For kids to be successful they need...

An outstanding veteran teacher outlines strategies for creating a learning environment.

By Leanne Miller

To be successful, kids need "consistency and creativity," says Betsy Ramsay-Currie. "And they need to believe in themselves. They need opportunities to understand and showcase their abilities and work with peers who have other abilities that they don't have so they can see the value of working with others."

Ramsay-Currie's entire career has been devoted to creating learning environments that allow students to be successful. She is one of 10 Ontario educators to receive the 2001 Toronto Sun's Teachers of the Year Award. More than 1,200 Ontario educators were nominated.

"We learned in a magical world, an avant-garde learning environment, full of wonderment, discovery and a true quest for knowledge," wrote a former student for Ramsay-Currie's nomination. "She created a classroom that I'll never forget-full of colour, energy, discovery and exploration. In fact, it's an approach and passion for life that I've carried with me ever since."

Betsy Ramsay-Currie started teaching in Toronto area elementary schools in 1960, moved to Orillia in 1991 and retired in 1996. She continues to supply teach and volunteer in Simcoe County schools. She has taught all grades from K to 8, as well as ESL, reading and Native Studies.

She was a demonstration teacher for the Principal's Qualification Program at OISE/UT, she co-ordinated summer teacher enrichment programs, she taught part of an Additional Qualification (AQ) course and she and her principal-husband taught in Singapore for two years.

"I guess I've pretty much seen and done it all," she says with a laugh.

"...everyone has a fresh start and a fair chance to succeed."

Starting Off the School Year Effectively

"I believe the best learning environment is one where students feel safe, able to take chances and where they see the benefits in being part of our classroom team."

Ramsay-Currie has always worked hard to create this environment wherever she has taught. "I talk to kids about right and left brain theories, explaining that they will have a classmate who is a great speller, even though she or he doesn't seem to have to work at it. I have the kids quickly test themselves to see which dominates their abilities and then I help them identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

" We talk about what stresses them out about school and we talk about strategies to overcome the stresses. I also invite parents to talk to me about problems their children are having in school. Once I've got a clear sense of my students' abilities, I modify the program where I can to meet their needs."

Another strategy Ramsay-Currie uses at the start of the year involves assessing mathematical abilities in an unconventional manner.

"Most teachers start by reviewing what was done last year. Those kids who did well, or who have strong memories, do well and those who struggled or have forgotten do poorly, and right away, we've created a sense of failure and frustration. If they struggled last year, then why bring it up at the start of a new year?"

Instead, she starts with a new math concept and everyone has a fresh start and a fair chance to succeed. "This way, I can see how well they can learn and apply a new concept, which is more important than testing their memory in mathematics. Everyone has a chance to be successful and the students' first encounter with math is a positive one.

" I want them to feel good about our class and our learning and this strategy helps to do that. Later we'll review and I'll see their weaknesses, but I don't ever want a negative start to a new teaching assignment."

Flexible Heterogeneous Groups

Because Ramsay-Currie is such a strong believer in teamwork, she monitors and changes seating arrangements throughout the year. "I want everyone to work with everyone in the class. It's an essential life skill to get along with others and see the value that others can offer you."

One of the first projects her Grade 3 students were always assigned was a project on the continents. "I randomly grouped kids and each group was assigned a continent to study. They all worked together researching and then they put together a project that reflected both what they learned and their individual learning abilities. Often there were 3-D models, maps, pictures, written reports and audio and visual components.

All students got a chance to showcase their strengths as well as work with others who could complement a weakness they may have had. It was only by working together that the whole group could successfully produce a complete project."

Ramsay-Currie mostly groups students heterogeneously, insisting that getting along with others is more important than continually working with those of similar academic abilities. She does encourage the use of homogeneous groups for some reading and math activities.

Drama in the Classroom

One of the most useful teaching and learning strategies she employs is drama. Ramsay-Currie says, "Kids need a chance to act and experience emotions. It never ceases to amaze me that even Grade 7 and 8 students will pull things out of the dress-up box and assume roles. It's escapism for them, yes, but it affords them an opportunity to express emotions and explore problems they may be experiencing in a safe and helpful environment."

