Monterey Middle School’s nature-focused program nurtures a sense of place and a caretaking ethic.
AUNALEIGH MACLUCAS AND SIDNEY HURST started taking sketching trips to Bowker Creek last fall with their middle school class. During each of several expeditions, they spent time drawing their surroundings from the point of view of one of the creek’s resident creatures—a dragonfly, a salmon, a raccoon. “It’s quite eye-opening, actually,” MacLucas tells me. “It makes you realize what a salmon might think of this area and what they would see.”
These two passionate 13-year-olds, however, may not have dreamed they’d soon share their knowledge with an international audience.
Aunaleigh MacLucas (l) and Sidney Hurst at Monterey Middle School
This summer, MacLucas and Hurst are taking their knowledge to the Royal BC Museum (RBCM), volunteering along with their class and grade-nine students from Oak Bay High School to create a temporary exhibit on Bowker Creek that will display through the summer months. Bowker, a creek that feeds into Oak Bay, represents an ideal example of a degraded watershed that has recently seen significant restoration efforts. Thanks to their collaboration with the museum, Monterey students who attend school near its banks will have a voice in raising awareness about a hidden place most visitors to Victoria don’t know exists.
MacLucas and Hurst are students in Monterey’s Grade Seven Ocean Studies program, an invention of Mark Brown, kayak-guide-turned-middle-school-teacher. “There was never any doubt that my meaning comes from the natural world,” Brown says. “I meet kids who don’t know how to be outside in nature. I want to give them a sense of place.”
Brown’s class offers an opportunity to spend the entire year dedicated to learning about marine and watershed environments. Brown tailors all curriculum (science, writing, math, language) to focus on life science. A colleague joins every week to teach a class focused on marine biology. Even the French curriculum is geared toward the natural world, with lessons on les animaux en danger. “Kids need authentic experiences,” stresses Brown. “School shouldn’t extract them from their environment. And it should give back to the community, not create a bubble inside it.”
Oak Bay High School students provided input to the CRD during the Bowker Creek restoration project, completed near the school in 2016. Thanks to them, an outdoor amphitheatre was constructed at the stream bank, offering an ideal location for outdoor education. Portions of the creek near Hillside Shopping Centre have also been restored with streamside native vegetation, removal of invasive species, and “daylighting.” The latter involves removing the culverts installed to contain the water’s flow.
The 2003 Watershed Management Plan for the creek will take a century to implement. Though salmon may not spawn anytime soon in the creek, daylighting still represents an ideal opportunity to steward other native species like dragonflies, trout, juncos and mink, to improve water quality and to reduce downstream flooding. Restoration also helps provide greenways between neighbourhoods—the creek spans three municipalities on its journey from the University of Victoria to Oak Bay. Perhaps most important, restoration connects communities to their natural environment.
RBCM Learning Program Developer Chris O’Connor connected with Monterey because of the school’s commitment to science and natural history education. Hurst is a long-time volunteer and mentor for the Museum’s summer camps. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to see Sidney [Hurst] not only put forward brilliant ideas, but to see her deepen into a ‘museum way of thinking’ more and more,” O’Connor tells me. “Aunaleigh and Sidney are both awesome,” Brown confirms. “They have a really good handle on the project.”
O’Connor stresses that the project honours the learning process, amplifying ideas that youth bring, while focusing on real-world learning and authentic engagement. “It is such a pleasure to see the development of a project from an inquiry or guided question, to an ideation stage…to the hard work of getting it developed, to the even harder work of getting it finished,” he says. During this summer’s exhibition, thousands of people will see their work.
Specialized learning classes aren’t new in the region. High-school students can participate in a variety of Programs of Choice, including soccer academy, arts specialties and environmental studies. But in the region’s middle schools, only Monterey students can enter a program like Brown’s, through a simple application form and a payment of $500 to cover the costs of renting kayaks and supplying an additional guide during trips.
“It saddens me that we seem to be Oak Bay’s best kept secret in environmental education,” says Brown, who argues that focused middle-school programs create a highly developed sense of environmental responsibility and connection to place. He started the program in part to reverse a decline in enrolment at the school. When enrolment goes down, schools lose librarian time and the number of Education Assistants. Enrolment is now starting to turn around, and another teacher in the school has started the MIT classroom (the Monterey Institute of Technology) to complement Brown’s outdoor studies.
Brown’s students also participate in six ocean kayak trips, including one overnight camping trip. For many, it is their first time on the water in a small craft. When I met with them at Oak Bay Marina, they had just returned from a paddle along the coast and out to a nearby archipelago of islets. The enthusiasm was palpable.
Brown would like to see funding from government to support Programs of Choice in middle schools, so that his offering could be expanded beyond a high-socioeconomic school like Monterey, and subsidization could be offered to families when needed. He’d also like to see more teachers trained in specialized education. “What happens if I get sick?” he points out. He argues that rather than a “tracking program,” as many specialized courses at the high-school level are billed, the Monterey program is more about living in place. It’s also been a saving grace for Brown, who does a job known for its high burnout rates. “It’s only since Ocean Studies that I’ve gotten a glimmer of possibility that this job is sustainable.”
This is year two of the Royal BC Museum’s Partner School Project, which engages students and teachers over the course of an entire school year. The museum engaged Monterey students specifically because of Brown’s program. “There’s a full science curriculum [in my class], but ocean ecology is a year-long theme,” he explains. “They make a diorama of tidal ecosystems. They show food webs. So by the time they started the [RBCM] exhibit project, they were ready.”
Aunaleigh MacLucas, Sidney Hurst and their cohorts are thrilled to be writing the exhibit text, as well as researching, taking and choosing photos and illustrations, and creating a narrative that will focus on their understanding of the creek. “We have a lot of power as humans,” MacLucas tells me. “We have a creek we can go visit whenever we want to. It’s hidden away. I want to try to make people aware. There are so many things that depend on this ecosystem.” This summer, she and the other students will contribute to that awareness.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.