Students Speak: The ABCs at Northlea

I’ll start by saying that I’ve written and rewritten this blog several times hoping to capture the amazing experience that it was to visit this grade 5 group of students at Northlea Elementary and Middle School. Not only were they passionate about sharing their learning with me, they were eloquent and skillful in highlighting the need for change in their school community. These students truly have a plan to make their community an even greater place!

In room 216 at Northlea, a public school in Toronto, students are learning their ABCs in a different way. They’re learning that Acceptance + Belonging = Community. With the help of their teacher, Barbara Robson, the students went on a design journey this year and I’m so fortunate to have had the chance to sit down and hear about what they’ve been learning. While this post shares about the journey of this group of grade 5 students, I have to say that the learning happening at Northlea isn’t only unique to this classroom. The entire school has been on a 

journey over the past 2 years focusing on 7th Generation Principal and using design thinking to address UN Sustainability goals. While wandering the halls upon my arrival, it was so interesting to see groups of students from different classes putting the finishing touches on their projects for their Generation Innovation showcase later that evening. Great things are happening at Northlea!

For the students in room 216, the journey began back in September when their teacher introduced them to a powerful article written in Maclean’s about the power of a name — A father’s letter to an infant daughter: ‘I wanted my last name to be a burden’. Students were then invited to go on a personal journey of understanding the origins of their own names. Amazingly, students were excited to return to class to share their stories and worked in collaboration to publish their very own book: The Amazing Name Project. 

Through writing about their names and sharing their stories with each other, conversations about acceptance and belonging organically unfolded. From this, students realized that either they, their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents all immigrated to Canada from other countries. 

Next, they were introduced to a picture book, A Moon for Moe and Mo. This book is about a friendship born between Mohammed Hassan, a Muslim boy, and Moses Feldman, a Jewish boy. In this touching story, the boys bring their families together to share rugelach and date cookies in the park as they make a wish for peace. After reading this book, students started reflecting on ideas of acceptance and what that truly means. Yet again, they were inspired to write and published another book, entitled, Acceptance. 

As they dug deeper into the idea of acceptance, they were introduced to a variety of texts and videos that allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the challenging experiences faced by refugees and asylum seekers. Faced with an overwhelming sense of wanting to help, they turned these challenges into opportunities by designing their own how might we question — inherently optimistic — and started to go about creating solutions. Their question was, How might we welcome migrants here, not just to Toronto, but to our neighbourhood?

As students began solutioning in their community, they started to wonder about their school. Built in 1944, students noticed that the cramped washrooms were sometimes getting trashed; with larger class sizes, their 6 x 9 classroom was a bit cramped; and some of the classes in their school had no windows. They started to dream about what their school might look like if they could change it and transform it into the hub of the community that schools are meant to be. They then started asking even bigger questions:

How might we design welcoming, environmentally sustainable and affordable housing in our neighbourhood for refugees and asylum seekers? How might we include a design for a new school that is an inspiring place to learn? 

At Future Design School we believe that authentic learning is at the intersection of uncovering the curriculum and solving real world problems. When students are able to make connections between what they are learning and everyday life, students become truly engaged with the learning and chart their own course for how that learning will unfold. Needing to see design in action while understanding true sustainability, these students went on a trip to Kortright Centre for Conservation. While there, they toured the two Archetype Sustainable Houses. They also learned about inclusive design, drain-heat-water recovery, steel roofs, geothermal power, the stack effect, solar power and other ways to conserve energy. Great learning happens in classrooms but it’s made more real when students can get out into the real world, explore and make sense of what they are seeing! 

After further research, they used the guiding principles of sustainability, responsible citizenship, the charter of rights and freedoms along with the Iroquois’ Seventh Generation Principle, to start the design process. As they progressed, they also visited an architecture firm in Toronto where they were able to see, first-hand, how innovations in energy conservations were making a difference. 

After identifying potential users and considering their current unmet needs, they went about designing solutions, incorporating their earlier learning about sustainability and considering ways to utilize more innovative methods for conservation.

Along the way, students were encouraged to document their learning in their Design Journals. Having had the chance to visit the school, I was immediately struck by the reflection held within these journals. As I read them, I started to understand that the deep learning that was happening throughout this project was well beyond meeting curriculum expectations. Students powerfully shared about their work at different stages and through prompts were guided to reflect on skills that they were developing over time. While emailing with their teacher, Barbara, she mentioned that, “There aren’t any “long-range plans” that can foresee the type of community a class will become”. As an educator, this resonated with me because at the beginning of the year, I’m always thinking about what I will teach and when. The real 

learning that will impact who students become is that hidden curriculum that we should also be considering in our long-range plans.

Below, I have noted a few of the ideas from the student Design Journals that stood out and I also included my thoughts on their impact on students and learning. 

Abbey wrote about the enjoyment of having the time and space to collaborate if you need it.

Classrooms where collaboration is one of the keys to success makes for amazing learning. When students know that they have the opportunity to try and connect with others who may help to push their ideas even further, they’re more likely to take risks and are open to new or innovative ideas.

