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!

Grade 8 Practicum

An intermediate introduction

Homeroom, six periods, over a hundred students in a day… While it is infamous for being a difficult year for students, grade 8 can definitely be a whirlwind from the teacher perspective as well! As a second year Teacher Candidate, I am excited to be in a grade 8 math/science placement for this semester.

“The three most important words in education are: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without them, we have nothing.” (Couros, 2015b)

My focus for the first two weeks of school is developing a strong foundation upon which to build positive relationships with students. The video below serves as an excellent reminder for educators to intentionally create learning communities where every child feels heard and valued. In the words of George Couros (2015a), “[w]e need to put ourselves in our student’s shoes before we can create better opportunities for them in our classrooms.” This is a message that has guided me through the first week of classes, and my observations led to three interesting take-aways:

  • Watch how students interact with one another, and pay special attention to how they choose to divide up when given the opportunity (e.g. Who gravitates towards whom? Which students do not get along? Who is alone?)
  • Be aware of students with older siblings/family members that you may have taught (e.g. How does this influence their expectations of the course?)
  • Be purposeful and explicit about your expectations for the year, with particular emphasis on how partner/group work should be completed

While much of the week was dedicated to administrative details, introductory concepts, and establishing routines, we took a few moments with several of our classes to reflect on the coming school year. They were asked to complete one or more of the following sentences on a post-it:

  • School is important because…

  • Math is important because…

  • Science is important because…

  • In order to be successful this year, I will…

There was some variability in responses, but in general, our students highlighted the importance of school (particularly math and science) in providing future opportunities and contributing to their career paths. They recognized the role of education in increasing their understanding of the world around them and preparing them for daily life (e.g. sports and recreation, job duties, finances, grocery shopping, caring for the environment, etc.). But, perhaps most importantly, many students pointed out the importance of school for building strong social skills and developing positive relationships. This resonated with me, and reinforced my belief that creating healthy, safe and supportive learning environments is the first step in fostering a productive thinking classroom.

Couros G. (2015a). 8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset (Updated). The Principal of Change: Stories of learning and leading.

Couros G. (2015b). The Innovator’s Mindset. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

 

 

Summer Numeracy Program

Boats that float!

During the last week of math camp, we challenged our Mathletes to use the construction and math skills that they had been practicing to individually and economically build a boat that would float. The parameters of the challenge were simple:

Goal:

  • Using the materials from the list below, design and construct the least expensive boat possible that will float and carry plastic people on it.

Materials:

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 1.26.11 PM

Steps of boat construction:

  1. Design and sketch your boat
  2. Decide which materials you will need
  3. Estimate how much you will need of each material
  4. Calculate the approximate cost of your boat materials
  5. Construct boat and adjust cost estimate according to materials actually used

As this was the third week of Math Camp and the students had completed various STEM-based challenges already, they were becoming more efficient at planning, designing and carrying out the process of construction. The added challenge of calculating the cost of their boat was a great differentiation tool, which engaged the older students in particular to minimize their use of resources through unique design. The boat challenge was completed individually, which revealed each Mathlete’s strengths and areas of opportunity more clearly. For example, some students initially constructed ‘rafts’ (i.e. no mast, sail, hull). While this was an economical option, we challenged them to adjust their design so it more closely resembled a boat.

Throughout the various steps of their boat construction, students faced many hurdles with regards to design, use of materials, calculation of cost, etc. Yet, the most striking observation from this task was the resiliency and grit demonstrated by our Mathletes as they adopted the ‘Keep Moving Forward‘ mindset and persevered with the task. There was a large variety in the finished products, and many students added colour, decorations and a personal touch that demonstrated immense pride in their boats.

They were very keen to test their creations, so we decided to spend time as a large group  floating their boats. One by one, each student placed their boat in the water (they all floated!) and added plastic people figurines until it sank. As a connection to our previous work on patterning, they added people according to the Fibonacci sequence (i.e. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…) and we recorded how many people each boat held.  While some students were initially hesitant to test their boats to the point of sinking, the fun atmosphere and support of their classmates encouraged them to give it a go! We discussed the strengths of their designs and the purpose of minimizing cost (i.e. minimizing use of non-renewable resources). It was a fantastic celebration of their hard work, and each Mathlete received a ‘Boat Building Award’ in recognition of their success!

