Slocan Valley teacher receives CBEEN Award of Excellence

Exemplifying alternative approaches to teaching in the Slocan Valley, local educator Rita Corcoran recently received the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN) Award of Excellence at the Classrooms to Communities conference in Revelstoke on October 21.

“I was really pleased and surprised,” Corcoran said. “There are a lot of great people doing this kind of work.”

Outdoor and environmental education is becoming an increasingly prominent part of Slocan Valley schooling, with several non-traditional options available. These range from the long-standing Whole School and their individualized approach to learning, to the expanding popularity of homeschooling in the area.

Corcoran joins 11 other educators from throughout the region who were honoured for their commitment to environmental education.

“We are grateful for their dedication to increasing the ecological literacy of students, professionals, and community members throughout the Columbia Basin,” said Mia King, program manager for CBEEN, in a press release.

Winlaw Elementary teacher Linda Out also received this award back in 2017.

Corcoran works for Navigate Nides, an online learning platform that helps guide parents in homeschooling their kids. The outdoor and environmental education component is called Kootenay Heartwood Nature School.

Her program groups kids of varying ages together to foster mentorship and socialization within the learning environment. As most students she works with are homeschooled, her weekly outings provide a time for interactions with other students in an outdoor learning environment.

The ‘blended delivery’ program combines natural science learning with physical education and takes place in a variety of locations from the Owl Walk in Slocan to the Lemon Creek area. Students also get the opportunity to visit the Autonomous Sinixt Vallican Occupation Camp.

As programs providing support to homeschoolers like Corcoran’s see burgeoning interest these past few years, others such as Winlaw’s Whole School are struggling to fill seats.

Like Corcoran’s program, the Whole School combines all age groups into one class. They also maintain high levels of parental involvement, providing at least one day per week dedicated to outdoor education that they invite parents to join.

Corcoran has K-grade 5 students and due to increasing demand, she may now need to split them into two age groups. She currently has 25 students in two classes and her colleague Mary Searchfield has 12. Other homeschooling enrichment programs are also seeing high numbers; the Pharatree Learning Centre in Winlaw has 30 kids in its homeschooling enrichment program. Meanwhile, the Whole School has seen its numbers drop from the normal 30-35 down to 19 students. The Whole School teaches students from K to grade 7.

Both Kootenay Heartwood Nature School and the Whole School take students on hikes, explore natural sciences and in the winter gear the kids up to go cross-country skiing.

For Corcoran, taking students outside is becoming more important than ever as we recover from the isolation of the pandemic and as people are turning away from engaging with nature.

“In general as a society, we have lost our connection with the natural world,” she said. “This type of program helps build that connection.”

Mark Page, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice