William Shatner remembers early days in Montréal
Many students in Room 209 arrive early on Wednesdays. It's Business Day and they can't wait to get to work.
Motivated and enthusiastic, they quickly gather in their work teams. Managers update the whole class on what each department is doing.
Students on the Research and Development team have written and practised their phone scripts and are ready to call businesses to seek donations. Those in Marketing and Promotion will key letters to invite the media to their upcoming big event. Advertising is putting the finishing touches on jingles and logos to present to classmates so they can vote to choose the best ones. And Accounting is organizing order slips and counting money for next week's juice sale.
The pressure is on them to gather sufficient start-up funds to ensure the venture can move forward to the next phase and meet its financial targets.
It's an impressive, focused and successful business operation for any group of high school students. But these are Grade 5/6 students in Kamla Rambaran's class at McMurrich Junior Public School in the Toronto DSB.
The mission these children have chosen is to create a small business and design an item to promote school spirit and raise environmental awareness. All proceeds will go to the Adopt a Village campaign that is part of the Free the Children efforts of Craig and Marc Kielburger.
In 2006, Rambaran was awarded a Prime Minister's Award of Excellence. She won it, in part, for her work in creating authentic learning environments for students by seeking new opportunities through community partnerships with businesses and parents.
An elementary classroom can't get much more authentic than this. Rambaran's students have embraced the project and are selling eco-friendly refillable water bottles to reduce waste and encourage healthy lifestyles. The bottles are decorated with a student-designed logo that will promote the school. Most importantly, all profits will support the Adopt a Village campaign, and every $100 raised will provide one family with safe drinking water.
After the departments update their classmates, Rambaran has them complete checklists showing what individual team members have accomplished, what they will do during the morning session and what strategies each group will use to ensure its success.
Students easily talk about focusing on the day's tasks, dealing only with the issues at hand and listening to all group members' ideas. It's sophisticated stuff coming from such youngsters. They enthusiastically accomplish what they set out to in the allotted time. Griffen and Willem of the R&D team were so engaged that they skipped recess to make their phone calls and celebrated when they secured a donation of paper from the local Staples store.
The project runs for several months and integrates most subject areas, including math, reading, writing, speaking, technology, social studies, music and art. It also involves most learning skills, including independent work, initiative, use of information, co-operation with others, conflict resolution, class participation, problem solving and goal setting.
In just her sixth year of teaching, Rambaran articulates a clear and thoughtful approach to her profession. “If my students aren't excited about what they are learning, then I'm not excited. I look at each unit and think about how to teach it without a textbook and how to engage them as we cover the material. I want to provide them with leadership opportunities and teach them academic and life skills they will need to be successful in their lives.”
She talks about the challenge of covering the vast amount of required curriculum while making learning fun and engaging. “My programming has to be carefully planned and organized to ensure that I teach, assess and evaluate all the curriculum expectations and help prepare my students for Grade 6 EQAO testing.” She feels strongly that her programming must also include character education. Inspired by Free the Children, she discusses how students learn about and experience empathy, active global citizenship and leadership, and how they make informed and responsible choices.
Rambaran's students are engaged and motivated as they work hard and have fun. Amanda is one of the managers of the advertising and sales team. “It's more fun to learn everything together. We're writing jingles, drawing logos, using the computer, fundraising and calculating the price of the bottles. Every day there's pressure to meet our goals, and every day we work together to raise the money we need to help build wells for kids who don't have clean drinking water.”
Assistant manager Zachary enjoys running a business and knowing that his efforts will help make a difference to children halfway around the world. “It's fun, but it's important work too!” He's thinking about a career in business one day.
Ellis, on the other hand, has learned that he doesn't want to work in business. He says, “It's too hard!”
Rambaran's former principal, Claude Norville, who recently was transferred to another Toronto DSB school, talks about his former colleague with pride and admiration. “She motivates her students to achieve at high levels through relevant and rigorous programming. They are constantly learning because she understands the importance of on-going and focused instruction.
“John Dewey would be proud of Miss Rambaran,” Norville asserts. “She is a shining example of his concept of experiential learning.”
American philosopher John Dewey was regarded as the most influential educator of the first half of the 20th century. “Education is life itself,” he believed.
Norville gives the example of Rambaran's approach to teaching graphing; she takes her students bowling. “They play the game, record their scores and then return to class and graph their data. The kids learn and have fun at the same time. She is most deserving of this award and I'm very proud of her.”
Rambaran feels it's important to acknowledge the diversity of her students in both their learning styles and cultural backgrounds. This year, she has involved them in the Law Society of Upper Canada's photo contest on the theme of freedom. Their culturally diverse backgrounds and experiences bring different perspectives to the project.
Working with parent volunteer and photographer Michael Dauda, Rambaran has students take pictures of images and scenes that represent freedom to them. Then they title their favourite photo and write a paragraph explaining its meaning and importance. “It's another way to engage students yet keep within curriculum expectations,” Rambaran explains, “and it's a way to involve them in a community outside of the school.”
