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Our schools are filled with temporary inhabitants; students and parents, teachers, staff and principals all pass through them at varying rates. Inevitably, each year there is a new school community. From this single fact emerge many challenges for a school ground project: how to establish continuity, how to pass on accumulated knowledge and history, how to involve the new members of the school community in a meaningful way.
As challenging as it can be to sustain interest in and a commitment to developing more natural school grounds, once established, opportunities to engage students, staff and community in an ongoing and meaningful way abound. Maintaining them as a priority in the school community can often be both as simple and as challenging as building in routine observation and documentation of the site, and celebrating the passing of events occurring in the landscape. Many established projects have had to come up with creative responses to the diverse challenges of sustaining a school ground naturalization project, some of which are summarized in the following paragraphs.
There is no question that supporting teachers in their efforts to make the best use of school grounds as outdoor classrooms is a sound investment toward the continuity of any naturalization project. There are a variety of resources available to help teachers with hands-on activities and more and more are being written to connect with the learning outcomes of the various provincial curricula. Helping teachers become more comfortable and creative in an outdoor setting may be simply a matter of providing some training with outdoor educators or local specialists from conservation authorities, naturalist groups or other similar groups.
Connecting teaching activities on the school grounds with the ongoing needs for monitoring and maintenance of the site makes good sense. As many schools have shown, the teaching opportunities span the breadth of the curriculum, and activities are often best when they are interdisciplinary. Think of the measuring activities that chart the growth rates of the various plant species; the drawing activities that shed light on the intricate network of veins on a leaf; the life cycle studies of the various insects that find satisfactory habitat in the natural setting; and the storytelling and creative writing that contemplate a butterfly's extraordinary annual pattern of migration.
A number of teachers have introduced individual garden journals for their students as a place to document and reflect upon a year's worth of exploration on the school grounds. Not only are they used in their formal role during lessons, but students are also encouraged to develop the habits of drawing and writing in their journals on their own time.
In addition to individual student journals, any school that has kept a master journal of the improvements made to its grounds has found it invaluable in a number of ways, including providing continuity with the project from one year to the next. Typically, these journals include photographic and sometimes video documentation of the site before changes and at each ensuing stage of its development. Journals can also include funding proposals, design plans, survey results, press clippings, award certificates and any number of other items that relate to the ongoing development of the project. While a journal can document a proud history, finding ways to share and educate others about a project's history is just as important.
Submitted by: Steven Fassnacht, teacher, University of Waterloo, Ontario Carol Moogk-Soulis and Cathy MacPhie, teachers, Mary Johnston Public School, Waterloo, Ontario
Grade 5/6 French immersion students at Mary Johnston Public School in Waterloo, Ontario, have been looking at snowflakes as part of a University of Waterloo engineering research project that will help verify weather radar observations and snowpack modelling results. The Mary Johnston students were part of a team of student observers from across southwestern Ontario. Their winter outdoor classroom work involved measuring snow depths shortly after snowfalls, examining snowflakes on the top layer of the snowpack, estimating the largest flake dimension, identifying the prominent flake type and measuring the air temperature.
Participation in the project has provided the students with an opportunity to closely examine major factors in their environment, assist in the collection of data and fine-tune their observational skills. It has also provided a sense of collaboration with the larger community at the university and students participating at other schools.
A number of schools have created both portable displays and permanent bulletin boards devoted to communicating the history of their efforts. Portable displays can travel from class to class each year to reintroduce staff and students to the stages of the project. They can also be used at local workshops or as semi-permanent displays in the school's library. Adopting one of the school's bulletin boards to communicate what's happening in the outdoor classroom can be a great way to keep students, teachers and visiting parents up-to-date on the garden. "Did You Know?" sections can be used to stimulate teaching ideas, while a "Helping Hands" section can list items or services that are needed to achieve planned activities. A few schools have even put up weatherproof outdoor bulletin boards to keep the neighbouring community abreast of the latest developments on the school grounds.
Finding outside help to support your efforts can be important for maintaining the vitality of the project. Some examples of successful collaborations include artists who have helped bring children's own paintings to life in the form of both indoor and outdoor murals or gallery displays; a series of workshops on native plant gardening targeted to both the school and the surrounding community and hosted on the school grounds by local naturalists, parks officials or gardeners; and a local basket weaver working with students to weave protective baskets around the bases of young trees using locally gathered natural materials.
Planting native plants as the backbone of your school grounds is itself a strong contribution to continuity in the grounds. A naturalization plan provides the opportunity to place plants into the context of their natural ecological communities. This strategy easily facilitates additional plantings done in stages over a number of years. Each year, students and teachers will need to work together to assess and understand the evolving ecology of their site so that future plantings remain true to goals set for the naturalization project.
Vegetable gardens have an obvious role to play in creating opportunities for the annual renewal of activity. Many schools have created garden allotments for each of their classes, including terraced gardens, gardens shaped like spirals and container gardens. Not only does this provide students with the opportunity for regular participation in developing parts of their school grounds, it also creates a bridge between one school year and the next. Spring planting builds excitement for the fall harvest, even for newcomers who can be made to immediately feel part of a living tradition at the school.
Undoubtedly one of the most powerful elements of naturalized school grounds is the change that occurs in cycles - from the daily and seasonal to the annual and beyond. The power of a changing landscape is that it captures the imagination and stimulates the mind while simultaneously stirring the emotions. Celebrating annual events is a marvelous opportunity to connect the school community to the local landscape.
Many schools are now hosting seasonal festivities, such as spring and fall festivals. Spring celebrations have featured such events as planting, tastings of wild edible salads, tea and maple syrup, and storytelling. Fall festivals have included dyeing cloth with colour extracted from wildflowers, nut cracking, flower pressing, sweet grass braiding and preparing harvest feasts of vegetables, fruits and herbs. Other annual events have been more practical: spring cleanups and pathway refurbishing. There have also been fall tours for new students and parents, and pageants for presenting music and theatre.
While a school's history and stories are commonly passed down through siblings, through multiple generations and through long-standing teachers, the stories in the landscape of a naturalized school grounds can provide continuity and meaning to a school community. In many cases, the feelings associated with the school's outdoor setting become central to its identity and student pride.
For all of you who undertake to improve your school grounds, we hope you find enjoyment through the process. As so many schools have demonstrated, your efforts will be greatly appreciated, foremost by the students but also by the many others who will get caught up in the spirit of making a positive contribution to your community. Good luck with all your efforts and may your roots grow deep!
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