Sunday, March 08, 2015

Two days at MacSkimming

During my fall practicum I was placed in a Grade 5/6 congregated gifted class at Hawthorne Public School.  I fell head over heels for my students and my AT.  We were like one big family.  I really connected with all of the students in the class and I learned so much from my AT; we became close friends.

While I was in the class, students were getting quite excited about an event coming up for them in January: they would all be spending 3 days and 2 nights at MacSkimming Outdoor Education Centre in Ottawa's east end.  I was thrilled when my AT asked if I would be interested in joining them for the adventure.  I jumped at the chance.

Due to my school and personal schedule with my kids, I was only able to stay for one of the two nights but I was there for the first full day and most of the second day, spending about 36 hours there with my class. 

It was an amazing experience that I will not forget quickly.  Upon arrival, we unloaded our things and had an orientation in the main lodge "The Inn". 

The Inn

We were situated in the pioneer village section of MacSkimming and much of our time was spent in The Inn - we ate there, had leisure time there and did our learning there.  We slept in the pioneer cabins, which were heated only by wood stove.  They were very cold! I literally slept with my toque, mitts, and three pairs of pants - and I threw my down jacket over top of my sleeping bag... and I was still cold! 

The view we were greeted by on arrival at MacSkimming.
Our furry friend in "The Inn."

The cabin I stayed in with the girls in the class.  The wood stove didn't stop running after we arrived - no insulation meant it stayed very cold in there.

Icicles outside our cabin.
 The initial orientation gave us an overall understanding of the program we were partaking in.  The Weston Family Environmental Leaders of Tomorrow program is a 3-phase program that aims to increase the environmental literacy of Grade 6 urban students.  In Phase 1, students get a visit from a Royal Botanical Gardens educator via video-conference.  The students are introduced to natural science concepts and environmental issues that will be explored more during Phase 2 of the program.  During Phase 2, students have an immersion experience for two nights and three days at one of Ontario's outdoor education centres to continue lessons initiated in the classroom and develop the leadership skills needed to support personal and community action. Student learning is reinforced by providing hands-on opportunities and immersion in sustainable living practices, as well as an appreciation of the natural environment.  During Phase 3, students commit to both personal change and shared action by undertaking a project or stewardship activity in their school or community.  
After the trip, a trained educator from the outdoor centre will visit the students at school to reinforce previous learning and celebrate their efforts.  I joined the class for Phase 2.

Below is an introduction video to the program (not specific to MacSkimming): 

During our orientation, David, the educator who would be with us for the three days, talked about what we would experience.  One of our foci would be reducing our food waste while at MacSkimming and thinking constantly about our environmental footprint.  At each meal, students weighed their food waste and kept track of it throughout the visit with the goal of trying to get it to zero. 
The tracking sheet for food waste.

Sorting bowls for food waste.
The rest of our first day was spent cross-country skiing, exploring the trails around MacSkimming, finding traces of wildlife, finding a silent "sit spot" and listening to the sounds of the forest from our sit spots, and spending more time cross-country skiing before settling in for supper.  We also spent time getting the fires going, hauling firewood and getting a schedule together for chores.

On our first hike - hearing about the moose that have been leaving evidence in this spot, and what the moose like to eat in winter.
The moose "evidence" - a pellet.
Trying on skis.  For most of the students, they had never skied before but picked it up very quickly.  It was the perfect way to experience MacSkimming on our first day.
Heading down the trail.
Out for our second ski of the day.
Warming up after a long ski.
On our first night there, an amateur astronomer took us on a night hike (without flashlights) into the bush where we star-gazed using his telescope (and saw the moons of Jupiter) and did owl and coyote calls.
Some of the buildings in the pioneer village.
On our second day, we spent some time in The Inn taking part in different activities to increase knowledge about our environmental footprint, and participating in an environmental scavenger hunt game that took us through several stations where each group learned something new about our environmental footprints (ie water usage, energy use, etc). 

Some indoor learning about our environmental footprint.

One of the stops on the outdoor scavenger hunt: the water use area.
Each station on the scavenger hunt had a question that we had to answer using the materials left at that stop.
After a filling lunch, we played a class-wide Wide Game called Predator and Prey.  David took us out into an area of MacSkimming removed from the Pioneer Village.  The game had two purposes: to give us a lot of exercise and to teach the students about the food chain in the natural world.  Two students were carnivores and had no predators (except for myself and two other parents who were "disease" and could peg them off with plastic balls and take one of their lives), most students were omnivores (could be tagged by a carnivore or by "disease"), and a few were herbivores (could be tagged by everyone).  The goal was for each student to collect enough food and water to survive without losing all of their lives.  To do this, they had to find the punch stations on certain trees and punch their cards.  It was a great work out, lots of fun and the students learned a lot about the dynamics of a forest ecosystem.

My role at MacSkimming was to assist wherever needed.  I was often the teacher assisting David while my AT did other things back at The Inn.  I sorted students, led cross-country skiing, created and organized a chore system and "patrols" for chores, loaded firewood, kept students happy, played some games, tried to stay warm (it was -25 both days), and visited with the parent volunteers.  I participated with the students in all activities and worked to keep them focussed on David during the teaching phases, which was sometimes challenging given the students' excitement.

Students were expected to do all the indoor chores related to our visit: keeping firewood stocked, washing all the dishes, cleaning the tables and sweeping floors, weighing the food and scraping the plates.  We did not have to prepare any of the food. 

Dish duty!
Things always got silly at dish time.
My wow moments are hard to narrow down as there were so many: the beauty of MacSkimming in winter, the experience of spending intense time with your students, the engagement level of every student, reigniting my own love for outdoor education.  I'm not sure I had a personal "whoops" except that I would have brought an extra blanket and I would portion out the hot chocolate from the start rather than allowing a free-for-all.  One student in particular has a hot chocolate addiction!

This is an amazing program and opportunity for students and teachers. Weston Foundation pays for the entirety of the experience including busing, catering for every meal, the educators and materials, etc. Any Grade 6 classroom can apply to attend.  In Ottawa, it is a first-come first-served basis and they only take one class per month for the program at MacSkimming.   I hope that I am invited to attend again next year!