Hands-up if when you were in Grade 7 or 8 you did any of the following:
*Installed a garden that could withstand drought conditions or one that could absorb water run-off.
*Painted yellow fish on storm gratings and carried out a neighbourhood campaign to inform homeowners of the message they should take away from this.
*Assisted a pharmacist in concocting specially-formulated medicinal mouthwash for cancer patients.
*Prepared a vaping awareness campaign for your peers.
*Helped a butcher convert kidneys, hearts, and livers into dog-food.
*Had an opportunity to shadow a specialist in non-surgical cosmetic medicine.
Too cool for school, right?
Those were just some of the activities Central Senior students engaged in during their recent “Community Engagement-themed” Breakaway Week.
Breakaway weeks may be new to you, but they weren’t a new concept for the students. There were four last year, organized around themes that included French Culture, STEM (Science, Technology, and Math) and Outdoor Education; earlier this school-year there’d been one on “Executive Functions” (learning organizational skills, time management, mental wellness and how to assess their personal strengths and weaknesses).
School principal Sheila Shauf explains that the idea had come out of staff discussions on how to increase student engagement. “We looked at other jurisdictions for inspiration and were impressed by the English system of six weeks in class followed by a one-week break.”
A change can be as good as a rest and the board’s hiring of an “Experiential Education” consultant suggested a direction to take: a break from classroom structure and lots of activity (most of it tied to curriculum) from which students and staff would return to the classroom rejuvenated and energized.
For this most recent week, letters home and a message on the school’s website informed parents of the Community Engagement aim: “Highlighting the importance of being a part of and giving to our community by providing students with the opportunity to experience volunteer opportunities throughout our community.”
Each day was divided into blocks and began with volunteer placements around town. Students helped out at nursing homes and at Central’s feeder schools, built cribs and played with kids at the Pregnancy Centre, sorted food destined for food banks, bundled poppies for the Legion, raked leaves and picked up garbage in public spaces. Some had placements in local businesses — LaMantia’s Country Market, Remedy’s Rx, and Nesbitt’s Meat Market. A few stayed behind and did their volunteer work at the school, building bee-boxes, painting murals and assisting with a library revamp.
For the second block, the staff organizers had arranged for a speaker each day. Jason and Karissa Ward (of Wards Lawyers) talked to students about the importance of engaging in our local community; Ryan Oliver told them how and why he started a not-for-profit tech enterprise in Nunavut; Lyndsay Bowen spoke of her role as Library Specialist, Outreach and Community Engagement for the Kawartha Lakes Library system; Ava Wright spoke of local homelessness and how to help.
All of the speakers were worthy role models for adolescents: three of the four grew up here and returned home to contribute to their community; two of them had attended Central Senior.
After hearing the speakers, students engaged in “activism projects.” A vaping awareness campaign was one of these, but there were an impressive range of others. Some involved supporting initiatives of community organizations: the Food Source’s Food Drive, Women’s Resources Fill-a-Purse Campaign and Warm Clothing drive, the Conservation Authority’s Yellowfish Road Project, for example. Others — such as raising awareness of climate change and of the problem of single-use plastics, fundraising for funds to plant trees, and community art projects — were student initiated.
Shauf explains how it worked: “Students signed up for the project they were interested in becoming involved with. They spent their time learning about their issue, determining what they wanted to do about it and planning their next steps.”
What was the response to all this? Shauf admits that in dispersing 289 students around the community each morning she was “highly anxious.” But from all perspectives the week was a great success.
The adults who worked with kids were impressed. Holly Shipclark, stewardship coordinator for Kawartha Lakes Conservation Authority, notes that those she was involved with “liked being outdoors and getting dirty.”
“It was really, really useful to have them . . . we’d love to do this again,” she adds.
Butcher Paul Kennedy (who, like store owner Adam Hayward, started work at Nesbitt’s Meat Market as a ‘clean-up lad’ at 13, while still at Central) are approved: “They did very well” was his assessment.
For the teachers it was an opportunity to get to know students who are not in their own classes, and a chance to build relationships with their own students. As well, it allowed them to see new sides to some students. Teacher Eric Smeaton explains: “Some kids show a strong work ethic in those situations. When motivated they demonstrate huge on-task behaviour.”
The contributions over the week had an impact on the community, and maybe shifted some perceptions. “Every generation critiques the current group of kids and kids know how they’re perceived,” Smeaton observes. “Maybe with this kind of activity, adults in the community will see them in a different way — it proves kids nowadays are awesome.”
But the biggest winners were the students themselves, who can feel they’re not only part of the community but can actively contribute and possibly come away with an expanded sense of possibilities.
For some it might even be looked back upon as a turning-point. The student who donned a lab coat and assisted with formulating the mouthwash for the cancer patient? Her comment to Smeaton was, “I might want to become a pharmacist.” Not something she’d ever contemplated a week earlier.
A final, personal reflection, prompted by sitting around a table with Shauf, Smeaton, and Vice-Principal Melissa MacEachern: Tense contract negotiations between the province and teachers may dominate the headlines, but rest assured that educators’ focus each day on their students and finding creative ways to keep them engaged and help them reach their potential.