a peek inside the fishbowl

19 Oct, 2015

Encouraging lifelong learners, in high school and beyond

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Fishbowl patrons

I was fortunate to attend a fairly progressive public high school. There was a special stream for students who wanted to get their pilot’s license; “gifted” level classes in math, science, English, and social studies; French immersion; a computer lab at a time when they were incredibly new and no one really knew what to do with them; a “creative media” class which included desktop publishing and access to a darkroom; and a co-operative education option that – in hindsight – is the reason I chose the career I did.

I don’t think I fully realized the remarkable opportunities I had at the time, even as I compared notes with friends who attended “regular” high schools in the area. I learned about fonts and white space. I studied French, and took a year of German. I went on a school trip to Europe. I did some pretty cool dissections in biology class that some of my friends didn’t get to do. I remember thinking that although our school experience was similar – we’d sweat over our math equations, curse our gym teachers, and had the same exams – the route we took to the same learning outcomes was different. In my classes we divided into teams and debated aspects of Canadian history, spending hours at the library doing research about our respective positions. My friends, they sat at home and memorized names of and dates listed their textbooks.

Is one style of education better than the other? I’m not sure what the answer to that question is. I do know that my friends who memorized all those names and dates fared well in the grand scheme of things, but I will say this: I certainly am grateful for the education I received because it built the foundation of who I am today.

As a parent of young teens, I think about what they are learning in school and try to facilitate new and interesting opportunities for them. This might be something as simple as going to the library, exploring some local caves, firing off a rocket, microwaving a bar of soap, looking at a dragonfly wing under a microscope, or dragging the telescope outside to see the recent super moon. :)

I had a chance to visit The Element – a Fishbowl patron – at the beginning of the school year, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

The Element is a not-for-profit private school newly located at Lansdowne Park. (The Element is part of OMS Montessori. I wrote about my visit to the school earlier this year.) The Element serves grades 7 to 12 in the Montessori tradition of learning. I will say this: they knocked my socks off.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at The Element. At the very least I was a little excited about the location, not for me, but the students. Can you imagine going to high school at the new Lansdowne?

I’ve only been to this area a handful of times since it opened. It felt strange to walk around this completely new development. It’s like visiting FUTURE OTTAWA. It’s Ottawa, but it’s also not Ottawa. (I realize that might sound just a little bit nutty, but there it is.)

I was early, so I poked around. There is a huge amount of green space out back and community gardens bursting with flowers and produce. And of course, some familiar sights as well:

The Element

The Element

When I finally knocked on the door and went inside, the entire school – oh, about 30 students and teachers – were in the middle of their weekly community meeting. One student was in charge of the agenda, and classmates took turns voicing their concerns and making announcements. It was all remarkably mature. Agenda items included basketball team sign ups and the location of garbage bins and recycling, among other things. When a concern was raised, another student addressed it. Here were students who were taking charge of their own experience, but it extended farther than just the merits of recycling. They were managing issues and problem solving on the fly. This was a team in the making!

Correction: the team had already been made. The younger grades started their school year off with an epic canoe trip they call The Odyssey. To get a better idea of what kind of team-building exercise this is, check out this student-produced video. I totally think all high schools should do this. Imagine how different high school relationships would be if you had to portage with your classmates? When you saw one another at your best and at your worst? What kind of foundation does it lay for the rest of the year? (FYI, the parents spoke out about it in a different video.)

I chatted with two Element students – Sydney and Amelia – who told me all about the trip and were practically beaming the whole time they described it:

The Element

“You have this whole experience and then come back to class and say, whoa, you’re a real person,” laughed Sydney. “You look not-so-bad when you’re not covered in dirt!”

Sydney and Amelia have been with the Montessori program since they were three and both are now in grade eight. I had to ask the obvious question: Do you like school?

“I like the Montessori philosophy, where it’s more personalized, more one-on-one,” said Sydney. “We get more independent work periods and we learn to work on our own, but at the same time there are always teachers around.” She points out that teachers are always happy to talk to students.

