Monday, 23 January 2017


 There are few trees more iconic that the graceful weeping willow tree. It is immortalized in art, poetry and music, used to symbolize emotion (longing, grief) and ideals (strength in flexibility). It has long been a symbol of survival: unlike the mighty oak which may snap in two in a windstorm, the weeping willow bends, yields and thus remains unbroken.

 For me, the weeping willow has more personal meaning, tied to early memories. When I was three years old, my family moved to the property my parents live still. It was one of many ten-acre plots, once part of a larger farm that spread a few concessions long. Most of the mature trees were found along the fence rows: a huge cherry on the south fence where a snowy owl once perched when I was a kid, maples along the east, a grand old pine near the road, and a number of old apple trees. The house my parents helped design was build in the middle of the property, high up on a hill overlooking the road and facing west with a fantastic view of sunsets (before the trees grew in and obscured much of the view). My parents had a pond dug on the land down below the house, where a creek and plentiful, fragrant balm of gilead trees alerted us to water. I spent summers swimming in that goldfish-filled pond, and winters skating on it. Over the next few years we planted some 2000 trees, so that a forest now spreads on three sides of the house. When I walk the trails through those woods, I often spot evidence of wildlife who share the space: turkeys, deer, rabbits, songbirds and raptors, mushrooms and flowering plants. What stands out, though, is the magnificent weeping willow that droops over the pond. My mom stuck a willow switch in the ground after the pond was dug out, marking the spot where she wished to plant a tree. Being a willow, it quickly rooted and my mom's wish came true, with no more work needed. Every summer from that tree, the red-wing blackbirds scolded us and kingfishers dazzled us with their acrobatic fishing skills. We hid beneath the drooping boughs, swung from the thicker branches like Tarzan on vines, and used the fallen switches for bending bracelets or weaving. It was, and is, a most beloved tree.

The trailing boughs of one of many weeping willows that line a lakefront park nearby. This beautiful tree is so ubiquitous, it's hard to imagine a time when they weren't growing everywhere in Ontario.

I don't know how it was that I came across the story of how the famous willow first arrived in England. There are various versions of the story, all differing with regards to who brought the original tree, but all placing the arrival of the tree in the range of 1730-1740. If I'd read the particular fact of its origin another year, perhaps, it wouldn't have meant anything to me. But this year, with so many news stories showing the terrifying attacks and the destruction of the beautiful ancient city of Aleppo, now this resonated. The very symbol of survival came to us from a place now struggling to stay alive...
 Early Chinese cultivar selections include the original weeping willow, Salix babylonica 'Pendula', in which the branches and twigs are strongly pendulous, which was presumably spread along ancient trade routes. These distinctive trees were subsequently introduced into England from Aleppo in northern Syria in 1730. (source)

Many moments and memories tangled when I first thought to write this story. It was a powerful metaphor that struck me: the history of one of our most iconic trees was tied to the silk road and the very area of the world that many of our refugee students and their families had recently fled. I thought about the ugly backlash some communities saw when even small numbers of newcomers moved into the neighbourhood and the schools. I was grateful to work in a school where the opposite was true: where the community rallied to support our new families with translators, services, orientation sessions and invitations to local events. Our class had been diverse before, with speakers of varieties of Arabic, Urdu, Hindu, Tamil, Vietnamese, Marathi, Mandarin and more. For many years I've used inclusive practices in my teaching, from creating multi-lingual class books each year and using students' languages in our meeting times (while counting, greeting each other) to inviting students to learn about each others' celebrations and traditions that share similarities with their own (such as the use of light in many winter ceremonies). This year, however, it felt necessary to do more, to go beyond sharing our differences. These families had been living through a series of months, even years, "on hold". They were facing challenges greater than most families at our school. Since last winter, our community grew as many newcomers from Syria began to move into the valley around Cooksville Creek. Our school grew by 100+ students who were "uprooted" along with their families, and this year in our class there are five students whose long journeys from Syria have brought them here to Ontario. It was important to me to ensure they felt a sense of belonging in our school. When I read the story of the tree a few months ago, it stuck with me. That Monday back at school, I looked at EA, the first of the newly arrived students to join our class as a junior student last year, back in January. I thought of how far she'd come, and how much she'd grown in the months since her first day. She'd arrived on a very snowy day, and I was grateful for the beautiful weather. We spent quite a long time outdoors that day, introducing her to the joys of playing in the snow with new friends. We explored the snow forts build by older students at recess, and took our sleds to the hill behind the school where we all took turns riding with her or pushing her sled from the top of the hill. We rolled down snowbanks and stomped fresh tracks into the untouched field by the park. It was the perfect way to welcome a student whose language most of us didn't share. I remember her rosy cheeks and brilliant smile on that day.

