School of life and happiness

Carole Payant stands in a classroom with several children in the background.

“When you look back, you remember what you lived at school, not what you learned.”

— Carole Payant

By Michelle Hibler

The newest school in Ottawa’s French Catholic elementary board has a clear, if somewhat unconventional, goal: to teach children how to be happy. “Together we’re living something extraordinary — we’re building a dream school for children,” says its principal, Carole Payant (MEd ’04).

The Nouvelle école élémentaire catholique au coeur d'Ottawa may indeed be a thing of dreams, for both students and teachers. For students, changes for the better include flexible classrooms with modular tables, a variety of seating choices — including the floor and comfortable, cushiony poufs — and the freedom to move around.

“This isn’t a school where you’ll see kids file in, in tidy rows,” Payant says. Physical activity, including yoga and meditation, follows each learning period. “You can’t always be thinking hard. We want them to be able to do something else, discover other things.”

For teachers, the school offers the opportunity to teach the curriculum in ways that best suit them and their students. And everyone involved appreciates the absence of homework!

“We prefer that the children go outside, that they play, socialize and learn things in other ways,” Payant says.

School reinvented

Payant cheered when the Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est approved the application to set up a new school in Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood — and she particularly rejoiced in its orientation.

This is the board’s first school to be inspired by the highly successful Finnish educational model. Described as learner-centred, schools in Finland emphasize teamwork and collaboration, responsibility, analytical thinking, self-motivation and positive assessment.

The new school has also applied to be able to offer the international baccalaureate program at the primary level, a certification process that will take three years. “Then we can call ourselves a world school,” Payant says.

The school is also green, and not only in the colour of its walls. The use of paper is discouraged. For example, students do their lessons on large whiteboards and the school communicates with parents electronically.

“We’re creating a school for tomorrow’s engaged and committed environmental citizens,” Payant says. “This was requested by the community — we’re reflecting parents’ values.”

A girl writes on a whiteboard as another girl looks on.

Using whiteboards for lessons is one way the school will save paper.

Parents also wanted the children to learn a third language, in addition to French and English. On some days, they’ll speak Spanish at lunch; on other days, they’ll play in Spanish. “And by grade 6, they should be able to converse easily with each other in Spanish,” Payant says.

The fact that the school, with close to 100 students, is already at full capacity suggests the new approach is welcomed.

“Parents have a choice,” Payant says. “Even though they may be in the catchment area, they don’t have to send their children to this school.” But she senses they have an appetite for something different from traditional schools and believes “it’s time to be more adventurous.”

A breath of fresh air

Payant has put her heart into the whirlwind creation of the new school, temporarily housed in rented space in one of Ottawa’s oldest school buildings, on Main Street in Old Ottawa East. She’s had some practice with this kind of thing — Payant just oversaw the multi-million-dollar makeover of another of the board’s schools, École Sainte-Geneviève in Alta Vista, where she was principal.

As of September 2018, the school’s permanent home will be a heritage building on Gilmour Street, currently being renovated to accommodate up to 250 students.

“There will even be a schoolyard on the roof, where we can have gardens,” Payant says. For now, the gardens have come indoors, with a small greenhouse in each classroom sheltering the plants the children are growing.

“You may see a garden — but I see a classroom,” she says. This classroom will extend to nearby parks because “parents want a school where learning takes place outside school walls.”

“I warned the teachers they had to be ready!” says Payant, who cites the cold-country maxim that there is no bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

This small pedalling device allows children to “cycle” while seated in their chair.

Students can burn off energy in the classroom by using a DeskCycle.

Tools for learning

Despite her evident passion for education, Payant became a teacher almost by chance. Raised in the James Bay area, she moved to Ottawa for her final year of high school. Abandoning her dream of a chemical engineering career for financial reasons, she “went into the soft sciences and took science and math classes for fun,” she says.

While working as a teaching assistant at uOttawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences, one of her fellow students mentioned that “she really saw me in this job — though a teaching career hadn’t crossed my mind.” A bachelor of education followed, as did 28 years in Ottawa elementary school classrooms. “I had found my place,” she says.

Payant credits the master’s program in the Faculty of Education with broadening her perspective. “It gave me a lot – and this is my way of giving back.” She hopes to give her own students the tools for learning and for learning to be happy.

“It’s important to remember that others don’t make your happiness – you do,” Payant says. But she is also actively creating the positive learning environments that will sow the seeds of that happiness for many children, and enrich their lives.

“When you look back,” she says, “you remember what you lived at school, not what you learned.”

Main photo:
Alumna Carole Payant is creating a school for 21st-century learners. Photos: Bonnie Findley

Three children and Carole Payant stand next to a table with seedling pots and plastic gardening tools.

Children at the new school tend plants in a classroom greenhouse. They will look after gardens on a rooftop playground after the school moves to its permanent home next year. 


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