About Sarah Caldwell-Bennett
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (@SarahCalBen), is the Leader of Experiential Learning for the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (KPDSB) in Treaty #3, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe and Métis Peoples.
She has taught nearly every grade from K-12, in just about every subject, but eventually settled into teaching Core, Extended and Immersion French programming before moving into a central role. She holds an HBSc, BEd and has a Master of Education. Sarah is an AQ course designer and instructor within the key areas of outdoor, environmental, and experiential learning.
Sarah believes that communities play an important role in partnership with educators by providing experiences for students that “stick”. As a proud Northwestern Ontario person, she has embedded environmentalism, equity, stewardship and love for land and water in all of her courses and passes these lessons on to her own children as well. Undoubtedly, lifelong learning and moving education forward are true passions of hers.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:02):
Sarah welcome to the high performing educator podcast. Huge pleasure to have you on the show here today. Please start by introducing yourself.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (00:09):
Hi Sam. Thanks for having me. My name is Sarah Caldwell-Bennett. And I work for the KP DSB and I am the leader of experiential learning for my board.
Sam Demma (00:20):
What the heck is the leader of experiential of learning? What is experiential learning and what do you do?
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (00:26):
That’s a very fair question. So the leader of experiential learning takes on quite a few things and it, and the flavor of the role can depend on the school board. So for my school board, I have a focus on experiential learning that connects to outdoor education. Land-Based learning environmental education, as well as pathways and transitions. So thinking about the future and, and for me, and how I approach this role, I really look at it as an opportunity to connect with community organizations, community members and expanding kids networks so that when they leave high school they have the biggest network they can, which really leads to that idea of being a com a responsible community member, as well as an employed community member.
Sam Demma (01:18):
How did you get into this role? What has your journey been like throughout education as a whole?
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (01:24):
So, so, so that’s kind of a fun question because this is something that comes up when we talk about pathways. And my, my pathway here has not been a straight line from a to B, like with most of us. So in my first year of teaching, I thought, you know, like I wanna make, I wanna make this fun. I wanna engage kids. I want, I, I wanna be the favorite teacher. I, I wanna make this fun every day. And if it’s fun for me, it’s gonna be fun for kids. And that’s kind of how I looked at it. And plus you, you know, you’re a young, a young adult coming out of university. You think you kind of have all the answers, but I, I really had a great principal that supported me in this. And so when I went with, to him with these ideas, I, I initially thought he say no, but he just kept saying yes, and that led to the next thing and the next thing, and the next thing.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (02:10):
And although your first year is probably your most challenging year or maybe a pandemic year it made it made teaching bearable in that first year and it made it fun. And so I’ve carried on with that throughout all the different roles that I I’ve held. And even in my teaching capacities over the years, my roles have changed. So last year when this role came up a little bit different than it had been seen, it was a little more focused on skilled trades, which isn’t, it’s not really my jam. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues that work in those, in those fields, but it’s not something that drives the fire in my belly when it became more focused on outdoor education, land based learning and environmental issues. I had to jump on it. Mm.
Sam Demma (02:55):
Tell me more about that passion and where it comes from for you personally.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (03:00):
Yeah, so I, so I live in treaty number three, which is in Northwestern, Ontario, the traditional lens of the M a T people. And I think just being in this world where we’re blessed with, with lots of green space, lots of forests, lots of nature, lakes, rivers, you name it, and growing up in this area. I, I just think it becomes a part of your, your fiber and your being to be connected to the land and to the environment. And so I went to university at the university of Toronto and I learned quickly that I was not a city girl very, very quickly. It was actually a struggle to get through four years. But I did. And then when I did my B, I went to Lakehead university because late thunder bay is, you know, in Northwestern, Ontario as well, but I had that connection. So I could go to the land when I needed to, and I couldn’t do that in Toronto. So, but I think it’s just who I am and, and who I raising my kids to be. And thinking about that legacy.
