Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Could the COVID pandemic be the lever to change education as we know it?

I am the principal of a privileged public primary schools – based in a southern suburbs ‘village’, with middle class families from the suburb supporting us. Our school was built in 1948, so is part of the old colonial past. Over the years we tried exceptionally hard to break the colonial boundaries but the teaching and learning one we thought was good enough. We had not thought to scrutinize all parts of how we learn and teach, even though our school is seen as a world leader in curriculum change.

Initially the COVID pandemic freaked us all out with little knowledge, departmental plans changing daily and lots of scare mongering in the media. After spending the school closure period fighting fires on many fronts, our school settled into a good rhythm, allowing us to picture a different future education system! Now I think the pandemic could just be the catalyst we all needed to make education the way it could be!

Research says that older children’s circadian rhythms make waking up early very difficult. Our school now starts at 09:00 and ends at 14:00, and we have noticed that children seem much more focused when they arrive at school. This focus also seems to come from a maturity they gained while school was closed for a month or two. Children arrive at school so ready to learn, they sit in their own desk space, with their mask on and suck up all the knowledge and skills we struggled to pass on before! 

Each grade has three individual break times across the day and the children seem to have settled into the fact that they can’t play close up games, so they play tag with their shadows or sit and chat. The grades are partnered with each other so when grade one pupils are at school, grade two teachers manage the grade one break times. This has allowed the teachers to get to know far more children in the school and the children to feel less anxious about the teachers in the next grade.

With children being at school every second day as we don’t have enough rooms or desks for all the pupils at our school to be at school every day, the children seem to value the time they are present, much more than they did before. The fact that they attend school in civvies might also have something to do with it – and the interesting thing is that none of us have noticed children trying to better each other in their civvies clothing. The naysayers about uniform have always said that children will try to better each other and so a uniform allows for conformity, and saves those who can’t afford to buy the latest clothing. In fact, it has been so lovely seeing children arrive in onesies, pyjamas and wellington boots when it is really wet and cold! 

Our parent contact has improved immensely even though no visitors are allowed on the premises! During lockdown our staff met their children using online platforms which meant parents were often in the background. They also had support groups for their parents and met with them once a week or so, to check on how they were coping with being parents and teachers. Now half the staff meet the parents outside every day as if you aren’t teaching that day, your job is to man the traffic in the roads around about, or man the sanitising, temperature taking or movement of children in the playgrounds.
We have adapted our curriculum to focus on four subjects a day only, with mathematics and language every day. On the days the children are at home, they log in for art and music lessons, and only spend another hour reviewing work taught. The amount of time allocated to subjects has been adapted so that we can teach all we believe children should know. Our parents are luckily groomed to expect change at our school! This has helped immensely in curriculum delivery. For the first time, parents and other staff can see exactly how others on the staff teach! 

Only about two thirds of our children have returned to school physically, but all learn every day. The work which will be taught that day is available from 9 daily so that if a family is anxious about the pandemic, they can access all learning. If this was always the way school operated, then anxious children could always be present in learning even though they weren’t necessarily physically present. When the weather is miserable, children can choose to learn from their beds at home! 

Teaching is now a pleasure for staff. On one day they teach classes for a full day but the next they operate from a ‘business hub’ where they prepare for the next day’s teaching. This has helped staff destress because they don’t have to prepare every afternoon, after extramurals. They also can’t mark at home at the moment; checking and reviewing what children are doing is done in the classroom and books are not handed in. This kind of marking has also given children the responsibility for their own learning.

Assessment has changed completely! It is now focused on looking for gaps in learning rather than looking for marks. The focus is on learning for the pleasure of knowing, not for a report or schedule. Small chunks of work are ‘quizzed’ regularly and so children aren’t warned in advance of a test tomorrow, which creates far less anxiety for the whole family. No homework is being set – partly because we’re getting through so much more at school but also because we believe families need ‘play’ time while the world is so filled with anxiety!

We believe this pandemic has helped our school review all we have done and are doing, making us believe that this way of learning and teaching is sustainable. It is amazing that something like a pandemic has turned our school ‘the right way up,’ when it was actually upside down! 

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

A Lockdowned School!

