Figure 1: Photo: Chris Le Messurier
Independent non-systemic schools, lacking the support of a solid institution like a government or church if and when they go through a bad patch, are possibly more vulnerable than some others. Yet there is a certain amount of hysteria when a school closes. It is sad when schools close: so much is lost, including rituals, traditions, stories, private jokes, nicknames, a sense of belonging. But throughout our lives we have to deal with the failure of institutions that we hoped would not fail: governments lose elections, businesses go broke, marriages end in divorce. Nothing lasts forever. These events are part of our experience as humans. People die, and so do the entities and enterprises into which people sometimes coalesce. We should not be so afraid of such happenings. We learn from them and ideally they should help us develop resilience and strength.
Excessive attempts to regulate schools so that they become failure-proof will result in the extinction of innovative small schools, and the paralysis of the schools that survive. The idea that schools or any other institutions can be rendered failure-proof through the labours of bureaucrats is as ludicrous as the idea that children can be raised so `successfully’ that they will live lives of pure happiness.
And anyway, my opening statement is not even true. Infamous state Premier Jeff Kennett closed more schools (government ones) in Victoria than I’ve closed doors. Acacia College, a Uniting Church school in Melbourne, closed in 2012, despite an enrolment of 520. No school is invulnerable, and neither should they be.
However independent non-systemic schools are of great benefit to society. We are often more easily able to experiment, to innovate, to improvise. We are flexible, and can act as laboratories, pioneering new ideas. Parents who send their children to so-called `alternative’ schools might reasonably be expected to endorse new strategies and techniques more readily than many parents at mainstream schools.
The same applies to teaching staff who choose to work in such schools. During 2014 Isigned up for a two-day forum on school improvement. A large proportion of the first daywas spent on the problem of persuading conservative teachers to accept change, to be willing to embrace new approaches. I sat there feeling almostembarrassed, as that is so not a problem at Candlebark. Our staff members are excited by innovation and are constantly seeking to improve their understanding of education and to advance their teaching practices. In nine years I’veneverknown ateacher hereto oppose an initiative thatmighttakethemoutsidetheir comfort zones… unless for sensible, practical reasons.
Nevertheless I think many of our visitors come expectingto see radically different approaches to education at Candlebark; perhaps even `magic wands’ thatwill fix problemstheymight be having at their own schools. Theymay well go awayfeeling somewhat disappointed. Muchthat is unique about our school is intangible; sometimes invisible.
Figure 2: Photo: Chris Le Messurier
For example, we do a lot of `vertical integration’, where students from Grade Prep through to Year 10 mix in different combinations as part of their learning, with benefits to all. On Fridays we run an electives programme that this year included fencing, art activities, Adventures Club, chess, Explosions Club, gardening and cooking, and which offered mixed-age opportunities. Chess is also timetabled for all students once a week, and again this operates on a vertically integrated basis. We havemany special curriculum events which put students into different groups… in 2014 this included another Arts and Artists’ Week, based on a concept pioneered in Australia by Peter Gebhardt at All Saints’ College Bathurst N.S.W. For Arts and Artists’ Week we bring distinguished practitioners in the performing and creative arts to the school and have students work for an entire week with these mentors. The workshops on offer in 2014 included photography, drama, printmaking, sculpture, metal sculpture, bush skills, gizmos and gadgets, circus, and theatre: creating a space.
One group of older students was otherwise engaged during Arts and Artists’ Week, as they were inTasmania, walking from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair. On the night before they started, two adults, in separate groups, but doing the same walk, died, one from exposure and one from a heart attack. These tragic events were a sobering reminder of the very real risksthat we engage with as a school, and the importance of giving our students extensive preparation for these challenges.
