Ours has always been a story about following the child. This year, we have four children graduating from our Upper Elementary program. Those children began their casa experiences at three years of age with Orchard teachers nearly a decade ago and now, they are the leaders of their school community who mentor over sixty children younger than themselves. They are well prepared academically for any option offered by private, public or alternative schools. More importantly, they are inquisitive, self-guided learners who thrive in real contexts. They honestly believe they can change the world.
The pre-teen age is one of the least understood planes of child development and this is reflected in a lack of diversity in school options. In many ways, kids of this age are dismissed as children and their capabilities are often underestimated. Conversely, they are placed in settings with fixed outcomes that drive them forward into the adult world before they are really ready. Large class sizes and increasing reliance on digital systems for content delivery reinforce binary responses instead of classical critical reasoning. Students are goaded into learning using token incentives which hollow out their enthusiasm for working just for the pure pleasure of it. They begin to sort ideas into what is on the test and what is not. From the outside, they have begun to look like adolescents but they still have one foot firmly planted in a developmental phase of childhood. A dawning awareness of justice and natural outcomes is expanding beyond their immediate horizon and they are grappling with understanding their orientation to the world outside themselves. Balancing small group peer interactions and expressions of individuality is important work at this age and can be facilitated through multiple opportunities to collaborate. Developmentally, this is a time of explosive growth and impressions laid at this age are as critical as those in the early childhood years. Most importantly, kids of this age are highly imaginative, tactile, experiential learners and that is just a beautiful thing that should be fostered.
We began to wonder if perhaps there was a way to build an experience that continues to nurture their huge curiosity and cultivates their desire to make something real and tangible. We thought of how we could adapt Maria Montessori’s idea of the Erdkinder farm in the modern, urban context of downtown Toronto that is their time and place. We thought about who their mentors would be in such a context and believe we may have come up with something interesting.
Beginning in September, 2019, Orchard will offer a 6/7/8 program that will draw influence from both apprenticeship/craft guilds and traditional Montessori Erdkinders. We are planning to co-locate in a group studio environment with working artists and artisans. The children will be tutored in math and physical science and they will receive formal lessons in music. The rest of the work will be delivered in a seminar style in which they will explore interconnections in history, geography, botany, zoology, visual art and literature. We will do field study that accesses the resources and connections a city like Toronto has to offer. They will also be required to fulfill volunteer hours in the community. Their major assignment, however, will be to spend a year developing a small craft-based not-for-profit business. They will create and run it, with help from mentors, and make all the products that they sell. Their final point of arrival in the last month of the school year will be a directed study abroad on a topic that relates to the work they have done.
The maximum number of students for this program is eight. We are meeting with interested families (both with and without Montessori backgrounds) over the course of the next few months.