The Bright Ideas Gallery (B.I.G.)
SD43's Gallery of Classroom Innovations, Promising Practices,
and Things We Are Trying to Improve Learning
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Lisa has created an agile learning space that she calls “the Innovative Classroom.”
Lisa Dimarco teaches French at Heritage Woods. She wanted her classroom to encourage language and interaction. With couches on casters, collapsible tables and stackable chairs, Lisa can transform her classroom into a number of different learning spaces.
Individual and Partner Use
During lessons where students are working individually, (e.g. conjugating verbs in writing), Lisa gives students choices about where and how. Lisa explains:
The pictures demonstrate personal learning as the students decide where they will sit and how they will practice the conjugations. They could choose a sofa or a table. They could choose to write write the drills on the mini dry erase boards, on paper, their phone or their computer.
Dry erase boards at couches and tables.
Whole Class Circle
When discussing as a whole class, Lisa can easily reconfigure her classroom by collapsing the tables, and moving the couches and chairs into a circle. Lisa talks about an poignant example:
We were fortunate enough to have Carol Todd (Amanda Todd's mom) speak to our entire student body about bullying. Post this presentation, I asked my students to set up in discussion style and form a circle. After that, I gave them 10 minutes to come up with how they each were going to help make a difference against bullying and then say it in French.
(Notice the tables stacked and collapsed at the back corner of the room).
Given this topic is so sensitive, the community circle worked great. One of my students even said "this is so intimate". Today was also the perfect setting to talk about being courageous enough to speak in French in front of their classmates. There could not have been a better day to do this. … All my classes were so comfortable today and excited to use the sofas. This energy was so great and different as it did not happen this way in first semester. My students are excited when they walk in the room and they immediately ask, "What are we doing today?"
Lisa invited her entire staff to use her room, offering to switch classes for the block:
I would like to extend an invitation to all teachers/student teachers who may be interested in trying out an alternative style to teaching and learning.
Room 205 has 4 moveable sofas, 6 collapsible round tables and a few desks. The space can be used in a number of different ways. It is great for promoting discussions by creating a circle of sofas with a coffee table. You could also form a large community circle of chairs.
5 students can sit comfortably at each of the round tables so it is really conducive for group projects. When everything is pushed aside, the open space is whatever you would like to make of it. If you would like to do skits, games (possibly on the floor) or an activity that just needs space, this room works really well. I teach in every block in the room so I can easily switch locations with you.
Special thanks to Kelly Snow for all her help in getting the casters on the sofas.
In addition to Lisa’s French classes, the room has been used for drama, yoga, and even the odd Liquid Network’s session (below).
Celebration and Exposition Space
Sometimes, Lisa uses her classroom to display project-based learning. Once she transformed her classroom into a flight to Paris (including the plane ride, customs, and security). More recently, after a quick reconnaissance trip down to Newport Village, the students created a market place. I was lucky enough to be there, and the students did an incredible job! Shops included a fishmonger, a chocolatier, a baker, a vegetable shop, and many more. On top of the storefronts, students had samples, set prices, and had to converse in French as they greeted each other and carried out their transactions. Formidable!
Lisa surveyed her students about her design experiment:
I have summarized what my students say about this new classroom setting that I have experimented with this year. The survey results were shared with my classes and we made some changes for the better moving forward. I will be presenting this as part of my participation in the Initiative on Communication with the Ministry of Education. I learned so much doing this and my students are so proud that their student voice matters to teachers and learning in the future.
Here are some of the key points from the survey:
How does the atmosphere of a classroom encourage or discourage your communication (general comments from question 1)?
· Comfortable giving my opinion in a relaxed environment
· When teacher pushes you to do your best
· Classmates don’t judge
· Ex-immersion students speak last on discussion
· Patient people help
· Family environment encourages everyone to be part of the class
· Not pressured to speak but encouraged
· Fun classroom makes it easy to communicate
· Bullying interferes with communication
[You can download a summary of Lisa’s survey results here].
For more information, contact Lisa at email@example.com
Taryn takes us through her two year design journey in which she experimented with classroom design to see its effects on students and their learning.
Taryn Braithwaite teaches grade 4/5 at Castle Park Elementary. Below is an article she wrote for Occupational Therapist, Lynda Swain.
