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Creative Connections through Learning

A student from H.A. Halbert Junior Public School shares a note about school being fun.

Creative Connections through Learning

By Louise Brown - June 2020

It has recipes for brownies and cookies and three kinds of milk shake – all the things you’d expect in a cookbook by 9-year-olds.

But this online collection by a Grade 4-5 class in Scarborough also boasts family recipes for Afghan bread and Filipino Pancit Bihon noodles and Indian Green Pea Rice and a Spinach Chicken Curry complete with how-to video by its 10-year-old chef.

In this proud group effort from Ranchdale Public School – called “210 Recipes” for Room 210 – students, all based in their homes, produced a joint cookbook that has grown into an interactive website with games and surveys and a glossary of cooking terms. They even threw in a bonus ‘Would You Rather’ quiz about eating gross foods: ‘Would you rather try 4-year-old milk or 6-year-old bananas?’

It’s a Covid-era assignment that not only covers curriculum – measurements for math, procedural writing for English – but does something more; it gets kids to step away from their screens. It strikes a balance between virtual and real-world learning that many teachers across the Toronto District School Board believe is important.

“I know my students. I know half of them are playing video games, and that’s normal,” says Room 210 Teacher Michael Stellatos, who meets “live” online with his class every single weekday from 11 a.m. to noon. “I told them, ‘You guys have 24 hours in the day. If you sleep for eight, you have 16 hours left, and if you play video games for all 16 hours, you’ll get bored. You will. Why not try something in the kitchen because you guys are home anyway?’”

He sent his 29 pupils off to cook something with their families and then write up the cooking directions. Grade 4 student Ria Mani baked banana chocolate chip loaf with her mother Deana, who took the opportunity to talk to her 9-year-old about how to troubleshoot when baking goes wrong. Grade 5 student Armaan Sekhar made the Spinach Chicken Curry, with prep help from his younger sister. Their dad Neeraj got it all on video.  

 “This was totally a team effort; everyone helped build the website,” says Armaan, who calls the cookbook assignment “way-out-of-the-box thinking; very cool. We all contributed our ideas to make one really amazing thing.”

Working together on a joint project clearly helps kids feel less isolated.

“It’s hard when you’re working from home,” says Ria. “I miss my friends, I miss seeing my teacher and I miss, actually, my class.It’s rough, but you’ve got to do it, and I feel proud that we all worked together to make this one cookbook that’s now world-wide. It’s online!”

Because Stellatos had been using Google Classroom software with students before the pandemic, many already knew how to put their recipes onto a Google slide. But when they saw their teacher actually assembling the cookbook online, they got so excited they suggested adding games and history and surveys. Stellatos said Yes to it all.

“This project was inquiry-based, so I asked students to reflect on their own strengths and think of ways to improve the website or to make it ‘cool’. This encouraged students to come up with ideas tied into different subject areas and it’s why inquiry-based learning is so great.”

The artists in the class added background images. The writers penned a blurb about how the project came about. Some crafted a survey of which recipe readers would most like to try, with 80 votes cast so far. The current favourite? Armaan’s curry, with Super-Easy Peanut Butter Cookies coming second.

At Jackman Public School, Grade 3 teacher Ian Lawrence also asked students to leave their computers - to go and interview someone who moved to Canada from another country. He provided interview questions: ‘What was it like as a kid in that country? Why did you decide to move to Canada? What kind of town did you move to here? How was Canadian life different from where you were born? What’s life like for you now?’

Then each student was asked to turn their immigration story into an online comic book, using a software program called Pixton that they had used before the pandemic. Lawrence made a sample based on his own mother’s story of coming to Canada from Hong Kong and Macau to study medicine, and staying to become a public health nurse in Toronto. He put in candid panels to show her first reaction to western food (“barf!”) and a cheery final scene of her now as a happy Canadian with her family (“I love this country, and it will always be my home!”)

Comic image created by a student at Jackman PS.

The comic books were a hit. One boy interviewed his “yiayia” (grandmother) about moving from an olive farm in a Greek village when she was 16. Only some of her family came at first, and she helped in her father’s restaurant before the others joined them. One comic book panel tells how she changed her name from Anastasia to something more familiar for English-speakers to pronounce. The last panel shows his yiayia as a happy Canadian matriarch.

“Kids often find drawing for a comic kind of intimidating, so the software allows students to concentrate more on the writing, and less on the drawing. But they’re quite tech-savvy in Grade 3; they usually don’t even need help,” says Lawrence, whose assignment draws from the Grade 3 Social Studies unit about communities.

