The Call of Ecology in Canadian Teenage Fiction. A Project for School

Academic Paper, 2019

23 Pages


Table of Contents

I. The condition of teaching English

II. Environmental learning as (a neglected) part of language learning? A short survey

III. Chances and challenges of eco-didactics within foreign learning

IV. Eco-didactics - a future concept of teaching ecology?

V. Intercultural learning as part of eco-didactics

VI. Canada and its ecological background for foreign students

VII . The Secret of Whispering Island (2008) - a first introduction into environmental learning. Structure of the course

VIII. Outlook


The call of ecology in Canadian teenage fiction


This project about ecological matters is another result of the long and intensive cooperation between the Marburger Zentrum für Kanada Studien and schools in Hessen.

Professor Dr. Martin Kuester, the present director at the Philipps University in Marburg, is not only one of the leading experts of Canadian Studies in Germany and Europe but has always shown an interest in bridging the gap between school and university with common projects or publications. The aim was and is to reflect Canada from many perspectives and different academic levels.

The school project 'The Call of Ecology in Canadian Teenage Fiction' is another result of this cooperation.

The main idea was to reflect ecological matters against a Canadian background from three different i perspectives. The first encounter for the students of form 7 (12-13 years of age) was meeting Canada in their English book English G 21. This first introduction was supported by the book ‘The Secret of Whispering Island' by Hamida Aziz which brought the Vancouver region into the focus of attention. The last and third step for the students consisted in working in groups on specific ecological matters such as First Nations, Geography of Vancouver or National Parks. The aim here was to get a closer look at the ecological side of this region.

The project as such can also be seen against the increasing interest of teenagers worldwide in ecological matters which has a new push by the 'Fridays for Future' movement.

Both schools involved, the Hohe Landesschule in Hanau and the Grimmelshausen Gymansium in Gelnhausen, were proud to present this project at the international conference Echoing Ecology - Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Canadian Studies which took place in Marburg from Wednesday, May 23rd - Friday, May 25th 2019.


Hamida Aziz's book The Secret of Whispering Island (2008) - a first introduction into environmental learning for Germans students.

While picking up foreign languages teenagers all over the world are directly (or indirectly) confronted with environmental issues.

Ecological matters and problems are not only presented and discussed in non-fictional but also in fictional texts, a clear hint at their relevance. It is here where personal interests, experience and expectations often meet with a high emotional energy which supports language learning.

The use of environmental issues in teenage fiction can be regarded to be a positive by-­product of reading in the sense of a further motivation or a challenge to reflect fixed and traditional attitudes.

One consequence from this is what some critics consider to be 'ethic thinking' or an 'option of kids' participation of their own opinions, attitudes or value systems' all of which are focused on something which is seen as environmental learning in the widest sense of the word (see movement Fridays For Future started by Greta Thunberg).

Books for early learners can be seen as starting points for this development and the confrontation with these problems in teenage fiction is one form of introduction into ecological learning.

Pupils between 12 and 13 years of age already dispose of an attitude in connection to environmental issues and to discover, discuss and present them in a literary Canadian context can be considered to be a further motivation for their future reading habits.

To choose a book set in the region of the Vancouver Islands is based against this background. The work will be done with the help of several projects which accompany the analysis of The Secret of Whispering Island simply because of the higher motivation for the students involved. The work will first be done in individual web quest work which is accompanied by group work and an exchange of selected material. The projects themselves are based on given questions (2 - 3) which should help students to focus on specific matters.

It is also important to leave it open to students what the output of their results will look like. The range here includes posters for presentations, power point presentations, essays, newspaper articles or the option of a website. In short students here should / could be creative.

The projects offered are:

1. Geography and history of Vancouver Islands
2. The First Nations of the Coast Salish, the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Kwakwakawa'wakw
3. Canadian Wildlife – a computer project
4. Canada's national parks
5. Town / country life
6. A Canadian email friend
7. Canadian cuisine
8. Extended reading (optional), Just a Dream (1990), Chris van Allsburg

One result of this project can be a first introduction into what is commonly called environmental learning, a specific kind of learning which could lead to environmental education one of the hardest challenges of language learning.

To choose a specific part of Canada as the setting of this book is ideal for a first awareness of selected national environmental issues which are linked to inter- and trans-cultural aspects and which generally form the basis of moral, ethic, social and political dimensions of human behaviour in connection to nature.

In short a teenage background can be seen as a first introduction not only into another country but as a first meeting of environmental learning as well as intercultural learning, global learning and ethical thinking.


