Kids: Bring the Classroom Alive

Using nature as a teaching tool.

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By Teenaz Javat

The yellow school bus comes to a screeching halt at a cross road in west Mississauga. Red lights flash as 20 kids from Oscar Peterson Public School spill out onto the designated sidewalk. Struggling to balance their backpacks, soccer balls and lunch bags, their tiny arms also encircle planters. As they cross the street they proudly show off their very own tree.

The brainchild of grade one teacher David W. Barnes, the planter comes with instructions on how to plant the tree.

Curious to learn more, I hop off to school to catch up on what Barnes is up to. He is just about lining up his kids to visit the vegetable patch in their own schoolyard.

I follow. And to my utter surprise the kids, as if by clockwork, identify the vegetables they are growing – lettuce, radish, spinach, Swiss chard, peas and beans. For Barnes it is a delight to watch them learn. “We plant these vegetables in early spring. These can then be harvested before school is out for summer. On the last day of school, each student will take home what they planted.”

“That includes the 775 trees that students from the school have planted in the Churchill Meadows neighbourhood over four years,” Barnes goes onto add his blue eyes dancing in the sunlight. Clearly he is having as much fun as the kids are in the school yard.

As Barnes gets his hands dirty with the kids, I realize how passionate he is about making the children Eco Literate. “As a teacher my role is to nurture a child’s curiosity and love for living things. It is about helping our children learn to care for and protect our planet,” he says looking up with delight as a child announces the sighting of a worm eating a leaf off “her” plant.

Oscar Peterson (Canada’s Grammy-award winning jazz pianist after whom the school gets the name) was deeply interested in growing a garden between the elementary school named in his honour and the middle school just besides it. But he never lived to see it happen. “It bothered me that we could not accomplish his wish when he was alive, so I applied and received a grant from TD Friends of the Environment to grow an organic garden,” Barnes adds, “and here we are now planting organic vegetables in our very own patch. We are also cultivating an organic butterfly garden besides it.”

“Are you making gardeners of students?” I ask, concerned, as my son is a student at the school. What about the Peel District School Board curriculum? How are they involved?

That is when Barnes face lights up as he explains to me his philosophy of “teaching with trees”. “Planting a tree in early September and watching it sprout and grow leaves through the year is folded into the math curriculum. We teach them measurement…like how tall is the tree and compare it to their height and to find the difference between the two. They count the leaves, learn about how animals make their home in trees.”

Barnes has written a book called Teaching with Trees ,which is used as a teaching tool by teachers.

In the same vein, Barnes explains how the butterfly garden is used to teach symmetry. “We use butterfly wings to teach how one side is equal and opposite of another. We teach procedure writing by learning to write in stages about the life cycle of a butterfly. Instead of pictures and diagrams we use real butterflies from our butterfly garden. We teach pollination, reproduction. It’s all about making connections. Nature has a wonderful way of lending itself to our curriculum and I am trying to make the most of it.”

It bothers Barnes that kids nowadays may be technical wizards but are socially deprived.

“The earth provides for our all of our basic needs and it is our duty as teachers to help them learn how to preserve it.”

To this effect he uses the acronym, KAFA to teach the four main components of Eco Literacy:

K- Knowledge about the earth
A- Appreciate the earth
F- Feel empathy for all living creatures
A- Act and do something to preserve it as action is where things change

Barnes, who has also authored a children’s book, My School is Alive! dreams of changing the way we think about the environment.

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