Kids settle on the carpet in the library at Irwin Park elementary, ready to spring up and get busy creating their cardboard renditions of houses, elevators and vehicles. The space they are in is calm and welcoming on a mat on the left side of the library. On the other side of the room, boxes and pieces of cardboard are piled high in what is obviously one of the most exciting projects the kids have undertaken to date, and the students can hardly contain themselves as they prepare to get back to their creations.
Teacher Jessica Richardson deftly manages the class as they file in, asking them to be seated, and then addresses the entire Grade 3 group to ensure that they recall the safety instructions she mentioned the last time they got together. In small groups, she releases them, and they jump up to get started.
This is a creator studio project, or ‘makerspace’, and it all started with an anonymous donation and the spark of an idea. Jessica, who has been with the district since 2004, took it on after hearing about a book room in the basement that Principal Liz Hill wanted to clear out.
“We were brainstorming as a staff about how we could use the space,” relates Jessica. “I wanted to use it as a workshop of some kind, a place where students could access different tools and materials, so teachers wouldn’t have to store everything in their classrooms.”
An anonymous gift came in around that time. The purpose of the funds was not to buy more ‘stuff’ like iPads, but to give students opportunities they might not normally have, and that got Jessica’s creative mind thinking about ways she could offer them.
“I was inspired to create time and space for students to have the chance to build, tinker, create and use their imagination,” says Jessica. “I found that when we would try activities like this with younger students, we quickly realized how little experience they had, and that they needed more. We also talk about how many students are not so willing to fail, or that others give up when things get challenging.”
Jessica is hopeful that the studio experience will help build student resilience, and as it turns out, she says, the library has sufficient space to house a studio and it’s working well. The donation was used to purchase robotics, glue guns, fabrics and other building materials. She also visited makerspaces at Gleneagles, Caulfeild and Westcot, and takes a great deal of inspiration from her colleague, Amber Pascual.
“Amber really inspires me – teaching the same grade as I do, she has taught me to think bigger and try new things,” says Jessica. “Liz as well has to be thanked; we are lucky to have her, and she’s been an amazing support and inspiration through all of this.”
Jessica, who has a B.Sc. in Psychology and a B.Ed. from the University of British Columbia, also completed a diploma program in arts education. Starting with the district in 2004, she began as a Grade 4/5 teacher covering a short-term leave. Her first long term position was at Bowen Island Community School, teaching Grades 4/5. She loves the community on Bowen, but moved to Irwin Park after a maternity leave, initially teaching Grade 5 and then Grade 2.
“I love the community at our school, the location for so many great walking field trips, and the staff,” says Jessica. “I feel lucky to work with so many great people! I think all schools in West Van offer some unique opportunities to their students – we have so many innovative educators.”
Jessica grew up on the North Shore, and wanted to work close to home. She says that West Van has a reputation for being forward-thinking, and that she really wanted to be a part of that.
The new project she has undertaken brings Jessica into frequent contact with many different grade levels. The cardboard project is a bit chaotic and messy, but she does have the support of Teacher-Librarian Doni Gratton, and the excitement she sees in the students is very rewarding.
“Planning the activities for all the different grade levels, and trying to keep the activities within the scheduled time frame is challenging, [but] I have many students saying it’s their favourite part of school. I like that I can say ‘yes’ to their ideas and not be too bound by other criteria – I think the students are having as much fun as I am!”
Jessica, who has always had an interest in the arts, is getting a lot of laughs in the course of her work. She describes an incident where the challenge was to build towers out of paper. In the course of the project, one of the students in her class exclaimed, “My dad is an engineer! Why isn’t this working?!!”
After 10 years as a classroom teacher, Jessica’s latest project provides a cool opportunity for her to tinker and create and her friends and family are excited to see the direction that her work has taken.
As a mother of two children, aged 7 and 10, Jessica and her husband Mike spend a lot of time outside running, hiking and cycling. She also spends a lot of time on the weekends enjoying her kids’ activities, such as soccer.