Matthias Dickert teaches English, Sports and Religious Education at the Grimmelshausen Gymnasium in Gelnhausen and the Hohe Landeschule in Hanau. He did his PhD on Muslim writing. He is involved in the Deutsch - Kanadische Gesellschaft of the Frankfurt area and has been a member of the Marburg Centre for Canadian Studies since 2012 where he is one of the representatives of those schools in Hessen which cooperate with Professor Kuester.

I. The condition of teaching English

Language learning and teaching alike have drastically changed during the last two decades.

This is due to the fact that the world has turned out to be different in the face of globalisation processes, matters of economic and social justice, the consequences of gene manipulation or the terror attacks of 9/11. The conditions of English as a subject at schools and universities have to keep pace with all these multiple influences and the fact that economic and ecological sustainable developments and genetic engineering have found a fixed place along traditional fields such as 'Landeskunde', the American Dream or literary topics.

Teaching English has finally stopped to be a sole preparation for a visit to Great Britain or the USA. One of its main tasks by now is to prepare students for a discussion or a reflection of global matters. To echo ecology in whatever form is part of this venture and is one of these contemporary options to keep language learning alive and fit in the 21st century. It is, however, often restricted and governed by a strict time span which seems to govern teaching and learning English in general.

It is naive to think that English lessons can do all of it. Yet they can and must enable students to use English as a foreign language in a receptive and productive way in order to participate in a (critical) discourse of whatever matters.

A project on ecological matters connected to a book for early learners is a first step in this direction simply because teenagers between 12 and 13 years of age already dispose of outside information, attitudes, hopes and expectations in connection to their world all of which can be included into lessons and free work options.

Ecological topics enable a personal access and can be linked to methods such as text reading, marking passages, writing texts, internet work and presentations. Students here should work in processes which help them to reflect problems, to pose questions and to give answers even on a basic level.

In short ecological matters as a specific approach into literature can help to read, view, write, talk, reflect and present current / topical aspects of environmental issues.

To focus on this in a Canadian context of the Vancouver Islands is indeed one way to combine this all.

II. Environmental learning as (a neglected) part of language learning? A short survey

Environmental issues are present in our world and a central part of growing up. Children and teenagers of the 21st century are by far more familiar with terms such as nuclear power and its negative sides, acid rain, deforestation, water pollution, tsunamis or the extinction of animals and plants than their parents or grandparents. The full range of information in this field of the growing up process very often leads to a passive or ignorant attitude to global or national problems which are ignored as long as they do not touch personally. It is indeed very often the case that this passiveness and pushing aside of environmental matters often stand in opposite to the steps to change ones personal awareness of environmental behaviour. Education in general, in schools and universities in particular must oppose such fatalistic tendencies and it has been schools in particular which have to face this trend. The curricula of many subjects such as biology, ethics, religion or the whole range of social studies have made place for an ecological awareness which very often combines several school subjects at the same time (see KMK paper).

English as one of the key subjects at schools indeed offers a full range of options as far ecological matters are concerned but sadly speaking lacks a logical continuation of eco- didactic concepts from early beginners to A level students.

This is indeed surprising since one key basis of English at schools lies on the focus of (inter) cultural learning with its option of a critical eco-didactics (Rod 2004; Oebell (2009).

In order to establish environmental learning and environmental education as parts of teaching English one must, however, also reflect the question in how far English lessons do contribute to what is commonly regarded to be environmental learning and education.

To simply treat environmental matters of whatever kind in English lessons can only be considered to be the background of the vast range of challenges and options which balanced concepts within the wider field of eco-didactics include.

To work in this field with early beginners of English is not only a special challenge but must be seen as a first milestone of this wider field of educating young people for a better world. At present this is shown in the movement Fridays For Future which was started by Greta Thumberg in 2018.

III. Chances and challenges of eco-didactics within foreign language learning

Environment pollution and environmental disasters are strictly speaking reactions to a cultural crisis. They are both results of a few (and widely accepted) contemporary socio-economic patterns and specific models of culture which are not only based on a negative relationship between human beings and their environment but also on specific ethical patterns which are results from this (see Mayer / Wilson, 2006). Each culture (and strictly speaking each nation) is responsible for the way it sees and treats its environment, a basic condition which sometimes includes fatal effects for its survival1.

In the face of this background it seems obvious that ecological education in the widest sense of the word must not only be restricted to natural science. The need to implant, discuss and reflect ecological aspects within the process of language learning is not only a logical result from this but also includes a great variety of options within the learning process with the chance of new (and better) ways for cultural and intercultural learning on the basis of the ability of language learners to participate in the process of language learning as individuals with fixed attitudes, opinions and ethical standpoints (see Hallet / Kramer, 2012: 11ff.).

