Chapter 1 Introduction
“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past
I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”
___Bob Dylan, “If You See Her, Say Hello”
I look back on the years I was involved as a parent and a teacher at Sundance and I marvel at our courage and determination, even our audacity, in the face of the opposition that came at us. And I’m even more astonished that the school board had the courage to support such an amazing and unconventional school.
Almost two decades have passed since I taught at Sundance School. It was a significant part of my life, both in length of time and in importance. I was 31 in 1976 when Jason started school there, and 45 when I went from teaching at Sundance to working at a “regular” school in 1990, 14 years (almost 1/3 of my life up to then) of being involved in the warp and weft of Sundance.
My own chronology:
At the age of 18 I did my first year of a BA degree at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus. The next year I took my “professional year” in Education there. In 1965 I moved to Montreal and finished my BA degree at McGill.
I taught for the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal for two agonizing years. In my Grade 4 classroom there were 40 or more children from various backgrounds. Many had emigrated from Greece and spoke only Greek at home. There were a couple of French Canadian children, a girl who had come directly from Israel and spoke no English, and others from a variety of backgrounds. There was no ESL teacher. We had no Professional Development to help us. There were no in-services, and no books about how to teach ESL.
I had to read the Bible to the class each day and say a prayer with them, because Quebec’s educational system is divided along religions lines; you were either Catholic or Protestant!
At this time I began to attend the Committee for Neutral Schools, a very small group founded by the now-famous Dr. Henry Morgenthaler. I think my principal found out about it because he spoke to me pointedly about the importance of religion in schools!
I had huge misgivings about my “fit” in the educational system. It was harsh and punitive. Our principal used to stalk the school halls, a large brown leather strap protruding from between the pages of a ledger, and ask teachers in a calm voice, “Do you have anyone who needs to be strapped?”
My body trembled, I know, as I swore that all my students were so well-behaved that they certainly didn’t require “the strap.” I resigned at the end of June, 1969. I knew I wanted to work with children, but I also knew I could never and would never be part of that kind of abusive system again. I made this decision when I was 24.
At this time I began a period of soul-searching and discovering. I had saved enough money to live on for a while, so I travelled to the west coast, then moved to the Eastern Townships and helped build a ferro-cement “igloo” on the side of Mount Orford, snuggled down for the winter, reading, going for long snowshoe hikes through the forest, chopping wood. Joel and I acquired a German Shepherd pup and two kittens. In spring I went back to Montreal and worked at the Redpath Library at McGill.
I read the book Summerhill by A.S.Neill. I read “This Magazine is about Schools,” a radical Canadian publication.
The next summer, 1970, I was approached by some parents who had helped establish the Montreal Free School. They were looking for a teacher for the “Little Kids” and wanted me. I agreed to try it for four months. I loved it and stayed for the year. I gave birth to Jason on July 3, 1971. I was then 26. They asked me to come back to the Free School, and even said I could bring Jason to work with me, but I declined, preferring to focus all my time and energy on my beloved little son.
The three of us continued to live in the Eastern Townships until the fall of 1973, when we packed up the school bus Joel had “camperised,” and headed west. I was now 28. We ended up in Victoria in January of 1974, where we remained for the next 30 years.
In the spring of 1974, we heard about Sundance. I read in the paper that there was to be a School Board meeting where the fates of Sundance, the “less structured” school, and Sentinel, the “more structured” school, were to be announced. I attend this meeting.
The Board chose to close Sentinel because it just wasn’t all that different from other schools in the district, but Sundance would remain open because it offered a clear alternative.
I had assumed all along that I would home-school Jason and any other children we might have, but the next day I phoned Sundance and placed Jason’s name on the waiting list. My first contact was with Bindo Lalari, the mellifluous-voiced school secretary who was to become my friend.
Toward the end of August I visited the school to have a look around. The “staff room” in the little brown school on Quadra Street was the size of a walk-in closet. Paul Palmer, wearing stylish overalls and seated on the floor, smiled up at me as I came in. In the warmth of that smile I felt complete acceptance. It felt like a safe place for our son.
