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The Lost Villages

A Project Based Learning journey

My wondering started growing and growing until I just had to start asking questions and doing more research.
–Excerpt from the reflection journal of Hannah, Grade 5, Timothy Christian School in Williamsburg, Ontario.

Our school recently embarked on a journey called Project Based Learning, or simply “PBL.” PBL is an inquiry approach to education which uses a project as the central context for student learning. Our topic of study was the St. Lawrence Seaway Project. In the late 1950s the St. Lawrence river was widened and a power dam was built. Six thousand five hundred people people were forced to relocate and a number of villages were lost. The site of these lost villages is a 20-minute drive from our school.

Treasures revealed
One element of PBL is to frame learning around a Driving Question – a call to action with a task or problem to explore; a question that begs an answer to be shared with an audience. Our DQ is “How was the St. Lawrence Seaway Project helpful and harmful to the community?”

After watching a video and giving the students time to wonder and ask questions, we took all our students to visit the lost village of Aultsville. Usually it is under water but the St. Lawrence has been exceptionally low this year, revealing roads, sidewalks, tree stumps, house foundations and many other treasures of the village that once existed there.

Steven, in Grade 5, later wrote, “We found so many artifacts. It was like a pinata.” The Kindergarten and Grade 1 and 2 students returned to the site a few weeks later, armed with cameras, taking pictures of what they found interesting. Sam, a Grade 1 student reflecting on his picture, wrote, “This post used to be something. I think it looks like a basketball net that children used to play with. It has no fun now.” He titled his writing Toy No More.

Full of wonderings
Visiting Aultsville to launch our project caused the students to become engaged, excited and full of wonderings, creating an atmosphere of Sustained Inquiry. This is another essential element of PBL – that students need to develop and enter into an inquiry mindset for the entire path of the project. Inquiry becomes a sustained cycle: students are constantly questioning and evaluating information to help answer the driving question.

To begin answering some of the questions that students were asking, we began looking at the geography of the area and the villages that were flooded. Students in Grades 3-8 were divided into research groups to find out more about the villages and to create a presentation about their discoveries for a remarkable Presentation of Learning (POL) which took place later in the project.

Sharing stories
We invited people who had lived during the time of the Seaway Project to be an audience for our POL. This is the element of PBL that helps the whole process be more authentic. The students did a wonderful job on their presentations, sharing what they learned with the many people in our midst. Our visitors then had a chance to tell some of their stories to our students who travelled in small, cross-grade groups to different rooms in the school to hear stories and ask questions of these people who had lived in the area during the time of the Seaway Project.

One man told a story of how his dad put his hand down into the earth on his farm before the relocation. He had his arm in as far as it would go and when he pulled it up he was holding beautiful soil. At their new home the soil was only one inch deep. Another man shared about how he watched a church being torn down. They broke all the windows first and then put some chains and wires through the window holes. They pulled the whole church down and it made a giant crash. Many of the people who shared their stories were young children or teenagers at the time, and it seemed exciting but looking back they realize how difficult it was for their parents and grandparents to lose their homes and land.

Elizabeth, a student in Grade 8 wrote, “I would feel devastated if I had to go through the same experience as the people from the Lost Villages. The place I had grown up . . . being flooded right before my eyes. Everything I had known gone in a couple of days.”

After the students met people from the Lost Villages they felt a sense of sadness about the whole story. Going to the lost village of Aultsville and seeing the roads, broken sidewalks and house foundations allowed the students to know that it was a real place. And then meeting people who actually lived in Aultsville cemented the story for them.

Which good are we seeking?
Our journey is not finished yet. Right now the students are learning about the hydro dam and the shipping – the things that might be considered the helpful part of the project. We are still working out the anwers to our Driving Question, but the bigger question that is sticking in our minds is: which good are we seeking – the greater good, the good of the larger community, or the good of a small group of individuals? The Seaway project was helpful to the greater community. It was also helpful to people who worked on the project. In this case the good of the larger community trumped that of the 6,500 people living in the lost villages. Although the residents were given new homes and compensation, many things that were promised to them did not come to fruition. For the families that lost their land it was harmful. One woman told us that her father suffered a nervous breakdown after losing his farm. Aislynn, a student in Grade 6, wrote in her reflection journal, “I wonder if anyone was happy about leaving. People were sad, especially Mr. Summers. He had watery eyes when he told us about Aultsville.”

As we continue on this road of learning we are creating a book that will be placed in the Lost Village Museum and local libraries. It will be our beautiful work, an element of PBL that the Teachers Academy describes as demonstrating purpose, pride and craftmanship of learning.

When we embarked on this journey we weren’t sure where it would take us. We didn’t know it would be messy but also amazing. We didn’t know what artifacts and treasures we would find. We didn’t know that we would meet people whose stories would touch and perhaps even transform us. We didn’t know how working together as a school would help to bring all students and staff together. Is PBL the magic answer to teaching and learning? No. But it is an amazing journey of learning and exploration and we look forward to continue using PBL in our school.


  • Heidi Blokland lives in a rural community south of Ottawa, Ont. She teaches Kindergarten at the local Christian school and is a member of Community CRC in Dixon's Corners.

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