN: Oh, not easy to pick just one! I remember a number of years back, I was out with a class on a ‘Classroom with Outdoors’ field trip. The students were invited to do a short ‘solo’ or ‘sit spot’. Such a simple activity, to sit in the forest and just ‘be’. Silent, still, and observing. One girl came back and said that that was the most peaceful she had ever been in her life! What a gift. I think that statement really exemplified all the stuff Richard Louv was talking about, with nature-deficit disorder and over-scheduled lives that kids lead. I felt that if I could just offer the invitation to get outside a little more, and for kids to take time being mindful and peaceful in nature…then I’d be doing something worthwhile.
I have been fortunate, through the years, to see a lot of ‘ah-ha moments’ from students, and some powerful anecdotal feedback that has made me feel that I am part of something very important. It’s really as simple as (re)connecting kids to nature.
CLEARING: Have you found a favorite resource to use for teaching about the environment?
MN: Wow- there are so many!! Green Teacher magazine, online resources that are hosted by the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (www.cbeen.ca) a network I am very excited about!!), and I’m so pleased to discover Clearing! Some of my favourite books include classics such as Sharing Nature With Children, by Joseph Cornell, and Rediscovery, by Thom Henley. I have taken a couple of workshops and hope to make my way to the Wilderness Awareness School for some immersion in Coyote Mentorship, and appreciate very much the book, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown).I love Ecological Literacy- Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World (edited byt Michael K Stone and Zenia Barlow, and am so inspired by the ideas and inspiration coming out of the Center for Ecological Literacy.
I think the best ‘resource’ is place– our backyards, parks, protected areas, forests, lakes, streams, gardens, communities- the real world!!
CLEARING: So you had never heard of CLEARING Magazine before this, right?
MN: No I hadn’t, but I am so glad I have now!! It looks amazing- and like such a great way for us in our bioregion to connect!!
CLEARING: Yeah, that’s what I’ve always believed. There needs to be a strong communications tool that connects educators in this bioregion.
MN: Well, I hope this can be a great start- we have an incredible regional EE network in CBEEN, and we are really well-organized and excited to build the network
CLEARING: I’ve had some contact with CBEEN, which I agree is a one of the most energetic and well organized EE groups in the region. So how can we improve networking and communication for EE within the bioregion?
Monica Nissen in her element.
MN: I think particularly in the Columbia Basin bioregion, I would really hope that as we get closer to renewing the Columbia River Treaty, we might look at some funding for trans-boundary educational initiatives- or maybe it’s about looking at initiatives that are currently being funded and seeing if there are gaps when it comes to school and community-based education.
Political boundaries aside, there has to be a way for us to work together more. One of the program I love is the Know Your Watershed program, which is all about connecting students in our watershed. We have a great floor map that we use to show the entire Basin, and we discuss impacts and effects of water and land use on downstream users. The American part of the Basin is downstream and of course absolutely connected as well! I feel like there will be more opportunities with the renewal of the Columbia River Treaty!
I do feel very fortunate in that the programs Wildsight runs are funded in great part by the Columbia Basin Trust (cbt.org), and that we also get support from local utilities, such as FortisBc and BC Hydro. This kind of support for education programs run by non-profit organizations is so important.
CLEARING: Many funding sources still want to focus on specific issues, saying that broad-based environmental education is too long-term for their purposes. They are looking for more immediate results. What do you think about that?
MN: I really appreciate funders who ‘get it’- that long-term investment in programs that connect students to nature and build ecological literacy, even if they don’t show immediate “results”, are worthwhile. I think it’s all about shifting a worldview. That takes time.
CLEARING: Are you aware of any curriculum materials that look at the entire Columbia River basin/watershed as the context for environmental literacy?
MN: Well, the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) website has an incredible array of resources. Great historical, cultural, ecological information. As far as a whole curriculum, the closest thing to what you are asking about that I know of is Know Your Watershed. Hmm…sounds like a trans-boundary conference on EE and specifically watershed literacy needs to happen in the Columbia basin…maybe not this year though.
CLEARING: Yeah, I’ve also been talking with David Zandvliet at Simon Fraser University. He’s coordinating a World Congress of Environmental Education in 2017. That could be a great opportunity for environmental education to make some significant gains.
MN: Oh great! He’s another mover and shaker!I know here in BC we have been going through a curriculum transformation, and the EE community has really been part of the shift, and been able to be present at the table—I think it will lead to some very exciting possibilities. As our colleagues in Alberta (Alberta Council for Environmental Education) say, “Pushing the environment from the sidelines into the mainstream.”