Figure 3: Photo: Julian Nelson
We sent our Year 8’s toTasmania later in the year on a different kind of adventure, to the Museum of Oldand New Art in Hobart. Year 9’s and 10’s went to Adelaide for WOMADelaide, the festival celebrating the World of Music, Arts & Dance, founded by the musician Peter Gabriel in 1982. Year 10’s went to a 10-day course atMittagundi, the Outdoor Education Centre founded by Ian Stapleton, then walked from Omeo across the New South Wales-Victoria border, climbed Mt Kosciusko, and descended from there to the headwaters of the Snowy River. At that point they took to canoes and paddled the length of the river, emerging at Marlo, on the coast of Bass Strait, having been away six weeks. This trip was under the auspices of outdoor educators Murray Tucker and Sam Ford, and the students’ success in negotiating the experience was a wonder to behold.
Year 7’s went to Canberra for a week, Grade 6 girls wentto Wilson’s Promontory, Year 10’s mentored Grade 6boys on a hike through the Grampians, Year 9’s had a camping trip to the snow. Everyone from Grade 6 to Year 10 undertook a major five-day bike ride through the Macedon Ranges, camping eachnight,and surviving a monumental storm one evening at Maldon Showground. The route seemed to be the perfect balance between challenging and beautiful, and the looks on the kids’ faces as they pedalled up the hill on the last afternoon through the cheering masses was very moving. I loved the way the younger kids greeted the riders as they came up the hill – with showers of rose petals!
Immediately following the bike camp, teacher Andrew Blizzard had organised a team of Candlebark students to participate in the 24-hour bike Marathon outside Woodend. In other words, having finished the camp on Friday afternoon, by Saturday noon they were back on their bikes.
The weather for the Marathon was poor, and the track quickly became very muddy and churned up. The sensation of pushing a bike through mud, through the forest, in almost complete darkness, at 3 AM, must have been fairly remarkable. All the other competitors in the event were adults. The Candlebark team finished ninth overall, of the 75 teams or individuals competing, and finished second in their division, beaten by a team of police officers.
In the book “momma (sic) and the meaning of life: Tales of Psychotherapy” by American psychotherapist Irvin D Yalom, Yalom tells the story of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, whose leg was broken in a traffic accident. While lying in the street, waiting for the ambulance, Giacometti was heard to say, “Finally, finally, something has happened to me.”
In commenting on the story, Yalom says: “For a thinker who has embraced an existential frame of reference, such a benign, shielded life is a liability.”
We don’t want our students to reach middle age and still be waiting for something to happen to them! I hope the foregoing accounts of our 2014 adventures will illustrate the emphasis we place on firsthand experiences. But so far I have only covered a small part of our program… Bad news for those of you who are getting bored already by this report! But in February for example, all our Primary students from Grade Prepto Grade 6 camped in tents for four days at Bright, in another telling display of the ability of even very young children to cope with big challenges. Our kids went to the Australian Gymnastics Championships in Melbourne, to the Australian Opera’s Carmen at the State Theatre, to Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts, to Kyneton Town Hall for Cultural Diversity week,to St Kilda market, to a horse stud for a sleepover (wherethey saw foals being born and met Gai Waterhouse), to a camp at Healesville, to the Victor Hugo–Les Miserables exhibition at the State Library, to the RACV challenge at Maryborough, to Melbourne for a city orientation camp, to a poultry farm, to the MCG Museum, to Gisborne for an astronomy presentation, and on a steam train ride from Castlemaine to Maldon. As well they saw many theatre performances at schooland elsewhere.
Our programme was enriched by many visitors, including author Lucy Christopher, the Terrapin Puppet Theatre, an educator from Western Water, a photography tutor from the Moran Arts Foundation, German equestrian-therapy expert Aliana Muller and her family, a marine biologist specialising in sea turtles, Chess Grandmaster Vasily Papin from Russia,
International Chess Master Leonid Sandler, and chess tutors Jamie Kenmure and Tony Davis. We had more visits from the remarkable bushman Peter Yencken, unpretentious and knowledgeable, who connected strongly with kids as he taught them how to make bows and arrows, build shelters, and light campfires.
In chess and sport we continued to do well, even though our `oval’ on which the kids play team games is vaguely quadrilateral, steeply sloping, narrow, and rough underfoot. But despite the difficulties this poses for preparation, our upper primary kids won the CDSSA cricket tournament, defeating much bigger schools along the way. This was a competition for mixed (gender) teams, and it was great to hear about the skills displayed by our students, and their spirit.
