Robin Williams has been a forest educator for over 25 years, and has made it her mission to bring the secrets of the forest into the classroom. For the last five years TimberWest has invested in the Forest Education Program Robin currently delivers to elementary students in Campbell River, Quadra Island and Courtenay – with past delivery to the communities of Woss, Gold River, Tahsis, Zeballos and Sayward.
One of the first questions Robin asks her students is, “Who do you know that works in the forest?”, and it comes as no surprise that a majority of the hands in the class shoot up with students somehow directly or indirectly related to someone in the forest sector. Interestingly, most students aren’t exactly sure what kind of work “in the forest” entails, and it is here that Robin issues the first homework assignment: sending the students home to do their research and uncover exactly what mom, dad, uncle, aunt or family friend do every day in the forests. Students report back to class and each of them take turns telling their own stories and this sets the foundation for the rest of the program Robin teaches.
The Forest Education Program includes a primary course called “What is a Forest?” for grade 2 and 3 students, and an Intermediate program for grades 4 to 5 called “The Forest Story”.
“The programs I teach give students an interactive understanding of the ecological and resource benefits of our forests. We learn about local trees and plants, how to identify them and their anatomy. We learn of their uses in the forest and as products and how these products are made. We identify local forest animals and habitats, forest soils and minerals. And we learn how people use the forest for jobs, recreation and culture. I take the students outside as often as I can during the lessons so that they can interact with nature and get a deeper understanding of the material we cover.
“I find that experiential learning has a significant impact on the students desire to learn, and it often leads to some amazing encounters in the woods that I know these students will remember for a long time. For example, a highlight of my teaching was when our class spotted a newly born fawn laying right beside our class session. The kids loved it! We couldn’t have been closer to nature if we tried.
“I also find that students become more inquisitive and curious, and this leads them to discover nature in their own backyards. Often times, kids will get to school and ask me all sorts of questions about the tree needles they found, or the cones, leaves, rocks and other plants they discover. I even had one student bring in a type of weevil!”
Robin has seen first-hand the benefits of using the forests as a classroom. “I rotate throughout the entire school district, and get to as many students as I can. This means that I may have taught a grade 2 student one year, and several year’s later gone to teach that same student who is now in grade 5 and it’s exciting to hear them recount things they’ve previously learned, but with a greater depth of appreciation. In grade 2 they will have learned about some local, native plants and in grade 5 students learn about impacts of invasive plants and how they affect the local forests. The interactive and fun nature of this program, and the hands-on learning lessons, are a large contributing factor to the students ability to retain the information learned.”
Robin encourages and supports teachers and parents to go outside and use nature as a learning tool, or too bring nature into the classroom. “Kids will retain the complicated information about the layers of a tree, or the impacts of invasive species when they get to touch, smell and see it,” says Robin.
Robin’s program and her approach to teaching is very popular across the school district. She is often fully booked by the start of the school year.
“I am often in contact with the schools in June to begin planning for the following year. The schools are offered the program on a rotational schedule so each school in the district is visited every second year, if they so choose. My aim is to offer the program to as many students as possible with the intention of expanding their awareness, knowledge and enthusiasm for the forest and all it has to offer.”
Robin’s approach to teaching is to inspire young minds to be curious, creative and immersed in understanding the importance of the forests on Vancouver Island. TimberWest is thrilled to support her work, and looks forward to one day working alongside one of the students she has inspired.