kids splashing in rain

Bringing Humane Education to Elementary School Children and Graduate Students: An Interview with Dr. Kristine Tucker

Kris Tucker, Ed.D. serves as adjunct faculty in our graduate programs with Antioch University, teaching both elective and required courses, including our course, Building a Solutionary Practice, that prepares our graduate students to be solutionaries and to educate others to be solutionaries. She is also a teacher at Ridge and Valley Charter School in NJ, where she infuses humane education into her elementary school curriculum. 

Zoe: You teach IHE’s new course Building a Solutionary Practice in our graduate programs. Can you share what you are noticing? How are graduate students responding to the solutionary process? 

Kris: Building a Solutionary Practice is such an important experience for students in our graduate programs. Across the semester, each student is exploring an issue they care about, connecting with stakeholders, and discovering nuanced perspectives, worldviews, and mindsets that keep a problem locked in place, while also discovering nuanced perspectives, worldviews, and mindsets that offer solutionary shifts and leverage points for change. Time and again, what we discover that’s deeply entrenched as part of the problem is an information gap manifesting as the absence of communication, collaboration, and equitable access to knowledge, information, and learning experiences helpful in designing solutions. It is within this space that students create and implement solutions addressing the causes of a problem, and that do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the environment. It is also within this space that students discover how the solutionary process is helpful, necessary, and easily woven into the fabric of our personal and professional lives. 

Zoe: What are some of the ways that you are integrating humane education into your elementary school classroom?  

Kris: With nature as our primary teacher, the seeds of humane education are easy to sow in our elementary education context at Ridge and Valley Charter School. That’s because our school mission and vision shape the expectation that my teaching team is designing learning experiences aligned with bringing about a hopeful and sustainable future for all. 

Imagine yourself as a second or third grader as I describe what this looks like in practice:      

It’s autumn, early morning, and raining. You walk into your classroom, and your friends are already busy putting on their rain gear. You know you’re about to do the same. You find your rain jacket, pants, hat, and boots and get yourself all bundled up. You fill your water bottle. You’re so excited to be heading outside and you’re wondering… Where are we going? To the lower meadow? Autumn Olive Land? Four Directions? The rock pile? The greenhouse? The gardens? The stream? You ask your guides (otherwise known as teachers), but none of the three adults will tell where the group is headed. You’re guessing and guessing and guessing. Your curiosity and excitement fill you up. Finally, your class group is ready; everyone heads out the back door, and the adventure begins! 

Talking with each other, laughing, sometimes running, you’re trekking across the property, and the list of all the places you’re thinking you might visit grows smaller as you pass the solar panels, the greenhouse, the garden, the foliage, the rock pile, and the Four Directions. Suddenly you know where you’re headed! YES! Down to the stream! You throw yourself into a full-on run down the hill to get to the stream as fast as possible. Even though you want to keep going full speed, you slow down on the trail through the woods, careful to stay on the path because erosion happens all too easily here. Just a few more steps and then SPLASH! You’re in the stream wading through the water; looking to see if any of the water life from late summer is still here, rock hopping and making boats from fallen leaves to send downstream. 

You make your way to the waterfall where you find your friends organizing a stream clean-up because aluminum cans, bottles, and signs are in the stream where they don’t belong. Then you climb up the muddy bank because you want a closer look at the sherbert-orange fungi growing on a fallen tree. It’s Chicken of the Woods! You learned this in first grade, and you know that when cooked this mushroom is delicious! 

Then you hear, Whoo-ee! Whoo-ee! Whoo-ee! That means that your Guides, Sena, Ieva, and Kris, are calling everyone together. Now that the rain has stopped, they pass out small notebooks and pencils. You climb back down, splash across the stream, and get your notebook and pencil. It’s time to find a sit spot for today. You settle on a large rock with your feet dangling in the water. You take three deep breaths. You observe gently. Your senses follow what allures and inspires you. You decide to write a list of all the words coming to mind. You sketch a bit. You trust what’s emerging.            

This stream experience is just one of many nature-based activities during which students are leaders of their own learning, and teachers position themselves as supportive guides. Curiosity, creativity, wonder, place-based exploration, stewardship, relationship, and love are the humane education seeds that we sow in these young children. 

Zoe: That makes me want to be a second-grader again, with you as my teacher! Do you see shifts in schooling in general that give you hope, and/or conversely, that give you pause? What’s your vision for change in the U.S. school system and beyond? 

Kris: The 2019-2020 school year was unprecedented as government officials, administrators, educators, students and their families experienced the sudden shift to online learning and a quickly-changing educational landscape due to Covid-19. The 2020-2021 school year continues to be unprecedented. In the midst of the pandemic and ongoing political, social, and economic uncertainty, there is a call to action, and educators and administrators are asking new questions. What does it mean to educate? What kind of learning experiences and support services are most needed now and going forward? What is education’s higher purpose? Is it time to shift the language in our education-related mission statements? 

Change is happening. Instead of reform, what can we envision anew? My greatest hope for stakeholders invested in a healthy U.S. school system, and perhaps a healthy international system, is for us to question and be in conversation about the words we can use in 2020-2021 and beyond to describe the purpose of schooling. With these words, let’s design pathways for learning that are solutionary, humane, and will lead us into a hopeful, sustainable future.                 

Zoe: What’s it like to bring humane education to both 2nd and 3rd graders as well as graduate students? How does teaching one group inform and support the other?

Kris: Bringing humane education to both 2nd and 3rd graders as well as graduate students is my life’s work and contribution to changing the educational landscape. Daily, I’m actively engaged in asking: what does it mean to be human and to design a humane, solutionary, and “most good, least harm” pedagogy and curriculum? Teaching one group informs and supports the other, as every day I’m involved in the kind of education where young children, teens, and adults are immersed in the natural world and learning how to live in mutually-enhancing ways with people, animals, and the Earth. Together, we’re learning to be in relationship with one another. Together, we’re learning how to inspire change. What I experience and witness in my work with youth provides hope, evidence, and stories that I can share with adults. I’m able to say: “Yes, this way of educating, learning, and being in relationship is the most humane and most solutionary, and it works, so let’s keep going. Let’s keep pioneering our way forward.”