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Teacher Tony Cushman taking field work to the next level with ArcGIS

Tony Cushman is an elementary teacher from Toronto, Ontario who recently completed a school-wide project with his grade three students using ArcGIS. Find out what the project was about and how he incorporated cross-curricular learning using some of the most popular ArcGIS tools available to K-12 schools in Canada.

The first time I was invited to Tony Cushman’s class at Rolph Road School in Toronto, I was impressed by the energy and set up of the classroom. It was clear to me the kids enjoyed being there. Around the room, I noticed a record player, a giant mural his students painted of Leo the Lion, the class mascot who watches over the class, and Lego structures in a corner waiting to be completed.  

After a short time talking to Tony, I realized that he might be the coolest teacher I have ever met. He expressed his love of teaching and getting students involved in their learning by doing fun activities like playing records in class while the students reflect on music being played through drawing or writing.

Tony shares his love of music with his students. Playing records in the class while students write or draw about the music being played is an activity the students enjoy.

Tony and his class recently completed a school-wide project that focused on understanding how students play during recess. A colleague introduced him to Survey123 for ArcGIS that put him on the ArcGIS technology route and the rest is history. 

This video about Rolph Road School’s Play Survey was our first introduction to the project.
It blew us away!

In the past four months, I have had the opportunity to support Tony’s work by presenting ArcGIS StoryMaps to his class and providing technical support as needed. In March, we facilitated a Survey123 workshop together with his colleague Andrew Edmonds at the Esri Canada’s GIS in Education and Research Conference.

Tony and his colleague Andrew Edmonds sharing their Field Work project at the Esri Canada’s GIS in Education and Research Conference in March.

I want to highlight the work Tony’s done for many reasons. He’s a great example of a teacher who actively looks for tools that can engage his students in cross-curricular learning and puts them in a decision-making role, rather than learning passively.  He’s constantly looking for ways to keep things interesting and relevant for his students and he always welcomes their feedback as they learn together.

I asked Tony to share with us his thoughts on the project and how he used ArcGIS tools to take his school-wide project to the next level.

Tell us about yourself and your teaching experience

Growing up in Toronto I was constantly cooking-up weird arts projects with my family and my friends.

I mention this because I try to bring this same openness and spirit of exploration to the culture of my classroom. I’ve been teaching for about 7 years now- first in London, England, and now in Toronto with the Toronto District School Board. Every year I’ve tried to loosen my grip on the reigns of our classroom a bit more and put more control in the hands of my students. The result has been increased student engagement, and many exciting cross-curricular projects, like the one we are here talking about today.

How do you structure the learning in your classroom?

The Ontario curriculum is divided by subject, each with a set of expectations, and these expectations are made up of a list of specific skills. Even in Elementary school, your typical school day is broken-up into different periods, where you switch over to another subject and take out different books. The student experience sometimes feels like a list of bullet points punctuated by the sound of the bell.

This fractured structure has never made much sense to me, and I try to bring the student experience closer to the way adults experience real life (which doesn’t usually involve a set of neatly divided subjects).

Tony’s class participating in a class activity about mapping an important item. Each student was asked to bring something that is important to them or a family member and share the story with the class.

If you visit my grade 3 classroom you will notice that a great deal of the learning happens through big, cross-curricular projects that require students to apply skills from many different subject areas, to create something authentic. In the past few years, my students have produced their own remake of Reading Rainbow, trademarked our own wearable math counting tools that transformed into funky hemp bracelets, and received recognition from Carol Dweck, the researcher of the “Growth Mindset”  for our Growth Mindset Music video. Almost every activity we do in class is either something I designed myself, or better yet, something co-created with my students, and I try not to repeat the same thing twice.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

I was recently hired as the Elementary Chair of my school, and one of my responsibilities is to help develop specific goals for school improvement. I work with my Principal, Sandra Larosa, to design
school-wide initiatives that contribute to our school’s goals in student achievement, equity, and 
well-being. Just like at an office, there are targets, and data needs to be collected and analyzed to track student progress.

During the time I was helping to plan these school-wide initiatives, I also happened to be planning out my Math units for the year. I noticed parallels between this school data collection, and the expectations for Data Management in the Grade 3 Math curriculum. What if, instead of making a bar graph showing classmates’ favourite colour, my students led an investigation of an authentic issue going on in our school?

Students working on creating bar charts on paper to promote data collected on their survey.

They were later posted around the halls in the school for other teachers and students to view.

One major school-wide initiative at my school this year is a progressive playground program called Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL), that promises to widen the spectrum of outdoor activities at recess, and in turn expand opportunities for student growth in the playground. I started thinking about how to measure the impact of the program on our school culture, and it became obvious that the only way to do this would be a school-wide survey.

The other reason for researching recess came to me over countless hours watching kids play in the playground while on yard duty.  

Why did you decide to use ArcGIS Online, Survey123 and StoryMaps?

I want to begin by saying, without these tools this project would not have been possible.

Survey123 allowed us to survey 339 students, in a week and a half. This included every student in the school from kindergarten to grade 6. This was a big accomplishment. We had iPads in the class that students used to scan QR codes posted around the room to link to the survey. Students submitted responses wirelessly, and then could scan a different QR code to instantly check the results, as they came in.

Examples of Rolph Road’s Recess Survey questions.

The aim of our Field Work project was to involve the entire student body- not just in responding to the survey- but also participating in a dialogue about the meaning of the results. The problem is that bar graphs and pie charts are often too abstract for many of our youngest learners to engage with. The ability to view survey results on a map with ArcGIS was a real game changer. When you think about it, a map is the least abstract and thus most accessible format for the data, seeing as it’s basically a picture of what the world looks like, only smaller. We made our own scale map of the playground, a physical version of an ArcGIS Online map with coloured dot stickers as the data points.

Tony’s class created a handmade scale map of the playground to learn some math concepts before moving on to the computer mapping using ArcGIS Online.

For the final stage of our project, our grade 3 students teamed-up with Grade 5 /6 students from Andrew Edmond’s class, and each group was assigned the responses to a different survey question to analyze. First, they used the feature layer (created by default when a survey is created) to generate web maps, and then they used Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS to create graphs of their survey results. Ultimately, each group produced a dashboard that unpacked results, drew conclusions, and offered what they thought were appropriate next steps for our school, based on their findings. Our students had a lot of fun with the design features, and parents were floored by the results. Definitely a lot more exciting than a rolled-up piece of Bristol Board!

In preparing their story maps, our students completed a paper copy outlining the content they would include in it. This allowed them to have all the components ready before starting the work of creating their digital story map.

A student’s work in preparing their story map content.

Students proudly showing the charts they created using Operations Dashboards.

Explore the Field Work project from the survey design to the completion of the students’ story maps highlighting findings from the school wide survey on the ways kids play during recess.

Go through Rolph Road School’s Field Work project by exploring this story map.

What’s Next?

Tony’s planning on creating some meaningful ArcGIS resources for his students to continue learning at home during the school closure.

Tony, thank you for allowing us to share your story. We are sure you will inspire other teachers to use ArcGIS to engage their students in learning. We look forward to supporting you on future projects.

If you have been moved by Tony’s story and want to speak to him, feel free to contact him at or you can leave a comment below. 

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Specialist in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. She has over 15 years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela focuses on producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum-specific resources, and conducting and creating custom workshops for educators. She manages the GIS Ambassador Program and is the Technical Chair for the annual Skills Ontario GIS competition. Angela also writes monthly posts for the Esri Canada Education and Research blog, highlighting K-12 educators and partners, new ArcGIS resources and GIS-related events.

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