RVS Learning Specialist – A person’s passions can come in many different shapes or sizes, flavors and themes. Some people love travel, others are foodies, while some feed their souls with art or music. One of my life’s passions involves a six foot tall, brown-eyed, well-muscled guy by the name of Tipper. I should clarify, however, Tipper is my horse! As someone who has always had a passion for horses, I know how wonderful they can be for the soul. So, when I heard that students in Rocky View were getting the opportunity to work with horses to build their confidence and self-awareness, I was very eager to find out more.
I had the privilege of seeing two of the programs that Rocky View students participated in this year: Spirit Winds Ranch, Equine Assisted Learning with Laurel Griffin and Whispering Equine, Equine Facilitated Wellness with Carrie Watson. Both left a lasting impression on me, and from the comments and reflections of the students participating, I could tell that our students were also powerfully impacted by the experiences.
At Spirit Winds Ranch, elementary students learned what it means to build trust and relationships through working with horses. Although I have had many personal experiences in this area, Laurel’s program opened my eyes to a whole new world of skill building. The session I observed was all about using common sense. While working with their “horse partners”, the students read a challenge aloud and then planned to lead their horse through obstacles in the safest, kindest way possible. The students were instructed to watch for their horse’s non-verbal cues: ear position, eyes, licking their lips, etc. I was amazed at the creative problem-solving skills that the students were applying as they worked through the obstacles. When the horses struggled to complete a task, the students used their newly acquired empathy skills to find out why. Every student experienced success, and you could see the sense of pride on their faces and accomplishment in their voices.
The essential life skills that were taught and reinforced during this exercise were invaluable. The students communicated verbally with their partners and volunteers, and non-verbally with their horses. They demonstrated resiliency through trying different strategies and then adjusting, based on their horses, to achieve success. They also collaborated effectively with their partners, volunteers, and horses. At the end of the session, students reflected on what resonated with them from the morning. Some of the words they chose were, “flexible, fun, creative, strong leadership, thinking, and dependability.” The self-awareness of these young students was impressive.
At Whispering Equine, high school students participated in an equally life-changing experience. In this session they started in a cozy classroom in the barn where Carrie led them through a discussion about types of stress and how people cope. The students identified experiences of their own that had caused them stress and reflected on how it made them feel, physically and emotionally. They would then discover that the day’s activity with the horses would be all about releasing that stress and tension, both their own and the horse’s, through acupressure.
After the students had time to groom and bond with their horses, they led them into an arena to start the exercise. The students were taught to recognize their horse’s energy fields and were instructed to watch for signs of physical release: chin quiver, sighing, yawning, licking their lips, head shaking, etc. Carrie talked about “offering intention” to the horse instead of just trying to do something to them. The relationship that the students had previously built with these horses was crucial, as this experience would make both the horse and the student vulnerable to one another. She instructed them to be mindful of their own body and eye positions, breath, and finger tension, all of which would communicate different messages to the animals. Each student started behind their horse’s ear and used the tips of their fingers to work along the Bladder Meridian – an important line of energy in acupressure that runs the length of the body. At a point of tension, the horse would blink, indicating a spot that required focus. Watching these students use their hands to connect with their animals was incredible. As the horses would release a spot of tension, the students would often do the same. Each was silent and intently focused on both their horse’s and their own physical and emotional sensations.
In talking to the students after the session, I discovered that mornings at Whispering Equine were often emotional. As the students worked through areas of their lives that cause them stress or anxiety, they dealt with difficult feelings in ways they would not ordinarily be able to. Other days were energetic and uplifting, leaving the students with a stronger sense of confidence and self-assurance. No matter the day’s emotional tone, the students felt they could safely connect and communicate with their animals without fear of judgment or critique. Their reflections and sense of growth through the program were both touching and inspiring. These students were unanimous in saying that this was an important and powerful experience for them.
My own lifetime of experiences with horses has taught me that they are incredibly perceptive creatures. They can read body language and sense emotions. Through seeing these students and their interactions with horses, I have come to see how valuable their intuition can be in helping humans reflect on and heal from their own emotional challenges. I only received a brief snapshot of the incredible programs that Laurel and Carrie put on, however, the impact of their work was evident. I am looking forward to seeing more students in Rocky View Schools supported through equine learning. Horses, with their beauty, empathy, and rich personalities, are powerful agents of student wellness. As a lifelong horse-lover, it moved me to see students reveal a deep connection to these magnificent creatures. In a word: unforgettable.
Rocky View Providers:
“Spirit Winds Ranch” Cochrane, AB – Laurel Griffin
“Whispering Equine” DeWinton, AB – Carrie Watson
“Inner Equine Journeys” Carseland, AB – Lori Thompson
“Equine Enrichment” Carstairs, AB – Angie Payne
“Heard Wellness Through Horses” Carstairs, AB – Amy Monea
RVS Learning Specialist – Another common theme that we hear about on site visits is the emphasis on relationships. Each school we toured had a different, yet effective way to connect their students, staff, and community. Crescent Heights High School in Medicine Hat has recently started on their High School Redesign journey. Their initial focus has been on building relationships with students and staff and encouraging the pursuit of their passions. Forty minutes each day is set aside for a flex/advisory block that they call “CHAT.” During CHAT, academic, social, and emotional supports are provided. Each student has the chance to connect with an adult in the building, who, along with the supportive peer group, stays as their CHAT connection throughout their time at CHH. One Friday a month they have a day they call “Spark Day.” On this day, during CHAT, students can explore a topic or learn a skill of their choice. Sessions offered range widely, including sports, music, cooking, knitting, computer programing, jellyfish, and many more. The offerings are based on the passions of the staff and the students, and they change regularly. Many schools are experimenting with advisories so it was extremely enlightening to talk to a school about what has been working well and where they are going from here.
