Monday, 23 December 2013

looking closely at life and learning

This week's ice storm brought a world of wonder. Even while branches and whole limbs rained down, sometimes tangling in hydro lines and thus plunging entire neighbourhoods into darkness, the strange beauty was an invitation to go outside and look closely.
Our big idea this year in class is "looking closely". In October I detailed (here) how this project began when Heather McKay noticed a spark, an idea, and turned it into a beautiful collaborative blog, and how this lens of looking closely fit me so well as a teacher and learner. Yesterday and today, walking along the ice-lined streets of my neighbourhood, I was struck by the beauty and destruction wrecked by the ice storm, and how the shock of seeing the world in such a different light causes everyone to slow down and look closely around them. The marvelous old oak trees that line my street, some so large their branches drape over the street and over the houses on both sides, suddenly frightening to walk beneath as they creak and shed ice in the breeze. Stubble in the garden of grasses or long-dead plants, ignored as drab, now stunning in a blanket of sparkling ice. Cold steel fences now dripping icicles, an invitation to strum, to shatter the icicles in a musical burst. Tiny leaves, still clinging to branches long after most leaves have fallen, suddenly gem-like as they shine like coloured glass.


Part of the reason the looking closely lens fits so well is that I've tried over the years to use this approach in daily life - early on through Shambhala (in brief: a meditation practice which begins with looking closely at one's breath, and the transient nature of thoughts) and later Miksang (a "contemplative art" practice of photography started by several Shambhala practitioners but practiced by many outside of the sangha. For a long time I thought it was something external to my teaching career, even though I've always been a reflective teacher, using my mistakes or misunderstandings to guide changes in my approach. Over the years it took me to complete my Kindergarten Specialist AQ, the idea of looking closely at myself as a learner and teacher became clear. My gradual AQ transformation included ideas from Project Zero's Visible Thinking routines, and my understanding only deepened when we further explored the inspiration of Reggio Emilia. Learning about the place, the people, and ideas from Reggio Emilia was also a homecoming of sorts, in that I realized where my first hero in Kindergarten Nancy Thomas (who I first wrote about here) had found her ideological home so many years before.

The quote that elicited a gasp when I first saw it on the wall near the light studio at Acorn School.

I wonder if the urge to look back at the year, to sum it up, comes from the fact that during the winter holiday break we can step back a bit from the classroom and think about all the learning that has taken place so far. It is also a natural response to looking through the year so far in documentation as I gear up to write the first term reports for my two classes, a process a wise twitter friend Tracy once likened to "falling in love" with her students (I couldn't agree more!). Looking over hundreds of photos and anecdotal notes taken since September, I can't help but see how this year, more than any other year before, the students and their ideas have become the curriculum. This is to say, I've begun to look closely at teaching and learning through a Reggio-inspired lens. Upon re-reading my "Looking Closely" post on the collaborative blog (included in its entirety below), I noticed how much we had explored the living world just outside our classroom door, how students observed and wondered about everything around them, and how adept students were becoming at noticing even the tiniest changes in their environment. I realized that while I believe I have far to go to and I'm grateful for my PLN for the constant inspiration, I had become the sort of person who a child will give their most precious discoveries to: a snail, a leaf, an interesting stone, an insect, a scrap of newspaper with something interesting, a drawing made at home. I think I always wanted to honour children's learning, but the trust my students have in my now tells me I'm getting much closer to the real thing.

The following was first posted on November 22nd on the "Looking Closely" collaborative blog (you may see the original here).

This week a student in our morning class, "M", made a banner for the bulletin board where students have been pinning the observational drawings they make at the "look closely" table. I am happy to scribe ideas and often write down entire conversations I hear during group discussions or "play and learn" time, but there are many times when I encourage students of all writing ability levels to "give it a go". Labelling drawings is often one of the first ways students start writing new words in our class. Creating a place for us to share those labelled drawings provides motivation to some students who would often only draw or paint, so I try to save spaces in our room for such writing. Here is what our "looking closely" board looks like today:

