What if teachers could move their classes to a museum, an art gallery or a community site for a week to stimulate inquiry-based learning? What if teachers could plan a unique program with the help of professionals who have experience with these kinds of programs and could draw on community members who are able to share their in-depth knowledge? Kingston has such a program, Beyond Classrooms Kingston, and over 1300 students have participated in it over the past five years.
If it sounds good on paper, imagine seeing it first-hand. In December 2019, I attended a session at the Frontenac County Schools Museum, where grade 7 and 8 students from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School were spending their weekdays. Arriving mid-morning, I was treated to the normal chatter as students enjoyed their snacks, but the setting was anything but normal. The students were in a 19th century classroom with slate blackboards, a woodburning stove, and wooden desks. The day before, they had explored the theme of one-room schoolhouses and the changing nature of education.
On this day, they were studying the links between Kingston’s military history and the community of Barriefield. A walking tour of Barriefield in the afternoon by local historian Gord Sly would help the students imagine life in this thriving community 200 years ago, while the morning session focused on artifacts from an archeological dig at the Royal Military College that the RMC museum curator, Miranda Riley, had brought along to show the students.
I liked the style of teaching, designed to stimulate curiosity. Instead of sending the artifacts around the classroom, with each student glancing at them for perhaps 10 seconds before passing them on to the next student, the students were asked to journal about the artifact assigned to them. First, they had to use a full page of their journal to draw what they saw. Then, they were to write a short piece, speculating on what the item was, how it was used, who owned it (a rich family or a poor family; a soldier or a high-ranking military officer) and whatever else came to mind about it. They were also encouraged to ask questions about the artifact. They drew their thoughts from their general store of information about history and a short talk offered by Ms. Riley.
I walked around to look at the students’ journals. One student was looking at a very old knife. The blade was badly deteriorated, but the bone handle was intact. In his journal reflection, he speculated that it would have belonged to someone with some wealth because it looked to be well-made. He suggested that it might have been deer bone. Ms. Riley confirmed his suspicions.
To my surprise, the journaling was not where this session ended. There were still two other related stages of learning. The first was an open conversation session and the second was the teacher’s marking of the journals in the evening with comments that the students were to read the next day. The conversation session was excellent. Each student had to show their artifact and present the ideas from their journal. They were developing their public speaking skills while learning history. It was a dynamic learning process because they were also gaining new knowledge as Ms. Riley offered additional information about each artifact.
Ms. Riley explained that many of the artifacts were found in an archeological dig at RMC in 2014 before the college built a new residence in 2015. This had been the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard in the early 19th century, and the worker’s cottages would have been where the new residence is now. The dig generated a wide range of artifacts, such as a wick holder for an oil lamp, a pipe, a folding ruler and a button from a military uniform. When a good question arose about whether the button indicated the rank of a military officer, Ms. Riley had the answer, replying that the buttons were the same for everyone, having been mass produced in Britain.
I could see during my short visit that Beyond Classrooms Kingston is a great program for students and teachers alike. It is different from a standard field trip because it offers an environment where students have the time to reflect on what they are seeing and write about it in their journals. It puts the focus on critical thinking skills, while also helping the students develop a sense of civic pride. And who couldn’t be proud of our Frontenac County Schools Museum?
Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence, Writer