Diversity in Education

farm day It has been six months now since both of my previously home schooled children have been enrolled in a new educational program offered at the elementary school here on Pender Island.  Since September, they have been attending a full time class (four days a week here in our district) for grades 4-8 focusing on ecological settings- in a true sense of the word: relating to or concerned with the relation of living organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

Yes, it is a program defined by the use of the natural outdoors and skills relating to living outdoors, enjoying outdoors, learning about nature, and challenging the physical strengths and confidences of active bodies in nature.  However, in the way that permaculture is not just about gardening, ecological learning is not just about plant identification and learning the life cycles of frogs.

This new program, initiated by parents and supported by the school board, started in September 2015 with 24 kids ages 9-13.  Some of those kids were previously home schooled,  some came from the previously established classrooms, and some were new students to the island.  Much of the focus in the first month was establishing respectful student relationships and group dynamics, regardless of age or social circles.  Co-operative games, trust games, continual cycling of group configurations, and blanket academic games allowed the teacher, Steve Dunsmuir, to begin the process of observing each student and their abilities on many levels.

Steve Dunsmuir came to us from Saturna Island, where he founded and taught the successful SEEC program for many years.  Steve Dunsmuir designed the Saturna Ecological Education Centre as part of his master’s degree in Environmental Education and Communication from Royal Roads University. He has taught and learned with almost every age group from kindergarten to university over his 25+ years as a teacher, and enjoyed four years as a Faculty Associate for Simon Fraser University’s Professional Development Program. He has also learned much from his wife and six children and was surprised to be named “Outstanding K-12 Educator” in 2010 by the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM).

The PEEC program (Pender Ecological Education Community) was inspired by the format of the Saturna program, which has also branched into the Salt Spring hosted MYSEEC program for grades 6-8.  A similar program on Galiano has been created for the older students there, unofficially called MYGEEC.  “SEEC’s place-based approach to learning blurs the lines between school and the community so that both are one and the same. Our island is our classroom and our people and the natural world our teachers.”

forest daySo what do they do in a day?  It varies.  There are many project based activities that get attention during the week, like independent science research projects.  Sometimes a community member comes and talks or leads an activity, such as building books with cedar covers, or carving, or a presentation on archaeology.  The students participate in the school music program, and can take part in any lunch time activities or whole school events.  They have a buddy program with the primary grade class, and use the library, gym, and computer lab.  The whole class in engaged in a game called Archipelago, which is a multi-faceted experience ranging from geography and topography to native flora and fauna to writing skills, math, predictions, adventure, developing real and imagined skill sets for characters, and eventually creating settlements and pioneering skills.  They spend one full day every week at a local forest/farm, where they play games, develop outdoor skills (like fire, food and shelter), have Solo-tude time, write, build, hike, create spaces, and inhale a lot of oxygen, no matter what the weather.  They are learning to become Enviromentors, and will host days with visiting classes from on and off Pender, leading the visitors through games and activities.  As the weather improves, plans to explore further and for longer lengths of time are in the works.  One such outdoor adventure was a 7km hike, in preparation for the proposed plan of hiking the Juan De Fuca trail (Vancouver Island) at the end of the school year.  During their hike, the students looked for and found four geo-caches, (which they have all become experts at through developing orienteering skills with a compass), climbed Mt. Menzies where they had lunch overlooking a magnificent view of the islands, watched for and made notes of the various birds they saw, and looked at a small salmon hatchery in the Hope Bay stream were the eggs were “asleep” but about to release as fry.  The kids were also writing alliterative haiku poems, all day, according to an attending parent (of which there are usually a few, because we all feel like this is the school we all wanted…)

Academics have been expanded to fit the levels of the age spread, regardless of grade.  A math topic such as “the sphere factor” can be taken from basic circle and sphere calculations to complex formulas.  “Novel Ideas” are opportunities for any level of reading and writing skills to be exercised with reflection and comprehension.  Individualized spelling lists are given based on each students’ spelling errors.  A supportive relationship between Steve and the kids results in communication about challenges (not enough?  Too much?) and the ability to self evaluate is encouraged.  Parents have been invited for student-led conferences, where the kids take their parents around the class and explain the different activities and how they are doing, with Steve available for further open discussion.

