School and community create magic together

Column: 
October 30, 2017

dundurn

This quartet of enthusiastic teachers at Dundurn Elementary School, (from left) Lynne Peters, Cindy Krueger, Bridget Shannon-Wobeser and Rochelle Fiedelleck, expressed their joy at how the community came together in creating this outdoor learning area.

DUNDURN–A quartet of teachers at Dundurn Elementary School, aided by colleagues and community members, encapsulate all that is good in small-town Saskatchewan.

Despite a population of less than a thousand, the moral of this story is not to underestimate what passion, co-operation and a whole lot of old-fashioned sweat equity can achieve.

Don’t take my word for it, because the proof is right there in front of you in the Dundurn Outdoor Space which has become known as the Timber Lodge. With all due respect to the numerous outdoor spaces at other schools, this isn’t merely a neatly arranged garden space with some trees and garden boxes.

For sure this includes garden and wilderness space, but also a playground and an ambitious, impressively solid gazebo that was the centrepiece of the grand opening in September.

The real story of how this project began is best told by teaching colleagues Rochelle Fiedelleck, Cindy Krueger, Bridget Shannon-Wobeser and Lynne Peters. The trick here for the reporter is to listen carefully and try to write quickly because their enthusiasm for the project is such that it’s hard for them not to want to talk simultaneously. It is because all of them have something they want to add to the conversation, and it’s not about personal ego, but rather their enduring gratitude in how the school and community came together.

According to Shannon-Wobeser, what started as a bit of a generic space soon became much more once word got out to the community and colleagues. People were only too eager to help create and develop the outdoor learning space, which is intended to provide sustainable education by linking nature, community and culture in the perfect trifecta.

Fiedelleck has spent hours nurturing this from only a thought in her mind to what is now tangible evidence. She spoke of her desire to have students connect to the space and experience authentic learning as part of the process that ticked all the boxes when it came to curricular connection.

As any teacher will tell you, these sorts of programs often start with successful applications for funding grants, which the aforementioned teachers painstakingly spearheaded. 

Then there was the fortuitous contributions of parents who had both the expertise and equipment to take this to another level entirely, including the centrepiece timber gazebo structure which highlighted phase one. By Fiedelleck’s estimation, this alone would have cost approximately $70,000 but costs were dropped to less than half as the result of labour and equipment being donated so zealously.

After 10 months of diligently researching the project, things got serious in May before the anticipated fall completion.

“Our teaching is centred on place-based learning. We wanted to promote learning at the local level to gain a deeper understanding. We believe in learning which roots students in their surroundings, so they can connect to the world around them. This type of learning is the building block of our future–character, community, nature, curiosity and critical thinking skills are developed to pave the way for our best future,” Fiedelleck offered.

“People–both teachers and community members–had the inspiration to make this a reality, and that included the students from grades 3 to 6,” Fiedelleck said. She added that the common bond for adults and children alike was the beaming sense of pride in the accomplishment.

“Just to watch how people came together was remarkable to witness and to see how it just snowballed,” Peters said. “We started by dreaming big and without a lot of dollars in our pockets. But that didn’t limit us and people were there to help in any way they could. This just turned out to be something above and beyond and you just have to say ‘wow.’”

The teachers recalled that the project was a combination of one dad with a landscape business, another with engineering expertise, and one with the requisite construction equipment. It was a matter of “shaking the tree a bit, and it’s just how life is in small-town Saskatchewan,” according to Fiedelleck.

Shannon-Wobeser, who grew up in Saskatoon, saw first-hand how this spirit came to the fore. She admits to having been amazed at what she witnessed to the point where she found herself being quite teary to see the combined efforts of parents and their children. “You could just see the pride in their faces as the project proceeded,” she noted in her appreciation of this slice of small-town determination.

Peters, who is both the daughter and wife of a farmer in the area and is the prekindergarten teacher, joked that this project has been close to her heart.

“I told the kids that they would make great farmers, and from the world I come from, that’s a major compliment. When I look at this and what it can provide for our students, it’s everything that I love and hold dear.”

Fiedelleck and her colleagues stressed that even when the students are outside the classroom, it should by no means be construed as a prolonged recess.

“You can just see the ownership the students have and for sure they love being outside, but they are learning so much. They are like little sponges. It’s not just an outdoor classroom, but a learning space where they learn about community and see it in action.”

Krueger concurred, adding that students were involved in every step along the way and that included not just the learning aspect, but also some hands-on assistance in assembling and staining, for example.

Peters, whose students were the youngest ones taking part, said it was very important for them to see this take shape. It is hoped that this process raises their awareness of nature and the change of seasons.

“We talked about recognizing a meadowlark as just part of becoming more aware of the big outside world. To see things grow from a seed. It puts things in perspective and slows things down. It’s very calming for everyone.”

Another valuable teaching opportunity through this has been the linkage to First Nations teepee pedagogy while learning and developing a deeper understanding of First Nations and Métis cultures.

According to Shannon-Wobeser, this has also provided a rich learning experience for teachers.

“I’ve learned so much through this myself. To see how the students have grown has been amazing and has absolutely been the best part of all this in my view.”

Fiedelleck, an avid outdoor enthusiast, said this was a perfect vehicle to channel her energy and passion.

“When you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish as a school, and equally importantly as a community in terms of sustainability and educational opportunities, this has elevated the vision I had.”

Krueger spoke of the value of teamwork, adding that the teachers are mindful of the importance of their influence as role models.

“I think that’s probably the part I’m most proud of, that we just never said no and believed we could make this happen and didn’t give up. The kids see that and I believe it’s an inspiration to them as well as to us. Now we have this wonderful space to utilize in the future.”