Learning out Loud
Exploring the Culture of Powerful Learning in practice at BSS
It was the first snowfall of the winter and as the taxi approached BSS, the driver observed “how pretty the buildings look” and asked me, “so you’ve come to spend a day at the school to see what it’s like?”
“Yes, but more than that,” I said. “I want to understand, why, for generations, more than 150 years, parents have trusted this school to educate their daughters. Why generations of alumnae, I hear it’s more than 6,000, have been proud to actively retain ties with the BSS community.”
Collaboration Between STEM Subjects and the Arts
My day consisted of a whirlwind, jam-packed, 10-stop tour. Throughout the day I travelled from the tradition-laden halls of the old facility, through the marvellous new addition with its “living wall” (designed in part by a committee of students) and its “idea” centre, and back to the resonant, high-ceilinged Chapel.
I visited classrooms where engaged and committed teachers interacted with students in learnings that emphasize collaboration between STEM subjects and the arts; a curriculum-based approach that supports the innovative mindset that sets BSS apart.
In a Grade 5 Art/Investigative Research class, students were moving and placing bright, multi-coloured pieces, gaining knowledge of fractions as a language to understand the world around them. Girls, I was told, bring a different lens to math and to technology, bring a social reality of connecting with people. Building on this empathy, BSS is working to create a culture that will empower the students as they grow into women.
This emphasis on individuality, while at the same time creating collaborative skills, continues throughout the grade structure. I spoke with confident girls in Grade 8 Middle School science, where students were each researching a particular cell. Their work that day is a component of a months-long project involving science, art, design and presentation skills, among other challenges. Although the students had initially been assigned a particular cell, they had the option to stick with it or to choose their own. As the teacher told me, “choice gives them voice.”
Throughout the day, what I noted, over and over again, was the emphasis on real life, experiential learning. In the Grade 11 Entrepreneurship class, students were researching and evaluating potential small business ideas, to be turned into proposals and, thereafter, presented to real-life stake-holders for feedback. They were researching, not only with an eye to current needs, but to the future. More importantly, for girls aspiring to become leaders in a rapidly changing technological and business world, the prep sheet prompted them to use their creativity in authentic ways by asking themselves the question: why not think of solving problems that will exist, but don’t yet exist.
In coming up with business ideas, they were experiencing an important foundation stone of entrepreneurship: that taking reasoned and well-thought-out risks is important, as it is throughout life, and that “failing,” in this case coming up with an idea that proved not to be feasible, is part of a growth mindset.
Similarly, in the Grade 12 Design Technology class, students were gaining foundational design skills needed to identify a “need in the world,” and to analyze it deeply, find a solution and to develop that solution using technology. Staying true to the school’s emphasis on both design thinking and experiential education, students were utilizing design skills at a level that matches the standard of industry, blending engineering/art/design/fine arts and industrial design. On the afternoon I visited, the students were learning how to create a mood board proposal, using the real process a designer would go through for a potential client.
Education does not occur in a vacuum; in Grade 7 PE the music was exhilarating; the girls, with huge smiles on their faces, dancing to swing music. The class provided exercise, taught collaboration and encouraged creativity. Moreover, it put the dance into historical context, as previously, the girls had learned about the socio-economic culture in which this type of music and dance were created.
Diversity and Inclusion
BSS provides students with an academically challenging and stimulating environment, in part by ensuring a diversity of voices, opinions and perspectives.
During the day, I attended Junior School Assembly and Senior School Chapel. In the Junior School Assembly, students participated in a lively theatrical and video presentation, with an interactive component, explaining the holiday of Hanukkah, which was occurring at that time. Even the small group of parents who attended were included, as students with microphones circulated throughout the assembly.
In the Senior School Chapel, based on the day’s homily “where did I leave my moral compass?” groups of volunteer students on the podium tackled, with sensitivity and candour, questions regarding moral and ethical issues relevant to their school life, as well as to their actions in the broader community.
Posed by various Council Heads (including Academic, Global Awareness, Grade 9 Mentors and Mental Health Council), the girls answered questions such as how each of them would react if, at school, they heard “culturally insensitive comments,” or how they would handle the situation “if someone offered them the answers to an upcoming test.” What struck me most was the girls’ honesty and forthrightness; these are clearly girls who have internalized the BSS Code of Conduct.
In Grade 3 Math classes, as girls studied concepts such as area, perimeter and mass, I found supportive environments where girls take ownership of their accomplishments. When a girl chose the right answer on her iPad in an interactive learning session, she burst out, “I am so proud!” Similarly, in the music room during Senior School Vocals, a group of girls rehearsed for the upcoming seasonal concert; students clapped to show their appreciation when one of the singers aced a particularly hard solo.
Signature of a BSS Girl
Everywhere, I saw the Culture of Powerful Learning that accompanies the school’s highly respected Signature of a BSS Girl, and prepares girls for successfully navigating life’s opportunities and challenges as ethical citizens.
My day ended with a brief stop in the Boarding common area, an inviting and relaxed atmosphere where the girls clearly felt at home. At that moment, as the girls excitedly shared their day’s experiences, I once again felt the camaraderie and supportive atmosphere that is so evident throughout BSS.
From Senior School Chapel where the girl sitting next to me quietly leaned over to show me what page we were on, to the hallways where girls smiled at me as they rushed by, to welcoming staff in each and every classroom and in the lunch room, I immediately felt part of the vibrant and inclusive BSS community.
Indeed, as the BSS website says, the school is “a community filled with passion, learning and helping each other grow.” A community where, as it says on posters and on signage outside every office door Girls Can Do Anything.
Bev Cline is a Toronto writer, editor and author of nonfiction books for children and adults.