City Hall of learning
By Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard
Thursday, October 20, 2016 8:14:59 EDT PM
Centennial Public School teacher Skot Caldwell works with students, from left, Eh K’lu, Haadi Jalaud, Trinity Fairman, Addison Rawcliffe and Peyton Vanalstyne in the royalty hall in the basement of city hall in Kingston on Thursday. They were in the building for a week as part of the Beyond Classrooms program. (Michael Lea/The Whig-Standard)
A week spent immersed in the history and culture of a city museum, art gallery or historic site can energize students with an invigorated desire to soak up as much knowledge as they can.
They wander through the building and find something new in every corner, letting their curiosity lead them to new discoveries and new questions they want answered. It is a unique way of learning that causes more conventional teaching methods to pale before it.
But what happens at the end of the week when they return to their classrooms and must revert to their usual way of learning?
Since 2014, students in Kingston have been taking part in the Beyond Classrooms initiative, where entire classes spend a full week at places such as the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the Miller Museum of Geology or the former Marine Museum of the Great Lakes.
Teachers have raved about the initiative and how their students thrived in the out-of-class environment. But all have to figure out how to keep that experience going when they get back to school.
Skot Caldwell will be faced with that challenge on Monday after taking the 24 students in his Grade 5 class from Centennial Public School to City Hall this week as part of the Beyond Classrooms program.
“It’s a good question,” Caldwell said. “I think in some ways we all will be glad to be back. This has been hard work for all of us, to sustain this big focus for a long time.”
But he felt the week at City Hall “raises the bar” in a way that is going to challenge him to maintain that level of inspiration, to create opportunities back in school that generate a similar level of enthusiasm.
Caldwell already does as much as he can in class to keep things interesting, such as recently holding a mock parliament.
“I bring lots of people into my class if I can. We will go on lots more field trips this year. I think it is really important,” he said.
He believes the Beyond Classrooms week will prompt a move into more independent projects for the kids.
They will be asked what issues in society they feel should be changed and, thanks to their time at City Hall, now have some insights into how to make it happen, who they should contact to get things done.
“It’s about, hopefully, them feeling empowered that they can use their voice and make something happen,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell first heard about Beyond Classrooms when a fellow teacher, who had taken his own class to a museum, “raved about it.”
“He really encouraged me to have a go.”
Caldwell applied to have his class take part and was accepted.
“I had some idea of what it would be like because we had some training in the summer,” he said.
But it isn’t a program where you show up with your students and promptly turn them over to the host facility’s staff, he explained.
The teachers work closely with Beyond Classrooms to develop the week’s curriculum. Regular meetings are held to decide what the goal of the experience should be and how it could be achieved.
In the case of his students’ time in City Hall, he wants them to learn about the role of local government in the lives of the citizens.
“For me, it then stretches into how can we be involved, how do we have a voice?” Caldwell said.
Government is already in the curriculum of the Grade 5 students, but he wants them to come away from the week with a sense that they can actually participate in the process without waiting until they are old enough to vote.
“Voting is really not the only way to participate,” he said. “I want them to see they have a voice now in their world. I think it is really important.”
Bringing them right to City Hall, the seat of that government locally, provides a chance to experience it first-hand.
“I think experiential learning is always deeper,” he said. “And this is an interesting experiment into really digging into something for a long time. The longer we stay, the deeper they go in their questions.”
You can learn about government in the classroom, but that can be “a bit surface-level” or abstract, Caldwell said.
But to actually meet the people involved is invaluable.
On Monday, they had a detailed tour of the building, digging into the history of it. They asked why it is so important and how it came to be.
On Tuesday, they met with city councillors Liz Schell and Jim Neill in council chambers and got to sit in the horseshoe and ask questions.
“It was just fabulous. They were really welcoming and just great with the kids. It is just really motivating for them,” Caldwell said.
He said the students “are just so interested in how things work and how are laws made and what it’s like” in government.
“At this age, they are starting to see the world. They are starting to come out of childhood a little bit and they want to participate. They are really curious about what adults are up to,” Caldwell said.
On Wednesday, they heard a presentation from Utilities Kingston about water conservation and how a municipal government takes care of its resources.
“They were astonished to discover where their sewage goes,” Caldwell said. “They clearly had no idea.”
The students also broke into groups during the week to check out the different departments in the building, including the licensing and parking offices as well as the city clerk.
As they went, they kept journals of what they saw, one of the key components of Beyond Classrooms.
“They write lots. They are really motivated by the experience,” Caldwell said.
On Thursday, they learned more about how government works, and they were scheduled on Friday to be back in council chambers to play the role of councillors. They were to debate a proposal that the city ban the sale of bottled water.
It’s not just the students who learn during the week, Caldwell said.
He has learned a lot about the building itself as well as the different roles the people inside it play in government.
“But I am really learning lots about teaching. It has given me lots to think about each day.”
He has a teacher candidate from Queen’s University working with him.
“We are reflecting about this process, about how we might do things differently if I was to do it again, and what other opportunities there are,” Caldwell said.