Life as a Pre-service teacher, Part 1 “Experiential Learning: Teaching Beyond the Classroom Walls”

Experiential Learning at Camp Wilvaken
Experiential Learning at Camp Wilvaken

I have had the pleasure of working with pre-service teachers since 2003.  My years at McGill and now Bishop’s University have been filled with countless hours of joy, discovery, debate, and of course learning.  Throughout this school year, I will be writing about some of the incredible moments that I have been fortunate to share with the pre-service teacher community.  These narratives will allow you to peek into a world that you might have forgotten.  Their stories will offer hope for the future and will undoubtedly inspire those of us in the field presently to take a risk or two in our own teaching practice, our pedagogy and the ways we engage with our students.

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. ~ Confucius, 450 BC

Experiential education is the process of actively engaging students in an experience that will have real consequences. Students make discoveries and experiment with knowledge themselves instead of hearing or reading about the experiences of others. Students also reflect on their experiences, thus developing new skills, new attitudes, and new theories or ways of thinking (Kraft & Sakofs, 1988). Experiential learning is also referred to as learning through action, learning by doing, learning through experience, and learning through discovery and exploration.  A key element of experiential learning, therefore, is the student, and that learning takes place as a result of being personally involved in this pedagogical approach.

At its core, Experiential Learning can be defined as a process that:

• engages students in direct and active interactions with objects or phenomena in the immediate environment, usually through the use of one or more senses (observing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting, and intuition)

• moves away from textbooks as the central or sole repository of knowledge

• involves a continuous exchange between students’ immediate experiences and their personal reflections in order to reassess previously held beliefs and influence future experiences and behaviour (Dewey, 1938)

• seeks to transform experience into newly formed knowledge (Kolb, 1984)

What follows are excerpts from the reflections of five pre-service teachers who have been immersed this past year in Experiential Learning Projects.  Whether the experience took place half way around the world or in their local community, the one thing that is clear from their writing is that these endeavours were transformative and will indeed have a lasting impact on their future classrooms and the students they will teach.

Learning in Makupo
Learning in Makupo

Linden Parker:  McGill third year elementary B.Ed student, Praxis Malawi Project 2013

With one last day to pack, enjoy the village, and spend time with this group that has become my family away from home, I can truly say that this entire trip has delivered a greater depth and breadth of experiences than I could ever have imagined. The weekend excursions and our interactions with the warm and welcoming villagers is all icing on top of the cake, which was the fact that we managed to create a unique final product that will hopefully bring about positive change for the next generation of Malawians. I am excited to stay in touch with the group as they continue to work over the next week or two and then to maintain an ongoing communication with the teacher who will be putting the curriculum into action. While I am happy with the contribution I have made to the project during my stay in Malawi, it is pretty amazing to know that it does not have to be over. I think that this is making it easier to say goodbye. In the long-term, I look forward to following the progress of the school’s development and hope it does reach its final goal of establishing an adult education program. We are starting with the youngest learners and plan to build a new classroom each year, slowing increasing the number of people who are encouraged to think critically, creatively, and innovatively. The hope and empowerment of initiatives such as this one is inspiring, and if community members continue to pursue sustainable development initiatives on their own, the potential is limitless. With my entire career as a teacher ahead of me, I can only say the same for myself. If I continue to challenge myself as I have done here and draw upon the resources around me, the potential is limitless.

Loving life!
Loving life!

Naomi Crisp:  Bishop’s fourth year elementary B.Ed student, Praxis Malawi Project 2013

Everyone was working well and enjoying the process of creative lesson planning. We were all so impressed with each other’s ideas and naturally wanting to adopt them in our own classrooms. It is an amazing process to observe as well as be a part of. Seeing individual faces as they think of a great lesson or they hear a group member’s suggestion and their mind forms a picture of it is just awesome. It is great to see teachers so excited about their profession!  I wouldn’t have thought I would get so excited about curriculum development but I can’t wait to do more! The critical thinking and creativity that go hand in hand with this process is enticing and always asking for more. I can’t express how grateful I am to be here and doing this project…This evening I lay in my room listening to music and thinking about the consistent questions that have been running through my head about my place here. After seeing our work today and how involved Thomas, Cynthia (pre-service Malawian teachers) as well as Francis (our organizer for our advance work) all are in the project I feel that we are not out of place developing the curriculum here. I have come to the conclusion that it is no different than going up to Cree territory and teaching there. It is a place and culture I don’t know and have never been exposed to in my own country yet I wouldn’t doubt myself or others for teaching up north. If you do advance work and gain an understanding of the people and geography/history of the area and you’re willing to adapt, you can teach. We have not come to Malawi to disrespect the system here, but rather enhance education opportunities for a rural area. The people have been so welcoming of the project and I think it is time that I actually accept their welcome with a Malawian handshake and “zikomo”.