“We’re known as ‘the school that’s always a grade ahead'” she added. Her and Amelia are working on their ninth grade French credits. “We learn at our own level, which helps us learn faster and it’s a lot more fun. It’s a place where you want to come to school every day.”

Both young ladies are understandably thrilled with the school’s new digs. “Lansdowne is so cool, there are so many great things about the Glebe,” said Sydney.

“In this space we feel like we are very much a part of the Lansdowne community,” added Amelia. “We interact a lot with the stores and the people here. [Shopping for the cooking program at Whole Foods, for example.] We are part of the community, both inside and outside the classroom.”

I got a tour of the new space. At the time there were still a few boxes to be unpacked and bulletin boards waiting to be installed, but I could see that the workspace was bright and airy, with breakout rooms, a full kitchen that is used by the 7 and 8th graders who work their way up to cooking a hot lunch for the students and staff, big windows that afforded some inspiring views, and some other nice surprises. For example, the OMS parents fundraised for this 3D printer last year:

The Element

The tour was given to me by Kendra Hoskin, the OMS Communications and Marketing Coordinator. “All parents who come here look at the space and say they wish this could have been their high school experience,” said Kendra. (No kidding!)

I also had a chat with Pat Gere, the director at OMS Montessori, and as we talked about The Element’s approach to learning I had a huge sense of déjà vu. In my previous post about the Montessori program I wrote about the students who were truly engaged in joyful learning and how the Montessori approach offers an individualized, hands on learning experience in which students are free to explore topics and subjects that interest them, while meeting – if not exceeding – the curriculum at the same time. In my time at the Element I was essentially seeing the same thing but at a higher level. It is still joyful learning.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since, because isn’t joyful learning what life is supposed to be about, whether we’re in school or not?

Canoe trips and 3D printers aside, from an academic perspective these kids are high achievers. The Element has a very unique approach to learning that seems to fit with the natural way that people learn.

“One of the things we do really well with our students is help them understand who they are as learners, and as people, but learners particularly,” said Pat. “They’re usually very open about what they’re good at and what they’re not good at, and they’re pretty good at telling you what they need in order to overcome their challenges.”

These are life skills in the making here. I was practically making mental parenting notes as we talked.

“We try to give them as much independence as they can possibly handle,” said Pat. “We try not to do for them anything they can do for themselves. We try to give them a lot of choice.”

Students have an advisor that stays with them from year to year. Pat describes this as an “individual point person” if the students have any challenges, such as having trouble getting their work done or issues at home. Even though the kids have a lot of freedom, this provides a bit of structure so no one falls through the cracks.

“Sometimes we let them fail, certainly,” she reflected. “Because that’s one of the ways we learn.” Pat is so gentle in her approach.

“We look at curriculum in a very different way,” she said. “We’re balancing their interests with wanting them to be skillful at anything they want to do. And we have the freedom and to do that here.”

I think the flexibility they give themselves is what helps create the excitement in learning. This is what Sydney was essentially talking about when she said it was fun to go to school. This might be simplifying it too much, but when she gets to choose the book she’s reading in literature class (it’s To Kill a Mockingbird, by the way), she’s more likely to get something out of it. And it’s more likely to stick.

“When they’re invested in [their education] that way, we’re not driving it, they’re driving it all themselves,” said Pat. “They work because they want to be successful.”


There is so much more I can tell you about this innovative program and the innovative space, but the best way to learn more about The Element is by checking it out in person and asking lots of questions. There are two information session coming up on November 5 and 16, one for each age group. Get the whole scoop on The Element website.

5 Responses to "Encouraging lifelong learners, in high school and beyond"

1 | Annie

October 19th, 2015 at 1:25 pm


Interesting post, Andrea.

My kids are currently at a non-subsidized private elementary school in Gatineau and my son is going into Grade 7 next year, so we’re in the midst of high school touring and admissions exams.

