Monthly Archives: January 2012

Wild in the city

Many of us are aware of the need to create open spaces for gathering or playing in cities, or on school grounds. My kids love playgrounds, and I love lying on a patch of open green grass. However, neither monkey bars nor picnic blankets on a groomed field match the experience one can have in a wild, diverse forest. In addition to the importance of biodiversity provided by wild ecosystems, researchers are increasingly pointing our attention toward the importance for both adults and children to connect with nature every day, for the sake of their mental and physical health.

Photo: Laura Fulton

One of the best known proponents of this view is Richard Louv, a journalist who made quite an impact with his book, Last Child in the Woods in 2008.  Louv suggested that children can suffer from “nature deficit disorder” and that direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults. If you are interested in reading beyond Louv on this subject, there’s a wealth of scholarly and more general literature available. The Children and Nature Network provides links to a wealth of recent research on this topic. The writings of David Orr may also be of interest, and the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education is also an excellent resource for further information.

Despite the increasing recognition of the importance of wild spaces to human health, most city parks and school playgrounds I see are dominated by treeless playing fields and government approved playground equipment. This, to me, presents an excellent opportunity for community members – and particularly schools – to take action and get involved.

Here are three ways that people are taking the lead in ensuring that we maintain our connection with the natural environment in urban settings.

  1. Cities and forests
    A good example of a project focused on urban forests is the Cities for Forests led by the World Wildlife Fund (India). The project seeks to raise public awareness about the intrinsic link between forests and human well-being, especially amongst the youth of India. At a more municipal level, the City of Toronto runs an ongoing program of public education around the value of urban forests.  Similarly, the Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) in the City of Victoria has worked with the municipality to map urban forests, and inform the public about their value.
  2. Integrating the outdoors into the school day
    HAT has also engaged in a program to create outdoor, nature-based classrooms called Green Spots.  This project represents an increasing trend in public and private educational institutions to encourage learning in outdoor environments. Often, schools will integrate nature based learning as one component of the larger curriculum. For example, students in the public Vancouver School Board have the option of applying to the TREK Program. During this year-long program, students spend 5 months “on-TREK” where they are involved in a combination of outdoor activities, field studies, and classroom-based academics, and 5 months “off-TREK” where they will complete an intensified academic curriculum.   There a number of similar programs in the United States as well, including Tahoma High’s Outdoor Academy and an Outdoor Academy in North Carolina.
  3. Making the outdoors the school day
    The previous examples focus largely on integrating natural spaces with existing school frameworks, and encouraging students to spend only part of their day – or part of their year – outdoors. In contrast, there is another movement to encourage children to spend the majority of their educational time outdoors. In essence, this approach places the entire classroom in the wild: the forest is not out of bounds, but is instead where the heart of daily learning and living takes place. “Nature Kindergarten” and “Forest Preschools” are based on this philosophy. While established in Europe, this educational model is steadily gaining ground in North America. For more information, you should check out the newly launched Nature Kindergarten started by Sooke School District on Vancouver Island.  Another example from British Columbia is the Maple Ridge Environmental School Project, where kindergarten to grade 7 students spend their entire day learning in a local park . Finally, a great general resource is the Forest Schools website from the UK .

As always, this is just the tip of iceberg! Please share more examples of cities and schools putting wild spaces first.

Libraries leading community

Photo: San Jose Public Library

I am very lucky to live in place that is home to a large number of excellent public libraries. Going to the library is a regular family outing in my household. It is a place to get out of the rain, to bump into friends, to gather a new selection of books and to attend the wide array of free programs on offer.  I am very aware of how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful resource not far from our front door! It is for this reason that I am writing this post in praise of the role that libraries play in building community.

Here are six inspiring examples of libraries pushing their boundaries, complementing their traditional roles and being creative in community building:

1. Integrating social services
The Alachua Library located in Florida was created as a partnership that has allowed them to become much more than a place that just lends books. They now also host a community closet, which distributes clothing and food, and act as a home to social services such as assistance with rent subsidies, substance abuse and seniors socials. The Alachua Library received an award for this work from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2011.

2. School-library partnerships
The Howard County Library System has created a school-library partnership that they call “A+ Partners in Education”. This arrangement means that every school is assigned an associated branch and liaison person within that branch, every student receives a library card upon registering at school, and librarians provide programming within schools. All very simple ideas, but effective! I can remember running a school field trip to the library when teaching in a grade 5/6 classroom located a block away from the library. Over half of the students in that class did not have a library card before that field trip.

Some communities have experimented with combining public and school libraries into the same facility. There are pros and cons to such a model, as described by the Wisconsin department of public instruction in their useful guide on this topic. In the province of Alberta, 20% of public libraries are housed in schools, and the provincial government has written a useful report on their experiences with this approach.

For those very interested in this topic, Natalie Reif Ziarnik has just released a book examining the relationship between schools and libraries.

