• Ontario geography teacher focuses on thinking classroom approach

    Somphone (Sam) Souannhaphanh has been teaching for 18 years and uses a teaching approach with her students that incorporates collaborative brainstorming and critical inquiry. (Photo: Somphone Souannhaphanh)

Somphone (Sam) Souannhaphanh takes a cross-disciplinary approach to her classroom and emphasizes the importance of collaboration between departments and other schools as a way to develop innovative teaching methods. Recently, she started teaching Grade 11 travel and tourism, as well as introduction to anthropology, sociology and psychology, and Grade 12 world issues at Merivale High School in Ottawa, Ont. Souannhaphanh previously taught Grade 9 geography at Glebe Collegiate Institute for 16 years.

On what inspired her love for geography and guides her teaching today

It started in high school when I took geography and I had a great teacher, Mr. Schlemmer. His personality was amazing and he was able to connect with students. He used humour and anecdotes, and he was an all-around great teacher and all the students really liked him and were receptive to that. I tried to take as many geography courses as I could with him.

The rapport that you have with your students is important, it’s step one. You have to have a personality. Do not be a drone. It’s not so much about the curriculum and the information, it’s really about the students, who they are and how they learn. What they think, how they explore an issue, and what they say in the classroom can be very poignant and profound.

On the collaborative learning approach she uses in her classroom

There’s something called “the thinking classroom.” It’s actually a math approach by Peter Liljedahl to engage students in the material. What you do is randomize your students into small groups, so a group of three, and they stand up at a station, either a blackboard or a whiteboard — they use vertical, non-permanent surfaces, and that way they can erase their ideas. They use this to solve mathematical problems. There might be eight groups trying to work through a question.

I take that thinking classroom approach and I apply it to a geography or social science domain. I put an image on the screen and get them to explore that image. I’ll ask them: What do you see there? It could be a picture of a natural disaster, like a volcanic eruption. Then I get them to think a little bit deeper. What do you wonder about in this picture? Then they start exploring it further and coming up with questions. How many people died? Were there any injuries? And then you can take that and start talking about natural disasters and exploring case studies. Why do people live in natural disaster zones? Where is this happening? Why is this happening there? What can be done about it?

All the students are working in this method. You don’t have a scribe where one person is writing down ideas and the others are talking. They’re all writing on the blackboard at the same time and talking to each other. And they can see how other students come up with an idea and reflect on their own learning. They’re not sitting down and bored — they have a strategy on how to go about answering a prompt or question that I’ve given them. This also combines with the idea of “visible learning” by John Hattie. This way I get to see right away what their ideas are. I can just scan the classroom.

On how COVID-19 has changed things in her classroom 

It has really shifted everything and we do less of the vertical, thinking classroom method. It’s been a huge challenge. You can still put them in groups of three, but now you do it on Google Jamboard and they brainstorm on their tablet or laptop. We’re using technology to overcome these challenges. Students are still being quite cooperative with the restrictions and they want to learn. They still have conversations, but they don’t sit together.

On learning beyond the computer screen during the pandemic lockdown

In the Grade 11 natural disasters class during the spring when we had learning at home because of the pandemic, I tried to get them to do some work that wasn’t always on the screen. We did a “Flood through the Window” activity, [where] they had to examine and explore their neighbourhood. If there was a flood happening in your neighbourhood, what would you see? They had specific questions they had to answer. Water flows downhill, so what direction would the water flow in your neighbourhood? Kids would go outside their house and film themselves answering these questions and film their street. It was the most interesting, hilarious thing ever. Some students went all out and acted like a reporter and they worked through what would happen.

On what has really engaged her students

In the world issues class we do “What’s in the news.” They have homework to read, listen or watch the news about what’s going on in the country or the world, and they bring that into the classroom. The students sit in a circle and have a conversation. I try to encourage a normal conversation as you would have with your peers. They don’t raise their hand, they don’t have a moderator, they’re not giving a report. They just pick a topic and talk about it. Why is this an issue? What are the key groups that are involved? I’m not in the circle, I’m usually standing off in a corner, listening to how they analyze something. And they really like the ownership of having that conversation and hearing each other’s views and bringing up something that is important to them in their world.

On what she wants to impart to her students

Be curious. Be a strong thinker. Write well and listen well. That’s it. Be curious about what is happening in your community, in the environment — locally, nationally, internationally. I’m trying to get my students to be curious in geography in like a toddler way. We want them to come in and have fun so that they want to explore further. With that mindset, they have to be critical thinkers, to analyze and ask questions. In the social studies department, what can we give our students that they can use in other courses and into the future? It’s how to write well. Break things down into organization and structure, think about cause and effect, prove your thesis. And the last thing is that we like to hear ourselves talk, so I tell my students to listen well to all the different perspectives.