We found out the Friday before school started that my three school aged boys got into the highly coveted new alternative school that opened this September in Toronto. The school takes a more holistic approach to education. We’re almost two months into school and so far we love it. I’ve wanted to write about it but two things have kept me from doing so: 1) I’ve kind of been waiting for something bad to happen. I’d wanted my kids to get into this school so badly. For a while there I thought we’d never get in, but in the end things worked out so well for us. I wanted to wait to make sure this all wasn’t too good to be true. 2) I have found it difficult to put into words what the school is all about and exactly what I love about it. So, with the help of a few quotes from the school’s website, here goes.
“In a society facing complex cultural, environmental, economic, political, health and scarcity issues, the same ways of approaching problems will no longer suffice. What will be required is a new set of aptitudes that include imagination, inventiveness, collaboration, openness, adaptability and flexibility. Education has always played a fundamental role in preparing our children to become engaged citizens of the world and there is no better way to make change happen than to begin rethinking how we teach and engage our future generations.”
On the very first day there were two things that stood out to me. Firstly, all the teachers go by their first names. I think it helps to make the kids feel like they are on equal ground. It is more indicative of a nurturing relationship. The teacher is still recognized as the teacher but in balancing out the power in the relationship a little, the kids can feel more comfortable speaking up and being the little people that they are. Perhaps in using more familiar terms there is a greater element of trust.
Secondly, the school lay-out is very open concept. The kindergartens have two classrooms: a regular ol’ indoor kindergarten classroom and an outdoor classroom. The outdoor classroom – where the kids have spent the majority of their time so far – is wonderful! The kids use wooden cable spools as tables and tree stumps as stools. There is a nature table which houses – you guessed it – things from nature! It became home for a day to a bucket of snails from our garden and has also been adorned with leaves, pinecones and all sorts of other things that my kids and others have picked up on the way to school. There is large space in which the kids can do an activity, play with toys or run around freely. Circle time is spent underneath a shady tree with blankets and “sit-upons” (a circular spongy place for the kids to sit and keep their bums dry!).
“One of [the school’s] principles is developing the body-mind connection through movement and awareness techniques, and yoga is one of the many activities practiced.”
The indoor classrooms aren’t really regular ol’ classrooms. When you first walk into the school’s main area you find yourself in a large open space. This space is used for yoga and the weekly craft circle, among other things. What was once an unsightly pillar with some sort of switches on it is now a beautiful tree (with a secret little door that opens up to reveal the now hidden switches.) The individual classrooms, although separate from each other, are very open and do not have doors on them. They are filled with things like wooden toys, modeling beeswax and are set up in such a way that they are far less stuffy and formal than the average classroom.
“Holistic education engages the head, heart, hands and spirit of the child. It is a curriculum that makes connections – community, earth, soul, subject and mind-and-body connections – and it develops intuition and inquiry.”
So far this year, things have gone very smoothly, considering it is a new school and the first of its kind. As I sit here writing I pause and look over at my almost 8 year old, grade 3 son. He’s sitting on the couch finger knitting; a new skill that he learned at school. In addition to finger knitting, they’ve made knitting needles and hand sewn bags. They will eventually be using the knitting needles they’ve made to learn to knit. All of these things happen once a week at craft circle. The children get to know the other grades as they all come together and work on craft projects.
The school also takes weekly walks/hikes/trips. The kindergartens have been to the pumpkin patch, but they mostly stay close to the school. They either go to the local library, a local park, or a nearby ravine. They explore nature and learn about the surrounding community in a fun and engaging way.
The older kids have gone on trips to the apple orchard and pumpkin patch (the pumpkin patch was a trip in which the entire school participated). They also go for walks locally and other places like the Humber River to see the salmon run and to the Leslie Street Spit.
“[The school] will achieve academic excellence through an arts-integrated and experiential-learning curriculum. Our approach addresses the whole child and promotes the development of healthy, responsible, inquisitive, creative human beings.”
This week I was welcomed into the classroom to bake with the kids. It was a really nice experience. My 2 year old daughter came with me and toddled around while a few of the grade 3 girls doted on her every move. Some kids were really keen on baking, some were moderately interested and some just didn’t care much for it at all. The kids were all welcome to participate as much or as little as they wanted. The teacher and I supervised and helped when needed; the kids read the recipe, measured the ingredients and mixed everything together. While it was chaotic at times, for the most part it was a somewhat organized chaos. I think everyone had fun. The pumpkin muffins were a little less than perfect. There was an extra tablespoon or two of this ingredient, a little less of that ingredient and one ingredient that I’d forgotten altogether (the teacher and I laughed about how it was a little like a Bake-Off/Taste Test from an episode of Just Like Mom!) but it was the experience that mattered most. To the kids the pumpkin muffins tasted great.
As we go through the year there will no doubt be bumps along the road. Not everything is perfect and there are resources that will take years to build, but there is a vision, and I like what that vision looks like.
“Ron Miller, one of the major thinkers and contributors to the field of holistic education, explains that: ‘holistic education is an effort to cultivate the development of the whole human being. Where conventional schooling views the child as a passive receiver of information and rules, or at most as a computer-like processor of information, a holistic approach recognizes that to become a full person, a growing child needs to develop – in addition to intellectual skills – physical, psychological, emotional, interpersonal, moral and spirited potentials. The child is not merely a future citizen or employee in training, but an intricate and delicate web of vital forces and environmental influences.’”