Sam Demma (04:00):
When you say go to the land, how do you feel when you’re out in nature or what, what aspect of nature really calls out to you?
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (04:11):
Well, I think normal’s the word that I, that pops in, right? Yeah. So I, I feel more so I start my day outside every day. Mostly cuz my dogs make meat, but nice. I don’t have that cup of coffee in the morning. Like a lot of people have, I have my cup of nature. And even on today, today we had a a little bit of an Alberta clipper pass through through the night. And as I’m out there shoveling snow, whether I realize it or not, I’m connecting with land. Right. And even if it’s a little bit of an days, cuz it’s in the dark and at this time of year, it’s a really important part of how I start my day.
Sam Demma (04:48):
There was an educator I interviewed from the Bruce Gray Catholic district school board. And he runs a program called the Genesis program, which is an outdoor education program where he brings students into nature for like four weeks. And it’s this huge expedition and him and a colleague created the program. And I think it’d really cool for you to connect with them. There might be some stuff you can bring or, or, or take from that into your own practice. I think learning outside and utilizing nature is so important. I’m like you and love absolutely love getting outside. We back onto a forest and I routinely forest bath or like not actually take a bath in the river, but I do a lot of like walking and, and meditative walking through the forest and find it. Awesome. tell me a little bit about your first year in experiential learning. This is your first year. How has it gone for you and what are some programs and things that you you’ve been able to spearhead within the school board?
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (05:46):
So I, I don’t know if my head ever went to thinking about a central role like this because I really did love my role. Every role I’ve had up in the 15 years of my career. So this was never really actually felt very torn about applying that’s how much I loved my classroom position. But you know, there’s been a lot of change in the last couple years and the pandemic has really altered our thinking about how we do things that on and so forth. So last year I made a commitment to get outside as much as possible with my class. And I always had by the way, but this was like next level commitment because now I’m starting to think about the physical and mental health of our students. We, we had students come back to the school, not comfortable being in a classroom with, with, with other, with other students because we had been in isolation for so long.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (06:34):
So I made a commitment. I had grade nine extended French geography at that time. And I, we went outside every single day for class for an entire quad something that started off with, well, let’s try that first week or, oh, well we did last week. Let’s try a couple more days. And, and before you, you knew it, we had done the nine and a half weeks outside. Wow. So seeing that impact on had an impact on kids, but it had a, an impact on me too. So when this position came up, that was something that was kind of driving driving our work. So I don’t, we have, unlike a lot of other boards, our board is spread out into various communities. We even have two time zones in our school boards. So I don’t have, I don’t have a, a prefab cookie cutter program that I lay out in every community.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (07:21):
We want it to be as, as contextual and as community based as possible, but there are some commonalities. So a like with the other LS in the province most are giving a call for proposals. So I I’ve done that. And I’ve actually just put one out because this week marks the, the new the new term for elementary and the new quad for high school. Nice. And so we give them the opportunity to say, Hey, what do you need to make experiential learning happen? Hmm. And by the way, I’ll pay for it. Okay. I’ll pay for it. I’ll coach you through it. I’ll brainstorm with you. I’ll help you facilitate it. And I will, it’s tough to say that’s probably the most empowering thing that we do through my position and the board is, was we, we, sometimes we hand it to them on a silver platter.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (08:09):
Sometimes we’re going, Hey, I can learn from you, show me what you’re doing. Let’s elevate this. Let’s continue with it, whatever it is, but we make it as community and school specific as possible. And also looking at who their kids are. Right. And I don’t know their kids, they know their kids. So they’re, they’re the drivers of that work. But I’m always impressed about what programs are already happening, but I’m also impressed with, who’s willing to take a few more risks and try something new. And that’s what this does. Right? You, you, you know, you dangle some carrot at, in front of them and they go, Hey, maybe I’m willing to make that jump now. Mm
Sam Demma (08:44):
That’s awesome. What are some of the carrots that got danged or some of the programs that are going on in school, right? Yeah.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (08:52):
