Saturday, 23 July 2016

Teaching Empathy for Animals is Essential

Grade 4s feeding the ducklings at break
While sitting in the Company Gardens having breakfast on a Saturday morning, I watched a 7 year old boy chasing an Egyptian goose with a broken wing. Every time the poor goose hopped out of his reach, he ran to persecute the goose some more. When the goose flew up onto a statue, he started chasing the pigeons instead. While he created havoc amongst the bird life outside, his parents were happily ensconced in the warm cafe. 
I used my 'principal' voice to make him stop, and as I did so, I felt indignation, not only that his parents obviously hadn't taught him empathy for animals, but also towards his school! He obviously was at a school that didn't teach the 'soft' curriculum!

Imaan taming budgies for the library
Ethan and Sarah feeding Cornflake
I then realised, all over again, how important it is that Pinelands North has animals all over the school, and that we subtly teach children very day about how we should care for animals. When the children watch me speaking firmly but gently to Peroni, my puppy, they learn that it unnecessary to shout, or smack, or 'hurt'. When children watch Uncle De Villiers diligently clean swimming ponds, food bowls and aviaries, we are subtly telling children that it is important to treat animals in the same way in which we would like to be treated. When we talk to children about not feeding the puppies at school, we are also teaching the children the importance of feeding the right food to animals. When we insist on the classroom budgies being fed before we continue with our school work we are telling children that we should never allow an animal, no matter how big or small, to suffer hunger or thirst. This creation of empathy for animals is a slow, sure process but the difference between children who understand empathy, and those who don't, is wide ranging. A child who understands that animals feel pain will never intentionally hurt an animal. Even when they hurt animals unintentionally, they are devastated. I am always impressed by the child who, when we practise evacuation drill at school, will walk onto the field carrying their class budgie or rat cage - that is a child who forever will empathise with animals. This too, would be a child who could safely be left to their own devices in the Company Gardens.

Monday, 6 June 2016

When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis......

Flying away from home and school on an airplane to China last month, I started reading a book I had bought for my book club. The book When bad things happen in good bikinis by Helen Bailey, covers blog posts she writes after her husband drowned while they were on holiday together. One of the blog posts I read is entitled 'One green bottle'. This post tells of a special bottle of champagne a friend gave her and her husband, and how they kept it instead of drinking it.....there never seemed to be a special enough occasion to drink the champagne! When he dies, she realizes that every day with him was a special occasion - when she finally opens it, she has to throw it away because it has 'died' too. 

 I stopped reading! How many things do we 'save' for another 'better' occasion? Why do we keep lead crystal wine glasses for some time we want to celebrate? Why don't we go up the cable car with our children, just because the wind isn't blowing and the air is warm tonight? Why don't we buy the Lego kit our child wants, just because we can? What if tomorrow doesn't come? My sister-in-law has just been diagnosed with MS this week and she can't see out of one eye.....what if we lose our sight tomorrow? Why didn't I rush to Camps Bay and take photographs of the sunset yesterday when I could see it still with 2 eyes? Don't put off anything that needs to be done today....tomorrow might not bring the same opportunities that today brought....

Friday, 22 April 2016

A cultural eye-opening trip to China....

With Professor Qin, Director of the Confucius Institute
I have just had the privilege of spending 10 days in China, with the compliments of the Confucius Institute at UCT. Pinelands North started teaching Mandarin as an extramural in January 2016, and this term we already have about 70 children in the programme, ranging from grade 3 to 7.This institute provides teachers and workbooks at no cost to those who wish to learn this Chinese language. The purpose of the trip was to take principals of schools where Mandarin was being taught, or where the school had expressed an interest in starting the programme, to both southern and northern China, to be immersed in the culture to better understand the people.
Before this trip, my only experience of the Chinese as a nation was while I travelled overseas, and it wasn’t a positive one! In Turkey and Greece every relic had at least one Chinese lady posing with a selfie stick……and usually for a very long time too while they took several different views of themselves. Also on that overseas trip, when we asked about why there was no kettle in the hotel room, we were told that they aren’t provided in rooms any more because the Chinese boil water for their tea all day. I had also been told that the air in Beijing was so thick with smog that you couldn’t breathe, and that every Chinese person spat in the street all the time….

