Rebecca Chahine, OCT, and her students understand that small changes can often mean big differences, especially when looking at energy and the environment.
By Stuart Foxman
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
View our Great Teaching video archive.
Imagine having to trek for hours each day to collect water for your family. That’s what Rebecca Chahine, OCT, asks her Grade 4/5 class at Malvern Junior Public School in Toronto to think about.
Chahine begins the conversation by reading aloud two books based on African childhoods. As students listen closely, they learn that not everyone their age has easy access to this vital resource. Reading these true stories is useful but not enough to paint the picture — so she takes her students to a local creek. There, they fill buckets with water and walk several kilometres back to the school.
“You learn by experience,” says Chahine. “This really allows the students to empathize. It also gives them an appreciation for how lucky they are just to be able to go to school every day.”
The bucket haul doubles as a fundraiser. With pledges from family and friends, the students recently raised and donated $700 to the social development charity ME to WE, to aid in their clean water campaign (oct-oeeo.ca/walkforwater).
Making important issues like that real for students is Chahine’s passion. She was a leader in the effort to make Malvern a Platinum eco-certified school, and aims to foster a sense of environmental and energy awareness through hands-on projects.
Her students, for instance, participate in creek and schoolyard cleanups and conduct school waste audits, calculating the percentage in each classroom diverted from landfills. Some students have even planted trees in Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto. And Chahine’s class won the Plastic Bag Grab challenge (plasticbaggrab.com) — a waste reduction program for elementary schools. They invested the $1,000 prize back into the school community, buying a bike rack to encourage students to cycle to school.
Chahine delivers an overarching lesson in these endeavours: “It’s teaching the students that small changes can make a difference in the world.”
In 2017, Chahine led her students through a 12-week Classroom Energy Diet Challenge. It encouraged classrooms across the country to complete up to 25 tasks, such as researching Canada’s renewable and non-renewable forms of energy, and learning how to reduce their carbon footprints. For her efforts, Chahine was named central Canada’s 2018 Energy Educator of the Year by Canadian Geographic Education.
These lessons take centre stage in Chahine’s classroom, where she teaches almost everything, except French and music. Energy and the environment naturally fit under her science unit, but she skilfully weaves in multiple not-so-obvious parts of the curriculum as well.
Consider Malvern’s walk-to-school initiative. The elementary teacher saw it as a chance to help her students develop all sorts of skills, far beyond just participating.
To promote the program, she had students work in pairs to write public service announcements about the pros of walking to school, which they broadcast to their peers. These young eco-warriors then visited classrooms, surveying how many students walked to school and how many were in class overall. They turned the daily results, over the course of a month, into a graph with percentages. Tracking the progress involved the students in math and data management, and promoting it let them show their media literacy — all of which built their leadership and collaboration abilities. It happened so seamlessly that the students didn’t see any of it as traditional lessons. Instead, it was an opportunity to do something positive for the environment and their school.
Stacey Green, OCT, who also teaches Grade 4/5 at Malvern, says Chahine excels in offering integrated lessons that are authentic.
“The students connect all types of learning and apply it in a way that’s meaningful,” she says.
Chahine believes that global citizenship starts in kindergarten and wants all students to not only be aware of eco-challenges but be part of the solutions. Her students act as ambassadors throughout Malvern, taking action and educating others about energy and environmental issues through presentations.
“This level of engagement helps our students see themselves as agents of change,” says the school’s former principal, Thelma Sambrook, OCT.
That message is clear in the signs running along the top of one wall in Chahine’s classroom. They have sayings such as “Your deeds are your monuments,” “Fortune favours the bold” or “When it’s dark, be the one who turns on the light.” These thoughts, extracted from the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio, capture what she wants students to feel.
The 19-year-teaching veteran obtained her B.Sc. at York University in Toronto, then pursued her B.Ed. Her teaching philosophy boils down to helping students learn how to be kind and caring. She is focused on their well-being and that of the planet they inhabit.
The two often go hand in hand. Look what happens, she says, when students get outdoors to work on environmental projects, or when they’re encouraged to bike or walk to school. They practise healthy, active lifestyles. They do good for their community. And, they get energized in ways not always seen in the four walls of a classroom.
Chahine is equally dedicated to fostering compassion and inclusion. This school year, she read Fish in a Tree to her class — a book about a girl named Ally who moves from school to school, and hides her inability to read by being disruptive. Eventually, Ally discovers that she has dyslexia and simply learns differently.
The title refers to the notion that if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, as a result, it will live its life thinking it’s inadequate. The moral is that everybody is smart, in different ways.
“Fish in a Tree is a great story that my students can connect with and learn life lessons about social skills,” says Chahine. “The characters are about the same age and the events that arise are common in a junior classroom. I often select stories that teach students to treat each other with kindness and respect.”
When her school welcomed students from Syria, Chahine encouraged their visitors to share their experiences. With her assistance, the Syrian students created videos and told their stories — one was a child labourer before coming to Canada.
“It was important to give them a voice,” Chahine says. “That has a lot to do with respecting differences and understanding diversity in the community.”
Colleague Nardia Lall, OCT, says that one thing that makes Chahine a great teacher is that she’s a tireless learner.
“She has a growth mindset, taking every professional development [opportunity] she can get her hands on,” she says. “Then she comes back and teaches the rest of us.”
Last fall, OISE/UT (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto) invited Chahine to join an action research team focused on environmental and sustainability education. As a certified Google educator, she has also presented at the Toronto District School Board’s Google Camp.
For Chahine, technology is another way to help her students express what they’re learning. “I try to tap into students’ interests and talents to create excitement around learning, while showcasing their abilities.” She mentions two students who wrote a rap song about litter in the creek, then filmed a video at school using a green screen to put the creek behind them. The environmental lesson morphed into a media production that highlighted the students’ creativity.
Chahine routinely gauges her own progress and takes the temperature of the students by seeking their feedback. She tapes the Twitter logo to her classroom door, and asks her students to write down how they feel about school and add their thoughts to the door. These student “tweets,” just for the classroom audience, gives her insight into what’s on their minds.
At the end of the year, the Grade 4/5 teacher also has each student write a report card for her. What did they like? What should Chahine do more or less of? “By asking their opinion, I improve my teaching practice,” she says.
The award-winning teacher is mindful of creating a nurturing learning environment, one that ignites the children’s interest levels. That happens naturally by placing a priority on 21st-century skills, from creativity to critical thinking to problem-solving.
“My students are my definition of energy,” she once wrote to her principal. “They have so much untapped energy, and with guidance they become responsible, active global citizens who develop strong leadership skills.”
The Ontario Certified Teacher featured in this profile has been recognized with a teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Rebecca Chahine, OCT, is always seeking programs and ideas that offer stimulating learning opportunities that go beyond her daily lessons. Ideally, they’re low-cost or no-cost for the sake of school budgets and accessibility. Here are four of her go-to sources and strategies:
is a Canadian charity that delivers hands-on programming about renewable energy. Chahine uses them for an in-class workshop called Capture the Wind, where students build a model wind turbine that powers a light bulb.
is another charity that raises funds for school groups in lower-income and remote areas to participate in, for instance, trips to museums, galleries and conservation areas. Last year, it enabled Chahine’s class to go to the Ontario Science Centre.
is a charity that offers teaching tools around health and physical education. The online lesson plans, supplements and activities cover topics ranging from mental health to active living to cyber safety. Last year, Chahine obtained Ophea’s Healthy Schools Certification.
is an endless source of educational information for Chahine, who checks her feed every night before going to sleep. She learns from other educators who, for instance, are tweeting about contests, great places for class excursions, grants and lesson plans.