Blog, Forest School

Ottawa Forest & Nature School

For my final three-week placement in the Teacher Education program, I had the opportunity to work with the teachers and students at Forest and Nature School in Ottawa’s Greenbelt. This program is offered through the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada, which supports educators in developing play-based learning in nature as part of their practice, and also builds a youth nature leadership program. The Ottawa Forest and Nature School is located on NCC land (currently leased by the Wesley Clover Foundation) and was established in 2014 as an early childhood education option that connects students with nature.

This location offers various programs, including:

  • Half-Day Forest Preschool: for children aged 2.5 to 4, this program offers an early opportunity for kids to wonder, question and experience the marvels of the forest. Students improve their strength, coordination and self-confidence, and definitely develop grit as they adventure through the woods in all weather conditions.
  • Full Day Forest School: the full day program is for students aged 4-12 and allows for a deeper exploration into the mysteries of the paths, rocks, trees, and creatures at Forest School.
  • Parent and Child Nature Mornings: this is a two-hour drop-in option for parents and caregivers to connect with their children, the outdoors, and other like-minded parents and educators. It is an awesome opportunity for families to get a feel for Forest School, and many take advantage of these mornings as a fun way to get outside on a weekly basis!
  • OCDSB Partnership: the Ottawa Forest and Nature School has a partnership with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) to support public school students in discovering play-based learning outdoors once weekly for 6 consecutive weeks. Some of these school groups complete their 6-week experience at the Forest School site, while other Forest School staff travel to schools and bring a class to a nearby-nature location.
  • PD Days, Summer Camps: while I did not participate in these program offerings, the Forest School does offer programming for OCDSB PD Days for children aged 4 to 10 years old. You can also register your child for a week-long summer day camp at Forest School, although the wait list is already full for this summer!

While I got to experience many of these programs during my placement at Ottawa Forest School, every day was different and I feel like I only got a taste of everything that this type of learning has to offer! I would be keen to experience similar programming during other seasons (e.g. winter) in order to learn how to handle other challenges and mitigate risks. For example, some students had to really push themselves to deal with the wet, muddy conditions of spring- I would be interested to see how they would respond to a similar day outside in the dead of winter, when there is snow on the ground and frost on your eyelashes. Having said that, I felt so fortunate to be able to engage with the inspiring educators at Forest School and observe their philosophy of education in practice. It was a unique and thought-provoking experience that will influence my future practice as a teacher.

Blog, Forest School

Top Tips for Play-Based Learning in Nature

The best advice I got from a seasoned Forest School educator was to continually ask myself: what is the reason behind what I’m doing or saying? This is a pivotal question for teaching in general, as it forces us to reflect on our role as teachers. Learning when to step in and when to take a back seat is the essence of teaching, whether inside or outside of the classroom, and I know this will take time and experience to develop! However, I did learn a few key tips for facilitating play-based learning in nature during my time at Forest School…

  1. Assess the risk: there are many potential risks associated with Forest School, and a successful outdoor learning plan needs to include a daily risk assessment. Potential risks or hazards could include: access to site; boundaries; other people; animals; canopy, shrub, field and ground layers; structures; weather conditions; group issues and activities; etc. You can find several sample risk assessment templates here. For a more general discussion of embracing risk, check out this blog post from a Forest School in New Brunswick. I found that the most important factor was to ensure that all adults and children on site are aware of the risks and the controls that are in place to mitigate them.
  2. Three pairs of socks: there is no bad weather, only bad gear! It is not only crucial to make sure that you have the appropriate gear to keep yourself warm and dry, you will also need to be cognizant of the type of gear that your students have access to for playing outdoors. For example, at Forest School in April we had many students that arrived in the morning with full-piece rain suits, waterproof boots and two spare sets of clothing. This level of preparedness may not necessarily be the case for your group of students, so make sure you consider and stay prepared for the moment when the weather (inevitably) turns on you. Hint: plastic bags in boots will become a go-to strategy during soggy spring conditions!
  3. Follow your students’ interests: As teachers, we often feel the tugging need to direct, to probe, or to guide our students towards certain learning objectives that we feel are important or valuable. However, the kids we are working with may or may not agree! Rather than dictating a task or proposing an activity, see what happens when you take a step back and let your students discover the forest around them: the rocks, the moss, the trees, the bark, the sounds, the sights, the creatures… there is a LOT to discover, and you will probably embark on a learning experience that you never could have planned!
  4. Get lost: another category of risk when it comes to outdoor play is the danger of children getting lost. Whether through hide and seek or venturing into unknown territory, playing where students can get temporarily “lost” is an important component of outdoor risky play. It allows them to experience thrilling feelings of risk and danger associated with exploration, which is a major part of children’s play. Check out this article for an interesting evolutionary perspective on risky play as an important part of child development.
  5. Reflect, reflect, reflect: reflection was a key strategy that was particularly useful when working with public school students to consolidate the learning that occurred during their time in the forest. “Sit spots” were one tool that we used for this type of reflection. As you might guess, this quite simply requires students to find a forested spot to sit for an extended period of time and observe their immediate and distant surroundings. We started with 8 minutes in our sit spots, but more experienced forest school participants could no doubt stay engaged for longer. We had a circle to share the things we saw, felt, heard, and felt during sit spots. Students could also use a Forest School Journal to communicate their reflections through writing or drawing. And finally, one of my favourite projects was when the students collaboratively created a map of our forest school site on a large piece of cloth. It’s not quite finished, but see below for a picture of the map in progress!

