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.

Forest School

sparkle forestOur group of home learners here on the Gulf Islands has made plans to be outside during our time together one day a week.  We are calling it Forest School, and while it is not a new or original concept, it is a new intention for us as a group to meet at a local farm (which has lots of forest) and play games, explore, honor values, and create team building opportunities.  Our mild, west coast winters make it quite easy to be outside, providing we are moving and have a warm fire to sit by.  The “original” format of Forest School came out of Wisconsin, but also Sweden, Denmark and the UK, all places with more difficult winters than ours!  Wikipedia says this about forest schools:

bio-regional mapForest school is a type of outdoor education in which children (or adults) visit forests/woodlands, learning personal, social and technical skills. It has been defined as “an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment”.  Forest school is both a pedagogy and a physical entity, with the use often being interchanged.

Forest school uses the woods and forests as a means to build independence and self-esteem in children and young adults.  Topics are cross-curriculum (broad in subject) including the natural environment, for example the role of trees in society, the complex ecosystem supported by a wilderness, and recognition of specific plants and animals. However, the personal skills are considered highly valuable, such as teamwork and problem solving.  The woodland environment may be used to learn about more abstract concepts such as mathematics and communication. Forest school provision is also called nature schools.

mushroomsIn Denmark it became an embedded part of the curriculum for pre-school children (under seven years) stemming from their småbørnspædagogik, or ‘Early childhood education’. Children attending Forest kindergartens were arriving at school with strong social skills, the ability to work in groups effectively, and generally children had high self-esteem and confidence in their own capabilities.  In 1957, a Swedish man, Goesta Frohm, created the “Skogsmulle” concept to promote learning about nature, water, mountains and pollution. With an increasing focus on measurable outcomes, forest schools have gained acceptance as an educational method in their own right.

Beyond primary school age children, forest school is frequently used to further develop social skills and explore creative learning and focuses on developing firm foundations for continued personal and education development.

cedar's sit spotForest School Canada says this on their website~

Our vision is for all Canadian children to play and learn in local forests, creeks, meadows, prairie grasses, mountains, and shorelines with a wise and skilled educator who understands the power of play and child-directed learning and how this can contribute to a more sustainable world.

Forest School Canada runs a practitioner’s course in conjunction with the the UK Forest School Association. The course is “a program steeped in the tradition of Forest School abroad, but grounded in the realities of the Canadian experience.” Julie Johnston, our Spring Leaves resource teacher and facilitator attended their July 2014 program held at UVic — a wonderful week of outdoor learning about how to engage children in outdoor learning. They focused on risk assessment and management, practical outdoor skills (fire building, tool making and safety, flora and fauna identification), woodland management, the theories of holistic learning and development, and the establishment and delivery of a Forest and Nature School program.

Our Spring Leaves Forest School is a blend of Forest School ethos with the themes in Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, which is a book about the principles, games and other activities in Coyote Mentoring, a program and “way of learning” based on Tom Brown Jr’s Tracking School and Jon Young’s Wilderness Awareness School.  Julie’s background in outdoor and experiential education and the combination of these two programs has created a wonderful foundation in which our group can explore the needs of our large span of ages (preschool to 13, plus adults!).

the walk to forest school

the walk to forest school

We have had three weeks of our forest school so far.  Each week we have left our cars and made the 5 minute walk through agricultural fields and up to a place with a fire pit surrounded by bench seats.  We have a circle, where we each have the chance to say how we are doing, feeling, or what we are grateful for.  Julie introduces the theme of the day, and offers an activity or game that gets us involved in the theme.  We have spent time practicing our owl eyes, deer ears, and fox walking, and considered what around us we can catch, gather, eat, climb and tend.  We have made ourselves aware of potential hazards of the area, and made sure everyone understands what to do in case of getting lost.  We did some tracking and observing of landmark features, and we spend some time in our own quiet meditative sit spot.  We also have a growing list of fun games to play.

Our kids have grown up in nature.  Their everyday world provides them with opportunities to connect with nature, from looking out the windows, to walking or bicycling down the road to a friend’s house, or  spending time kayaking, or looking up at night to see the brightness and clarity of a sky full of stars.  I have seen them, as babies, toddlers, and little children, fall in love with rocks, sticks, clouds, trees, and fields of grass.  It seems very clearly inherent, instinctual, and life supporting for us as an earthly species to understand and feel our place as interconnected, as a part of the natural system.  I think it leads to a deep sense of well-being and confidence, a foundation for children to bring into the adult world strewn with so many detrimental substitutes.  Here is my own list of benefits to being outside as a form of education:

magic sit spotIn nature we find peace, reflection, micro systems, macro systems, observation, exploration, growth patterns, elemental effects, cascade of reaction, challenges, physical movement, high intake of fresh oxygen, moving up and down, scrambling, reaching, walking carefully, stillness, problem solving, understanding safety, being closer to the reality of survival, understanding comfort, help from others, learning skills and then doing them, leading others, helping others, asking questions, seeing our effectiveness or consequences, fun, playing games, imagination, diversity, seasonal cycles, life cycles, beauty, creativity, symbiotic relationships, healing, spiritual connections~ mind, body, spirit.

I am sure this list could be plenty longer.  I am also sure that some things on this list are attained in other ways.  This is what I experience, and what I see my children experience when they are outside.  Over many years together as a changing group of home schoolers, other parents also agree that basically, being outside together seems to be the most satisfying and uplifting scenario, for the kids and for the adults.  Finding that this type of “education” is recognized as being consistent with Attention Restoration Theory, where children taking part in forest school have been described as more relaxed, is not surprising.  Relationships between the children and each other, with adults, and with the environment, are important.  Forest schools have been found to help children with additional support needs, including Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autistic children.  The Biophilia hypothesis argues that a love of nature is instinctive. The term ‘nature deficit disorder’, coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, recognizes the erosion of this by the urbanization of human society.

Forest Schools are being created all over the globe, with classes filling to capacities.  It is no surprise that we recognize the need for such educational reform, especially in the early years, but also as we grow.  There is a Hopi word, koyaanisqatsi, which means life out of balance, or a state of life that calls for  another way of living.  The way we bring our next generations into the world is a vital part of all systems that we as humans need to change to bring ourselves back into balance.

Deep thanks to the family of the Valley Home Farm for opening their beautiful land to us.

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