Our trip started in Guangzhou, a modern city of 16 million people, just north of Hong Kong, and ended in Beijing, the capital city of the north, 10 days later. During the trip we attended 2 schools, 2 universities, and saw many of the best tourist attractions in China, including The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tia He Men Square and the Summer Palace. We met some amazing people along the way, South African and Chinese!
So, herewith some of my cultural learning from the trip……
  • Chinese names are written completely differently from those in the west. The first name is the family or surname, and this name is followed by a middle name taken from the ancestral family tree, followed by the child’s given name. This enables families to inform the ‘world’ of how long their family has been in existence!
  • Because of the congestion in Beijing, not everybody can have a car. If you want to buy a car, you put your name into a lottery, and only if you ‘win’ the lottery can you buy a number plate. And only then can you buy a car! Even when you have a car, you can’t drive to work everyday. Depending on the final number on your number plate, and what day of the week it is, one day of every week you need to leave your car at home because it may not be on the road! Everybody can drive over weekends however!
  • We painted our own fans....
    Chinese sisters learning to take selfies
  • Tea making is very important in Chinese culture. Tea is had without milk and sugar, and with every meal, as well as a social occasion on it’s own. Markets sell lots of different teas made from leaves and flowers, each with their own ‘nose’ and palate. Markets sell tea sets, tea pots too, all beautifully decorated with Chinese writing, traditional flowers and typical scenes.
  • Chinese calligraphy is traditionally done in black with paintbrushes, and is no longer written back to front as was done in the past. The calligrapher ‘signs’ their name with a red seal after writing a poem or motivational message.
  • Chinese food varies from south to north, and is very different from ‘westernized’ Chinese food – initially we found eating noodles, pumpkin and dumplings for breakfast very hard, but when we moved to Beijing and went to ‘tourist’ restaurants, we rejected the usual ‘sweet and sour’ type foods that we think is ‘traditional’ Chinese cuisine. Fish and other seafood is eaten at every meal in the south, but beef, pork, lamb and Peking duck is more common in the north. I loved eating chillis with every meal too! Carbohydrates are seldom eaten, and I didn’t see one fat Chinese person. 
  • Interaction between ‘business’ partners in the Chinese culture is much more formal than in the west. Every meeting is ‘sealed’ with a group photograph to ‘record’ the interaction, and gifts are exchanged as part of the meeting.
  • People in the west imagine that China is still ‘stuck’ in the past but the reality is that Guangzhou has 3 of the 5 tallest buildings in the world, and the most up-to-date library I have ever seen! We were lucky enough to travel from Guangzhou to Beijing on the ‘bullet’ train, which at times travelled at 307km per hour!
  • The history of China is vast – Guangzhou is at least 2200 years old and one of the first destinations on the Silk Road. We heard lovely stories of emperors, hutongs, warriors from Manchuria, how the Chinese developed their writing and how the dragon came into being….all these stories made me want to get home quickly to start reading up on the history as soon as possible!
    Some of the group at Tia He Men Square
  • China no longer has a ‘one child’ policy. When the population started getting older rather than younger, the People’s Party announced that every family could now have 2 children, and I only saw one family that had 3 children.

I am really glad I went to China! I feel that I have opened my perspective and learnt so much about a part of the world I knew little about!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Teaching children to be inventors

In a study in 1966, 24% of South African children could see themselves as inventors in the future, and of that group almost none of them were girls! I wonder how many children would think that today? I wonder if a larger percentage of the group would be girls? 
Problem solving with grade 3 pupils 
Paul Torrance says that children should be encouraged to invent things from as early as possible, and they should be encouraged to view a career in inventing as a positive option. Alexander Graham Bell was nine years old when he invented a talking doll which ultimately led to him developing the idea for the first telephone. Well known inventors like Bell actually invented things his whole life - his most famous invention is the telephone. We therefore mustn't think that an inventor has to be famous - most inventors invent things all through their lives, and few invent something as far-reaching as a telephone! Young girls need to see a future for themselves in science and in inventing things. This requires an inventive or problem solving mind, and a knowledge of scientific principles which would influence the situation around the problem to be solved. Very few people also realise that almost all inventors had a 'sidekick' - the person who might actually have done most of the technical planning or most of the actual doing to create the invention....remember Mr Watson?
So what do we do in our schools today to encourage children, particularly girls, to be inventors? In the old days inventors were taught drawing, observation and visualisation skills. Certainly the basics of those skills are taught from preschool at most schools. At Pinelands North we teach technology in several different ways to increase the opportunities of learning . This means that while most schools have one or two hours per week of this subject, we focus on Computer Technology, the specific skills needed for woodwork and needlework and on the theory of Technology. Our children also learn art and drama, and these subjects can also be focussed on in the extramural programme too. Communication skills are very important as an inventor because if you cannot communicate what you have invented it still won't be used or patented. 
Orals and projects about real inventors, their careers and their real stories is important for all to hear. The inspiration of people like Edison, Ford and Bell really cannot be underestimated - children love those stories of people solving difficult puzzles after hardship! Children need to know that a problem isn't going to be solved the first time you tackle it so perseverance and 'grit' are required, and often an inventor has to really persevere to sell the idea after the problem has been solved too. The 'new' idea is not going to quickly become a world wide seller immediately.  
Balancing 15 nails on one nail!
The emotional and social behaviours, and thinking skills of very bright children at Pinelands North are developed through our Creative and Talented Programme. The social/emotional  part of the programme encourages children to identify their emotions and learn to deal with the outside world in a positive way. In the development of their thinking, children have been encouraged to choose an inventor, research the inventor's life and then pretend to be the inventor, and give a speech that person might have given. This project was very successful!
An idea we haven't used as yet but intend to, is to ask children to make notes of the problems that are raised over 24 hours by their parents, friends or neighbours. After this they think through the problems, trying to think of solutions to some of them and then invent something to 'fix' the problem.
The truth of the matter is that even in our Creative and Talented Programme, we have more boys than girls, even though we are conscious of the need to identify girls. We see this as an ongoing challenge which needs to be addressed every time we consider adding children to our programme. Maybe we need to encourage more families not to stereotype girls from birth and to give their girl children technical problems to solve at an early age?

