The Holistic Curriculum
The Holistic Curriculum is based on Seven Teaching and Learning Principles
Holistic education engages the head, heart, hands and spirit of the child. It is a curriculum that makes connections “community, earth, soul, subject and mind-and-body connections” and it develops intuition and inquiry.
Building a community starts in the classroom and extends to local and global communities. Through our community-building program, students gain skills to create solutions to difficult social problems. It is our hope that students who graduate from our school will feel empowered to take social action and will work towards creating a more equitable and just world.
The classroom is the child’s first experience of community. The teachers at the Equinox Holistic Alternative School (EHAS) are committed to building a cohesive classroom community. To build community in the classroom, we have adopted a school-wide, community-building program that provides classroom routines and rituals, as well as a common language. Some of the elements of this program are weekly classroom meetings, language for conflict resolution, cooperative/collaborative learning activities, and classroom discussions on building respectful relationships.
The students learn about social justice through our Social Studies program. Our goal is to introduce the children to multiple perspectives and to nurture empathy around social issues in the classroom that extend to local and global communities. This program is largely taught through literature, and teachers provide learning activities, such as role-play or inquiry, to connect stories to children’s lives and experiences.
In the older grades, learning about social justice transforms into social action. In grade 5, teachers train peer mediation and leadership to students. Grade 5 students learn about school governance as part of a unit about Government. They take leadership roles in the school community. Throughout the year, they work with primary school students to help build a collaborative and cohesive community. In grades 6 to 8, students learn about social action and justice in the local and global communities through project-based learning activities.
A deep sense of school community or sanctuary will be created throughout the school. In a sanctuary, teachers and students look forward to being at school, as they feel nourished by the environment, which is one of respect, caring and, occasionally, reverence.
Students awake to the natural processes of life by connecting to the earth. The curriculum teaches students not only about environmental problem solving, but more importantly, how we are fundamentally embedded in the earth’s natural processes. Our environmental program follows a similar format as our community-building program. In the early years, students develop a strong connection and relationship to the earth, and in the older grades, children learn how to take action. Again, the goal is to teach students how to feel empowered to take action and how to make sustainable choices about the environment.
A focus in the primary years is to develop a strong connection to the earth through our gardening and farming programs. On site is a school garden, and the students also tend a local community garden. The school has formed a partnership with a local, organic farm, which we visit throughout the year.
Primary students go on guided nature walks to local conservation areas, such as the Leslie Spit and the Humber River. On the hikes, students hear stories and learn names of native plants. The children observe life cycles of wildlife â€“ the migration of birds at the Leslie Spit or of salmon in the Humber River.
In the primary years, we aim to teach most of the Science curriculum outdoors. For example, the grade 1 Science unit on the needs and characteristics of livings things easily lends itself to being taught outdoors. In grade 3, when the children learn about soil, they draw from their experiences in gardening and farming. Also, some of the Math curriculum will be taught outside. For example, students learn how to count when they plant seeds and learn about measurement when spacing the seeds.
From grades 3 to 6, the students will learn about our relationship to the earth and the natural resources we use in our lives. For instance, our Textile unit starts in grade 3, when the students learn about Canadian pioneers and learn how to make wool. In grade 5, the Textile unit continues when they learn about ancient civilizations. The students study how textiles are made and they experience how to make fabric from flax and other natural materials. The last part of the Textile unit focuses on sustainable textiles.
Grade 7 students choose an environmental action project for the year. They document what environmental action they have taken, how their work has made a contribution, and what they would like to do in the future. The goal is for the children to discover what actions, even small ones that they can take to improve the environment. A student may focus on sustainable modes of transportation and an action that the student can start to promote more sustainable transportation.
A holistic curriculum connects students with their inner lives which is defined here as a vital and mysterious energy that gives meaning and purpose to one’s life. Connections to students’ inner lives are nourished through storytelling. Stories that are told verbally (not read from a book) capture children’s imaginations. It is a sacred moment in the day when a teacher tells a story from his or her head, without prompts. Students fall silent as they wait to hear the next part of the story from the day before. Myths, legends, folktales, sage stories, fairytales, histories from around the world are told to the children throughout the grades to connect students to our diverse, cultural heritages and to old knowledge that has been passed down through every culture.
Some examples of classroom routines and rituals that connect students with their souls are: singing and recitation of poems on a daily basis; meditation and visualization practices; community talking circle, during which each student has an opportunity to share; and circle time, which includes singing, dancing and movement activities.
The school comes together to celebrate seasonal festivals and auspicious dates throughout the year. School-wide celebrations have ritual and ceremonial elements to them, creating connections, as a school and creating feelings that are usually associated with being in a sanctuary.
The curriculum emphasizes a natural connection between body and mind. Students are encouraged to explore the connections between their body and emotions, and to develop a sense of what their bodies have to say. A priority is placed on healthy, positive communication and mindfulness in all actions â€“ being aware of what one is doing, while doing it. Mindfulness and a focus on breath encourage students to slow down and be present with one task at a time.
Techniques employed to stimulate the mind-body connection in the classroom include drama, creative movement, dance, performance, role-play, yoga, meditation and relaxation.
