Place-Based Learning at the KCS Senior School

With the launch of the new KCS Senior School comes the opportunity to show what Place-Based Learning can be in the heart of Canada’s biggest city. Admittedly, Toronto is blessed with ample greenspaces, a wide variety of mixed-use neighbourhoods, and a population full of passionate community builders, artists, and changemakers. We are spoiled for inspiration and learning opportunities. This is all the more reason to launch a school that will connect student learning with such an enriched environment. Here’s how school can be.

Our year began last Thursday. After a walk along one of Toronto’s longest, mixed-use streets, our students spent the day in High Park: 399 acres of native flora and fauna, sports facilities, trails, and more. As befitting the first day, our students and faculty engaged in tone-setting dialogue and team-building challenges, all under the watchful gaze of a hawk who chose to spend the morning with us, even perching on a nearby tree when we stopped for lunch. In the afternoon, our students were introduced to the new responsibility they had as students in a place-based high school. They were paired up, given a scavenger hunt challenge, and a map with a wide range in which they could wander for the following 90 minutes to find the many items on their list. This was their introduction to the trust we had in them, and the trust they would want to maintain. All returned when expected, with the task complete. When told that offsite learning would be a regular part of the school experience, one student responded “I like that. That’s how I remember things.” Yes, we know.

Imagine what’s possible if learning were to regularly happen outside a classroom. Imagine what’s possible if learning included the sights, sounds, smells, artifacts, emotions, physical activity, and engagement with external experts that are available by stepping outside of school. This is intellectual and life-shaping enrichment that no textbook nor Google search can provide.

Our second day included two hours with an expert from High Park Nature Centre. Our guide began with the intriguing question: how does place hold time? We learned about the origin of the name Toronto (Tkaronto, where trees stand in the water) and the 5,000-year-old fishing weirs (those trees) created by the Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat nations that are still visible underwater north of Toronto. Our tour included an introduction to the white pine, also named the Tree of Peace, and the story of Hiawatha and peacemaking dating back 600 years. Another activity blended math and history by challenging the students to create a 30-foot timeline of local events, from the ice age to the 2010 resolution of The Toronto Purchase. We saw a decades-old photo of a sewer that stood 20 feet tall, which we erroneously guessed was a smokestack, before the ravine of Wendigo Creek at the northeast corner of the park was filled in to make for smooth road-building and community development. Those two hours introduced the students to the stories behind the neighbourhoods we inhabit. Those stories will support curiosity, humility, and an appreciation among our students for the role they can play in shaping their corner of the world for the better.

Learning immersed in our surroundings will continue beyond these first days. English class will include free writes that focus on characters and setting inspired by observations on walks such as these. French class will see students developing their vocabulary by commenting on their varied surroundings. Science is already planning a canoe trip on the nearby Humber River that will include an introduction to water sampling led by Swim Drink Fish, a charity committed to engaging citizens as active contributors to data collection and water quality oversight. All of these activities connect to the curriculum.

The theme that will weave through all grade 9 courses is “knowing our place”. Our collective effort as teachers will support deep insight into the nature, people, economy, challenges, history, accomplishments, and secrets of the streets and trails we’ll walk upon. Becoming intimately familiar with our small part of the world will set the stage for appreciating the depth and complexity of the unknown neighbourhoods around the globe.

Our students are regularly outside, they are active, they are learning in unforgettable ways, and they are growing as independent learners and leaders. This is the beginning of place-based learning at the KCS Senior School. This is the start of our story of what high school can be.

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