Why do we parents want an alternative to the public elementary school? In our community, the public school is clearly succeeding in its mission and should be commended for outstanding recent scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning as well as other standards-based assessments such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Public school students are clearly mastering the Essential Academic Learning Requirements defined by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The teachers are motivated and caring and the students come ready to learn.

At Salmonberry, we strive to provide a non-standards-based education. To me, a standard represents an arbitrary measure to which students are required to conform, and against which relative success is measured. A standards-based curriculum is one that is defined by a long list of these standards. The standards drive the adoption of textbooks as well as the assignments, activities and experiences of the children. While activities which are most likely to enhance student performance relative to these standards are valued, others are largely abandoned.

Salmonberry school uses an alternative driving force in determining its curriculum: the students themselves! At Salmonberry, students are encouraged to become deeply and passionately involved in their studies and to explore their passions under the guidance, supervision and support of the staff. This is the antithesis to a standards-based approach. I taught public school for seven years in an Oregon “District of Excellence” where the kids performed extremely well on standardized assessments, yet there was very little creativity or passion embedded in the children’s experiences. They became technically proficient, but not particularly invested in their own learning. Therefore it is important to recognize that in the quest for standardized performance and proficiency some elements may be absent from the children’s education.

Salmonberry School espouses a holistic educational model. That is:

Holistic education aims to nurture and develop the varied but interrelated capacities of the human being . Thus while it addresses the intellectual development, it is equally concerned about the child’s development as a physical, emotional, artistic, social, moral, and spiritual being. It aims to create a person who is well-rounded — in a broad sense — healthy, a human being who has developed each aspect of his or her humanity. The aim of holistic education is not merely to fill the child with information, to develop academic and job skills, and to prepare the child to fit into the prevailing economic and social system. Rather it is to help the young person develop into a free, creative, compassionate being who can participate fully in the life of the community. — Dr. Ron Miller, Goddard College, VT

A recent, quarter-long unit at Salmonberry Elementary School (grades 1-4) reflects this philosophy. The unit of study was on salmon. This unit was multidisciplinary and included authentic and meaningful activities in reading, writing, math, science, social studies, movement and music. Students brainstormed many questions they had about salmon and then teachers used these questions as topics of inquiry around which studies were organized. The ten-week quarter was divided into explorations of 1. What are salmon like? (biology/physiology/life cycle/species difference/behaviors and habitat); 2. Why are salmon important? (a study of the role of salmon as an indicator species and member of several ecosystems, the role of salmon as a food source in human nutrition, the role of salmon in various indigenous cultures, the role of salmon as the heart of the Northwest commercial fishing industry, etc.); 3. What is the state of salmon population health and what can we do to help? (this included statistical analysis of salmon population declines and a look at habitat restoration efforts).

Field trips are an essential part of the holistic education experience. While classroom learning is important, it is necessarily limited and rarely includes access to primary sources and first hand experiences. In this unit the class went to the Marine Center at Camp Orkila, where we met salmon fry and played a wonderful salmon simulation game. We went to the Glenwood Springs Salmon Hatchery where we touched a returning chinook salmon and learned about raising fish. We went to the Deer Harbor Estuary to witness firsthand a critical and degraded local salmon habitat. We went to the Lummi Indian Reservation and met with storyteller and Lummi Elder, Pauline Hillaire who shared traditional Lummi songs, dance and celebrations regarding the salmon as she highlighted this culture’s close connection to this essential food source. We spent a whole day on The Nawalak, a large sailing vessel, meeting the salmon in their natural ocean habitat.

Guest instructors are also an important element in our studies at Salmonberry bringing firsthand knowledge, expertise and a wide variety of perspectives to the class. During the salmon unit we were visited by an astounding array of experts. Professional storytellers, Antoinette Bottsford and Valerie Moriarty shared both original and traditional salmon stories. Dr. Russel Barsh talked about research he is doing in his role as ethnobiologist and habitat restoration consultant for the Samish Nation. Mike O’Connell, Facilities Director of the Glenwood Springs Hatchery, shared his expertise on salmon biology. Ceramicist Ginny Bohannan helped us to incorporate salmon into our artwork. Master storyteller and educator Peter Donaldson spent several hours with us teaching lessons about water resources and sustainable practices. David Lutz offered an important perspective as he shared stories and memories of life as a commercial salmon fisherman and salmon processor in Alaska. Pauline Hillaire, Lummi elder and storyteller, shared dances, songs and stories from the Lummi tradition.

Open-ended activities tended to allow students to work at their own level and make use of their own strengths and learning modalities. Students were encouraged to become increasingly aware of their own learning styles, the importance of their role in a group, their interconnectedness with the environment, and their social responsibility both on a small scale (in the classroom) and in the larger context of our watershed and planet. Class meetings were a venue to discuss feelings and emotions and to build a culture of mutual caring and support. At Salmonberry, intangible and inassessable goals such as fostering empathy, compassion and sensitivity are always pursued in parallel, and with equal importance to content knowledge and skill acquisition.

During these studies the children found their schoolwork to be meaningful, personally relevant, and whole. Their writing, math and art all made sense as part of a holistic, inquiry-based study. This is a small example of what Salmonberry is all about.