Ramsay-Currie's experiences working with native children have opened her eyes to special needs and encouraged her to work hard to reach all children. She's seen too many native children turned off by an educational system that doesn't engage them.

"It's heartbreaking to see these kids excluded in society, and so often it starts in school." Ramsay-Currie has always made it a special project to help native students in her classes.

"I start by empowering them. The natives were here in Orillia first and so we focus on their history, culture and ways of life. We talk about hunting, fishing and farming, the means they had to make a living, and then we explore paddling, their crafts and folklore. All the students find it fascinating, and when we integrate music, drama and costumes, the kids really get into it.

" It's all about fostering a sense of pride in these children and it works. Once they feel good about themselves and who they are, it spills over into their daily lives and they do better at school."

Meeting Students' Needs

This is not to say that Ramsay-Currie focuses her efforts entirely on native children. For many years, she's run Girls' Clubs. "All girls want help with life and self-esteem issues and they don't always get what they need," she says. Her clubs try to fill this void. "We meet at lunch and I try to bring in professionals to talk to the girls and act as role models for them. I've even brought in martial arts instructors to teach them how to defend themselves.

"Once a month, we cook dinner together and watch a video and chat. I pick issues movies like Pretty in Pink or Centre Stage or the CBC's Degrassi shows. The girls love it and they really do benefit from the opportunity to discuss troublesome issues like sexuality, parents and drugs."

Ramsay-Currie's approach to teaching has been consistent. "I look for needs in my students and then create opportunities to meet those needs." Another way she does this is through mini-trips.

"Small groups of students decide what they want to learn about in the community, they find a parent willing to take them, they make the arrangements and off they go. They take a Polaroid camera, and upon their return, they teach the class about what they have learned. Give kids the responsibility for their own learning and it's amazing what they will do and how maturely they will act."

Making Learning Fun and Memorable

"Let them live what they're learning and they'll never forget it."

"I want my students to remember being happy in school and to remember loving learning, so every

year I integrate some kind of extravaganza into my curriculum. Some of the most important skills I teach are research and inquiry skills. These are life skills they all need; they won't remember the names of people we studied, but they will remember how to find the names again," she says. "So the extravaganzas are fun and allow the kids to dress up and experience life in another era, but they are research-based and teach the kids a lot of valuable skills and knowledge. Over the years, we've made movies and model rockets; one year we transformed our classroom into a native longhouse and lived in it for a week. The CBC even came to cover the event. The kids will never forget it, or what it was like to be a native Canadian in the 1820s.

" We studied ghosts in Casa Loma, we made a pioneer dinner at Fort York, carrying food and wearing costumes on the TTC. Let them live what they're learning and they'll never forget it."

Additional Qualification Courses

There are more special needs students in classrooms today, and Ramsay-Currie sees this as a challenge and an opportunity.

"Every special child is a challenge and that's one of the thrills about teaching for me. My job is to investigate the problems and try to solve them. Teachers who don't have counselling and special education training are really working at a disadvantage, and I encourage them to take AQ courses."

"What's more, the contacts we make in those AQ courses are invaluable. I often learned more from my peers than I did from the readings and my instructors. My peers became my resources and I often called them for help to solve a problem with a child."

She encourages all teachers, especially new ones, to take summer AQ courses to enhance their own professional toolboxes and enable them to better help their students.

Next Challenges

"...where students feel safe."

Despite being retired, Ramsay-Currie is still active in education. She reads to children in a local

bookstore, often dressing in costumes like the Easter bunny or a Halloween witch. She helps develop curriculum and leads tours at a local art gallery and she works with a Grade 6 teacher tutoring students to help prepare them for provincial testing. Here, she takes six kids at a time and has them create board games to strengthen their math skills.

She also tutors other students, often ones she previously taught. And, she keeps a watchful eye on

her native students. Many of them struggle when they enter the local high school and some drop out. She talks about a few special students she'll be watching this year to see that they stay in school, if she can.

She and her husband are taking their teaching abilities on the road-actually onto the high seas. They've been accepted as bridge instructors on a cruise ship. She's also looking forward to supply teaching in local elementary schools for years to come.

"Thank goodness they've changed the rules for occasional teaching. I was devastated at only being able to teach 20 days this year, but I'm thrilled that it's back up to 95."

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