I went back once or twice after that to see the school “working.” The kids were always busy, completely engaged in the wide variety of positive options available to them, whether it was holding the pets, creating a radio play, climbing through the big boxes in the “Yellow Room,” doing calligraphy, reading in the portable, or digging in the dirt. They were where they wanted to be. I knew it was the school for Jason.
When I was 31, I gave birth to my daughter, Lace, and that fall Jason started Sundance. For the next 14 years, our family was actively involved in the school.
Alternative to what?
Why am I recounting this story to you? I want you to know, if you don’t already, what we were reacting to. The vision we had of what we wanted for our children educationally, and the reality of what was available, were from two different universes.
People today don’t feel the urgency that we felt in the 70s and 80s, because everything has changed. Schools in Canada today are far from the schools we experienced. Education has evolved. Our schools now try to focus on the whole child. There are no letter grades at the Primary level. Less formal groupings are seen within classrooms. Some teachers recognize different learning styles and allow children to work with their strengths. Anecdotal report cards are in common use in the early grades. There are many other ways that the schools today differ sharply from the schools of the 70s.
Pendulums swing, however, and anecdotal report cards are being replaced by numbers instead of letters. They are better in that the numbers stand for how well the student has achieved each “prescribed learning outcome.” However, they are often seen as grades by others.
But no reasonable person could deny that public schools are much better for students now than they were in the 70s and 80s.
What did we want?
Broadly speaking, we wanted to do everything in a new and better way, to make a school that met the needs of the “whole child” (so far ahead of our time) meaning their bodies, their minds, their emotions and their inner spark of uniqueness which might be termed soul or spirit.
We were committed to creating a completely different experience for our children, even if we had to make it up as we went along.
More specifically, there were as many answers to “What did we want?” as there were people. I tried to list some of the primary wishes on the Grid (Appendix C.) They include parent involvement, respecting others, making choices, individuality, creativity, responsibility, empathy, non-violent problem-solving, multiculturalism, playfulness, self-knowledge, care for the environment, relaxation, communication skills, love.
Here are what some people have said about why they chose, or even helped to found, Sundance School.
Leni Hoover writes:
I wanted a safe environment for our children, a place where they could grow and continue to develop into who they are; a school that supported and respected their feelings and interests, giving them the responsibility to choose activities that interested them and to let them explore those activities in their own creative ways; a place where they were responsible for their own choices.
Peggy Palmer, one of the founders, writes:
As a parent I had some pretty clear wishes for my daughter as she approached school age. I saw her as a capable, curious and well adjusted person and felt very strongly that I did not want her curiosity stifled or her trust in her innate abilities undermined. I did a lot of reading, talking and pondering on this topic as a new parent – sharing my recollections of school life with other adults, and came to the realization that I wanted something ‘other’ for my off-spring. I wanted a place where she would be encouraged to become her own person, to take responsibility for her learning, develop communication skills with her peers and adults, and to value herself for what she is by competing with herself, not an outside standard imposed by the system. I wanted a school where I would be welcomed as a partner in her education.
Sarah Mathison tells us,
I wanted to be able to be an active part of the girls’ school life. I was always able to do this to the extent that I was able and willing. Sundance’s staff went far beyond my expectations as far a caring about my children. The bonding between students and staff was and continues to be far beyond what I have seen anywhere else. Sundance turned out to be a lifetime investment in caring and friendship for many of us.
Evie chose to send her daughter Silk to Sundance. She writes,
I wanted my child to be allowed to progress at her own rate, and not be stigmatized if there was a lag time behind “normal” development. She didn’t read until she was 9, and went on to win awards and bursaries at Spectrum High School for her writing, as well as being in the first group of students who were given credit in High School for a university course (Advanced Placement for English 100.) She had straight A’s at York University in a creative writing major; not bad for a kid who didn’t read at 9!
