Learning outside the box

Out-of-the-ordinary courses taught at the schools

Branksome Hall students work with Korean students building and testing miniature wind turbines. (PHOTO COURTESY BRANKSOME HALL)

When the students of Toronto return to the city’s public schools this fall, they’ll have the usual variety of courses to choose from: visual arts, math, physics, English, French and, for the class trip, perhaps a visit to Ottawa.

Meanwhile, students who return to the city’s independent schools could just as easily find themselves learning Mandarin while visiting China, designing wind turbines in Korea, or carving stone imported from Zimbabwe.

With more resources than a typical public school, and mandates that encourage teachers to remain on the cutting edge, independent schools such as midtown’s Havergal College are “constantly innovating,” Miriam Davidson, the school’s head of art, says.

The result: administrators like Davidson receive lots of support to develop unique activities such as the Zimbabwe Shona carving enjoyed by students enrolled in the all-girls school’s grade nine art class.

Havergal College students work on stone carvings in the school’s outdoor canopied sculpting area.
Havergal College students work on stone carvings in the school’s outdoor canopied sculpting area. (PHOTO COURTESY MIRIAM DAVIDSON/HAVERGALCOLLEGE)

“Zimbabwe actually means ‘house of stone,’ and they have very unique mountain ranges there with stone that is absolutely beautiful for carving,” Davidson says. “It’s harder than soapstone, but lighter than granite.”

A 10-year carving hobbyist herself, Davidson has arranged a partnership between Havergal and Peterborough’s Rice Lake Gallery, which imports stone art from Zimbabwe along with raw materials, some of which the school’s grade nine art students shape into sculptures using hammers, chisels, and sandpaper over the course of a year.

“I call it the ‘slow art’ movement,” Davidson says with a laugh. “They get to see that a great work of art takes months to create.”

The stones also provide an opportunity for learning how to adapt to setbacks, when they sometimes break.

“I always tell the girls to be philosophical about it – that it wasn’t meant to be what they intended, but they’re going to have to figure out something else,” Davidson says. “And there might be a tear or two shed, but they move on quite quickly.”

The students shape their stones into everything from abstract shapes to animals to three-dimensional representations of original drawings, with finished pieces that are typically between 10 and 20 inches long.

“Many of them are quite beautiful,” Davidson says.

And at the end of the year the finished sculptures – which after their final polish often pick up vibrant shades of red, brown, green and pink – are displayed at Havergal for the public to see.

Students of Branksome Hall and Branksome Hall Asia work together in the school’s Global Leaders program.
Students of Branksome Hall and Branksome Hall Asia work together in the school’s Global Leaders program. (PHOTO COURTESY LYDIA LEVIN/BRANKSOME HALL)

Korean student exchange

Instead of Ottawa, the all-girls Branksome Hall offers students an international travel opportunity, with the school’s Global Leaders program sending a group of students to sister school Branksome Hall Asia in South Korea’s Jeju Island for two weeks every year.

The trip includes two components, supervising math teacher Heather Cornford says: a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) portion in Korea, and an interdisciplinary art/English/civics unit in Toronto.

During the most recent trip to Korea, in March 2014, the girls from Canada worked in teams with the Korean students to build miniature wind turbines using laser cutters, 3D printers, and other high-end tools, Cornford says.

“They’re miniature, but they generate power and the girls tested them out and analyzed the blades,” Cornford says. A frequently updated blog allowed Canadian students – and Cornford, who remained behind – to follow along.

For the three-week Toronto component, during which the Korean students visited Canada, the girls once again collaborated in teams to solve a real-life municipal government challenge regarding the use of city spaces.

“It’s a really enriching and global experience for everyone,” Cornford says.

Deeper into another language

Billing itself as “Canada’s International School,” TFS has long provided students with an enviable list of languages to study, including Spanish, Latin, and Ancient Greek, but this year for the first time its Grade 8 students will have the opportunity to study Mandarin.

Calligraphy in Mandarin class at TFS.
Calligraphy in Mandarin class at TFS. (PHOTO COURTESY TFS)

It will be the third year TFS offers the language, which began as a class for Grade 6 students in 2013. A year later staff added a Grade 7 class, and teacher Mary He says it’s quite probable a grade nine class will be added next year as well.

“It’s been very popular,” she says. “I think we were a little surprised, but very excited too.”

To help ease the transition from written English to Kanji, He teaches her students using the “pinyin” system, in which Mandarin vowel sounds are translated into the Roman alphabet.

She also leads them through a variety of activities, for example, researching dishes in a Chinese restaurant – “authentic dishes, not fried chicken balls,” He says with a chuckle.

“The English translation tells you exactly what the dish is about; the Chinese name is just based on origin or how it looks,” she says. “So they have to look up what the Chinese word actually refers to, because there’s a story behind many of these dishes, and most of the time their English translations are completely different.”

The children then present their findings using the menu, during a special class dinner at the Chinese restaurant.

The students participate in Chinese celebrations too — for example, on Chinese New Year the classes set up stations where students from throughout the school can visit and play traditional Chinese games, practice calligraphy, and even create paper lanterns.

There is also an optional travel component, with a group of students planning to visit schools in three Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai, and historic Xi’an — this November.

“I really think the experience is deeper than the language itself, because when they get to compare and speak and try both (English and Mandarin), it’s pretty fascinating what they can produce,” He says.

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