The design of our classroom this year came about from my previous year students asking for a type of space that was missing within our classroom. My class last year was one of those rare gems that comes along every ten years or so. Their capacity to work together and collaborate never ceased to amaze me. While working through various types of projects they were always asking for different spaces to work and we constantly found ourselves moving furniture and laying down bits of carpet to get comfortable together on the floor.
It was at this time that I started to think more about the classroom environment and wonder how I could create these spaces naturally within my room. In weekly class meetings we started to talk about our need for these spaces and ways to create them. We came to the conclusion that we needed more space for students to work naturally and comfortably together and that we were going to have to get rid of some furniture to do it.
At the time I was also working with Holly Stibbs, one of our intermediate LSTs. I began to voice some of my questions and wonderings of how I might go about making changes within my room, and she connected me with Greg Miyanaga, who you might recognize as curator of the Bright Ideas Gallery through my43.
A visit to Greg's classroom made me see the possibilities that could be had within 4 walls. He put me on to the book The Third Teacher-- and agreed to come and see my classroom to make some suggestions. After a visit and sharing some ideas that matched the philosophy of what I was hoping to achieve within the classroom I was able to take the ideas back to my own room. In further discussions with my class they were able to give ideas of what the classroom could look like and helped me brainstorm the materials that they thought we would need in the classroom to make it work. The re-designing of the classroom would take a summer and a lot of time on Craig's List to transform.
Over the course of the summer I set up the classroom with the suggestions of my last year’s class, and Greg Miyanaga’s voice in my ear. We needed a "campfire area*" - a place to all come together and talk in a comfortable and trusting environment, "water cooler areas*", where students could come together in small groups to collaborate on various projects, and "cave*" areas where students could work on their own when they needed the quiet and solitude. As I began to place furniture I also knew that for my new students to accept and respect their new space they would have to have a hand in the design of it.
[*I took these from James Clarke/Isis’ Learning Journeys who adapted them from David Thornberg – gm]
September was an exciting time for me as well as my students- this was very new for all of us and we were finding our way together. Our most powerful moments came from our morning meetings in our “campfire area”. From our checking in on the mood meter, connecting with each other, to our mindful breathing, our mornings are a time of peacefulness and content. It is the best time to talk about what is working in our space and discuss changes that need to be made.
Since the beginning of the year these discussions have caused our room to morph many times and I have noticed that the way students use it has also changed. Initially many students preferred to be in chairs around tables and needed the structure of defined areas. Now I notice that most students gravitate to a lower position, laying on the floor or working from their knees. These changes in our comfort levels have necessitated changes in the configuration of our room. Much furniture has come and gone over the past few months and I imagine it will continue to do so.
The biggest change for me in the feel and mood of the classroom comes from the lighting. We no longer use overhead lights and instead use natural light from the windows as well as lamps and hanging lights. The softening of the light changes the way I feel in the room, and is the most common remark I get from the students as well as strangers that walk into our space. “The soft light makes us calm, comfortable and more ready to work.”
I am enjoying another amazing group of kids this year, and I do believe that part is due to the space that we have created together. By talking to and trusting one another we have designed a room that has a space to meet all the different learning styles and needs. Dialogue is the key to students expressing what is and is not working for them in terms of our learning environment. By being flexible and changing with the needs of the whole, our classroom design will continue to change and develop along with the students in it.
For more information, please contact Taryn: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephanie explores elements of Reggio Emilia in a “regular” grade 1/2 class.
Walk into Stephanie Krgovich’s classroom at Moody Elementary and you might have to double check where you are. At first, you might think you have teleported to the Reggio-inspired school at Meadowbrook or maybe one of the new Kindergarten classes. But then you realize you are in a regular grade 1/2 class. Okay, maybe not so regular because it just feels different.
Only in her second year of teaching and the first year she has had a class all of her own, I wondered where Stephanie received her training to do all of this. I was astonished to find out she did her practicums in a primary class at Glen Elementary and a grade 11 all-boys class in China. Stephanie explains that she does what she thinks is right for her students and what fits her philosophy of education. She is also supported from learning groups such as Outdoor Play Learning Team and the Documentation Focus Group.
