Environment Exploration: Evergreen Brick Works

Yesterday, along with one of my best friends and our children, we went to Evergreen Brick Works.  Evergreen Brick Works prides itself as being, “A community environmental centre that inspires and equips visitors to live, work and play more sustainably.”  Located off of the DVP on Bayview Avenue, the organization has transformed heritage buildings into an amazing centre of urban sustainability.  The space is a magical one for people of all ages.

While the purpose of our visit was for our children to play, I was also there to consider components of this environment.  It is difficult to fully describe the area, as it is sprawling with natural exploration space, gardens, carefully devised children’s play areas, and even kilns where bricks were historically made.

It has been brought to my attention that Evergreen has been responsible for a number of outdoor natural play spaces within our school board (however, not at the school at which I am currently employed.)  I would like to share my observations, not only of the outdoor space, but of how I saw our children interact in that outdoor space, both with nature, each other, and themselves.  I see a number of connections to the learning environment in a classroom.

There exists a number studies that suggest that a child’s interaction with nature is beneficial in a number of ways.  In “The Third Teacher,” there exists an entire section devoted to sustainability and natural surroundings, and the significance of this on modern education.  Studies included in this text supporting this philosophy are highlighted with quotes and statistics, such as “Creating places where children can be immersed in the natural world for days or weeks affords learning opportunities that can’t be replicated in the concrete jungle.  David Suzuki, who is featured in the book, claims that by being in nature “The most important lesson children learn is that there isn’t the environment out there and me in here.  The environment is all around us; it’s in us.”  I believe that this speaks volumes about how important it is for students be be active learners, engaged in the environment around them.  According to the book, this should not only be an awareness, but an urgency to create more schools that are sustainable.  What better way to emphasize this point, then to have children connect with what they need to protect?

When you first arrive at Evergreen Brick Works, you notice the interaction between the natural and human made. The living things are ever present, but there are also buildings filled with character, and the two appear to be interconnected.  See below:


Near the front entrance, there is a “Toddler’s Garden.”  It is quite simplistic in its entirety- small stumps arranged in a circle, simple pathways and colourful small chairs.  Again, there is a partnership between the chairs and their human made design with bright colours, and the tranquility of the areas with sand and natural greenery.

I remember thinking initially that I thought my son would be bored.  “How is this a garden?” I thought to myself.  Then, this really wonderful thing happened.  The three years olds began to play.  They played with their surroundings, and they played with each other.  I watched them climb, play and build in the sand, and chase each other through pathways.  I realized I was watching this thing I had been reading about- that natural play spaces allow for imagination.  There were no pieces of that environment that told them how to play.  They decided how they were going to use that space. It was perfect.

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I am thinking about this in connection with the classroom environment, and I wonder how much of the classroom environment tells students how they must use the space.

Is there a way to create a classroom space that remains open-ended and flexible for students?

Is there a way to create a space that changes with the learning?

How can nature be effectively incorporate in their daily life?  (I tried having plants in my classroom last year, and with limited natural light, it didn’t go as well as I might have hoped…)

Should students create a “classroom” outside as well as indoors?

As we continued to walk around the grounds, the kids watched for snapping turtles and picked up rocks.  When the rain approached, the adults decided it would be best to head indoors.  The kids tried to catch raindrops on their tongues and didn’t seem phased by the rain at all.  Another distinct difference in our mindsets between adulthood and childhood.

We wandered through the spaces that were once kilns, and again I wondered if my very active three year old would ask to go home.  I wasn’t sure there was enough for him to see.  Again, the kids taught me how wrong I was.  The kiln area is one filled with artistic graffiti expression and building dimension.  The kids created their own game of chasing each other and running through the “tunnels” as they called them.  There was something brilliantly calm about the architecture.