The Candlebark T-ball team won their way through to the state finals; another extraordinary achievement. Four girls qualified for the regional cross-country titles, in Bendigo, and two, Celeste De Silva and Bridget Bourke, reached the state finals. A parent who assisted our players at the CDSSA soccer competition, in which the boys’ team reached the final,
reported: “They had a really good spirit. There was no finger-pointing or blaming. They all revolved as substitutes without any complaining and for the most part followed instructions really well. Only conceding one goal and scoring twelve in four games is something to be very proud of.”
For the first time, this year we had a Candlebark triathlon event at Gisborne, in which all our secondary school students competed with notable spirit.
Our junior, middle-years, and senior chess players played in a number of tournaments throughout the year, with some memorable victories. Both the junior and middle years’ teams qualified for state finals. In the State Championships, our junior team came 13th. of the 33 teams which made it to the finals – impressive, when you consider that those 33 teams represented 2,500 schools in Victoria! In the girls-only state final, our junior team came seventh in Victoria, and Grade 6 student Morgan Gandolfo came third in the state.
Figure 4: Photo: Chris Le Messurier
Most of our eligible students did the NAPLANS tests again this year, despite our best advice – I only glanced at the results, but it seemed that there was a significant upward trajectory over the years, which I suppose is better than a significant downward trajectory. For those who value this kind of thing, a summary of the results is copied and pasted towards the end of this document (we are required to include this in our Annual Report).
Our horse program, managed by Jess Liston, continued to be a very important part of our school life. Many students have benefited in a variety of intangible ways from Jess’s care, and her thoughtful understanding of the value of horses in developing life skills in young people. In 2014 we began extending the program beyond Candlebark; bringing in, for example, a group of special needs kids from a school in Melbourne. Candlebark students became the mentors and teachers for their visitors. Laila, Millie and Maya took a group on a bush walk; others taught kids how to lead the horses, and encouraged them to pat Hetty the Highland long horned cow, as well as the goats and pigs. Nicole taught one girl how to climb a tree. Mia had a Sudanese boy who had lived a large part of his life in refugee camps smiling whilst leading Trigger… the boy’s teachers reported that they had not really seen him smile before.
As far as I know there is no NAPLANS tests which evaluates this kind of learning.
The year concluded with a number of significant and enjoyable events, including graduation dinners for our Grade 6 and Year 10 students. We also had a brilliant fundraising dinner for the 2015 Year 10 trip to France – appropriately, the dinner had a French theme, and was prepared by master chef (and Candlebark parent) Roger Fowler, assisted by some dedicated Candlebark teachers, with Year nine students working as kitchen hands and waiters/waitresses. Maitre d’ for the night was another Candlebark father, the chic Julian Nelson, who displayed élan, savoir-faire, charme, and je ne sais quoi other appropriate attributes francais.
On the last night of the academic year a packed Kyneton Town Hall seemed to enjoy Charles Dickens’ `A Christmas Carol’, especially adapted by us forour school, and starring Year 9 student Darcy Oakley. It was a revival of a production we first did in 2006, and we got most of the band back together: Basil Eliades, Claire Rosenhain and John Marsden, with the welcome help this time of Bronwyn Batten and Taran Carter.
Donna Prince took maternity leave for the second half of 2014 and duly gave birth, which is exactly what’s meant to happen when you take maternity leave. Warmest congratulations to her and Dave, and welcome to their beautiful daughter Erica.
During Donna’s absence, we were delighted to have Andrew Blizzard join the staff. His imaginative, engaging and thoughtful lessons, coupled with his personal warmth and his sense of humour, contributed greatly to the school.
At the end of 2014 we said a sad goodbye to Brent and Melissa Tonkin, who are returning to New Zealand with their young children after five years at Candlebark – five years full of generous, enriching contributions, including the development of the organic garden and the Stephanie Alexander kitchen program, and devoted skillful teaching of a wide range of students. The ovation from parents and students when they were formally farewelled at the end of the year filled Kyneton Town Hall for a long time.