Never in known history has schooling come to an abrupt end like it has over the past months! Schools were suddenly informed about five days before, that children were to leave the term two days early, and since then children have been ‘locked out’ of the school premises! School staff were also locked out slightly later but have also felt a sense of sudden loss of all of the ‘usual’ and familiar.

Every school community member, at every school, has personally been grieving for what is lost and has been trying to create a new normal for their families and for their schools. These are some of the things Pinelands North has been working on while school has officially been closed:

We have been trying to support our school families. Many families have had to create a new routine which adds the stress of being both parent and teacher. Many have had a loss of income, either for one family member or both so they are now unable to finance usual bills. The school has created a Solidarity Fund, funded by staff and parents who haven’t been directly affected financially by the lockdown. This fund will pay school fees for those families who might struggle to pay them. Weekly letters to parents have been sent and we have been communicating via FaceBook twice a day, in so doing trying to create community in other ways so people don’t feel so isolated. 

Because we had some idea this might happen, teachers started preparing work to give to children during the holidays a few weeks before the holidays. The idea of this plan was to keep children focused and ‘entertained’ to help parents, even though officialdom said, ‘everybody is on holiday’. Regular Zoom meetings have been held with whole classes or smaller groups, either as a check in or for teaching. Children have been telephoned, whatsapp’d, emailed or contacted through other online systems, depending on the needs of the families. Staff have also had weekly online grade and phase meetings to share ideas and concerns.

The teaching staff have been well in tune with families and so have adapted their teaching offerings throughout the lockdown. The school started by providing subject specific lessons for every day, then changed to giving work for two weeks at a time, and then now we continue to provide work for two or three weeks at a time, but focus on a theme which can create fun tasks for all ages within a family. The recent work has revolved around measurement, time, mass and capacity and the tasks have been following recipes, ‘playing’ with water and calculating time in different countries. The school families have been much more settled with this as they now don’t need to sit with children of different ages, each doing something completely different. 

The Governing Body decided immediately to keep paying all staff salaries as every single person was valuable. A Radar Team of four staff has been meeting weekly to co-ordinate calls to all staff, and to discuss those we were concerned about. Many staff meetings have been held online, mainly to discuss work but also to check in on each other because teachers have taken particular strain, having to be parents and teachers of their own children, and to continue to plan and teach. Many have had to adapt to online learning and teaching even though they had never done it before. 

Our school plant has needed support too; we have many animals which need to be fed and cleaned daily, the school site has needed upkeep and we have been keeping check on security. Luckily the Operations staff managed to clean and disinfect the school fully before leaving so when we return, we will just need to arrange the classrooms to maximise the available space for staff and children.

The Management Team have now made plans for the return of staff and pupils, preparing transport for those staff who might otherwise have to travel by train or bus, buying health supplements for those staff who will be at the forefront and preparing systems for children and staff to arrive and social distance. Now we wait for the next directive…

The hardest thing during this time has been the indecision and the changes of plans. Being a ‘plans driven’ person, I like to start working on the implementation of directives immediately. It is so frustrating because every date has changed about four times, every plan we have made has had to change at least once. School parents and staff are daily asking questions which I cannot answer, or if I do answer, the question or answer changes the next day again. 

I believe that good will come out of this time eventually though! We will be celebrating this time in the future. Families have had a golden opportunity to spend valuable time together, playing games, reading books and learning together. Children have had a unique learning experience – some of our children have managed to speak to famous people around the world via online platforms, have learnt to collaborate with their siblings, to be creative, to communicate with older and younger family members and to learn things that school doesn’t always encourage. I believe this generation of children will be stronger, more empowered and more knowledgeable than our previous ones ever were. So, lets’ stop worrying about what our children aren’t learning at school and start focusing on helping them learn as much about the world as they can in this unique time.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Developing the support for gifted children in your school

In South Africa where very few children have access to good teaching, and fewer have access to resources, food, classrooms etc, the teaching for gifted individuals is seen as unnecessary and exclusive. However, inclusive schools have gifted children enrolled and we cannot allow teachers to disregard their needs and only put effort into those who struggle.

These children and adults struggle too! Schools are often very confusing places with far too many people who don't understand the gifted mind. By questioning the way things are usually done at school, a school can become a welcoming place for the gifted. 