At the end of the day, our children and students are capable of more than we sometimes allow them to show us- you’d be amazed at what happens when there is a little freedom for them to explore, imagine and create!

Creating Healthy, Safe and Supportive Learning Environments

Birch Bark Canoe

Last week I had the opportunity to learn about a project towards reconciliation that is taking place in the University Centre at uOttawa. As part of our PED 3110 (Teaching in Roman Catholic Separate Schools) class , we took a mini-fieldtrip to visit Marcel Labelle – an Algonquin and Métis artist and canoe-builder. His teachings and stories were particularly moving as he shared so much of his own personal history. It set the context for understanding where he was coming from and what motivated his journey towards reconciliation through canoe building.

 

As luck would have it, our morning workshop with Marcel was also being documented by CBC.

When Marcel Labelle decided to chart a new career course building birch bark canoes 13 years ago, it was a journey that would help him reconnect with his Indigenous heritage while taking his craft to universities across Ontario, which has brought him to the University of Ottawa this winter to lead a hands-on canoe-building project (Jessie Park, CBC News).

Check out the full CBC news article with pictures here. You can also listen to the CBC Radio clip that aired on the Ottawa Morning show to get a sense of our wonderful experience!

Grade 8 Practicum

Power of PowToon

Looking for a simple tool to help you create engaging animated videos and presentations? Search no further! PowToon is a presentation tool that offers awesome comic-style graphics that are easy to create and manipulate in order to communicate content in a captivating way. With various styles to choose from (ranging from professional to cartoon), PowToon emphasizes the creation process as building a story or narrative and makes it super easy to navigate by setting up the user interface as a storyboard. Powtoon could be used by students and teachers (and administrators!) in an educational setting for a variety of purposes, such as …

Students

  • Creatively communicating their learning;
  • Presenting research findings;
  • Consolidating information in the form of an infographic;
  • Pitching new initiatives;
  • Getting their peers excited about an idea;
  • Exploring digital story creation…

Teachers 

  • Inspiring and engaging students;
  • Eliciting curiosity (i.e. ‘Hooking’ students in);
  • Introducing a new topic;
  • Differentiating learning process or product;
  • Bringing curriculum content to life;
  • Reviewing big ideas;
  • Celebrating achievements;
  • Presenting new initiatives (e.g. in the classroom, at staff meetings)…

These are just a few ideas illustrating how PowToon could be used in the classroom, but the options really are endless!


Strategy in practice

For example, on the last day of my grade 8 practicum, I wanted to celebrate the achievements of my students and thank them for all their hard work (and patience!) during my time in their classroom. Since I wanted to avoid the risk of getting too emotional, I thought an animated video would be a short and sweet way of showing them my appreciation (you can view the finished product below).

*Make sure you watch the video with sound, the music is the best part! 

The students loved the personalized messages and we shared a few laughs as we bopped along to the video’s music.  It was quite meaningful for us (myself included!) to take a look back and review all the things we had accomplished during our six weeks together.  As teachers, sometimes we get so wrapped up in moving on to the next lesson/topic/unit that we forget to recognize all the hard work our students are putting into their education on a daily basis. For something that took me a short time to create and 1 minute to show in class, videos like this one are a powerful reminder to our students that they are, indeed, AWESOME. I will definitely be adding this tool to my teaching toolbox! 🙂

Grade 8 Practicum, Inquiry-Based Math

QR Code Treasure Hunt

During my practicum in a grade 8 classroom, my associate teacher shared various techniques for increasing student engagement during math problem-solving. One such technique allowed students to use their own devices to scan QR codes that were posted around the classroom and hallways. By scanning the QR codes, students were able to access multiple different questions and work through them at their own pace. The order of the questions didn’t matter, so students (working in pairs) could disperse and travel freely to the question locations.