Also leaving us were part time teachers Bronwyn Batten, who ran energised and creative dance and movement classes from Prep through to Year 10. Bronwyn was accorded the rare honour of a studio at Cite Internationale des Artes in Paris for the first half of 2015. Manual Arts teacher Terry Willis made the decision to spend more time parenting in 2015 – we will miss his quiet manner and intelligent contributions, his development of the first manual arts programme at the school, and the honesty of his inspiring morning meetings.
In fourth term we were greatly assisted by Catherine Hofstede, who gave us the benefit of her extensive expertise with special needs students.
Figure 5: Photo: Chris Le Messurier
PART TWO: EXTRACTS FROM VARIOUS UNSOLICITED LETTERS AND EMAILS FROM PEOPLE WHO VISITED THE SCHOOL IN 2014:
“I feel very inspired about education once more…” (Lecturer from the UK)
“I was on such a high after visiting, I felt like I had stepped into a storybook school that I read about a child and dreamed of running away to.” (Librarian from a Melbourne school)
“I just wanted to thank you so much for the opportunity to come and visit your absolutely beautiful school and conduct the 2015 program survey with your students, they have given me some wonderful feedback, and I really appreciate it!” (Researcher)
“Great to meet you this morning and the girls were a delight in their enthusiasm to show me around the school they so obviously loved.” (School principal, regional Victoria)
“I am now forever spoilt. The afternoon was just incredible and I feel that education ought to be exactly as it is modelled there. I hope somehow to weave today’s understandings through all my future education endeavours…” (Educator, Western Australia)
“Thank you for showing me around your beautiful school yesterday. I really am amazed! (makes me want to repeat my schooling!) This is what every learning environment should be.” (Ceramic Artist)
“Thank you for the wonderful experience of visiting Candlebark. You truly have a unique and special educational facility. The children have an amazing start to their lives…” (Visiting Catholic Primary School teacher from regional Victoria)
THREE LONGER RESPONSES:
“In the very first email I wrote expressing my interest in visiting Candlebark, I communicated how much I ‘would love to see my philosophies in practice’, and how I thought it would be life changing. To say I predicted right is the biggest understatement of my year.
“I have learnt so many things during my four weeks, both as an educator and personally, and I don’t think I could fit them all here if I tried. But just a few examples: I learnt that a school can be a place where you can ‘be yourself’ in every sense, without shame, and a place where you can still be a kid. I learnt that, apparently, walking through a mud puddle in bare feet is a liberating experience. …I also just wanted to mention how much I love Candlebark’s ‘number one rule’ of no exclusion, because it was my number one problem when I was at school; and to have witnessed such diverse little human beings coalesce to firmly remind one other of the importance of that guideline, simply made my heart come alight.
“I’ve come to realise that the reason your community is so special, is because you really are just like a big family. Because there is no other place I have seen, where there is such a bond and degree of comfort that exists between staff and students – where anyone will pick up a chess set and play with anyone; where such light-hearted, affiliative humour is always at play; such strong encouragement and support is exchanged; or where such genuine care is taken to discuss what everybody can do to nurture individual students – and that their wellbeing is the priority, rather than policy or procedure.
“I feel like I almost took the place for granted towards the end of my stay, because I became so comfortable, so engulfed by the ‘spirit’ of Candlebark, that I found it hard remembering I belonged anywhere else. There were a couple of times when I felt completely exhausted, burnt out, from using my brain so much all day, but I always got home and collapsed on the couch with a cup of tea and a satisfied smile on my face, already sparking ideas in my mind of how I could engage and educate the kids along with Kate the next day.
