Learning out Loud
Teachers of Substance
The importance of teachers being experts
Students aren’t the only ones investigating and discovering new things every day at BSS. “All of our teachers are active learners in their disciplines,” says Head of School Dr. Angela Terpstra. “They’re also constantly looking for the best and newest ways to translate that knowledge to students.”
Maintaining deep expertise in their content areas requires constant effort from teachers, along with the same kind of growth mindset they encourage in their students, says Dr. Terpstra. “Our faculty members are always reading and thinking about the latest developments in their fields. They’re driven by curiosity and an enthusiasm for their subjects.”
Yet in the school’s inquiry-based, interdisciplinary learning environment, teachers don’t position themselves as the ultimate authority. Instead, they model students’ naturally inquisitive nature and guide them through collaborative projects. Teachers also use specialized, evidence-based forms of instruction tailored to specific disciplines and developmental stages, says Dr. Terpstra.
At BSS, teachers are encouraged and supported to pursue innovative professional enrichment. “We provide many opportunities for teachers to upgrade their qualifications on a regular basis, but the kind of teachers we attract are those who would seek it out on their own even if we didn’t offer it,” she says. “I call these ‘teachers of substance,’ a term I’ve borrowed from a Stanford professor of education. It describes those who have a strong subject matter background and are able to convert challenging content into an organized set of activities. This helps students develop confidence.”
The adults who stand at the front of BSS classrooms are influential role models and the school takes great care in selecting and developing them, says Dr. Terpstra. “We want our girls to see people who demonstrate that learning is a way of life and a habit of mind.”
The following illustrates how teachers who are passionate about their subjects and their practice contribute to the Culture of Powerful Learning.
Creating critical thinkers one ravine walk at a time
Junior School: Amanda Humphreys, Grade 4 Teacher
When Amanda Humphreys found herself listening to podcasts on fungi in her spare time, she realized she was just as captivated as her students by their ecology inquiry.
The Grade 4 team of teachers, including Ms. Humphreys, started taking the class into local ravines in September as part of an investigation into their “Big Idea” of ecology. In the Junior School, Big Ideas provide a framework for an inquiry-based approach to learning. “They were thrilled to be out exploring in nature,” says Ms. Humphreys, “so we’ve made it a monthly outing.”
The students bring back insects, leaves, water samples and anything else they want to examine more closely. “In the past, we’d hit the books or go online to find answers to their questions and be done,” says Ms. Humphreys, who’s been at BSS since 2000. “Now we slow down, share what we’ve found and collectively consider where our analysis should go next. We give them time to theorize and debate about how things exist and why. This teaches them to trust their capacity as thinkers.”
To reflect this inquiry-based approach, science and social studies in the BSS Junior School is now called Investigative Research. “It’s a different mindset for us as teachers,” says Ms. Humphreys. “There are no science units with discrete beginnings and endings, but interdisciplinary investigations guided by student questions.” The girls bring sketchbooks into the ravine to hone their observational drawing skills in art class, for example, and write poems about creeks, caterpillars and even fungi. While exploring, one group of students gathered a water sample from the ravine and worked to compare it to tap water. They researched all of the microscopic organisms living inside and considered how this water is connected to the larger city and world. Another group gathered mushrooms among fallen trees and uncovered the myriad of species of fungi found nearby, writing poetry and growing samples in the classroom. Another group discovered water striders in the creek and chrysalis in the trees, and honed their observational drawing skills as they learned more about these new creatures.
“We also ask them to consider viewpoints other than their own, or those they might find in ‘official’ resources,” she says. “We have built an ongoing relationship with Alan Colley, the Founder of Toronto Aboriginal Eco Tours, who joins us on our ravine outings. Mr. Colley helps the girls explore the natural world, providing a basis for an alternative way of knowing, understanding and empathizing with the world around them.”
Ms. Humphreys has taught every grade in the Junior School except one. She started at BSS around the time the school began investigating the Reggio Emilia approach, an internationally respected educational philosophy that originated in Italy. It values children’s ideas and empowers them to be active participants in shaping what they learn and how they interact with the world. Like a number of her colleagues, Ms. Humphreys took part in a week-long study tour in Reggio Emilia and says it forever changed her as a teacher.
“I stopped thinking of myself as someone who fills children up with knowledge and facts, and started seeing myself as a teacher-researcher who works side-by-side with them.” When teachers show genuine interest in students’ ideas, she says, they spark even more. “I tell them I don’t know everything, and I want to learn with them.”
