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PCS Students Learn Through Community Engagement

Written on April 4th, 2016


Museum - 2014 April 15 original

One of the goals that Dan Hagen has been focusing on with his grade 8 class at Providence Christian School in Dundas this year is to provide his students with opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. He believes that the most meaningful and lasting learning often takes place when students are actively engaged in their learning within a variety of environments, alongside a variety of experts.

Recently, Mr. Hagen’s class has been working on group projects that reflect this goal. In an effort to answer the question, “Why are we here?”, students have been tasked with going into their home towns and doing hands-on, interactive research to find out what geographical features brought the first settlers to their towns. In small groups, they have been engaging with community members and interacting with experts in local libraries, historical societies, and museums to study how the first settlers used the geographical and physical features of the land to grow the area into small towns.

“Before I began teaching my class this year, I sat down and looked at each of the units I’d be teaching, and I asked myself how I could make the learning more relevant for my students,” Mr. Hagen recounted. This particular project is based on an OACS Social Studies unit, “The Deciduous Forest Biome”, in which students are given the opportunity to look at a case study based on the city of Kitchener. “I decided that it would be an amazing experience for my class to learn about the origin of their own home towns—and what better way to learn about that than to explore it for themselves first-hand?”

He also pointed out that it is impossible for a classroom teacher to be an expert on the geographical significance of the home towns of each of his or her students. By having students seek out experts in their communities to research a learning goal, Mr. Hagen believes that they are being given the opportunity to practice skills of enquiry, research, clarification, and problem solving in every day situations.

[caption id=”attachment_12832” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”]Students look through files of historical pictures as part of the research for their project. Students look through files of historical pictures as part of the research for their project.[/caption]

Facilitating this type of learning takes a great deal of planning. Before introducing the project to his students, Mr. Hagen communicated with directors and curators at several local museums and libraries, introducing the learning goals for his class project. The response he received from local experts was overwhelmingly positive and helpful. Dr. John Picone, the director of Education at the Dundas Museum and Archives, was thrilled at the fact that Mr. Hagen was asking his students to research and find answers about the people and events that shaped their town. “I’ve been an educator for four decades,” Mr. Picone shared. “Long ago, I became acutely aware that all genuine learning is incidental; it happens through discovery, through learning to ask good questions and developing the skill of critical reflection.”

Mr. Cliff Jones, a curator at the South Dumfries Historical Society in St. George, was equally excited about the prospect of working with students. “We are pleased to have been able to assist the group of students from Providence Christian School in discovering more about their community’s history. By guiding their investigation of the various research sources that the community offers, we are helping to produce a generation of citizens with a greater knowledge of their community’s past, and hopefully greater wisdom as they look towards its future.”

[caption id=”attachment_12858” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”]PCS students doing research at Flamboro Museum and Archives PCS students doing research at Flamborough Museum and Archives.[/caption]

While learning to make community connections and to gather information from sources other than their classroom teacher are at the heart of the project, Mr. Hagen believes it is equally important for students to also involve others in their learning. For this reason, as his students have been discovering information about the origins of their home towns and identifying the geographical features that led people to their towns, they have been working in groups to curate a museum exhibit of their own. These exhibits are intended to be shared with other students in their school, and eventually to be displayed in their local museums.

To introduce the concept of curating an exhibit to his students, Mr. Hagen planned a two-part entry event to the project. He first invited Mr. Picone to come to his classroom for a morning to help inspire students to think outside of the box when researching the information for their projects and making choices about what items they would like to include in their exhibits.

“It’s not just about learning the facts,” shared Mr. Hagen. “Students have grown accustomed to googling everything and spitting out the facts. This is about finding the story behind the facts and discovering why the details are significant.”

Mr. Picone shared a picture of the old Dundas train station with the students. He demonstrated how to move through various levels of questions (factual, analytical) and to look beyond the obvious facts to find the story (application). His demonstration included a story of his own grandmother’s arrival to Dundas from Italy on the train in the picture. “There’s always a story behind the facts,” he shared with students. “Our job is to research the facts, but to display the significance.”