The following options reflect some ideas within this specific relationship between language learning, its role within ecological matters and a well planned eco-didactics of the future.

1. The role of English as the lingua franca. Global environmental discoures are ideal to create notions and concepts which are commonly accepted and used. Some of them can already be seen as results of the cultural processes mentioned above as well as linguistic structures (see Dryzek, 2005). Often used terms for advanced learners of English are e.g. environment, environment pollution, global warming, green house effect, deforestation, acid rain, ozone hole, nuclear power station or carbon footprint all of which are familiar to many students.
2. Global environmental issues and their relationship to inter- and transcultural concepts. Parts of global problems are based on different points of views , economic interests and opposing moral positions which form the basis for their conflicts. It is here where emotional aims within language learning such as empathy, respect and a neutral perspective can be used as backgrounds to discuss and reflect different points of view.
3. Environmental issues are ideal for a multidimensional use of media options such as books, film material, internet options. All of them help to enlarge a critical and self-reflexive discussion of environmental issues. (see Mills, 2011).
4. Any discussion of environmental issues must be set in the wider term environment which can and must be seen as the starting point for a general discussion and reflection for students and their participation within their individual living conditions and their national setting. In short the individual background includes a high emotional energy which can be included into the learning process.
5. Environmental learning as such contains elements of ethic thinking which opposes classical patterns of the relationship between nature and human beings. The fairly new literarily and culturally based scientific approaches of ecocriticism and environmental humanities include this basic constellation of man and his relationship to his environment as well as questions of man's influence on his nature (environmental crisis, sustainability etc.). The background of all this includes moral, ethic, social, cultural and political dimensions of human treatment of nature.

IV. Eco-didactics - a future concept of teaching ecology

The integration of environmental matters in teaching foreign languages enables teachers and students alike to deal with issues of inter- and trans-cultural notions of nature or environment. It is also here where a high rate of students’ participation in lessons can be guaranteed. However, the demand for a fixed position of eco-didactics in teaching languages is extremely complex and also includes the danger of frustration, boredom or failure. Students of whatever age simply do not like to reflect and discuss problems they already have encountered in other subjects or their freetime. Some critics even try to keep environmental matters out from school curricula, simply because they see the dangers of a simplified reduction of these matters.

It thus is important to stick to one key element of critical teaching which lies in the acceptance of dissent, i.e. the demand for non - conformist attitudes and positions. The fact that discussing and reflecting environmental matters at schools leads to the fact that any dealing with nature in the widest sense of the word is bound to culturally marked and codified conceptions, imaginations and moral codes which are constantly bound to contemporary discourses and ideologies. It is, however, exactly here where songs, films or literary texts about nature and environment show the greatest potential of reflecting existing cultural norms and values including the chance to deal with these matters not only from a national but also from a transnational or global perspective.

The ecological side includes social and mental dimensions which accompany the material side. Critics like Posner (1991), Küchler (2011), Mayer (2012), Garrard (2012) and Hallet (2012) here stress the importance of combining these aspects in order to better reflect relationships between nature and environment within all kinds of foreign language teachings.

Taking all this into account one can state several main concepts for environmental learning which are all bound to a social dimension of students which supports their level of participating and discussing environmental issues.

1. Environmental learning and intercultural learning

This means that terms like environment and nature do include several and opposing notions within different cultures. They are thus accompanied by an intercultural dimension which can be seen in the fact that Canadian First Nations writers do oppose the Western notion of man as the ruler of the earth with their idea that animals, plants and landscapes are equal parts of their community.

2. Environmental learning as global learning

The fact that this planet is more and more compared to a global village shows that complex global matters and problems can be reflected on a local scale where the individual reaction of people (students) can be seen and discussed (here the Vancouver Islands).

3. Environmental learning and its moral dimension

One key element of environmental learning lies in the potential to offer and realize a positive attitude in relationship with such matters. Students here should be enabled to reflect, discuss and develop their own point of view rather than sticking to the old form of teaching which is often labelled as green-washing, i.e. a naive and one sided form of discussing environmental matters.

The going away from fixed and mostly nationally bound concepts to a more globally orientated notion of environment can at present be seen at the isolated treatment of environmental issues under President Trump in America who simply ignores this global thinking.

Teaching here should use and integrate environmental awareness, ecological and historic knowledge, values, attitudes and ethical responsibilities for the wider aim of making young people aware of the consequences of climate change or even global disasters to create a moral codex which can be seen in the idea of thinking globally but acting locally.

