Taking things out of the box has helped students’ engagement level

September 12, 2019

Cassandra Neufeld (front centre) is the principal at Gronlid Central School. She is surrounded by the entire student body and staff, and being outside like this is the norm for the tight-knit school.

GRONLID–Just before gathering the entire student body (30) and staff (seven altogether, including four teachers) for a photo outside, Gronlid Central School principal Cassandra Neufeld had a chuckle.

Prior to assuming her current role five years ago, she worked for Saskatoon Public Schools for 18 years. “I had individual classes with more kids than we have in the entire school,” she laughed.

You don’t have to spend more than a few minutes in this environment to quickly deduce two things. First is the unmistakable strong reciprocal bond between Neufeld and her staff with the students in this K-8 facility. Second, it’s no coincidence that so much of what is the daily regimen here happens outside in a myriad of ways. You talk about land-based learning; these folks take it to another level entirely, and on a year-round basis.

When it comes to planning activities away from the school, there is a poignant example that small is good. You see, Shelly Craik is the educational assistant at the school, who also happens to be the bus driver, so arranging for transportation can be easier than what many colleagues in larger centres might experience.

Neufeld enthusiastically confirmed she has always been an avid outdoors person, which she says has been an asset, whether it’s teaching students how to canoe or winter camp as part of the school’s Below Zero program.

The focus on land-based learning was not the norm when Neufeld first arrived. In fact, there were empty classrooms due to the closing of its high school wing, which provided the impetus for the school to change its focus.

According to Neufeld, the North East School Division is very good at providing data. As a staff they noticed the emerging trends in education and there was a consensus that too many of the students felt disconnected and weren’t as engaged as they would have hoped.

One of the most successful programs adopted at the school was the Feed All Four model, which encompasses body, mind, spirit and emotions as a way to fill that void.

An idea that surfaced was to access the natural connection to the land that comes with living in a community like Gronlid with nearby forests, water and farmland.

Incorporating this approach with a greater emphasis on Indigenous ways of teaching resonated with the students in a major way. There was also a strong focus on making a connection between students and a caring adult in the community and at the school.

“I can’t say enough about the energy and efficacy of our staff. We wanted to see what this would look like and everyone started doing all kinds of research. Our staff meetings are never dull. We came to be cognizant that not all our kids were connecting to the western ways of teaching.

“So we looked at how to incorporate this in such a way that it supported the curriculum and had a strong spiritual and cultural component.

“We found there was a ripple effect, and our kids were so engaged that reading and literacy results improved so much. There was an increased empowerment and level of confidence because what they were learning was meaningful to them. In a way, we accidentally stumbled on this, but we are doing what makes them feel comfortable. Our kids are so engaged that we have absolutely no issues with attendance or behaviour because they want to be here,” Neufeld observed.

“As a staff we have taken a different route in terms of planning since we started this. The really great part to see is how we have been able to make everything very cross-curricula and so there is so much more inquiry-based learning happening. That has been critical to the success we have experienced and it has been very purposeful. It’s common that with our student population we will have Grades 1 and 5 together on an excursion.

“Maybe in the beginning it looked more like a series of field trips, but it has morphed into something much more fluid. With the support of our community, the level of confidence of our students has grown so much,” Neufeld added.

As far as the favourable locale of Gronlid when it comes to land-based education, she suggested that the same principles can be applied anywhere, even if it is an urban setting where it might just be a walk around the block.

“It might be a slough instead of a lake or river, but you just have to look around and see the possibilities for learning. Nature is very unbiased and it can reach everyone; all the time you can learn about science, social studies and math. For us it was just a matter of diving in.”

Neufeld admitted much of her time that is not taken up by teaching or administrative duties is spent on the phone arranging for the latest expedition, as these programs have now expanded well past Gronlid to surrounding environs.

While the switch from the province’s largest city to a hamlet of 74 people has been quite an adjustment for a self-confessed city slicker, her husband Sheldon is also a teacher in nearby Tisdale and has family connections here. This is what prompted them to try this more serene setting for their young family.

So what is it like when she comes home from a full day at school you ask? “I feel exhilarated when I watch the kids and see the look on their faces and see the passion they didn’t even know was there. It’s become very personal for me. We have students who have tried something they have never tried before and so it was overcoming fear in some cases,” she said. Neufeld added that after several years, she has gone back to upgrading her own lifeguard certification because “I don’t want to let those kids down.”

While summer holidays were imminent at the time of this interview, Neufeld was already looking forward to returning in the fall.

“This school is so different than any I have been at in my career. The way we learn together is so exciting and you just want to come to work. I don’t think I could go back to teaching subject-by-subject. This is such an interconnected way for students to learn and it’s a great way to teach,” Neufeld said.