Although much of this class is vastly different from when I went to school, some of it is not too different from what other “regular” classes have to offer.  I have highlighted here what appears to me to be normal opportunities, as well as the aspects that make PEEC an alternative choice for some students.  Diversity in education is a huge factor in raising diverse children in a world of diverse values.  My children are thriving in the class, in a way that as homeschoolers, they did not have access to.  I have heard nothing but positive comments from all parents of all the children enrolled, and that encourages me to believe that the PEEC class is off to a successful beginning.

For us, our journey as home schoolers appears to be over.  The term Life Learning, often used instead, is more aptly appropriate anyways.  Life has offered us a new direction, and we are all so very happy that it is a wonderful fit.

Life Learning Continues On the School Bus

Welcome BayThis fall marks the 8th “school” year of home learning for us, and, as every year unfolds and the kids get older, we are given new opportunities of inspiration to consider.  The mornings of mist and fog settle around the golds and browns of shifting leaves, easing us into the soft and still warm breaking through of the sun.  The changes sometimes seem sudden, like the darkening of the evenings, but also natural and embracing.  It feels this way with my oldest daughter’s decision made within 6 days to attend the local elementary school for her 7th grade year.

One week we were snorkeling together on a thursday afternoon, and the next tuesday she was on the school bus heading to her first day of being in the class room.  There were many conversations, both practical and heartfelt, that led her on this journey.

welcome bay snorkelMany of her close friends had chosen this year to switch from our home schooling group into the school, each for their own reasons, and she was feeling a strong need as a twelve year old to connect with similar aged friends within her learning environment.  A natural shift from learning mainly through play seemed to be taking place in the last year, but with an unknowing of how to continue to create interesting, integrated, experiential and fun learning projects on her own motivation.   This led her to be inspired to expand her experience of learning-  we discussed how every experience has something to offer, in this case, study skills, self discipline, being an individual learner within a directed group, group projects and discussions, and diverse social situations.  Moving out of a comfort zone and seeing what there is and how to respond.  She equated her educational journey to a spiral- with each experience leading the spiral upwards.  In life learning, everything is education, no matter what the structure is- and it will all be a part of what shapes and directs her journey.  In the future, she may chose from a variety of learning situations, and she was quite excited to begin getting familiar with a few of those options.  She told me one night that she felt she really believed in herself, in her own strength and abilities to overcome anything that felt challenging.  on the waterIf she doesn’t like it, she understands that she can switch back to being at home, with her own schedule, and with a deeper understanding of her own motivations and preferred environment.  Here on the Gulf Islands, we have a 4 day school week, and an incredibly supportive principal.  Surrounded by good friends and a familiar place, she enjoys her teacher and the absence of desks in the class room- all factors that have made the transition for her a positive one so far.  She has already taken part in an overnight camping trip to Saturna Island’s SEEC program with her class, (which we have done many times with our home school group in the past), a combination of outdoor activities and peer group learning that is perfectly within her educational desires at this time.  There have been some doubts along the way, related mostly to early mornings and being inside a lot- both being practices of discipline and commitment.  She has also noticed a disconnected sense towards our land- a place we have slowly developed in the past 6 years and on which she has spent most of that time outside and keenly aware of the nature around her.

When we began home schooling, it was my belief that the first few years, the youngest ones, the most impressionable ones, were the most important for a grounding of and a knowing of the self.  My experience of school as a primary aged student, which followed into the rest of my adult life, was the disappearance of myself in a crowd, and the conflict of wanting to be seen and acknowledged, and yet, never to be the focus of attention.  I realize that that may not have been the experience of my kids if they were in school, and I was willing, of course, to support either of my kids if they at any time, chose to take a different path, but neither of them had until now.   Taeven now has a strong, inward sense of herself, with a solid foundation of values and unique qualities to share with her classmates.

cedar in arbutusMy younger son, who is 9, has no interest in attending school at this point.  He is fueled by riding his bike around and building things all day- and being entirely in control of his own time and activities.  (With a little math and reading direction from me.)  He has a great group of similar aged friends in our Spring Leaves Family Learning group, and very much enjoys the time we spend together doing a variety of seasonal, especially outdoor, activities.  He misses his sister, and she has expressed a mutual feeling, so we try to spend off school hours together as a family- at home, in the community, or on short trips to the wild west coast to surf together.  I am grateful that we have been able to create a supportive educational journey for our kids, one in which they are able to nurture their inner sense of self as well as their infusion into the one world around us.  We are empowered by our own choices, and thus create the life we dream of.

 

 

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