Nature as a Catalyst for Learning

False Creek Community Garden beside Vancouver Seawall August 2018

There is no teacher like direct experience to engage the head and heart in the process of learning.  Data about students becoming less curious as they move through the school system, is heart-breaking.   It begs the question – Why?  When my children were preschoolers, the day revolved around playing in the backyard, discovering new backyards of playmates and going to the park.  On sunny days they were dressed in  clothing to protect sensitive skin and exposed bits were slathered with sunscreen.  Other days included sweaters or “muddy buddies” or rubber boots or snowsuits.  Bottom line, those preschoolers were going outside for an adventure filled with fresh air and exercise and access to the wonders of the natural world around them.  Awe, curiosity, delight and question upon question were the standard of the day.

Richard Louv (2006) raised the alarm about our students who are increasingly demonstrating a “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods.  The nature deficit is something being experienced on a much bigger scale.   Baby boomers are perhaps the last generation to be pushed out the door to “Go play outside and be home by dinner”.  Accessible hand-held technology, less green space and a heightened sense of fear fed by the media, keeps  adults as well as children inside with repercussions for engagement with nature, physical fitness and mental health.  Some doctors are writing park prescriptions to assist patients in dealing with depression, high blood pressure and stress.  Groups like Wild About Vancouver, have initiatives to encourage people of all ages to get outside and get active.  The Japanese started a movement called “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” in the 1980’s to improve physical and mental health.   It has taken the world by storm.  Regular “forest bathing” opportunities were scheduled in Vancouver’s 400 hectare rainforest, Stanley Park,  this summer and many other forested parks with around the world because going outdoors, looking, listening and breathing needs to be taught.

Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it.  The first time I saw a “Bear in the Area” sign in our local park when we moved to Coquitlam a suburb of Vancouver, I did the research to find out what I needed to know.   I went online, got books to share with my family, and talked to neighbours and friends and even the police officer sitting doing his notes in the parking lot.  Sailing, biking, skiing, snowboarding and  hiking, all come with required background knowledge and a skill set to keep yourself safe.  Every time we try something new, we learn.

The Child and Nature Alliance is astute in pointing out that the best way to get children outside, is to go with them.   My husband and I now have adult children.  However since their pre-school years, some of our best memories and best laughs are beach, park, biking and ski/snowboard adventures or the times just after, like reading Harry Potter aloud with hot chocolate by a fire.  Of course, developing relationship during outdoor activities necessitates putting the phone away and giving your family and friends your undivided attention.

Scott D. Sampson in his book, How To Raise A Wild Child:  The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (2015) identifies three pathways (EMU) as being most critical to promoting nature connection based on published studies in anthropology, psychology, education, neuroscience, and biology.

  1. Experiencefirst hand knowledge – experiential learning, multi-sensory opportunities, unstructured times, emotional connection
Black Bear searching for blueberries in Minnekhada Park, Port Coquitlam, B.C. Sept. 2018

“American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives” (Sampson, 2015, p.5).  As with the advent of any technology, humans benefit from the advanced development of their prefrontal cortex, and the thinking skills to decide how best to utilize the technology.  I am a huge fan of using phones, iPads and computers as tools to access information and communicate learning to a wider audience.  When I’m outdoors, I use the camera on my cell phone and my iPad to focus my attention and capture things I find interesting or beautiful or memorable or that I want to explore more later.  However just as I was instructed to turn off the television and go play outside as a little girl, parents and educators need to assume responsibility for the amount of screen time they allow for the children in their care to growth and lead healthy lives.

Germany is well-known developing a love of the outdoors.  I remember hiking with my family in Schliersee.  We were so proud of our stellar progress upwards on our hike, when we rounded the corner and not only had someone been there, but they had installed a bench.  Britain is also well known for a population that engages outdoors.  The British outdoor kindergarten movement is growing.  Italy is known for the Reggio Emilio discovery based school movement.  There is widespread recognition that children benefit from learning outdoors in the places they know well.  It is outdoors that they can access the materials, solve problems and feed the curiosity that form the basis for important learning.  This is the reality of place based learning.

The outdoor classroom does not close because it’s raining.  I have recently adopted the slogan I learned from Scott D. Sampson’s book, How To Raise a Wild Child (2015): “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”  The rain in Vancouver  does present different opportunities for learning. while extending our understanding and appreciation what is is to live in a temperate rainforest.  When my daughter was 6 years old, we were travelling in Venice.  The rain started to fall and everyone ran for shelter.  Our family was quite delighted with the break from the heat and we splashed puddles down the centre of the street.  My little Vancouverite looked up at me, smiled and said “Oh, Mommy.  It smells like home.”  This is what the poet W.D. Auden (1947) must have been referring to when he coined the word “topophilia” which translates to a “love of place” to describe the bonds people form with the places where they live.  When you care about the place you live, both your heart and mind are open to the lessons they provide.  This necessitates outside experiences.

