Chapter 2 Families
“Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.”
Ask Becky what song reminds her of Sundance and she’ll tell you it’s “We are Family.”
Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of the world’s delights
High hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
No we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong
This is our family Jewel
__Sister Sledge (We are Family)
One significant structure at Sundance was the Family. In form, families were multi-aged groupings. There were five families, one in each classroom. Children met with their family teacher at least three times daily in their family room, where they kept their coats, lunch and other belongings. The family teacher took attendance, wrote their reports, met with their parents. It was like a home room, but so much more.
Families met each morning for “check in,” where each person, child or adult, said what they had brought to school with them in terms of their feelings or wishes, and where they were listened to with respect and caring.
After that important opening to the day, teachers attended to the formalities such as attendance and booklet checks, announcements, and addressing the day’s schedule with any changes or additions. We shared news and made plans. Sometimes if an offering was limited in numbers, we had to do “draws,” which were like lotteries where we pulled children’s names from a hat or perhaps they chose a number and the closest number won. Feelings of disappointment then often had to be dealt with.
Tracy Lowe says:
Sundance was about family. I was in Giles’ Family. It was neat to be part of a group of kids of all different ages. No child was left out as is usually the case in other schools.
Dylan Fry writes about the allegiance the kids felt toward their own family and their family teachers.
Everyone had a pride and attachment to their family’s teacher. It was like the classroom equivalent to patriotism. There was such a feeling of family that the kids actually loved their teacher as if they were part of their immediate family. I can’t imagine that kind of phenomenon happening in a school where everyone is called Mr. this or Mrs. that, or having to hold up their hands to ask a question.
I remember Evie as the teacher in the portable, adored by everyone in her family. I remember being in the school yard and a student by the name of Phillipa Joly was boasting matter-of-factly, “Evie is the best teacher in the whole school!” She said it in a tone that implied a hard fact. There could be no discussion.
Circles were important, basic to Sundance. We usually sat on the floor in Family Time circles, or we would have couches in our rooms that everyone squeezed onto for circle time. Everyone was on a first-name basis. This was one way we showed respect for each person.
Dylan Fry also describes Circle Time. He says:
Three times a day, morning, noon and afternoon, everyone in the family participated in “Circle Time”. This consisted of everyone sitting in a circle on the floor, with at least two or three kids in the teacher’s lap. We would go around the circle and everyone would express a feeling. It could be something you liked or felt happy about; it could be something you were frustrated or angry about, or anything you wanted. This was so every member of the school had an opportunity to practise sharing and talking about feelings, something that too many of us have trouble doing even into adulthood.
The day would end with a circle, too. I recall when Jason was in Paul’s family, at the end of the day the family would sit in a circle and Paul would tell them another episode in the continuing story of his family, bringing all the kids into it. One of the stories was about space travel. This story time brought everyone together and gave them a sense of belonging, of all being valued family members.
Families took on responsibilities such as fundraisers. Our family printed and sold greeting cards each year. I can’t recall what other families did.
We also hosted events, such as the Winter Show, which was also my family’s event. We would write our own plays for this event. Paul’s choir would sing, parents would put on entertainments, and the whole school community would attend. We began to hold the event twice, so that we could have two separate seatings to accommodate all the friends, grandparents, aunts, cousins and siblings, while not creating a headache for the fire marshal.
Families would sometimes plan field trips and hold their own potlucks and sleep-overs.
The families consisted of kids from 5 to 12, representing a complete cross section of ages. There were rituals to observe. The first was that everyone sat on the floor, in a circle, parents, kids, siblings, teacher(s). Sometimes the oldest kids would hold the youngest in their laps. There was no segregation by age or grade. Everyone had a turn to speak and say how he or she was feeling. The younger ones often saying, I feel good because I feel good. The older ones would sometimes go into complex explanations of their emotional state. Then announcements were made and the day would begin.
One of the most enormously satisfying experiences I had was finally getting my own family, “Amber’s Family.” When I started teaching at Sundance I had a .4 position, and just helped out in Ron’s Family. Then I was part of a blended family called BEAD, that is, Becky, Evie, Amber and Doreen. Finally, at .8, I had my own family, which Paul graciously took one day a week. I guess it should have been called Amber and Paul’s Family, but it wasn’t. At that time, there was Becky’s Family, Giles’ Family, Evie’s Family, Bronwen’s Family and Amber’s Family. Paul was the principal. For me, these were the Golden Years.