Schools should start within! Don't limit  excellence or additional learning. In Denmark schools are not allowed to teach for added difference as this is seen as advantage given only to a few! Schools can teach all children as many skills as possible because some children show giftedness in certain contexts. 

What is good for very bright is also good for all children! Teach art, music, drama as well as science and mathematics. Create a curriculum that teaches logic, problem solving, questioning and design. Use collaboration, creativity, fantasy and team work; some very bright children will hate the parts but only through access to these will they find this out about themselves. Persistence and determination should also then be taught as without these characteristics, their future earning power will be bleak. Teach self directed learning  and project management as these are the skills that will be required in the future.

While teaching the children these skills, ensure the staff are kept up to date with world learning; about giftedness but also about new ways of learning and teaching. Encourage the very smart individuals at the school to assist you to create this best practice. We have a gifted adult who helps us understand the gifted mind, and advises us on how to assist others who think like her.

Most gifted individuals struggle to accept themselves and most have low self confidence. This means that support need to be given to help them develop themselves for the future they are creating. This can be done individually or in small groups but most children prefer the group sessions as the focus is not then on them individually but on the whole.

The teaching and supporting of the very bright has changed my life and added such value to the school as a whole. It has broken down prejudice and helped us all understand the needs of the gifted. This has given them a positive space in the world in which to blossom!

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Inclusive Schools are for everybody who can learn, even if they struggle to socialize!

Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder are in all schools! The children who present with this disorder can be exceptionally quiet and withdrawn, or can be excessively loud, bossy and smart, and so are often undetected at mainstream schools. I know Pinelands North had many children with ASD before we acknowledged that some children had 'social' difficulties just ‘being’ at school that we needed to help them solve.
The challenge that we noticed most obviously was how, after break times, the deputy and I had to deal with boys’ soccer incidences! At one stage we dreaded walking back to our offices because there would always be at least one altercation that one of us would need to deal with. These altercations would always follow a similar pattern: one boy would have ‘interfered’ with a soccer game and either run away with the soccer ball or picked it up and thrown it at someone else. The rest of the boys would have seen this as a sabotage of their game and would have intervened in some way, usually resulting in someone getting ‘smacked’! We realized, after noticing this pattern at break time, that this type of ‘lack of social understanding of children’s group games’ was actually also happening before and after school; in fact at any time when there wasn’t an adult directly supervising the social interaction between children!  
We then realised that we needed to create spaces in the school where children who couldn’t socialize, or struggled to socialize, could ‘be’ without having the pressure of the interaction usually required at a school. We did several things, and have continued to improve the number of spaces and the opportunities within the spaces, over the years:
Space to play alone or with only one person
Principals’ offices are usually ‘sacred’ spaces that children are sent to when they behave very well or badly! I realized that the passage outside my office was a ‘dead’ space and so thought we could use it. Conveniently too, I always arrive  at school early in the mornings and so would be able to ‘manage’ any adverse behaviour if this was needed. We put up tables along the passage outside my office that could be folded down if necessary, and that were wide enough to accommodate a chess game, for instance. I bought individual and small group games, after first asking our parents to donate any unused games of this sort. Logic games and puzzles are ideal as many children with Aspergers particularly, love to be challenged intellectually!  This space is now used all day – before and after school, during breaks and during school time, as some children need ‘time out’ from their hectic days and so their teachers send them to play outside my office for a while during school time too.
Space to read and ‘hide’ 
Children with ASD often love to read, particularly non-fiction! They become so engrossed in their reading that they often don’t hear bells, other people around them and resist ‘returning’ to the real world like their classrooms. We realised that our library needed some modifications to assist these children to feel accepted fully. Luckily at that time we had a change of library administrator and so changed the job description to assist us. Our librarian now works from 7:00 to 16:00. This means that the library is open for an hour before school, at both breaks during the day and after school for more than an hour. We also revamped the space with almost no money – we asked parents for castoff couches and carpets, painted the walls bright green and purple, and bought a couple of throws and cushions. This means that our library now looks like a lounge at home – children arrive and cuddle up on the couches, lie on the carpet, bring their parents with them to read in the mornings or meet them there in the afternoons. Children of all ages sit next to each other, without necessarily interacting but just 'being' and sharing the love of reading. Our library is also not an imposingly quiet space – children chat quietly or read aloud to each other too, without disturbing each other. This space is so relaxing that we have found children sleeping on the couches in the afternoons several times! 
Space to be outside without having to ‘play’
Not all ASD children are readers however. Some get very frustrated indoors and need to move freely outdoors, come rain or shine. We therefore developed two quads within the school grounds for different needs of children: 
The Quiet Quad is an outside space, alongside the hall, that is almost enclosed around the sides. One grade 7 group gave the school an outdoor chess set which has been set up there, and the staff occasionally use their classes to add to the 'artistic' interest in this space. We have round mirrors at about head height which have had ‘bodies’ drawn on the wall below them. This allows curious children to look at themselves in the mirrors and have a quiet giggle about what they look like. There are tree decorations created from recyclable materials, several empty birdcages, someone donated a set of Tibetian flags and another parent donated used car tyres which we have painted and now use as plant holders. We also found some synthetic grass offcuts….really small pieces but together they create a lovely green spot in the grey quad. This space is known as the 'Quiet Quad’ because it is used by everybody as a quiet play space – children sit and chat together, read in the sun or play chess in the shade – in small groups or alone. 
Beck se Plek is completely surrounded by the school building and this is where we keep our animals. From early in the mornings until late in the afternoons the animals are surrounded by multiage groups of children, alone or in small groups. The more severe ASD children tend to gravitate towards this space as soon as they arrive at our school because, usually for the first time in their lives, they can experience unconditional love from an animal. Our staffroom opens onto this quad and this has been such a bonus. Some of our ASD children initially struggle to work out ‘how’ to love an animal and so most breaks one of us needs to intervene. Comments like “No Ann, we don’t feed the ducks high above their heads to make them jump for the food. “ No Ann, we don’t hug a bunny as hard as that, just hold him gently in your lap.” “No Ann, we don’t kick the ducks out of our way. Remember this is their home and we are visitors here.” Sometimes children take about 3 years to finally understand the right behaviours. Over the years we have added to our animal ‘farm’ and currently have about 15 Muscovey ducks and 2 ducklings, 4 rabbits, all rescued, and 5 chickens and 3 pullets who live in this quad. This quad has also had a labyrinth drawn onto the brick paving in the centre.
Besides creating ‘spaces’ in the school, we have also adapted several other things within the school to assist all the ‘sensory sensitive’ children at our school:
  • We have other animals in the school grounds, classrooms and offices. I encourage my staff to bring their puppies to school with them as I am involved with a dog club and know how important early socialisation is, for both dogs and children. Sometimes these puppies stay at school as older dogs, depending on their owners’ needs. We also have several tame birds - budgies, parrots and cockatiels which attend class with children who need their support. Many a child has been comforted by stroking a dog's head, while they confide in a staff member or comforted by a tame bird sitting on their shoulder while doing their classwork.
  • We have adapted our uniforms to comfortable t-shirts and shorts, and our children don’t have to wear shoes at school – this particularly has made a huge difference as some children kick their shoes off first thing every day.  Findings suggest that walking around barefoot benefits all brain development, and we certainly have found some children more grounded without their shoes. Two brain systems in particular, the proprioceptive (our sense of position and  movement) and vestibular systems (our body balance and movement), rely heavily on the 'information' we receive from our feet. To create opportunities for different sensory input through our feet, we have also changed the 'flooring' of Beck se Plek - we currently have parts with bark chippings, a section of sand and other parts covered in gravel. We intend extending the different ground coverings as we either have some donated or we can afford to buy them.  
We realised early on that support for just one child meant that many unidentified children with ASD also benefitted. More importantly, everybody is different so you don’t need to have a disability to enjoy not wearing shoes or lying on a couch reading a book during break time! I relish feeling textures with my feet so I would have loved to go barefoot at school, and school would have been heaven on earth if I could have read on a couch every break instead of having to make small talk out on the playground! 
And so, we rejoice when different children arrive at Pinelands North. Every time a child arrives with different needs, we rethink our school spaces, policies and procedures to work out how we can better provide for all our children, as, by focusing on the needs of the individual, we make schooling better for all who attend!

