Finding Hope in My Fifth Graders’ Podcast Project: A Reflection

I think of myself as an explorer and, as an explorer, the best journeys I embark on are the ones I take as an educator. Each year, a new group of students sets off with me on a learning journey. This past year, that journey took us to new and exciting places.

Before the 2020-21 school year, I knew we were in for a bumpy ride. We had been learning online in spring 2020. The students were permitted back to in-person learning in September 2020 but with a large percentage choosing to continue to do online learning.

Taking the Geo-Inquiry Journey

During that spring of online learning, I reflected on what was important to me in my teaching and concluded it needed to be authentic and worthwhile. I discovered a clear roadmap for accomplishing this in the National Geographic course “Connecting the Geo-Inquiry Process to Your Teaching Practice.” I decided to build a year-long Geo-Inquiry project around the five steps of the process: Ask, Collect, Visualize, Create, Act. The project integrated all subjects. The 25 students in my class drove the project in a determined way, with other classes contributing artwork and interview ideas along the way.

I teach in Edgemont, a community including many first- and second-generation immigrants to Canada. Many of our students live in multigenerational households, whose elderly members often face higher risk from COVID-19. A greater percentage of my students did online learning than in the wider city of Calgary, so a goal for the year became to connect the community through a shared space people could visit, learn about, and come to value.

As we gathered in the first weeks of class, it was clear this group showed resourcefulness and determination, and they jumped right ahead into thinking about the Act part of the Geo-Inquiry Process. The other thing I noticed about this group was how much they loved to talk, I mean really loved to talk! During those brief times throughout the school year that we went back online, the entire group would unmute their speakers and tell me everything they were thinking, all at once! Understandably, connecting with others had become very precious to them.

Setting Out

As the year unfolded, the class and I considered what our action should look like. Geo-Inquiry starts with a meaningful question (the Ask phase) that leads to action—a question that helps the students better understand and address an issue from a local perspective.

The students decided they wanted to build connections to the local land through discussions with Indigenous elders, community members, authors, and science experts. They wanted to help others connect with nature and one another. And they were curious enough to find ways to make this happen.

The community action we were after was summarized by a student who said something along the lines of: “We want to change the mindset of people. The people who enjoy nature are already out going for walks and exploring. We want to encourage people who normally don’t go out, perhaps because they are busy playing video games, working online, or don’t know what to do when they get outside. We want those people to get out and see the benefits of spending time in nature and to change their mindset. The best way we can think of doing this is to tell them a story about the importance of things to learn and discover outside. Getting them out to hear a story will make them want to be more connected as a community and to nature.”

Clockwise from top left: 1) Students create art representing local animals. After, QR codes taking viewers to the StoryMap and podcast are added. 2) This depiction of a moose was inspired by an interview subject, whose favorite animal is the moose. 3) Some students felt the grasshopper was a good metaphor for COVID, in that its sound can be ever-present in the background, similar to COVID. Photos courtesy of Alison Katzko

The students asked:

  • What are ways to bring a community together safely during COVID times?
  • How can we get people outside? How can we make the outdoors interesting to people who may not already be going outside?
  • How can the fifth graders be leaders?
  • I added: How can we talk and be heard?
Giving Space to Find Our Way

Through their experience with COVID, the students realized more than ever just how interconnected the world is. They started looking at ways they could create, illustrate, and celebrate positive connections. To make informed decisions about how to make this happen, we looked at how complex and dynamic human and natural systems interact. Since collecting data and information is an essential component of the Geo-Inquiry Process, we looked at many different types of data using different methods of collection, including images, sounds, video clips, and maps. This task of collecting is the second phase of Geo-Inquiry.

We began exploring who our audience would be. One of the most powerful ways we did this was to look at maps. With the help of a virtual visit from Angela Alexander, a K-12 education resource developer for ESRI Canada, and data maps of our city, we started collecting information. We looked at who in our community would be most likely to listen to the stories we told. My students discovered there was a higher percentage of multigenerational families and people over 65 in our community than in the city overall. This led them to decide that the people most likely to be out walking on our trails would be people who would want to listen to stories as they walked—and who would have time to listen. We also mapped where natural spaces were located and where the students could share these stories. Many students said they hadn’t realized how many green spaces they had in their neighborhood.

