How Children Learn at Headwaters Academy – a Vignette

Dear Parents,

One of the ongoing challenges of our wonderful school has been finding a way to communicate the learning that happens here at school. The Living Report Card was initially designed to show student progress and how it ties to the Ontario Curriculum.  It was not well used by parents and proved itself unwieldy – and it was, in and of itself, a boil down of the ‘essential skills’ in the Ontario Curriculum (thus, imagine how unwieldy the curriculum itself is!).


One minor ‘bridge’ solution we put in place was Class Dojo. However, whipping out our cell phones even once for each child per week means at least 17 minutes of time we could be spending moving your children forward.  We will continue to highlight interesting achievements but the Dojo, in and of itself, is also not a solution.


We have also contemplated weekly “here’s what we’re doing at school” updates.  We may very well implement these, but they only scratch the surface and certainly cannot speak a whole story.  I am, admittedly, a little resistant as its yet one more job that doesn’t directly help our students.  While there are common projects in both the Primary class and the Junior class, the depth to which each student works changes dependent upon their current level.  Furthermore, there are many individual studies happening at any given time.  In essence, we have 17 different learning programs running simultaneously, each of which changes multiple times per week as we converse with your children and carefully watch their capabilities grow and find their areas of challenge.  These different paths are the reality of our school – one that is, perhaps, scary, but shouldn’t be.  One thing I know, unequivocally, is that ‘one size fits all’ education actually doesn’t fit anyone.


Today I have taken the time, with thanks to Miss Walton for working arrival, physical education, and lunch (I had a conference call this morning about our site plan and my evening will be spent working on researching accreditation), to write about a selection of children yesterday to start to show, just from my perspective, how our children learn.  Miss Walton’s input would double the length of this piece. We will all likely easily recognize the children – but I won’t use their names just so we can at least be a little unsure about which one Mr. Brown was writing.


I sat with T & C as they worked through a card game I had assigned.  Each drew 6 cards from the deck and had to create math sentences from the six cards, with larger points given the more cards used.  The most impressive of the day was 3x6x4 = 9×8.  Other moments of discovery for them were that if 7+6 = 13 it can easily be rearranged for further points with 13-6 = 7 or even 13-7=6.  This may seem inconsequential – but, particularly in the case of the equations where each side of the equals includes multiple numbers, it demonstrates the concept of equality at a far deeper level than seen in most classrooms where, at this grade level (younger Juniors), the = sign indicates only to ‘put your answer here’.


Later we had a fantastic conversation, as a larger group, about the flow of electrons as it related to electricity.  B, being the adventurous type he is, wanted to know what would happen if he was to fall out of an airplane and hang on a hydro wire.  This brought about a question from A, who wanted to know if he would electrocute B by saving him with a rope from the ground.  S then wondered what if he threw the rope from a car.  This was an off-shoot of atomic theory where we were starting to understand the organization of the periodic table.  Fuel cells were discussed as well, though, for whatever reason, no one seemed as impressed as I was about them!  I ordered both molecular building sets as well as some circuit testing equipment… I can see that the lesson ‘plan’ has changed, based on student interest, to one where we make things glow and electrons flow.  This is why I reject a one size fits all method of education and pre-planning weeks in advance. The students in front of me define how something must be taught.


At lunch A wrote out reasoning as to why it doesn’t make sense for sheep to be banned from train travel… and its deleterious effect on our environment.  B, never to be outdone, started his own research on the same.  I used this competitive aspect between them to direct them to writing with more clarity – something they each need to work on.  Capitalization, punctuation, and paragraph structure included!


Q has increased her arithmetic speed. She was working with O, who is very often distracted by anything on a screen.  She was the perfect foil for O, and being in a position where she knew the numbers gave her the confidence to also help O stay seated and play an arithmetic game I created with playing cards (two card war).  This game will soon be ‘flipped’ in to a subtraction game… both are working on solidifying their numbers concepts.


E started multiplying… he’s 6.  But I didn’t call it multiplication and he couldn’t tell you he was doing it.  It was simply if I had 3 bags of 5 cookies, and what if 3 were eaten, how would I then share them in my three bags?  Come to think of it, that’s multiplication and division!


B and D wrote a letter to be delivered to Mr. Knott requesting that he provide us with engines and tools, which he has so nicely offered to do.  They also found a book to ground their future study of small engines.  The letter itself was much improved over previous works – all good grammar with one spelling error which they corrected.  A date was included and signatures.


K is starting work on finding the economic impact that HWA has on Grey Highlands.  This will be presented, hopefully, to either the mayor or council so that they might consider reducing our development fees.  Research has shown that authentic work, with authentic audiences, is far and away the most effective means of learning for students.  We have it here at our school, in so many ways.


Lastly, I was happy to find a way to get W learning his numbers.  A little mystery game of closed fist over counters, and one moving from one hand to another – “how many are left in this hand”- provides both the motivation to learn (fun), the concept that numbers are concrete and unchanging, and the beginnings of arithmetic.  I don’t ‘hit the jackpot’ with every way I try to teach W – I’m learning to work with him as much as he’s learning how to be here at school.  But that is the beauty of how we learn…



Here, there are 17 different learning plans.  It is difficult to describe ‘what we do’, but I hope this has given you some insight.  Celebrate when children report that they “built bat boxes”.  Because the learning behind that, which Miss Walton will gladly share as it is a primary project, is profound, multi-dimensional, and deeper than any workbook could hope to go.