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Another amazing part of this area was the creation of a “clubhouse” space.  Created by the “Junk Raiders” for their TV series on the Discovery channel, it was created using only salvaged junk and commitment to zero waste.  It included:

-scrap rebar and angle iron, sinks collected from roadside, scrap yards and demolition sites, cedar closet panelling from a demolished house, and LCD screen from an e-waste depot, salvaged bus doors and truck windows and ducts, fan, brick and window frames rescued from the very site they were being re-purposed:

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There are a few things a recognized from exploring this particular space:

  1. Sustainability is not nearly as complicated as we might think
  2. Kids feel comfortable and safe in an environment in which they feel they can “hide out”
  3. One person’s junk really is another person’s treasure

I will share below some additional moments of our day, but the biggest feeling I am left with from this experience is how important it is to include students in the creation of their environment.  I remembered how significant it is to give students credit before thinking that something isn’t “enough.”  I recognized that it is not for me as the teacher to tell kids how to do something, but rather to support them after they have decided what they are going to do.  I think that telling students how to learn, or how to represent their learning is like giving them specific playground equipment and telling them how to use it.  It doesn’t require thinking, and it won’t yield magical results.  In fact, it will most likely quash their ideas and make them conform.  But that’s not really what I want for my students.  I want them to think, plan, imagine and create.  I want them to be wrong and then figure out what didn’t work.  I want them to be children. I want them to have things in their learning environment that make them feel good. I want them to love where they learn.

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Throwing Out Grades

Recently, I’ve been reading about a new movement entitled, “Teachers Throwing out Grades.”  The philosophy behind this movement is that if you “Give a student a grade, the learning ends.  Give feedback, and you start a conversation.”  The movement has its own facebook group and twitter feed.

Through the investigation of this movement, I see a number of pros, but I am also left with a number of questions.  It seems as though students and parents alike are driven by the “how did I do?”  question.  Through the implementation of Growing Success, the Ministry of Education’s document for assessment, you can see shift in the emphasis for formative assessment, timely feedback and the concepts of “assessment for and as learning.”  While there is value in this pedagogical shift, there still exists a grading system; a series of levels.  These levels still indicate the amount of success a student has achieved in meeting curriculum expectations.

If we aren’t using grades for assessment, what exactly does that look like?  Where do students find their sense of achievement? How are we helping students to set and achieve goals?

Perhaps the first piece in this movement is to eliminate the emphasis on standardized tests.  For years, educators in both the Canadian and American education systems have expressed the lack of value to tests that are considered “standardized.”  One of my students brought in this poster to my class last year, and I promptly put it up on the wall.  I think it speaks beautifully to the fact that these types of tests are not true assessments of what each individual learner can do:

If we give students alternate ways, or better yet, allow them to choose how they would like to represent their learning or understanding, we give them a greater chance to be successful.  Yet what measure of success are we using to determine that? Do we still refer to anchor charts with success criteria, or teach students to focus on improvement?  Will knowing they improved be enough for students who have grown in an environment driven by grades or will they lose the initiative to work hard if there is no grade given on a final product?  How do we teach students to feel pride in their understanding as an accomplishment?

The other struggle I find with alternate assessment models, such as placing less emphasis on testing results, is the apparent disconnect between elementary, high school, and post-secondary learning.  While elementary education feels quite dynamic, with a focus on differentiated learning models and teachers trying new things, there seems to be a static standard model being practised in high schools (teach, take notes, regurgitate on test).  Furthermore, post secondary education seems to follow this model, so how are we preparing students for their future education?  Is teaching them to be critical thinkers and dynamic learners at the elementary level enough?

The same applies to the concept of a gradeless classroom in elementary.  If we “throw out grades” in elementary learning, where does that leave students when they get to high school; where high school grades are the catalyst for their choice in post-secondary schools?

While some believers in this movement present the concept using self-assessment based on a clear understanding of a learning outcome, I can’t help but feel that students will still want a standard “grade” to give themselves.  Furthermore, grades are required on the report card, so how do we teach students not to use the report card as a measure of their success?

According to a TTOG discussion earlier this year, here are the benefits to eliminating a grades based classroom:

  • Empower students to learn for the sake of learning, because they’re actually interested in knowing xyz.
  • Help students see learning as a road full of endless discoveries and possibilities.
  • Not to measure learning by a number but rather by skillset, abilities, critical thinking, and eventually the final product.
  • Help lessen school related stress and anxiety in many students.
  • Improve feedback given to the students.
  • Work on real-world tasks and projects.

While I can see the value to these benefits, I’m wondering how we get to a place where we are comfortable “learning for the sake of learning.”  How do we convince principals, parents or even the learners themselves that this could work?  How do we convince ourselves?

If You Let Me Play

When I was a kid, I had a poster with the above title up in my bedroom.  Thanks to accessibility of the internet, I was able to find it:

This poster came from Nike’s ad campaign to promote girls in sports.  As a young person, I thought that the poster was inspiring, so I put it up in my room.  I know think that this title is completely representative of the shift in education we are upon.  While this poster doesn’t directly connect to play in education, I have started to think about the significance of learning through play.