A connection is made between school subjects at EHAS, producing an integrated curriculum. This occurs on a number of levels, with a strong focus on transdiciplinary teaching, when several subjects are integrated around a broad theme. Usually, teachers make subject connections during the morning lesson.
The year is divided into 10-12, three-to-four-week lesson blocks. One subject is the focus of the lesson block, and a number of other subjects are integrated into the lesson theme. For example, in the primary grades literacy is usually integrated into a Math lesson block through stories, poems and math journals. In the upper grades, Math and Language Arts are integrated into Science, Social Studies, Geography or History lesson blocks. The consistent study of one subject helps to deepen the students’ understanding of the subject.
Intuition and Inquiry Connections
An inquiry-based approach is one of the ways that teachers develop students’ intuition. At EHAS, teachers provide activities that facilitate exploration in the playground, in nature and in the classroom. Students direct the exploration, making discoveries and predictions as the teacher encourages with open-ended questions. For example, a teacher tells students to observe where plants like to grow. Inquiry-based questions connected to this observation might be: “Where did you see ferns growing?” and “Why do ferns grow in those areas?” The teacher documents the students’ discussions and explorations.
Children may choose to document their explorations through drawings, writing, mixed-media art forms and music. The teacher provides students with recyclables, wire, clay, paint and other materials (Reggio Emilia inspires this approach).
The Holistic Curriculum
The Kindergarten Exploration Program is set mainly outdoors, the play area of which is designed for children to explore and discover nature. Teachers set up learning centres each day that facilitate exploration and discovery. For example, a spot for sand and water contains large shovels, watering cans, tubes, trucks, pails, stumps and sticks. Students mix, pour, design, create, play and build with these materials. Teachers ask questions that facilitate discussion and encourage exploration.
Connections to the earth are fostered through (1) gardening, (2) weekly nature walks, and (3) visits to our partner organic farm. Each day is a new journey for the children, and the teacher and children document it with dried plants, art, photos, drawings, paintings, writing and stories. At the end of each year, Kindergartens host a Kindergarten Discovery Walk that showcases the Kindergarten journey and celebrates the graduation of the Senior Kindergarten children.
Each day, students participate in circle times with music, storytelling, poetry, second-language lessons, and shared reading. Other activities may include gym, music and/or library, depending on the year’s schedule.
In the primary years, students develop a connection to living things and nature. Some examples include watching: a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly; winged migrations each year; salmon migrate on the Humber River; chicks hatching; and a plant growing. Imaginative nature stories help to form an image of the phenomenon that the students observe. Aboriginal stories and songs that teach about livings things are told to students.
Teachers introduce Math concepts through fun-filled, imaginative stories. The children learn about addition, subtraction, multiplication and division through the story of King Equal and the Four Gnomes. The children revisit this story when they learn about place value and Tricky Mischief enters the scene. They practice math skills through music, movement, games and hands-on activities.
Real-life math activities connect math skills to the children’s lives, such as opening a class store to learn about money. In grade 3, students build a dwelling from environmentally sustainable materials. This project is the culmination of the math and science skills that students learned in earlier years.
Music, art, drama, and poetry enrich and enliven Language Arts lessons. Phonics and word-decoding skills are taught through imaginative stories. The school follows TDSB’s balanced literacy approach. Sage stories from diverse cultures help to educate students about social-justice themes. Fables and trickster stories are told to deepen the children’s understanding of social relationships.
The Holistic Curriculum
Junior and Intermediate Years
In the junior and intermediate years there is a growing independence and there is a gradual shift to more project-based learning activities. For example, in grade 6 the Entrepreneurial Adventure Program students work in small groups with local businesses to learn about business practices. Students learn about percentages, ratios and other math skills in authentic learning situations. Students also learn about fair trade and other social-justice issues related to business.
In the junior and intermediate years, Social Studies, Environmental Science, Geography and History are taught as integrated lesson units. For example, in grade 4, students are introduced to Canadian geography through aboriginal stories about the land. Students learn about social justice issues about land rights, natural resources, the environment and sustainability. Students also learn about diverse ways that aboriginal people live and relate to the land in the present and in the past. In grade 6, these themes are revisited more in depth when the students study Canadian history.
The grade 7 and 8 program is very much student-led. Students learn history through historical simulations; they work as a class or in small groups to re-enact historical events. The students also learn about their own ancestors. On Ancestor Day students arrive at school in character as one of their ancestors. This is a wonderful day of telling stories and learning about Canadian history.
Students learn how to take action in the community and for the environment through project-based learning activities. In grade 7, students join a local environmental group as part of their environmental-action project and document what environmental action they have taken, how their work has made a contribution, and what they would like to do in the future. In grade 8, students choose an independent project to work on for the year. Each student chooses a mentor in the school community to guide him or her through the process. Projects can be in any subject area.
Other highlights in the intermediate years are the grade 7 play. Grade 7 students produce and direct a class play with the support of local actors. This play is a fundraiser for the school. Grade 8 students organize and run school-wide coffee house events twice a year.
EHAS aims to develop an Intensive French Program for grade 7 and 8 students. This program happens once every two years for a period of three months with all the grade 7 and 8 students. All lessons are conducted in French for half the day. The grade 7 and 8 Canadian history units are integrated into this program. The culminating activity is a trip to Quebec.