 

Summer Numeracy Program

Building bridges through collaboration

To kick off the second week at Summer Numeracy Camp, we again wanted to challenge our Mathletes with a team-building exercise that required collaboration and communication: building bridges! We began with a simple question:

“What does good collaboration look, sound and feel like?”

This question generated a great discussion about the skills and attitudes necessary to work well in a team. Given this mutual understanding of what it means to collaborate, we let the students choose their own groups of 3 and each group received the following materials:

  • 100 craft sticks (with 1 elastic)
  • 5 pipe cleaners
  • 10 paperclips
  • String
  • 1 small bottle of glue
  • Bowl
Bridge building materials

The goal of the task was for each team to:

  • Design and build a bridge to span across a bowl of water.
  • Test the strength of the bridge (using pebbles)

On the first day, we gave groups a chance to design and begin building the different pieces of their bridges. The teams started by assessing the materials they were given, coming up with a feasible design, and constructing the different components of their bridge. Some teams also recognized the importance of including triangles, while others tried out the strength of the square.

 

After leaving their creations to dry overnight, our Mathlete teams continued with their bridge construction the following day. They carried on measuring, testing, and adjusting their designs to figure out how they could be improved. All the teams found something they could adjust or modify to make their bridges sturdier and stronger. We again created some extra shapes for support and let them dry overnight.

On our final day of bridge construction, everything came together beautifully! The students used their resources and demonstrated creativity, perseverance and impressive problem-solving skills to successfully finish their free-standing bridges. During the consolidation, one member from each team explained their design and reasoning to the whole group, and we discussed the differences and similarities among our bridges. As our Mathletes had shown true grit and determination to complete this challenge, we decided to have a bridge celebration and prepared certificates for each participant that highlighted a ‘special mention’ for each group (e.g. positive attitude, perseverance, design and architecture, creative use of materials, problem-solving).  They were very proud of their creations, and handing out these certificates was a lovely way to cap off another successful week at math camp!

 

 

 

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!

Creating Healthy, Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, Summer Numeracy Program

Marshmallow challenge

On the first day of summer numeracy camp, we decided to have the kids try the “Marshmallow Challenge,” as described by Tom Wujec on his website and during the TED Talk featured below. The students were provided with a paper bag kit containing all the materials, and they were instructed to build the tallest freestanding structure possible that holds the entire marshmallow on top. They were given 18 minutes to complete the challenge, while the teaching team circulated to give time checks and remind the teams of the instructions.

MM_Challenge_Title

 

The results were very impressive! The tallest structure measured 47 cm, and a few other teams’ towers were close to that height. All the teams demonstrated great thinking, and persevered through disagreements, collapsed towers, and many other setbacks. It was an excellent way to get to know the students’ strengths and areas of opportunity right off the bat, and we were surprised by the honesty of the students during the debrief. For example, one team admitted that they struggled to agree on one idea and described how that influenced their process of tower construction.  This emphasized the importance of collaboration and communication among team members, which, as that team realized, is crucial for success. As always, the students’ creations exceeded our expectations: their creative, stable and TALL towers held the marshmallow in all sorts of ways, and even the towers that collapsed taught us all valuable lessons. All in all, day 1 was a definite success!

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Scientists in school

This week I had the pleasure of participating in a visit from Scientists in School (SiS), which is a Canadian science education charity that brings science workshops to K-8 students.

As the grade sixes are working on their biodiversity unit, their workshop focused on the science of classifying organisms. The facilitator briefly reviewed the process of classifying organisms before allowing the students to dive right in to the three stations, which were composed of unicellular and multicellular (invertebrates and vertebrates) organisms. The starfish and sea anemone were clear favourites at the invertebrate station, and the vertebrate station boasted a wide range of creatures, including a sea lamprey, bat, chicken, pig, painted turtle, snake, and many more. The students also had fun learning how to use microscopes to check out various unicellular organisms, and tried their hand at sketching what they saw.