Dundas train station

Students then boarded a bus to visit their local museum, looking at the various exhibits displayed there in an effort to answer questions such as “What is it?”, “Why is it important?”, “Where is your attention drawn?”, “What items are used to give you a snapshot of the story behind the facts?”—questions that would assist them in deciding how they would be curating their own exhibits.

“It was cool seeing pictures of what the town looked like before, and seeing the difference from how it looks now,” shared Jordan, one of the students presently studying the town of St. George. Bekah agreed. “It was neat to see what the buildings were used for back then, and what they are used for now. For example, the Brown Dog Cafe used to be part of a mill.”

[caption id=”attachment_12835” align=”aligncenter” width=”628”]"Then and Now" picture - St. George, ON “Then and Now” picture - St. George, ON[/caption]

Although Mr. Hagen shared his enthusiasm for the learning experience that his students are presently engaged in, he also pointed out that this type of project poses its own set of unique challenges. In his attempt to make the learning relevant to his students by pairing them into groups to study their own home towns, he admits that it is difficult to organize separate transportation opportunities that allow the students to complete the research necessary within their communities. He is also aware that the project has taken a great deal of planning because of the necessity for him to make community connections ahead of time. As is often the case, the project is taking longer for students to complete than he first anticipated.

Despite these unique challenges, the experience of having his students venture outside of the classroom and seek out information and stories from experts in their community has exceeded Mr. Hagen’s learning expectations. “I have really enjoyed seeing how much the students have enjoyed learning about their towns, and being a part of those lightbulb moments when they make connections to the significance of the facts they have researched,” he commented. “It’s not me teaching geography—they are learning how geography connects to everything around them, including where they live and why they live there. Sometimes, that’s more important than finishing a unit within a certain time frame.”

Students also reflected the joy that comes from putting together pieces of their town’s history. “Getting the information was one good part,” shared Jordan. “We got to meet a lot of cool people, and they knew a lot about this town. They live here too, and they actually care a lot about it.”

He also reflected on how his perspective of his home town had changed in the course of learning about its history and hearing their stories. “I used to think St. George was just a small town with not a lot of interesting places in it, but it’s actually filled with history and this project helped me appreciate all the places and special things about it.”

[caption id=”attachment_12831” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”]Group of students studying the origins of their hometown of St. George, ON. Group of students studying the origins of their hometown of St. George, ON.[/caption]

This excitement was shared by those who had come alongside Mr. Hagen in providing learning opportunities that extended outside of his classroom. “It was a joy to work with these kids,” shared Lyn Lunsted, a volunteer at the Flamborough Archives in Waterdown. “They really wanted to learn about their town!”

Mr. Picone shares this enthusiasm. “The curation project being undertaken by the students at PCS I find both delightful and engaging,” he shared. “It is engaging the young people with the past in a singularly intimate way. The project demands that the students think historically about their topic and pose intelligent questions that lead to meaningful inquiry.”

“There are no shortcuts to an effective curation,” added Mr. Picone. “The young curators of Mr. Hagen’s class are not only engaging with the past in a meaningful way, they are challenged with curating an exhibit that will likewise engage those who visit their display. That’s hard…but oh, so rewarding!”

[caption id=”attachment_12834” align=”aligncenter” width=”718”]museum curations Curated exhibits at the Dundas Museum and Historical society.[/caption]

The successes, and even the challenges that have been a part of this learning journey have affirmed what Mr. Hagen believes to be true about the value of extending the learning of his students beyond the four walls of his classroom. “Although the teacher holds the ultimate responsibility for what happens in any lesson,” reflected Mr. Hagen, “the experience of learning outside the classroom can help students develop a greater sense of their own responsibilities towards each other and the tasks on which they are working.”

Mr. Picone echoes this belief. “To say that I’m excited to watch this project evolve is an understatement. These young people are capable of a great deal and, when given the opportunity to take charge of their own learning with the guidance and encouragement of caring adults, I am confident they will look forward to posterity with wonder and hope.”

After spending many hours in research, gleaning information from varying experts in their communities, PCS students are excited to display their curated exhibits at their school, and also in their local museums, so that many others can learn about the geographical features that contributed to the origin of their home towns.