Integrating Humane Education into the High School Classroom: An Interview with Mike Farley, M.Ed.

Introduction: Mike Farley has been teaching middle and high school Geography and Environmental Studies for 20 years in the Toronto District School Board and currently at University of Toronto Schools. Over the past decade he has explored animal protection with his students, including running virtual field trips to animal sanctuaries during the pandemic. Mike is a frequent presenter at conferences in Canada and the U.S. on topics such as human rights, environmental issues, and animal protection. He recently completed his M.Ed. degree in Humane Education through the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) and Antioch University and organized the inaugural Educators for Animals Conference that brought together educators from around the world who are incorporating animal protection into their school communities. In 2014, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society presented Mike with the ‘Innovation in Geography Teaching’ award, the highest honour for K-12 Geography teaching in Canada. We are so honored to have him as a graduate of our program.

IHE: What are some of the ways in which you have incorporated humane education into your classroom?

Mike: I’m very fortunate to have taught Geography in the province of Ontario for the past couple of decades. The curriculum already incorporates a lot of issues focusing on human rights and environmental restoration. For example, climate change has been a key issue in the curriculum since I started, and I have explored creative ways of teaching about this topic. One of my favorite activities is a model-UN-style role play in which each student represents a different country, and the whole group is trying to develop and commit to a climate change agreement. The role play does a good job of showing the conflicting pressures of short-term national economic gains versus long-term global environmental sustainability. At the start it’s quite chaotic in the classroom, as the students get into their roles and passions emerge, but as the process unfolds cooler heads prevail, and we usually come to a positive outcome collectively. 

I also like to use video games with my classes, specifically “impact” games that explore serious local and global topics. A game that I have used for many years is Stop Disasters, which was created by the UN to help students understand how communities can mitigate the effects of natural hazards such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Another powerful game is Forced to Fight, in which students explore what it is like for young people living in situations of armed conflict around the world. Well-designed games like Stop Disasters and Forced to Fight are immersive, informative, and show the complexity of real-world problems. Students are often placed in the center of the issue and can keep iterating solutions from many perspectives. These games offer a safe place for students to fail and to try out different approaches. In order to enhance learning, I create activities and reflection questions for students to complete before, during, and after the games to provide the proper scaffolding.

IHE: Can you tell us some stories about the impact of humane education and solutionary thinking and action on your students?

Mike: One area the Ontario Geography curriculum falls short on is the inclusion of animal protection. Having said that, I can still find creative ways to incorporate animal issues wherever possible. My M.Ed. degree from IHE was instrumental in giving me the confidence and skills to do so. For example, during the pandemic I created a unit for my Grade 7 students based on animal sanctuaries. The highlight was two virtual field trips to the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary and the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary. The students loved seeing all of the animals, especially in places where the needs of the animals were put above all else. Many students participated with family members including younger siblings. I was amazed at the thoughtful questions they asked of the sanctuary owners. I did pre- and post-surveys with the students to gauge changes in knowledge, attitudes, and/or behavior and was incredibly uplifted to see how impacted they were by the unit and the many positive changes they were planning to make, including reducing meat consumption and not using products tested on animals.     

Another project that I love is the Youth and Philanthropy Initiative. In groups, students are assigned to research a local charity of their choice, make a site visit, and then give a presentation on why the charity should receive a $5,000 donation from the Toskan Casale Foundation (only one $5,000 donation is awarded for the entire grade). In the past, students have advocated for charities working in a wide variety of areas such as addiction, domestic violence, eating disorders, food security, and homelessness. The project takes a few weeks to complete, and I am always inspired to see how heartfelt the students become about their chosen charities. Many keep connected by volunteering on their own time when the project is over. The $5,000 donation is usually what catches everyone’s attention initially, but the real power of this project is how much students learn about their communities and the incredible charities that are doing such good work.

IHE: You created and offered the Education for Animals conference this past spring as your practicum project for your Master’s degree at IHE. It was such a resounding success with more than 600 attendees! What were some of the most powerful takeaways from the event?

Mike: I think the most important takeaway was community. At the beginning of 2021 I started speaking with educators from across Canada who were incorporating animal protection into their classes. The most common refrain was that they felt relatively alone in their work. This was the main inspiration for the conference, as I wanted to bring together educators so they could meet and inspire one another. Initially the conference was going to be much smaller and limited to Canada, but things really snowballed, and educators from around the world attended. These educators range from pre-K to post-secondary, and are teaching every subject under the sun. It was so heartening to be together for the two days.

The quality and diversity of the sessions also made a big impact. Our four keynote sessions were big highlights, including IHE faculty member Dana McPhall who gave a powerful talk about the importance of addressing racism within the animal rights movement. Other keynotes included Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos (The Cove, Racing Extinction, The Game Changers), Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary co-founders Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter, and student activists Shreya Shah and Shiqi Xu (they stole the show!). In addition we had 50 speakers presenting in 18 sessions on topics such as alternatives to dissection, animal advocacy school clubs, animal-positive children’s books, and plant-based foods in schools. One attendee wrote, “The keynotes and sessions were amazing! Truly inspiring. I really loved that you went outside of the ‘traditional’ field to get wonderful people – it was a pleasure to hear their stories. I also really liked the ethos that this was a kind conference – we don’t hear that frequently enough but I think it’s important.”

I am profoundly grateful to IHE faculty members Mary Pat Champeau and Kris Tucker who guided me through the entire process over many months. Without their support, kindness, and words of wisdom the conference never would have happened. 

IHE: What’s in store for this school year?

Mike: I co-founded the Animal Justice club at my school a few years ago, and I feel energised to bring new ideas that emerged from the conference. It’s a small but mighty crew who are passionate about animal protection and raising awareness. For my M.Ed. courses at IHE, I created a number of humane education lessons, which I’m looking forward to incorporating into my classes. I’m very fortunate to work with fantastic teachers who are open to exploring new ideas and ways of doing things. I’m still recovering from the work involved in the Educators for Animals conference, but I am looking at running it again next summer so stay tuned!