November’s GIS Ambassador: Paul VanZant

November 19, 2020 Angela Alexander

This month’s honorary GIS Ambassador is Paul VanZant, a recently retired educator from Dufferin County in Central Ontario. Read about his work to move geographic education forward in Canada throughout his professional career.

Paul VanZant is November’s honorary GIS Ambassador for his commitment to promoting geographic education in Canada. He’s been involved in curriculum development for the Ontario Ministry of Education, authored geography textbooks and publications, facilitated workshops for professional development, and mentored teachers at Mayfield Secondary School where he was the Geography Head.

Currently, Paul is the Chair of the Canadian Geographic Education Committee (CanGeo Ed) and continues to be an active member of the Ontario Association of Geographic and Environmental Education (OAGEE) where he’s held the following roles: President (2000-2006), Vice-President – Communications (1998-2000),  and Vice-President – Curriculum - Liaison with the Ontario Ministry of Education (2006-2017).         

The K-12 group at Esri Canada has had a great working relationship with Paul since 2007.  Through supporting his use of ArcGIS in his teaching at Mayfield Secondary School, in his role as an educator at Canadian Geographic Education, and through OAGEE, which he has been part of since 1993.

At the end of October, this passionate educator who taught for 30 years entered a new phase of his life – retirement. We recently caught up with Paul to reflect on his life’s work as an educator and an advocate for geographic education in Canada. Let’s discover the many accolades he’s earned and the amazing opportunities and experiences he’s had in his career.

Paul is currently the Chair of the Canadian Geographic Education Committee (2018-2020). “The programs at CanGeo Ed aim to strengthen geographic education in the classroom. In addition to increasing the emphasis on geography within the school system, our endeavours to increase the public awareness of the importance of geographical literacy.” – Canadian Geographic Education (CanGeo Ed)

Photo of Paul by Danielle Marr, 2017.

How did you decide to go down the teaching geography route and why it is so important to you?

I got into geography thanks to my high school geography teachers - Garry Hammond, Al Kipfer and Brian Wretham at Listowel District Secondary School in Listowel, Ontario.  Mr. Hammond had the biggest impact on me in my youth. I had three different courses with him, and he always made geography relevant and engaging. He instilled a love of the discipline in me and he was an early teaching mentor during my practicums in the Concurrent Education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. That love of geography was further developed by my professors at Queen’s. In particular, Dr. Osborne, Dr. Riddell, and my good friend and master’s thesis advisor George Lovell.

While as a student at Queen’s Faculty of Education, I met Dick Mansfield, the man who probably had the greatest influence in shaping my career as a geography teacher. He opened up a number of opportunities for me at OAGEE and Canadian Geographic Education through the summer institute program in the early 90s. Dick converted me into the “geo-evangelist” that I became.

Geography is everything to me. It inspired my love of travel and has been a source of passionate study and has driven my professional teaching career for 30 years. Being a teacher is the best job in the world. It is exponentially better when you get to teach geography, as it is the most relevant of the subject disciplines in my opinion.

How have you used ArcGIS in your teaching and why it was important for you.

GIS was always a part of my classes. I trained early on GIS software, using ArcView 2.0 and IDRISI in my courses.  When I started teaching, my students used ArcView 3.1. Back then, it took all day to render maps and conduct analysis on the school network.

We transitioned to ArcGIS Online a while ago. We have used it in physical geography to examine and analyze phenomena, disasters, and environmental issues. Students have always enjoyed using GIS. Enthusiasm has continued to grow as more data and layers have become available to them through ArcGIS Online.

The geography department at Mayfield has used Story Maps for a number of years now as part of unit and course culminating activities.

Exposure to GIS and mapping is important to the students, as well. Since 2009, I was the club sponsor of the World Action and Awareness Club. This was a student-conceived and student-driven club created by my World Issues class to raise funds for and awareness about pressing global issues affecting people in the developing world. The issues included the genocide in Darfur, child soldiers, access to fresh water, hunger and famine relief, and female infanticide.

Paul with the beloved Alex Trebek at a reception at the RCGS headquarters in Ottawa 2017.

Throughout your career, you have received recognition and awards for the work you have done to help move geographic education forward in Canada. Can you share them with us?

Yes, it’s great to be recognized for work that I believe in and love to do.

RCGS 90TH ANNIVERSARY MEDAL - 2019

This is was in recognition of those who have “enhanced or aided the Society in fulfilling its mandate to make Canada better known to Canadians and the World.”

OAGEE AWARD OF DISTINCTION - 2017

Recipient of the Ontario Association for Geographic and Environmental Education Award of Distinction "recognizing an outstanding contribution in advancing, promoting, and improving the quality of geographic education in the Province of Ontario"

PEEL DISTRICT SCHOOL BOARD AWARD OF EXCELLENCE - 2013

In recognition of “unique and exemplary contributions to public education in the Peel DSB and the Peel community.”