But part of the charm of the assignment, says Lawrence, was that the research didn’t require screen time.

“I think a lot of parents are a bit overwhelmed at the amount of time their kids are spending online, so I was looking for an assignment that was partly offline. And having them interview someone in their household or a family friend or relative over the phone helps them connect with their community.”

At the kindergarten level, too, teachers are trying to give students a break from the screen. Kindergarten teachers at H.A. Halbert Junior Public School in Scarborough offer play-based activities each weekday afternoon that involve projects away from the computer – with a different theme each week, says Teacher Catherine Benoit.

“We wanted these activities to be something where you don’t just click a link, because as a teacher, I can tell you, guiding a child through an internet activity is not as easy as you would think. So we wanted to have all of these activities offline, and then, we can connect online later with them through our classroom environment.”

One week they asked each kindergarten student to set up a store at home. It was the child’s choice; some made toy stores (as well as homemade Lego merchandise) while others set up food stores. Then the teachers asked them to price their products, and create store signs and ads, activities that weave in literacy, numeracy and art. Once the children posted pictures of their stores, Benoit and the other kindergarten teachers would give prompts for further activities: “Wow! I have 25 cents. Which toys would you suggest I buy from your store?”

One week the play-based challenge was to create a post office, something the students had done at school for Valentine’s Day.

 “So now we had them build a little mailbox at home and they could put stuff they’ve created in there, and their parents could as well,” says Benoit, “and at the end of the day they could deliver it, so there’s reading and there’s writing.”

When Principal Karlo Cabrera heard about the theme, he suggested the school send postcards home to each of the 80 kindergarten students. That’s about as analog as it gets.

“I thought, why not make their learning purposeful?Feed two birds with a seed - model an actual mail delivery addressed to the students, and connect with families,” he explains, “especially those who our team members may not have yet been able to connect with. The post card made double sense.” He got back several grateful family letters…by email.

Grade 6 teacher Glen Barbeau of Samuel Hearne Public School also tries to encourage students to get outside during this lockdown, so he gave them a mission to go back to the school garden and snip chives.

For some students, it’s enough of a challenge to get out to visit the garden, he says. For others, he can build some curriculum into the outing. Since they’re studying biodiversity, he asks them to see what other perennials have sprouted in the school’s native pollinator garden, and explain why it’s important to have plants bloom at different times in an environment.

Yet, while it’s important to have students do non-screen activities, the main link with learning these days remains a computer screen, and many teachers are finding ways to make this more personalized. One technique that’s becoming wildly popular is making an animated image of the classroom, with the teachers themselves as cartoon characters who invite students to touch items on-screen that will link them to learning activities.

It’s much more engaging than getting your homework by email.

Special education teacher Cale Zimmerman at Portage Trail Community School created such a “Bitmoji virtual classroom” to make online learning more user-friendly for his three young autistic students in Grades 1 and 2, some of whom aren’t able to read.

His virtual classroom features an avatar of himself (with beard and favourite sweatshirt) which he created using the Bitmoji software. He’s sitting on a chair beside the blackboard message: “Welcome to our ‘classroom.’ Click on a book cover to listen to a story, a poster on a wall or any other objects to lead to a fun activity.”

There are images of four books on a shelf, including Curious George Rides a Bike, and Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type. Touch one and it brings up a YouTube video of someone reading the book aloud.Touch the calendar on the wall and up comes a kids’ YouTube video about the month of May. Touch the image of the clock, and up comes a lesson on how to read an analog clock. Touch the image of a basket of markers, and up pops a breezy instructional video about how to draw a dinosaur from simple geometric shapes. Touch the image of the student meditating, and you get a kids’ yoga video set to nursery rhyme tunes. Another image links to a guided dance to the song “Baby Shark.”

Literacy and numeracy curriculum is embedded in this touch-screen classroom too. There’s a box labelled Language Choice Board, which brings up the week’s array of literacy activities. Students are asked to try two each day. Same for the Math Choice Board.

“From the feedback I heard from parents, it was helpful to have the kids be able to actually choose something themselves because some are non-readers.” They may not be able to navigate the Choice Board without help, but they can choose a book off the book shelf and click on it, and listen to the story.

For Zimmerman, who had found it difficult to connect with his students “live,” this lively virtual classroom was a way to add a personal touch to his assignments.

“I know I’d been missing my kids’ faces, so I wanted to create this, where they could somewhat see my face and feel like they’re ‘in the classroom’ and they get to pick and choose from the toys and stuff we have in our (real) classroom. So the (virtual) toys that I put on the floor are some of their favourite toys.


“It kind of gives the sense that we’re all in this together.”

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