• Geography teacher Sarah Baird Whelan

    Sarah Baird Whelan is pictured on the Rennie's River walking trail near her school, Rennie's River Elementary, in St. John’s, N.L. (Photo courtesy Sarah Baird Whelan)

Sarah Baird Whelan’s love for her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador is front and centre in her teaching. Recently, she wrote lesson plans for Canadian Geographic Education’s Newfoundland and Labrador Giant Floor Map, focusing on sharing the province’s natural beauty and cultural heritage. An educator for 20 years, she currently teaches Grade 4 at Rennie’s River Elementary in St. John’s, N.L. For the past two years, she has also been providing professional development as a literacy and numeracy teacher across various schools.

On writing lesson plans for the Newfoundland Giant Floor Map

Living in such a unique province, I wanted to make sure that children know all about where we come from and the different landforms and places they can explore that aren’t far from their house. I wanted to make sure the activities were creative and included all sorts of elements. I have a background in experiential education, so when I teach I like to do things hands-on. A lot of the activities for the map have photographs and things the children can explore to get a deeper understanding of things that are unique to our province, like mummering, the fishery and how people lived in outport communities, our abandoned communities and why people had to move and the sacrifices they made.

On making history personal

I want students to live their history rather than read about it. In junior high, for our units on the First World War and the Newfoundland Regiment, we’ve brought in museum kits full of helmets, lunch tins and uniforms that the soldiers wore. One of the activities I did was have students apply to be a member of the Blue Puttees, and we looked at whether people would be accepted or denied. Things like height would make a difference. If you had flat feet you wouldn’t be accepted, and that was really surprising to the children. There were so many rules and guidelines you had to follow. We were able to investigate that some people had lied on their applications. It was a chance for students to get a feeling for what it was like. It became a bit of a competition in the classroom and people were changing their weight or height because they didn’t want to be the one that wasn’t able to be in the Blue Puttees. And I’m sure that’s what happened when people were really applying!

On using technology to connect to other communities

One of my schools is on Bell Island, a small island just off of St. John’s. In their science unit they were learning about the Puffin Patrol. In the summer, the puffins leave their island, a small bird sanctuary, and a lot of them are attracted to the street lights and house lights in Witless Bay and Bay Bulls, so people go out and volunteer to catch the puffins that get misguided and end up on the roads and on people’s lawns. In Grade 4 science we talk about light pollution and these students didn’t know about the Puffin Patrol. We were able to Skype to Witless Bay and talked to the person who was coordinating the Puffin Patrol, and they saw an example of a puffin and the equipment used. It was a cool little field trip they went on without leaving the classroom. Technology is huge for students and opens up a lot of things, and I think that is really benefiting our instruction.

On bringing nature into the classroom

A program that I’ve done in my classrooms is called Little Green Thumbs, which is an indoor gardening program. They provide you with the equipment: a grow light, the seeds and soil. The focus is on teaching children to live sustainably and to love gardening. It’s so nice to bring the outside into the classroom. You could look at a textbook and read about plants and soil, but with this they were up to their elbows in soil. The children get so much out of it. Many kids take that on and then plant a garden at home in the summer. And it ends with a harvest celebration where you can eat what you grow!