Founders Influences

It has been said many times that nothing happens in a vacuum. All new ideas come from previous events or conditions and this was certainly true of Bronte Creek. John Mckillop and Bryn Davies had experiences that led them to their joint vision and collaboration.

John's story

I had taught in the classroom for ten years before Bronte Creek And might have stayed there except for the melding of a number of life experiences and an evolving world view.

I grew up in Vancouver B C, which certainly provided exposure to natural experiences, which led me to a love of nature and adventure. I had always been attracted to outdoor pursuits including skiing, kayaking, climbing and backpacking. Getting to wild places became a lifelong passion. With these intense experiences I increasingly began to realize the existential dangers of environmental destruction. Wild places were being diminished and more difficult to find and access.

Intellectually I had begun to sense that education had to be part of the solutions to these issues. Mainstream education was more concerned with the protection of the status quo rather than the social changes needed in so many areas in our society. I had begun to be interested in alternative forms of education and was influenced by George Leonard’s “Education and Ecstasy” and AS Neill’s “Summerhill” which was an alternative or free school in Britain.

After a couple of years of teaching and then travel, I was hired at Lord Elgin HS in Halton. This school was designed to be an experiment. Staff were encouraged to try new curriculum and evaluation strategies. My developing attitudes and world view fit right into this environment and I thrived in the more informal and open concept structure of the school. One of the new approaches in the school was to integrate curriculum from different fields of study into one program. I was part of a US history/literature experiment, where students read classic American fiction to help them understand the history and vice versa. There was also a program in sustainable living and environmental studies called the Mountsberg program that became the precursor to Bronte Creek. I had a periphery role in that program.

By then, through friends and colleagues, I had encountered Bert Harwood, a professor in the education department at Queens university in Kingston ON. Bert was a front runner in the field of experiential education and a believer that it should be a strong part of the teaching in outdoor education and specifically in the teaching of deep ecology. For Bert, experience should be central to all meaningful education. Bert became a bit of a mentor to me and his writing had significant influence on my thinking. One article in particular written by Bert had a huge effect on me. “Tasting the berries:deep Ecology ad Experiential Education” reinforced, where My thinking was headed. Bert’s main premise was that the deep ecology and experiential learning movements had much in common and were bringing about a major attitude shift from concern about humans to concern for the biosphere. A move away from anthropomorphism to biocentrism. This was also allowing teachers to shift from teaching from their experiences to letting students learn from their own experiences.

Another major influence were two trips to Cuba I organized with students in Spring break, where we had the chance to visit several schools. These were rural high schools for mostly city kids, where students were divided into two groups, with one team working in the fields in the morning, while the other was in school, followed by a switch after lunch. Students throughout the country were producing a large part of the nation’s agricultural output. For Me this was the origin for my realizing the importance of service learning as part of the education process. This concept was to become central to the Bronte Creek program. Students become more confident, motivated and productive, when they serve others as they learn. In retrospect, what I experienced with BCP students only reinforced that view.

Bryn's story

I was eldest of five children, born and raised in Windsor, Ontario. My father was a local radio and TV personality at 50,000 watt CKLW, a “top 40” Windsor/Detroit radio and television station. As a young person, I lived an idyllic life, meeting many of my sports and entertainment idols whose acquaintance my dad’s celebrity had fostered. My hero back then was my grandfather, a Welsh immigrant, Anglican archdeacon, Progressive Conservative MPP, speaker of the Legislature from 1948 to 1956; on many levels a stubborn man of deep conviction and passion.

I was a proud graduate of Kennedy Collegiate, one of the school board’s flagship high schools. The principal was Marshall Thompson, or “Tex”, as the students adoringly called him. He was tough. He was proud. Three times a year he spent the whole day interrupting classes in order to personally hand out report cards to every student. He eyeballed every one of us. We knew he cared. During my time at Kennedy I was on student council every year, I DJ’d Friday night dances after football and basketball games, and in my senior year I was School Spirit Chair and Vice-president of Student Council. Upon graduating from University, I sought Mr. Thompson’s advice about a career in teaching and he said “you’ll never regret it”. He knew a love of high school was in my DNA – the fun, the challenge, the learning, the transition to adulthood. Tex and I kept in touch until he died. He inspired me to the very end.

My five years at the University of Windsor was a radicalizing experience. I enrolled in a Master’s program in political science,

specializing in Canadian Studies and writing my thesis on socialism in the CCF/NDP. I was particularly interested in the emergent New Left and its mantra of “self-determination”, a new kind of democracy for communities like Viet Nam, Quebec and university campuses. In 1969, I was elected to Student Council and became Chair of Frosh Week, replacing traditional hazing with a week of political discourse. It was a polarizing time that eventually laid the groundwork for a 2-week sit in protesting the firing of a popular theology professor who wanted to include atheism in a course on religion. Much to the dismay of my dear grandfather, our mutual interest in politics had ruptured with my involvement in the student power movement.

In 1972 I enrolled in Faculty of Education at the University of Toronto, with a goal to teach social science at the high school level. I hoped that my five practice teaching experiences at schools in the GTA would validate my career path. I was assigned a variety of grades and subject areas, and quickly came to realize that philosophically and strategically it was important to build supportive learning relationships with the students individually, and collectively to build a positive classroom environment. By the end of the year I had accepted my first teaching position at South Peel Special Vocational School in Port Credit where I was allowed to put some of my ideas into effect with considerable success. At the end of my second year, a colleague informed me about an opening “to die for” at an innovative secondary school in Burlington, called Lord Elgin. I called right away since contractually, teachers wishing to switch school boards had to do so by May 31. My interview, in front of 10 social science teachers was May 31. The first question posed to me by a member of the interview team was “Are you radical?”. That teacher was John McKillop.

I was offered a position at the end of the interview, feeling humbled and overwhelmed. Over the next several years I embraced a variety of teaching strategies including lectures, seminars, independent study, creative projects, self-evaluation. In my third year my students were asked to fill out a survey evaluating me and my teaching/learning strategies. Their response was positive. By then, I was teaching a popular World Religions course focusing on students’ spiritual autobiographies. They created projects based on key questions like “Who am I?” and “Who are we?”. The “Here we all are” unit incorporated several weeks of yoga. Students were required to keep a personal journal. The underlying philosophical organizer of the course was holistic education, integrating the many aspects of oneself: physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual. This focus on deepening one’s self-awareness had particular design appeal when John and I started to envision a program based on creating a learning community in a natural environment. This was the beginning of the Bronte Creek Project.