“There are a lot of things I will miss about Candlebark, and these I will try to fit here:
“I will miss the sight of children rolling down hills to get to class, playing stick wars, and climbing trees. I will miss the sounds of the birds in the morning, and the laughter that echoes through the grounds. I’ll miss the tastes of Fiona’s delicious cooking, and the smell of the property just after it’s rained. The touch of little hands grabbing onto mine, to walk by my side, when I could’ve sworn they didn’t know I existed. Running voluntarily to get somewhere, because the atmosphere inspires me to. Making new discoveries, and being awestruck by the talent, wit, or creativity of a child every day. I will miss every staff member, all geniuses in their own right, each with a unique quirk and charm, all masters of engagement – and you can bet I have learnt something from each and every person I saw teach.
“Being taught how to ride Ripstiks, walk on stilts, and be beaten at chess, by little humans who are ten years or more my junior. I’ll miss having dogs in classrooms, spontaneous classes outside and walks in the bush, morning meetings, Cake Day, enjoying the sunshine on the old bus seats during free time, then almost being deafened because you were sitting too close when someone unexpectedly rang the bell, and even clean-up.
“And I will miss helping children up onto chairs and tables so they can reach things, instead of helping them down.
“I cannot rave enough, John, about the perfectly balanced system you have nurtured here, fuelled by trust, empathy, openness and integrity, and the fact that it just works so well, to raise and educate this next generation in the richest “way possible.
“And I cannot praise enough, every brilliant, imaginative and passionate member of your school family.
“I feel simply honoured and privileged to have been a part of it all.
“So thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, and I hope that I can come back and visit your magical school again, sometime soon.”
(From a student teacher, here on placement)
“I wanted to write this message because I would never be able to accurately express how grateful I am to have had this experience otherwise! I have loved every minute of my time here at Candlebark – every delicious school meal (thanks Fiona); every chess game (thanks Basil, I’ll get the hang of it someday); every cold morning that began with a few minutes in front of the fire; every beautiful day where morning meetings were held outside and the sun just lit up the bush and everyone’s hearts; every single conversation with a child that made me realise how unique and clever and funny they all are; every Cake Day (yes, it deserves capital letters); every French lesson that I sat through utterly confused yet entirely impressed that the kids seemed to know exactly what Steve was saying and could actually respond (French is now next on my list of things to learn); every time I was almost bowled over by kids on roller-skates and bikes and skateboards at lunchtime; every incredibly different and interesting lesson that I observed, taught by teachers who have so much knowledge and experience to offer their students; every time I got to venture into the bush and be surrounded with plant- and wild-life as far as I could see; every school excursion, chess tournament and camp that teachers seem to celebrate rather than complain about (that’s a new one); every visit to the animals; every time I saw the little ones bounce off to their next class without teacher supervision or demand for ‘two straight lines’ (and yet they always make it there); every time I saw a kid waving at me from up a tree; every long, satisfying conversation after school with Wendy and Kate about the best way to nurture the children that they care so much for; and perhaps most of all, every time I walked into the school feeling like I was part of a big, loving, supportive family. I really could go on and talk about Friday activities and Wednesday afternoon free time and the amazing and thriving music program (a particular joy of mine) and the equine therapy program and how amazing it is that a gong signals the beginning of class each day, but at the risk of this letter turning into a novel I won’t.
“I want to say a huge thank you for the opportunity to learn and teach at Candlebark, and for the amazing support of Wendy, Kate, Andrew & Sam who I have had the absolute pleasure of working with and being mentored by throughout my time here. I feel that my time at Candlebark has – for lack of a less corny term here – healed my soul. I have had quite a difficult year in my personal life this year so being in this inspiring, motivating and beautiful learning environment has been not only beneficial for my professional development but also for my overall wellbeing. I cannot thank you all enough for that.
“John – you have built an amazing school and it is a true testament to your dedication and vision that every staff member and student seems so truly happy to be there each day… the experiences I’ve gained here will stay with me for life. I will so miss being at Candlebark and I hope that at some stage in the near future I can spend some more time with you all.”
(From another student teacher, here on placement)
“At a time when education in Australia is being defined by number-crunchers and politicians who, by and large, lack any excitement about or vision for educating children, it’s easy for teachers to lose sight of what’s important. We are weighed down by endless programs and processes not of our own making, designed by people who don’t know us, want to scapegoat us and seem to display nothing but contempt for what we do.