  1. Mentoringside by side exploration, mentors listen more than they talk, observe closely, inspire curiosity, “pull” stories from their mentees by asking questions that push the limits of awareness and knowledge
Ms. Phoenix discovering the mysterious appearance of tomatoes in the Butterfly Garden     University Hill Elementary School, Vancouver, B.C. – September 2018

I have been fortunate to be a teacher in British Columbia.  Teaching in Abbotsford meant the farm was in close proximity to learn about mammals, and the smell of manure in the air impacted learning about food systems.  In Coquitlam, spawning salmon at the end of a playground provided input for learning about life cycles and perseverance.  My current school is located in the Pacific Spirit Park.  Teachers are able to take students into the forest to discover more about the “wood wide web” and The Hidden Life of Trees, to the beaver dam to learn about our history and science, and down the beach to investigate yet another habitat.  My previous school was not surrounded by untouched wilderness, but it was there that we were able to follow the newly released butterflies to discover one of the best butterfly gardens I have ever seen cultivated by a local resident with a green thumb.  The best weather forecasters were the students who had learned to go outside and use all of their senses to make observations.  Those students had well-developed background knowledge about clouds and could tell you about the best weather APPS.   In all of these school contexts, what makes the biggest difference to student learning is the skillful mentoring of educators.  The questions they ask, and the student questions they reflect back to the group, helps students to hone their observation skills and risk asking questions about the things that matter to them personally.  The innovators who have mirrored nature in their products have spent time outside studying, observing, hypothesizing and experimenting.

           3. Understandingponder and learn about big understandings before mastery of  discrete pieces of factual knowledge

When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who closed the curtains when anything particularly interesting was happening outside.  It could have been a first snowfall, a heavy downpour or the clouds dropping down to make the mountains nearly invisible.  Her intention was to eliminate distraction.  She was a conscientious teacher who was committed to our learning.  It was not an effective strategy for me.  All of my attention was directed to what was happening outside and why.  My imagination took me far away from the lessons of the day.   I would have a story worked out by the time recess and anxiously focused on the grand opening of the curtains.

Scott Sampson talks about using the power of learning from Indigenous culture that is grounded in nature and creation stories told from the perspective of animals, plants and landforms.  He uses the term “Going Coyote”  to reference using “the trickster coyote of Indigenous lore (creator with magical powers as a transformer, shape shifter, hiding in plain sight) to inspire caring and empathy for nature.  “The Coyote Club” at our school is grounded in active outdoor learning experiences that provide a model for respecting self, others and the environment.  It is embraced indoors and outdoors on a continuous basis.

By pre-school age, students have developed inquisitive minds and a skill set to find answers.  Children don’t need to be taught to ask questions.  They need to know that their questions matter.   They need to know that engaging in the world around them is what good learners do.  We want our children to continue to be inquisitive and identify the possibilities, to make observations, connection and ask new questions when they are outdoors as well as indoors at school.    Our challenge as educators is to redefine ways to feed the inquisitiveness of children coming into school while we broaden their opportunities to access information, to work collaboratively and to hone skills to find answers.  The outdoors provides not only an opportunity for physical activity but an opportunity for incredible cross curricular learning and mental health.  This is a place to observe and ask questions and learn through play.  To make connections with book learning.  To use technology to document and access new knowledge.  It is a place to be in awe and celebrate curiosity.

For ideas to engage children in nature activities, online information and lesson plans, please see:

How To Raise A Wild Child:  The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. by Scott D. Sampson (2015).

i love dirt – 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature by Jennifer Ward (2008)

Sharing Nature:  Nature Awareness Activities for All Ages by Joseph Bharat Cornell (2015)

The Nature Conservancy

The David Suzuki Foundation

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 Beyond Routine

I have never been a creature of habit.  When things get to be too predictable, I get an anxious feeling that life is passing me by.  Perhaps this is the reason that eduction has been such a good fit for me.  Change and new learning are always afoot!  Meeting new people, changing grade levels, attending professional development and navigating through the politics of the time provide food for thought and a landscape to navigate that takes all of my personal and professional resources.  The quest for me is to maintain a larger perspective of what really matters and not get sucked into the vortex of ever increasing demands.