We knew that an important part of our learning would be from the land itself. We spent regular time outside in natural spaces, where the students developed a deeper sense of place. We discovered there is something transformational about learning outside together. Standing in a circle acknowledging the land, we saw that nature-rich spaces and authentic learning can happen in our local community’s outdoor spaces.

Left to right: 1) A student journals outside toward the beginning of the project. 2) Students hang art they made for the project on an outdoor fence. Photos courtesy of Alison Katzko

Guidance Along the Way

An important part of the Geo-Inquiry Process is sharing the story of our journey with others (the Act phase). We wanted a way to record and share stories and conversations so they lived beyond the walls of our classroom. Podcasting seemed like a natural place for this. The students loved the idea of creating a podcast to share conversations and stories. They wanted to collect these interviews to share with our community. We were discovering just how captivating and powerful stories could be: they hold truths, treasures, and life lessons. The students were hooked.

Striving to develop a sense of community, we invited Walter MacDonald White Bear, a Cree musician, to talk with us about storytelling through music. He said, “I think a lot about nature and what I have learned from my elders when I play music, particularly the flute.” The students knew the best way to capture an audience was through their hearts, and Walter suggested music could help with that. We collaborated with Walter to develop an engaging musical introduction to our podcast.

Interviewing for the Podcast

As an educator, I found it fascinating to notice whom the students gravitated toward for the interviews. They were very interested in people connected to the outdoors. Their questions also often showed a curiosity about resilience. They asked Colin Harris, founder of Take Me Outside, how he was able to run all the way across Canada. They asked Jane Jenkins, who is a professor and has researched pandemics, how people in the past persevered. The students were also enthusiastic about Jamie Bastedo and his book Protectors of The Planet: Environmental Trailblazers from 7 to 97. I think the students felt they had found a like-minded person, someone interested in hearing stories of positive impact and change.

They wanted to know about the origins of the Grow Alberta and Humphrey Nature Trails projects, both of which kids started during the pandemic to make a positive change in their communities.

Through this journey, we realized more and more that stories create magic and a sense of wonder about the world. They can carry messages of hope. People have an innate love of stories. Stories teach us about life, ourselves, and others. The students discovered that every person has a story worth sharing, and podcasting was a meaningful way to share them.

An Ending Viewpoint

The students felt that once they had a story it begged to be shared. While interviewing Joan Marie Galat, author of many books sharing traditional Indigenous and science stories, a student was persistent in asking her what her spirit animal was. Joan mentioned liking the moose. After the interview, the students were excited about the idea of animals showing strength and resilience, just like the individuals they were interviewing. The students loved the idea of creating art featuring local animals that would reflect the stories they had collected.

When deciding a way to share the stories with their community, the students turned to ArcGIS StoryMaps. The students had become familiar with ArcGIS while collecting data for the project. They had found that people from different backgrounds and places all had a connection with the outdoors and the resilience and hope that comes with it. They loved the idea of being able to visualize and create a StoryMap to share the voices of individuals from across Canada with our local community. We were curious if we could combine a map of where the interviewees were with the podcast of them sharing their stories, and StoryMaps allowed us to do so.

Alison’s students combined text, photos, maps, and audio in their StoryMap podcast project.

Copies of the finished art piece were hung around our community with a QR code linking to our podcast so people could listen outside. It was so exciting, in this “Act” phase of Geo-Inquiry, to see and hear feedback from delighted community members who got out and experienced our outdoor community spaces through this project.

As I reflect on this year’s project, I feel hope. I am filled with hope as I witness organizations like National Geographic, through its COVID-19 Remote Learning Emergency Fund for Educators and inspiring free courses, and ESRI Canada, through its program and educational support, championing our youth. Community members willing to share their time to have heart-to-heart conversations with my students also give me hope. Mostly, I take hope from watching these young elementary students courageously reach out to others, value natural spaces, and work hard to create a positive world.

Alison Katzko is a National Geographic Certified Educator and loves the arts and exploring. She currently teaches grade four in Alberta, Canada, and previously taught in Bhutan, Thailand, and the United States. She values developing a passion for the natural world through greater understanding of Indigenous and land-based knowledge. Her students have connected with explorers and scientists around the world, including through the National Geographic Educator-Explorer Exchange. She is the journal editor for Connections, the journal of the Alberta Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council.