Westwood Elementary School

Taken from the school’s APL (Action Plan for Learning):

Westwood Elementary School is a very diverse student community with an enrollment of approximately 210 students. Enrollment numbers fluctuate throughout the year, as a certain segment of the parent community is somewhat transient. Students come to Westwood from a variety of single-family homes, townhomes, and social-housing, as well as several community daycare/pre-schools. Our school qualifies for Community Link funding from the district. These funds are used to support our vulnerable students.

See a video about the WSP at Westwood, with a focus on releasing salmon fry into the river. This video was conceived, shot, and edited by Dr. Gad Alexander, and used here with our gratitude:

JSclaterJonathan Sclater was instrumental in promoting the project and helping to get it going. During the project, Jonathan move to another school, and Pamela Hagen, who had worked with Jonathan on the project from the beginning, took over the project. They both worked with a number of colleagues.

Jonathan’s blog from early in the project begins:

“At Westwood we started our 3 year WSP called ‘Respecting Our River, Embracing Our Space’ which is about the Coquitlam River that runs nearby our school. Students will be engaged in spending time at the river location itself, and learning about various aspects of our local ecosystem such as native plant and animal species. We also have a number of school grounds and building improvement plans related to this. Students have had input in designing a new entrance to the school as a river walkway, and we are looking into a variety of grounds improvements. (We already celebrated a tree planting at the front of the school in late September). We also have a number of plans for the interior space of our school. For example, we are gathering the students together to name the various wings of our school as tributaries of the river and to discuss what other features of the river can inspire artwork, murals, collaborative work, etc.

“What is really interesting is how having a focus like ‘The River’ has got everyone so excited. My hope in suggesting this was that we could involve community members in the planning of this project. We already have a local artist who wants to lend her expertise and it joining us in our next planning session. I guess I can’t call it ‘the’ project, I definitely know it’s not ‘my’ project, I think the best term reflects the fact that it has become ‘our’ project; it will belong to the students and their families, the teachers, and the community. I am beginning to realize that when you have a good idea and everyone is together on it, good things will happen. It is amazing to me how a network happens when you get to see it from the roots. People just really want to be a part of something where their voices can be heard and share their ideas towards a common goal.

“A main reason that I am continuing to think and plan around a central idea, is that I am beginning to see this approach as an important part of the forming of our school identity and culture. The students start to care about their project and they start to form an attachment to the space we occupy together and more importantly they start to relate more with each other.

“According to the WSP philosophy, WSPs deliberately celebrate diversity among students, and recognize the value of many kinds of contribution by seeing how each can bring to a common project abilities and skills that no student would have been able to bring alone. Focusing on the River is not intended to be a limited study with facts to be memorized and then quickly forgotten. Instead, the River will be a springboard to much larger possibilities. The intent of a WSP is to focus on the topic for 3 years. This will allow for the development of understanding that cannot be achieved in only one year. The river is not dry and dead, but vibrant and alive (well okay it is a non-living, renewable resource, but you get the idea). There will be some obvious connections to parts of the curriculum (habitats, animals, water, resources, etc.). And there are ways to help generate the ‘flow’ of ideas beyond our local community. What are rivers like in other places? What is there to learn about the oldest and longest rivers like the Nile? The Ganges, for example, can hold a very spiritual and cultural importance to many families. What do communities do that lack necessities like clean running water? There are innumerable local and global possibilities for making this a meaningful topic to study about because it will lead to something greater than any individual effort, and it will move us beyond the walls of our own school to reach out. There can be many cultural and personal connections that students will be able to bring in and learn about.

“Here are some basics we considered when planning: 1. Orient yourself towards the topic/project: What do we know and not know about it? Who can help? 2. Manage the information in a way that makes sense for you and your group. You can’t tackle it all at once. 3. Consider the community of learners around you: How can we reach out beyond our walls? Constant reflection about why you are doing this is critical to its success.