So this, this fall we, you know, we had a sustainable sewing project, so that was connecting environmental education, connecting with race waste reduction week. Also connecting with community. They brought a seamstress in to teach kids. They reached out to families to get some of that material because we were, we were trying to follow some of those sustainable S and just talking about like fast fashion and things like that. But we also on another extreme end probably one of my highlights of the year, although there have been several was the day I, I reached out to an and teacher and said, Hey, I get a deer. Can I bring a deer into your class? And meaning we are in the hunting season, right? Yeah. So a harvested deer. And, and sometimes I poke the bear a little bit and hope that they, they bite.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (09:50):
And this teacher did, and I ended up coming up with a deer and brought in I’m a I’m a gentleman to come and walk us through it. And we had just like the best slash weirdest school day of the year. And lots of classes were already doing it in other communities, but this one hadn’t. So I thought I would bring it in. And the guest speaker was amazing. The the tea did a lesson in and about my safety and how you respect the animal and, and talking about you know, like tobacco and that kind of thing. But the highlight actually were the students, and like with a lot of the, the experiential learning work that we do, this student becomes the star, not just the star of the moment, but the star of their learning story. So we were hearing kids speak that we’d never heard, like speak before in class, engage, tell the story, tell us how their families do it, tell us how that was the third deer that they’ve cleaned this year. In those moments, it’s almost like we sink back and just let them be in that spotlight and think about how, how that’s gonna stick with them for a long time. So, although it might have been a nontraditional lesson for the day, it’s not one that they’re gonna forget.
Sam Demma (11:12):
This idea of nontraditional is so important because education doesn’t only have to happen in one particular format or setting that would’ve been an amazing experience for all students. I never had an experience like that when I was in high school or elementary school, that would’ve been amazing. I would’ve loved to go through that.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (11:32):
Sam you’re stealing my line. My line is that learning doesn’t just happen in the four walls of your classroom.
Sam Demma (11:38):
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (11:39):
Right. And it doesn’t just happen from the teacher. It can be from student to student, student, to teacher, teacher, to student, community member. And it most certainly does not have to happen inside all the time. And that word traditional is, is sometimes a great word. And sometimes it’s a scary word because our school system actually hasn’t changed a whole lot since like, like post contact, right? Yeah. Like the Western ways of, of how the education system has been organized. And so we have to look for opportunities to change forward.
Sam Demma (12:16):
Learning doesn’t even have to happen sometimes face to face, I think, physically face to face. And COVID kind of proved that one a little bit for some school boards. What are some of the, I don’t wanna focus on the challenges cuz those are obvious and we know we all have them due to COVID, but what do you think some of the opportunities are that have arisen because of COVID 19 and the pandemic that all these different school boards are going through.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (12:42):
And I really appreciate that because I think, although I think it’s important to identify those challenges. And I think certainly like one big that March, that spring, March, 2020 to June, 2020 wow. Like how about an next equity check for school boards? Right. And teachers. And I was like, how did I not think of some of this stuff before? And I’ve kind of really gone down deep into learning and exploring that stuff. So we do have to identify those challenges, but I think our willingness to connect and our willingness to overcome some of these barriers and find solutions has been probably, and I’m gonna say one of the best parts of the pandemic. And I, you know, I kind of feel bad saying it that way, but we’ve been given an opportunity and a responsibility to make some change. And I think that that’s really important.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (13:31):
So one thing I’d like to say is, is that educators around the world, not just here in Ontario or in my school board have become really good at sharing the good and sharing sharing in particular. Mm. So I can say, man, I, I saw this, this person out on the east coast and they’re doing this, this fied that’s, you know, like this, I’m gonna bring an idea back from that and bring it into my school board and see if anybody bites and, and go from there. So, and then the others thing is all those opportunities. So we talked about, you know, I live in Northwestern, Ontario, we have a small population, but we have a geographical size of the country of France that we have to, to negotiate. So, you know, like when I go up to pick a lake in a couple weeks, I’m gonna be driving my, you know, seven plus hours up north and, and that’s how I’m gonna reach that school. Right. But it’s also brought us closer together. So now we’re seeing not just like cross like between class collaboration or in interschool, but we’re seeing Intercommunity within our board and beyond. Right. So connected north actually has been a really great partner for us for bringing in yes, speakers and people we may not normally have access to or programming that we may not normally have access to.
