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Inspiring Education in Ontario

Written on May 5th, 2014

Ontario has a vast educational landscape. While much of our OACS News Service focuses on what’s happening within our membership, this week I thought I’d take a look at some learning communities that aren’t as well known to us. There are some very successful educational approaches bearing fruit in Ontario, but in ways we’re probably less familiar with. I wonder what we can learn here, and how these approaches might serve to inspire the OACS community!

Take the Oasis Skateboard Factory in Toronto, for example—an alternative school program where students can earn high school credits by running a skateboard business or designing their own skateboard brand. Although the approach may sound narrow in scope, the program integrates the study of history, English, art and other disciplines into the experience of running a skateboard business. Along the way, students are dropped into real-world learning situations, and are encouraged to be active participants in an urban environment. Students in the program have been commissioned to paint murals for Toronto businesses like Seven Lives restaurant in Kensington Market, and some have had their writing published by Concrete Wave, a popular skateboarding magazine. Through these practices, the school is determined to champion the contributions of students “on the job,” ensuring, for instance, that they receive a fair wage for their work.

Or, consider the Guelph Outdoor School, where the number one aim of teachers is to facilitate learning by connecting children to the natural world, through things like sensory awareness games and nature based challenges. Programs at the school are designed to improve a child’s self-sufficiency, inquisitive focus and knowledge of place. The hope is “to get children out of their heads and into their bodies”, so that unpredictable but profound learning can take place— among creation’s rocks, trails and forests. Students are continually invited to discover “the natural rhythm of the land and of him or herself,” through activities like fire building, frog catching and plant discovering. The program was initially designed for students who have trouble concentrating in a typical school setting and is structured around the belief that learning outside allows children to make sense of many events at once. Sounds, smells and sights (things that might serve as distractions in the classroom) become “events truly worthy of their attention” and yield new opportunities for engagement and learning.

A few hours away is Ottawa Waldorf School, which operates out of the belief that art, music and storytelling can be woven into all areas of study, including math and science. In each grade, students make their own textbooks as a way of deepening their understanding of the material covered. Teachers often aim to “bring lessons to life” by focusing on movement—whether that be through the daily practice of dance and drama, or clapping and rhythm exercises. Waldorf schools typically stress the engagement of the whole child: head, heart and hands. Activities are often tactile and communal, designed to help students become attentive, critical thinkers, with an openness to wonder and imagination.

Schools that embody a Waldorf philosophy of education also take a radical approach to technology—banning it from the classroom! That may seem counter-intuitive to some (given the push to use devices like iPads, smart phones and smart boards in classroom learning), but most Waldorf teachers believe that true engagement (for a student) is about human contact, with their teacher and with their peers—not with a screen.

While thinking about technological integration within a classroom, there’s also the Park Manor Public School’s Accelerated Learning Framework to consider. Introduced in 2011, the framework hinges on six essential 21st century skills: creating, communicating, collaborating, critical thinking, citizenship and character building. Not only has the framework helped teachers identify what sort of attributes they’d like to help their students to develop, it has shaped the way that teachers at the schools use smart boards, iPads and other devices in their classrooms. The school is attempting to live out the words of Michael Fullan: “Deepen instruction and harness technology – this is the correct sequence.”

The framework is centered around the goal of student achievement (not the latest iPhone apps or gadgets): clearly identifying his or her learning goals and success criteria. “It doesn’t matter what kind of pedagogy I’m using, if it’s not going to help the student, then why am I doing it?” asks Elmira Public School Principal, James Bond.

Although technology has played a large role in raising the school’s profile, teachers start by focusing on who their students are and what they may need to flourish.

A desire to meet students where they are also drives the work of teachers at Monsignor Fraser College in Toronto. Described as a “haven for the marginalized student,” the school offers an alternative to the traditional school setting for teenagers and young adults desiring a fresh start. Its Grade 10 and 11 Community In Community Out (C.I.C.O.) program is intertwined with community-service projects, and uses those experiences as a means for students to meet curriculum expectations. The program is geared towards students who might otherwise drop out of school early and reflects an integral goal of the school—to help teenagers and young adults view the various learning environments of which they are part in a positive light, while developing a positive image of themselves as learners.

Last May, students at Monsignor Fraser College helped police paint over graffiti in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighborhood, and created a mural on the wall of F’Amelia, an Italian restaurant in the area. More recently, art students from the school created a large tile mosaic and donated it to the new Toronto Azzurri ForKICKS Youth Sport Village.

Reflecting on schools such as these has left me with a few points to ponder: I’m intrigued by these schools and their creative approaches to curriculum design, pedagogy, and the way they interact with students. What strikes me is that each school is driven by an exceptionally strong vision—which has enabled staff and students to make sense of the unknowns that form the possibilities that are so much a part of our current school discussions. We exist within a varied and playful educational landscape within our province, and there is plenty of inspiration to be found here! But, most of all, I’m confident that we can both take and add worthwhile perspectives by engaging conversationally with our fellow partners in education in Ontario!