In our class we have been using the term "look closely" since September, applying the idea of slowing down and inspecting details in objects around us to all manner of flora and fauna, and other objects in our environment as well. In the three months since school began we've seen such great changes in weather and this in our surroundings. September began hot, and our days began with outdoor welcome circles spent sitting on the grass with dragonflies flying overhead. October brought cooler days, changing colours, and ripening fruit and nuts falling all around us in Thornwood plentiful trees and the wonderful long grass of the "no-mow zone". November brought us bare branches, leaf piles, and frosty mornings. Always something interesting to explore outside, almost always something interesting brought inside with us to further explore at our various nature centres. Students know that observation is a valuable tool, and as such they are always bringing something interesting to school: leaves found on their lawn, ladybugs or other insects found while crossing through the "no-mow zone", everyone's favourite: snails. I love that my students know I am the sort of adult that will treasure these items they bring, and that everything we "look closely" at has something to teach us or some wonder in it. Here are some moments spent looking, studying, wondering about the things around us:

Saying goodbye to a grasshopper we "adopted" for an afternoon after catching it in the long-grass of the no-mow zone.

Students were delighted (and some disgusted) by my exotic snack one day. A few select students recognized the fruit as being close to lichees and 'long an' fruit which they had seen before.

We found a cricket and some ladybugs on this walk through the no-mow zone, and brought them back to the yard to house them in the glass house for safe observation. Students were immediately concerned about the interaction between the large cricket and the smaller ladybug. Many wonders arose before we released both creatures, unharmed.

One of several such oak leaves brought into the class to explore up close.

Frost, like sunlit dew, makes every 'ordinary' thing in the world somewhat spectacular.
It's possible that you could hear our class from a block away, when one student discovered the gift of the milkweed pod and opened it up. White fluff filled the classroom as students shouted and tried to capture the flighty seeds. In retrospect, this is a provocation best shared outside.
One of the ongoing inquiries in our classes, both morning and afternoon, is surrounding our adopted trees. Having chosen our trees earlier in the year, students are now in the habit of observing not only their own class trees but indeed all of them around us. Several students have begun to curate their own projects, using the leafsnap app to identify trees by the leaves they find, or drawing the details they see in fruit, leaves, branches, nuts, or pine cones collected and inspected at the various nature tables in our classroom. I look forward to seeing more writing and deeper reflection as the students continue to apply "looking closely" to their environment throughout the year. I am grateful to this wonderful community and to Heather McKay for the (Frank Serafini) book: "Looking Closely Along the Shore" for inspiring this way of experiencing wonder with my students.
(end of original post).

Here are a few tweets from November and December showing provocations and student participation at the "look closely" centre in our class. M's banner for our bulletin board sparked an interest in documenting, through drawings and words, what students noticed when examining materials.

This month, the early onset of winter has brought even more changes and wonderment to my young learners. Here are a few snapshots of recent events and ongoing examples of what "looking closely" looks like in our kindergarten class.

Exploring tracks outside, recreating inside in sand.

One day last month, D and Z got an idea while playing at the water table: "Let's fill this bottle and take it outside!" They did, and within a few days I realized that they had created quite an interesting tool for inquiry about weather, temperature, and states of matter. The morning students quickly took notice and began to consult the "weather bottle" daily as well.
Inspired in part by D and Z's weather bottle and in part by my love of creating provocations with ice, we froze some balsam fir branches in various containers to explore in the sensory table. Above, we took one ice block to the light table to examine it closely there too. These were such a popular addition to the class that I suggested we use the containers again to create something to decorate our adopted class trees.

Afternoon students exploring the ice blocks and creating ornaments to decorate their tree.
The morning class ornaments hung from our beloved silver maple tree.

"Looking closely" at my class in this way, I see I've gone on for what could easily be two posts, and yet there's so much more to share: our tree inquiry, looking at the smallest creatures in our world, looking at growth and change in flora and fauna as well as ourselves... being aware, being mindful.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

the coll-APP-orative: connecting and collaborating through apps

 A while back a friend and fellow blogger asked me an intriguing question: would I be willing to join in a collaborative project sharing reviews of favourite classroom/teacher use apps? Firstly, I was honoured to work with this stellar group of reflective educators, my PLN who constantly help me go further on my joyful-learning journey. Secondly, I have several go-to apps I use with students daily, so I had a few ideas of what I might share: first apps any new user should try, documentation tools, or my personal favourite. I went with that last category, thinking about how my students and I share our learning: families and other followers see our vines like this one daily on our class twitter account Beyond 4walls @FynesKs. Please find links for all the wonderful "coll-APP-orative" posts listed at the end of this post. We hope you'll visit each blog and perhaps leave a comment, too.

