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.

A Path of Education

collage

Taeven’s 2015 collage of learning

January has headed us in a new direction, once again, as home learners.  Responses to our past experiences in our individual paths has created new choices and ever evolving explorations.  My oldest daughter (12), decided to return to home learning after a three month period of being in the classroom, with a renewed sense of what it is to be home schooled.

It was an interesting journey, witnessing and discussing the new environment and learning format that Taeven experienced while in school.  She did not dislike being there.  Most of the kids in her grade 7/8 class were familiar friends in the community in which we live and play.  Her reading and writing ability is strong, so keeping up with assigned work in a larger body of students was not difficult.  She enjoyed the opportunities to work with the other kids on learning projects.  Her teacher was young and fun and easy to get along with.  Taeven knew that any extra help was always available, and she felt no hierarchy in terms of social pressures and competitive academic results.  Lovely!

calligraphy

exploring calligraphy

Without any negative influences that can be layered over the simplicity of education, Taeven had the chance to really compare with clarity the new learning situation with her past 7 years of home learning,  which was spent mostly in a state of free play, individual direction, and spontaneous exploring.  She found that she liked the framework of assignments, but was having a hard time focusing energy into a topic that wasn’t in her interest.  She liked constructing essays, for example, but it was so much work when the topic was handed to her rather than of her own choice.  Without a goal for her to apply the topic of the essay towards, the assignment became more tedious than interesting.  It felt like a really long day at the school without accomplishing any learning in the areas of life that really sparked her spirit.  She also found that being inside so much made her always feel sleepy.  One day when Taeven was splitting kindling outside with me, she stated, “I feel so alive!” I was a bit surprised by such an enormously simple self-observation, and when I asked what spurred her sentiment, she reflected that, compared to being in the classroom, being outside and active makes her feel alive and happy!  And therefor, more ready and eager to soak up her experiences.

moss and fernsTaeven missed our land, missed the forest, missed the beach, missed her little brother, and missed having so much time to just be.  She is not a twelve year old looking to be sixteen and head off into social peer world.  She wants to be at home with her family, but have opportunities to be with her friends, and play in the forest.  There have been things about school that she has asked to bring into our home learning schedule, like a certain spelling/language program, and researching and essay writing assignments.  Since our return to home learning in January, we have outlined interests and activities on a mind map, drawn them out in a Venn diagram, and organized ourselves into a loose weekly schedule.

back yard hike

our backyard hill

snorkeling

snorkeling excursion

We head outside in the morning for about half an hour, as often as we can, either hiking up the hill behind our house, bike riding around the closest loop, or testing out our bootcamp style cardio/strength moves.  Then we open the grade 7 JUMP math book , do a few pages, move on to a music practice (violin for Taeven, cello or drum for Cedar) and hopefully explore some language arts of any kind before lunch.  The afternoons are more random, but usually we are focusing on independent study topics, which for Taeven, are documenting what she sees when we go snorkeling, or researching angora rabbits (which we all want!) discovering permaculture, or writing stories.  We also foray into a variety of art projects, which recently have been zen doodling and sketching.  She often attends a history class with other home schoolers in our group, and she is pretty excited about Forest School with the Spring Leaves. We split cedar kindling to sell in bundles at a roadside stand as a small business.  She does karate twice a week, attends a dance class once a week, and we go to the big island where she swims every friday with the Otters Swim Club.  If it works, we also go skating and climbing at an indoor climbing wall.  She still wants to learn more about cooking, stained glass, and typing.  She still has lots of time and energy to play with Cedar in an infinite amount of ways in which they connect.

zen doodle

Taeven’s zen doodle

Taeven’s time in school was a great way to clarify what direction she would like to take with her life learning experiences.  We discussed how a classroom format may be something she will encounter as she continues, either as high school, or as college, or university.  She may want to pursue an interest that takes her into a classroom in order for her to attain certain skills and knowledge.  She may need to be inside a whole bunch taking biology classes so that she can get outside and be a marine biologist.  Keeping those educational roads open is important when a passionate goal is being followed.

happy outsideHowever, Taeven’s passionate goal right now is being happy!  I think that is so wonderful, and I hope to support her in this time of being herself as a happy, joyful, and exploring spirit.

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