Neutral and Natural
Like Reggio, Stephanie uses a lot of neutral tones and brings natural elements into her class. She loves nature and there are lots of live plants throughout the room. The class was studying plants anyway and it is fun to grow things with kids. Stephanie used to have a lot of bright colours, but after discussing the room with her students, they wanted more neutral colours. The soft tones definitely add to the calm atmosphere of the space and tie in well with the natural wood elements in the classroom.
Places to Wonder, Explore, and Learn
Though the room is basically a big rectangular box with a cloakroom area, Stephanie has created a lot of different learning spaces within the classroom. There are carpeted areas for play, and for large and small group interaction. Using a canopy and draperies, she has created gathering places for partners to get together. Stephanie explains how the space is flexible, and how it changes depending on the needs of the students or the activity. She says it looks very different when the class is working on big projects, and the class has a lot of say about what stays, what goes, and what comes in.
Places to Share, Display, and Celebrate Learning
The one long shelf by the windows is like a museum. The boys were eager to show me their Lego projects that were proudly on display.
Even Stephanie’s classroom door was used for display. A couple of strings with clothes pegs makes for a quick and efficient display. Currently, there were pictures of the students in action. When the door is closed or when the students are lined up, they can look at pictures of themselves. When the door is open, the pictures are on display for the school.
Naturally, the hallway bulletin boards proudly display students work or pictures with captions describing the learning going on.
The floor displays a hospital project the students fashioned out of recycled styrofoam.
A couple of low tables show students’ learning throughout the year. Stephanie pulls together the documentation she has done with her students and binds it into floor books that can be enjoyed all year and shared with parents. You can see what the students thinking at that given time, and how they have progressed when you look at books from different parts of the year.
To inform parents about what all of this documentation means, Stephanie posts articles about documentation for visitors to read so they can understand the what the value and what the processes are. Her displays are more than displays. They celebrate and educate.
Stephanie is a prime example of how the space fits the philosophy. What she values and her method of teaching are reflected in every aspect of her classroom.
For more information, please contact Stephanie: email@example.com
A photo essay of some other learning environments I thought you would find interesting.
(Click to enlarge photos).
Birchland indoor and outdoor spaces
Jennifer Whiffin’s walls and spaces
Bob Ennenberg’s loft
Reggio at Meadowbrook
The new James Park
Hazel Trembath front foyer
Lauren’s classroom and Shane Ford’s Community Hub at Maillard
For more information about any of these sites, please contact me, Greg Miyanaga at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sean describes the strategies, challenges and successes of running a Bring Your Own Technology classroom.
Sean Robinson has been trying a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) with his class at Citadel middle. The idea is that students use their own familiar devices to accomplish school tasks. They have iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads, an Android tablet, and a Surface Pro. Sean is able to use a few iPads available at Citadel for students who do not bring their own devices.
With his multiplatform class, he will give students an assignment, such as create a mind map using an app of their choice. The assignment becomes multidimensional as students look for apps for their particular device that might be able to do the task, evaluate and choose an app, and then carry out the task showing their understanding of the content or concept.
Sean will often use a video adapter to show the chosen apps from the class’s handhelds on the projector. He wants students to use their devices in ways that enable their learning. Sharing apps creates this seamless flow of learning where students can teach each other, and justify or be critical of the choices they make.
Here are some of ways, Sean is using handheld devices in his classroom.
- creating quick video segments
- taking and editing pictures
- taking notes
- managing schedules
- reading ebooks
- using QR codes
- holding online discussions
- and of course...web browsing
Sean showed me the way he uses online discussions using todaysmeet to enhance learning. Using a QR code, students log on and can carry an online backchat. So while Sean is doing a lesson, he also projects on the screen the feed of the backchannel that is happening while students talk about what they are learning. This affords a lot of positive learning features:
- Sean can see what his students are talking about.
- Shy kids can still participate without having to talk in front of the whole class.
- Impatient kids can ask questions and make comments without having to raise their hands and get picked.
- Sean can also look back after class and see patterns of participation.
Sean has been investigating using handheld devices in education for over a decade, dating back to his Handspring. He is happy that the technology is in a place where it can work more seamlessly in a classroom environment.