In Bassano School, relationships are key. With a high population of students from the Siksika Nation, the school has worked hard to foster relationships within the First Nations community to ensure the success of all students. It is one of very few schools in Alberta that can report no significant achievement differences between their FMNI and non-status students. First Nation students are just as likely to graduate from Bassano as any other student in the school. One of the many ways they have engaged their community is by bringing one of their Parent Teacher Interview nights in to the Siksika community. This demonstration of the school’s commitment to community has lead to substantially higher attendance at these meetings and broader parent involvement in the school.
Bassano School is more than just a building where teaching happens; it is a central hub of the community – a place where kids want to be and where community involvement is high. In their multimedia classes, equipped with green screen and professional lighting, students produce high quality newscasts and advertisements for local businesses and sports teams. The school also has a Human Patient Simulator where students work with nurses from the nearby hospital to check vitals, diagnose, and treat patients with all the authenticity of a medical training facility.
These site visits have all been eye opening. There has been something to learn from each person we’ve been fortunate enough to speak with and each place we’ve been able to explore. Although touring other schools is a great experience, powerful insights don’t necessarily require a road trip. Within every school there are opportunities to discover and stories worthy of hearing. A great first site visit can often be a visit with someone just down the hall or on the other side of your building. Often a powerful professional learning experience can come from simply observing a colleague teach, or being observed by a colleague, and then having a conversation about it. The beauty of being an educator is that we are surrounded by people to collaborate with, to learn from, and who share our goal of wanting to do what’s best for students.
Then again, sometimes it’s tremendously valuable to see other contexts in order to better understand your own. Do you have an initiative you’d like to see in action, or a concept that you’d like to explore remotely? Contact our team to discuss a possible site visit to support that goal.
Seeing really is believing!
RVS Learning Specialist – As educators, we continuously strive to learn and grow. We want to try the newest technologies, frequently adapt our pedagogy to keep up with the ever-changing world, and stay on top of the trends and ideas in Education. The amount of educational research available at our fingertips can be overwhelming. I find myself constantly asking, what do these practices look like in a classroom? What are the biggest successes? What do the setbacks look like? In my opinion, one of the best ways to delve into innovation in education, is by seeing it in action and talking to people who are living the practice.
As 21st Century Learning Specialists, we see organizing and participating in site visits as an important part of our role. During a site visit you get the opportunity to walk through someone else’s building, listen to their philosophies and strategies, and learn from the obstacles that they have had to overcome. These experiences have been invaluable to the growth and development of our team, and the teachers and administrators that have come along with us.
In December, we had the privilege of being invited into some unique schools in Southern Alberta. Along with our fantastic tour guide Adelee Penner from Alberta Education, and Associate Superintendent Dave Morris, our team visited Bassano School, Isabel F. Cox in Redcliff, and Crescent Heights High and Dr. Roy Wilson in Medicine Hat. Each of the schools brought new perspectives and practices that we were eager to explore.
Learning environments have always been a hot topic in education. How are schools creating spaces for students to learn, innovate, and feel welcome? I. F. Cox in Redcliff, is a K-3 school that has been intentionally designed to promote choice and creativity. While walking through their classrooms you couldn’t help but feel invited and inspired. Each space contains elements that appeal to the senses, influence play, and create a calm atmosphere. Some of the more unique additions include, essential oils specifically chosen for each class, reading nooks with pillows and small lights, and covers over the fluorescent tubes that allow the light from small lamps to contribute to the room’s ambiance. Their Learning Commons comes complete with a green screen room, science exploration station with microscopes, and a building area. My favorite features were the doors on the outer walls of the classrooms. These additions encourage the staff and students to get outside and promote learning through nature. When we talked to their principal, she shared their collaborative process and explained that one of the most important parts of the redesign was developing a shared vision.
Dr. Roy Wilson Learning Centre, is a K-9 school in Medicine Hat. This P3 building has a similar design to many of the new schools in Rocky View, and through its architecture, promotes collaboration. Walking around during class time, we saw students in common areas utilizing soft seating and standing at laptop bars working comfortably. Breakout rooms surrounded the common spaces, where groups were gathered around whiteboards and tables, tackling problems. In the “Project Commons,” robotics, shop and culinary arts exist side by side and encourage multidisciplinary exploration and projects. Many of the classrooms were built so that the walls between them could slide back. In most rooms the walls were open and the two classes were seamlessly functioning as one. We have seen this set up in other schools and were curious about the process that led them to having the walls open as the norm. The conversation around their journey was insightful. Although there were challenges, the staff worked together to find a way to take advantage of the space. Through this, the collaboration between staff and students has led to increased support for all learners and effective teaching teams.
Check back Thursday for part two of this blog, where Bassano School and Crescent Heights High will be highlighted for their work on relationship building. Thanks for reading!