MRS. MITCHELL'S SPOTLIGHT ON EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
By Elsebeth Kriening, BHPA Communications Chair
On April 25, 2019, Balmoral Hall Parent Association (BHPA) was fortunate to listen to a presentation by Grade 3 Teacher Emily (Quinton) Mitchell '11. Emily shared how Balmoral Hall School's grades 3 to 5 educators have leveraged the resources available at FortWhyte Alive to create authentic learning experiences for their students.
Emily began by showing attendees some photos of Grade 5 students from their fall experiential days, which focused on a weather unit, as well as photos from their recent spring experiential day. The focus of the latter changes from year to year, depending on the topic of May's Grade 5 Exhibition, and this year they explored environmental sustainability.
As part of an energy unit, Grade 4 students created musical instruments out of items in the FortWhyte forest, with the goal of mimicking sounds heard in nature. Emily stated that she is consistently amazed by what our girls come up with. In the winter, the Grade 4s gain a practical understanding of different aspects of the rock cycle using water, snow, and ice. This helps them make several connections within a rocky landscape unit. By spring, they are studying the circle of life, a unit which focuses on birds. As FortWhyte is home to 160 different species, our Grade 4s make multiple visits. Their latest trips were particularly exciting. On the first day, the girls made nests for various biomes; small ones were placed in trees and larger ones on the ground. When they returned the next day, there were geese using one of their nests in the field!
In Grade 3, our girls go to FortWhyte Alive five times: twice in the fall, and three times in the spring.
The first visits focus on education within a home sweet home unit, with an emphasis on Indigenous perspectives. Students spend time in a teepee, listening to Indigenous stories, learning about the Seven Sacred Teachings, and playing Indigenous games. Emily shared how impactful it is for our girls to have this experience – how it deepens their understanding of how teepees are made, why different ones are built in various parts of Canada, and what the etiquette is for entering and walking inside them. They also go to see FortWhyte's bison, an animal that is sacred and respected by Indigenous peoples. Another highlight is free time in the forest, during which students can explore, play games, and pick up items that they have questions about.
By April, the Grade 3s are immersed in a unit in which plants and soils figure prominently. During a trip to FortWhyte Alive in early April, our girls went on a nature walk to look for signs of insects, made insect homes, and went critter-dipping. They learned about various trees growing on the property and how they adapt to changing seasons. Aspens, for example, create a white powder that is a natural sunscreen. Students were also invited to try tree coring to see how old some of the specimens in the FortWhyte forest are.
It was interesting for us to understand the difference between a field trip and experiential learning. Emily explained that Balmoral Hall's grades 3 to 5 teachers meet with Barret Miller, FortWhyte Alive's tourism and custom programs coordinator, long before their students are on-site. They review Manitoba Education and Training curricula and discuss outcomes they would like to target. Barret then researches and customizes his programming to ensure their goals are met. Not only that, but they take part in a Deeper Connections program that allows them to maintain communication with Barret throughout the school year.
Emily talked about a leaf pigment experiment that her students started at FortWhyte last fall. For days afterwards, Barret sent photos to show the ongoing changes, to the delight of our Grade 3s. Last year, some of Emily's students thought they had found three dead mice on Balmoral Hall's grounds. She sent a picture to Barret and he helped to correctly identify the girls' find as newborn cottontail rabbits. He was able to paint a picture of what the predator had likely been – a cat, because of the markings, rather than an owl – and made connections to the circle of life unit. In the end, instead of being "grossed out," our girls were fascinated and learned more about the food web.
We are grateful to Emily, as well as Sharla Chochinov (Grade 3), Signy Thordarson (Grade 4), Cyndee De Lande (Grade 5), and Chloë McComb (Grade 5) for facilitating experiential learning between Balmoral Hall School and FortWhyte Alive. The unique opportunities that our girls have to be outside of the classroom and in a real-world environment are providing them with a rich, authentic education that goes hand-in-hand with what happens within the walls of Balmoral Hall. Kudos to you, ladies!