One attends conferences in the hope on the one hand that the speakers will be uplifting and inspiring, and on the other hand, in a little dread that they won’t be so good.
On Tuesday of this week I attended a portion of the national conference of ESRI – the Environmental Systems Research Institute. One of the key elements of the institute’s work is to study and promote the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in as many areas as possible – municipal development, forest management, population study, to name just a few. Most of the attendees were professional planners and geographers from industry and academe, with the exception of two of our teachers, Kirsten Davel (Head of Geography), and Cheryl Murtland, her colleague in the Geography Department. Kirsten and Cheryl gave a short presentation on the use of GIS in the Geography curriculum. The presentation was articulate and impressive; I was honoured to be associated with their professionalism and with the work they were doing.
Just before lunch the Institute announced its national Award of Excellence, selected from nominees taken from all fields of endeavour – business, industry, planning, government and more. It was exceptional, therefore, that the award was won by our two teachers, and by extension St. Michaels University School, for standing out as the leaders in the field of GIS implementation in schools in the country. It is deserved. Kirsten and Cheryl have spoken at conferences, they have been invited to other schools, they have hosted workshops at our school. I saw samples of work done by their students; the work was colourful, ingenious and intelligent. At our school, one of the main goals in the Geography Department now is to implement this technology in the curriculum down to Grade 4.
In the break before lunch, during picture-taking time, a variety of people talked about the significant applicability of GIS in nearly every field, especially in addressing most of the world’s major problems. These problems – things like overpopulation, curing disease, global warming, for instance – are daunting, as anyone who reads the newspapers knows.
The risk is that these problems can seem overwhelming to the young people who will bear the brunt of their consequences and the burden of their solutions. Kirsten told the story of such an overwhelming moment in one of her AP Human Geography classes. The class had been identifying the issues and problems facing the world, in some detail, and with some relentlessness, I imagine. She then noticed that two of the young women in the front row of her class were visibly affected – tearing up, in fact. Thinking that perhaps a personal trauma was the cause, she asked if that were the case, but the students said no, that it was the enormity of all these challenges that painted such a bleak future. And now, to make matters worse, potentially, their teacher had singled them out. Oh dear. However, seizing what has to be one of the best teachable moments I have ever heard of, Kirsten had them stand and come to the front of the class, and face their classmates, which the girls managed to do.
She spoke to them. “You sit in your desks, looking up at the blackboard, and at these issues, or at me and you see all the problems and potential catastrophes. True, it can be overwhelming. Now look back at the class – at what I see, as a teacher standing up here, with these faces in front of me.” Facing the two students, of course, were their fascinated classmates, expecting something. Kirsten continued.
“What I see looking back at me, are these faces, you and your classmates. I see hope.”