Monday, 25 January 2016

The Physical Environment and it's impact on learning

In September of last year I started a new position within the HWDSB at the Enrichment & Innovation Centre. I knew the job would be different as soon as I had stepped through the door. Why? Because of the obviously different arrangement of the physical learning space.

The Centre looks like no other classroom that I have ever worked in.
Throughout my career as an educator I have grappled with the question regarding what has a greater impact on learning - the personality of the educator or the pedagogy used by the educator? Am I an effective teacher because of who I am or what I do? I have always thought that the answer was that both matter. My new position at the Enrichment & Innovation Centre has created a third variable to the question of what element of education impacts a learner the greatest. It calls into question the physical environment in which students learn.

My work environment is very unique. ( link to video showing the Enrichment & Innovation Centre ) . It is the result of the innovative researching and thinking of Z. Pipe, B. Carey (former teacher of gifted) and B. Nywening.

We are a maker space. In addition to running planned Inquiry lessons, we also provide time for students to engage in learning of their own choice. I wanted to begin my research into how this space came to be by looking at the philosophy behind “Reggio Emelia”. I have heard the phrase thrown around before, but have not completed any personal reading on the philosophy.

My research into this affirmed that my colleagues are on the right track when they  begun to put an emphasis on not only the pedagogy that we use when teaching, the relationships we form with our students, but also addressing the physical environment in which we teach. I read a couple of times that the environment can be referred to as the third teacher. A key sentence phrase I read was that our environment defines how we see children as learners. This resonated with me. In classrooms where educators see themselves as the holder of knowledge that is to be distributed when they see fit, we are far more likely to see rows of desk and the focal point of the room would be a front board where the educator would stand. In rooms where educators see themselves as a facilitator of learning and where they view children as capable of making choices related to their own learning, than we are for more likely to see a room with a circular flow to it. My research indicated that rooms would have purposeful centres that students could gravitate to. In our Centre we have a variety of Centres and locations, all with a specific purpose in mind.

The Kitchen is the place we gather to eat our lunch, discuss nutrition and join together as a community in the sharing of healthy foods such as smoothies and soups. It is a place where plants grow, tea is brewed and we discuss personal issues such as mental illness. Our kitchen reminds us all that our whole self must be nurtured and cared for in order to grow and learn.

The Living Room is the place where we curl up with a good book, strum on a guitar, listen to music or knit or crochet a homemade item. The living room allows us to relax from a busy day and engage in conversation with friends new and old. In our Living Room we let our imaginations soar by diving into a great book or writing an adventure story. It is in our living room that we can let down our guard and ponder the events and issues occurring in the world (also known as Critical Literacy).We can express our thoughts and opinions through our writing and acquire new knowledge through our reading.

The Maker Space ( although the whole place is a maker space!) is the place where we get to not only make, but take apart inventions and creations both new and old. It is in this space that we are designers, planners, engineers and developers. We can be electricians, seamstresses, architects and computer technicians. It is in this space we must be patient and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. We must be willing to dive into the unknown and be willing to problem solve along the way! It is in our makerspace where we realize that we are problem solvers and can make things for ourselves.

The Art Spot is the place where we get to enhance the world through the creation of beautiful pieces of art. We get to enjoy the thrill of designing something from scratch using a variety of mediums. We can get dirty. We can be meticulous. We can imagine. The confidence that can be gained through Art is tremendous. Each medium is a craft to be mastered. It is in our art spot where we can find a tranquility to our busy lives and just enjoy the beauty surrounding us.

The Computer Lab is the place where we join together with others to collaborate online. It is the place where information is at our fingertips. The computer breaks down the walls of our classroom and transports us anywhere that we want to go! It allows us to learn without anxiety and assist us in skills we may have difficulty with like writing. It is the computer that allows us to value our thoughts and opinions and share them with others. It is in our computer lab that we excel as researchers, journalists, writers, readers, and learners.

I have spent the last few weeks reading about learning environments and am happy to report that research supports what I am seeing live - the environment in which we learn can impact our learning. I may not be able to quote all the research behind it, but having seen over 400 students successfully learn in this non-traditional environment, I feel very confident in saying that it works! My next point of interest is WHY? - Please feel free to refer me to any art articles or current research on the topic of learning environment. For now - I am going to start asking the students! I can’t wait to hear what they have to say!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Reactions to Adversity

In a recent lesson with grade 6 students we discussed the concept of ADVERSITY and how we react to it. We challenged the students to ponder whether or not good could come from it.

Life throws adversity at us all the time and there are so many ways to handle it. In researching adversity online for our upcoming lesson, I found a neat story that related adversity to boiling water. In this short tale it talked about how an egg, a potato and tea leaves all react differently to the same adversity, boiling water. An egg turns hard, a potato turns soft, but tea leaves create a delicious and new flavour!

I can honestly say that at times in my life I have reacted like an egg and become hard and protective of myself and those around me, additionally, I have also been the potato that just turned mushier and mushier (this is my most common reaction) as I faced adversity, but I have also been fortunate enough to have the mindset that has allowed me to take situations of adversity and turn them into tea leaves.

In 2002 my husband Gary dove into shallow water and broke his neck. At the time he was actually my fiance. The accident occurred 6 days before our wedding. Initially, I think that we were both in so much shock that there was no real reaction, but over time as the situation started to sink in I reacted as a potato and got mushy. As we plugged along and began to get our life back on track I would say that we had none of the above mentioned reactions. It definitely can take time to brew a good cup of tea! Over the years various barriers, particularly fertility caused me to mush, but Gary has remained strong. He’s not really a potato or an egg, but I wouldn’t say that we reached the tea stage until 2008. Things started to change slowly for us, but the birth of our eldest son, Ryan, really changed our outlook on life.

The addition of Ryan to our family gave us a completely different outlook on our situation. Prior to Ryan, Gary and I would spend time reminiscing about “walking Gary”. Probably not the healthiest of activities, but something that somehow provided comfort. When Ryan was born it suddenly struck me that the “walking Gary” that we spoke of or thought of played absolutely no role in Ryan’s life. Ryan never met his Dad walking. His dad was Gary in a wheelchair. He would be the only way he knows his dad and there would be nothing wrong with that. Ryan’s birth really caused us to remember to think of Gary as Gary and not to distinguish between “walking Gary” and “wheelchair Gary”. I believe that this is when we reached the “tea” phase of reacting to the adversity that we encountered 5 years prior. It wasn’t immediate, but it was a result of continuing to live and enjoy life.

I am grateful that the adversity of Gary’s accident has turned to tea for us, but I do believe that there was value to my mush stage. I needed to grieve the loss of the life we thought we would have. It took time, but eventually we got to a place where we were living our new life and not dwelling in the past. So back to the question we asked our students, “Can good come from adversity?”. I think the answer is yes. Do I believe it happens immediately - absolutely not. The next question I then ask is what is it that allows a person to find the “tea phase”? For Gary and I, I know that our attitudes and mindsets played a big role, coupled with the support we had surrounding us from family and friends.

Adversity is inevitable, but I think the reason this online story resonated so well with me, and I wanted to share it with our students, is that it helped to explain in simple terms how we can all react differently to the same adversity and that it is in our power to create something positive from it. I found the tale empowering and hope that it empowers others when faced with an adversity. Will I immediately react as tea when faced with an adversity? - ABSOLUTELY NOT! I am a mushy potato through and through, but will I consider my reaction and ponder other reactions? - ABSOLUTELY YES! Delicious tea may be in the future!