Royal Canadian Geographic Society (RCGS) Fellow- 2008

Fellows are individuals who have distinguished themselves by directly contributing to scientific knowledge in the field of geography, geographical exploration.

ALEX TREBEK MEDAL FOR GEOGRAPHIC LITERACY - 2006

Awarded by Canadian Geographic Education and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to “honour and recognize individual effort in the development, enhancement, and promotion of geographic literacy in Canadian education.”

We received some great messages from past colleagues and mentors that I want to share with you.

Let’s begin with Dick Mansfield, who inspired you early in your geography career. He reflected on your career, starting with you as a student at Queen’s University.

“As a student, Paul was a very open, confident, and engaging student, as he always participated in a positive way in our class discussions and activities. As an educator, he had great love and respect for his students. His school community - students, families, colleagues, prospective educators, and administrators will all feel the loss of Paul VanZant. However, I feel that his decision is a sound one and selfishly, I feel that his release from the day to day duties/responsibilities of being an exemplary educator, will be replaced with more time to devote to possibly more writing and ongoing/continued involvement in the volunteer dimensions of Geography Education where he has already left his mark e.g., OAGEE and RCGS, to name only two examples.

Over the last 30 years, we have become good friends. I wish Paul all the best in his retirement.”

A fun night with other educators. “The CanGeo Ed Alex Trebek Medalist for Geographic Literacy Award winner for 2017 Beth Dye with former winners from left to right - Al Friesen, Paul VanZant, Dick Mansfield, John Trites, and Anne Smith.” - Paul’s tweet from November 17, 2017

Your recent colleagues at Mayfield Secondary School shared their good memories of working with you.

"Paul VanZant brought life to a subject that some grow up to believe is out of date and not relevant with many students. By using the latest spatial technologies, always incorporating current events into his teaching, and constantly getting students to question and investigate their surroundings using critical thinking methodologies and authentic learning experiences, Paul inspired students to take ownership of their learning and to acknowledge how the choices they make are significant and impactful on a local, national, and global scale. That’s empowering!

As a new teacher starting out at Mayfield, I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside someone who is so passionate about the subject of Geography and cannot thank Paul enough for not only inspiring his students but the pedagogy of the teachers in the Canadian and World Studies Department. We congratulate Paul on his retirement!”- Stephanie Warr - Canadian & World Studies Department- Geography, Civics, & Careers Teacher 

“Paul has been a significant mentor for me.  He guided me through the world of geographic education by encouraging me to attend geography conferences and be involved in initiatives that enhanced my teaching practice.  He challenged me to think outside the box and try new ways of teaching.  I would not be the teacher I am if it had not been for him. Thank you, Paul, for your support and I wish you all the best in your retirement!” – Arlene Beckett – Teacher Librarian, previously part of the Canadian & World Studies Department

“Paul is such an amazing teacher. I believe he is one of the most passionate geography teachers out there. On numerous occasions, he has stepped up to assist Canadian Geographic Education by sharing his expertise and passion, as well as his creativity on how to get both students and teachers interested in geography. One time, he was a volunteer for our Can Geo Challenge National Final and showed up with a jacket displaying the map of the world. The students loved it! I wish him well in his retirement.” - Sara Black, Canadian Geographic Education

Paul supported students’ love of geography outside the classroom, as well. Team Canada at the International GeoOlympiad, Hong Kong 2019. From left to right - Janet Ruest, Paul VanZant (coaches); Jake Douglas, Andrew Ding, Jerry Sun, and Ben Woordward. “The Olympiad is an excellent opportunity to showcase the geographical skills and understandings of a country's geography students, as well as a reward for student excellence.” – International GeoOlympiad

What’s next Paul for you?

I will kick back for a few weeks and learn how to relax (not something that comes easily for me). My wife Sue has an extensive “honey do” list to keep me occupied. I will also continue in my role as Chair of Canadian Geographic Education and a Governor of the RCGS Board, as well as a Member of the Policy and Planning Committee at RCGS.

Paul and Sue at the 2017 RCGS Awards ceremony in Ottawa.

We wish Paul a productive and happy retirement. He will have more time to read more biographies of explorers, enjoy good scotch, and continue his love of photography and woodworking. Thank you for your outstanding work in keeping geography relevant in K-12 education in Canada. You have inspired educators and students to look at geography as a subject that goes beyond just locating a place in the world, to gaining a deeper understanding of the world and how we are connected to one another.

Read about more inspiring GIS Ambassadors and contribute your story to k12@esri.ca

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Angela Alexander

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Resource Developer on the Esri Canada Education and Research team. She has over six years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela is responsible for producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum specific resources, conducting and creating custom workshops for educators and judging and developing the question for the annual GIS Skills Ontario competition in Waterloo, Ontario. Angela has a Bachelor’s degree in Geography and Sociology from the University of Western Ontario and completed the Applied Digital Geography and GIS certificate program at Ryerson University.

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