Sam Demma (14:43):
Nice. And tell me more about connect, connect to north. Is that the name
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (14:48):
Connect to connect to north? Yeah. So they provide programming we, where we work with it, we’re a Northern board. Right. So, but they can bring in speakers from all over the place. So for instance, one of the call for proposals was looking this fall, one of the classes was looking at special. So, but not just special effects like technology, but also like makeup.
Sam Demma (15:14):
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (15:15):
Right. So they brought in they had a guest who was actually based outta Saskatoon, was their kind of teacher for the day for this work. So they’re sitting there getting a makeup lesson on how to do like theatrical makeup. Wow. from Saskatoon in a class in air falls, Ontario. And so the opportunities that come up because of that, right. They wouldn’t get that out of their small town.
Sam Demma (15:40):
That’s awesome. I love that. You know, you mentioned, and, and shed light a little bit on the, the DEI issues that came to light as well. What are some of the thing that you individually have done and also that you see the school board starting to pay attention to, or change that you think is a positive step in the right direction.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (16:01):
Yeah. so that March, 2020 when we first started thinking, oh my goodness, you know, like we’re gonna have to do this virtually, how do we do this? Brought a lot of things to light that maybe, maybe we were weren’t maybe we knew maybe we, we probably knew all along. Like we knew kids that weren’t that were reliant on school food. We knew about these things. We knew kids who didn’t you know, have internet at home. We knew about those things, but it wasn’t a focus and it, all of a sudden we brought it to light. Yeah. and, and I’ve been really privileged to work with a lot of great people, but also some really smart people. And one of the principles that I’ve worked with always says, if you not, you’re not sure where to start, start with yourself.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (16:45):
Hmm. And so I, I really took that to heart. And so that spring, I really started diving into, I attended every workshop. I could, I read every book that I, I could about equity. I started thinking critically about my own actions, what I did in the classroom reflecting on those pieces. And our, our board was as well. It wasn’t just me as an individual. I had lots of colleagues that were thinking along the same lines. And if you look at board improvement plans now almost two years later, you will you that there is one of the main, main roots or goals is based around equity.
Sam Demma (17:21):
That’s awesome. Very cool.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (17:23):
So we have we have several, we have an equity committee at the board level. We also have a culturally, a C R P culture relevant and excuse me, responsive practices group. And we try to embed that work into all of our schools. So there’s just, and at times it feels like, yeah, I made some growth in this area. And then I realized that end line is still far, further and further away. And not because I’m not trying, but it’s an everyday thing. And like you mentioned earlier, like it’s about those small changes, right. Because several small changes can add up to that big one. And that’s the work that we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to make like a wholesale massive change because it won’t stick, it won’t be embedded into the culture. It won’t be embedded into the practice.
Sam Demma (18:16):
And sometimes a, you know, small action is a little less overwhelming which encourages you to continue taking them. So yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Well, what have you found helpful in terms like resources or things that you have went through or read through yourself? Not just for DEI, but just in general for your, your career in education.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (18:39):
Oh man, that’s a tough one. That’s a big one. Yeah, so I, I think you just need to get started. So find someone who who’s you know, willing to maybe walk this path through with you. Cuz they’re, I’m a hundred percent sure there are good people within, within the circle within the network you already have, but I have to say, and I, and I, this isn’t gonna work for everyone, but I’ve made my Twitter account is only professional. It is focused on, on education is focused on learning. I’m very critical about who I follow, what I share, who I post that holy man what I’ve taken away for, for personal learning from those networks and those brilliant people that I’ve added has challenged. My thinking has, you know, hopefully shaped me into, you know, the right, the right person that I wanna be as an educator, as a parent, as just a community member. Yeah. But also, you know, keeps challenging me to think, and that’s the big thing. As soon as you stop doing that stuff, that’s when you’re gonna get stagnant. And that’s actually, one of my biggest fears in education is getting interrupt mm. Staying the same and not being willing to, to change.