I work hard and play hard.  A good friend of mine use to marvel that one hot tub after I arrived at “The Secret Garden”, her B&B on Bowen Island, and I had geared down from “10” to a happy “2”.   This Spring Break, my play opportunity, aka Spring Break, has taken me to Vietnam for a much anticipated visit with my darling daughter.  We have escaped the humidity of Hanoi and are now settled in a little piece of tropical paradise in Phu Quoc.  One day on our secluded little beach with hammocks, a few kayaks for our use and a good book and I have officially geared down to a “2”.  I suspect the relaxation speed corresponds directly with the lush greenery surrounding us.  All that O2!  Although I must confess I pulled my hammock away from those green coconuts overhead on the beach with a remaining vestige of control.


My daughter, Larkyn, and her boyfriend, Justin, are both teaching in Vietnam at ILA, International Language Academy.  It has a carefully delineated program to ensure standardization in English language instruction in institutions around the world.  Yesterday Justin started to tell me about this new thing, PBL, that was being introduced into the courses with the higher level students.   The Project Based Learning is technology based and facilitates collaboration, communication and problem solving between students.  Students for the first time have the power to choose interest areas to pursue and develop vocabulary around those interests.

I taught practicing teachers at the Bureau of Education in Fuyang for two summer sessions in 2008 and 2009.  I worked with four other educators from Coquitlam, British Columbia, teaching educators English and ways to engage students in learning.  It was an amazing opportunity for personal learning.  I gained a much better understanding of my students from China and the challenges facing the educators in China trying to implement practices that were bringing such strong results in the Western World.  Rote learning was not just a philosophical position but a way to manage behaviour  and safety in classes of 50 or more students.  Teaching students how to write tests determined their ability to further their education, access opportunities and care for family.

Project based learning is an exciting possibility for implementing change in school systems.  My principal, Rosa Fazio, is off to China this Spring Break, to inspire educators with the ways teachers are using technology and student interest to inspire profound learning at the Kindergarten to Grade 8 level at Norma Rose Point.  There is part of me that is excited to go back to school after break to discuss what we have learned over the holidays.  Yes, I’m sitting with my coffee in  a little piece of paradise feeling very grateful to be an educator.

 

 

 

Holiday Reading Extravaganza

The holiday season invites a celebration.  Just before holidays, Grade 3 – 7 students at Tecumseh headed to the gym for the 3rd Reading Extravaganza of the year.  Kids were excited and clutching books in their hands.  Some of the books were from classroom collections.  Some were from the library.  Some books were from home and being brought to trade for some new books to add to personal libraries at home.  The common element was that all of the kids were VERY excited about going to the gym to read for an hour.  It begs the question, what are the things that have allowed the act of reading to generate such excitement?  There is no real magic in creating readers.

  1.  Create opportunities for positive memories of reading.
  2. Teach the skills for children to decode and understand text.
  3. Provide access to engaging fiction and non-fiction text to pique interest.

Students come to school with a variety of experiences with text.  Fortunately sharing stories with children has become a regular part of primary classrooms and many intermediate classrooms.  It has become a way to get to know students  and stimulate curiosity, as well as to teach reading comprehension skills.  In many schools such as ours, we have programs such as One To One Readers, which allow children to develop emergent skills and relationships with volunteers who are there because they love books and the kids they are working with.  Reading becomes an enjoyable venture where you can learn about things or characters that you care about and share a laugh or two.

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Children are also encouraged to read throughout the school for a variety of purposes and in a variety of spaces.  The lawn chairs by the Christmas tree were much sought after this season as a place to read.  At the Reading Extravaganza, gymnastics and yoga mats were pulled out and all children carefully removed their shoes before getting cozy on the mats. Benches pulled into shapes, lawn chairs and blankets were equally captivating spaces to read.

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With 350 students reading in a gym, it may surprise you that students actually engaged in reading.  We did have some conversation about what reading behaviours look like.  There was some good discussion around the differences of what people want when they read.  The desire to share a good part or laugh out loud, means that the environment is not going to be silent.  However we also discussed how we could be respectful to those readers not wanting to be interrupted.

The trade a book opportunity happened first with students surrendering the books they wanted to trade for popsicle sticks and then trading in their popsicle books for new books. Some children brought books to give away too.  I was also giving away many of the bookmarks and freebies from conferences and much of my classroom collection due to my impending move to another school.  Students demonstrating the reading behaviours we discussed were given popsicle sticks by the adults in the room to go pick a book or other reading item.   Most of our students have learned to self select books that interest them, but the students shopping for selections helped each other with favorite picks.  In some cases, students were choosing books they wanted to give to siblings or cousins or friends for Christmas.img_0319

As a reader and an educator, my heart warms to see kids engaged and enjoying reading. Give them books and opportunities to read and they will come and have fun!