Evie recalls her first visit to Sundance, as a student teacher, and how it made her want this school for her daughter. She writes:
The school was still located in a rickety old building on Quadra Street. I was awed by the activity, the movement of kids from one space to another, the vitality and warmth. When I went downstairs, I found a group of 6 – 8 year-olds dancing to classical music, waving large gossamer scarves, led by a man. That first introduction to Giles, to the modelling of softness as expression in the same man the kids wrestled with and worked out with was, a clincher for me. I wanted to be a part of this and I knew it was the right place for my daughter.
Becky tells us what she was looking for. She writes
Having grown up in a military family in the U.S. I never lived in one place for very long. Away from extended family and living all over the world, I did not have a sense of community while I was growing up.
Leaving the U.S. in 1969 and moving to Canada caused a temporary rift with my parents and a permanent exile from my homeland. Many more moves from Montreal to Vancouver to Rock Creek to Mexico and finally to Victoria contributed to a sense of rootlessness. Hearing about Sundance when I was seeking alternatives for my children’s education led me to finally find not only a community but also a family. Little did I know on that first day that this would become the centre of my life for so many years.
My first impression of Sundance was of a teacher, whom I came to know was Giles, comforting a little girl on the stairs. He was treating her sadness with such tender respect, giving her full attention and all the time she needed to feel better. It was an “aha moment.” I knew that I wanted my daughter and son to experience that same care, respect, acknowledgement, and guidance, and thank god, they did. Giles became and continues to be a friend who exemplifies living ones beliefs and principles.
Again, it was the modeling of caring and gentleness by a staff member, (in both these instances, Giles,) that helped Becky and Evie decide to make Sundance their school home.
In 1993, when I was no longer teaching at Sundance, I sent out a questionnaire asking former Sundancers how the school had met their expectations. Denise Dunn, who was a Sundance parent from 1979 to 1989 and taught there from 1989 to 1993, answered this way:
I wanted a place where my children could be happy and indeed they never wanted to take a day off from Sundance. I wanted a place where my kids could develop their potential, free of coercion and fear. Having enjoyed my own schooling, I had a positive attitude towards school and expected my kids to have the same. I wanted support in raising kids who would care for others, be free of prejudice, have a sense of personal responsibility and tell the truth. As our children moved through Sundance our family’s needs developed and changed. Sam’s and Tom’s reading, writing, ‘rithmetic skills and their preparedness for Junior High gained in importance as they grew older. On the whole Sundance met my expectations as a parent. My expectations would be different in some ways, and of course clearer in hindsight, were I enrolling a child now.
Ken Dunn answered the questionnaire briefly, saying:
I wanted the kids to make friends and to learn the basic skills in preparation for junior high school entry. Sundance fulfilled these expectations. I was quite happy with Sundance for my children.
Jane Thom, whose son attended at the very end of the 80s wrote:
Our son Aaron was deeply unhappy with what he perceived as an authoritarian situation in another public school. We saw great frustration and unhappiness as Aaron floundered trying to do work with no clear specifications. Sundance was a haven of democracy for us at that time, a refuge for a boy who needed choices, a sense of control, reduced pressure, and a sense of acceptance.
Leslie Hogya, parent from 1977 to and later a teacher, writes:
I came to Sundance because I wanted a supportive, creative, open-ended education for my children, where they could develop their own interests and ideas.
In 1977 Sundance was in the old building on Quadra Street. I had been following its founding and development avidly. I, like many others, had been inspired by the book Summerhill and wanted my children to have that kind of open learning opportunity. Brooks would be in grade 2. He had attended Goosey Gander Kindergarten, and then been in Margaret Reinhardt’s Grade One in our neighbourhood school at the time. Marg was an innovator in education beginning to use whole language techniques before they had a name. So, I felt Brooks had been given some great learning opportunities thus far. When his name came up on the waiting list for Sundance, he began in September.
The first day we were in a downstairs room and got introduced to the idea of family time with Bronwen. I had his brother Jean Guy in a Snuggli and met Bonnie (Reed) Kramer who was sitting next to me with an infant daughter. I loved seeing the teachers interact with the kids. There was a lot of art and music everywhere.