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

A public letter to the staff of PINELANDS North, at the end of the first hectic term of 2016!

Reflecting on the term gone by during the holidays,  I realize once again why I love teaching at PINELANDS North! My words at assembly at the end of the term are true - you are an amazing group of people, all different, from different backgrounds, with different roles to play....but with one purpose, and that is to raise our future South African children, gently and kindly! 

Here are some of the things I appreciate about you! 
You use gentle words when expecting our children to comply with our social norms. 
You teach what is supposed to be taught, according to curriculum, but you also teach a hidden curriculum of conflict resolution, of social justice, of empathy and of care for our fragile world. 
You treat the school as you would your home, so that when the school is under threat from outside, everybody is alert and watchful to ensure we are all safe. 
If you say you will do something, you do, whether that is ensuring there are chairs for parents in classrooms on school in action day, or calling parents to ask them to provide eats for functions. 
You notice dirty things and clean them, or you pick up litter without thinking that it is someone else's job. 
You set a good example to our children by the way you dress and the language you use at school. 
You treat all our living things at school, including our children, gently and with dignity. 
You care for each other, right across the school - someone is always holding someone else's hand while they are dealing with something personal that might have nothing directly to do with school, but affects the person's ability to be fully present. 

The list is endless because as I think of each section of our community, I could add more and more accolades. So, thank you, for the part you have played in the life of the school, and the part you play in making my life easier every day of the year! I appreciate you! 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

The importance of having animals as part of a school community....

Shannon with Cornflake
Since 2000 Pinelands North Primary has had a variety of animals at the school. Currently we have Muscovy ducks, 2 rabbits, several rats, a couple of fish tanks, several budgies, a German Shepherd puppy and a neighbour's cat who believes he belongs to us! Children engage with animals before and after school, and during break times, and help us with feeding and cleaning the animals. They learn to take responsibility for the life of an animal and the realisation that an animal relies on us for everything, starts an empathy process in children.
Angela with Sassie and Tyler
The children who benefit most from our animals are those in some distress. Often children who change schools in the years between grade 2 and 6, are those who have had some difficulty with schooling: either because of social issues, or because of learning problems. These children connect very quickly with our animals, and the relationship which develops from this connection, affects all the child's other school relationships positively. Children learn empathy once they have developed a relationship with an animal too, and this relationship then builds bridges between the child and the staff.
One of the first times we realised how important animals were, was when a new boy was throwing a tantrum in the classroom. His teacher noticed the class budgie in the cage close by, was sitting with his head cocked to one side and quietly watching. She told the boy that 'Buddy' was watching the tantrum and suddenly the screaming and antisocial behaviour stopped! This change in behaviour started a very positive process in behaviour change for this child.
Chane with Robert
Animals allow children to learn life lessons. One of the most  poignant times with our animals was when 2 really tame budgies died on one day, after being at the vet. Several grade 3 children had connected very strongly with these budgies and when they died, we spent most of the day counselling, having funerals and meditating quietly on how important they had become in our lives. One of the children who was affected the most by these 2 deaths, came to see me today to tell me that the cross they put up for these birds had been broken, and that he had fixed it for us - this incident happened 4 years ago! 4 years later this child was still remembering these budgies and how important they had been in his life!
Khayan with Lemon
Animals also have become rewards for progress at school. Particularly when children struggle with social interaction, having an animal as the reward for showing positive behaviours has met with great success. Children who struggle with human interaction often don't struggle to form good relationships with animals.
We have also had success in integrating children and animals when children have never interacted with animals before. Suddenly an animal is close but not threatening, and children learn that they can walk past a puppy without being bitten. Children who haven't ever had animals at home learn how to care for an animal in a nonthreatening way.
Kayden with one of our fishtanks 
Raaniyah with Liefie
The most interesting experience for me was one day when we had several teachers and principals visiting our school from the UK. I had about 6 ducklings in an open topped box outside my office in the passage when they arrived. As we walked by, the teachers gasped, and on investigation, I was told that none of them would ever have ducklings in the passage outside their classrooms - they would fear for the lives of the animals! I then realised what a special school I was at - I didn't ever have to fear children and their behaviour with animals. We were getting something right.....something which would positively influence the future of our population in South Africa!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Healthy Living