Sean admits there have been lots of hurdles and challenges to running a multiplatform BYOT classroom [from his blog]:
BYOT is not all pretty. You'll be inputting wifi passwords, answering endless questions about apps you've never used, and giving students a little more ability to be out of your control. A realistic view of what is coming your way is paramount. And if you really believe in what you are doing, you'll be able to work through the difficulties.
One of the fears of running a BYOT classroom is the online distractions. Sean was worried about them, but is surprised that they have not really been part of his experience. As he wanders around looking over his students’ shoulders, he has not seen a lot of off-task activity using the handhelds. The students seem really engaged in what they are doing. Perhaps it is because Sean includes his students in on the journey and the process.
Both his students and Sean love the fact the learning is reciprocal: the students and the teacher are learning alongside and from each other. Sean has learned from his students about sites and apps he had never heard of before. (“They have so much to teach me,” he says). And he provides his students with rich learning opportunities as he guides them through the process.
For more information, contact Sean at email@example.com
or visit his blog at http://seanrtech.blogspot.ca
As part of his Science, Bob teaches his students about boat design. He takes his class from foundational discussions and experiments about what floats to working designs that students can actually ride across a pool.
So the question is: How do you go from
Bob Ennenberg teaches grade 3/4 French Immersion at Porter Street Elementary. He walks his students through the process. He starts with the concept of float or sink. Students take things from their desks or from the classroom and predict whether they will sink or float. The students form hypotheses about why things float. At first, they hypothesize that heavy things sink and light things float. That is until they see a light paper clip sink and a heavy piece of wood float. Students readjust their hypotheses based on what they observe and from their discussions.
Further along the process, Bob breaks his class into groups of 4. The design teams are signified by their plasticine colours, and each team is given the same amount of plasticine.
Bob challenges the teams with design tasks using their plasticine such as which kind of shapes float? Or which boat designs will hold the most marbles before sinking or collapsing? (So far, 11 marbles is the record).
Throughout the design process, students discuss what they have done and compare boats within each group or with rest of the class. Students look at each other’s boats and make their own decisions.
Students continue to design and prototype using different materials (including masking tape, tag, and overhead film). Bob really emphasizes the (French) vocabulary to go along with the Science concepts: flottabilité (buoyancy), stabilité (stability), densité(density), etc.
Students start to develop their final design by creating an architectural plan in two dimensions with top and side views. They create a net (développement) and draw where the cuts will be.
The big project is creating a child-sized working model. They take their 2-D group design and transfer it to coroplast which is like a corrugated plastic sheet. The sheets are large, 4 x 8 feet (120 cm by 240 cm), and Bob enlists parents to help by cutting out the design with a utility knife. The teams bind each design together with duct tape. The finished products end up being about 6 feet or 180 cm long.
Then, the really fun part!
The class takes their full-scale vessels to Spani pool to test them.
Bob is proud of his 100% success rate. Every boat has floated. In fact, some of the students’ boats can hold up to 3 kids (floating!). The class plays canoe soccer using kayak paddles borrowed from Gleneagle.
Students are engaged by the project (and the parents get into it also). When kids arrive in Bob’s class in September, they often ask if they are going to do the boat project. Bob got the idea about boat design from an adult-created kayak design contest using cardboard. You can see how Bob scaffolded the process for his students.
For more information, please contact Bob: firstname.lastname@example.org
Denise teaches Fashion Merchandising within her Textiles course at Charles Best. She wants her students to think about the repercussions of how and why clothes are made.
Over the summer, Denise read the book Overdressed about the constant consumption of clothing. The book got her thinking about the conditions under which our clothing is made. Consumers want clothing that is made quickly so they can have it right away, and they want it as cheap as possible, but clothing is quick and cheap for specific reasons. Costs have risen sharply overall, and yet the average price of clothing has dropped 60% which Denise points out, can only come out of cutting labour costs (hence the current situation of clothing manufacture in Bangladesh).
Clothing seems to have a life cycle. It is created and used, but then what? Denise also wants her students to consider is where clothes go after we stop using them. She says that only 20% of clothing that is donated to charity organizations like the Salvation Army gets sold, just because of the volume of clothing they receive. Some retailers have incentives for donating clothing, and consumers receive a coupon for a discount at such retailers. Denise wants her students to think critically about such offers:
- Is this offer a good thing?