CLEARING: I thought I was going to ask you to be on the Clearing regional advisory board, but then I noticed the extensive list of commitments you already have in your life.
MN: Well, as I said before, I need to work on saying ‘no’ sometimes! It’s so difficult when all this amazing stuff comes up that i absolutely believe in and want to support!!
CLEARING: How do you find the time to do all that you do?
MN: Ha! Good question! Sometimes I just don’t limit myself to an 8-hour work day! This past fall I worked a lot of week-ends… seriously though, I feel that it’s important to have a good work/life balance. To walk the talk. I live where I do because of all the fantastic opportunities to explore and enjoy being outside and in the wild…
I am so pleased to be able to be mentoring and enabling educators new to the field. It is so good to know that there are many people committed to this work- maybe that makes it easier to let go and not feel like I have to do ‘it all’…
CLEARING: Is there any particular individual who has inspired you?
MN: Oh, there are so many. I have a lot of heroes, from David Suzuki, for carrying the torch for so many years despite his message falling on deaf ears, to Lee-Anne walker, a mentor of mine who began the Wildsight Education programs fifteen years ago. My parents, for getting me outside and for sharing their love for the natural world. Nancie Dohan and Daphne van Alstine, for hiring me for my first park naturalist job.
There are so many stories of inspiration and so many people working in their own ways to support a changing world view and a reconnection for kids, with the natural world…
CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading that relate to your work?
MN: I picked up a book by Laurie Rubin, called ‘To Look Closely- Science and Literacy in the Natural World’. It’s a really great case study of a teacher doing such a wonderful job of making the local wild places- just adjacent to the schoolyard, a focal point for a whole year of inquiry learning. I am looking forward to building my library to include some of the books she refers to and incorporates. Personally, it’s getting into ski season, so I’m reading Deep Powder –40 Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches and Earth Wisdom, by Dolores Lachapelle.
CLEARING: What does the future hold for you? What are your goals and where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?
MN: Hmm…I want to keep at it, as I think there will continue to be the need, and the desire on my part to support kids in connecting to, and loving nature! I kind of dream of a future where this is all part of what is supported by and embedded in the education system, and when I don’t need to fundraise in order to make the programs happen! I am feeling relatively optimistic that this could be the case. The new curriculum in BC has a lot of exciting possibilities- if we are to teach in a way that is rooted in place-based curriculum, if we are to encourage student inquiry that is authentic and connected to the real world, then surely the kind of programs that support just that will become increasingly valued…and funded!
CLEARING: How do you feel about the election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian PM? Any hopes that this will lead to some change in education?
MN: Oh wow- well, the change in government is really welcome- it’s like the whole country is breathing a sigh of relief. There is such a feeling of hope- we are hoping for change in so many areas.
I hope we’ll see some change in the education system as well. of course, this is more the jurisdiction of the provinces. We have been in the process of a curriculum transformation here in BC. There are some very positive things about it…
CLEARING: Already the Canadian representative at the climate change conference in Paris has said Canada is pledging to support stronger carbon standards.
MN: I know- like I said, there is so much hope. I guess if we change our whole worldview to more of a systems approach, then environment/economy/education are all part of a system, and EE isn’t a separate idea or topic but is integrated and part of all that we do…
CLEARING: One final question: What does the future of environmental education look like to you?
MN: EE is integrated in the curriculum, in a holistic way- not a separate ‘subject’ but part of all that we do with students…I think we’re getting there.
CLEARING: Well, this has been great. Thanks so much for your time.
MN: Thanks so much for your interest …I hope this has been useful. Mostly it seems like a great opportunity to look at some collaborating and increasing awareness of each other and our organizations and initiatives.
Interview by Chris Gertschen
Wendy Francis, Program Director, has been involved with Y2Y (Yellowstone to Yukon) since its inception. She chaired the board from 2003-2005 and was interim Executive Director in 2002-2003. Educated in law and biology, Wendy previously held positions as Director of Conservation and Science at Ontario Nature, Interim Executive Director at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and Conservation Director for CPAWS Calgary-Banff. More…
CG: What brought you to conservation?
WF: I grew up in the 1960s, when playing outside was not only the norm, it was mandatory! We were simply not allowed to play inside on a nice day. I knew all the semi-wild places in my neighborhood, and loved to climb their trees and explore their wetlands. As a family, we often camped on weekends and holidays. Later, we rented cottages in northern Ontario and experienced the great freedom of being able to wander the forests for weeks on end. My Dad, who grew up on the prairies, was an avid naturalist and hunter and often pointed out different trees and animals to us. I believe I inherited my love of nature from him. (more…)