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You can’t shake Sister MacNamara’s be-leaf in trees

May 26, 2021
Sister MacNamara - Trees - 1 (Supplied)

Sister MacNamara School students recently completed a month-long inquiry project on trees that saw their learning branching off in all directions. 

For most of April, Nursery to Grade 6 students delved deep into the wide, wonderful, woody world of trees. Lessons included learning about the different parts of trees, examining the benefits of trees to humans, animals and the environment, calculating the size and age of trees, creating tree-inspired art and writing letters to government lobbying for the planting of more trees.

“For the last four years at Sister Mac, we’ve been doing a whole school inquiry,” said Hannah Muns, who teaches Grades 4 and 5. 

“Themes have included polar bears, bees and water, and this year we decided to tackle trees. Some of the teachers here were really inspired to take on more inquiry-based learning after participating in the Regie Routman in Residence program. We had the opportunity to go into other schools and observe someone teach with a heavy focus on inquiry, as well as reading and writing for real audiences. 

“After trying it here the last few years, we’ve seen really high student involvement and excitement. Having the whole school do it at once just gets everyone in the same mindset and provides for really deep, rich experiential learning.”

For this type of inquiry-based learning, Muns said it’s important to pick a broad topic with multiple entry points and curricular connections.

However, given Sister MacNamara’s inner-city location, its students don’t have a lot of access to urban forest. Also, field trips weren’t an option due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Therefore, Sister MacNamara staff decided to bring trees to the students. 

“We went out and gathered tree branches, logs, limbs, nests, seeds and roots from different kinds of Manitoba trees and filled our classrooms with this stuff,” Muns said. “We got out the microscopes and magnifying glasses and examined and studied them and started asking authentic questions like ‘What kind of tree is this?’ and ‘How can I tell the difference between one tree and another?’

“The students became experts in the differences between coniferous and deciduous trees. On our community walks, we discovered stumps from cut-down trees. The students started asking questions about disease, which led to us talking about Dutch elm disease, which is rampant here in Winnipeg.” 

“A couple classes actually wrote to Mayor Brian Bowman after a community walk to Central Park where they counted about 30 cut-down trees. A lot of writing projects came out of this, which is the goal of the Regie Routman in Residence model, taking all this learning and becoming better writers, whether it be informational text, essays, stories or letters.” 

Sister MacNamara students also looked at trees from an Indigenous perspective, researching totem poles and the many uses of the birch tree and its bark. 

The tree inquiry project connected to such school curricula as reading and writing, math and science, and art and history. Muns said trees even came up in gym class.

“In phys-ed, the question came up, ‘Why do trees not fall over?’ and they got talking about tree roots and how to stay balanced, which they connected to their gymnastics and movement curriculum,” Muns said.

It seems Sister MacNamara students love learning about trees.

“One thing I enjoyed learning about trees was knowing what the Earth can give us,” said Mikaela, a Grade 5 student.

“My favourite part was when we looked closely at trees and got to touch them,” said Leo, a Grade 4 student.

“Taking field notes was one of my favourite things about studying trees,” said Trinity, a Grade 4 student.

“I learned that deforestation is a leading cause of carbon dioxide in the air,” said Jimmy, a Grade 4 student.

Of course, a big part of Sister MacNamara’s tree inquiry project was around sustainability and environmental education. 

“We learned how we can become stewards of the Earth and protect trees, taking only what we need,” Muns said. 

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