- Could I and would I have donated without the incentive?
- Does this offer encourage me to recycle or buy more clothing?
Students think about how clothing can be recycled in a fashion forward way. One task that Denise has assigned in the past is the Fashion Under $5 challenge. Students create fashion without spending more than $5 total. One student repurposed some jeans she had and a dog bed cover to make an attractive hoodie vest. She spent the $5 on the buttons and drawstring.
Another student made a skirt from a shirt she no longer wore.
Here is a vest from some recycled jeans.
Denise teaches students about body types and what kind of person would fit particular pieces of clothing. One of the negative sides of fashion is the unrealistic standards set by the industry. Sizes are getting smaller, down to 00, and yet bodies are getting larger, so what would have been a size 5 previously may now be a 2 or a 3. The trend in “ideal body” types is for there to be a gap so that a woman’s thighs do not touch. Denise explains to her students that different body types are not flaws, but it is the job of the designer to present people and their bodies in the best way possible. Denise gets her Textiles students to think about the social and psychological ramifications that such fashion concepts create.
Another aspect of fashion retailing that Denise teaches is how stores are designed to get consumers to buy clothes. Sometimes she shows stores floor plans or even takes students to retail spaces to get them to see how stores use such things as colour, space, and seasons to promote different types of clothing to different types of consumers.
Denise wants to elevate Home Economics above the perception that it is just a “fluffy” course. Fashion affects all of us because we all have to wear clothing. Now with the media attention on how and where clothing is manufactured, it is apparent that nothing ever comes cheaply; we will pay socially, economically, psychologically, and environmentally. The decisions we make about how we buy and how often we buy have a ripple effect.
These are some of the overriding themes in Denise’s Textiles course. She does not want her students to stop designing or appreciating clothing, but she wants to refocus how and why her students design or purchase clothing.
For more information, please contact Denise at: email@example.com
Nichole explains how she teaches economics using this intriguing simulation of an economic ecosystem.
Paying rent on your desk? Advertising your services for money? Becoming an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, or a homeless person? Balancing your budget and managing your credit cards? This sounds more like real life than a middle school class, but these are just some of the things that students learn in Nichole Van Sickle’s grade 6/7 Health and Career Education (HACE) class at Maple Creek.
Originally, Nichole got the idea from reading Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. She adapted a lot of his structures and then created her own as she went along. Now, she says, it just flows from one thing to another. Students have different occupations for which they earn francs (the classroom currency in this French Immersion class) in payment. Jobs include bankers, custodians, homework monitors, etc. Students completed and submitted resumes, and were interviewed for each position. Different positions earn different salaries.
The students’ desks represent apartments from the neighbourhoods near or around Paris, and different neighbourhoods are more expensive than others. Versailles is the most expensive neighbourhood, so consequently the rent on the desk/apartment is the highest. Curiously, the most unsavoury and least expensive neighbourhood is Notre Dame which is beside the teacher’s desk! C’est domage!
The top of a student’s desk showing her home
One of the neighbourhoods
Instead of renting, some students were able to save and buy their apartment, now making it a condominium, which saved those students from having to pay rent. After buying their own condo, savvy students realized they could buy other students’ desks, allowing them to collect rent from their fellow classmates.
Students make a monthly budget and they keep track of the flow of cash in and out.
Examples of budget sheets
Bank ledger examples, detailing transactions in and out
Nichole even has credit cards which she uses from an electronic Monopoly game. Students go through an application and are given a card on which they can make classroom purchases. They rectify the account at budgeting time, and are charged 21% in interest if they have outstanding balances (but no one has had to do so yet, says Nichole). Students learned to write cheques too.
Credit card (from the Bank of Van Sickle) and credit card machine for electronic transactions.
Along with the pay from their salaries, they can also earn bonuses for exceeding expectations and doing optional tasks, such as joining clubs. There are fines too (e.g. for overdue library books, arriving late, not doing their jobs properly, lying, etc.).
One student did not manage his money well and became homeless. He lost his desk and had to sit on the floor. It bothered him so much that he brought in his guitar and began busking in the hallways, earning enough classroom francs to get his desk back.
