June 26, 2013


Having just finished the mandatory 2012 Candlebark annual report – close to 5000 words this time; might send it to a publisher – I’m still in the office, now listening to the radio description of the showdown in federal politics between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Last year I reread a CP Snow novel (“The Affair”). Although CP Snow is out of fashion these days, and will probably never come back into fashion, he did understand politics, and his description of the power games within a Cambridge college is quite reassuring in a way, reminding us that the machinations within our political parties are not confined to Canberra, or Australia.

It’s the halfway mark of the school year at Candlebark, and with two terms gone I have to say it’s been thoroughly enjoyable. There were so many highlights, but one of my favourites was on the last morning of term two, last week. Just before the morning meeting started, someone turned on the CD player that had been used at the soirée the night before, and the voices of the Bee Gees filled the building. Within moments a spontaneous disco began, with kids of all ages and both genders – and not a few staff as well – dancing happily and uninhibitedly. Boringly, I didn’t participate, but watched as the music changed to an Abba song, and the dancing continued. Even more boringly, I eventually brought it to an end, so we could have the morning meeting.

But I did think as I watched the disco that these things can only happen in a school which is in fundamentally good shape.

We have quite a few teachers from other schools visiting Candlebark – even a deputation from a Seventh-day Adventist school in Perth a couple of weeks ago. One pair, from Victoria, came recently at the instigation of one of our ex-students. I’ve just received this e-mail from them, which I’ve edited by taking out some comments about my books, which were nice, but irrelevant to Candlebark. I’ve also concealed the identity of the two ex-Candlebark students referred to in her comments:

“As the dust settles on the second last week of term and all the correction and report writing that this time of year entails, I can finally sit down to write a note thanking you for having us at Candlebark on Wednesday.  It was a fantastic experience that thoroughly reinvigorated me; I feel like I will walk across the end of term finish line rather than inching over it with my usual hand over fist crawl.  You and all the people that you have at Candlebark have created a very inspiring school.

“I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time – I first met A very early in 2012 at the interviews our College holds to introduce the students to their VCE experience.  She spoke so fondly of her time at Candlebark that the school came back on my radar…

“Aside from A being a really lovely girl, as we got in to the swing of the semester she stood out because she is my very favourite thing in a student; a thinker who holds me to task.  She asked ‘why’ more than almost every other student.  “Why was it that way?’ ‘Why look with that perspective?’ ‘Why believe what Thucydides says is true?’ And I loved it. This year I am lucky enough to be teaching her again in Philosophy and I also met B in Classical Societies. B as you know is another exceptional student.

“Having sung their praises I want to clarify; I am not saying that either of them always get everything right or that they are perfect.  But both of them are actively involved in their education and take responsibility for when things go right and things go wrong.  They think about it and engage with it rather than opening their mouths and waiting for me to spoon feed it to them.

“And as I walked around the school I saw my truest belief about education realized – a school that not only encourages every single student but insists that they are responsible for their thinking and their learning.  I absolutely loved that you were honest about what Candlebark is and what it is not.

“Candlebark is the most natural type of education there is – one that values all learning no matter the subject whilst insisting on academic rigor across all of them, that fosters curiosity and creativity by allowing students to feel that their interests and passions have worth and value. It also – a point of significant envy as I had twenty nine students in one of my classes this semester – invests in an environment that recognizes a community is built by getting to know the people in it.  Keeping things small is a priority because building relationships with students is what makes any of it meaningful.

“Candlebark is not an education that is about the image it projects.  It is not an educational production line, nor is it about a brand.  It does not insist on an organic, carbon neutral, politically correct approach that turns each child into a confused accessory that has never – travesty – eaten a Freddo Frog.

“Thank you so much for having me.  I really hope that when my daughter is old enough we are in a position (geographically and financially) to put her on the waiting list. You offer the type of education I value so much – as a parent and a teacher.  It was an absolute pleasure.”

As you can imagine, I will happily settle for that as a summary of where the school is at, halfway through 2013.

In an article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age on Monday June 24, Linda McSweeny wrote:

“Red wash cloths are being stashed in preschool first-aid kits around the US to ensure that when children are hurt, they don’t see the blood in the clean-up. Psychologists say it won’t be long before we see the same thing in Australia, if it’s not already happening.

“The fragility of modern kids is being challenged by psychologists who say parents are overprotecting, overindulging and overscheduling their children to the point where they expect perfection in every area other than hardiness, leaving kids floundering.

“Everyone knows kids suffer in playground scraps that turn nasty or online bullying that makes parents feel helpless. But experts say parents need to instill grit in their children by backing off a bit. Plus they must shoulder some blame for leaving their children bereft of the ability to cope with adversity.

“The collective lack of resilience has become so prevalent that schools worldwide are implementing social and emotional learning tools to deliver well-rounded, emotionally tuned graduates instead of high academic achievers only… Californian-based clinical psychologist Dr Wendy Mogel says children are hard-wired for competence but need to be given the chance and resources to be resilient.

“Mogel, the author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, runs Overparenting Anonymous, an 18-step guide for parents to better equip their kids for a sturdy life.

‘”What I thought when I heard that [red wash cloths are being used in preschools to block the sight of blood] is ‘kids love blood, it’s the brightest colour and substance that comes out of the human body. How else will they learn about clotting’?” Mogel says.

‘”I want them out in nature. I want them climbing trees. I want them learning how to use sharp knives and how to light a match. All these life skills are much more important. Learn how to deal with disappointment and frustration. Learn what to do if you get a disappointing grade in school instead of having your parent call the teacher and ask to have it changed.”‘

‘”Parents who choose a different path to overprotection can sometimes feel as though they are neglecting their children because they are “salmon swimming against the tide” in society, Mogel says.

‘”But unless you do it, what happens – and I see this pattern so much now – is the kids are not prepared to go off to college or university because the parents have been at their side, the combination of a Sherpa, a butler, a concierge, the secret police, an ATM and a talent agent.

‘”The role I encourage parents to take is witness rather than the person who takes on the whole burden of the problem and solves it.”

I’d also like to refer you to an article online, which begins “New research at Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, an institute of the University of Tasmania, has found children’s engagement with schooling, above and beyond their academic performance at school, predicts their level of education and occupation as adults. The ground-breaking study was recently published in the British Educational Research Journal, one of the leading international education research journals. The long-term impact of childhood school engagement on educational and occupational achievement in adulthood was found to be independent of socioeconomic factors, personality, self-concept as a learner, and childhood academic attainment as rated by the teacher.”

If you’d like to read the rest of this article, which I believe further validates what we are doing at Candlebark, the address is http://www.media.utas.edu.au/general-news/all-news/school-engagement-may-be-secret-to-success

We have lots of plans for the second semester of the year, to continue students’ engagement with their school, and to continue to build resilience and inner strength. These include big projects and small, and among them are an interesting variety of outdoor challenges. These outdoor activities include a bike camp with the younger students, grades 1 to 3, in the Bright-Beechworth area in term four;  a camp for grade 5/6 late in October;  and 10 days at Mittagundi for our Year 10 students. There’ll be a taste of Shakespeare, some chess tournaments against other schools, a trip to Mount William Quarry with local indigenous people, a visit to the Police Helicopter Wing for some of our youngest students, and of course, for everyone, rehearsals for the traditional end of year extravaganza.

My own plans include my first substantial break from Candlebark since the school opened. I’ve been invited to the Edinburgh Literary Festival, and Kris and I will both make the trip, with the boys – an exciting adventure, as none of us has been to Scotland before. Can’t wait to hear a bit of authentic “och-aye-ing”…