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Key patterns are found in schools who get inclusion right!

In 2008 Gary Bunch wrote an article discussing the Patterns of Inclusive Education and how they are found when certain items come together in schools. These patterns do so at Pinelands North Primary School in South Africa..... 

We have a questioning attitude...
Questioning is the key to all change and by looking at what we see and thinking about how it could be different, the school has changed what we do to become more inclusive. The questions do not have to be asked by management either: everybody in the school asks and re-asks which creates small steps towards a more inclusive reality. After asking the right questions, the people in the inclusive environment then need to have determination to follow through with ideas to better support the children.

Leadership is shown by everybody in the school and is encouraged at every level, regardless of the 'job status'. The expectation is that leaders watch for, and encourage, leadership in all others.

Inclusion is respect for humanity and for social justice. You cannot believe in the rights of all if you do not run an inclusive community. Our school respects the right of all to learn, despite their differences or their learning needs. The desire to learn and all attempts at learning, are celebrated without arrogance or pity!

Achievement is celebrated too, not only by those teaching but by those learning too! It is not about achieving everything either...small bites of achievement, in everybody's own way, at their own time and in a way that makes sense to the individual, are all celebrated. The days of what the 'average child should have learnt' within a particular time frame, are over! Learning is not a competition or a race to the end! Every child's pace is different so the standard national curriculum should not be the standard for all children's learning. We see the curriculum as flexible; we adapt it for our children by adding to it, taking some subjects away, or taking parts of subjects from one year and adding them to another.

Every teacher at every school should know how to teach but when teachers arrive at our school, they need to grow in their own confidence that they too are able to teach every child, not just the 'usual average'. They need to learn that not completing the 'required assessments or curriculum' for some children is just fine! Our teachers have access to teacher aides and learning support helpers but they need to learn how to use them to support children better in their own classrooms. When teachers learn to accept help from others, they blossom! Collaboration is the key: all parts of the school add value for inclusion. The aftercare staff will check in on children they are worried about in the afternoons, the admin staff will notice a child alone at break times and the cleaning staff will notice a child who might not have lunch. We all believe we have our own role to play in this organism that supports inclusion.

No school can become inclusive unless there is great determination, particularly by the school management, to make change. Ideas need to be translated into action, even really small ones. Disregard the 'naysayers' as they will filter out of the system once they realise that the 'new way of learning' doesn't suit their way of teaching. The school then has the opportunity to replace those staff with ones who are more adaptable and flexible. This is a difficult step initially because parents can view 'good teachers leaving' negatively. Calmly allay their fears and continue.

Our school has been through those difficult beginnings and has come out the other side. Now we keep tweaking the systems by again asking questions, growing leaders and adjusting the curriculum every time a different child with different needs comes along. This has made us all more flexible and adaptable, so that we now know for sure that we can include almost any special need into our mainstream school!

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Children self-educate if we let them!

In the late 1990s, Sugata Mitra initiated a series of ‘experiments’ on children to assess their ability to self educate. He placed a computer in a wall of a slum in New Dehli, turned the computer on and placed a video camera close by to watch what happened. He was astonished that children came and taught themselves, and others, how to work it and within days were surfing the web, downloading music and playing with programmes like Microsoft Paint. Because of this he added many more computers in the streets and the result was the same – every time children of all ages arrived and taught themselves, and other children, anything that a teacher might have wanted to teach about the computer! (For more information about Sugata Mitra’s research, see the TED Talk Kids can teach themselves, for which he won a TED prize!)

He concluded that children innately have curiosity, playfulness and sociability, all essential items for self-education!
This drew the children to turn the computer on, to play with the controls and to find out more and more.
As the children ‘played’ with the programmes they became more and more skilled until they went straight into Microsoft Paint, for instance, to ‘play’ every day. As they played they created more curiosity and the cycle continued.  Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.”
As individual children played and learnt, they passed the learning on to others. Their learning became everybody’s learning because they excited each other and the learning spread.

