This week’s blog comes to us all the way from down under, from Clarice Lisle, Year 4 coordinator at Ballarat and Queen’s Anglican Grammar School, Victoria, Australia.
This is the story of a unique place-based learning program we have for our Year 4 students at Ballarat Grammar in Victoria, Australia. Located on the School farm of 120 acres, this purpose built campus is home to 65 students.
The Year 4 Mount Rowan experience, aligns with an important developmental stage in our students’ lives, marking a memorable moment that will last a life time. Stepping beyond the mainstream classroom, ‘Caring for Life’ is an underlying theme that encompasses this program through self, others and place. Aiming to develop ecological understanding as a way of seeing and being, this place-based context enables students to experience life first hand; to appreciate, value and understand their birthright and the natural way of things through guided inquiry.
A key quality of place based education is the relationship shared between the attributes of place and learning. Every element of the campus has been woven into the experience, bringing to life a ‘living curriculum’ that addresses the expectations of the Australian Curriculum and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP). Encompassed by innovative play and farm spaces, the centre makes use of an ephemeral river, wetland area, cubbies, billycarts, archaeological digs, farm systems and a variety of domestic and native animals. These are just some of the elements that inspire learning.
As a platform for learning itself, the building promotes ecological sensitivity through its sustainable design. With double glazed windows along the northern and southern walls, natural light and views fill the building, enabling ongoing exposure to the natural world. Solar energy, passive solar design, waste management and water conservation are additional themes to be explored.
Our Mountain Space…above and below
Mount Rowan itself provides a backdrop that narrates a geological story of its own, shared by the Wathaurong people who lived with and cared for this land for close to 30,000 years.
As part of the volcanic plains, this small mountain speaks to the children’s imagination, provoking rich investigations that honour the indigenous heritage of the area. When they first arrive, the students explore the mountain. From the highest point, students view and connect with the learning space they will become part of for the next ten months. They also hear from guest speakers and develop questions that lead to a deepened examination of the impact of human exploration. Journals of their explorations are produced, history is revisited and perspective and mapping skills form the mathematical focus.
Mount Rowan… Summer in Ballarat
Another feature of the learnscape is an extensive wetland area that has been installed as habitat for a variety of local wildlife. Students have been assisting with the development of this area, which will, over the years, contribute to the environmental identity of those who pass through the program. They practise advocacy through caring for the land and working with indigenous flora and fauna, including the critically endangered growling grass frog, whose image they now wear on their uniform with pride.
Students investigate these ecosystems, looking for data through observation and presenting their findings in a formal report. For example; one student chose to investigate the life that lives in one of the ancient old swamp gums. After hearing from an expert on data collection, she was excited to find an abundance of life within this tree. Then her mind extended to the life she couldn’t see. Deep in the earth, high in the branches, the microscopic, underneath the bark, the scat of a possum, a family of huntsman spiders and a skeleton of an unfortunate small bird that had been taken as prey. Pond life, water quality, soil ecology, birds of prey, introduced species and the water cycle are just some of the many topics we explore.
Simply through exposure, students are learning to understand the full value of natural beauty and its importance in their lives and personal wellbeing. In this context the students work towards a spiritual awareness and appreciation of the present moment and all it has to offer. We challenge them to focus on developing an attentiveness to the moment and to listen carefully with their eyes, ears and heart.
The animals of the farm play an important role in the development of empathy. It is through empathy that our students learn to understand each other and the animals they work with. Working with the farm animals is a time of wonder and great joy, with the occasional moments of sadness that remind us of the realities we face in life. They know that the Wessex Saddleback piglets will eventually be sent to market and so will some of the Corriedale sheep and Lowline cattle. Whilst this can be a challenging emotional obstacle to overcome, their perspective is balanced with the knowledge that this meat is ‘loved meat’. It is not factory produced, it is ethical, stress free meat.
A Lamb’s Tale
Recently some agricultural students found a newborn lamb, barely alive in the paddock. They brought her into our fire in hope that she might survive. The year fours quickly took over the care. We cautioned them that there was a high chance she might not survive. With this knowledge they sat around her and said a prayer. Every student was willing her to live. It wasn’t until six hours later when she suddenly drew on all of her energy to stand up that our hopes were raised. At that point the students named her Miracle, and prayed that she’d make it through the night. Word spread around our community quickly, inspiring an early start the next day for many families who wanted to see what had happened. On seeing her alive and well, a palpable sense of relief flowed through the children who understood first-hand the struggle that had taken place.
Miracle, or Mirri, is now strong, and takes turns visiting the homes of the students. Whilst slightly humanised, she has provided an essential connection with each child, stirring the emotions that stem from love. Whilst embracing the responsibilities that were part of her care, something else very special happened. The students formed fresh bonds with each other and some of their friendship groups changed shape. The children all had something in common. The therapeutic relationship that animals share with humans is well documented and Mirri is an example of this.
From Paddock to plate, to a Market at our School Gate
Whilst Mirri definitely isn’t on the menu, a strong focus is placed on the processes involved in the production of food. We celebrate this through our ‘Paddock to Plate Bake, Gather and Share’, kitchen program. Here, the power of slow food, healthy eating and the ethics of food production is understood. Students all assist with the establishment of food gardens, the preparation of the soil, planting and harvesting processes.
The students aim to hold a weekly market selling their produce to the School Community as part of the ‘Green Entrepreneurs’ program that is emerging. Here, there is a job for everyone, where the students market their produce, make preserves, recycle pre-loved toys and develop budgets to keep their business afloat. Funds raised not only feed our chickens and sugar gliders, but are also reinvested in other ventures. Recently a very successful cat scrunchy was developed as a way to protect local birds. The learning in our Market Program is enormous and inclusive to all.
The learning outcomes of this program further endorse the growing awareness of the important role that the natural world plays in whole child development. Social issues tend to settle and children who normally sit outside social circles seem to find their place. In particular, we have found it to be a calming environment for students who have been on the teacher’s radar.
At the end of the day the children return to their homes and share their experiences over a dinner they may have helped prepare. They discuss where their food has come from and talk about the feral cat that was captured that morning. They might mention the visiting scientist or how they saw a chook lay an egg. Their clothes are dirty and need a wash and it’s time for bed. Who knows what Mount Rowan has in store for them tomorrow?