Skye Leigh Roy writes about her three years at Sundance, and being part of my family:
For the 3 years that I spent there, Amber, you were my teacher…what a lucky girl I was. You were the Martha Stuart of the time, but much more personable. During these years my parents were separated and I was living with my dad. Amber, you took me under your wing. It was great that you had the freedom to be so close with your students. I remember when I got my 1st period and you took me out for lunch. You gave me some red juice and a red rose and told me how I was becoming a woman. I don’t remember ever being embarrassed…just happy that I was special for the day.
We all looked upon our positions as family teachers as a great privilege and responsibility. There was so much love for our students and for their families. And that love was returned.
Lara Bergseth, one of the first Sundancers writes on facebook:
I remember being “assigned” to Paul’s family when I first started Sundance (at the old Quadra Street School) but…I wanted to be in Donna’s family, so I seem to remember just going to Donna’s family and that was it! I was in Donna’s family from then on. I thought Donna was so sophisticated and posh…maybe she’s a reason I’ve spent the last 20 years bleaching the heck out of my hair!..haha! I also remember being told that Donna always flew first class because that way she would meet interesting men…what a strange thing to remember!…but I guess it just added to her aura! I miss those days, if I could go back and do it all over again. I would…except I think I would skip the moving to LA part and just stay at Sundance forever!
When former Sundancers get together, the subject of whose family they were in inevitably comes up. Natalie Pryce (nee Morry) wrote on Facebook:
I was in Ambers Family all 7 years I went to Sundance. From 1983-1990. The best!!!
It really was like a very large family, with the bigger kids looking out for the little ones. I remember the little kids sitting on the laps of the big kids at Family Time.
Katlyn Holland says to Lara Pierce on Facebook:
OMG, were you friends with Lindsey and in Amber’s family? If that is you I remember you as a little girl! I was one of the “big kids” in Amber’s family when you started school.
In a letter, Katlyn went on to say:
I think what really sticks out in my mind is the way the teachers felt like equals, like wise, older friends who we could learn from and have a good time with. It never felt like they were looking down on us. They respected us, so in return it was easy to respect them.
We teachers made strong connections with our family, and though I know that caring relationships develop between students, children and parents in classrooms everywhere, the fact of its being a family, that the people stay together year after year, and that everyone is on a first-name basis, really made for deep, long-lasting connections.
Each family had its own individual feeling, colour or sound. Bronwen’s family sat in a perfect circle and practiced centering and breathing exercises. Giles had a looser family time, with lots of talking and Giles sitting and listening and giving kids supportive feedback. Becky’s family laughed a lot! Evie’s family did, too, and they also really knew that Evie was there for them. I think my family had its unique feel, as well, but it’s hard to say what it was. I know a lot of parents liked to stay and participate in the circle. I know we tried to develop a “feelings vocabulary” to help us be more precise about how we were feeling. We had rituals, such as birthday hats and birthday trees and family potluck parties in the classroom on special occasions. We celebrated a lot.
Each family had something special to offer. It might be freedom, stability, acceptance, comfort, challenge. Each family teacher brought a lot of themselves to their family, their interests, talents, their passion for things, just as parents pass on their gifts to their own children.
A family might offer a child the opportunity to be a “big kid” at school when they were the youngest in their home family, or a “little kid” at school when they were the eldest of several kids at home. They might be quiet at home but really open up in the school family, or be the talker at home but learn to be a listener at school.
We tried to keep the number of children in each family the same, but sometimes it just made sense to assign a new student to one family rather than another on the basis of the particular “chemistry” of that family. We tried to match students to the teachers we thought they needed. Naturally, as principal, Paul did this most often because he was usually the first person to meet a new student.
As teachers, our families were more to us than a class. The kids and their parents and siblings were with us for several years, eight or more, if there were little brothers and sisters who were also going through the school. This continuity was one thing I missed so much when I left Sundance to teach in the “regular” schools.
There were many, many other schools in District 61 parents could send their children to, where their involvement could be minimal and their child would be required to follow a set curriculum, where teachers were Mr. and Mrs., where report cards gave letter grades and where each year their son or daughter would be in a homogenous class and have a different classroom teacher rather than a family teacher.
But there was only one Sundance. Those who visited Sundance and saw our multi-aged families, and still chose our school, had decided to make this school part of their lives and become part of the life of the school. They knew from the outset that there was no point in enrolling unless they supported what the school was offering. The choices, the respect for individual differences, and so on were essential to Sundance, and central to all this were families.