a visit to Opal – January 2015: an introduction

Posted on: February 1st, 2015 by jnovakowski

I was part of a team from our district that visited the Opal school in Portland, Oregon at the end of January. I was already acquainted with Opal school, having attended events where teachers from the school shared their experiences and I have many of their published resources. Teams of early learning & Kindergarten teachers from our district have visited Opal. Marie Thom, our Early Learning and Full Day Kindergarten teacher consultant, has continued to nurture learning environments in our district’s classrooms that honour the child and Reggio-inspired practices. All of our StrongStart classrooms and many of our kindergarten classrooms have been influenced and inspired in this way. We have beautiful, inspiring classrooms we can visit in our district and many of our kindergarten teachers are investigating Story Workshop with the support of Marie and Lisa Schwartz, one of our literacy teacher consultants. Story Workshop is a foundational piece in Opal classrooms and videos sharing the Story Workshop experience at Opal can be found HERE. Many of our early learning and ¬†kindergarten teachers are also exploring natural spaces, gardens and outdoor classrooms with their children. A Museum Centre for Learning video created ¬†about the importance of nature play can be found HERE.

This time, our district team was comprised of myself, Michelle Hikida (grades 2&3 teacher at Diefenbaker), Braunwyn Thompson (grades 3&4 teacher at Woodward) and Hieu Pham-Fraser (teacher-librarian and resource teacher at Blair). Our professional focus of our visit was to look at the systemic big picture and structures that were in place to nurture and support inquiry-based learning for primary grades and beyond. We wanted to consider what might be needed in order to grow the practices that are taking hold in our early learning and Kindergarten classrooms to classrooms with older students. What might be the perceived constraints that teachers are feeling? What aspects or interpretations that are “fitting” for our younger learners might also fit with our older students, or what adjustments might be needed?

Michelle and Braunwyn are math mentor teachers in our district and we were also looking for examples of mathematical inquiry and mathematics teaching and learning that is based on the practices, principles and beliefs we know the school is known for. Having been a teacher-librarian and resource teacher myself, I know the influence this role can have in a school and is one of the rare opportunities we have in our system for teacher teaming and collaboration which is the lens Hieu was looking through during our visit. We came to realize that teacher collaboration was such an essential part of what we experienced at Opal.


More information about Opal School, including its guiding principles, can be found HERE.

*all photographs were taken at the Opal School with the Museum Centre for Learning at the Portland Children’s Museum, with permission to share here

Our first evening at Opal, we were drawn together in the theatre space at the museum and provided with an overview of what our experience would be. With the thinking frames of noticing and wondering as well as collecting, connecting and sharing…we set off to the classrooms. Of course, we loved what we saw but we also had many wonders. We made many connections to things that were already happening in our district and connections to our redesigned curriculum in BC and its focus on competencies, inquiry and personalized learning.

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We then spent two full days at Opal. The mornings were spent in classrooms while the children were in attendance. We relished these times, being a “fly on the wall” and having a glimpse into classroom life at Opal and what it meant to be in those classroom communities. In the afternoons, we reflected, listened to Opal educators share their stories and thinking and had time for group discussions.

Part two of this series of blog posts will share what I think are the essential elements of what we experienced and I will make connections to our Richmond context.


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