Courtenay Elementary SD#71 Comox Valley

School Name: Courtenay Elementary

School District: SD#71 Comox Valley

Inquiry Team Members: Heidi Jungwirth

Inquiry Team Contact Email:

Type of Inquiry: NOIIE

Grade Levels: Intermediate (4-7)

Curricular Area(s): Other: social emotional learning – core competencies

Focus Addressed: Inquiry-based learning

In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? Empower the students to advocate for a better play space at our school.

Scanning: In this case, the 4 key questions led me (us) to this inquiry. I would say the the most important question was, “How are you doing?” because I noticed that the students were not playing well or respiting well during their recess and lunch breaks. Our school playground was not providing the students with an opportunity to go play in a way that was helpful for them. Rather, there were a lot of discipline problems and a lot of bored kids. Of the 7 OECD Principles of learning, the ones that inspired this inquiry were, “Learners at at the centre” , “The social nature of learning” and “Emotions are central to learning.” If learners were really at the centre of how our school playground was designed and maintained, then things would have been done a lot differently. The First People’s Principles of Learning that we experienced the most this year (partly because of the nature of the inquiry – growing a forest takes a long time – and partly because of the extra complications due to Covid), was that “Learning involves patience and time”.

Focus: I noticed that students were not playing well during their breaks outside. I asked the students, and they said that they were bored, and that there wasn’t much for them to do. I looked that the school yard, and saw that it was a grassy field and not much else. I asked the students what they would like to have in our school yard for them to do during recess and lunch, and the students said that they would like to have a forest. I asked the staff, and the answer was (over and over again) that they wanted to be able to use the school yard as a place where children could go to help them self-regulate. This meant a forest, but also walking paths.

Hunch: My hunch for a number of years was that the school yard was contributing to discipline problems for our students. I saw that they were bored and I wondered what we could do to make the school grounds a more interesting, play-inspiring place for students. I wondered, if the students have a true nature experience during their breaks in the school day, would they be more focused during their lessons? Would a natural forested play area contribute to better learning outcomes for our learners? Would a more natural play space make it easier to make connections for our Indigenous learners, especially if the teachers brought more of the learning outside? If there were more natural things to play with and explore, would our learners be more self-regulated?

New Professional Learning: In the beginning, my professional learning centred around the practical aspects of growing a forest. As my students learned about how to do this, I also learned (i.e. Which vegetation would grow in which conditions? Bird species and what they eat. Forest ecology and Indigenous plants. Which plants would produce berries? Which plants could be used by Indigenous educators). On another level, my professional learning took a whole different direction than I was expecting. I learned how to make a proposal to the senior administration, and how to work with them on a project. I learned how to take the inquiry work that my students were doing, and use that when meeting with senior administration and consultants, so that the students would also have a voice at the table when these changes were being discussed.

Taking Action: In the beginning, I had the students decide what aspect of growing a forest they would like to inquire about. For example, one group learned about plants, and another about techniques for planting. One group surveyed the school population to see what the student body as a whole wanted in our landscape plan. There were a bunch of other topics that the groups inquired about. While my students were doing this, I met with officials from the city of Courtenay, and also with senior administration from our school district. Whenever I met with the administration, I took work from the students to show them what we were imagining. This process took a long time, (and was often frustratingly slow) but in April, the operations manager offered to hire a Landscape Architect to make an overall plan so that we could move forward in a coordinated way. This was a big moment when we were told this! When I met with the Landscape Architect, I gave him a package that had been prepared by the students. Each group chose their favourite feature and made a simple proposal asking him to include it in his plan. I think that this was really impactful because he incorporated a lot of their ideas into his plan. When we met to go over his draft proposal, he mentioned to me that having those pages from the students helped him to remember that this is a school ground, and that he was designing it for students. After this meeting and with the draft plan in my hand, I met with my students and got their feedback. I then emailed their feedback to the “team” and again was thanked by the Landscape Architect for including the student voice. As it stands now (end of year 2021), this is as far as we have gotten with the plan.

Checking: As we all know, doing anything in the year of Covid was slower and more frustrating than it would have been in a regular year. This inquiry was not an exception. Still, the students were able to inquire about changing their school, and this was highly successful. The students also learned that it is worthwhile to work towards something that will mostly benefit others. It will take some years for there to be a forest at our school, but after initial disappointment in realizing this fact, the students reconciled themselves to this and took joy in doing something for future generations. With this in mind, I would like to revisit the 4 questions.
1. Name 2 adults that believe in you. Through the use of the students’ work to guide the plan put together by the Landscape Architect, I think the students realized that their work was being used for something important. I think that this made them realize that there were many adults who believed in them and in their work.
2. Where are you going with your learning? The students learned that their inquiry work influenced some important people who were making important decisions about their school. The students took their work seriously. This work empowered the students to see that they could have an impact on some important things.
3. How are you doing? On a practical level, nothing changed this year for the students. The schoolyard still looks the same. What is different, however, is that the students gained self-confidence from doing their inquiry work. I think that this means that they are doing better.
4. Where to next? The students that inquired this year are hoping and expecting that the students in my class next year will continue with this inquiry. Now that we have an overall plan that is supported by the senior administration, we can break the massive big project up into smaller, more manageable projects that can be tackled by a class. Students will also enjoy seeing what happens with the bigger infrastructure projects that the school district staff will take on.

Reflections/Advice: I have learned many things from this inquiry, the first being that in order to change the mindset of administrators, it takes gentle, consistent pressure. But, if you want to see a major change (something like growing a forest) it is the voices of the children which will get you the most support and in the end have the most impact on those who make the decisions. The students learned that their ideas were taken seriously by “important people” which was very empowering for them.
Next year, my plan is to continue with this inquiry in a slightly modified way. We ended the year with a draft landscape plan that had been commented on, but not yet made into its final form. When the plan is final, I have some money from a grant that I applied for, that can be used to get our forest started. I will be guiding my class through this process. Depending on how the final landscape plan looks, we will either choose other parts to work on, or will expand on the project that I have set aside the grant money for. In conclusion, I would say that it was very worthwhile for myself and for the children to work together on this project that will benefit all of the future students of our school.

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