“So, my weary teacher’s soul let out a deep sigh the day I visited Wendy and the team at Candlebark.
“This is education for life. Purposeful, meaningful and deep. Supported by teachers who are the children’s friends above all else but who apply the very best of practice to instructional teaching while encouraging the children to think and act at the highest level of personal responsibility.
“If I had to choose one word to describe my first impressions of the place, it would be “flow”. The children flow in and out of the buildings and their day. There is a flow about their interactions with adults and other students. In conversations I had with several of them during my visit, they struck me as a very relaxed bunch who talk with interest and respect to adults but no more than they would to each other. This is a strong, supportive, inclusive and positive community of learners. It actually felt like a family.
“I love the fact that everybody eats together. The ritual of food-sharing engenders equality, a sense of comfort and celebration as well as abundance. I enjoyed wandering through the kitchen garden and would love to see the tech workshop converted and used as a kitchen one day!
“I would be remiss if I didn’t notice things that are missing at Candlebark, but which make up so much of teacher’s work in the mainstream “system”.
· Bureaucracy and administration – where are the endless forms that need to be photocopied and sent home? (I’m guessing the children can be relied upon to take responsibility for communicating important information to parents, what a concept!)
· Rules: I’m told there is just one. “Everybody must be included”. Simple, perfect and a fabulous rule for everybody, everywhere.
· Stress about managing or controlling student behaviour. Instead there is an atmosphere of calm and trust. These children are flourishing in a culture of self-reliance and positive risk-taking. Where needed, the horses are a special kind of teacher and the Equine Program is pure inspiration.
· Tokenism – no banners at the gate proclaiming accreditation or badging for this or that program. The place doesn’t have to prove itself, the authenticity of what is happening there is obvious for all to see.
· Competitive or negative staff relationships. There are no “tall poppies” here, to be cut down to size. There is genuine, open-hearted friendliness on the faces of staff towards each other and to the many visitors who come to see the school. People are treasured for the special gifts and talents they bring to their work and I heard many examples of the way they shine, alongside the students to achieve amazing things.
· Limits – there aren’t any. These students don’t know about them and so they operate in a complete mindset of possibilities…..
“It was difficult to leave the place, and I had only spent one day. The dream of having freedom to teach and freedom to learn alongside my students is one that I will take with me, and hold close as I try to keep my passion and optimism alive.
“I would like to thank everyone at the school for their generosity and warmth towards this weary traveller. We are of the same tribe and I will be back whenever I can to check in on the wonderful things that happen up a certain dirt road……”
(From a member of an early childhood team at a Melbourne primary school)
PART THREE: THE ALL-IMPORTANT STATS, INCLUDING LOTS OF NUMBERS AND ATTRACTIVE COLOURFUL GRAPHS:
When students are away for any reason, parents are expected to contact the school by phone, e-mail or any other efficient method excluding carrier pigeons and semaphore signals. In the case of unexplained absences, we contact the parents by phone or text. The following graph is offered because it is required of us, but it does not explain, for example, long-term absences caused by chronic illness. Unexplained or unjustified absenteeism was not a problem for us in 2014.
We finished 2014 with 150 students, including two indigenous students.
11 full time teachers, 5 part time teachers, 6 visiting music teachers, 3 part time Aides
All teachers are VIT registered and/or approved.
Business Manager, Property Manager, Grounds Staff, Bus driver, Cook/kitchen manager
Class sizes ranged from 4 to 17.
We are also expected in these reports to comment on parent, student and teacher satisfaction with the school. I would think that the foregoing account speaks for itself, but we do get feedback, solicited and unsolicited, all the time, and the positive nature of that feedback, coupled with the low turnover of staff and students, and the obvious regret of families who have to leave the school for reasons associated with employment or finances, are compelling evidence of the satisfaction of the school’s community with our work.
And here concludeth the Candlebark report for 2014.