• Paula Huddy-Zubkowski working with her students to map their school garden. (Photo courtesy Paula Huddy-Zubkowski)

Teaching complicated topics like the environment can be a challenge with younger students, but that doesn’t stop Paula Huddy-Zubkowski from inspiring her Grade 2 students to tackle big projects. In her classroom at St. Joseph School in Calgary, Huddy-Zubkowski uses the Classroom Energy Diet Challenge (CEDC) as a launch point for discussions about Earth's ecosystems, natural resources, and conservation with her students. Huddy, who is a National Geographic Certified Educator, also runs the school’s environmental club and eco-team. Here, she discusses how she scales big ideas for growing minds. 

How do you bring environmental awareness into your classroom?

The CEDC is good for the kids. It’s one of those projects that you can tie into all your curriculum outcomes — it gets them writing, connecting to the land and where they are. They even use Google Maps. The biggest part is that they start to take action, and that’s the part that I love. That’s when they get these giant ideas.

Even when the challenge period ends, I feel like it continues until the end of the year. A lot of those kids are becoming part of the school eco-team, because they understand now that we need to conserve our energy and protect the land, and they have ideas on how to improve.

What's an example of a “giant idea” that your class has taken on?

They’ve done environmental garage sales, where they’ve used the money and started a composting program at our school. We won an award from the Mayor of Calgary for our work in trying to reduce our carbon footprint by cutting back on the use of paper towels in our school. We've now been composting for two years. The kids came up to me the other day and said, “Mrs. Huddy, at the Calgary Zoo, they’re composting! It’s because of us, they heard about us!” It was really cute. When they see other people doing it, they think its because we did it. 

I love seeing the kids inspired, saying, “Mrs. Huddy, I did this at home,” or “I helped my community do a clean-up." With the older kids, they’re thinking of new careers beyond the typical doctor-teacher-nurse kind of jobs — they want to be geologists and marine biologists.

How do you approach teaching some of these bigger topics?

I simplify them, and I do things like Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants (EBTSOYP). I find that all these topics can be adjusted to different levels of learning. The kids that are struggling in school can pick up on the action and basics of it, but then those kids that are higher-level thinkers get empowered to want to make a change, and they become the voice for it, getting the other kids more involved. I find that they’re so engaged because they're connecting with real people, with scientists and explorers.

I try not to do the same things from year to year. I want the experience to be authentic and real to the students. This year, I was at the Canada C3 launch in June, and I was on the ship for 10 days. That was super inspirational and my new passion, besides the environment, is making sure what we teach is inclusive of Indigenous peoples and perspectives, getting kids to understand the history and culture of Canada.

What are some things you’ve learned from your students?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you need to get kids outside, doing bio-blitzes or just getting them to understand what this tree is, or what this plant is, because when they know what's around them, they start to want to protect it and care for the planet. It always turns into something bigger than I could have imagined.

What advice or encouragement would you give to other teachers?

When kids are connected to real, authentic learning experiences, then they want to learn more and they feel empowered to change things. It can be as simple as having them connect to something real, like Canada C3 or EBTSOYP.

I also think it's important for teachers to help each other. When you connect with other teachers and projects across Canada, not just in your local school district, you can find all kinds of amazing things that are happening. If you start using social media to connect with other schools, then you’re going to open doors for your classroom.