In the early years, there is a significant push for play-based learning. With the emergence of Full Day Kindergarten in Ontario, there has been a shift to promote learning through play as the most beneficial pedagogical approach to the kindergarten program.  While there has been much talk about the impact this has when students reach grade 1, and their preparation for the traditional model once they leave kindergarten, there seems to be limited conversation about the benefits of extending this pedagogy into grade one and beyond.

Through examinations of alternate learning models, such as Montessori, Waldorf or Reggio Emilia, one can begin to understand the benefit to an approach that focuses on the “whole child” and the development of that child for the betterment of society.  While slightly different in their idealisms, each type of learning model implies value to the independence of each child and fosters creativity and innovation, with a connection to nature.  I wonder, then, why we as educators do not see the value in extending play into the other primary, junior and intermediate grades.  What does “play” look like at these levels?

When I began my inquiry journey two years ago, I examined the model being implemented in full day kindergarten.  Everything about it seemed exciting!  I have heard many students talk about how much they loved their experiences in kindergarten, and how much they missed it- but why?  I have began to understand that what they actually miss is that model of “hands-on, student directed learning.”  They missed having time to “play.”

When I worked with my grade 3/4 class two years ago, my goal was to begin to implement an inquiry-based program.  Although I wasn’t entirely sure where that would take me, I did recognize that the needs of my students (not just educational needs, but emotional and interest-based needs) would need to drive my practice.  I began by considering the extension of my classroom.  Fortunately, the school I worked at had a beautiful creek and green space beside it.  Through an integrated inquiry around living things and the environment, we used this amazing landscape beside our school to learn.

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I remember pausing at one point in our exploration as the students were exploring the creek for living things and thinking, “This is it; this is what learning should feel like.”  It was one of my favourite moments as a teacher.  All of the students were engaged and excited about what they were doing.  I recognize now, that they were learning through play.

Play, I have begun to understand, looks different in primary and junior, but holds no less value to the learning process.  While not driven by data, I believe that the learning outcomes of this inquiry were far greater, with real world connection, then to simple teach at the front of the class.  I was no longer the instructor, I was the guide. 

This inquiry extended into the development of collaborative ecosystems in the classroom, that upon returning from French class one day, were threatened by development:

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The students created multimedia presentations for a mock city council meeting to prevent the destruction of their eco systems.  The skills they developed and applied included persuasive writing, technology, role play, collaboration and oral communication.  They were “pretending,” yet learning so many skills that were applicable to real life.

Another one of my favourite “play” moments with this class was during second term when we were working on a historical inquiry.  Again, as my first year implementing this type of model, and teaching two grades at once, I was never quite sure where exactly things would go.  The guiding questions presented to the students for this unit were:

How does the past influence the future?

How have things changed?

Who am I in relation to the past?

I was approached by an intermediate teacher in my school who had recently purchased a washing machine for his home.  I remember he said to me, “Hey, you do all kinds of weird stuff in here, could you use a washing machine box?”  Without hesitation, I told him I could. I had no idea what I would use it for, but I knew the kids would come up with something.

And so, I presented them with the box.  I asked them to brainstorm ways we could incorporate this large box into what we were learning.  I had a feeling they would think I was a bit crazy, but they bought in.  I feel like I have learned that as educators, we never give kids enough credit.  And, if we give them the room to think and grow, they will come up with the most brilliant things.

Here is what the students decided to transform the box into:

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They created a time machine!  I can’t tell you how much they loved painting, and creating.  The whole class was divided into teams- some creating the buttons, some painting, some developing the necessary antenna on top of the box.  It was one of the most inspiring examples of play I had seen at this grade level.  And yet, I see cardboard creations in kindergarten all of the time.

The creation of the “time machine” was a representation of their understanding of the guiding questions.  Through this play, they were telling me that they thoroughly understood the answers to the questions I had presented them with- and then some. The decisions that they made were actually more important than the final product.  If we listen to kids in their process, we can find more value so much than asking them what they have learned after the fact.  By being immersed in the process with them, it gave me greater insight into the thinking going on behind the scenes.  I believe play gives us that window into their thinking, much more than final product ever could.