While they were working on solving math problems, the simple act of getting students out of their desks and moving between different locations kept them engaged and motivated to work diligently with their partner. *Side note: this class was used to working with visually random groupings, and we often used playing cards to determine groups of 2, 3, or 4 for different activities. 

This “QR Code Treasure Hunt” functioned best when guidelines were clearly communicated to students before the activity began. For instance, consider the following:

  • Devices to be used (classroom devices? student devices?)
  • Availability of QR code reader (app already downloaded on devices?)
  • Groupings (individual? pairs? small groups? visually random groupings?)
  • Range in difficulty of questions (simple to increasingly difficult? similar in difficulty?)
  • Number of questions (length of working time?)
  • Materials to bring (clipboards/paper/pencil?)
  • Teacher supervision (monitoring throughout halls?)
  • Consolidation techniques (select examples? group sharing?)

To create your QR codes and associated questions, check out this awesome tool- the QR Code Treasure Hunt Generator.

Overall, the students seemed to appreciate this break from routine and their level of engagement noticeably increased (which was especially obvious during this 8:00- 8:55 AM period)! I will definitely be adding this strategy to my teaching toolbox 🙂

Teacher as Professional

EdInnovation 2016: Ottawa Bilingual Summit

In an effort to support teacher candidates in their commitment as innovators in education, the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education sponsored several registrations for this year’s EdInnovation 2016 Ottawa Bilingual Summit. I was fortunate enough to be chosen to attend, and what a weekend it was! Below I’ve documented some of the highlights  in an effort to share my learning with fellow teacher candidates and educators.


 

“Impossible things happen as a result of a huge and crazy dream, and a huge amount of work.” Commander Chris Hadfield

 


Top Tech Take-Aways

1.  Explain Everything: this app can be used to document student learning for assessment and evaluation. It is an efficient way to organize many different sources of evidence and pedagogical documentation in one spot, and you can easily create a new “project” for each student so that you can continue to add to it throughout the year.

Explain everything

2. Plickers:  this was an incredibly fun app that I was introduced to at the summit! Plickers can easily be used as a quick formative assessment data-collection tool that doesn’t require students to have devices (only the teacher needs a device). The teacher simply creates questions and answer choices within their Plicker account and projects them to the class, then students hold up their unique Plicker card (see below) to display their answer. After scanning the students’ answers,  the teacher immediately has real-time student results!

plicker

3. Google Expeditions using Google Cardboard: this is a fully immersive virtual reality experience that requires a device and cardboard virtual reality viewers (Google Cardboard). The video below gives a taste of the infinite possibilities this tool could have for students – like visiting the International Space Station from the EdInnovation 2016 Summit!

And if you want to see exactly how Google Cardboard works, check out this video for a 5-minute explanation 🙂

4. Google My Maps: you can import geographically-specific information from a variety of formats (e.g. google form) and My Maps will create a custom map that you can organize with layers to show different types of content. A fantastic way to visualize data!

5. Soundtrap: this creation app records music and allows learners to compose and collaboratively create audio recordings (like a union between Garage Band and Google Docs). It is highly accessible from various device types and for all learners- kids at any entry level can record their voice or musical creation (podcast, songs, audio responses, etc.). One neat application: the teacher could ask a question and every student could record their voice answer to create one class track which students could refer back to later.


Honourable Mentions

1.Google Screencastify: this is an extension for Google Chrome that can be used to make your  students’  thinking visible. It’s a screencast recorder that records screen activity as a video. This allows you to add an audio file to a certain tab’s content or to screencast while you’re creating. Pretty neat!

2. Planboard: this is available online and as an app, and is essentially a digital daybook. It allows you to plan lessons online and access them from anywhere, as well as organize your schedule and calendar in one spot. My favourite feature was the ability to add and track curriculum expectations directly to your lesson plan from an easy-to-use drop-down menu. Monitor lesson progression, quickly refer to previous years, share with colleagues- Planboard really allows you to do it all!

3. uOttawa Maker MobileI had a brief experience with the uOttawa Maker Mobile when they came to my host practicum school last year (see post here), but I was itching to learn more! This workshop was a taster of all that the Maker Mobile has to offer- we worked on Ardublock coding and programmed lights to do different things.


