ARCHIVED—Diane Maillet and Louis Gagnon
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Diane Maillet and Louis Gagnon have created a unique educational environment at l'École Saint-Pie-X in Gatineau, Quebec that some call heaven on earth — and others call a zoo. Full of animals and plants, the class is a place where students of all abilities learn to love science. Diane and Louis' class is made up of students taking the standard curriculum as well as those with learning disabilities.
One of their students wrote, "My two years in their class helped me become more independent and mature. I learned self-respect. I learned how to work in a group. I gained confidence in myself, and I'm ready for regular secondary school."
In fact, the class has been such a success that the students stay at school after hours. Children with learning disabilities are now participating in the standard curriculum and the teaching model is being adapted for other subjects at the school.
"Don't be afraid to turn your classroom into a centre for experimentation and for living."
We've left the traditional environment to make one more suited to the way children naturally develop. In our classroom, which was made by knocking a wall between two adjoining classrooms, there are trees, all kinds of plants, snakes and animals — attractive things. Children get involved with them and learn with mediation from their teachers.
These surroundings are part of our students' daily lives and preoccupy their thoughts. The items in the classroom help students to understand, to measure, to control, to make hypotheses, to experiment, to discover reality. The students go through these mental processes every day. They ask themselves questions and then follow a route that leads to answers that are not just subjective reactions, but valid scientific responses.
Children from the standard stream and the remedial stream work cooperatively in groups, and learn to value each other's strengths, to encourage each other and to give constructive feedback. The projects give each child a chance to shine; one activity may hinge on manual dexterity, while another may require language skills. We evaluate each student individually at the appropriate level.
We know that all primary schools cannot offer teams of two teachers, as well as the infrastructure, materials and resources they require. Nonetheless, many of our techniques can be used by teachers who do not have the same facilities. Plants and a small tree or two or small creatures such as tadpoles and fish can all be cared for in the classroom.
Sometimes, students bring items from home. In fact, that's how our program started, when one student brought in a turtle. Next, we set up a small aquarium. Then several students brought in rabbits and the Canadian Museum of Nature lent us a snake. That meant we had to buy some mice to feed the snake. The menagerie evolved to include a cockatiel, chinchillas and other animals and plants.
Every student spends a few minutes each day helping to take care of the plants and animals. During the summer, the students take most of the animals home. Diane keeps the birds and the plants and Louis keeps the snakes, because these require special care.
Every day, the students collect different data pertaining to a certain aspect of their environment. They work in teams of three or four and study a subject for two weeks and become "specialists" in the area. At the end of the two weeks, each groups hands in a written report and makes an oral presentation to the class.
For example, the "herpetologists" collect data in order to compare the eating habits of our three snakes in relation to the shedding of their skin. The students draw graphs, analyze their data and draw conclusions from what they see.
The most important aspect of this technique resides in the fact that all questions and subjects that are studied are chosen by the students.
Originally, we purchased materials with our own money. After the first year, the Quebec Ministry of Education funded the program as part of an initiative to keep children from dropping out of school. The funding that first year was $3 000. The amount has risen to $10 000 because our program has expanded and two other teachers at the school are now teaching this way.
Some teachers in your school may not be supportive of team teaching at first. It often means that they have to rearrange their class schedules to accommodate your needs. And it's difficult for a substitute teacher to handle the class if you are absent. But the nature of team teaching helps us overcome these obstacles. We support each other. When one of us slips into old ways of teaching, the other encourages innovation. We also find that a male-female teaching team is good for the students, particularly the remedial ones, who may be looking for either a mother or father figure.
In the end, all of our projects are designed to help our students learn how to learn. Once they recognize their learning style, they'll be able to manage their own learning for the rest of their lives.