It was a well-organized and engaging workshop that had every student smiling throughout the afternoon. The facilitators provided all the materials including gloves and a booklet for each student, so all the students had to bring was a pencil! It was a great example of hands-on, experiential learning that brought the biodiversity unit to life for the students. Even the reluctant learners demonstrated a new-found enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The Scientists in School website states that their mission is to “ignite scientific curiosity in children so that they question intelligently…” From my observations during this workshop, they are definitely succeeding in reaching elementary school students and helping them to learn through discovery. I would highly recommend this program to science teachers, and I hope I get to host it in my own classroom one day!

 

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Misconception check

To use this strategy, the teacher gives a common misconception about a topic, and students explain why they agree or disagree with it. According to constructivism, students interpret new learning through the lens of previously developed beliefs and ideas about the world. These preconceived ideas could be misinterpretations of generally accepted explanations for a phenomenon, which can cause difficulty and frustration when students are learning something that conflicts with what they already believe. It is thus very important for the teacher to identify misconceptions and address them directly through classroom activities. This ensures that students will more readily accommodate new concepts that are being taught, especially in science education.

I usually used this strategy during whole-group discussions with grade sixes. I would ask a leading question based on a common misconception identified during formative assessment, and challenge the students to explain whether they agreed or disagreed. For example, during math and science discussions, questions could be something like:

  • Can we use a bar graph to represent this weather data?
  • When using partial products multiplication, is each partial product a separate answer?
  • If the switch is open, is our circuit still a closed circuit?
  • Are the colours of the wires important for our circuit to function?

Each question was developed based on observation, anecdotal notes or formative assessment that revealed a common misconception held by many students in the class. By posing the question and having a class discussion about the right answer, students were able to correct their understanding in a collaborative environment. This straight-forward approach led to many productive discussions!

Edutopia. (Sept.14 2015). 10 Fun-Filled Formative Assessment Ideas.

Tippett C. “Constructivism and Science Teaching.” (PED 3131 Course Notes).

Grade 6 Practicum, Science Shorts

Makerspaces

As part of the ‘Maker Movement,’ Makerspaces (or hackerspaces) are physical spaces where students can come together to share, create, invent, network, build and learn. These community environments provide tools that could range from hardware supplies to a 3D printer. While they are often associated with fields such as engineering and computer science, this collaborative space’s primary purpose is learning through hands-on, self-directed exploration- however that may occur.

Makerspaces can be implemented in many different ways within the school environment. They may find a home in a computer lab, shop, or conference room, but in reality they represent the combination of all three spaces. In education, makerspaces provide students with the physical space and materials required for multidisciplinary, inquiry-based learning. Here are some tips when developing your school makerspace:

  • Guide students in developing metacognitive skills necessary to move beyond temporary failures
  • Create specific lessons and units that are project-based and align with curriculum
  • Ask the school community for donations of old electronics, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, balloons, toy cars, wire cutters, balls, adhesive, tools, cleaning supplies, safety equipment, etc.
  • Design your makerspace to accommodate many different activities, including: cardboard construction, woodworking, electronics, robotics, digital fabrication, building machines, sewing, metal working, etc.

While my host school during practicum was still developing their makerspace, students did get to experience a visit from the University of Ottawa’s ‘Maker Mobile,’ which is essentially a makerspace on wheels. The Maker Mobile visited grade 4 and 5 immersion students in early February and brought equipment such as a 3D printer and scanner, laser cutters, and Arduino microcontrollers. This makerspace connected the curriculum to programming and coding, and encouraged students to expand their learning goals. The Maker Mobile was an effective teaching strategy, as students were exposed to cutting-edge technologies and developed their creativity and problem-solving skills. Thanks to grade 4 and 5 teachers for the pictures!

Educause Learning Initiative. (April 2013). 7 things you should know about: Makerspaces.

Edutopia. (July 16 2015). Starting a school makerspace from scratch.

Edutopia. (March 21 2016). Makerspaces lead to school and community successes.