On inclement weather days you most often hear on the radio “the buses are not running” and “Kerns Public School is closed.” But students' minds there have been opened with active ongoing research through a teacher with novel approaches to education.
When you drive by this school you notice the abundance of bird feeders. It is called the ‘School of Flock,’ and it's home to a dynamic research-oriented program that's making a difference at the small rural school and beyond.
Kerns is located 24 km northwest of Temiskaming Shores, on Highway 65 towards Elk Lake. The township has a population of 358 situated on the sprawling farmland of the Little Clay Belt.
Joanne Goddard is best described as a “five stars” or “exemplary” teacher, the Grade 3/4-5/6, four grade educator is committed to her students and the school community. She was transferred to Kerns to teach in 2012/13.
“That winter I attended the Ontario Bird Banding Association’s AGM at Bird Studies Canada as a marsh rep. I learned about a new research project through the University of Windsor investigating the population decline of snow buntings. Out of this was born the Canadian Snow Bunting Network. This organization was recruiting banders and bird watchers to participate in a citizen science project to help them get a better picture of the wintering migration movements of snow buntings,“ she said.
Snow buntings breed in the Arctic/Greenland and winter further south where they can find food and yet still have a protective cover. Large open fields are their favourite wintering destinations.
“Kerns is a prime location to watch for these amazing birds. My students and I set up a site in a field across from the school and waited. It wasn’t long before the snow buntings found the small piles of corn we had left for them," Goddard said. "I secured a federal permit to band snow buntings.”
The students daily count sightings on the playground and submit data to ‘Ebird,’ a Cornell University, Lab of Ornithology, international citizen science database which helps drive conservation efforts around the world.
The students also band hummingbirds on both ends of their migrations spring and fall.
Another long-running project is the nest box project, a conservation project to provide nesting habitat to aerial insectivores (tree swallows/bluebirds) that are declining in numbers because of farming practices and habitat loss. The students install and monitor/maintain nest boxes, and band the nestlings in order to track nesting success.
We have been putting different coloured bands on chickadees to visually mark the year they were banded. We have a recording system so that when we recapture a bird, we record how many times it has been captured, and make any notes on its health.
"The nice thing about now having six coloured bands is that we do not have to recapture a chickadee to know the year it was banded. For example, if simply see a chickadee with an orange band at the feeder; we know it was banded in 2018.
"It is just one of our classroom inquiries. It is exciting when we see birds hanging around that we know were banded six years ago. We can also see trends of when certain colour-banded birds arrive, which ones seem to stick around and for how long.
"Chickadees do not migrate but do have a pretty extensive range. Also sometimes we get reports from people in the community that sight our birds at their backyard feeders.”
Their latest initiative is setting up a worm composting system in order to help reduce the school’s waste and to provide composting soil for schoolyard gardens.
“Using the playground habitat as an extension of the classroom just makes good sense. So many curriculum expectations can be met just by exploring a playground," she said. "I feel particularly lucky to teach in a rural setting with lots of open space to explore, I love getting outside with my students discovering my surroundings, learning from nature.”
Every year the students undertake a scientific inquiry and a typical research project includes a hypothesis. “Can we make a better suet?” was a recent example.
“By consensus, the students thought the birds will eat more of the homemade suet. They said, 'We think that the birds are going to love our homemade suet. We think this because our suet is made with some good ingredients, like peanut butter!'"
The students discovered their hypothesis was correct. “Birds liked their homemade suet better than the store brand,” Goddard said.
Their research has made a difference.
“It is important because the students see what they are doing as applicable. They are active participants in their education,” she said.
University of Windsor graduate students had a theory about the movement patterns of wintering snow buntings based on their research and observations. They believed that they finally figured out the migration paths snow buntings took on their spring migrations back to the breeding grounds.
“It was our School of Flock program that totally disproved this theory and forced them to look again at their research. Those little birds of ours defied their ideas about snow bunting migration patterns in North America.”
The ‘School of Flock’ is also an “offshoot project” of the nearby Hilliardton Marsh Research & Education Centre.
“It is interesting to note that many schools of flock students become marsh volunteers and many have been hired as Marsh Rangers when they are older,” Goddard said.
The students are having fun and learning.
“I like being in the School of Flock because I get to do fun stuff that other schools don’t have the opportunity to do like band birds, hatch monarchs, work in the garden and make harvest stew!” said Ainsley Smith-Epple.
Lucy Harrison says, “Holding a bird or any living thing makes me feel more connected to nature than I ever have before.”
“When I hold living things I feel how responsible I am for taking care of them and how important they are to the environment and how I can help species that need protecting,” said Ashlyn Bell.
The birds and the students are in good hands and the focus of learning at the School of Flock is sustainable living practices.
“We will have chickens in the spring,” says Joanne enthusiastically, because that is how she is.
“The new coop was to be up and running last spring but the pandemic put it on pause. The coop is finally built and we will start raising the wee chicks in the classroom in April until they are ready to head outside in May," Goddard said. “The idea that we are growing our own food, composting and feeding the chickens and worms our vegetable and fruit waste, selling our produce at local farmers' markets all seem to complement our conservation efforts.”
It all is very fitting for a farming community too. They have also built an old-fashioned, homesteader-style, winter cold-frame garden box.
“Basically, the premise is a south-facing garden box that is layered with chicken manure, to create heat as it decomposes, mulch, and organic soil and worm castings. It is covered with a slanted roof of glass or clear plastic that allows for maximum sunlight. The purpose is to keep a garden growing all winter; so far we still have radishes growing. This garden will probably be part of a bigger scientific inquiry this year.”
What makes a great teacher?
Teaching is a complicated job. It demands broad knowledge of the subject matter, curriculum, and standards; enthusiasm, a caring attitude, and a love of learning; along with fair classroom management techniques.
It’s no wonder that it’s hard to find great teachers. Joanne Goddard is one on the back roads making a difference in the lives of young people.