“So why would anyone want to take on more work like this? Yes, this will stretch us out of our comfort zones, but isn’t that what we are always wanting to see in our students, that they are willing to take some risks and try something new? How better to teach such things than by exemplifying them? We do this because we know that is where the most learning can happen. I am exciting and a little nervous about this adventure with my colleagues, but I know it will be much greater than anything I have ever accomplished in my teaching on my own!”

Pamela Hagen writes:

Pam Hagen“During the second year of the three year plan, a grant application to the BC based group ArtStart was successful to provide funds to enable us to go to work on some of the environment transforming ideas we had had. We arranged meetings with a local community-based artist, Diane Moran, who would work with the staff and students to help with the changes to the school, to enable us to bring to visual life a sense of bringing the river into the school. This included making the entrance to the school more inviting and welcoming by having students’ river themed designs incorporated into painting the entrance walkway.
“Student designed signs have been mounted in the various wings of the school which give the names of each of the three wings Salmon Creek, Stoney Creek and Cherry Blossom Creek. These names were chosen by students to reflect the location of the school with regard to the river itself. Various specific rooms in each wing have been given specific names, e.g. the Computer Room has been renamed Electric Current.
“The organizing committee was reformed to include staff members new to the school at the start of the second year. What continues to be important for the staff is that through the WSP cohesion and camaraderie between staff members and between staff and students transcends routines of planning and organization.
“The new committee, and soliciting further ideas and directions for the WSP, has brought the school community more tightly together and has laid a foundation for expansion during the second year of the project to further involve parents and the wider school community. At the same time, however, staff members are free to individually pursue aspects of particular interest under the auspices of the project. For example, the raising of chum salmon from eggs in a special tank set-up in a common area of the school is being lead by one staff member. This exciting display allows the students’ multifaceted appreciation and connection between formal school subjects, environmental considerations and their community, including local First Nations groups.
“As the project continues to move ahead initial ideas from year one are being revisited, fine tuned, and carried out where possible in year two, thus providing an on-going framework that allows contributions from new staff members and students while maintaining the integrity, core values, and beliefs underpinning the project. There is ample opportunity for the voices of all parties, especially the students, to be heard and acted upon; it becomes OUR school, not just school!”
Pamela concludes with a general observation and responded to a couple of questions:
“One of the things that comes strongly to me through all of this, is that there is a sense of togetherness around the school, which transcends the systematic and small p political problems which seem to overwhelm us at times. Somehow the WSP seems separate from all of that `stuff.`

How does the WSP fit into the regular block schedule of the school?
The problem with this answering this question is, I think, due to the complex relationship between the WSP and the regular timetable. The WSP is an overarching “framework” or context within which the curriculum functions. Therefore, even though one might wish to create a timetable/block schedule about WSP it may not be possible. Also one term or semester is not necessarily the same as the next because there are different curricula subjects and “responsibilities” that need to take place. For example, during the first year of the WSP, in Language Arts when teaching about the writing of different forms of poetry, students were asked to focus some of their writing on the theme of The River, with different forms of poetry about River topics. Art was brought into this with the decoration and design of the poetry booklet cover. In addition, during that term a large part of the Science curriculum was related to The River, including the development of the ability to do multifaceted science observations, including use of the senses of smell (the rotting flesh of dying/spawning salmon), hearing (the changing sounds as we came closer to the river and then at the river with birds coming to feast on the dying salmon, plus the sounds of rain and the water), and sight (visual changes in the greenery around the river in the Fall). We also blended in some mathematics and science, checking the temperature of the water, and statistics with general counts of the number of salmon appearing in the river over a period of time. Often connection between a curriculum topic and the WSP was more casual or fortuitous—an individual teacher would see an easy way to connect with the WSP and benefitted from the greater enthusiasm of the students extending their knowledge of The River and finding the curriculum topic more meaningful.

It might be useful to conclude with a set of slides Jonathan prepared in making a presentation about WSPs at a conference. They sum up the ideas and activities very well.

<   Left is a group of students examining the river.

And right is a picture of the river they are examining.   >

Entrance to Westwood Elementary School  >

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