Fun run/walk in September 
Pinelands North Primary is committed to eating healthily, to selling or giving away only healthy foods, and to ensuring that all our children participate in activities which raise their heart rates! Far too many children today are eating takeaways and fast foods, and leading a sedentary lifestyle. There is an alarming rate of obesity in young children around the world, with this condition affecting children emotionally and physically as they get older. Children can't concentrate properly at school without good nutrition, and eating the incorrect foods sometimes causes behavioural problems in children too.
We encourage our families via newsletters and at public meetings to provide their children with healthy food to eat during the day. Families should try to include fruit, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates every day, and if they include bread, it should be the healthiest one they can afford. These are consumed during break times and during the 'Go Snack' time...usually half way between school starting and break time. These snack times give children the extra boost they need to focus on their learning.
Liquid refreshments should be available for children all the time, and the school recommends a water bottle with cool fresh water rather than fruit juice. Food provided at school should always be the best possible option. 
Our tuckshop has the seal of approval from the Heart Foundation and sells reasonably-priced good healthy food in case families don't have time to create healthy snacks the evening before. Our EarlyAct, the group of children who raise money for people less fortunate than themselves, also sell healthy food on Fridays but they do sell a few 'treat' items too. We also encourage party packs sent to school on birthdays, to be a healthy option. So parents could choose crunchies, popcorn, gingerbread or muffins instead of birthday cake. Our Red Connect parent group serves healthy foods whenever they provide snacks at school functions, and the only time you might see 'sugar' in its various forms, will be every second year at our Red-a-Fair!  Our families might also be pleased to hear that all our school functions only provide food that can be eaten by everybody! We have moved on from the time when people ate separately, and we need our children to learn to be accommodating and inclusive.
Using a piece of our new apparatus
We also encourage our children to 'dispose' of their food in an inclusive way. Any uneaten sandwiches or snacks are taken to our school kitchen so that any child, who may have forgotten lunch or doesn’t have any, can go and collect something to eat there. Spare leftover vegetables or fruit are fed to the school ducks or put into our school worm farms. Boiled eggs are given to the canaries and the finches, and bread crusts to the wild birds.

To encourage children to eat the food they might otherwise not eat at home, an idea would be to buy them a really great lunchbox and water bottle. Cut vegetables and fruit into small pieces, and cover with lemon juice if your child won't eat 'brown' fruit. Discuss school lunches regularly with your children. Do you need to adapt their lunch to their changing needs? Children should have enough food for both breaks if they are older than grade 2, and if they are in grade 1 and 2 and they do extramurals after school, they will also need extra snacks for the extra time they are at school. Packing a healthy lunchbox, day in and day out, can be a real challenge. It doesn't take long to run out of healthy and delicious lunch box ideas. Pinterest and FaceBook have lovely ideas which are easy to make but really good healthy options - sometimes even giving it to your child in a different way, might encourage them to continue to eat 'boring' foods!
One of the 'Dads' races at our sports day
Healthy living includes exercise. Pinelands North offers many different options to make
 children move - from table tennis to swimming, from team sports to individual ones. Because we know every child is different, parents should encourage their children to tackle several different sporting codes - not only to see if they have a particular talent, but also to encourage other life skills like teamwork, perseverance and empathy. Every child should move for as many hours as possible per day. Early encouragement of sporting activities, even just outside play, should be part of every child's daily plan.

Foundation Phase gala
In 2015 Pinelands North staff arranged a GoKart Derby Day to raise funds to build more playground apparatus so we now have a circuit built on the field which can be used for physical education classes or just for children to strengthen their upper bodies or learn to balance during break times. This year we will have another of these Derby Days to raise funds for a 'floor' covering for this circuit so that, should a child fall off the equipment, they won't be too badly hurt. Healthy eating and exercise together affect children positively and a child who is eating well and keeping their heart rate up, rarely suffers from depression.  Give your child the best possible starts to life as, making healthy living a habit, lasts a lifetime!