Like the real estate entrepreneurs who are landlords to other students, there are other entrepreneurs too. Students advertised their jobs and services on a community board. (See below). A candy company where a student sold candy (which she bought with her home allowance) made big classroom francs.
And what are the students doing with all of this money? Here are some examples:
- Some students are saving it.
- Some are spending it at auctions.
- They spend their money on expenses and utilities such as: water (going for a drink during class), sewage (going to the bathroom during class), entertainment (using their iPods during work time), etc.
- One of the bonus items students could buy from Nichole was an exercise ball. One student bought it, and instead of sitting on it himself, rented it out to other students for profit.
- Some students are philanthropists. The girl who made a fortune renting our her condos and selling candy often donates money to the poorest citizens in the class.
- Another curiosity was when students from other classes started posting their own services on the community board. Nichole thought that was really odd considering the classroom francs were unusable outside of her classroom. But then she found out the students from other classes were using the francs to buy candy from the candy mogul or pancakes from Nichole’s Friday pancake breakfast. And others were giving their francs to friends in her class.
The most important part of the whole system is giving students a reason to spend their money so that they actually see it as having value. There's a whole list of fun things that students can buy with their money, as well as some not-so-fun things that they are often required to buy…
One of the things I've really appreciated about the program is the way that it's managed to encourage students to get more involved in the school community. Students can earn cash for participating in school clubs, etc. One of my Grade 6 students last year wasn't involved in anything. This year that same student was motivated to earn more money so she became involved in every club she possibly could. She has even signed up for our school's Sun Run club to run this Sunday.
This was the first year Nichole taught HACE in this way. In following the natural flow of the simulations, she has had to be flexible and has met many unexpected challenges and opportunities. She created the forms, T-4s, applications, ledgers and tickets on her own, so it has been time consuming, but worth it. She says she will teach economics this way again, and if she is able to keep the grade 6s from this year for next year, she will expand with other elements such as cover letters and investments.
For more information, please contact Nichole at firstname.lastname@example.org
Elspeth has developed a unique format for collaboration, professional development, and deep learning conversations. The Liquid Network is a structure to support starting, protecting, and spreading innovation.
What happens when you combine the format of Speed Dating with the context of educational professional development? Liquid Networks!
Learning Innovations Coordinator, Elspeth Anjos took the feeling of a philosopher’s café and added educational innovations, but keeps the conversations focused by using the format of Speed Dating. Following some of the ideas from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, this is an initiative intended to create a room full of educational ideas, all bouncing around, so that there is an increased likelihood that two (or more) ideas that belong together will find each other!
Elspeth has been using the Liquid Networks framework to get the ideas circulating around the room. It works like this:
- Elspeth invites teachers who are trying out cool new things to improve learning.
- Everyone attending is asked to share an idea they are thinking about, or one they are playing with, or one they have been trying for some time.
- Each person has 2-3 minutes to share the idea to a small group. If they don’t use their whole time, others will ask questions about the idea to complete the time. Participants do not need to prepare anything, but just think about one thing they are doing. No idea is too small or too big to be shared!
- After each person has done their 3 minute share with their group, there is time for informal chatting, questioning, investigating, and networking.
- Everyone is welcome to invite a friend who is trying out interesting ideas, but there are no spectators. Everyone participates!
One format accommodates many sizes of groups:
Small group Liquid Network in Lisa DiMarco’s room.
Medium-sized group, 20 to 50 people, using the Liquid Network format.
Large (hundreds!) Liquid Network at the Professional Learning Exchange.
Elspeth used this Liquid Network format last month at the Professional Learning Exchange where hundreds of educators shared their learning (from Learning Teams and as individuals). Participants liked the format because they could hear snippets of a number of great ideas in an informal setting, plus there was time after to have deeper conversations as well.
There have been so many interesting ideas shared at the Liquid Networks sessions, including:
- ways to engage students
- formative assessment techniques
- reciprocal teaching
- ways to meet daily physical education requirements
- green initiatives and looking at sustainability across the curriculum
- flexible classroom spaces
- incorporating technology
- inquiry and project-based learning
- the future of professional development and teacher inquiry, etc.
