It is my pleasure to offer my sincerest recommendation of Ms. Diane Swiatek for a Woman of Vision Award.
When asked to provide this reference in the context of being one of Diane's graduates from Banbury Crossroads School, my first thought was, yes, what an absolutely fitting award for Diane, as she truly is a woman of not only vision, but patience, perseverance, and unwavering dedication to the stewardship of that vision.
I have known Diane since I was six years old when I joined Banbury Crossroads School in Grade 1, my first of eight years under her teaching and mentorship. During that period, through the nurturing, supportive, and enriching environment Diane fostered, we established a near familial bond that exists to this day, over two decades later. She is a dear friend, and an extraordinary educator about whom I will now attempt to relate the qualities that make her a woman of vision.
First and foremost, Diane created a school long before the concept of independent schooling became mainstream. This school was catalyzed initially by her disenchantment with the established format of the public system, but was crafted in accordance with her personal vision and principles that a learning environment can be so much more enriching and diverse. The testament to this vision is that the school has now operated for over 30 years, and during that time, Diane has demonstrated the courage, optimism, and strength of character to maintain her vision and ideals, despite institutional resistance, inflexible rules and policies, and economic fluctuations. Against the odds, Diane offered an alternative one that my parents, among others, were searching for. A place where, and more accurately, a person to whom, they could entrust the caretaking of their children's education.
To better understand, however, why Diane is a visionary, the nature and details of the experience of being at Banbury Crossroads must be described. I will now share some reflections on my eight years at the school.
As a student at Banbury Crossroads, I was given the freedom to direct my own learning. There were no set schedules, no mass-distributed assignments, no cold classrooms filled with rows of desks. Diane provided a diversity of unique materials, workbooks, textbooks, toys, games and welcoming physical environments, from which my classmates and I could choose activities and learning pursuits. There was also very little competition. I had no report cards most of the time I didn't even have grades to compare with other classmates who may or may not have been in the same grade as me for any given subject. The focus was always on the learning, not how I measured up in comparison to my peers (although, of note, when my classmates and I did write standardized exams mandated by the province, we always did very well a further testament to the quality of the education.)
My classmates and I, of course, learned the expected subjects math, language arts, science, etc. (often at more advanced levels than typical for our ages), but also history, phonics, grammar, public speaking, logical reasoning, critical thinking, organization in writing, and typing and, for example, not just how to type Diane would include us in the total experience of any given subject so, she would take us to buy the typewriter ribbons, and pick out the stationery that we wanted to use for our stories or reports.
She taught and inspired us to sing, play musical instruments, write and direct plays, cook international cuisine, bake, knit, weave, dye cloth using batik methods, write poetry, garden, make yogurt, create linocut prints, draw, plan events, care for pets, read maps, play games of strategy, skate, conduct science experiments, take photographs, quilt, snowshoe, grow plants, sew clothing from a pattern, and canoe.
As well, she ensured a balanced education by arranging for the input of other teachers in art, French, sports, computers, gymnastics, social dance and field trips to every conceivable place one might learn. (What better way to learn about blowing glass, than in a glass factory? Baking bread we'd go to a bakery. Photo developing? Off to the self-serve photo lab we went.) Learning was an immersion in life.
Diane also infused the school environment with positive values including kindness, trust, and respectful communication. Violence and bullying were virtually non-existent. She instilled confidence in her students by empowering them to take ownership of their actions and their education. She encouraged each of us to engage with our world, including simple, yet character-building activities, such as speaking for ourselves with adults. As well, we all had a caretaking function within the school community. We performed chores such as vacuuming and tidying common spaces, instilling respect for our shared space and for Diane, especially when the school resided in her home in the earlier years.
It was a truly balanced, rich, and inspirational education, which encouraged me to push the boundaries, pursue my dreams, and speak out with respect, logic and emotional intelligence on issues of concern (such as when Diane helped me to write a letter to several major world leaders regarding nuclear disarmament and I received replies!) Diane also planted the seed of my current career. From a young age I have had a penchant for our natural world and the importance of conserving our environment. When I was ten years old, Diane introduced me to an organization called The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and she gave me a copy of the World Conservation Strategy to read. I remember telling her after that point that when I grew up I would be an environmental designer. I may not have known fully what that meant at the time, but I knew I was passionate about nature, and our collective need to conserve and live sustainably within our environment.
As it so happens, I now have a Bachelor's Degree in Ecology, and a Master's Degree in Environmental Design, and for my thesis I produced a Conservation Status Survey for Bison in North America for the IUCN. For the last six years, I have worked as a biologist for the Department of National Defence (DND), working to balance land use with species at risk protection and environmental sustainability. I am now embarking as a Project Manager mandated with designing a land use framework and land use management tools, which may ultimately be applied to military lands across Canada to promote long term sustainability.
A woman of vision encouraged me on this path.
This is necessarily only a partial list of details and descriptions to emphasize the sheer diversity of the self-directed and experiential learning opportunities Diane orchestrated and provided to her students. She manifested a vision through the certainty of her resolve that there had to be a better way to educate our children and inspire them to be well developed, contributing, respectful, confident, and nurturing members of society. And this diversity and positive influence I'm sure I have only grown in the years since I left Banbury Crossroads.
I thank you for this opportunity to recommend Diane for this award, and to share and reacquaint myself with my truly remarkable experience at Banbury Crossroads.
Not only does her vision thrive through the continued existence of the school, but also the legacy of that vision lives on in her students.