*Note: in order to stop and start the vine clip, simply tap (touchscreen) or click (desktop/laptop) on the clip.

 I have a confession to make: I am addicted to vine. Not vines, not wine, vine. It is my go-to app when looking to share a snippet of student learning. While I've only included at few vine clips in past blog posts, due to cross-platform embedding issues (e.g., youtube clips show up on desktop but appear as large blank when viewed on some mobile devices), I was delighted to find that I can embed vine clips that are visible across various platforms. Please note, however: on some devices the vines open in "mute" mode (as seen in picture below). Simply click on the red x beside the speaker icon (upper left) and you will have sound. 

 A little bit about why I love vine: it is a simple but powerful way to share glimpses of life. I am inspired by Reggio Emilia and the works of Loris Malaguzzi, and often think of his famous poem "the 100 languages of children" that so amazed me the first time I read it. Because early learning, indeed all joyous learning, is so multi-faceted, it makes sense to me to capture both the sights and sounds of exploration in all its forms. In the classroom, this looks like noticings and wonderings, provocation and response, or little moments of music, art or poetry, new experiences, discoveries shared, thank-you's, even student how-to movies. Outside, we capture our noticings, and simply send them once back in wifi range. Vine is a "capture" app, meaning you don't use it like some other picture or video supporting apps (such as pic collage, which allows you to use pictures from a variety of sources) but instead capture the current moment, in six-second snippets. In the year or so I've been using vine, I've delighted at the way the touch-screen operation allows for simple stop and start recording, while simply turning off the app saves the creation at the point of closure. Stopping and starting allows for some very creative storytelling, as a quick vine search for "stop motion" will show. New innovations to the updated app now include "time travel" and sessions, which allows you to stop recording a vine, save the partial clip for later, and record up to seven new vines at the same time (this news made my jaw drop with the inherent stop-motion possibilities it offers). Note: due to the large number of vines included in the post, I have chosen to leave them as links within the text (thus all brown text is active, will open in new window) to minimize the size of this post.

Photo credit for Loris Malaguzzi poem: Gan Malibu Preschool via Pinterest

My treasured vine badge, hand-made by Tina Z. 
  I've been thinking about writing a post about vine ever since participating in the social media cafe at the "Teaching and Learning in a Digital World" conference held by the PDSB back in August. Here's a test I made while teaching someone how to use the app. A colleague and friend Tina Zita (see below for link to her post; Tina is an ITRT in our board, an ever-enthusiastic early-adopter, and one of the conferences coordinators) asked me if I'd be willing to join the social media cafe to help share my love of apps that work in concert with twitter to help make learning visible. When she suggested I share "vine" I agreed. Somehow by the end of summer I was also co-presenting a digital documentation session with two PLN friends and fellow PDSB kindergarten teachers, Emily Krahn and Helen Chapman. When asked to present on using technology to support emergent curriculum documentation, I was at first resistant to share my limited experience. I was delighted when Emily and Helen agreed to join me, as our workshop preparation turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to learn in-depth what we were all interested in using but hadn't yet explored in depth. This sort of thing happens to you when you hang out with Tina, she does inspire people to push their professional boundaries very well. Note: if you are interested in what we shared during our "Making Learning Visible" session, our bitly bundles created for that workshop can be found here, here, and here, and a first vine made with Stephen, a Kindergarten teacher in Mississauga.

If you head to the app store, this is the one you're looking for. Note: it's an iPhone app so it won't show up in iPad searches. It works on iPad, iPod too.