Sam Demma (19:49):
Awesome. I love that. I, I think that’s a fear for a lot of people. You get so comfortable doing one thing and you know, maybe you teach the, you know, when you’re in a classroom, you teach the same subject sometimes for 15 years and it’s the same lecture and it’s the same discussion. And being willing to challenge yourself every single day is I think so important. A quote from a book I read or actually the title was what got you here, won’t get you there. And it’s just this idea of always having a beginner mindset, an open mind and understanding that there’s different ways to climb the mountain. And there’s also other mountains that you could climb. And I think it’s just super, super important to remember that. So I appreciate you sharing. If you could take your experiences all throughout education, bundle it up, travel back in time to the first class you taught in, you know, tap younger, Sarah, cuz you’re not, you’re not old, but tap younger Sarah on the shoulder and say, you know, Sarah, this is what I wish you heard when you were just starting.
Sam Demma (20:50):
What advice would you have given yourself?
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (20:55):
That’s a tough question.
Sam Demma (20:56):
Oh, that’s a big one.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (20:57):
I’ve actually had, I’ve actually had quite a bit of reflective moments this year because in addition to my L L role I’ve taken on three NTIP teach years we call ’em. So the new teacher induction program. Oh nice. And so I have been thinking about my first year of teaching more and more and more and more than I ever have in any other year. And so, so this is a good question. I don’t know if I have a brilliant answer for you, but I would go back. I would definitely go back in time and share the importance. I knew my kids. I, I did. I knew my kids. I, I, and I was doing some good work. There are some moments that I wish I could delete from memory, obviously because you’re a new teacher and you’re fumbling a little bit, you’re trying to survive to the next day or the next week.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (21:44):
But one thing that I would go back and I would really highlight is the importance to families. And although, although that might not you know, seem directly connected to curriculum or anything like that, but the importance of getting to know your families, their, their parents, their situations and their context, because I, I can tell you, I was not thinking about equity then the way I’m thinking about I wasn’t thinking about home dynamics, then the way I’m thinking about home dynamics now, and that influence that it has on the day to day action and possibilities for kids. And, and also, I, I can’t remember if I said this to you before, but my, my that idea of connection to community is big to me. Those fan family members are part of the community and you have no idea what they could offer you for your learning, for your context and how that’s gonna make it kid feel or another kid feel how that validates what they’re doing for and with their communities. So they really are. They’re a big part of your team. They’re not just someone who you report to three times a year on report card it’s for elementary or, or, or to pay me on quads or semesters for high school, you know they’re a part of your team and, and fuse that relationship as tightly and strongly as you can.
Sam Demma (23:02):
I love that. That’s such a good reminder that yeah, a parent is not just the caretaker of their child. They’re a part of the community that can have something to add in terms of value and yeah. Heightening the experience for everyone involved. If someone is listening to this conversation, Sarah, and liked something that was shared or, or wants to reach out and ask a question, what would be the best way for them to get in touch with you?
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (23:27):
Sure. So they can email me, (email). Or you can find me on Twitter @(twitter)
Sam Demma (23:41):
Awesome. Sarah, this has been such a fun conversation. It’s already been over 30 minutes. I appreciate you taking the time to chat here. Keep up the great work and we’ll, we’ll talk soon.
Sarah Caldwell-Bennett (23:51):
Thanks for having me.
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