Jalen Gessier, a Grade 8 student at D.P. Todd Secondary School, displays a mink pelt while standing between Outdoor Education teacher Ian Tanner, left, and Transitions instructor Annette Gobbi. As part of a new learning opportunity at the school, Gessier and other students have been going to a trapline east of Prince George.

Students work to break up a beaver dam near the trapline.

   A D.P. Todd student secures a marten box to a tree while at the trapline.

Students have gained experience in building fires and shelters.

'There’s so much they can learn outside the classroom'

New Outdoor Education program thriving at D.P. Todd Secondary School

The classroom is a trapline in the woods.

Getting to this classroom, with trees for walls and forest canopy as the ceiling, requires a 45-minute drive to the east of Prince George. Students from D.P. Todd Secondary School are the learners and, for this part of the lesson, Reid Roberts is the instructor.

On an initial visit this fall, Roberts and his students placed marten boxes in preparation for the start of marten-trapping season on Nov. 1. On the next stop at the trapline – located in the Bowron River area and currently on loan to Roberts – the group learned how to build a survival shelter. On the third visit and all the ones that have followed, Roberts and company have focused on setting traps at wetland areas. This week, he and one of his groups came home with a beaver and a river otter.

Roberts is a P.E. and Outdoor Education teacher at D.P. Todd. Three or four students have accompanied him to the trapline each time. Trips will hopefully continue through the winter and into spring.

For the students involved – about 30 in total – the acquisition of knowledge doesn’t end upon their return from the Bowron to the school. With guidance from Outdoor Education teacher Ian Tanner and Aboriginal Education Worker Suzanne Dallman, they are also learning how to skin an animal and tan the hide. In early October, students skinned a beaver donated by the husband of D.P. Todd staff member Annette Gobbi. (Gobbi works with some of them in her Transitions 8-10 program.) They also got some experience fleshing, or cleaning, deer and moose hides provided by Dallman’s husband.

Ultimately, when the hides are ready, students will learn how to tan them and make them into clothing items – such as mittens and moccasins – for themselves and their families.

With its focus on hands-on learning, real-life skills and seeing something through from beginning to end, this initiative has proven popular among the students. For his part of it, Roberts says students are continually asking when they can go out to the trapline next. And when they are out, the only grievance he hears is about time passing too quickly.

“They’re always happy and excited – nobody ever pulls out a phone,” Roberts said. “I took a pair out the second time and it was pouring rain the whole time. We were working on a shelter and not one complaint.”

While some of the students are part of Gobbi’s Transitions 8-10 group, no one who shows interest is turned away. Tanner, Dallman and Gobbi – like Roberts – have witnessed first-hand the positive reactions.

“It seemed like something a lot of people had no exposure to and no knowledge about,” Tanner said in reference to trapping, skinning and tanning. “And it seemed like a good way to expose people to it and show them that there are useful things to be done and there is value to learning some of those skills.

“It also fits well with the new provincial curriculum because there is a bunch of place-based education that’s written into it. All of this is place-based.”

The program is also very much in sync with the First Peoples Principles of Learning so it’s a good fit for the Indigenous students who are involved. The principles are: learning ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits and the ancestors; learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships and a sense of place); learning involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions; learning involves generational roles and responsibilities; learning recognizes the role of Indigenous knowledge; learning is embedded in memory, history and story; learning involves patience and time; learning requires exploration of one’s identity; and learning involves recognizing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations.

“The students work as a team, the older with the younger,” said Dallman, who is also helping facilitate the program through her organizational and funding work, including the submission of an application for an Indigenous Learning Team Grant. “There are Grade 11s and 12s and we’re taking Grade 8s out so it’s that leadership and back-to-the-land. There’s so much they can learn outside the classroom with hands-on. It’s encompassing every part of the curriculum. It’s encompassing socials as far as the fur trade, science with the skinning, and the physical education.”

The seeds of the program were planted last spring when Roberts took three students to the trapline as part of his Outdoor Education 10 class. His goal at the time was simply to give those students a new experience. After that first visit, he approached D.P. Todd’s Aboriginal Education Department and asked about others who could benefit from the opportunity, which led to a second trip, this time with four students. The idea quickly caught on, gained support with Aboriginal Education at the district level, and evolved into its current form.

Depending on the outcome of Dallman’s grant application, Roberts envisions taking three to four different students to the trapline every week, all the way through to the spring of 2020.

“We’ll have a base of kids and rotate them through,” he said. “We’ve applied for a grant to have two days every month for the entire school year, which I can stretch into four days every month. Right now, what we’ve got is going to run out at the end of October so hopefully we get a grant and then I can continue to do this.”