All this talk about the "why" and "when", now for a little about the "how". Vine is incredibly easy to use. Students co-create vines with me daily, and while I remain in control of what will be "published" or shared with our followers, they experiment with capturing various scenes of Kindergarten life and almost always help with captioning our tweets. Once you have downloaded the app and synched it to your mode of sharing (I use twitter while some send vines to Facebook), you are ready to try your hand at making a vine. In the three pictures below, you will see what you need to begin. Start on the home page (first pic) and select the video camera (icon upper right). It brings you to recording screen, which you see below (second pic). As you press the image in the centre of the screen, it records, which is shown with a green bar extending along towards the arrow (third pic). Stop touching the screen, recording stops. You may stop and start as many times as you like until the bar is finished, meaning you have completed 6 seconds. Now, if you wish to capture voice or music, you may prefer to record all at once. For moments added together to tell a story, however, tapping the screen as you move (or move the objects of your recording) will have an animated effect. Either way, once you have a completed green bar along the top, you will be able to save for later editing (e.g. time travel) or immediately caption for sharing. I usually advise going straight to caption, and getting used to vine, before trying the newer editing features, but I am a firm believer in playing to learn so please just have fun and experiment!

Once the recording is complete, you may add a caption and then share. Here's what you will see: first, the green check shows you've completed six seconds. You may continue (press check) or return to preview vine (back arrow, top left in first pic). Once you press the checkmark, you'll be taken to the share screen (second pic). Here's where you decide how to share (only vine, twitter, facebook all options) and add the caption as well as location (I do not use) or channel (like youtube, allows others on vine to find your clips by category). The caption acts like twitter, with a character countdown showing you how much text you can fit. My vines are set to post to twitter, as the slider below indicates. Once you click "done" you cannot edit further, only erase. To view, go to your profile page (third pic) and you may scroll back through your vines, as well as those of others you follow (this is as simple as in other social media apps, simply click on a user and select "follow").

Your vine, viewed in the vine app, will simply loop the 6-second clip indefinitely unless you tap the screen to stop play. Tap again, it resumes. The caption appears below the vine (see pic below).

A bit more about "why" vine: it is a wonderful window into the classroom. To my students, seeing what other Kindergarten kids are doing elsewhere is an education in the bigger world around them, and often provides sparks for our own inquiries. I often share vines with small groups of students when I think they'll be interested, or show the whole class for a conversation about what they see, think and wonder about this glimpse into another classroom. I follow friends of our class (whose classes we also follow on twitter) and we sometimes comment on their clips when they inspire us. We often take photos and vines to share with our friend "Ranger Rob", Peel's outdoor education co-ordinator and my students' favourite teacher from afar (Rob Ridley works at the field centres and board main office when not at schools), especially during the "KindergartenBioBlitz" events on twitter. My students also create vines to answer questions from other classes: one teacher asked how we do the "magic leaf" art, and another asked how we play "Roly-Poly Pumpkin", another let us know how her students were inspired by our bey-blade creations to try some of their own.

Last note: this post is merely one of a carousel of app reviews among friends. Here are links for the rest of the app collaborative shared today. Please visit and comment or ask questions!

Joanne Babalis - iAnnotate - Transforming our Learning Environment into a Space of Possibilities
Heather McKay - Book Creator - Igniting Creativity
Sergio Pascucci - NoteLedge -  crayons, wands and building blocks
Tracy Pickard - Pic Collage - Passionately Curious in Kindergarten
Tina Zita - Soundbrush - Miss Kit Kat

Sunday, 20 October 2013

looking closely at inspiration

A first week afternoon class welcome meeting: singing songs, making friends, dancing, watching for butterflies.

This year has been a wonderful, exciting, busy time in our class. It started before the students came back, when we teachers learned about the impact of the big flood in July. Our school was flooded, the first floor left with silt and mud, and as such, our carpets destroyed. We teachers were grateful to those who worked so hard after the flood to clean the school, but we were also concerned. New carpets were ordered but would take several weeks to arrive. What seemed like an insurmountable problem ("How can we have carpet time if we don't have a carpet?") instead sparked something new, something quite wonderful for us in room 109. I purchased roll-up grass mats, the sort you take to the beach. My teammate and friend Ms. Croft brought in large foam tiles to create a soft square for seating in her class, and gave me a stack too, which was a lifesaver on rainy days when we couldn't head outside for meeting time. But for all the other days, the beautiful, sunny days of early September, we started our day together outside in the meadow beside the "no-mow zone". I don't think I've ever had a September quite like this in my ten years of teaching Kindergarten. Goodbye tears disappeared quickly each day as we tramped off over the grass to find a spot to lay down our mats. We greeted each day with our "jumping song" and the butterflies and dragonflies buzzed around us as we sang and danced together. We chased and captured insects to view, and later release. When we entered the classroom after meeting time, it was time to explore and play, freeing me up to spend time with new students on their first days. Relationship building is the most important part of any Kindergarten classroom in September, so this ability to enter the class and move directly to "play and learn time" (the students' chosen name for our free-choice exploration time) has made creating a classroom community much easier this year. I wonder now if all those years, starting out our day at carpet was difficult for nervous new students, surrounded by inviting materials and toys and yet not allowed to touch them while we sat in a circle, all close together.