At the orchard
At the orchard

Erin Flynn: Bishop’s fourth year secondary B.Ed student, Apple Orchard ELP

Overall, I would rate this ELP experience a success. During the planning stages of the field trip, it became so easy to connect the curriculum to the trip. With each idea, we found ourselves making sure to ask the question “so why is it absolutely essential to the student learning for them to physically be at the orchard to better understand this concept?” As far as my part was concerned, the history of the industrial revolution (and ultimately of change in the Eastern Townships and rural areas), I found it absolutely imperative that students receive a true representation and visual preservation of what farming in Quebec was and is like, in order to better understand why change occurred and how these changes have affected the current situation…It is not enough anymore to just see a picture and obtain deep and meaningful understanding…there is so much culture and history being represented right in our backyards that the students don’t know to look for. For example, when was the last time you went apple picking and thought of the choices of buying local, sustainable and environmental practices, effects on bees, Canada’s beautiful landscapes depicted in local art, or the effects of industrialization? We took an activity that is familiar to students and gave it a new spin.

The aim we have as new teachers is to make students question. In order to stay motivated, students need to ask questions about their surroundings, make deeper meaning from what is around them, and learn to be critical and informed in their daily practices and decisions. While our goal is for the students to take away educational insight that deepens their understanding of the curriculum, the ultimate goal is to make students explorers, detectives, uneasy, confident, researchers. Students need to know that they do not have to accept the world around them as it is, but rather the more they question, the better they can inform and implement change.

One room schoolhouse
One room schoolhouse

Emilie Bowles: Bishop’s fourth year secondary B.Ed student, Colby-Curtis Museum ELP

In terms of the development of my understanding of curriculum, I think that I now know a great deal more of what it really takes to develop an interdisciplinary learning experience…As history of the study of the past in general, there is quite a lot of room for student exploration and discovery in whatever direction they choose to focus on, be it the history of art, literature, politics, economics, etc. There really is something for everyone.

On a more personal note, the organization of this project provided me with my first hands-on archival experience. Kathy, the archivist at the Colby-Curtis museum gave me the amazing opportunity to look at and touch old report cards, teacher certificates, curriculum documents, and teacher letters to add to my background research of education in the Eastern Townships in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was beyond excited and I can’t believe that I got through my Social Studies major without ever having come in contact with actual primary documents. The reason that I’m mentioning this is because these documents, in addition to the physical building of the Mansur schoolhouse, gave me a stronger feeling of connection with the past. I had experienced the past in a more authentic way than I ever could in the classroom. This is why I can’t wait to implement these kinds of learning experiences in my own future classroom.

Canoeing as a team
Canoeing as a team

Lara Willis: Bishop’s fourth year secondary B.Ed student, Camp Wilvaken ELP

Our goal was to have the learning come from our students and let them create the experience. We had guidelines for what we wanted to happen and back up plans for “things gone wrong” but we hardly touched on those! From the car ride, to getting everyone into canoes to running around the woods creating a post-apocalyptical survival experience, it seemed like all our students really took something away from the experience. I know that this is a project that I would put together with my own colleagues if placed in a school nearby. There is nothing better to build a community than being away from your regular setting and forced to work together…Taking everyone away to camp for a short afternoon increased our team work and our confidence in one another. We were finally broken into groups of people whom we don’t usually work with and taken out of our comfort zone to create something new and unprecedented. If this helps with university students’ cooperation and sense of community then I believe that it will be just as beneficial, if not more for my high school students. We see a whole other side of people when they are in the outdoors and able to explore new places…This is the type of ELP which has more than just subject-specific learning material. I believe that this can help students build a community, stop bullying and create leaders… It’s extremely important to help students going through their adolescent transition by getting them to meet new people, discover new sides to themselves and finding interest in something that they may never have experienced before…As our teacher obligations state, we are not only in school to teach factual information, but we are also there to guide our students to become interpreters of the world and contribute to their overall personal development… Overall, I believe that this ELP brings invaluable experiences to our students’ lives.