Keynote Speaker

Perhaps the most memorable session, however, was listening to keynote speaker Commander Chris Hadfield talk about inspiring students to push the limits of human possibility. A summary would not do justice to his passionate speech, so instead here is a collection of some of his words of wisdom:

  • On blast-off in a rocket: With 800 million horsepower, you are going somewhere for sure (hopefully both rockets work)…I really recommend you take a ride like that!
  • On the arts in space: It wasn’t just science, and engineering, and experience, and experiments- it was using the arts to communicate the common experience of being human. When we really want to communicate with people, we use art- that gets to people in a way that nothing else does.
  • On failure: Failure is normal- things always go wrong. Early success is a terrible teacher. Failure is an important and vital process in the way to becoming successful.
  • On his experience: It was hard, but it was magnificent.
hadfield
P.S. I am very excited about my signed copy of “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life” and I can’t wait to read more about Commander Hadfield’s journey.
Teacher as Professional

Learning skills and work habits

Clear communication between parents and teachers is critical for student success. One common question from parents (and teachers!) in Ontario is:

Why are learning skills and work habits assessed and evaluated?

Well, to be successful, students will require a number of competencies in addition to mastery of curriculum content. Learning skills and work habits outline key elements aside from the curriculum that studies have shown help our students to be successful in post-secondary and work contexts (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). While these skills are assessed, evaluated and reported separately from curriculum expectations,  they are closely tied to student success and achievement of curriculum expectations in all subject areas (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010).

Knowing the content of the curriculum is very important and it is certainly one of our goals in the classroom to make sure that our students have a solid understanding of the overall expectations, but positive learning skills and work habits will help our students to take ownership over their learning and become more effective learners, critical thinkers, and responsible citizens (OCDSB, 2014). By working on their learning skills, students are developing habits (see below) that have been identified as very important to employers, such as personal management skills, teamwork skills, and using tools interactively, for example (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010).

learning skills sample behaviours
Sample Behaviours for Learning Skills and Work Habits from Growing Success (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010)

In addition, they tie in well with the concept of growth mindset, which is the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems (Dweck, 2014). By providing a dedicated section on the report card for learning skills, we are emphasizing the importance of students’ development of their own self-awareness and a personal responsibility for their own learning. This will create a learning environment of more fully engaged students that are exploring their own interests and passions and becoming inspired to learn and ‘grow their brains.’

References:

Dweck, C. (2014). “The power of believing that you can improve.” TEDxNorrkoping. 

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing success: Assessment, evaluation and reporting in Ontario schools. Toronto, ON. 

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). (2014). Parent Guide to Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting: Kindergarten to Grade 8

Grade 8 Practicum

Learning about students and their learning

After reading, discussing and analyzing the trends in practicum observations among colleagues, I have identified several useful strategies to gather information about students and their learning before a new unit, term or school year.

From an academic standpoint, many teachers used diagnostic or before-instruction assessments to gauge students’ prior knowledge and learning styles. For example, math and reading assessments were frequently mentioned, as well as “What I did last summer” writing assignments. While these assessments can be very useful to the teacher and can inform instruction practices, it is important to remind students that they are for planning purposes and should not be viewed as tests. They should be supplemented or triangulated by observations and student-teacher interactions as well (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010).

For example, in Learning for All (2013), the Ontario Ministry of Education identifies personalization – education that puts learner at the centre – as a key component of effective assessment and instruction. With this element in mind, it is crucial for teachers to have a strategy for getting to know their learners early on. Many of my peers shared “get-to-know-you” or “all about me” activities that they used to get a more complete picture of their students’ home life, social skills, interests outside of school, circle of friends and behavioural characteristics. Some examples included:

  • “All About Me” or “My Amazing Life” posters
  • “Facebook profile” worksheets
  • “Bag of 5” activity, where all learners (including the teacher) present 5 items that represent something about themselves.

You can find some great ideas for getting to know your students (and introducing your subject) at Teach Hub.

One of my colleagues described a particularly unique strategy and I would add her “My Brain” activity to my toolkit for practice. She explained that the teacher conducted a basic lesson on the areas of the brain and then instructed students to draw their own personalized brain. I would extend this activity to include a discussion of growth mindset, described by Carol Dweck (2014) as the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems. This brain activity would reveal the personalities and various interests/hobbies of each student (e.g. the teacher could circulate and have informal interactions with students), as students label their “brain” drawing with the different components of their lives and areas of their brain that they hope to “grow” over the year. I believe this would not only communicate the shared belief that all students can succeed (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013), but would also recognize the unique starting points and patterns of learning for each student. Armed with this insight into the students’ preferences and interests, I (as teacher) would be better prepared to differentiate instruction accordingly.