A welcome circle during the first week, before all new students had arrived. Morning class looking at dragonflies which flew in circles over us and then into the long grass area behind us known as "the no-mow zone".

Last year when I started this blog, I was well into the year with my students and had seen several inquiries build and wane by the time I chose favourites to share. Now since the beginning of this year, intent on forming relationships and building the social structures a class needs, I've watched as friendships were formed around shared interests: three friends creating a track for trains, six friends creating a bey blade arena, five friends catching ladybugs and watching them closely in the "bug jug", four friends exploring colour and shadow in the light centre. Several projects have sprouted and begun to grow (that is, explorations that grow and sustain a group of students for more that a week). One theme has tied them altogether, even though the children's interests are quite diverse. We have a way to explore our learning environment that helps us focus and learn more, by helping us to slow down and truly understand what we are learning about. We call it: "Looking Closely".

A favourite story shared outside: it invites the reader to look very, very closely to discover new wonders in nature.

Now I didn't know this would be our guiding principal. Last year, when I was brand new at Thornwood and all my students were new to me, I made an effort to keep in touch with Miss Metcalfe, the previous teacher in our classroom. Her JK "caterpillar" students, now my SK "butterflies", loved to hear about their teacher in her new school. This was one of many connections we made to classes outside of our own over the year. Making connections was the big idea that connected our projects. It allowed us to share our inquiries with others on the "We Can See" project blog, and saw us sharing materials and ideas with friends in other classes around our school board. By the end of the year my students were well-versed in social media sharing and had a concept of an audience who were interested in their learning. I expected that this would continue to be our big idea, and indeed the butterfly students are often the authors of daily tweets to families and followers. However, the intriguing "Looking Closely" collaboration formed this summer.

Beach glass, water- and sand-softened.  Marvelous on the light table, each piece unique.

A faraway friend on twitter is the creator of this wonderful collaboration among teachers and classes all over Canada. It began, like many great ideas I've been able to turn into reality in my class, from a conversation among PLN (professional learning network) friends on twitter. Here is how I described it when I first saved the story for friends on twitter using "Storify" to gather the tweets:
It started far enough back in the summer that I can't find the tweet. I shared a picture of some beach glass I'd washed, drying in a colander. @HeatherMMcKay asked if it was truly from the beach, as she'd only ever seen it in stores. I decided right then to continue beach combing with my kids until I had a full mason jar, and send half of it off to Heather. (I've gotten good at finding it: sending fourth parcel this week). My daughter helped pack, write a card, and sorted out her favourite pieces (she says I'm not allowed to send the blue and red ones, they're very rare. I always try to sneak one in).
Here is what I saw on twitter when it arrived: @KinderFynes IT ARRIVED! Thank you so much to you & M. I love it! Can't wait to WONDER with my new Ss & sea glass!

Although I told her the glass was a found "treasure" and therefore had not cost me anything, she insisted upon returning the favour by sending me a favourite book to inspire students. The book, pictured below, is one of a series of "Looking Closely" books which play with perspective and detail to draw the reader in. We were both so intrigued by the idea of using these books to inspire our students to slow down, look closer. (click here to read the "Storify" version of the twitter story)  Since that discussion and Heather's creation of the collaborative blog, many students, in Kindergarten and older grades alike, have taken part in a "looking closely" project with their class. Currently there are 30 teams participating and the enthusiasm continues to build!

A quick thank you sent on twitter to let her know I'd received the book, and soon an collaborative inquiry was born.