For me, Sundance was a rare and wonderful place where people of all ages worked together; learned to respect each other’s differences. I grew as a person and as a teacher.
Joel and I wanted a school for our children which would nurture their uniqueness. I wanted a school that would take a hands-off approach to their learning so they could them become who they truly are. This implied a loving attitude, because it meant doing “no harm.” It implied gentleness beyond all else. It meant facilitating without forming. Other than home-schooling, I didn’t know how that was to be achieved, until I found Sundance.
And then, after our two children had each completed their eight years at Sundance, and I had been there as a teacher for eight, it was time to leave. There were changes everywhere and I felt my time had come to move on.
In August, 1988, The Sullivan Royal Commission on Education had released recommendations based on the findings from their research into education in British Columbia. Their report A Legacy for Learners, made 87 recommendations. We at Sundance were happy to learn that this commission was emphasizing things we had been emphasizing all along. Some of these were:
- Learning requires the active participation of the learner.
- People learn in a variety of ways and at different rates.
- Learning is both an individual and a social process.
It included ideas about assessment and evaluation, and having them be relevant and part of the learning process. There was more emphasis on social and emotional development.
I know how hopeful I felt when I read this report. I felt that education would be moving in a direction we could celebrate. And I know that many of us looked at our school and our students as evidence that this more human approach to education would lead to happier, more fulfilled people.
In 1990, in response to the Sullivan Commission, the BC Ministry of Education document, Year 2000: A Framework for Learning was published. That was the year I left Sundance, and moved on to what became almost a second career as a Kindergarten teacher in Victoria’s downtown schools. I believed that perhaps there would be no more need for an alternative like Sundance. I was now 45 years old and definitely still a “cockeyed optimist.”
Writing the book:
I was amazed at my own impudence in considering putting into words the reality that was Sundance. It was only when I remembered that I wouldn’t be telling the story alone that I could go forward.
I turned to the previous attempt I had made at writing it, back in 1993, when I sent out about fifty questionnaires, and requested the recipients to send them to other former Sundancers. Although I didn’t complete the project back then, I kept the fifteen replies I received and have used parts of them in this book.
In 2007, using the internet, I began to canvas former Sundancers for anecdotes, once again requesting that they pass the appeal on to others. I received over 25 responses in the first few months, ranging in size from snippets to essays.
Then I discovered Facebook. I want to thank the thoughtful people, like my son Jason Harvey, Yolanda LaHaise, Jennifer Dusseault, Dimitri Demers, Stephanie Hall and many others, who spread the word that way, encouraging other Sundancers to write anecdotes. I received several more responses that way.
The idea for a 70s and 80s Reunion was born one afternoon when Evie was visiting, and took place in the fall of 2007. Dimitri helped by setting up the event on Facebook. Evie rented the gym and ordered all the tables and chairs. The sun shone on us that day, and many people renewed friendships. Natalie Ogilvie offered to help organize activities for the babies and children of former Sundance students. Several written responses were elicited at that happy event, which also helped jog a few memories.
I still needed a framework or format on which to build the book. I finally discovered what I was looking for. Each of these individual visions of Sundance, these personal pictures, have been brought together to create a tapestry. The various structures which had arisen over the years were the warp of the tapestry and the weft was formed from the values, goals, dreams, wishes. These were the multi-coloured threads, their colours soft, vibrant, brilliant or luminous, their texture smooth or fluffy or coarse, were woven together to make the amazing tapestry that was Sundance.
Then I had more thoughts. Some people might see the structures we had as resembling key signature and staff in music, while the melody and rhythm were the day to day life of the school. For some, the structures might have been the canvas and brushes, while the colours and texture of the paints were what happened there. Perhaps the structures were the clay and kiln, while the glaze and shape are the result of the artist’s touch. Or the framework really was the hidden framework of a building while the values and teachings of the schools were what we saw. Whatever your image, the school was made of form and substance, as well as the spirit that blew through it. You choose your own metaphor.
Here’s your book.