At a deeper level, I would add to my toolkit a strategy that strives to foster a safe, healthy and supportive learning community in the classroom. One such strategy mentioned by a colleague described an open-ended “class banner” activity for the start of the school year. By providing students with the opportunity to come together and decide how they would represent their learning community in banner form (e.g. flags of students’ countries of origin, digital or print format), the teacher transfers ownership of planning (and subsequent learning) to the students. This activity sets the tone for a learning environment that is student-driven, collaborative and inclusive. It would also provide a valuable opportunity for the teacher to make observations about the socio-affective and interpersonal characteristics of students, which could contribute to the creation of a class profile (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). While the class profile is a living document, it can be used to inform planning, instruction and assessment for all students.

I think these types of activities go a long way in helping a teacher to become acquainted with the learners in his or her classroom at a personal level. Furthermore, they help students to understand each other better and they work to create a learning community characterized by mutual respect and support. As emphasized in the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Learning for All (2013) document, every student has unique learning and motivational needs, and the teacher has a responsibility to put the learner at the centre of assessment and instruction practices.

 

Summer Numeracy Program

Area and perimeter

Activity #1: Tables configurations

Our third and final week at numeracy camp focused on area and perimeter, which we introduced using the picture book Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! A Mathematical Story by Marilyn Burns. It is an engaging story that describes a family reunion, where the arrangement of the tables and chairs is constantly changing as more and more people arrive. The story cleverly delves into the concepts of area and perimeter in an everyday situation such as a family meal.

We read the book aloud to our Mathletes, discussing the differences in seating plans as we followed the storyline. We then used the SMART board to explore the area and perimeter of the different configurations of tables and chairs. For each “seating plan,” we documented the strategies used to find the area and perimeter. After investigating multiple options, the students were able to see the logic in Mrs.Comfort’s original seating plan in the story.  This hands-on activity was interesting for the whole group, and our Mathletes particularly enjoyed discussing their favourite meal for family get-togethers!

 

 

You can find a lesson plan based on this book by Cheryl Rectanus for grades 5/6 here (Math Solutions Professional Development Newsletter). It describes the lesson that Cheryl carried out after reading Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! aloud to the class, and gives some great ideas for prompts and questions that could be asked to deepen the students’ learning.

Activity #2: Area and perimeter art

As an extension to our discussion of area and perimeter, we tasked our Mathletes with creating a piece of artwork out of squares and rectangles on grid paper. We guided them in thinking about the following questions:

  • What is the area of the spaces you used?
  • What is the perimeter of your creation?
  • Which strategy did you use to calculate area and perimeter?

The final products were colourful and creative (see below), and they prompted some great math talk among learners about area and perimeter!

Burns, M.,  & Tilley, D. (2008). Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! New York, NY: Scholastic Paperbacks.

Inquiry-Based Math, Summer Numeracy Program

Measurement with catapults

As a team building exercise to finish the first week at Summer Math Camp, our Mathletes created simple catapults designed to launch cotton balls. The full description for the catapult design and construction can be found at this Kids Activities blog post.

Each student created their own catapult from the following materials:

  • 7 craft sticks
  • 3 elastics
  • Egg carton piece (single egg portion)
  • Cotton ball
  • Glue

We let the students experiment with how to construct their individual catapults, and provided guidance to those who needed it. The general construction resembled the exemplar below, although some students made adaptations as they saw fit. After testing out their creations, we all traveled down to the gym where students worked in pairs to measure the distance traveled (or height attained) for their cotton ball catapults.

For younger students, it provided the opportunity to practice:

  • Measuring distance/ height
  • Recording numbers in a chart
  • Comparing distances/heights

For the older students, they worked on:

  • Adapting catapult design to achieve greater distance/height
  • Adding up the total distance/height achieved over multiple trials
  • Estimating an average distance/height over a certain number of trials (for more advanced students)

We consolidated this activity by posing questions such as:

  • What was your longest cotton ball launch?
  • What was your shortest?
  • How could you have modified your catapult to launch the cotton ball further/higher?
  • Are there differences in the catapult designs that make some better at launching cotton balls further, and some better at launching cotton balls higher?

It was amazing to see how engaged the students were during this rich learning task. There were certain students who had been dead-set against anything resembling traditional math throughout the first week; yet even these students were eagerly measuring, adding, and comparing distances for their catapult cotton ball launches. Another great testament to the power of hands-on learning!