Excited to spark more critical looking at the world around us, I bought several more books from the "looking closely" series, along with other titles I remembered as inviting close inspection of everyday objects.
In our class, we share our discoveries daily with our class twitter account: Beyond 4walls @FynesKs . Many exciting inquiries have developed around our habit of looking closely around us: followers on twitter can follow the hashtags to see our #treeinquiry and #lookclosely tweets, and several small-group projects have grown to include students in both classes. Our first post on the collaborative blog shared the story of how we look closely in the meadow where we begin our days. Ongoing interest in the little creatures we find in the meadow has lead to several small groups "looking closely at insects" and becoming experts at how to capture and release various insects gently and carefully. Several projects which warrant their own post here are currently underway in our class: looking closely at our adopted class trees as they change with the seasons, looking for circles, cylinders, and other round things, looking closely at insects, looking at structures in the building centre.


Afternoon students looking closely at their class tree notice 
several ladybugs among the wind-blown leaves. 

Some inquiry sparks burn bright and fast, leading to whole-class investigations that excite students, but the investigation may fail to continue in following days. Last week family followers on twitter could surely hear the buzz of excitement when our afternoon class, walking back from a visit to our class tree, found and captured a cricket. The observations and theories from students were amazing, and it was all I could do to keep up while writing their words. It was an incredible day of learning, yet a Friday, so it is entirely possible that interest will be gone when students return after the weekend. I will be sharing this afternoon's investigations on the Looking Closely collaborative blog, once I know if this is a finished story or merely another page in a growing book.

Outstanding questions for me: Will all the sparks of interest turn into big, large group projects? Does it need to in order to be valid learning? Is it enough to capture the moment and reflect on it? What skills and attitudes will "looking closely" develop in students? 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

where the grass grows tall

Kindergarteners explore and play in the "wilds" of our Mississauga Valley grounds.

At Thornwood PS we have a feature that is both unassuming and spectacular, and it is the focus of this post. People who follow me, or my class on twitter no doubt know how important the "no-mow zone" is to me and my classes. Every day we post pictures of our new discoveries, and ask our online friends for help identifying the interesting living things we find, be they flora or fauna. Our second week of school was a celebration of the long grass area with our PLN and our good friend in the environment, "Ranger Rob" and his #KindergartenBioBlitz project. For more background on why I have been spending even more time outside this year, you may also see my  Looking Closely in the Meadow post at the collaborative Looking Closely Blog, started by dear (but not near) friend Heather McKay

Early summer and approaching fall in the glorious green.

As I am only in my second year here at this wonderful school, I did not get to see the way this beautiful project unfolded. Through conversations with Dianne Brown, the teacher I quickly came to know and look to as the teacher most passionate about environmental justice, I learned about the hard work that went into creating our precious space. I have been asked time and time again on twitter to explain how we managed to create the no-mow zone, and how other schools could follow suit.

When we stop and look: wildlife in the long grass.

For that reason, today I would like to introduce my first guest to the blog. We have discussed how challenging it will be to share the story briefly, and as such this will be a multiple-part post. The rest of the story now, from Dianne.

My love for nature began as a child growing up on a small farm near Spencerville, south of Ottawa, and close to the St. Lawrence River. The South Nation River, a small tributary, ran through our farm and I spent many hot summer afternoons and freezing winter days there. I remember taking a shovel to the creek one winter day plus my brother’s skates, determined I would not return home until I knew how to skate. Covered in bruises, I returned triumphant. I also remember choosing to be with my father working the farm while my 3 sisters took care of business in the house. When all our chores were done we were off to the woods with tarps, hammers, nails and anything else we needed for construction, my favourite being our fort. I was happiest when surrounded by nature.
The trees hide the creek in behind, but if you listen, you can often hear the ducks. Photo: DB

When my children were little we spent many glorious hours exploring green spaces in our neighbourhood. The school they attended in Etobicoke, Broadacres PS, became involved in an extensive greening initiative under the guidance of the Evergreen. This project was documented with photos and videos which are still used as a model today. Over a few years the flat landscape was transformed into a renewed swale, flower/vegetable gardens, pathways, log and rock seating areas, and shade trees. The classrooms at Broadacres moved outside and the engagement of the students was deep and fulfilling. Students with special needs were able to have alternative spaces for activities. My hope is to create a similar environment for our students at Thornwood. It is important for our students, many of whom live in apartment buildings, to have experiences in the outdoors during their time at school.