 

 

Fear Not! Lessons from Astronaut Chris Hadfield

  • Artwork by Lyon – Gr. 3
  • Reason2Ponder:  This featured weekly blog post is intended to consider some of the big questions and possibilities that exist in education and learning in the 21st Century

Reason2Ponder #1 – Fear Not!  Lessons from Chris Hadfield

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I remember as a very little girl, seeing the television screen filled with the pictures of the first moon walk.  Seemingly endless footage of not a lot happening.  Yet, for many years, Neil Armstrong was THE astronaut.  In later years, I was somewhat disappointed that he couldn’t have reference his giant step for everyone (not just man), but still he was a key player doing something that mattered.  His place was not questioned until Commander Chris Hadfield brought space into the classroom.  Here was a man that could validate the dreams of a 9 year old can come true.  He was also able to recognize the significance of engaging adults and children alike while he was in space via twitter, video, and music to communicate and inspire.

It is no wonder that educators flocked to hear him speak in Vancouver, B.C. in February at the FISA BC Conference 2016.  Although I was only able to participate via Twitter @CarrieFroese @Cmdr-Hadfield, one of the TedTalks 2014 links was particularly inspiring:  Chris Hadfield – What I learned about fear when I went blind in space.  He explores the notion of looking at the difference between perceived fear and actual danger.  One of the things that he emphasized in his talk was the amount of time spent on practicing for the possibilities that could unfold in space.  He discusses our ability to change our primal fear and come out with a set of experiences and a level of inspiration not otherwise possible. This is what allowed him to proceed calmly even when he lost sight in both eyes when he was outside of the spacecraft.  As an educator in the midst of some major changes in the way we do school, it is not difficult to identify much of the fear and trepidation moving forward with the redesigned curriculum.  However the take-away from Chris is that we have a huge amount of experience as learners and working with children and curriculum.  There is often fear in the midst of change.  However our background knowledge, broad range of experience, extensive research and our collaborative skills put us in good stead to forge the path so our students are well equipped with the ability to navigate successfully through the demands and realities of life in the 21st century.

Chris Hadfield finishes using the music and lyrics of David Bowie to inspire us to take our own self perception to a new level.  Fear not, my fellow educators.  We are ready to navigate successfully on our present course.

Making iMovie Magic

Thanks to SD38 and their SummerTech Institute at Westwind Elementary School, I’m inspired and ready to start to another year of tech learning with Tecumseh students.  In my role as Vice Principal, I am enrolling a Grade 3 class and teaching computer skills to Grade 5-7 students this year.  Last year I dipped my toe into using iMovie on the iPad with students. Students in Grade 3 and 4 had no difficulty learning to take and edit photos, plan video clips, insert audio clips, airdrop and use templates to make their movies more effective.  We made movies for a variety of purposes:

  • A way of showcasing Remembrance Day art in the school to the Last Post

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  • Highlighting some of the items not always easy to share during student led conferences such as friends in class,

gymnastics skills and presenting practised, low pressure oral readings of text to parents.

  • Event sharing including student interviews about using BookCreator for content area projects and presenting at the                          Celebration of Learning

Video Jedi, Dylan, from the Apple store did a great session on making iMovies in Richmond last week.  3 steps to make a movie

1.  Import

2.  Create

3.  Share

Sounds pretty basic.  I do find the process is easier on the iPad than on the computer but that could be because I’m more familiar with it.  Dylan’s best advice was to BE ORGANIZED.  The events folder is a good idea to hold content such as pictures, videos, voice-overs and other audio clips.  The entire Apple team was very helpful and invaluable for their trouble shooting.

A fantastic online discovery has been the iMovie Trailer Planners.  It provides the structure to help students storyboard their movies with fillable PDF’s for all 14 trailer templates that are included in iMovie for iPad, iPhone and the iPod touch.  The planning sheet helps students to decide the appropriate trailer for the content and mood of the material being shared.  The results are very professional looking and the limited amount of text requires careful selection of images.  The sample of The Giver demonstrates how effectively the trailers can be used to demonstrate understanding of texts.  Certainly a more engaging project than the book reports that I did in school.  Virginia Bowden used the narrative trailer to have her gifted students to do autobiographies last year.  Even the 4th graders came up with impressive results.

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I am looking forward to sharing this material with VSB Teacher Librarians at their Kick-off/ Orientation / Speed Geeking event.  It’s exciting that so many teacher librarians in the Vancouver School Board are enthusiastic about using technology to engage Kindergarten to Grade 12 students.  I’m also excited about continuing the learning and discovery of possibilities with students and colleagues this year.