Here are some reflections about Liquid Networks from one of the participants, Lisa Marie DiMarco:
Liquid Networking provides me with an opportunity to meet with teachers who are continuously looking at new ways to make teaching more effective. Talking with these colleagues reinforces my thoughts on risk-taking in my classroom. I’m encouraged to try what might appear as an alternative style to teaching. What I understand by trying new ideas, is that it’s more like I’m on a journey to improve what I do rather than just looking at a lesson as having gone well or poorly. Even after many years of teaching and having tried many approaches, I am still searching to be more effective tomorrow in the classroom than I was today.
For more information, please contact Elspeth at Eanjos@sd43.bc.ca
Susan is one of the Early Childhood Educators at two of the 13 Strong Start centres in SD43. I had the opportunity to spend some time at the centre at Nestor Elementary. Susan is also the Strong Start Facilitator at Coquitlam River Elementary.
I met Susan Donald while we were both working on a district committee, and I was very intrigued when she talked to us about Strong Start. Strong Start is a provincial program for kids aged 0 to 5. There are usually 25-35 kids, accompanied by parents or grandparents. It is free of charge, and parents and caregivers bring their children to experience play-based learning in a school setting.
Some pictures of the Coquitlam River Strong Start centre
Parents are encouraged to play side by side with their children, so they learn together. Susan will come over and play with them, and she models inquiry by entering into a dialogue with the children. She asks probing, open questions so children can think and solve problems by themselves. Susan wants students to explore their curiosity and take safe risks.
For example, some children were playing with marble works, building towers and seeing how the marble made its way to bottom. Susan would make suggestions and give small nudges, but the children really took charge of their own learning after her casual introduction. After tapping into their curiosity, Susan would encourage students to make predictions, and the little scientists learned about structures and gravity by experimenting on their own.
Susan (right) interacting with K, A and a parent
Beyond the experimenting, students also learn interpersonal skills. It seemed natural for them to take turns dropping the marble. (In fact, while I was standing there observing, one of the five year-olds, K, tapped me and passed me the marble for my turn). And while they were playing with the marble works, a student arrived at the door. One of the marble boys, A, ran up and gave him a big hug and then led him to the marble game. The message was pretty clear: “We are happy to see you. You are welcome here. Now let’s go play and learn.”
Susan bases her interpersonal interactions with respect. She sets up clear expectations but really wants children to set their own limits, make their own decisions, and learn from the consequences. It takes a lot of modeling, and she gets children to engage critical thinking skills. For the 4 and 5 year- olds, Susan is looking to increase their independence, so she asks parents to step back a bit, so the children can learn and think for themselves. Like with the marble works, she will set up a provocation and gradually release the control to the children.
Susan’s method has elements of preconstruction and she brings out learning with conversations. Susan explains: “Kids can think in complex terms. We talk to kids openly and honestly, and try to give them the dialogue they are seeking.” I saw this thinking over and over:
- Before a child could leave some scraps on the ground, Susan casually asked her, “If I had some garbage, what would I do with it?” The child looked in her hand, saw the scraps, and then found the garbage can. Subtle prompts, instead of commands, encourage thinking and keep the child in control of learning.
- K made a playdoh pizza for the first time. Instead of telling him how to make it or saying how good it looked, Susan asked him, “What are you going to put on your pizza?” and “What are you going to need next?” My first thought was to tell him what to do or to tell him how good it looked, but neither statement would have pushed his thinking forward like Susan’s questions.
- A girl was painting on an easel. Instead of commenting on the picture, Susan asked, “What happens to the paint when you use the brush?” The 4 year-old responded that it spreads out when she pushes hard. Later, Susan asked what colours she would need next. The girl thought and then said she’d need yellow and red to make a sun.
It was all kind of magical the way it flowed. There is a nice sense of community at Strong Start, not just among the children, but the parents also. Several of the parents come to Strong Start every day with their children. Because they know the routines, they can help with materials and clean up. They also socialize and network as they drink coffee there together. There are pamphlets available that let parents know about services in the community.
The Strong Start sites are
Morning Programs: Cedar Drive, Central, Coquitlam River, Maillard, Moody, Riverview Park, Seaview, and Walton
Afternoon Programs: James Park, Meadowbrook, Mundy, Nestor, and Roy Stibbs
For more information: