Rural Reflections #6

To the Stars: Rural Education in the West Kootenays

When I was young, my family and I would make our pilgrimage every summer to our family’s cottage in the Howe Sound of British Columbia.  Every night, when it was finally dark enough, my cousins and I would slip out into the dense rain forest surrounding our cottage and head for the giant field in the middle of the island.  There, we would spread out a sea of blankets on the still-warm grass and gaze into the heavens for hours until, finally, we were called back home by our parents.  Having all been raised in large cities, my cousins and I were fascinated by the wondrous spectacle that lay beyond the noise and ambient light of the city; it was only when we left the distractions of the city behind that we were able to truly see the brilliance of the starry night sky.

In life, brilliance is often clouded by distractions, or might hover just beyond sight.  The same is true of brilliance in education.  While it is a field that is continually growing and evolving, it happens that the act of educating often becomes clouded with distractions, and the proverbial ambient light of educational organization and politics dims the brilliance that lays within those of us who are truly passionate about instilling in children a zest for learning and for life.  For many schools and teachers in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia, however, passion for educating is evident through their attitudes and practices.  Much like the stars I saw every summer night as a child, brilliance in education shines in the West Kootenay’s.

Teacher candidates of the West Kootenay Teacher Education Program (WKTEP), based in Castlegar, were given the opportunity during the 2012-2013 year to investigate the nature of rural education by observing a number of schools. Over nearly a dozen observation days, WKTEP students (myself included) traveled to Nelson, Trail, Rossland, Edgewood, Burton, New Denver, Blueberry, Robson, and Crawford Bay to see the brilliance that rural schools emanate.

Rural schools, much like rural school teachers, wear many hats to suit local needs. Rural schools such as Blueberry, Robson, and Crawford Bay have taken their respective communities into consideration in the planning and growth of the schools. Both Blueberry and Robson hold the status of community schools, and thus bring programs into their communities which may otherwise have trouble finding a home. From ArtStarts programs to acting as venues for local meetings, these schools have grown with their communities and act as integral local community members. Crawford Bay Elementary Secondary School, on the east shore of the Kootenay Lake, opened its brand new doors in 2009 after years of petitioning and community fundraising. Helping to raise $800 000, the community now has access to the gym facilities, an early childhood centre, and three community-use rooms within the building. The mutually beneficial relationship developed through the establishment of this school is a brilliant example of how rural schools interact with their communities.

As teacher candidates, we WKTEPers, as we are known, have been told consistently throughout this program that education as a profession is on the verge of revolution. And from what we have observed from schools across the region, this certainly seems to be true. The days of lecturing and note taking, at least in K-12 schools, appears to be drawing to a rapid conclusion. Instead, the level of innovation in these rural schools is truly amazing to witness as teachers give their all for benefit of students who are growing up learning how to think and how to learn, skills that will serve them throughout their life. While teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic are certainly important, teaching these subjects in ways that will give kids the skills they need to navigate life should be on the top of our priority list as teachers.

The K-2 class at Edgewood integrates all subject disciplines with outdoor education through their ‘Walking Wednesday’ program, giving kids the skills they need not only to tackle a math or science problem, but the skills to live in a rural community nestled in the mountains. Lucerne School in New Denver dedicates a week each year for a filmmaking unit for the senior students, giving them ‘real-life’ experiences and opportunities they would not otherwise find in small communities. Even in larger centres, the concept of dedicating a week to a single project may send shock and terror through some. By increasing cross-curricular, project-based learning in schools, we teach these kids how to problem solve, how to think for themselves, and how to find solutions that work for them instead of simply teaching an algorithm that will be forgotten within minutes. As rural schools commit to ideas and projects like these, though, they are not only providing shining examples for other schools to follow, but are showing their students how to shine brightly as well.

As a pre-service teacher who has chosen a life of teaching in rural areas, being exposed to revolutionary and innovative practices in the West Kootenays has been eye-opening and inspiring. As I find myself once again leaving the city behind, and once again making that pilgrimage to the quiet and peacefulness of smaller areas, I find myself feeling much like I did as a child laying on blankets in a field in the middle of the night; I find myself in awe of the shining examples to be found in this region. This time, though, I don’t need to wait for the cover of darkness, I need only look to my colleagues and peers to find true brilliance.

Lindsay Tizzard, WKTEP Teacher Candidate, 2012-13