Journey in Newfoundland [part 2] : Visiting Valmont Academy

The second school visit in Newfoundland was to the incredibly scenic small town in King’s Point’s Valmont Academy. I had the pleasure of accompanying Dr. Andy Hargreaves to witness not only the breathtaking views of King’s Point but the incredible work Valmont is doing around learning through play. This school is small, with a total student population of 83, and 13 staff members, but don’t let these numbers fool you. Andy and I were so inspired with all the innovation we saw within and beyond the school walls, with this school truly emphasizing how small can be mighty.  

Andy (far left) and I (far right) with the team in their Lego League room. Table and Lego robots built by students. 

With innovation at the forefront, Valmont uses play as a way for students to take the lead and think critically and creatively about creating opportunities for learning and building community! 

The School 

We were welcomed by the CPSN School Team; Principal Ryan Kelly, Laura Barr (Grade 6/7 French and Music teacher) and Tanya Warford (Grade 6-12 math teacher). Every classroom had some form of play and innovation embedded into its architecture, be it hydroponics gardens, 3D printing, composting, wood burning and more, overlapping green, screen, and machine. With the amount of flexibility and familiarity these teachers have cultivated within the school’s ethos, the atmosphere around each student and teacher was not that of merely a school, rather an extension of home. “You have to know your kids, really know them, and that’s the best thing about a small school. We can truly say we know all of our kids” explained Laura, and through knowing, they’re able to provide informed support to facilitate student leadership and autonomy.  

Green thumbs project 
Classroom composting
Hydroponics garden 

Every activity in the school is student-led with a clear and strong tie to the community. Their outdoor hockey rink and play areas are open to the community, with students and staff organizing many events such as hockey games and festivals, with the school recently purchasing their own Zamboni! Valmont is the heart of the community and their impact is extended through the many student-led projects they are involved in. During our visit, Tanya was helping the students prepare for their after-school supper club where students cook and deliver a meal for seniors in the community. Younger students make and prepare the meals, while older students collect the food packages and deliver them. 

Prepared packages for supper club; to be distributed to community seniors 
Students are helping fire department to label their traffic cones  

The CPSN Project  

The team was getting all the raw materials prepared and ready for their mural during the time of our visit (click here for more information on their project idea!). The mural was inspired by the astonishing mosaic displayed at the Whale Pavilion which was created many years ago by teachers, students and community members. The mosaic acts as a celebration of community and connection, and with these philosophical pillars in mind, Valmont aimed to create a mural as their CPSN project, to capture and emblematize who they are and what they stand for.   

CPSN project inspiration: Whale Pavilion Mosaic

A direct impact of the project was more engagement and higher attendance. Kids who are not normally leaders in the classroom have become leaders and problem-solvers in their smaller groups.  

In collecting glass, because it’s winter, they can’t collect glass off the beach, so they collected a bunch of glass bottles, broke them and put them in a cement mixer to make beach glass, now they’re working on cleaning the glass.

– Tanya

The school is small and there’s no skilled trades lab, so this has been a way of teaching skilled trades. It is important to note that these teachers aren’t incorporating this project as standalone activity outside of class, rather, are constantly weaving the curriculum in so students can learn through experiential and practical means.  

Project materials: glass 
Project materials 

Just because they’re not sitting at a desk with a book and pen in front of them doesn’t mean they’re not learning. They are learning, you can see it every time they workshop and solve a problem. They’re learning through doing. 

– Ryan

Play: Problem or Progress? 

When asked about the parent response to the integration of play in classroom practices, Ryan shared that overall, the parents trust the teachers and feel that the school is a safe space for their children to innovate and create.  However, Ryan recalled a particularly amusing story of when a parent was extremely skeptical about this new approach and confronted Ryan about how all their child talks about is their project. “He’s not talking about the subjects! All he does is talk about the project he’s working on! When is he going to do schoolwork?” they had asked. After speaking to this parent and calming them down, the major question they were left with was, what’s the real problem here? The child is so engaged (when initially they were quite disengaged with their learning) and excited to learn that it’s all they talk about? Is that a problem? The only difference was the approach to teaching and learning, which had a visible impact on their students.  

For this team, the initial skepticism was washed away by the changes they saw in their students. Using play as a tool, learning for Valmont Academy, meant taking charge, leading, and DOING.  

So, if you’re skeptical as to what play could do for your kids, try it out and see for yourself!  

Watch as Tanya explains the plans for their project and their progress so far.

Sajani Karunaweera is a graduate student from Sri Lanka, Sajani Karunaweera is deeply dedicated to the area of educational technologies and how digital tools can be used in critical, reflective, and accessible ways. Whether it is in the context of teaching, assessment or professional development, her work attempts to capture the use of technologies, not as a replacement for teaching, but as a tool for the discerning teacher. Her involvement in this network builds on her motivations to promote safe spaces for students to express, explore and expand their knowledge, albeit physically or digitally, through the power of play.