Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Grade 1, JICS Lab School
Arriving to school after March Break is always a magical time of the school year. As a class, we would have spent the earlier part of the year building relationships, growing as a community, and learning together. We would return as a strong unit ready to delve into new learning or take existing learning to the next level. We had spent the Fall and Winter term learning about the environment, plants, how plants grow, and how our waste (garbage and plastics) impact that environment. We had built our own planters, brought in seeds, and we were gearing up to do our own planting in the classroom. We had been collecting plastic from our schoolyard, we had measured it, weighed it and we were preparing to create with it. We had community partners lined up to visit and local spaces we were hoping to continue to build our relationship with. Then we learned we wouldn’t be returning to school in the way we all imagined.
For those who are curious to learn more, our inquiry about waste and our environment has been documented in this SWAY.
Setting up a virtual learning space seemed impossible. How could I provide my class with the learning opportunities they deserved? How would I hold true to my own teaching practices? How could I possibly create an environment in which the children could shape the learning, pose questions in the moment, build off of each other’s ideas, try, learn, and then try again?
The reality was I couldn’t, well, not in the way I imagined. What was more important was for the children to find a sense of normalcy with what we had available and to feel like they could still engage in the deep learning and connect to the world around them – even though we couldn’t interact with it the same way.
Before March Break we were learning about urban mammals and studying either squirrels, raccoons, or skunks. One of the first virtual projects was to use what we learned and create a diorama of the animal’s habitat. The children took the time they needed to work on it. Some finished in a day or two, while others took a week. The end result was beautiful and far beyond what they would have done in the classroom. Many children used natural materials they found outside to enhance their habitats. This got me thinking, how can we use what we had, what was right outside our front doors, to drive our learning?
So, we started to look out our windows, visit our backyards, pay attention on walks, or watch plants at home closely. The children were asked to share how they were connecting with nature.
Were they getting outside? Were they looking out their window? Did they have plants in their home that they were responsible for?
Then, the children shared how that space or piece of nature made them feel when they spend time in it or with it. What memories did it hold? What emotions did it provoke?
I found YouTube links to books such as Florette By Anne Walker which tells the story of Mae, whose family moved from somewhere lush and green to a (very concrete) big city. I also used sites like Epic and the children listened to books being read and responded.
We started thinking about how a space might feel when we are in it or how it might feel when we are not there. How do we keep that space happy? Abstract questions yes, but with the support of stories the children were able to access their imaginations to think about that space. I modelled my thinking through videos to help them wonder out loud on their own.
Building onto the children’s responses I posed more questions: how do you think we are connected to nature? What if I told you we are all connected, would you believe me? How can we give nature space? What does that mean? Why would it be important?
One student's response about her reciprocal connection to nature
Parent: What makes the space you're visiting happy and how can you keep it happy?
Student: I like to go to several places but in the summer, when my grandma is here, I like to go to the park with her.
P: How do you make the park happy when you're there?
S: Sometimes my friends come and I play with them and sometimes I just play by myself or I talk to my grandma.
P: The question is not how do you make yourself happy, but how do you make the park, the trees in the park, and the birds in the park happy?
S: What I do, is I just play with it. I play with it! I climb the trees. Sometimes it's bad to climb trees – I only climb the trees that are strong enough for me to climb.
We even went on a virtual field trip. Researcher of plastics in the Arctic Ocean, Rhiannon Moore, was scheduled to meet with us after March Break thanks to our wonderful intern, Deanne. We adapted the field trip to work through Zoom, it was a shorter presentation with cameras off and microphones muted unless there was a question. It was perfect and the children asked amazing questions! We recorded the video to be shared with those who could not attend.
Questions children had for researcher, Rhiannon Moore:
(She answered all of them beautifully!)
How does plastic make animals sick?
How much plastic do fish have in their stomachs?
How can we stop polluting from happening?
Is a food web when a small fish eats plastic and then a bigger fish eats that small fish and then it keeps going?
How many pieces of plastic are there in the world?
How many pieces of plastic are there in the Arctic?
Why can’t people just stop using plastic?
Not everything needs to be in plastic. Why are people not using other things? Cardboard breaks down.
Why does plastic exist?
None of this feels normal, nor is it easy. But the children are engaging how they can. They send pictures, videos, write, draw, record themselves talking and all of this, every bit of it, is perfect and shows the power of community and resilience of these young minds.