It didn't take long before she was conversing with us in a mixture of Arabic and English. She taught me many words (including the names for our shared snack foods, but that will be another post). Soon after her arrival, two more students joined us from Syria, and she was an excellent support. She translated for her new friends and her teachers, all while her command of English grew. I was delighted to see her grow in confidence. So the story of the willow was my gift to her. She had drawn a Syrian flag a few weeks before, and it inspired another student to make one as well. It inspired others in class, and resulted in a space on the bulletin board under the banner "Our Flags" where first a few countries were represented (as in the photo below, taken in December) but where now many more flags are shown. She later painted a Canada flag, again from memory (not from looking at a sample, thus the red bars along the top as well as the sides). It was then that I remembered what I'd read about weeping willow trees. I took her to the window and gave her a step stool so she could see the towering tree across the road beside the driveway to our school. I told her how I'd just learned how those amazing trees weren't native to Canada, but instead a transplant from far away. I told her how one of those very trees was brought from Syria to make its new home beautiful, and that she was just like that tree - brought here while small, growing somewhere new to become part of our rich and varied forest. I said that she and her family would make Canada more beautiful too. She didn't say much, then. In the months since that day, however, she has pointed at it, the pale golden giant that blows in the breeze, and asked me to tell her the story again.

EA's Syrian flag, top right, inspired others to make flags representing their families' home countries. I didn't realize at first why the Syrian students drew the flags differently (black with red, green with red) but later discovered that the design is contested and thus several versions are currently in use. EA also painted the flag of Canada, seen at the bottom. An interest in flags continues in class, with more added each week as more students add their own.

EA's story is what caused me to, for the nth time, look at the breadth of tree inquiry in my class over time. Every year we adopt a tree it becomes more meaningful, as younger siblings remember past trees adopted and visited by their older siblings over the summer. The sheer amount of stories tied to these inquiries has kept me from starting to write about them - every time I think I have the beginning or the end, I realize I'm wrong, that there's much more learning involved. It feels like roots, all tangled beneath the soil and purported to amount to more biomass than the huge tree above the ground. So I won't attempt to pull it all up, untangle and make sense of it. Well, maybe just a bit of it.

Over the five years I've taught at Thornwood PS, the trees have been a part of our curriculum in different ways. We have adopted trees, studying them daily, noting the amazing changes that occur all through the year. We have explored felled trees beyond the park, posing for pictures and challenging ourselves to balance along their length. We have smelled blossoms and tasted wild apples that grew along the edge of the creek that borders our school beyond the driveway. We have gathered pine cones, acorns, catkins and "shaker" seed pods. We sprouted seeds from a broken seed pod that came from the tree our class adopted last year, and those seedlings now overwinter in my parents' garden until I can take them back to school in the spring. Those seedlings are most important this year, because of the reconstruction project along the creek that resulted in the removal of 100 of small trees, including the apples we watched grow every year. Those students who reveled in the shade of those trees at the end of the year last summer were as stunned as I was to return to school to see them gone. Small, perhaps, in comparison to the loss of whole forests or entire neighbourhoods (as some of my students have witnessed) but a poignant loss none-the-less. In encouraging students to look closely and know their local environment, I hope to grow a pedagogy of place: an ever-deepening connection to the life overhead and underfoot.

A view of the no-mow zone at the beginning of fall. A group of students carry clipboards as we go for a walk one day two years ago, gathering images and samples (bark rubbings, leaves, needles, acorns) for our list of favourite local trees. We narrowed the list down to ten for closer inspection and research before finally choosing our tree to adopt for the year.

A student reaches to grab the apple and bring it close to smell. This tree was a favourite to visit in spring because of its fragrant, showy blossoms, but only a few fruit grew to ripen. We managed to pick one apple that we washed and tasted that day a few years ago.

A question first, to inspire us to look closely at the trees in our area. This was fall last year. In the middle-left is pictured the path on the opposite side of the creek (our school is on the left, out of view). This path is now off-limits while the creek is revitalized. The pictures around it represent trees that still stand, on the far side of the path or in the park. We hope to visit them again before the end of the year, if the pedestrian bridge is reopened by then.

A deep connection made to the maple trees in our nearby park.

One of our proud "tree experts" hard at work last summer, identifying trees all around our adopted tree that he had identified back in the fall. He had delighted me by proving me wrong: I'd guessed black locust, but he was correct in calling it a honey locust. Back in the fall we gathered hundreds of curly seed pods under our tree, using them as shakers, ornaments, and additions to our loose parts creations. 

These seeds, gathered last April from a broken pod beneath our locust tree and lovingly carried all the way back to class by TC in a large acorn cap, were later planted by T when the rest of the class planted green beans as a part of a gardening project. To our surprise and delight, her tree seeds sprouted and grew.

