Elliot Unger teaches Grade 10 geography, Grade 11 Canadian history and Grade 12 social studies. In his 20-plus years of teaching, all of which he has spent at Kildonan-East Collegiate in Winnipeg, Man., Unger has run the gamut of the Manitoba curriculum and is always on the lookout for new material and content. We spoke with him about his years of experience.
On critical thinking and asking good questions
When I first started teaching, school was a place to get the content. Now, if students want to learn things, they can go on the internet and there's an abundance of information that they can learn without setting foot in a school. Where a lot of that has shifted to is what do we do with that information? How do we decipher good information from bad information? What do we understand about politically motivated information? We talk about using primary documents and data to inform our thinking. For example, if you’re looking at a sustainable development model — what are the environmental consequences? What are the economic benefits? What are the benefits to people that live in that community? And then we talk a lot about ethical concepts of geography too. How do we know we've made a good decision that's beneficial to lots of people? There's a lot of different ways to look at a topic and one person may feel very strongly about it one way, but other people may have other opinions. Those critical thinking skills, recognizing good sources of information, being able to recognize that not everyone's going to agree with what you have to say — I think those are really important things that they can take forward with them, regardless of what they do in life.
On making content relevant to students
One thing that we do in geography is the human footprint, having students do individual work on how their activities, the houses they live in, the cars that they drive, and the foods that they eat end up having an impact on the environment. Then we look at ways that they can be a little more thoughtful with the things that they do. You're getting to the point in Grade 10 where students are starting to see a little bit of a larger world beyond their own bubble. It's a standard topic that everyone can do, but it does give each student the opportunity to do their own exploration and make some discoveries for themselves that may actually become something practical for them. I think a lot of times when they watch the news and they see things that are going on, it always seems to be someplace else, like “that's not my problem” kind of thing. But if they see things that are going on in Manitoba, then that's actually just in their own backyard. When they start learning about that you see some lightbulbs go off, like all of a sudden, they realize they’re actually having an effect on the environment.
On engaging students in learning
We have a farm game simulation, which gives them a snapshot of what type of agricultural practices take place in our province. They have opportunities to work with a partner, make decisions on different crops or livestock, and learn about having to budget their money. It gets very competitive as soon as I put figures on the board for how much money groups have made versus how much money some groups have lost. Students definitely get engaged with that, but then they're also learning a lot too. Along the way, as the game goes on, I'll introduce new variables. There's a three-year period in the early 1990s, another in the mid-2000s, when GMOs got approved for use by the government, and then there's another period in the 2015 range where we start getting things like organics and smart farming. I create timelines where different farming technology come into play and where farming methods start to change or where different crops were introduced. Between what they learn and the general competitive nature of it, they always have a lot of fun with that game.
On connecting with students
Before you do anything with content or curriculum, you have to build relationships with students. They have to be comfortable in the environment of your classroom. You can be the most brilliant teacher with the greatest lesson plans and the greatest ideas, but if the kids don't buy in, none of that is going to matter. For me, it's really just a matter of getting kids comfortable in the classroom, doing good icebreakers, getting to know them, trying to make sure you get around to each table and have individual conversations with students. That's actually one of the things that I'm finding is going to be a challenge coming up this fall because a lot of that sort of close encounter with students is not going to be part of the recommendations in the classroom.
On advice to teachers
My biggest thing for professional development is just to constantly be on top of what's going on and be as current and relevant as possible. I think the things you can bring into the classroom that students can see as applicable in their own lives, that's what's important. If you're not doing that, and you're teaching the same things over and over again, I don't know how you as a teacher could be enthusiastic about that. If your students don't buy into what you're doing, and they don't want to be there, they're probably not going to be too enthusiastic to go along with whatever lessons you want them to do either. I think it's important for all teachers to continue to be open to learning. That's what we ask our students to do, so we need to do the same thing ourselves.