For one Grade 3 class at Southview Public School this week, history lessons will not come out of a textbook. In fact, the teaching wasn’t confined within the four walls of a classroom either.
Instead, Mary Beth DuChene’s students are making themselves feel at home in the confines of the Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives. They can see and touch artifacts that settlers used to build this community and they can listen directly to experts who have studied integral pieces of Napanee’s past.
The class is the first in the Napanee area to be involved with Beyond Classrooms, a Kingston-based charity that aims to situate learning experiences in community spaces.
“This entire week, I think, is very exciting. We’ve been there for two days and you can’t believe the amount of learning that has happened. It’s right there, they’re living it and seeing it,” said DuChene. “We’re slowing down the information that’s given to them. They spend time journaling and reflecting. It allows them to think about the subject matter and ask more questions.”
The process goes back to last summer, before DuChene even knew which students would be in her class. She learned about the Beyond Classrooms program being offered at places like Kingston’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Museum of Health Care, and Military Communications and Electronics Museum and immediately thought of how the local museum would fit her lesson plans.
“Knowing the space and exhibits they have, I wanted to take advantage of that,” she said. “It ties in specifically with the Grade 3 curriculum, looking at how Upper Canada and Lower Canada — this part of eastern Canada — was developed and who settled it, who was here first, and how our communities have evolved, shaped, and developed.”
The museum’s curator, JoAnne Himmelman, was also avidly watching what was happening to the east. She participates in a collective with other museum staff in the region and over the past four years, she’d hear updates about Beyond Classrooms.
“We were already a space for education, so I didn’t think it was much of a reach,” she said.
After the museum completed renovations, she made some calls and was put in touch with Beyond Classrooms co-ordinator Karla Tynski and it wasn’t long before connections were made with DuChene to start planning for this year.
“We had this trio of women who wanted to bring this program here. New all connected and it worked out well,” she said.
Himmelman said she’s been impressed with the way the students have become “completely engrossed” in local history and how they’ve already begun to give some real thought to Napanee’s growth since the 1800s.
“They’re making connections on Day 2 that I’m really shocked at,” she said. “They have a sense of the history and the way we progressed… They’re already thinking about how life progressed from farms into towns and industry. I think it’s because they’re already thinking. We give them a lot of time to observe and a lot of quiet time for retrospective.”
The week of learning started with one big-picture question about what has shaped life in Napanee since the 1800s. On Monday, the students learned about settlement. Tuesday, they discussed challenges for settlers to survive and what it was like to be a United Empire Loyalist. Throughout the week, they’ll look into the evolution of factories and mills and they’ll be able to get a glimpse of some of the primary materials on hand at the museum from days gone by. Each of those daily themes relate to the big question.
A pair of re-enactors from the Fairfield-Gutzeit Society have already dropped in. Historian Deb Thibault will share about the Gibbard Furniture Shops and a heritage carpenter will also come by.
The students have enjoyed their time at the museum.
“It’s really fun. We are in a different space and we’re learning new things every day we wouldn’t learn in our classroom. We get to explore the museum and we get to journal,” said Ava Oliver. “Here, we’re constantly doing things around the museum. We have guest speakers here too. We don’t really have that at our classroom.”
Oliver said she was really moved by seeing cannon balls and outfits from war exhibits.
Carter Gibbons said he enjoyed exploring the museum’s jail cell. He also learned the pioneers had to overcome a lot of challenges to be successful in building their lives in Canada.
“You had to do a lot of work in the past,” he said.
Gibbons said he liked the focus on history and the diversion from math or language lessons this week and said he’d be open to doing more learning outside of the school in the future.
Tynski said experience-based learning proven effective. The Beyond Classrooms program is based off a similar program that started in Calgary about 30 years ago. She said it’s a natural fit that thrives on collaboration and it promotes learning itself.
“I think it’s so important for kids to see the resources in their community, beyond what they can see inside the class with textbooks, to see the real people and places that helped shape their community so they can revisit these places after schools with their families and keep learning.”
Another thing Tynski said that makes the program effective is the way it offers different perspectives and allows students to hear other voices besides their teachers. In this setting, she said teachers are seen as also being in a learning role listening to guests.
“That’s an important part in lifelong learning,” she said.
As part of its activities this week, the Grade 3 class will curate an exhibit for others at Southview to learn more about what they have learned. That may include journal entries, sketches, or reflections on some of the visitors they’ve seen.
All parties say they’d like to see Beyond Classrooms programs continue at the museum. DuChene said she has no hesitation about encouraging her peers to explore similar opportunities.
“Every chance I’ve had talking with other (teachers) especially here at Southview, I’ve said ‘Go do it for sure. It’s student-led learning. They’re able to learn from each other,’” she said. “We’re very grateful to the museum for opening up their space so we can learn there. They’ve been fantastic.”