So why is this important for schools? Well, my question is ‘Why don’t school lessons spread like ‘wildfire’ like these ones did? Schools need to allow children to self educate as much as possible, because then they will be excited to learn at their own pace. Here are some ideas….
·      Children are seldom given the opportunites at school to follow their own chosen interest – they are told what they are going to learn about and then told all the teacher wants them to know about the topic.
·      At school children are usually expected to perform tasks in only one way or use only one method for calculating Maths problems. The excitement of puzzling out new ways is very seldom encouraged. At most schools children are divided into classes by age and often aren’t even allowed to play with children of other ages at break times. Opportunities for multi age learning creates many more opportunities for leaning and teaching, and when younger children teach older children in particular, the excitement of teaching and learning is so much greater. Much of what happens at schools today revolves around evaluating children and their work. This creates an emphasis on the product and pleasing the teacher, rather than on the investigating and excitement of the learning.

As parents you can encourage self-education by asking the right questions in your homes. Give your children opportunities to find the answer themselves if possible rather than just telling them an answer. This process is longer but much more sustainable and once children realise they can teach themselves and catch the excitement of learning, that will be forever!  

Friday, 20 April 2018

Who teaches ethics in our unethical society?

In a country where many of our senior leaders flout the law every day, it is difficult to teach children to be law-abiding and to perform their civic duty. Many parents are absent from their children’s lives, either because one parent is really absent or because one or both parents outsource the parenting to others; grandparents, au pairs or other family members, to work full time. This means that schools are increasingly becoming the sole educators of good citizenship.
We regularly discuss the attributes of good citizenship in assemblies and newsletters, predominantly to encourage parents to teach their children how to negotiate an often negative world. Here are a few tips to use at home: 
·       Have a conversation with your children about when it is a good time to ‘tell tales’. Re-enforce for them that they are not ‘squealing’ – they have the right to be ‘righteously indignant’ if other children offend them by the way they behave, by the words they use, etc. Discuss the kind of things that are wiser for adults to know about – that by ‘looking the other way’ they can be hurt or implicated in the act. If all children played ‘policeman’, many others would be protected from so much.
·       Have a discussion with your children about the need to be honest with their peers and with the adults who care for them. Often when dealing with issues in which children put themselves at risk, schools find that the children’s friends knew what was going on but didn’t tell anybody. Sometimes this can result in serious consequences, like death.
·      Protect your children from the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude within society today as you don’t want your family to be affected by the culture of not caring. Insist 
-       on sending a note and phoning if your child is ill;
-       that your child be involved in the extramural programme and remains committed for the term;
-       that your child leaves home in the full, correct school uniform, 
-       on homework/projects being completed by the due date;
-       that work done at home, is neatly presented and written;  
-       that all loose papers are filed in the correct place;
-       that all books are covered and treated ‘gently’.
·      The newspapers are filled with articles about parents and children “at war” with opposing teams in school sports’ matches. Continue 
       to insist on good sportsmanship behaviour like:
-       enjoying the game and not winning at all costs;
-       having a good attitude, not retaliating 
     when other teams swear or get physical;
-       applauding all goals, whether your own or 
     the opposing team’s;
-       congratulating and thanking the other 
     team at the end;
-       playing the game wholeheartedly, right
     until the end.
·      When driving in traffic, remember that your attitude to other drivers and your adherence to traffic rules is continually watched by your children. Set an example of good citizenry by:
-       obeying traffic signs and speeds;
-       wearing your seat belts every time you drive;
-       stop at stop streets and in time at red traffic lights;
-       never park on pedestrian crossings or in restricted areas.

·      Beware of what your children are watching or seeing. Obviously 
     things are far more explicit
     in the world out there so keep checking:
-       the programmes, shows and movies your 
      children watch on television;
-       the sites your children visit on their cellphones, tablets and computers, and whatthe sites are, as some innocuous sounding 
      ones show the most terrible things;
-       that your “Parental Guidance” is still active on your computer with the necessary passwords to prevent children from accessing unsuitable sites.

If all partners in the schooling system play their parts in moulding children, despite the reality of the world we live in, then our children are going to be positive role models in society themselves, and hopefully, they will continue the process with their children in the future. The world we live in is too important for us to give up on …. join the good-citizen crusade!