Urban Observers

"Does the city give us the poems?
Or do the poems give us the city?
How does a city remember itself?

Robert Kroetsch, “Lines Written in the John Snow House"


Sara Martin – Design Specialist, Education Centre – In December, I took a group of teachers on an immersive professional learning experience called “Urban Observers.” This was a day designed to give teachers an opportunity to connect with their passions, be inspired by their surroundings and unleash their creativity. It also was designed to give them the tools to bring this unique learning experience back to their students.

Our day began with a walking tour of the neighbourhood, with stops at points of interest where, be still my English teacher’s heart, poetry was read aloud. The poetry was focused on the colourful characters and events and that make up the fascinating history of the East Village.

Our first stop was in the alley behind Loft 112. With trucks roaring past us, Lisa read “Pearl” by Nancy Jo Cullen. Beginning around 1914, Pearl had a nearly 30-year career running the most well-known brothels in Calgary. The poem was decidedly adult in nature and a bit of an eye opener first thing in the morning but held powerful messages about Pearl’s strength of character and how she survived during very difficult times.

We moved on to hear stories of suspicious deaths and criminal activity, but we also heard poems about marginalized groups that found community in the East Village. We heard poems about the buildings and history being lost as the area is made over. We heard poems about the few older homes that remain and now must share the neighborhood with new condos, boutiques and cafes selling artisanal coffee. While we looked out over the changing landscape, we listened to these powerful poems and let our imaginations run.

Filled with inspiration, we journeyed back to Loft 112, a literary makerspace (bet you didn’t know that makerspaces aren’t just for robots and glue guns)! We then made chapbooks and filled them with poetry, generated by prompts and our experiences from the morning. Teachers walked away with big ideas such as: everywhere has a history, even if it’s hidden; inspiration is necessary to write poetry; and getting outside is always a good idea.

In RVS, we design learning to connect students to their passions, interests and people. In doing so they will engage in real-world, hands-on learning experiences that matter to them and demonstrate ownership of their learning. The professional learning day at Loft 112 was all about teachers making connections between the interesting people and history of a local area. “Hands-on” learning with history can be tricky, as we might think of history as being locked in textbooks or behind glass display cases at a museum. At Loft 112, participants got to experience history by being outside and hearing stories told in the very spots they happened many years ago. We stood in the same spot where Pearl’s house once stood. We looked out over the Simmons building and imagined it as it once was, a bustling mattress factory. We imagined what it must have been like when the owner of the building went missing under suspicious circumstances and his body was found three days later, on the roof of the building.

This was the content of the day, but the big ideas behind this design are pillars of what the RVS’ Learning Design Team subscribes to: educators need to do the project themselves to create exemplars, walk the walk and gain empathy as they design learning for their students.

If you are a teacher looking to refresh your poetry learning design and experience a powerful day of learning, sign up for Urban Observers: Spring Edition, taking place May 28, 2019.