There is nothing small about Dorintosh when it comes to innovation

November 13, 2018
By Jens Nielsen, Editor, Saskatchewan Bulletin

DORINTOSH – Where do you start with this place and its school?

The village, located about 20 kilometres north of Meadow Lake, has a population of 134. Dorintosh Central School is managing to keep its shrinking student enrolment at 34, and their collective needs are looked after by a staff of five. Yes, that is five, of whom three are actually teachers. You get the picture.

Except in all likelihood you don’t, because if you spend a couple of hours here where the entire student body moves from one classroom to another (unless they are outside as part of the Culturally Courageous Land-Based Leadership Initiative), you find yourself swept up in the whole vibe. 

Wow, is the word that comes to mind upon leaving. The enthusiasm, to say nothing of the innovation and passion, displayed by principal Michael Radford and his colleagues is infectious. The roster includes Scott Thompson (Grades 5 and 6), Amy Campbell (kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2), Bobbi Greedus (educational assistant and wellness coordinator), administrator and librarian Sandra Bannister (who has been a fixture of the place for the past 43 years). 

This is aside from the community members and Elders who are frequent visitors and always happy to lend their expertise. During this visit, the focus was on beading–in which the students participated with great zeal.

Oh by the way, the animated Radford also teaches Grades 7 and 8–it’s not exactly like administration is a full-time gig around here as you can doubtlessly appreciate.

Radford is in his second year as principal and by his own admission, calling the shots has made it easier to bring about some of the ideas he has in mind.

“Sure I guess being the boss makes it easier. But I’m the kind of guy that if someone comes with an idea, my response is why don’t we try it. It’s a lot easier with a small staff like this. We’re pretty much like a family, and that’s the kind of atmosphere we try to build and maintain.”

One inescapable impression that forms readily when in the classroom is the level of noise generated from teachers and students alike. That’s all part of the deal for Radford.

“Absolutely, I’ve had other teachers where I have been asked to close the door to the classroom, but I want them to be loud … within reason. Learning is meant to be messy. Research shows us that the whole ‘sit-and-get approach’ doesn’t work.

“It’s OK when it’s a bit chaotic because you know there is learning is going on. People have called me a disruptor and a trailblazer, and I’m probably a bit of both. But in reality, I’m not that concerned what others might think. We’re here for the students, and we are doing it as collaboratively as possible. Sometimes that’s going to mean stepping outside your comfort zone,” Radford acknowledged.

The principal suggested that this approach has helped imbue the students with greater self-confidence and a desire to participate more in their own learning.

Radford and Thompson, who carpool together every day from Meadow Lake, are kindred spirits.

“I think as teachers, the more experience you acquire, the more you realize just because it might look different than a traditional classroom doesn’t mean we can’t accomplish some really good things,” Thompson added. He also noted that among other shared experiences, both have previously taught in area band schools and have put that knowledge to valuable use.

Thompson, a native of Saskatoon, has also spent five years at a storefront school in Meadow Lake. He is now in his eighth year at Dorintosh during which time there have been three principals.

Another passion the two share is the importance they place on outdoor education. “I had started an outdoor education program at Flying Dust [First Nation], and it’s something I feel very strongly about. I place a lot of value in what it can teach these students right across the curriculum, and we’re diligent about making those connections in terms of presenting differentiated instruction across the board. This is what education should look like. I see there being enormous potential, and it gives the students a real sense of belonging. So it’s been fantastic,” Thompson said.

Although perhaps somewhat surprisingly to the outsider, Radford pointed out that only 56 percent of the students identify as being First Nations, which is lower than in past years. While noting he hopes to increase the enrolment in the program in future years, Radford said it is the perfect setting for embarking on reconciliation via the land-based approach, which allows students to learn about culture from the land while simultaneously connecting it to the curriculum. The largely unspoiled landscape outside the school’s doors makes it a perfect match as well.

“We need to see the land from a different perspective and the facts of the Treaties as part of reconciliation,” he said, adding that there is also the accompanying first-hand observations of the ecosystems and abundant wildlife in the area.

Stating that teachers believe in the moral imperative, Radford is also eager to showcase the wall chart that succinctly tracks the respective students’ progress in the gradeless math program. A program where it’s commonplace for older students to help the younger ones, while cautioning that teachers are careful not to overuse that approach.

“It’s about meeting kids where they are in terms of skill-level and grade-level outcomes so we’re able to find and fill in the gaps,” he said about the approach, which he reckoned might be the first offered in Saskatchewan and is based on what he has studied from Scandinavian countries in particular.

If you’re looking for a tangible example of how this can work, Thompson noted that his son Noah is one of two students who make the drive with the two teachers from Meadow Lake every day. According to his dad, the youngster loves the approach and atmosphere of the school, both academically and socially. 

“I would say this is really exciting to be part of, and the kids are so upbeat that you can’t help but feel the same way. I really enjoy it,” he added.

It is not by coincidence that students and community members have considerable input, particularly in the area of the land-based education and treaty education.

“We’ve opened the doors of the school as a way to encourage that participation. As a staff we are eager to share, and our families have been very supportive of what we are trying to do,” Radford said, while Thompson chimed in with his agreement.

“We’ve all got some kind of expertise that we can bring, and we’re always looking for more ideas. So we want to draw people in and that invites more exploration to do the land-based activity in particular,” Thompson offered. “I think we’re on the right track, and that’s what being a life-long learner is all about.”

As much as all these programs are for the students’ benefit, there is also an admittance that it can’t hurt when the subject of school reviews comes up with the Northwest School Division and the board.

“It’s definitely in the back of your mind that to keep us viable, we are looking at ways to get the word out more about our land-based program because we’ve had other schools in the division and parents express a real interest,” Radford disclosed.

As much as the education component itself can be a major ally, it also helps to have the presence of Bannister on board. She is pretty much like a ‘human grant app,’ and has secured monies from a host of organizations including the Multi-Cultural Society of Saskatchewan. The school has also been nominated for the Inclusive Schools award for Saskatchewan.

An example of Bannister’s ingenuity and passion is her impetus in coming up with what has become a highly successful activity day for those students not necessarily able to participate in traditional sports. Instead, utilizing a water hose for the duck hunt and the toilet paper toss meant 130 kids from across the division participated last year, and they will be celebrating the 20th version in 2019.

From a personal standpoint, Bannister conceded she had been contemplating retirement after the retirement of former principal Joe Twidale and before a series of short-term successors followed prior to Radford arriving.

“But now I’m excited again, and I love to be part of it and to have things back on track. That’s wonderful to be part of and to see the kids’ passion,” she enthused.

And what about Radford? Well, you need to consider this is a rather circuitous journey that started in his native Ontario and took him to Australia before relocating to Saskatchewan.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in my career. Here you feel like you can be creative and have the opportunity to really make a difference. If I had to go back to a ‘regular’ classroom, I might lose my mind.

“Besides, we live in paradise here. Others spend a couple of hours driving here for the weekend, and we’re already here,” he chuckled.