Rambaran's interest in engaging students with creative and authentic tasks took a different turn when, in 2004–05, she began working with Ian Chamandy, the parent of a Grade 3 student at McMurrich. Like many Canadians, Chamandy was frustrated with Canada's poor showing in the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics. Unlike most Canadians, however, he did something about it.
He created Adopt an Athlete, a grassroots, school-based program in which students learn the value of community contribution by working together to raise funds for athletes with Olympic aspirations. The Adopt an Athlete web site explains that school-age children need to know that they, as individuals, have the power to make a difference in their communities. One of the program's goals is to create two-way support systems where students cheer their athlete on to a higher level of performance, and athletes teach students what it takes to achieve at the highest levels in any endeavour.
Rambaran's class, along with that of her then teaching partner Leslie Anne McCollin, was the first to adopt an athlete, freestyle skier Warren Tanner.
Rambaran and McCollin then developed a curriculum package that integrates math, reading, writing and social studies and is now used in schools across Canada. For more information visit www.adoptanathlete.ca.
Keys to Rambaran's award-winning programming
1. Begin with structure.
Devote September to teaching students how to study, learn, work, organize their binders and co-operate with others. Teach them how to behave in the classroom, hallways and community. Include things such as lining up before entering the classroom, waiting outside the door until invited in, walking quietly in the hallways, table manners and public behaviour that reflects well on their class and their school. At the start of each school year, Rambaran favours structured activities like drills to focus learning and attention.
Students find out about three types of learning that happen in their classroom, and what each looks and sounds like.
Looks like: focused on individual work, no distractions
Sounds like: quiet
Co-operative team work
Looks like: students working together on a topic, everyone taking turns participating and listening
Sounds like: lots of sharing of opinions, using indoor voices
Looks like: debating, listening to one person speak at a time, energetic
Sounds like: everyone listening and sharing ideas, using indoor voices
2. Introduce hands-on, experiential and fun student-centred learning.
After Thanksgiving, Rambaran begins giving up the reins and starts bringing the lessons and her students to life. She supplements book learning with monthly field trips and experiential activities that complement what is being studied. For example, to complement a unit on ancient Greece, she takes students on a walking tour of downtown Toronto to see and photograph classical architecture. Of course, the journey is equally important, as students take public transit, plan the route, eat in public, demonstrate etiquette, are polite to strangers and so forth.
3. Ensure that programming is interesting and relevant to students. Push them to achieve and they will meet high expectations.
Introduce students to the concept of global citizenship. Tie this into the work of the Kielburgers' organization Free the Children and use their article published every Thursday in the Toronto Star's Global Voices series.
Use the Business Day project to engage students in work they choose to do, and set the bar and expectations high to let them see how much they can achieve.
Rambaran's Grade 5/6 health unit is both content-heavy and sensitive, covering healthy eating, substance abuse and personal safety. To make it engaging, she takes an integrated approach that encompasses media, technology and language, and has students create films. Teams of students conduct research, write scripts and plan shooting schedules that involve locations, creative props and shooting angles. Then they conduct interviews and edit footage.
When the films are complete, the class hosts a premiere, inviting parents and community members.
4. Lighten the load by working with others.
Rambaran always gets a co-op student from neighbouring Oakwood Collegiate. “He or she is invaluable in helping me organize the classroom and my students.”
Rambaran works closely with her Grade 6 teaching partner, Zelia Capitao-Tavares. “This award belongs to both of us, not just me. We enjoy working together and coming up with activities that engage, stimulate and challenge our students.”
Rambaran does not possess a background in photography, but she knows how engaging it can be for students, especially those who are visual or kinesthetic learners. At the same time, she is keen to involve parents in her classroom programming. Since 2002, she has worked with parent Michael Dauda, a Toronto photographer. Together they run the school's digital photography and boys' reading clubs, and Dauda is an invaluable resource for her students.
5. Don't reinvent the wheel.
The Business Day project changes every year as a new group of students chooses a new mission, but the principles and processes remain the same. The project was inspired by the work of Junior Achievement, an international non-profit organization dedicated to teaching young people about business and economics. Although the mission changes yearly to reflect student interest, Rambaran re-uses the process, most handouts, activities, assessment and evaluation.
Adopt a Village
Adopt a Village is a campaign of Free the Children, the world's largest network of children helping children through education. It was created to assist Sri Lankan victims of the December 2004 tsunami. It now also supports community development for marginalized children and their families in Kenya, Sierra Leone, rural China and Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence
The Prime Minister's Awards for Teaching Excellence honour outstanding and innovative elementary and secondary school teachers in all disciplines who better equip their students with the skills they need to meet the challenges of a 21st-century society and economy.
For more information visit the Prime Minister's Awards web site at www.pma-ppm.ic.gc.ca.