Many years and many life challenges happened before I entered teaching. This may sound crazy but the first day I walked into Thornwood as a supply teacher in March of 2006, I said to myself, “I’m going to teach here one day.” Here I am, and here we are involved in a transformational green initiative! How’s that for a dream come true? 
Long shadows point to where the beloved outdoor classroom would someday grow. Photo credit: DB

In June 2009 I attended a Professional Development presentation by Robert Bateman’s Get To Know Your Backyard Neighbour organization. An announcement was made that there was an EcoSchools meeting at the end and everyone was invited to attend. Yes, I did. The next year Thornwood became an EcoSchool and the following year, Thornwood was chosen by Evergreen/Brickworks and Peel EcoSchools to receive a $10,000 grant for school ground greening! Fate? Divine intervention? My dream for Thornwood moved one huge step forward!
Over the next 2 years of planning with students, teachers, parents, representatives from the Peel Board, and our consultant from Evergreen/Brickworks, we came up with a design that included a play structure, seating areas, mulched paths, shade trees and shrubs, only to be advised by the Board’s Facilities Department and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority that our school sits in a flood zone and no structures could be approved on the east side of the school. Half our design was nixed. This was a huge setback until the idea of allowing a portion of the yard along Cooksville Creek to naturalize was proposed by the Evergreen/Brickworks consultant. That idea triggered a whole lot of thinking about exploring what flora and fauna would return to this area. We were allowed to plant native flora that suited the zoning as long as the lay of the land was not altered, and voila, the No-Mow Zone was born. 
A splash of deep red dogwood in the meadow: the promise of something new. Photo: DB
Dig day! Community involvement makes a real connection to our place. Photo: DB
The tape marks the beginning where the no-mow zone will be. Oops, mowed again! Photo: DB
The new trees, standing alone. Photo: DB

In June of 2010 Thornwood hosted Dig Day for approximately 150 parents, teachers and students. It was such a huge community-bonding experience and parents want more. We added a total of 12 trees to the school yard, 4 of these marking the outline of the No-Mow Zone. These trees will provide shade for students and a habitat for wildlife. We also planted native shrubs that will provide winter interest with red branches and berries to feed wildlife. The next challenge for the No-Mow Zone was getting the message to the grass cutting contractors to mow around our naturalized area. The first summer that message did not reach its destination. Our next strategy was to spray paint small dowels and hammer them into the ground and wrap yellow Caution tape around them. The dowels were broken by soccer balls and the rest disappeared. We decided to put 2”x2”x4’ stakes in the ground and wrap more Caution tape around them. That worked for a while but gradually the stakes disappeared. The good thing was that by this time it was very obvious we were growing something! The mowing stopped and the demarcation of this area needed no protection. 
The lovely chicory that gives the late-summer grasses the beautiful blue hue. Photo: DB

The long and the short of it. Photo: DB

After 2 unusually hot and dry summers, and many hours of watering, the new trees and shrubs showed signs of survival. It was a challenging couple of years for the new green space, but it looked like it would definitely become an outdoor classroom; an area of exploration for whoever wanted to take advantage of it. My teaching partner and I purchased scientific tools, a large assortment of Dollar Store magnifying classes, bug bottles, and butterfly nets. We signed out books from the library that would help with identification of species as well as stir excitement for future exploration in the No Mow Zone. All these items were placed on a cart lent to us by a colleague, a dim sum cart, yep! No money from budgets for us… and we were set to be naturalists, scientists, and explorers extraordinaire. 
The hot, dry summers took a toll but the hardy native trees survived. Photo: DB

Sweet-smelling white clover. Photo: DB

Phase two of the Big Dream relates to the history of the setting of our school, a First Nations settlement. While the Grade 3 Social Studies curriculum touched on Early Settlement, and a comparison of ways of life pre-European contact to our lives today, the deep, spiritual connection First Nations people had to nature was picked up by our team as a Big Idea that still drives our teaching today. 

Stay tuned for the story of the development of the No Mow Zone, and how we intertwined becoming a Gold EcoSchool with our TLCPs, in Math and Language.