Last year, when I taught grade five, I continued to develop an inquiry program based on student interest.  Some of the most exciting moments involved play- the creation of “Adanac” a make believe country modelled after Canada to study the Canadian government, playing in the snow to connect to mathematical learning, role playing the “Documentary Awards Gala” to determine which documentaries they watched were worthy of various awards and so much more.  I hope to continue to develop this type of learning environment this year.

I remembered that play (even with older children) isn’t taught, it is innate.  Children want to play.  Children need to play.  They will learn; they will amaze us- if we let them play.

The Teacher’s Desk: To desk, or not to desk?

As I continue my classroom transformation, I am reflective about the space (or lack thereof).  Situated in a portable classroom, my space is somewhat limited than perhaps a classroom based inside the school.

One of the things I have been thinking about lately has been getting rid of the “teacher’s desk.”  I recently read an article written by a grade 4/5 teacher who identified that the elimination of her desk created a parallel for what she was trying to do with her students.  If I have eliminated all desks in my classroom- then what does it say about the fact that the teacher still has their own desk?  Does it promote the type of hierarchy that I am trying to eliminate when building the classroom community?  And where will I keep all of those PILES of papers, photos, etc., that seem to grow out of control during the school year?

I have decided that, in order to keep in line with what I am trying to promote in my classroom, I will get rid of the teacher’s desk this year.  The truth is, I rarely sit at it, and I do believe it sends a message that the rest of the classroom is communal space, while the “teacher” or “head of the class” has their own space.  Beside my desk, I also have two large filing cabinets.  I haven’t decided whether I will keep one of those.  I am interested to see how getting rid of these unnecessary pieces of furniture will make more space in an already fairly small environment.

Here is what I am hoping will happen when I get rid of the teacher’s desk:

-the students will feel that I am a part of the classroom rather than the head of the classroom (although I will still be the lead learner)

-it will open up more space for collaborative or independent work

-the environment will be less cluttered (or at least the clutter will be tucked away!)

-I will personally feel more a part of my classroom community

Here are the questions I have about getting rid of the teacher’s desk:

-inevitably, there are forms to collect and things that get handed in- where will I keep these things?

-will eliminating my role as “head of class” diminish any parts of classroom management?

-what is the teacher’s role look like in this new type of learning environment?

-how will I use the new space that has been created?

-what will I do will everything that I keep in my desk?  Are all of those things necessary?

While it may seem over-reaching to presume that the simple removal of a desk could have an impact, I really think it will.  Right now, I am actually feeling a bit anxious about another level of “letting go” of traditional classroom standards that have always been a constant for me.  I’m wondering if this is how my students initially will feel at the start of entering a non-traditional classroom?  What is the short term impact of environmental change, and what can be done to reassure or rectify feelings of uneasiness?

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Reconsidering the Environment in a Classroom

  My book of choice this summer, as I continue to look at effective learning environments has been “The Third Teacher.”  When I began my inquiry journey, I began to reconsider what type of classroom environment I wanted to create.  I began by eliminating assigned seating and turning the desks in, so that they would no longer contain student belongings.  I used magazine files at the front of the room for students to house their belongings and created a carpeted meeting place, with comfortable chairs.  While this sounds simple enough, letting go of what I had been trained to do (keep children ordered, with carefully selected assigned seats) was a bit tricky at first.  What I began to observe was that many students opted not to work in a desk anyway.  The opportunity to sit in a comfortable chair, or work on the carpet, or even stand was overtaken by students’ routine of sitting in a desk to complete their work.

Last year, I extended this design by eliminating all of the desks in my class.  I purchased a number of wooden tables (from Kijiji) and used only tables in my classroom.  Since my budget was personal, I began to love the “finds” I could get offering used furniture from sites like Kijiji.  Not only had I eliminated assigned seating, I had created an environment that promoted collaboration.

As I move into the upcoming school year, I have a number of goals, regarding the learning environment:

-create a moveable classroom where furniture can take on different roles in different places

-have the students play an integral role in classroom design and set up

-incorporate nature into our classroom more

-continue to develop more places for collaboration

-consider the purpose and design of a “maker space” in the classroom

Yesterday, I visited one of my favourite treasure troves- The Restore.  There I found three incredible collapsable tables for $59.99 each, with an additional 20% off.  I had recently been investigating cost to purchase moveable furniture and each table I had looked at began at about $200.00.  I was able to get all three for less than $150.00!  They are now carefully stored in my garage to be brought in when I return to school.  Let the environment building adventure continue!