PS - September 2013

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a Level 4 but I'm only going to give you a 4 if you challenge yourself and try something new." Another student from The York School, where Simand previously taught, flooded the classroom during a science experiment — and ended up with the highest mark. "This kid was revising his thinking, he showed me he was willing to take a risk — working like a real scientist. I try to create a safe atmosphere where everyone knows that I'm looking for thought and creativity. And, if it's a complete disaster, it doesn't matter." Cultivating community Taking risks works well for Simand because she allows for student input on what they'll study. "I have a list of skills I must cover but how we do it depends on where their interests lie — it's always different from year to year." At The York School, another Toronto independent, her Grade 5 class was shocked to learn about the nasty impact of discarded plastic bags on ocean life and landfills. What began as a classroom curiosity ballooned into a campaign to reduce use, which they worked on the following year. At city hall, they presented depositions before 150-plus industry leaders, lobbyists, researchers and stakeholders, scoring praise and national media coverage. "Class 6S [Simand's students], by far, made the best presentation," said councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker. "They were well spoken, knowledgeable and very passionate." They created the website banthebagbrigade.wikispaces. com and then asked if they could make a documentary. Though Simand didn't know a thing about making movies, she marched them off to watch films and meet a director, and their film was eventually screened at the Sprockets Toronto International Film Festival for Children. If that weren't enough to bolster a student's confidence, Ban the Bag Brigade was a finalist in 2009 for a Livegreen Toronto Award. "Harriet taught these children, at the ages of 11 and 12, the skills they require to become agents of social change," says parent Karen Fancy. Simand inserts a healthy dose of reality into her approach to teaching so her students can learn valuable lessons firsthand. Instead of reading up on immigrant populations, her students mentor Grade 2s in an inner-city neighbourhood bustling with families who are new to the country. "You can't value multiculturalism and diversity if you don't meet people from different communities and see how valuable they are," says Simand, a former human rights lawyer. "Now, when the girls hear stereotypes, they can challenge them and say, 'Hey, that's a great neighbourhood — I know people there.'" Once the girls bond with the younger students they have to look up apartments and visit the local supermarket to determine how they could survive on actual Toronto social assistance rates. "I know they'll find it impossible," says Simand, "but it will mean more to them because they've met children who are just as smart and funny and creative but who nevertheless have to use food banks. They have a strong sense of what is and isn't fair. I think you can cultivate that sense of social justice at a young age — that idea that 'I can make a difference and I have a responsibility to.' I just let them experience it and come to their own conclusions. It's so much fun to come to work when this is what we're doing." Natural connection Of course, none of this would be possible if Simand didn't have a close connection to her students. "She really listens to them," observes MacDonald. "She treats them as capable individuals, and she laughs with them." She's a bit like Ms. Frizzle, the shamelessly enthusiastic children's book character who steers her class through wondrous field trips aboard the Magic School Bus. "Her ability to inspire, motivate and teach is apparent every time you speak with her," says parent Carolyn Ussher. "This is not just her job, it's who she is." MacDonald believes Simand's gift goes beyond creative lessons with real-world applications. "Her greatest impact is that she helps to illuminate the girls' strengths. She takes a problem-based approach and helps them take risks. We've seen the girls leave Grade 6 as confident leaders who believe in themselves and want to share their ideas because they have been so respected throughout their time with Ms. Simand." PS create the perfect plan "How can I get them to love coming to school?" That is what Harriet Simand asks herself when she's dreaming up a lesson plan. Here's what works for her: Borrow inspiration Simand came across a television show on anorexia, which she turned into a lesson on ratios and body image. First, students made two outlines: one of Barbie and one of Simand or another teacher. Then, they had to scale up the doll drawing to life size, so they could compare Barbie's figure to a real woman's. Tap an interest She might launch a space unit by asking her students what they want to know about the universe, or screening space videos to see what gets everyone talking. "If you find something they're passionate about, they'll pay attention." Think like a student Instead of ducking subjects she knows nothing about (like filmmaking), Simand immerses herself in them. She Googles, reads and skims ideas from a variety of online lessons. "Why should we be afraid — we're there to learn too." Mash it up! It's not an accident that projects like the Ban the Bag Brigade weave multiple strands of the curriculum together. "If you choose to do everything separately, you'll need 800 days to get through everything." September 2013 | Professionally Speaking 27

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