I hope some of you will share an Experiential Learning Project you have done with your students along with a reflection of what this type of teaching has brought not only to their lives but to yours as well.

Plugging into Parents: Using technology to build and sustain positive parent-school relationships

by plakboek
Interview night table by plakboek

As the mother of three, I’ve had the experience of engaging with two different school boards, three schools, and a great number of support, teaching and administrative personnel over the past 10 years. Although I’m trying to write this post with my parent hat on (the woolly one that keeps me warm in hockey arenas!), I recognize that I have a certain personal bias with regards to education given my experience as a teacher and as someone who unabashedly loves learning. Walking into a school, any school, doesn’t cause me angst. If fact, it has the opposite effect, it makes me feel alive and excited. Sadly, this isn’t the case for every parent. I remember my first round of parent-teacher interviews at a large urban high school in Gatineau. I was certainly nervous as the novice teacher on staff but not anywhere close to as agitated and uncomfortable as some of the parents who came to see me! I can only guess why some of them felt the way they did (their own emotional connection and experience with formal schooling, their child’s academic performance, etc.), but what I do know is that once I connected with them, for the most part, they seemed to feel better about the whole process. Imagine if I had been able to communicate with them efficiently and effectively on a daily basis, demystifying for them what was actually happening in my class and at school.

We all know that it’s important for schools to communicate with parents. Why? Because study after study has shown that student achievement is positively impacted by parent involvement.  (You may want to check out some of the specific research on the benefits here.) And, involvement hinges on good, regular communication. One or two meetings a year and the odd letter or note home just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I want to know what my kids are up to…daily. How can this be accomplished without over-tasking the already heavily tasked school teachers, administrators & support staff? Well, here are some suggestions. One caveat, this list is not research driven, nor does it reflect everybody’s digital reality, but it does come from the heart…the heart of a sometimes frustrated but always enthused parent:

A school website. I’m really not looking for anything fancy or complicated here, just a site that is updated regularly and includes the most current contact information for all the go-to people in the school. The professional email addresses of all the teaching staff would be greatly appreciated. A monthly calendar with important dates would be nice too. How about PDF’s of important documents, along with the school newsletter? And maybe even links to all of the school’s class blogs and social media? A one-stop shop of sorts that would bundle together many of the communication modes listed below. There are some very easy to use, free websites out there (see Weebly or Google Sites) that don’t require a tech specialist to build or update.

An e-newsletter. At my son’s high school, the daily newsletter, which gets read to the students during advisory, is sent out to any parent who has an email and wishes to receive it. My middle son’s school physically sends a newsletter out monthly which they also post on their school website. Both of these strategies work for me. I get to see what extracurriculars or meetings are taking place and am reminded of important dates, so that I can in turn help the school and my children by reinforcing this information at home.

Class blogs. I’m not sure that I can express in mere prose my love of class blogs…I may have to write a song about it! (What rhymes with blogs?) The teachers who have taken the time to set up and grow these precious sites should be lauded. Not only do they themselves benefit by being able to reflect more openly on their own practice and make more transparent what and how they are teaching, the students (and by extension the parents) have easy access to what used to be buried in a teacher’s planner. In some cases, the students take ownership for the content creation on the blog and it becomes a sort of portfolio of their work. For some great examples of class blogs and how they are used in a myriad of amazing ways, check out the Edublog Awards here.

Personal Learning Networks (PLN’s) Okay, this may be a stretch…but I don’t think so. A PLN is an informal learning network whereby a person makes connections (on the interwebs) with other people, with the intent of learning something, or contributing to common professional development. Being a parent of school-aged children is more than a full-time job! Why not help parents support each other by putting them in contact with each other or by providing the means for them to connect more easily? The introduction of simple online tools like Google docs for sports team carpooling or SignUpGenius for fundraising initiaves, are easy ways to tap into the power of parent crowd sourcing.

Email. I know that this may seem obvious but I have received many first week hard copy communications from teachers with no indication of how or when to contact them should I so desire. Remember, I really do understand how busy you are but I want to know that you are available, and if email isn’t your communication channel of choice, I need to know what is.

The Phone (or Skype, or videoconferencing). When a physical face-to-face just isn’t possible or a written missive just won’t do.  Yes, randomly calling somebody is pretty hit-and-miss and can be a time-waster but a pre-arranged phone or video conference which best suits the availability of teacher and parent is, to me, every bit as satisfying as meeting in person, and often much more convenient.

