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July 28, 2021

Building community connections for the youngest students

by Aideen Moss, Principal, Blessed Carlo Acutis Continuing Education School (Virtual Learning), Huron-Perth Catholic DSB
With the pandemic’s imposed virtual classroom experience, teaching and learning was abruptly disrupted last year. As we were getting a handle on the concept of virtual learning early in the school year, many in-person learning approaches were being modelled; however, it did not take long before teachers at Blessed Carlo Acutis Continuing Education School (Huron-Perth Catholic DSB) embraced new opportunities. 
The walls of the classroom were gone but a sense of confinement to the screen for the required synchronous minutes would prove to be too demanding, especially for young learners. Teachers sought ways to reimagine experiential learning. This inquiry-based approach, informed by social psychologist David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (1984), is often associated with older grades however it plays an important role in every year, grade and subject. For example, Ontario’s Kindergarten Program, 2016, outlines play and inquiry as pedagogical approaches to learning that “capitalize on children’s natural curiosity and exuberance.”
Secondary teachers at Blessed Carlo Acutis School invited guests into the virtual classroom in arts and science classes where students' questions drove the learning process. In several elementary classrooms, visitors were also invited to share their experiences with inquisitive students. We saw that relationships developed between the classroom guest and students for a unique type of experiential learning opportunity.

Experiential learning in the Senior Kindergarten/Grade 1 Class

Blessed Carlo Acutis Senior Kindergarten/Grade 1 teacher, Stephanie Shore, set out purposefully to engage her students in a wide array of experiences and focused reflections to increase knowledge, develop skills, and grow to contribute to their communities and beyond. When she thought about the experiences she wanted her students to have she asked the questions: Who can we meet? Where can we go? What can we experience? What can community members share with us? 
Ms. Shore invited weekly “Fun Friday” guests to her virtual classroom to support student learning. To begin with, the guests were mainly artists and people she knew and could call upon (e.g., musicians, mayor, author/illustrator, poet, actor, ceramicist). With these guests, Ms. Shore combined direct experience with focused reflection, built on students’ past experiences and knowledge, encouraged active student involvement in constructing new understandings, and encouraged collaboration and the exchange of ideas and perspectives. 
The emphasis in these weekly encounters was on the relationship between students and community members rather than the physical location. Unlike virtual visits to many cultural sites, Fun Friday guests joined from their locations, including studios, city hall, a fire hall, and a church. The visits were live so they were reciprocal and interactive, creating more personal connections between community members and students as they learned about each other’s worlds.  
Just some of the community members who were Fun Friday guests in the SK/Grade 1 classroom at Blessed Carlo Acutis

David the Poet makes a big impression

One Fun Friday guest, poet David Stones, visited several times during the school year. He created poems for the class based on holidays, themes and learning experiences. The children looked forward to his visits and what he created for them, and “David the Poet” looked forward to seeing the children and interacting with them. “Doing these poems for these lovely kids over the past year has been one of the highlights of my creative life...there’s nothing like the delight of little kids who are engrossed and learning and truly interested in what’s going on,” he said.
In the experiential learning process, students were actively engaged in asking questions and it was not only the students who were curious. Guests were equally intrigued. Virtual learning afforded the spontaneity of two-way communication. With student names visible on the screens, guests could call them by name. Because students were in their homes, there was great excitement for other family members to join in some visits and for students to find items for show and tell. The sense of community was evident between children, household members and guests.

New connections bring new possibilities for Huron-Perth

In time, parents/caregivers offered suggestions for Fun Friday guests expanding the experiences and resulting in further connections of diverse voices and students. A conversation with “Grandpa Larry”, chair of the local manufacturing association and one of the student’s caregivers, sparked Ms. Shore’s interest in the possibility of linking the trades to experiential learning at the primary level. 
Her findings were interesting and important for Huron-Perth, which has an aging population of tradespeople that makes hiring in the trades imperative. The government is also keen to expose students to careers in the trades as young as Grade 1. Ms. Shore lined up the class’s first trades visitor from Royal Homes and one student gave a tour around his grandmother’s farm, introducing his peers to the horses, chickens and sheep.

Next steps

We seek to leverage the learning from the virtual school to affordably and efficiently increase exposure to the trades and all industries. We’re considering developing a kit of materials that students could use to create or to build to enhance the learning experience.

Through virtual learning this year, we are understanding new ways we can bring the trades and more industries to the classroom in ways we did not conceive pre-pandemic. At the centre of this experiential learning is the relationship that developed between the guests and students. The excitement to learn from each other brought delight and possibilities during a time when teaching and learning as we knew them was disrupted.
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