Salmonberry School believes that a child’s education should be meaningful. It is a grave, though all-too-common error to allow students to feel that their school work is irrelevant or trivial. It is nearly ubiquitous in mainstream education that kids experience alienation and become disengaged while attending school. School is widely accepted as mundane and unworthy of deep commitment. The profound experience of disconnection is a significant factor that contributes to the modern epidemic of ill health in our youth including childhood anxiety, depression, addiction and self-harm. Conversely, when a child feels connected to their teacher, their school community, and their learning, they fall in love with school. And, as we have learned at Salmonberry, when a child loves school amazing things happen!

At Salmonberry, students find school meaningful in five ways. First, for the Salmonberry student, school includes curriculum that is emergent and related to their particular interests and curiosities. Second, as part of our holistic approach, Salmonberry’s curriculum is integrated across disciplines and engages a range of methods and modalities. Third, teachers ensure that content is developmentally appropriate and attuned to the child’s particular stage of development. Fourth, the curriculum emphasizes subjects that are weighty and important to children. And finally, Salmonberry is a place where the student’s work is always rooted in relationships.

Emergent curriculum includes lessons that take advantage of students’ particular areas of interest or experiences. When a student comes in to class excited about a book they’ve read, a story they’ve heard, or an encounter they’ve had, it often presents an opportunity for deeper study. That is not to say that emergent curriculum is without significant teacher planning. Quite the contrary! A child, for example, comes in talking about a new baby brother, and the teacher listens to and observes their classmates’ questions and interest, the teacher might then go to work planning for an extended unit of study on the human life cycle. This study might include literature, journal writing, science lessons with applied math skills, art activities, guest speakers, and so much more. Taking advantage of emerging interests often provides the hook that allows students to initially lean into the school curriculum. It makes otherwise random skill work, immediately interesting and relevant. Early grades often use “seasons” and natural cycles as a gateway to content. “Families” is another common theme around which teachers organize the early childhood curriculum, for example.

The second way in which a Salmonberry education is meaningful is by dissolving the firm boundaries between traditional disciplines. Mainstream education has an approach that reduces whole phenomena into constituent parts. Salmonberry’s holistic approach re-animates and re-enchants these dis-integrated fields. A hike up a wooded hillside, for example gives teachers and students a way to explore geology by looking at rocks we encounter, math, by estimating steps and elevation gain, art, by looking at colors in the landscape and identifying foreground, middle ground and background, mindfulness, by engaging in silent walking meditation, literature, by relating this personal exertion of energy to a character in a recently read story, etc. Each of these concepts may be continued back in the classroom in greater depth and with the pursuit of discrete skills, but these skills are united through the visceral firsthand encounter with the shared adventure of the hike. Project-based learning is another invaluable tool that re-integrates learning at Salmonberry. Performing a play for example, could integrate the artistic processes of scenery design, with the language arts skills of public speaking, with integrated lessons on dance and movement, music and song, character and plot development, history and culture, and so much more.

The third way in which Salmonberry ensures meaning in its education is by attending to the particular developmental imperatives of each stage of development. Students in our youngest classes are primarily sensorial and imaginative beings. Teachers create and facilitate myriad opportunities for exploration and play. Students are immersed in a world of story and fantasy, where laughter and even silliness are allowed and encouraged. School is meaningful for these students as it “meets them where they are.” In our older grades, students enter a developmental realm where consciousness is predominantly social and emotional. They become aware and increasingly attuned to their own feelings as well as those of peers. The curriculum is adjusted to take advantage of this newly emerging consciousness, and activities that activate a sense of compassion and empathy become increasingly important, for example.

The fourth path towards an education for meaning at Salmonberry, particularly in the older grades, is through pursuing content that is weighty and worth considering. Our older classes have engaged with existential questions such as “what does it mean to be human?” They have been guided through curriculum in philosophy and psychology. They analyze stories of immigration, discrimination and indigeneity, for example. They engage with questions around climate change, gender identity, and equity. Not all curriculum is “heavy” in this way, but teachers are also not afraid to allow this kind of importance into the classroom. Students are respected for their cognitive ability as well as their capacity for self-awareness, reflection, ability to consider ethics and aesthetics and similar topics of import.

Finally, education derives meaning because it is inextricably connected to caring relationships. Students love and are loved by their teachers. They care for and are cared for by their classmates. They are embedded within their classroom culture as well as a larger local and global human community. Each of these relationships help to ground the student’s learning into an embrace where they are seen, heard and celebrated.

So much of the way kids experience education is a collection of boring activities with minimal physical engagement, random facts to be memorized and, in later grades, increasingly abstract concepts that lack grounding in lived experience.