In our two week Fall 2017 practicum at Departure Bay Elementary Eco-school (PB Year 5), our pod of four student teachers designed a cross-curricular unit called “Building the Village,” which asked the essential question “How can we understand First People’s beliefs about the interconnectedness of their community and environment? This unit linked together science, social studies and English Language Arts for our grade 3-4 class, including learning about the salmon life cycle in preparation for a field trip to the salmon run in Bowen Park, and exploring First Peoples’ ways of knowing about interconnectedness in the environment. Students also explored various characteristics of First Nations villages, including music, community, food, shelter, and transportation.
Our unit plan was specifically designed to try out some experiential learning lessons in our practicum class because all of us strongly believe that students learn best by doing. Our students in grades 3 and 4 were still in Jean Piaget’s concrete operations stage (ages 7 to 11) and would theoretically be able to scaffold their learning about First Nations best by linking to real things, such as building houses and boats out of natural materials, working as a community to imagine hunting and gathering food at the beach, and experiencing music and story together. I was responsible for teaching two lessons: one on the salmon life cycle in preparation for the Bowen Park field trip, and one about First Nations houses.
In the salmon life cycle lesson, I started out by giving each student a piece of one of five puzzles, each showing a different type of Pacific salmon. Putting the puzzles together led the students into finding their learning groups, where they did a Know-Wonder-Learn (KWL) exercise to figure out what they already knew about salmon, what they wondered, and then at the end of the lesson, what they had learned during the lesson . We learned the stages of the salmon life cycle, and played a salmon run simulation game in the gym. We made a river from jump ropes and the students carried balls representing salmon eggs to simulate the different factors that made the annual fall salmon run harder or easier for the salmon, such as predators, fishers and river depth (rainfall). We also introduced Indigenous ways of knowing about the salmon run, including the first salmon ceremony in which the First Nations fishers caught the first fish of the salmon run and then went away for a community ceremony over a number of days. This practice allowed the strongest and fittest salmon to swim up the river to reproduce over the days during which fishing did not take place. We also learned about why First Nations fishers understood that it was important to take only as many salmon as the village needed so that there were always salmon that were able to reproduce for future years. Many students were struck by the practice of the First Nations peoples of putting the salmon bones back into the river and saying thank you to the salmon for giving them food to eat.
In the lesson about First Nations houses titled “Building the Village: Shelter,” I first asked the students what all humans needed for survival and we made a mind map on the white board using their brainstormed ideas. Then we looked at pictures in non-fiction reference books and on the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Northwest Coast Village Project (www.sfu.ca/brc/virtual_village/coast_salish/quamichan--cowichan-.html) to get an idea of how First Nations built their houses and villages using photos taken 100 years ago. Then, using pieces of cedar and fir bark, sticks, grasses, cedar boughs, natural twine and dryer lint to represent animal furs, the students built their own model houses using these primarily natural materials (scaled to the size of a Playmobil figure), and incorporating ideas from the pictures and historical photographs. They all enjoyed the building process and were able to answer the assessment questions that the student teachers asked them at the end of the lesson before going home at the end of the day. The natural materials were left for the students to play with during recess, and the dryer lint was taken home for reuse (making fire starters for camping).
Developing this “Building the Village” unit plan with our pod was an excellent opportunity to try out connecting a number of curriculum content areas together, using some place-based learning with a field trip and local historical evidence, and setting the students free to explore the concepts in partners and small groups. Our parting gift from our practicum was a book that our sponsor teacher made us with the students’ writing and pictures about which parts of the unit they most enjoyed, which was an excellent way to hear the students' voices about their learning, as well as a lovely keepsake for all of us to remember our first teacher experiences.
 Crain, W. (2011). Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., p. 144.
Blogging about my experience in the 2017-18 Post-Baccalaureate Bachelor of Education program at Vancouver Island University.
All images on this blog by Erin Arrowsmith, 2017-2018, unless otherwise noted.