Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Asking Questions

“What do you want to learn?”
“How do you want to show me what you’ve learned?”

These are the questions we hear being asked on our visit to Aldershot High School.  We are sitting in Sarah Spencer's’ Grade Nine Applied Science class.  The students have just returned from a scavenger hunt in a nearby ravine and  they’ve been asked to record some of the things they’ve noticed on the blackboard.  From here, the teacher hands out the Overall Expectations for the course and ask the students to pay attention specifically to the Biology portion of the document.  

This is the student's introduction to the Biology unit of the class, and it isn’t going the way we would usually expect.  Rather than the teacher guiding the students from topic to topic, the students are being allowed to find their own path.  Each student is identifying their own interests from the Biology curriculum and, presumably, their paths will diverge from here.

But we won’t get to find out, because thanks to Kerry Sagar, we are getting a whirlwind tour of the Aldershot Campus.  Over the course of two afternoons we were parachuted into an Art, Math, ELL, Auto Shop, Phys Ed, and SHSM classroom.  We also were able to spend a bit of our time visiting a Grade 8 class, mostly because we got lost while roaming the halls.

We were struck by the variety of questions being asked in all classes, but more than that, we enjoyed discovering the WHY behind the questions.  From “What kind of business do you want to run?” and “What are some ways you can find out specific information about a car?” to “Do you think you can get your heart rate up to 80 BPM?”, we heard lots of questions.  We popped into Ms. Di Giantomasso’s Grade 8 classroom and witnessed students leading the questioning in a group activity.  There was also evidence of students being asked about how they were feeling about their learning.  That sort of check in reminding students that their voice matters.

Visiting Martyn Olenick’s art classroom, we caught the middle of students interpreting a painting by Anishinaabe artist Bruce K. Beardy.  Using the lens of Artist as Global Citizen, students were dissecting areas of the artwork in order to pull out the meaning of the painting, which in this case related to Ethical Standard of Respect.  It was fun to see Olenick’s gentle, purposeful questioning at play here, letting students drive the conversation, with Olenick asking just the right questions to drive the learning deeper.

No questions were more purposeful than the ones we heard when we visited Lindsay Potts’ ELL classroom.  The class started with Lindsay asking each student what they did on their weekend.  She engaged each student in conversation and let other students join in with questions.  On the surface, this just looked like an exercise in community building.  However, looking deeper, Lindsay was diving into her curriculum.  By engaging her students in conversation about their interests, she was also targeting communication areas in the curriculum, in the most natural and empathetic way: connecting with students, relating curriculum to students, and letting students drive the conversation (and thus the learning).  

Zipping into the CanFit Pro Sports and Fitness SHSM, held at the Fitness Firm gym around the corner from Aldershot, we felt like we walked onto the set of a movie.  In this program, led by teacher Cara Greenslade, students were not only getting high school credits, they were getting their CanFit accreditation, as well as a bevy of other accreditations, including Yoga and Nutrition.  The young adults in this program were so eloquent and passionate about their learning we had to pinch ourselves a few times just remind ourselves this was real life.  Students leading the learning, quite literally, with microphone picking out their instructions for burpees, mountain climbers and stretches.  The level of confidence and empowerment in these students was palpable, in the third week of school, no less!  We asked the students WHY they seem to be so empowered and they all pointed to the strong sense of community they felt with their teacher and each other.  We couldn’t help but wonder, how can we replicate this level of student empowerment in other classrooms?
Our focus since the beginning of the school year has been on community building.  Our visit to Aldershot High School has reinforced our belief that taking the time to build community within our schools only makes delivering curriculum easier.  Not only that, by being purposeful when building community, we will empower our students to lead their own learning.  Empowered students who feel safe in their own community are much more likely to take risks and reflect on their own learning.   

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