Chapter 7 The Curriculum
“I will always credit the Coal Pit as the beginning of my archaeological studies. And even if I can’t write my name in cursive to save my life, it was all worth it. All of it.”
___Quinn Fletcher (’86-’90, then ’91-93)
We were a Public School, part of the Greater Victoria School Board, District 61. As such, we were required to offer whatever the law required in terms of curriculum. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Curriculum Guides, or Programmes of Study, were without the scope and detail of the “Integrated Resource Packages” or “Prescribed Learning Outcomes” which are in place now. We did offer what we thought was reasonable for children in Elementary School to be learning, and had available the textbooks and workbooks that were used in area schools. Teachers presented curriculum, but children were not coerced into following this in a lock-step, sequential manner.
A look at a weekly schedule shows us that the Offerings covered all areas of the curriculum in as balanced a way as we were able to achieve. The offerings addressed the needs of children between the ages of 5 and 12 or 13. They included academic, artistic, physical, emotional, social and spiritual goals. Offerings were selected because it was required, a teacher had a passion for a subject, a child or group of children had an interest in learning about something, a parent had a skill they wanted to share, or someone thought there was a “hole” in the curriculum and decided to fill it.
After reading the letters and anecdotes written by former Sundance students, I have a better insight into our curriculum. Although we proffered a whole treasure chest of offerings each week, what we taught best, what the students carried with them into their future lives, appears to have been something to do with communication skills, self-esteem, social skills, and self-directedness.
Here are several responses to the questionnaire I circulated in 1993. The advantage of these glimpses is that memories were still fresh, although the perspective was not the same as it might be today.
Isis Mathison wrote:
Sundance was a very loving, understanding environment, and it taught me very successful ways of dealing with different situations. It taught me to think like a Sundancer, which meant to be good at problem-solving, understanding, caring, considerate and intelligent.
Tony Nordstrom tells us:
I think that Sundance supported its students in their becoming independently thinking people. Graduates of Sundance, it seems to me, are less likely to bend to peer pressure in Jr. Secondary. Of all the Sundance grads I know, all of them were either “leader” types or “loner” types in later years.
More than anything it was the acknowledgement that children deserved as much respect as adults, that hand in hand with that respect and freedom came an expectation of assumed responsibility.
Peggy Palmer wrote, in 1985:
Outsiders hearing the term ‘free school’, ‘unstructured school’, ‘alternative school’, envision mayhem reigning day in and day out. Really that is far from the truth. The school is often louder than a regular school as conversation is not continually stifled and there is a lot of activity and usual happy kid sounds. There is not a lot of pushing and shoving or bullying. There are many rules of conduct in the school and consequences established for inappropriate behaviour.
Children are not free to shout, scream, interrupt or destroy materials as some may imagine they do. The school is amazingly un-vandalized from within considering there are long stretches of time during the day when there are only children in rooms, e.g. at lunch break when there is one staff person on supervision and only three children go home for lunch. Children are encouraged to feel responsible for the space they are in, whether it is their family room or not and they remind each other to clean up. Children are not allowed to do violence on each other or on school property and they receive consequences for this behaviour as well as assistance in understanding what happened and how they ended up feeling bad enough to hit someone or something.
Sundance children do hold opinions on topics and are encouraged to speak their mind in a caring way about things. They are free to question teachers’ decisions and to work towards a resolution of a conflict in a way that both parties are comfortable with. In some settings this would be considered ‘lippiness’, however, in a school where individuality is valued, there is tolerance for a conflicting opinion, even if that opinion is held by a five year old.
As a result of the 70s and 80s Reunion, held one Sunday in September of 2007, I was able to collect many more comments on what our real curriculum was.
Aaron Ittah wrote:
Sundance taught me about the important things in life: communication, consideration, thought, expression and respect.
Tom Dunn wrote that the most important thing he learned at Sundance was empathy. Shellie Green said she learned “how to make friends for life!” Jon Kerr wrote that for him the most important things he learned there were “creative expression, non-linear thinking and open communication.” Magdalene Joly said she learned “the importance of community.” Philippa Joly credits Sundance with teaching her “communication and responsibility.” Josh Miller wrote that he learned that “my teachers were there to help me, not suppress me; that kids and adults can have real relationships.”
From e-mail communications and Facebook, beginning in 2007, I received the following comments about what the real curriculum was.
Skye Leigh Roy wrote:
I believe that Sundance focussed a lot on good communication when it came to friendships. I may not be the greatest with Math but I do have a lot of great friends. As a kid I moved around a lot, and so this became an important skill.
Tracy Lowe says:
In the morning we would have circle time, where each child could talk about something. We would sometimes do yoga and meditation. We would go outside or to the beach to write poetry. We had fun learning.
When I changed schools for grade seven, I was so enthusiastic about learning and getting graded, I got straight A’s. I didn’t feel any pressure about getting grades and never have felt that.
I still love learning. I’m so fortunate to have started it all at Sundance.
Dylan Frye wrote:
I have a memory of Doug in the gym teaching us how to climb a rope. He wrapped the rope around one of his legs until it supported his entire weight so he could reach up and grip a higher point on the rope, pulling himself up. I remember thinking it looked easy and the lesson still runs through my head every time I climb a rope.
Jhalmala was the “outdoor” supervisor. On all those days when I signed up in my booklet to go outside and play all day long, I saw Jhalmala strolling around the school yard with various children at her side. I remember her telling me that her favourite subject was math because, unlike English, the rules are always the same.
I also remember computers in the portable. I went there sometimes and played Pong on computers that were practically carved out of stone.
Ocean Robbins tells us:
Disguised as a fun place to go to school, Sundance was actually a highly sophisticated, brilliant model for helping children to learn and develop into whole people capable of meeting life’s challenges with confidence and clarity. I loved the school, and it played an important part in my social and educational development. By giving all of us students an exceptional level of choice about our own learning process, and by developing many innovative methods for resolving conflicts and helping us to build confidence in ourselves, Sundance was a place that helped us make the transition from passive recipients of life, to active participants in charting our own destiny.
Natalie Ogilvie (nee Turner) shared this:
I learned that everyone is different in their views/feelings; but we can all share and appreciate each other’s company, if we “positively” communicate with each other.
Megan Chapelas wrote,
I remember peer counselling and learning to listen. I-statements have proven to be more useful in my relationships (current and previous) than almost anything else I’ve learned along the way. At Sundance, a person was a person, regardless of age, background or experience – and with two degrees and a few years more life experience behind me, I’m still convinced this was my most important lesson.
What’s the most important thing you learned in school?
Emma Brown (nee Padley) wrote,
I learned to use “I” statements, rather than place blame…a practice that I have done my best to pass on to my children. I also learned that as a child my views were just as important and valued as an adult’s opinion, and that empowered me to be confident in voicing my opinion from a very young age. Of course I learned the Reading, Writing and Arithmetic that is expected in school…but Sundance taught me so much more, it taught me how to communicate effectively and be a caring, loving and involved member of society. I have made lifelong friends in both my teachers, fellow students and even many of their parents, I am forever grateful that my mother chose to enroll me at Sundance!