January 28, 2010

Hi again,

As a cheat’s way of doing a blog I thought I’d once again plagiarize myself from an e-mail I sent to parents a few weeks ago, summing up some of the events of 2009 at the school. So here goes:
In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author comments “Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, `What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: `How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
As you may know, I have to do an annual report each year for some government agency… it has to follow a strictly defined structure, and contain a lot of figures, and so is a pretty dry affair. I would rather send you a report about more essential matters.
On the last day of the Anglesea camp, when we were cleaning up, two students approached Kathryn in the kitchen. Presumably they had noticed she was busy, and so they had an offer for her.
“Kathryn, would you like us to pack up your tent?”
She accepted gratefully, and started explaining about how they could put aside her sleeping bag, mattress etc., and she would fix them up later. But they said “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything.”
One of the managers of the camp, Errol, said to me as the kids boarded the buses to go back to school, that the only other group they’d had there who were similar to ours was the home schoolers who use the site every year. He contrasted our kids with groups from other high schools who, when invited to do archery, typically slump against the trees mumbling “Do we have to?”
This is consistent with how we feel about Candlebark kids. For example, when we go on camps and excursions, we hardly have to ask students to help load or unload vehicles. They are very ready to help.
At school, although kids sometimes spontaneously form a queue if there are a lot of people looking for lunch at the same time, we never ask them to do that. We know that they will approach the food area in a courteous way, and that no adults need to supervise. Visitors to the school almost always comment on the courtesy and friendliness of the children. In the four years that we have been open, we have never didactically instructed children about any of these issues. We’ve never told them not to jostle each other around the food area. We’ve never told them how to greet visitors. The children have a courteous attitude which seems to arise spontaneously from the upbringing they have had from you, their parents, and which they seem comfortable to express at school.
When I show visitors around the school, which I do at least three or four times a week, I know I can open any classroom door and we will walk into a scene of purposeful learning, of courteous behavior, of energized and creative activity. Whether it’s kids discussing postmodern classics like Staying Alive in Year Five in grade 5 English, or making chess sets in art, or working out quick ways to measure a ball of string in maths, or running a pretend-shop in prep, or exploring a sophisticated text like Maus (Spiegelman) in year nine, there’ll be a sense of engagement and motivation.
That’s not to say we have perfect students. Some of them can be spectacularly naughty at times. But when they are, we confront it straight away, trying many different approaches, always working on solutions, rather than getting bogged down in negative discussions about the problems.
For all that I’m happy with the daily classroom teaching and learning, there’s no doubt that the breaks from routine are a wonderful fillip. The writing period that we had at the start of each day while the year nines were in the Kimberleys was a simple idea that the students loved. As we told them, the most effective way to become a better writer is to write, and it was fantastic to see their improvements in fluency and confidence on paper.
History Week offered the opportunity to explore specialized topics in considerable depth. The range included The Black Death, History of Sailing Ships, the New Testament, the Renaissance, The Seven Wonders of the World, Bushrangers, and the French Revolution. One of the outcomes involved the whole school getting held up by bushrangers as we were completing a cross-country run, and being taken down to Stringybark Creek where we witnessed a shootout between Ned Kelly’s gang and the police.
Other motivations were powerful too: the workshop with Andy Griffiths resulted in three of the youngest children writing for the first time. The Drama Festival proved hugely successful. To go from a scene from Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, enacted on the old buggy behind the amenities block, down to the creek to see a fantastical performance among the autumn leaves by preps and grade ones, made for a memorable afternoon. Drama was further enhanced by the adventurous and delightful midyear production of The Real Inspector Hound, along with a short second play, Catastrophe. And then came the end of year musical Sanctuary Springs, written by Scott Hatcher, set to music by Taran Carter, and choreographed by Sarita Ryan, with Rosie Leverton and Belinda Saltmarsh-Kram. There was a growing sense throughout the term that we had a hit on our hands with this, and so it proved at Kyneton Town Hall. The cast, musicians and crew gave us a wonderful night, and as I said at the end the performance was enhanced further for many of us by the awareness of the number of individual stories of challenges set and triumphantly met during the rehearsals and performances.
And of course we had another year of extraordinary visits by and to the students. They included WOMAD, Canberra, the haute couture exhibition in Bendigo, Billy Elliot, great ballets like Firebird and the Concorde program and workshops with Tasdance, the Great Ocean Walk, the Kimberleys, the Melbourne Writers Festival at Kyneton Town Hall, Scienceworks for Star Wars, “Fresh Science” at the Melbourne Museum, the Science Experience at Latrobe University, the canoe trip along the Murray River, Questacon and Parliament House in Canberra, the Salvador Dali exhibition, and the Melbourne Film Festival for kids. There was Professor John Hattie, flamenco exponents Paul and Lee, Justin Madden, Andy Griffiths, Shaun Tan, mathematician Dr. Gaye Williams, the producers and directors of Tomorrow When the War Began, Mother Anita from India, footysack exponent Dan Ednie, staff and students from Fitzroy community school, a wonderful range of woofers, chess teacher Nick Gibson, the Otesha cycling group, and on a regular basis, students and teachers from Sunbury Special School… as well as echidnas, snakes, kangaroos, koalas and wallabies….
One of last year’s Year nines spent a day here last week, and wrote to me afterwards “I had a great time visiting Candlebark and it was an enlightening experience seeing the school working just as well as I left it. seeing the art from the departing year 9’s as well as hearing their speeches, seeing the rising army of guitar players and the great joyful vibe among the kids…”.
On Monday a student handed me a Christmas card that included the words “I have grown in ways that I don’t even know about yet, and it’s because of my wonderful experiences at Candlebark.” On Tuesday another student gave me a card which read “Dear Jhon, you are a good Princeable” (sic). I treasure them both. Yet perhaps the most powerful event of the year for me was the graduation dinner for the year nines last Friday night. Surrounded by their extraordinary artwork — ceramics, drawings, paintings, stencils — each of the eight students stood and spoke at some length about their time at Candlebark. For some, that had been four years, for some, two or three years, for some, one. Yet each spoke with extraordinary grace, honesty and strength. They described what they had learned and how they had evolved, and perhaps most of all they spoke about their relationships with the teachers at this school. Each speech was very different, yet each in its own way was a triumphant affirmation of the value of their experiences here. Watching and listening, I thought that these students who had “stayed the course” had a good chance that their lives would work out beautifully and brilliantly, as seemed to be indicated by the degree of reflection and insight they showed.
Thanks for reading this folks, and thanks to everyone out there for your continued interest in Candlebark.

John Marsden