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Taking a Walk on the Real Side

Jeff McMillan and Rich Tamblyn
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As intermediate teachers, one of our major concerns is motivating our students. How can we engage our students in meaningful learning experiences and, at the same time, create a lifelong love for learning? Ontario has an alarming dropout rate. At Commonwealth Public School in Brockville, we are attempting to address this growing problem by giving our students the opportunity to become totally engaged in their learning experiences.

Commonwealth is a small, urban-centred school of about 300 students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. We encounter our fair share of high needs. Our intermediate division has two grade 7 and 8 classrooms with 65 students who have a wide range of learning styles and learning abilities. Our teaching team is made up of one full-time educational assistant and two full-time teachers – one with 10 ten years experience and one with 28 – who share a similar philosophy and approach to teaching.

We believe strongly in developing good citizenship,using differentiated instruction, assessment through awareness of students’ multiple intelligences, and involving all students in meaningful real-life experiences. We have embraced experiential learning as a model for learning in today’s world.

In this model, the student is the centre of his/her education, and our role as teachers is to facilitate learning by returning the responsibility to the student. As teachers, we blend enduring understandings (curriculum/knowledge), essential questions, authentic challenges, and assessment targets, while connecting to the world beyond the walls of the school.

In 2004 our new administrative team gave us an opportunity to broaden the scope of our teaching philosophy. Our new principal, Olga Grigoriev, understood its strengths from her own experience as a teacher. We visited several “alternative” schools in Toronto to see how others made real-world connections.

Our program, which we coined “The Current Experience,” has taught us a great deal. We began our curriculum planning by looking at project-based learning focused around central themes. For example, this year’s program consists of three themes: environmental issues, media and technology, and social injustice. Within each of these themes, we plan authentic challenges that connect curriculum to real-life experiences. As these connections are the essential components of experiential education, it is necessary to develop strong ongoing partnerships with professionals in the community who become the “expert” resources for students. This is not a “field trip” but an ongoing professional partnership that students can access throughout the school year.

From theory to practice

Our first term began with students exploring environmental issues. Establishing community partnerships was much easier than we anticipated because professionals enjoy working with knowledgeable, engaged students. Our partners included the Ministry of Natural Resources, Leeds County Stewardship, Cataraqui Region Conservation Area, Environmental Connections, and the Frontenac Arch Biosphere.

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