V. Intercultural learning as part of eco-didactics.

By definition intercultural learning includes intercultural cognitive and alternative elements. The term as such basically stands for the attempt to connect familiar and foreign aspects. Foreign elements strictly speaking can be hostile and tempting alike, they can attract and challenge you at the same time. For any form of didactics in language learning this process should be kept open and dynamic in order to learn something new in this frame of familiar and foreign. This also goes for the specific form of eco-didactics which includes a high potential if connected to fictional / literary texts.

This again is based on the idea to include other cultural perspectives and a modification of intellectual and practical abilities. In times of ongoing globalization processes this concept has gained more and more importance because of the close political, economic and ecological relationships of nations which demand a certain level of awareness of self and other.2

Teaching foreign languages under these conditions has become more complex because the learning processes involved here surpass linguistic, cultural and political barriers. Students have to be equipped with options to obtain a general orientation as well as practical and intellectual perspectives which include the possibility of a future life where togetherness is getting more and more important. Intercultural learning hereby has replaced the traditional concept of 'Landeskunde' which was based on a preparation for the host country only.

One main principle is to coordinate foreign cultural elements with familiar ones with the aim of self- reflecting the personal background.

The aims are:

1. to critically relate an own culture with a foreign one
2. to develop strategies while getting into contact with people from abroad
3. to build up and assess abilities which function as mediators between two different cultures and to act between them on the basis of an intercultural communicative competence.

There are, however, also critical comments to be made. Intercultural learning must not be based on existing differences of whatever kind it rather should stress connecting elements from the beginning. Central terms like culture (and thus intercultural learning as well) have to undergo a constant discussion and reflection in order to positively adapt them to present situations.

Yet intercultural learning includes social and global thinking and is based on a great variety of teaching methods such as web quest work, log activities, book club discussion or various forms of presentation. This element of autonomous learning in the intercultural field has long kept a fairly marginal topic within the didactics of language learning.

Language learning is strictly speaking intercultural learning . One of its central aims is not to be tempted to use ones own perspective as the basis for judging the foreign. Edward Said's book Orientalism (1978) can still be seen as one of the most remarkable suggestions in these attempts to balance both sides simply because many cultures in times of globalization processes still seem to follow Levi Strauss’ notion that 'cultures seem to ignore the others, and even deny their culture status'.

Other critics like Benson (2001), Ellis (2004) or Foitzik (2013) state that intercultural knowledge in language learning must not be challenged by the foreign, it must be seen as a way to stick to an independent position which comes out more clearly here. Frontiers according to some critics here become more manifest. Talking about other countries and language teaching and learning also stands for the attempt to combine an inner with an outer perspective. Language learning starts from a personal position but means that the learner does not necessarily have to remain here. It rather stands for the fact that the learner can leave his / her linguistic background in order to enter another language. It is exactly the tension between inner and outer perspective which brings in a reflective learning process.

Literature as one element of language learning should encourage the reader to see the world from a new and challenging perspective with the aim to give a creative answer which positions itself beyond the personal level and the literary text.

Successful intercultural learning stands for the reader's perspective which is neither part of a foreign nor a subjective cultural background. Thus one central attempt for teachers and students alike lies in a balanced and well reflected change of several perspectives and teachers should support any ability to change perspectives with the help of the text.

Literary works often stand for presenting, discussing and reflecting characters. This can best be shown in texts which include characters from different backgrounds, or in the case of non­fictional texts with different cultural, moral or economic positions.


1 Eco-didactics here works together with ethnobiology. Ethnobiology itself discusses matters how humans relate to plants and animals by means of culture. It includes ethnohistorical, ethnographic and linguistic elements. This also includes the incorporation of myths and stories.

2 The importance of intercultural teaching methods is seen by many critics. Oebel (2009) here sees methods and possibilities which include options to wake teachers and students up from their sleeping habits in lessons ( ibid. 10). One major aim of intercultural teaching is what Oebel ( 2009) describes as " Partizipationsfähigkeit und Netzsensibilität" ( ibid. : 156) thus hinting at the ability of students to work in groups and the individual option of autonomous learning.

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The Call of Ecology in Canadian Teenage Fiction. A Project for School
University of Marburg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
1. Geography and history of Vancouver Islands 2. The First Nations of the Coast Salish, the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Kwakwakawa'wakw 3. Canadian Wildlife – a computer project Canada's national parks 5. Town / country life
Quote paper
Dr. Matthias Dickert (Author), 2019, The Call of Ecology in Canadian Teenage Fiction. A Project for School, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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