Lauren recorded the importance of having the opportunity to listen to the ideas of others.

Empower students to practice active listening skills. I have to say that I was blown away by the way in which students communicated with one another. There was genuine interest in what was being shared and an appreciation of feedback on ideas.

Victoria highlighted the learning about architecture and sustainability through experiences.

Seeing real world applications matters to students. They want to understand what we are communicating in a concrete way. Take your students out into the community or invite the community into the classroom to make the learning more relevant for students.

Vithalie mentioned that having a plan is so easy once you start.

Clear pathways or frameworks from which students can work is essential for their learning. Once they understand a process like design that is a repeatable framework, they’re better able to see how they can bring their ideas to life and communicate them effectively.

Sofia states that not everything is going to be easy and suggested focus and keep working on the project.

This is the life of learners! We all go through processes, sometimes knowing that they will be challenging, and yet when we face challenges, it’s often met with surprise. It’s no different for the students that we work with. Students become invested in the learning when they

are challenged and see their own progression through the challenges. Opportunities that highlight where their journey began and the learning along the way empower students to see their growth and help them to understand process over product. Modeling our own growth mindset is another way that students can see the importance of resilience. We all face challenges and it’s important for our students to understand that the learning is happening through these tough moments.

During this project, Hannah worked on her solution, making it feel like home.

Deep empathy was evident in the work of the students. Throughout the year, they have been learning about acceptance and valuing others and it was evident that students like Hannah, were solutioning to ensure that the comforts they enjoy could be also felt by newcomers to Canada, and more specifically, their neighbourhood.

In groups, the physical build was underway! When I visited back in April, most groups had already finished building and were ready to pitch their prototypes. It was amazing to watch how they confidently spoke to the innovation in their solutions as well as the sustainability.

Team TSN — The School Network 

A floating school that uses magnetic force as a means of levitation. Not only are there large, open spaces for recreation but there is also a garden that students take care of on a weekly basis. Solar panels are also a key feature to the sustainability of this school. 

Team PNF — Playing, Nature & Field. 

This design replicates that of the natural environment. With an innovative heating system, this solution considers a variety of ways in which to include sustainability. Held within the forest, students cited the importance of having more air due to the oxygen produced by trees. Students in this unique design will feel at home in this natural environment due to the amount of natural sunlight and a snack bar located on the upper floor of the school. 

Team Innovative School 

This unique design speaks to more efficient use of space. Built with multiple levels, this unique space features an accessible playground and a living roof that provides insulation for the school. Sliding doors and wood panels as the walls of the school, it’s a taste of nature within the Leaside community. 

Team Pablo Piccolo 

This group decided to get into the details by creating a floorplan of their new school so that viewers would be able to see their solution from a bird’s-eye view. With a condo on top of the school, students in this group included a variety of sustainable innovations for their design: 

- Space on the floor for heating and cooling; 

- A Green roof that provides insulation for the building; and 

- The elevator uses magnetic force. 

During this part of the presentations, I got a little teary eyed as there was mention of having an open roof where people could view the night sky. This reminded me of my sister-in-law who fled Iraq as a child with her family. One memory of which she is most fond was sleeping on the roof of their home with her sisters, under the night sky.

Team Alpaca Faze 

With a library on top of this building, students in grades 4 to 8 can zipline to different classes which are located in different buildings. Kindergarten and primary students on the lower floors of the school, making it easier should they need to move to a different building for music or other classes. Solar panels in the windows are a sustainable feature of this design. There are benches & a pond for students and teachers alike to sit and relax. Interested in helping to increase the declining bee population, a pollinator garden is also a way this team hopes to have a positive impact on the environment. 

Team Awesome Break and Recreators 

This group created a new innovation that combines wind and solar panels. These panels collect energy to fuel the school. When we think about flexible seating in classrooms, this group has an innovative idea — Mag-Desks. These desks use magnetic energy to levitate to the desired height for each student. Students can sit and work at the same desk that they can easily raise should they need to change positions. With plenty of natural light and fountains for water bottles, there are plenty of sustainable features in this design.

At the end of the day, students shared about the impact of this type of education. Clearly excited about the opportunity to share their work with me, they spoke about why they enjoyed this type of learning. The fact that it was hands-on and could potentially have a great impact in their local community made them excited about working on this project. Earlier that week, students at this school, and a number of schools across Ontario, participated in a walk-out in protest to recent changes by the government. These grade 5 students chanted, “School stays the same”. When asked about what this meant, students eagerly shared about the fact that they enjoyed the learning that happens in their classroom every day. From their Design Journal, you could see that it wasn’t just about gaining content knowledge but that they were deeply learning skills — communication, empathy, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and more — that are essential, no matter the challenge presented to them.

It’s quite easy to see that the students in room 216 at Northlea public school are passionate about making their community a more inclusive space for all. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to go and visit with these students and their teacher to find out more about their journey in innovative sustainability. 

Interested in learning how to develop these skills in your students? Participate in an upcoming Certification program offered through Future Design School. This Summer, Join a cohort of like-minded educators on their path to a deeper dive into user-centered design. 

Visit for more info!

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