The one you profiled here starts at double our current tuition and around five times the tuition of subsidized private high schools in Gatineau, but it is also much lower than the tuition at most Ottawa private schools.

Maybe we’ll stop by the open house to check it out.

2 | Kendra Hoskin

October 21st, 2015 at 9:04 am


Hi Annie,

We would love to show you around The Element and give you more information about the e1 (Grades 7 & 8) program to see if it’s a good fit for your son. If you plan to stop by the open house, please RSVP to info@elementhighschool.com.


Kendra Hoskin (Communications and Marketing Coordinator at The Element and OMS Montessori)

3 | coffeewithjulie

October 19th, 2015 at 8:36 pm


I had no idea that this school existing. Looks really interesting! (BTW – what high school did you go to?)

4 | andrea tomkins

October 20th, 2015 at 9:26 am


Annie – I do recommend checking it out, and talking to the students if you can!

I didn’t include anything about tuition in this post but I’m glad you mentioned it. Obviously it is a consideration, as not everyone can afford sending their kids to this kind of program. BUT, regardless of where we send our kids to school, I do think we can give our kids opportunities to get excited about learning in the same way they do at The Element… by challenging kids in areas they’re passionate about. And the learning can very much be a family thing too, right?

Julie – The Element has been around for awhile but this campus is totally new. The high school I went to is now called Turner Fenton Secondary School. After I left it absorbed a technical high school next door and became a two campus school. :)

5 | Laurel

November 11th, 2015 at 4:39 pm


As an education advocate, mother of a Montessori student (9 yrs) and mother of another child that attended K-12 through the Catholic system (as an identified gifted child so sometimes there were other unique opportunities) I can say that I have been around different types of education for years. I myself attended public, catholic, private and boarding school. I sat on the board as an executive member at Kanata Montessori School and am now a governor on the board of directors at my former boarding school, Trafalgar Castle School.

Max was”fine” wherever he went to school and when he was offered admission to Ashbury, he said no (best decision ever). He’s now in medical school at an early age so somewhere along the lines things worked out but probably more because he was super bright and not because of what the system was teaching him.

Brynn started Montessori at casa and the plan was for a year or two. She stayed for 9. Yes, it was a financial challenge in the beginning but thinking it was temporary helped:)

When Brynn entered Junior High at KMS I started looking around at options and along with a few other parents, realized we couldn’t find what we were looking for here in Ottawa.

We did attend a presentation of what would become the Element (out of OMS) but they weren’t where we needed them to be (open) when we needed them and there were other logistical concerns at the time which they have now obviously worked out.

I remember saying to my husband, I wish they would open a Blyth campus in Ottawa…. A year later, they did just that-right in your backyard in Westboro Andrea:)

Brynn is in her second year there. Blyth is a much needed addition to the Ottawa education scene. It is private although the tuition is more inline with Montessori over Ashbury/Elmwood. It has a few unique differentiators from the other private options that many, myself included, love. They are heavy on travel and experiences and experential learning. Sam Blyth started Blyth as a travel school at both the high school and university level and now has many campuses scattered throughout Ontario and a few opening in the U.S. Many students that need a more tailored timetable or approach to courses attend Blyth. This is because courses are acclerated and the terms are 2.5 months with most students taking 2 courses each term although some take 1 and others 3, depending on their path.

Many high performance athletes attend Blyth so that they can still finish their year and earn credits even if they leave early-JR hockey out of the playoffs or my daughter’s friends leaving to go swim for Pan Am times and chasing ski times on the hill.

You should do a profile on Blyth:)

Also, while I was on the original committee but no longer involved, KMS is fulfilling the dream of opening up an independent high school right in Kanata called Cedar Ridge College. It will also offer a rich and unique experience for students.

:) WEll,that was a rant.Guess I just wanted to share:)

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). During the day I work as a writer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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