TC's seedlings growing tall, in June. She left them at school on the last day, and I couldn't bring myself to leave them to die. I brought them home and transplanted them. In spring we will see if they've survived winter, and perhaps find a place to plant them on or around the school grounds.

Eco-literacy: students were concerned about these markings showing up on many trees in the area along the creek. We tweeted several experts and did a little research to reveal that different regions use different markings, but that most likely this tree was marked as "healthy, do no cut", while those marked with orange were to be removed. Their concern was for individual trees, for we didn't yet know the extent of the project that would soon fence off our creek and result in wide-spread removal.

A view of the no-mow zone last June. Behind the trees is Cooksville Creek, then a concrete-bottom waterway prone to flooding the field and our school. Little did we know that these few last weeks of school would be the last time we would enjoy this lively green wall that hid the water and houses on the other side.

Our last month of school last June was spent exploring the rich life of summer outdoors. We noticed the fence spring up in the yard, cutting us off from the trees and dividing our no-mow zone in half. None of us imagined that we'd soon see right across the creek.

It's hard to reconcile this view with the photo above, but this was taken a few months later just beyond the no-mow zone, looking across the expanse where there was once a creek (now running through the black pipe beside the fence) and trees sloping down on both sides. We were watching the bulldozer push a bundle of uprooted trees while listening to the rush of the water in the pipe.

Another angle, looking further along the creek near the park. We spoke to friendly workers who gladly explained what they were doing, but it was difficult for the students to see how this big mess was actually going to make the creek a healthier one. We look forward to the reconstructed, naturalized creek banks and the eventual reopening of the path we used to take when we visited our favourite trees.

One student's illustration of the work we saw as we watched the heavy machinery and hard-hatted workers one day. This picture is one of many that help explain children's thinking about our creek inquiry, an ongoing exploration of water, the creatures we once saw living in the creek, and the need to take care of our earth. That story will be another post, as it continues to grow in our class.

A group of us went for a walk while the rest of the class played back in our yard. We had stopped to watch the machinery rumble by us, then found a pile of discarded branches that we on our side of the fence. It was a memory of past trips for senior students who recalled the deep shade and places to hide that once existed here, at the edge of the park. For junior students who had no such memories, it was simply a time to explore and enjoy collaboration while we attempted to make an impromptu fort. EA was in the group, happily tossing leaves in the air and gathering sticks and branches for building. It seems poetic now, looking at this photo: the landscape changing but new life growing all around. We will continue to visit as we can, and watch for signs of new life.

 I think of how much the land around the school has been a part of our learning, and how the stories of our adventures on the grounds help students feel ownership over the place. It is my hope that it leads to lifelong stewardship, no matter where they go. I looked over the years of #treeinquiry in our class, and saw it had a greater impact than I had realized. This fall, when I saw the size of the project underway to solve the flooding of our valley, I reached out to a few local experts to see if they would be willing to come and speak to my class about what was happening with the creek and the surrounding wildlife. We had an initial response with a contact name, and hope to follow up with a visit in spring. While creek inquiry continues this year, I couldn't help but notice how much the connection to our local trees has impacted students in all of my classes, from those early half-day years, to the last three full-day classes shared with a teaching partner. Here are a few memories from the last few years. The first image is particularly poignant as it shows the area that is now fenced and bare (very close to where the "danger" sign in the photo above).

 A little history is helpful to understand the next few tweets: while the PM class had adopted the apple tree pictured above, the AM class had chosen the large silver maple right at the front steps of the school. During the winter break we were struck by a massive ice storm which caused widespread power outages and damage to trees. I went to school on the break to visit, concerned that our trees had been broken like so many others around us. After sharing the good news below, I was touched to receive a tweet from the family of one of my students, who'd asked her father to check on our tree as well. I knew then that she would be a caring steward of the world around her. Though she's since moved to a new school, I wonder if she remembers those trips to visit her tree.

A nearly-hidden egret (the large white heron) flies over the shallow water of Etobicoke Creek. I think I startled it when I came close to the edge of the water. This quote speaks to me of the learning we gain slowly by observing, as opposed to those lightbulb "aha" moments of discovery. Both ways of learning are important, and will help us understand our world. To know a tree, to see something grow that will live long beyond our years, is to learn our place in nature.

My mom didn't have any photos of us playing in the willow tree, but my grandmother passed down many photos from my summers spent visiting her in Timmins. My grandmother is no longer alive and the house was sold long ago, but I remember eating many things from the garden that grew in the back, behind the birch, and I remember the sound of ravens in the forest further beyond. I wonder what memories my students will have of living and growing with trees.