Building empathy through investigative journalism
Middle School: Celeste Kirsh, Grade 8 English Teacher
By Grade 8, BSS students pride themselves on being skilled, confident communicators. But ask them to call or email a city councillor, business owner – or any adult they don’t know – and they quickly realize there’s a whole other skill set to master. This was highlighted for one Grade 8 student when she realized she needed to email a local bakery, Phipps, to get a comment on the Eglinton Avenue construction for an article. After the initial fear wore off and she successfully sent the email questions, the shock that the bakery owner was a real person who actually responded set in. There was a clear bubbling of excitement in the classroom when students started to get responses back from people.
Each year the girls in Celeste Kirsh’s English class confront this challenge as part of their journalism unit. The final project is a feature-length article incorporating several opinions gathered through interviews. This year, the focus was on current issues that affect Toronto, from waterfront redevelopment to homelessness. “The interview process is an education in the subtleties of professional communication in the real world,” says Ms. Kirsh, who came to BSS in 2010.
Producing a balanced, journalistic piece of writing requires students to determine their own thoughts on the subject and then seek out others. One student who felt very strongly about animal rights wrote a piece about zoos. In the first draft, she received feedback that her journalistic reporting was only echoing her own beliefs. So her opportunity was to seek out a perspective that enjoyed zoos and found them a valuable learning experience. While she still felt strongly about the rights of animals at the end of the unit, she reflected that this writing pushed her to consider the thoughts of people unlike her and understand the grey area of complex issues.“Middle school is such a brilliant time of development because the girls are forming their own judgments about the world, then critically analyzing all sides of an issue.”
Consulting people who think differently from them builds empathy, says Ms. Kirsh. “This tied in nicely with the theme of our annual Middle School Reads competition this spring, which was ‘a book that builds courageous empathy.’ After investigating the world as it is for their journalism article, the girls read books about the world as it could be. Then, at the end of the year, they designed a world as they think it should be in the ‘Imagining My Sustainable City’ project.”
Developing voice by writing for the multimedia world
Senior School: Jodi Rice, Grade 11 AP English Language Teacher
Each year, Jodi Rice prepares her students for real-world communication.
Ms. Rice teaches Grade 11 Advanced Placement (AP) English Language and Composition, a rigorous course that develops students’ ability to produce a wide variety of writing through an intensive study of non-fiction texts. She’s kept pace with recent developments in the discipline of academic writing through working to develop AP exams and curriculum for the American College Board, which manages the SAT and AP Program. “I’ve gained a lot of insight into what’s happening with the discipline of writing in the postsecondary world,” she says. “Academic writing no longer has to be stilted and dry. It has a voice, and it’s become much more personal, partly because of the influence of social media.”
The course equips students with the ability to understand the purpose, occasion and audience for many types of writing, including academic essays. “For the final project, the girls can choose any topic to write about, but their audience can’t be me,” says Ms. Rice. They’ve written scripts for documentaries, policy proposals for politicians, articles for youth magazines and much more. Last year, one student scripted a TED Talk in which she argued for learning another language in order to more thoroughly understand another culture, based on her experience learning English and research into cultural empathy. Another student, who is a boarder, wrote a researched proposal for having a dog in Boarding, addressed to the Dean of Boarding. Another student wrote a short story illustrating an argument for lowering the voting age.
“In the end, we want students to understand why writing and communicating is important, regardless of what they decide to do in the future. Reading widely across all kinds of media shows them how to combine their opinion with substantive research.”
Ms. Rice has been an English teacher at BSS for almost 20 years, including a stint as Head of the department. This year she became a member of the Learning Commons team. She draws on her experience to help teachers implement innovative projects, conduct research and resolve instructional dilemmas.
For the last seven years, Ms. Rice has branched out to teach a social sciences course through the e-Learning Consortium Canada, an organization that provides online courses to independent school students from across Ontario and Quebec. As a self-described “techie” and Google-certified educator, she says technology has revolutionized teacher-student dialogue and teacher feedback since she began her career.
The school’s inquiry-based approach has also transformed her practice. Over a decade ago she attended the Exeter Humanities Research Institute, which she says was one of the best professional development experiences she’s ever had. “I came to see my classes as a place for students to question, challenge, dig deeper and guide themselves without always relying on me as the teacher. My role is to help them find their voice.”
Megan Easton is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on education and health.