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Little house on the Peace a place of learning

At the newest learning centre in the Peace Region, students take a more project-based, student-driven approach to education.

By last May, Sandra Cushway was ready to quit her job at Baldonnel Elementary School altogether. The labour dispute between the teachers and the province was heating up, and she was frustrated. Driving up to Pink Mountain on a weekend getaway, she announced to her family, “That’s it, I’m done. This is not what I went into teaching for.”

But as the weekend wore on and she thought about it some more, Cushway realized she had a problem: she still loved to teach. “I was reading a book on project-based learning, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought ‘I think there’s a better way.’ I feel kind of like a square peg trying to go into a round hole.”

Cushway, who holds a masters degree in curriculum design, was no stranger to project based learning, even then. She’d done projects in her classroom at the Baldonnel school, taking her Grade 6 and 7 kids on a weeks-long trip into the Yukon and Alaska. She started a spring program with her husband in tandem with Baldonnel Elementary School where they do hands-on learning through building and growing projects, a pond study and animal care.

But Cushway had something a little different in mind.

She approached the school district about her idea, but wasn’t able to work anything out with them. She decided to make it work on her own.

“I wanted a minimum of five children and a maximum of 10 to try it out,” she said. “I said if I had that many I would do it.”

She got eight. Sandra and her husband Chris set up a space in a large garage they were building next to their house on their sprawling property just up the road from the Baldonnel school. They have tables, chairs, computers and a lot of empty space to work in.

Their first class started in October, made up of School District 60 students who are registered homeschoolers. Cushway still teaches at Baldonnel Elementary until 3 p.m., then teaches her small class from 3 to 6.

The difference between her learning centre and her classroom projects is that the former is student-led.

“The students decide which projects they want to do and I work within that to teach the skills and the processes,” explained Cushway.

For example, the students are required to learn research writing, but what that research focuses on is up to the students. One did her project on horses, two others did art, while another chose rocks.

“They were all writing paragraphs, but they were writing about what they wanted,” said Cushway. “I think that’s a huge difference.”

They also learn time management. She gives her students the responsibility to plot out their projects’ timelines on a calendar.

For literature, she said most of her students divided up chapter readings and made the five assignments due on the last five days. “We know pretty much what’s going to happen there, but you know what? I believe you learn by doing, so I didn’t say anything,” said Cushway. “They went through and they learned very quickly that you can’t get that done. The next time around, none of them did that.”

Her students learn skills useful to them — skills that a lot of adults don’t even have.

They’re already learning job hunting skills. Students are given practical jobs — like tech support, custodial duties, librarian and banker — which they have to apply for by submitting a resume and cover letter, and going through an interview process that will be evaluated by a local business owner. They run meetings as a group that are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, and are required to budget out the money they have to spend.

Another big difference between her learning centre and mainstream learning: there are no grades. Instead, students are constantly critiquing each other’s work until they feel it is up to standard. The way Cushway sees it, they’re learning how to learn.

“We don’t give grades here,” she said. “Someone said to me, well are you worried that the quality of the work might go down? I said nope, not at all,” pointing to one of many examples of pictures of butterflies on the walls. At the start of the year, she had her students sketch their idea of a butterfly. Then she gave them a picture of a butterfly and had them use that as a guide to redraw their picture. They talked about each other’s work and how to improve it, and continued redrawing and critiquing their pictures until they felt satisfied. Some got to their best in three tries, while others took five. “That’s okay, because we all learn at a different rate,” said Cushway, pointing out the marked difference between the first and last pictures as evidence of learning outcomes without a letter grade.

After 23 years of teaching, she said grading just doesn’t work.

“I don’t put a lot of value in grades, because I know how subjective they are,” she said. “To me, what I value more is if someone can come in, they can do a good interview, they can write a good resume, they can sit down, they can talk to me, they have a good work ethic, they can organize themselves — those are far more important to me than a grade.”

Her students are energetic, eager to show off their projects, science boards and research booklets. Others have slideshows they’ve compiled. They explain them carefully. If they’re confused, they don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. They’re confident and attentive.

One is 11-year-old Rachel Banack. She is experimenting with cucumber seedlings, growing them with hydroponics to see which do better in different conditions. Banack chose that project because she’s seen friends and family grow them before, but she wanted to find a more effective way of doing it.

Banack’s been in other schools, in Upper Pine and Baldonnel, but she said she prefers Cushway’s class. “Here I actually got to learn about what I want to learn about,” she said.

Parents like it too.

Jodie Chapple has two of her kids in Cushway’s class. When she found out about Cushway’s learning centre, she immediately had her children apply, rather than sending one to Burt Bowes Middle School and the other back to Baldonnel.

Chapple’s seen a marked improvement. “One of them has got a little bit of a learning disorder, and this program has been perfect for her, she can only learn at her own speed,” she said. Now she sees them reading and doing math, interested in learning.

Cushway said Chapple’s reaction is common amongst parents, and she often gets calls about enrolment. Her plan is to take a leave of absence from her position at Baldonnel and focus more of her energy on the project. Next year, she expects to up the enrollment to 20 students. Interested students are required to write her a letter themselves outlining why they’d like to learn in her classroom.

“To me, the passion has come back,” she said.