3. Hackerspace
The Allen County Public Library is re-imagining itself as a place where community members share much more than books. They have installed  a ‘hackerspace’ or ‘Maker Station’ in their parking lot. The hackerspace is a place where community members can share skills and use machines such as computer controlled power tools and 3-D printers, which can create a plastic object from a computer file! The library director envisions the “Maker Station” as a place where peer to peer learning can occur and where the library can move beyond the “book business” to the “learning business and the exploration business and the expand-your-mind business.” This library has caught the attention of folks such as Make magazine, NPR, and Mind/Shift.

4. Express Library
The Greater Victoria Public Library system – which I’m proud to call my home base – has experimented with the idea of an ‘express library’ attached to a coffee shop, which is located in a developing suburban core. The small library branch only carries recently released books and videos, all displayed in a very browser-friendly manner. Users have access to computers and there is a corner in which kids can settle down and read. After checking out books, one can lounge in the chairs provided, move to the café next door or head out to a nearby park – all of which we regularly do with our family. While this kind of library does not replace a traditional library, it certainly provides a wonderful compliment to an already vibrant system.

5. Human Library
Perhaps it is my own experience living and working in an international school that emphasizes the need to live together to understand one another, that keeps bringing me back to the human library. This is a wonderful way to build community and enhance peer to peer learning in our societies. This concept is growing fast. If one has not yet been organized in your local library, here is a description of how you can get one going.

6. Mobile libraries
There are many examples of great mobile libraries. In Thailand, the Minister of Education has funded boat libraries. The Columbus Metropolitian Library in Ohio has moved the library out of the constraints of its walls and into its community. The staff at this library travel to ‘at risk’ communities to share literacy-building skills aimed at children. In addition to workshops, they also offer mobile book checkout and library card sign-ups. For an entertaining read about mobile libraries, pick up the children’s book My Librarian is a Camel. If you’re looking to start your own mobile library, check out – a site where Australian librarians  share ideas and experiences about running mobile libraries.

Of course, these are just a few of the ways in which libraries help build community around them. For those who are keen to think more deeply about the role that libraries play in building community, check out PPS’s Libraries as Porches, or the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit, the result of an innovative project run by the Greater Vancouver Public Library. What about your library? Do you have an example to share?

My crush on wordle

Okay, I know that Wordle is older than flash mobs but for me, it is as fresh as ever.

My recent infatuation with Wordle is linked to my work in developing programs, curriculum, pedagogical principles, mission statements and so on. With all of this work, the way we communicate content is incredibly important.  Perhaps the most satisfying aspects of developing  these types of documents is that they are usually created with high levels of collaboration and consultation.

However, one of the things that is tricky about collaboration  is that participants often tire of the endless circulation of paperwork, or committee meetings dominated by re-reading past work. It is easy to spend a lot of time catching up on where the group last left off or getting lost in debates over the semantics of a particular sentence or word. Enter Wordle.

While the beautiful ‘word clouds’ created by Wordle need to be taken with a grain of salt, this website allows us to easily step back and take stock of what we have created. It helps to review where we are coming from and where we are going to – what does our current mission, program, curriculum, or other documents emphasize? Is that what we want to emphasize? Consider the following examples:

1. Mission

Perhaps one of the best known examples of a mission statement change was the switch the March of Dimes made in 1958 away from Polio towards birth defects in infants. While both the old and new mission statements are easy to read, the difference between them has particularly strong visual impact when presented in a  ‘word cloud’:

mssion prior to 1958

mission post 1958

2. Curriculum

The Province of Ontario’s Ministry of Education recently updated a number of the curriculum documents for the K-12 school system. One of the clearest shifts in content came with the introduction of the 2007 Grades 1-8 Science and Technology curriculum. These word clouds could help us clearly see a consistent emphasis on students, energy, water, technology, and investigations (‘investigate’). However, we can also see an increased emphasis on environment; a decreased use of the words ‘describe’ and ‘identify’; and an increased use of the the ideas of ‘understanding’ and ‘expectations’. There is also a notable disappearance of the word ‘grade’. If one were involved in the process of rewriting this document, it would be interesting to go back to the development team and ask if this shift in emphasis was, in fact, their intent. If not, perhaps it merits taking a second look at the language used in the curriculum guide.

Ontario Gr 1-8 Science & Technology, 1998

Ontario Gr 1-8 Science & Technology, 2007

3. Comparing programs

I have recently been working with the residential team at Lester B. Pearson United World College (where I am a faculty member) to think about how we approach our residential learning program. To help provide some colourful inspiration to the team, I compared a Wordle using the current description of our residential learning program with that of Michigan State University’s residential learning outcomes. This was a quick and easy way to think about the different aspects of our program that are being emphasized in our external documentation. It also quickly generated some visual stimulation using an institution that seems to share several similar learning goals with us.

Learning through Residential Life, Lester B. Pearson UWC

Residential Learning Outcomes, Michigan State University

Wordle does not allow us to completely evade the elbow grease required to write documents that truly express what is most important to us. It certainly does provide a wonderful form of stimulation and perhaps a light moment at the beginning of what could otherwise be a tedious start to a meeting.