More students at Mildred Hall School will be able to enjoy the Birchbark Discovery Centre (BBDC) in September as the program doubles in size.

The outdoor education and inquiry-based learning system proved so popular in its three-year pilot phase that Mildred Hall will expand it to include Grade 6 in the 2021-2022 school year.

Birchbark is its own stream of classes for which parents must apply to have their children join.

“It’s all about learning in the natural environment as much as possible and making connections between the curricular program at their grade level and the land and finding opportunities to connect outdoor learning to all subject areas. Teachers will decide whether or not to teach science or language arts outside and they’ll connect it to the land,” said principal Elizabeth Brace.

Birchbark began as a partnership between Yellowknife Education District No.1 (YK1) and the NWT Montessori Society, based on best practice research from the GNWT’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE).

Since 2018, about 19 kids in the Birchbark program studied together in one class, but starting in September there will be two classes for grades 1-3 and 4-6, with about 19 students in each.

“As a school we decided it was beneficial to us, so we expanded it,” Brace said.

Unlike conventional classrooms that combine rote learning with some projects, Birchbark is mostly based on inquiry, problem solving and skills, instead of sets of facts.

“In a history class, rather than learning about the Civil War, we’ll talk the bigger issues and ask the students what they’re interested in. It’s really about teaching the skills, like researching and how to present ideas,” Brace said.

Choice is another pillar of Birchbark. The kids have freedom to explore the topics they choose as a class, though the fundamentals of education are still covered.

“There is math but it’s done outside,” Brace said. “Take a ruler, for example. They might measure how many rulers can fit across Somba K’e Park. They measure that in real life ways instead of just measuring it in the classroom. I think just getting outside is a really important thing for some parents — and for kids who might struggle in a traditional classroom when sitting at a desk all day, they can really find their strength (in Birchbark).”

Brendan Callas has been the main teacher of Birchbark since it began in 2018. In September, he will teach the grades 1-3 group and new teacher Anabel Etheridge will teach grades 4-6.

Callas is proud to see the program’s growth over the last three years.

He said one of Birchbark’s strengths is the way it can connect classroom learning with things happening in the community.

Since some of his students had joined the Walk to Tuk, he used their knowledge of the event to integrate geography, distance and social studies into one activity.

“In math, when we learned about measurements, and instead of learning about just centimetres and kilometres, we connected it to the distance we walked to Tuktoyaktuk,” Callas said. “It’s about 1,700 km from Fort Providence to Tuktoyaktuk. We rolled out a long roll of paper 18 metres long in the hallway. It was a scale model of the Walk to Tuk. We drew the Mackenzie River on it and we brought in cultural aspects from Dene Kede and what is going on in the communities along the route.”

From a parental perspective, Elizabeth Liske noticed that both of her sons’ attitudes towards school changed after they joined Birchbark.

Her youngest son Taveon has been in Birchbark since Grade 2 and he will continue with it in Grade 5 next month. Her oldest boy, Lawson, completed Grade 6 in the program last year and will join a regular class in September.

Lawson used to be anxious about completing homework and his mother thought he seemed to be under a lot of pressure.

“There were times he didn’t want to go to school.”

But when she explained to her boys that Birchbark offered a different style of learning, she knew they could adapt to it.

“As soon as classes started, I noticed a difference in them. They wanted to go to school. They were excited to learn,” Liske said. “They were sharing things with me. Before Birchbark, when I asked them how school was they would just say ‘good.’ But after Birchbark, they were able to tell me about their day and what they were learning. Their days were more full in the sense that they weren’t doing mindless work but things they actually enjoyed.”

Liske, who is Dene, also appreciates that mixing children of different ages touches on Indigenous methods of learning.

“Before contact, (conventional) classrooms weren’t part of our traditions. The way we learned, the older taught the younger. You have a role in your community based on how old you are or what you’re good at,” she said. “That’s how our communities thrived. That’s the same type of model that Birchbark has.”

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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