Hard Copies. Inkjet printers, photocopy machines…all technologies…though not my preferred form for the purposes of efficient, regular or time-sensitive communication. I do understand the necessity, however, of sometimes sending documents home that need to be signed or authorized. Why not make the most of these opportunities? How about sending home a short parent survey at the beginning of the year to solicit information from parents about how they want to be involved in the life of the school?  For more great ideas on forging parent partnerships, check out some of Dr. Joe Mazza’s insightful posts on Edutopia or listen to one of his interviews about using technology to engage families here.

The onus of establishing and fostering good communication between school and parents does not fall exclusively on the school.  In my mind, parents bear the greatest responsibility for taking ownership of their children’s education but sometimes need help feeling comfortable doing so.  If I don’t hear from or meet a teacher directly within the first weeks of school…I reach out. Just a quick email to let the teacher know how much I appreciate the very important work that he/she is doing and that I’m always available to discuss the progress (or lack thereof!) of one of my children.

What are some of the ways that you or your school keep parents in the loop and engaged?






Visual Notetaking: Tapping into other modalities for learning

Visual Notetaking by Lynn Cazaly, used with permission
Visual Notetaking by Lynne Cazaly, used with permission


I’ve become intrigued by the idea of visual note-taking. I admit, I haven’t really tried it yet, but it’s something I want to explore. I’m no artist, but from what I have read and seen, this is one place where simple drawings and stick figures are more than acceptable. I’m looking forward to the session by Wesley Fryer at the Tablet Summit  so I can take some time to play with this. From what I understand the session will involve both paper notetaking and notetaking on the iPad.

As teachers we often ask our students to take notes, whether to act as a reminder of a talk they listened to, to highlight the key points in something they read or watched or to record questions to address later. We have certainly taken our share of notes. What do those notes mean to us when we look back at them? If we are very efficient, they sum up the talk or text. But they don’t often help us organize the information in a meaningful way. In addition, they are totally text-based which for many students is simply not their style! I know when I take notes in real time, I sometimes concentrate so much on the words I miss the meaning. By switching to images and relationships, I think concentration also shifts to listening for concepts.

Visual Notes by Rachel Smith
Visual Notes by Rachel Smith shared under a CC license

Our world is more and more visual. Students are used to learning through many forms of media. Why shouldn’t their notetaking reflect this?

Mind-mapping is a first step in organizing thinking, but it is often used as a brainstorm prior to creating something. Visual notes may include mind-mapping, but good visual notes also include images.  Visual notetaking is done during  (sometimes called visual recording) or after the event as a way of remembering and clarifying.  Text based notes are linear – visual notes are not. Instead they can be all over the page showing connections, hierarchy and by using images as well as text they give you multiple ways of remembering. And it is a lot more fun! Different styles of text can help emphasize certain information. If you look at either of the examples here, you will see key concepts jumping out at you.  The structure of the page helps to organize the information into sections both for  meaning and to show relationships. Visual notes not only bring out key points, they also help to make sense and synthesize the content. I was not at either of the sessions for the above notes, but I can feel a flow and interdependence between certain sections

Instead of just words, you have to learn to use a few visual tools to organize your ideas. Think about the space on the page, Use different type to emphasize ideas. Sometimes you want to use a container to enclose a concept. Connectors (think arrows) are ways of showing relationships. It helps to learn to create simple figures with different faces to express different emotions. Here’s a site that explains some of the basics of visual note-taking

Watch this video to learn more: Sketcho Frenzy: The Basics of Visual Notetaking


Visual notes that are done not in real time (i.e not while attending a live event, or watching a video at a specific time) can be quite beautiful, with careful attention payed to typography. I can picture students in a class creating visual notes about concepts in science class, for the characters and setting in a novel or about math concepts and those ideas are just off the top of my head.

Remember that old adage: a picture is worth 1000 words? By creating visual notes, students are tapping into other modalities, other channels for learning, remembering and integrating knowledge as well as into their creativity.


You can’t make it to Wesley Fryer’s session? Here is a link to his section on visual notetaking from Mapping Media to the Common Core.

A couple of videos you may want to watch:

Rachel Smith describes Visual recording  on the iPad

Nicki Hambleton: Visual Notetaking

Thanks to Lynne Cazaly for giving permission to use her photo.  I enjoyed crawling though her Flickr photostream. It has given me many ideas to integrate into my baby steps at visual notetaking.