ACER at 35: Foreign textbooks to native trees—one Canadian teacher’s solution to a classroom dilemma and ACER’s origin story

Through much of the 20th century, Canadian children grew up learning about the “firsts” of American and European science and industry—things like the cotton gin, pasteurization, electric motor, the light bulb, or the assembly line. While most baby boomers probably knew about the Canadian development of insulin, time zones, and the snowmobile, and claimed as our own—as did the Scots and the Americans—Alexander Graham Bell of telephone fame, fewer knew about newsprint, the Robertson screw, Pablum, basketball, kerosene, tectonic plates, or countless other Canadian advances.

Alice Casselman, a Toronto science teacher who began her career in the 1960s, was troubled by Ontario schools’ reliance on foreign textbooks. “There was no book on Canadian inventions!” she says, and none of the available texts highlighted the scientific advances of Canadians. She pushed her students to seek out this hidden information, opposing bureaucratic forces resisting change and working with educators and scientists to develop relevant and interesting strategies and resources.

Along the way, Alice identified one available, free, and infinite resource—nature. Her “epiphany” came on a scientific exploration of the Niagara Escarpment led by Canadian geologist Walter Tovell. Standing at the edge of the deep glacial valley, she saw nature’s continuum of life and time, past and present—science come alive.

Nature goes to school.

More than ever, she took her classes outdoors, and saw positive gains in students’ engagement and overall success. They were learning science—with its skills of observation, identification, experimentation, and documentation, and they were learning to work together and to socialize. Focussing on native tree species, Alice led teams in careful schoolyard plantings of 15 trees— 3 hop trees, 3 basswood, 3 white spruce, 3 bur oak and 3 sugar maple—plus one red maple, ACER’s signature tree. Students returned regularly to measure, assess, and mulch the trees and document their development.

As the trees grew, these green spaces and activities offered opportunities in other disciplines, like art, mathematics, history, and creative writing. The students Alice inspired they were learning about their own Canadian environment and making their own discoveries.  In 1987 Alice, with the support of several like-minded educators, founded an organization to promote and sustain her projects, and when she retired from the classroom, she took it to the community.

ACER in the community.

Now marking its 35th anniversary, ACER encourages everyone to plant and nurture trees as a vital step in slowing and adapting to climate change. Planting trees brings together the diverse elements of our communities, beautifies urban landscapes and creates healthy, restorative recreation places.

Guided by science, ACER is back to work after its pandemic hiatus, planting, measuring, and documenting growth, and planning future sites and activities. ACER points to trees as a proven step towards cleaner air, and its internationally accepted standards of record-keeping and analysis are providing scientists and educators with an ongoing stream of reliable data.

Canadian textbooks are no longer the issue. ACER generates much educational material—planting and mulching guides, manuals for students and volunteers, and training videos— and Canadian scientists are among the world’s most-read writers about trees. But ACER has kept its original name—the acronym is Latin for maple, Canada’s emblem, and an eloquent reminder of the need that inspired it.

More Posts