Chapter 11: Booklets
“At Sundance, instead of having set schedules and classes everyday, we had Booklets.”
I think that one of the best structures we had at Sundance was the Booklet, and I give all the credit for its concept and design to Sharon Douglas, the mother of Allie Douglas-May. I asked her to reveal to us how she came up with this brilliant idea. Here is what she writes about it.
I can shed a little light on the idea of booklets. As you remember there were many different children at Sundance-all unique with their own set of needs and strengths. A lot of them fit right into the whole concept of self choice of areas to take part in but there were a few lost souls wandering about. As in life, there were children who had great verbal skills, others did not. Some were shy, the majority outspoken. Some children excelled and loved challenges, others tried hard to do things and they got them done but that is basically all you could say about it.
I noticed that while there were always kind words and interest in each and every child the amount of reinforcement and feedback seemed to be unequal. Allie shy and not too forthcoming in her choices nonetheless had a lot of reinforcement. Jorma (NOT shy and immediately and loudly picking his choices) got a lot of reinforcement and attention (some of it to tell him to “cool it Jorma. Let someone else have a choice this time!) However, there were kids that I saw day after day quietly go along with whatever happened, not standing out, never treated unkindly, but just part of the classroom walls almost. There were other children whose home lives were in constant chaos and who never knew what time they got to school or what was going on (always late for draws, never quite figuring out what was next.)
You would see teachers struggling to get a handle on who was there and who shouldn’t be (always with concern and kindness, but how frustrating when “Janey” turned up at the advanced maths when you knew she had finally won a draw for the museum, the cars were leaving and she could not even count to 100 much less start doing multiplication so letting her stay in that offering was just not going to work.) I would see children not looking happy while wandering around the halls or going in and bugging Bindo about where they should be.
Children who really needed to be at Sundance with its caring community and non-judgmental approach to those with learning problems had parents who would make cruel remarks out at the street during pick up time.”So, what was it today, basket weaving? Finger painting? Could you not let me know what you are doing at that school?” I just wanted to say, “He made a fantastic pottery bowl, he shared a wonderful story about spending time with his other father, he made everyone at the school meeting happy when he sang a silly verse he made up himself.” The family would never find that out because they did not spend time at the school during the day. The child would get lots of praise at school but there would be a total disconnect between his school self and the family self.
Then I thought of families where custody was shared and the non-custodial parent had no idea what was going on at school during the times they did not have contact with their child. I tried to think of a way where every child had to be acknowledged at least once every hour, a way in which adults and siblings would know what a rich and wonderful curriculum their child/sibling was enjoying; a method where the “lost souls” with bad memories or lack of breakfast could have something that would empower them to take control of finding their way to their next offering (sounds way too over the top but what a gift not to have to ask and ask where should I be and what will I be doing there when I get to that place.)
And so, Sharon solved so many problems all at once. The idea came to her to provide each child with a Booklet for the month. She goes on:
It gave parents a sense of relief and inclusion in the choices and the outcomes. It was a spot where teachers and others could make a note about good things and things that may be giving them pause. (For example we did not realize until someone wrote in her booklet that perhaps Allie needed to get her eyes checked as she was having problems with print size. We did, and her eyes were fine, but her best friend Erin had just received new glasses and Allie had seen how Erin got them so decided maybe that was the thing to do. She was only 4 then.) But other kids did need glasses and if you only think about it for a fleeting second and there was no booklet to write it in, that glasses prescription may not have come for 2 or 3 more years.
The goals section came about because that was an integral part of Sundance and it made sense to me. By passing out the choices and having the booklets going home with the choices on Friday, families could have meaningful discussions about the week.
For households (especially where all the adults worked) you could write on the calendar on Sunday anything you needed to have for your child that week (e.g. swimming Wednesday) and you could deal with any problems that had arisen during the previous week. When you have a booklet that lasts one month no matter how horrendous that week is becoming you can always look back and see that last week it was a good week and you were acknowledged and loved at school by caring adults.
You could share the highs and lows of the week and you usually learned something, even if it was that the great note concerning the offering about graphing that your daughter did a great job at was only the “official” one. (It was about favourite colours, but the real hit for most of the students was the unofficial one that was done about which teacher had the worst breath and if you remember Allie’s peer group you can guess which boy did that unofficial poll.)
