Thursday, 19 September 2013

where the grass grows tall

Kindergarteners explore and play in the "wilds" of our Mississauga Valley grounds.

At Thornwood PS we have a feature that is both unassuming and spectacular, and it is the focus of this post. People who follow me, or my class on twitter no doubt know how important the "no-mow zone" is to me and my classes. Every day we post pictures of our new discoveries, and ask our online friends for help identifying the interesting living things we find, be they flora or fauna. Our second week of school was a celebration of the long grass area with our PLN and our good friend in the environment, "Ranger Rob" and his #KindergartenBioBlitz project. For more background on why I have been spending even more time outside this year, you may also see my  Looking Closely in the Meadow post at the collaborative Looking Closely Blog, started by dear (but not near) friend Heather McKay

Early summer and approaching fall in the glorious green.

As I am only in my second year here at this wonderful school, I did not get to see the way this beautiful project unfolded. Through conversations with Dianne Brown, the teacher I quickly came to know and look to as the teacher most passionate about environmental justice, I learned about the hard work that went into creating our precious space. I have been asked time and time again on twitter to explain how we managed to create the no-mow zone, and how other schools could follow suit.

When we stop and look: wildlife in the long grass.

For that reason, today I would like to introduce my first guest to the blog. We have discussed how challenging it will be to share the story briefly, and as such this will be a multiple-part post. The rest of the story now, from Dianne.

My love for nature began as a child growing up on a small farm near Spencerville, south of Ottawa, and close to the St. Lawrence River. The South Nation River, a small tributary, ran through our farm and I spent many hot summer afternoons and freezing winter days there. I remember taking a shovel to the creek one winter day plus my brother’s skates, determined I would not return home until I knew how to skate. Covered in bruises, I returned triumphant. I also remember choosing to be with my father working the farm while my 3 sisters took care of business in the house. When all our chores were done we were off to the woods with tarps, hammers, nails and anything else we needed for construction, my favourite being our fort. I was happiest when surrounded by nature.
The trees hide the creek in behind, but if you listen, you can often hear the ducks. Photo: DB

When my children were little we spent many glorious hours exploring green spaces in our neighbourhood. The school they attended in Etobicoke, Broadacres PS, became involved in an extensive greening initiative under the guidance of the Evergreen. This project was documented with photos and videos which are still used as a model today. Over a few years the flat landscape was transformed into a renewed swale, flower/vegetable gardens, pathways, log and rock seating areas, and shade trees. The classrooms at Broadacres moved outside and the engagement of the students was deep and fulfilling. Students with special needs were able to have alternative spaces for activities. My hope is to create a similar environment for our students at Thornwood. It is important for our students, many of whom live in apartment buildings, to have experiences in the outdoors during their time at school.

Many years and many life challenges happened before I entered teaching. This may sound crazy but the first day I walked into Thornwood as a supply teacher in March of 2006, I said to myself, “I’m going to teach here one day.” Here I am, and here we are involved in a transformational green initiative! How’s that for a dream come true? 
Long shadows point to where the beloved outdoor classroom would someday grow. Photo credit: DB

In June 2009 I attended a Professional Development presentation by Robert Bateman’s Get To Know Your Backyard Neighbour organization. An announcement was made that there was an EcoSchools meeting at the end and everyone was invited to attend. Yes, I did. The next year Thornwood became an EcoSchool and the following year, Thornwood was chosen by Evergreen/Brickworks and Peel EcoSchools to receive a $10,000 grant for school ground greening! Fate? Divine intervention? My dream for Thornwood moved one huge step forward!
Over the next 2 years of planning with students, teachers, parents, representatives from the Peel Board, and our consultant from Evergreen/Brickworks, we came up with a design that included a play structure, seating areas, mulched paths, shade trees and shrubs, only to be advised by the Board’s Facilities Department and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority that our school sits in a flood zone and no structures could be approved on the east side of the school. Half our design was nixed. This was a huge setback until the idea of allowing a portion of the yard along Cooksville Creek to naturalize was proposed by the Evergreen/Brickworks consultant. That idea triggered a whole lot of thinking about exploring what flora and fauna would return to this area. We were allowed to plant native flora that suited the zoning as long as the lay of the land was not altered, and voila, the No-Mow Zone was born. 
A splash of deep red dogwood in the meadow: the promise of something new. Photo: DB
Dig day! Community involvement makes a real connection to our place. Photo: DB
The tape marks the beginning where the no-mow zone will be. Oops, mowed again! Photo: DB
The new trees, standing alone. Photo: DB

In June of 2010 Thornwood hosted Dig Day for approximately 150 parents, teachers and students. It was such a huge community-bonding experience and parents want more. We added a total of 12 trees to the school yard, 4 of these marking the outline of the No-Mow Zone. These trees will provide shade for students and a habitat for wildlife. We also planted native shrubs that will provide winter interest with red branches and berries to feed wildlife. The next challenge for the No-Mow Zone was getting the message to the grass cutting contractors to mow around our naturalized area. The first summer that message did not reach its destination. Our next strategy was to spray paint small dowels and hammer them into the ground and wrap yellow Caution tape around them. The dowels were broken by soccer balls and the rest disappeared. We decided to put 2”x2”x4’ stakes in the ground and wrap more Caution tape around them. That worked for a while but gradually the stakes disappeared. The good thing was that by this time it was very obvious we were growing something! The mowing stopped and the demarcation of this area needed no protection. 
The lovely chicory that gives the late-summer grasses the beautiful blue hue. Photo: DB

The long and the short of it. Photo: DB

After 2 unusually hot and dry summers, and many hours of watering, the new trees and shrubs showed signs of survival. It was a challenging couple of years for the new green space, but it looked like it would definitely become an outdoor classroom; an area of exploration for whoever wanted to take advantage of it. My teaching partner and I purchased scientific tools, a large assortment of Dollar Store magnifying classes, bug bottles, and butterfly nets. We signed out books from the library that would help with identification of species as well as stir excitement for future exploration in the No Mow Zone. All these items were placed on a cart lent to us by a colleague, a dim sum cart, yep! No money from budgets for us… and we were set to be naturalists, scientists, and explorers extraordinaire. 
The hot, dry summers took a toll but the hardy native trees survived. Photo: DB

Sweet-smelling white clover. Photo: DB

Phase two of the Big Dream relates to the history of the setting of our school, a First Nations settlement. While the Grade 3 Social Studies curriculum touched on Early Settlement, and a comparison of ways of life pre-European contact to our lives today, the deep, spiritual connection First Nations people had to nature was picked up by our team as a Big Idea that still drives our teaching today. 

Stay tuned for the story of the development of the No Mow Zone, and how we intertwined becoming a Gold EcoSchool with our TLCPs, in Math and Language.