In her classroom at Alberni District Secondary School, Anne Ostwald’s homeroom appears welcoming with colourful artwork, students’ projects and inspirational quotes decorating the walls.
“There was a lot more stuff in here earlier but we just took all the murals to the Port Authority,” Ostwald said.
Ostwald, who teaches Comparative Civilization, Social Justice, Social Studies and Art Foundations at the high school, is devoted to incorporating project-based learning in all her classes.
“All of my classes do projects, every single one of them,” she said.
Ostwald is passionate about providing her students with hands-on and community-based learning opportunities that she said usually stick with a student for years to come.
“I think that the best learning and the stuff that you remember is the stuff that’s outside school,” Ostwald said. “Every kid remembers their project because it meant something, and because they impacted the community.”
Empowering youth to make a change in their community and supporting them along the way is a sort of mantra for Ostwald,whose students have a lot of freedom to come up with projects on their own.
In the past couple of years, students from Ostwald’s classes have spearheaded such projects as the plan to plant a piano at the Harbour Quay for public use, painted campsite number signs for China Creek Marina, came up with the new sound of a didgeridoo for Port Alberni’s tsunami warning siren and have approached city council about new bylaws against smoking in vehicles, amongst many others.
Ostwald gives students an opportunity to collaborate, consult and research with one another to come up with original projects, while she provides guidance and examples of previous projects to help generate inspiration for new ideas.
“We’re still getting through the curriculum,” she said. “When you give the kids an opportunity to learn to consult, to learn to work together, to find their strengths, magic happens.”
Another project that was spawned by student’s from Ostwald’s class last semester was the food guide for Port Alberni, Foodies Paradise.
“Students learned about small business advertising, public speaking and importance of being passionate in something to make the community better,” she said.
Of course roadblocks and difficulties can occur when tackling some projects that require a lot of involvement but Ostwald said such challenges are all part of the learning curve.
“How do you overcome them without letting them depress you? There’s more real life skills in a project than there is sitting and writing notes and writing tests,” she said.
Pointing to a favourite quote hanging above her whiteboard, Ostwald reads out loud; “we have a two-fold purpose; transform one’s own life and contribute to the transformation of society through service.”
“I think that’s what we’re all doing because I’ve got to change in order to change the world. If I can be more positive it will make a transformation,” she said.
Kama Money was one of seven founding teachers in B.C who helped pilot the Social Justice 12 program in the province and now teaches the Step UP (Skills Training Employment Program) at VAST. She believes students learn much better from their experiences working in the community and through project-based learning.
Step UP is to connect students with community agencies for training, volunteering, and further education.
Money originally taught Social Justice 12 at ADSS but “passed the torch” to Ostwald when she went on maternity leave.
“I lovingly hand-picked Anne Ostwald to lead [Social Justice 12] at ADSS and came to VAST,” Money said. “This is the first year we’ve had Social Justice at VAST and it’s going great.”
Social Justice 12 is an elective course that is currently being offered in some school districts in B.C. It was approved by the Ministry of Education in August 2008.
“It allows students to get academic school credit for learning about the things that affect their own lives – poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, globalization, and human rights,” Money said.
During the first half of her class, Money said the topics of human rights are introduced to students who then, in the second half of class, will come up with their own projects and take ownership of their learning.
“My job is just being a helper,” Money said.
“With the social action projects, our goal is not for [students] to fundraise ‘x’ amount of dollars, or raise a certain amount of awareness. Our goal is that when they are confronted with social injustice in the future, they will have the tools or the know-how to address it.”