For all those reasons and more I thought up the booklets. Personalizing them was an important artistic outlet for some students and an important part in taking ownership of their education for others. Some of the booklets were amazing works of art but that was not the point. Whether the cover was a big mandala, a picture of their dog, or just their name, it was theirs and theirs alone to do with what they wished. It contained their (often hard to articulate in group) goals -and some of those you had to admit were heart wrenching at times. One I remember was the goal for week: see if my dad will not send me home early this time, try to make myself interesting. She had asked me if I would help her print out her goals by giving her the spelling of interesting, I did comment to her family teacher that perhaps she may want to spend time with the student that week when she saw her goals.”
Sharon’s contribution to the school was nothing short of brilliant. Before the introduction of booklets, we had been trying a variety of ways to keep track of who was coming to offering. One method had been to use discarded computer punch cards (remember them?) that parents donated to the school. We would have the kids write their names at the top and their offerings choices for the day, and put them in “The Bin” when they arrived at the offering. During the course of the offering, the teacher would initial each card to show that the child had attended. At the end of the day, we’d find the cards, crumpled and dirty, perhaps only the top offering signed, left behind with half a dozen others on the bottom of “The Bin.” The kids didn’t have a sense of ownership towards the cards, and would forget them after the first or second offering, or sometimes back in the family room.
Sometimes kids would carry their newsletters around with them with their choices circled. Again, they were often left behind in one of the classrooms.
You can only imagine how we as staff rejoiced when Sharon came to Staff Meeting one afternoon and showed us her idea. She had taken a school notebook and turned it on its side so that the top page was the schedule grid and the bottom page was the place for goals, remarks and signatures (parent and child.)
Dylan Fry, who attended Sundance after Booklets had been introduced, describes the way he remembers them. He writes:
At the beginning of every week we made our schedule for the whole week. The booklet consisted of a large piece of card, folded over. Kids of all ages would draw a picture of what ever they wanted on the cover and, on the inside, sign up for whatever workshops they wanted. All the teachers hosted various workshops throughout the day.
“Anyone can draw” is an example of an offering. It was a class where you could draw or do any kind of art you wanted. “Read all about it” consisted of watching a television series about some young kids that solved mysteries. The principal, Paul, taught Origami. There were Arts and Crafts and story reading.
After the booklets were filled out and the cover illustrations were finished, the booklets were laminated and carried with the individual all week.
I still have a number of my own children’s booklets at home. The covers reflect their ages, genders and social groups. Jason drew Slayer and Metallica and other band names on his, over the years. And Lace had rainbows and ponies on hers when she was younger, and other more exotic designs as she got older. Looking inside, I see that Room and Out were very popular offerings for both my kids, with Older Math and various Social Studies and Science offerings sprinkled throughout. They sometimes didn’t get their signatures, and sometimes their goals were a little sketchy. As parents, we could have intervened more often but we gave them the chance to choose for themselves, and I still think we were right to do that. We trusted them to choose what they needed at the time, believing that people want to learn and will learn, given the opportunity.
Katlyn Holland wrote:
I remember the excitement of getting a new booklet! How fun it was to decorate the front with what ever you liked! Often it was a drawing, using colourful felt markers; other times a sketch with a pencil. I remember what was really exciting was getting Paul to write your name on it, because he had the most amazing writing.
Josh Miller has happy memories of filling in his booklet with his parents. He says:
I was lucky because my parents really participated in my day-to-day schooling. We would sit down every Sunday and do our booklets – it was a ritual that I loved and cherished.
Many Sundancers still have those old booklets in a special box or drawer. They record comments from the staff like, “Wasn’t that fun?” or “I appreciate you for trying so hard.” Self-evaluations say things like, “I worked hard this week,” or “I was mad at x but now we’re friends.”
Goals like, “To do more writing,” or “to learn my 7-times table,” or “to have fun with my friends,” were goals the kids chose for themselves, maybe with adult help, but considered and chosen by the kids.
Giving children the opportunity to set goals and then evaluate their week demonstrated that they had a hand in their education and in their own life. Booklets provided a record of these exercises in self-direction, a way to learn about making choices and become better at making them.