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Queen Alexandra Middle School is located in a densely populated part of Toronto, which means its students have a wide range of diverse needs. A few years ago, school staff noticed an increasing disconnect between the community and the school.

But then, something started to change.

Now the halls are filled with colour and life at “Queen A,” as it is lovingly referred to by staff and students. But shortening the name was just one way the school was redefined.

It is now a school that provides its students with the opportunity to be heard, to be inspired, to build knowledge and to fully reach their enormous potential.

Let’s take a look at how they, as a community, transformed.

Now, the engagement level is so high that it could not help but spill over. The change in the school culture extends past the boundaries of the schoolyard and into the community.

Students now take their learning home and have conversations with their parents about their inquiries and teach their parents about the issues they have discovered. If you wanted a measurement of the school’s community engagement, just go to one of their parent-teacher showcases. It’s not just parents who attend, but local business leaders and city officials who come to celebrate the students and their work.

At a glance, one might think it was because the physical learning environment was changed. The drab library was transformed into an inspirational learning commons. In the school’s sharing space, the walls are filled with new art projects undertaken by the students.

The wave of change at Queen A runs deeper than the environment. The school attributes the change of mindsets, involvement and atmosphere to the new principal.

Listen. That is what Emma Nichols does. You may not notice it at first because of its subtlety, but Emma is always listening. She is listening to the students and creating relationships with all of them. She is listening to the parents who are amazed at the changes they see in their children that go way beyond the learning. She is listening to her teachers who let her know what works for them and what they think is best for the students.

Emma listened to more than just what was being said.

She examined data that showed students were disengaged. She took the evidence seriously and became determined to support change.

The listening also reached beyond the school walls. She worked closely with her superintendent, who encouraged her to take risks.

All throughout, Emma listened.

Having the principal engage with the school community can create monumental change in the environment.

Lyn Sharratt has held many roles in education including teacher, superintendent and now, international curriculum consultant.

She travels the world sharing her expertise and advice about how schools can empower student voice the way Queen A does.

Students at Queen A commonly inform their own inquiry for projects, like the one highlighted in the video below. This re-design project called for students to find places they thought could use change – not only to improve their function but whose changes would have a positive effect on their community.

In the video, you’ll see Prabidhi suggest redesigning a subway station in the neighbourhood because it lacks accessibility.

Prabidhi’s vision for change and passion to make it a reality makes the learning associated with the project authentic. She, like all others at Queen A, have been empowered by design.

This type of learning is happening in more than just one class. It’s a whole school initiative, with many teachers drawing from their past for inspiration to inform their practice. Grade 7 teacher, James Lim, explains how his experience growing up only blocks away from Queen A and his years spent in the business world has affected the way he interacts with students.

Members of the school treat each other like family. Teachers know that by providing authentic experiences to their kids that can be directly translated to their lives, they are preparing them, in a meaningful way, for the path ahead.

A message from Emma Nichols

Emma Nichols

Since the conclusion of the filming of “Empowered by Design,” the students of Queen Alexandra have been involved in two subsequent student-led inquiries: a STEM building challenge, and a Heritage Fair, with questions our students developed from Ontario’s historical thinking concepts.

As we move into this new school year, I am confident that Queen Alexandra will continue to build upon the foundation of the knowledge building documented in Empowered by Design. As the staff reflects on their experiences of last year, they continue to identify key areas for refinement, and professional growth opportunities for themselves.

Without a doubt, student-led authentic inquiry has become an integral part of the culture of Queen A, and the momentum from last year’s success continues unabated. From the first day of school, students have been eager to get started, gathering ideas for “hot topics” and questioning teachers about the details of their first inquiry. It is the students themselves that have now become the powerful driving force behind knowledge building at Queen A. This enthusiasm, along with the staff’s dedication to student led inquiry, has deepened the process at the school and ensured that this initiative will not only be sustained, but continue to move forward and grow.

– Emma Nichols

Webinar 1: Setting the Conditions

Principal of Queen Alexandra, Emma Nichols and her school superintendent, Mike Gallagher explain how to develop a culture of professional learning that is rooted in authentic inquiry. They will look at the importance of building relationships and how leaders begin to build a vision for school improvement.

View Webinar

Webinar 2: Getting Started

Teachers at Queen Alexandra explore the learning conditions that need to be in place before teachers launch student-led inquiry. They will speak to the specific habits of mind that they address through their teaching, and how they prepare students for knowledge building.

View Webinar

Webinar 3: Experiment and Reflect

The teachers and principal of Queen Alexandra describe some of their biggest challenges and how they have responded to them. They will tell us about their passion for student led inquiry, the unexpected benefits and where they are now in their journey of professional learning.

View Webinar

To access the full video resource, please visit:
thelearningexchange.ca/projects/empowered-by-design-video-2

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This multimedia project was developed by

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with funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Education