Out-of-school experience

By Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 8:54:01 EDT PM

Ann Blake, at her home in Kingston, Ont. on Monday, March 28, 2016, brought the Beyond Classrooms program to Kingston. It takes children out of school and lets them study in a museum, historic site or other community location for a week. Michael Lea The Whig-Standard Postmedia Network

Two years since it debuted in Kingston, a nationwide educational program that takes schoolchildren out of their classrooms and lets them study for a week in museums and in other historic and community sites is continuing to expand.

Beyond Classrooms, which started in Calgary in 1993, will add more locations in Kingston this coming school year where children can be immersed in a brand-new learning environment.

It was brought to the city by Ann Blake, the former director of the Kingston Association of Museums, Galleries and Historic Sites.

Beyond Classrooms was founded by Calgary teacher Gillian Kydd, who convinced the Calgary Zoo to set up a classroom on site for some Grade 3 students for a week.

She initially called it Open Minds and saw the program as a way of turning field trips into a more efficient way of helping children learn.

On a normal day-long field trip, she had explained, kids are so wired for the first few hours there is little chance of them settling down enough to learn anything. But if you take them to the same place over an entire week, that initial excitement wears off and they can actually start to take in whatever the teacher is telling them.

The program also took the instructional portion away from the sites’ staff and left it in the hands of the students’ own teachers, who could tailor what their students are learning to their existing studies.

It soon spread to other museums in Calgary before being picked up by schools in Edmonton. Twelve sites in each city, including museums, nature centres, recreation centres and city hall, were soon hosting classes.

Now, more than 50 cities in Canada have adopted the program and more than 200,000 schoolchildren are involved each year.

In Kingston, it started out at the Miller Museum of Geology on the Queen’s University campus back in March 2014 with a Grade 3-4 class from Central Public School spending the week.

Ann Blake, working with then-volunteer co-ordinator Linda Lamoureux, added the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes and City Hall as classroom sites.

Even more sites are being added for next year.

Nine classes went to four sites this year while 13 will go to eight sites next year.

The Museum of Health Care has signed up to host Beyond Classrooms for two weeks.

Potential sites are Bellevue House and the Communications and Electronics Museum at Canadian Forces Base Kingston.

“It’s looking very positive. They are certainly interested in going forward with it,” Blake said.

The Frontenac County School Museum in Barriefield is also on board.

“The sky’s the limit when you start looking at where can kids learn.”

Blake had first learned about Open Minds (now Beyond Classrooms) when she was working at a museum in London, Ont., and introduced it as a pilot program there. She had worked in a classroom earlier in her career and immediately saw the benefit of the program.

“It was the most enriching, the most remarkable experience I had as a museum programmer,” she recalled. “You saw those two worlds really come together.”

That memory stayed with Blake when she came here.

“When I moved to Kingston back in 2006, I thought Kingston would be perfect for this program.”

As a museum staffer, she was looking at it from a museum perspective, figuring out if it could be of benefit to the city’s cultural sites.

“I knew, as a museum manager, that the benefit that was there to the museum is that it helps create that audience that they are losing. The kids aren’t coming, the students aren’t coming to the same degree any more as they used to be. And it’s a real shame because we have got this enormous amount of content. Unless you have got a really aggressive museum staff that understands they have got to move with the times, what happens is museums are getting less and less relevant.”

Blake said there is little point building up a great collection in a museum if no one is coming in and looking at it.

It is important to look for opportunities to better promote local museums and help them interact with the public, she said.

“From my perspective, it was the school population [where] I wanted to try and restore some of that contact that was being lost.”

The program allows teachers to take a brand-new approach when it comes to studying at each site.

The focus is on asking questions.

Two teachers going to the same location can approach it in completely different ways, Blake explained.

For example, a teacher at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre last year explored what makes Canadian art unique from other countries’ art, while another teacher who will be going to the centre later this spring will have his students look at the how each artist expressed himself or herself in their work.

A key component of the program is its hands-on aspect, weaning the kids off the ubiquitous computer.

“One of the real strengths of the program is that everybody journals,” Blake explained.

The students are given paper and pens and asked to write what they are seeing, thinking and doing in a journal each day.

“That act of writing, we know, has such strong links for learning,” she said. “That physical act of writing is different than using a keyboard.”

Blake, who is now retired and is the board chair of Beyond Classrooms Kingston, which is now registered as a charity, took over as acting co-ordinator when Linda Lamoureux left for a new job.

A Trillium grant allowed them to hire a co-ordinator to replace Lamoureux.

Karla Tynski, a former teacher in Barrie, started in February.

mlea@postmedia.com