Monday, 27 April 2015

Changing the World, one Red-Schooler at a time!

Starting out as a principal in 1997, I have never known anything but change in education! We have been through 'right sizing' of schools, transferring of teachers to other schools (usually using the 'last in, first out' method), banning corporal punishment, Bengu's OBE, then the NCS, now CAPS.....and so it continues. In fact, a lot of very experienced teachers and management staff at schools left at the end of 1996 because they were then concerned that South African education as we knew it, was going to crumble. I am so pleased they did, because that opened up a place for me to manage our little microcosm of South African society! Believe me it hasn't been all 'honey and roses'! I have often felt frustrated, despondent and angry but when I review the past 18 years, the overall view is very positive because change can be cathartic! All the outside change has encouraged us at Pinelands North to continually re-evaluate what we do, and how we do it.
This continual process has kept us on our toes, and every time a new curriculum has been developed, it has encouraged us to review what we do, and plan an even better curriculum for our children. This has meant that when other schools were told to 'throw out' physical education, needlework, woodwork and music, we adapted these subjects to fit into the new curriculum. Now, when most schools who were teaching isiXhosa have stopped, we added more time to our week just so we could keep it. Another subject which has been dropped in grade 4 to 6 is Economic Management Science....we also added time for this subject because of our belief that each of these brings an added value to our South African society. Here is how:

  • All South Africa's children need at least 3 languages! How could the curriculum developers agree that only 2 languages would be compulsory? The culture, acceptance and communication value of knowing 3 languages is very obvious!
  • Needlework and Woodwork used to be gender segregated subjects when we were at school. Now grade 4 to 7 children at Pinelands North all do both, in addition to Technology. This means that all children learn how to use a sewing machine and overlocker, and to use wood, tools, hammers and nails. Most of us wish we had had this opportunity as every extra skill one learns, is one more opportunity to create work in the future.
  • Economic Management Science was a subject all children loved, and parents wished they had had at school themselves. Children learnt about bank accounts, mortgage bonds, saving and how to start a business. Children at Pinelands North in grade 4 to 6 still learn entrepreneurial skills and have a Market Day every year to practise their business building skills.
  • Music and drama are now 'back' in the official curriculum but at Pinelands North our children have continued both these subjects since they were introduced in about 1998. The skills learnt in these subjects, and during the other opportunities for public speaking and poetry recitation they have during a regular school year at Pinelands North, mean that our children are prepared to 'stand up and be counted' when they need to voice their opinions.
  • We also teach a 'hidden curriculum'. This is the 'stuff' that doesn't have lesson assigned to it but is subtle and underlies all our interactions at school. It is about empathy for others, about caring for animals and learning about other cultures, religions and peoples so that interacting with difference is easy in the future.
Our 'Red Schoolers' are prepared in their primary years, to take on the world. School is not only about learning 'subjects' - it is about learning how live in a future changing world - a world that demands you be the very best person you can be.  Our children leave at the end of their primary schooling 'the best they can be', able to change the whole world or....... just their own if they wish. That makes me very proud!

Monday, 13 April 2015

You learn to talk by talking, you learn to read by reading, you learn to write by writing...and you learn to include by including!

Working in a school where inclusion is the norm, creates problems when faced with a segregated society where most adults today can't fathom how this works as it is so far removed from their schooling and current work practice. The idea of inclusion is that people with 'special needs' are viewed in ways in which they are the same as other people, rather than in ways they are different. At our school we see everybody having special needs, some just have special needs some of the time and some have them all the time!

According to the Centre for Inclusive Education in Canada, the characteristics of an inclusive school are these:

A supportive environment
Grade 1s at the Science Centre
Our school has many people supporting every child every day. The class teachers are the first 'go to' people, but children also have teacher aides, a counsellor, a learning support teacher, an inclusive support teacher, the admin staff, the deputy......the list of staff is endless! Of course inclusive schools aren't only about staff support either - the children's support and the parental support network is also essential for the care, feeling of acceptance and value that children feel here. I have been told frequently about the 'atmosphere' that is tangible when someone walks into our foyer! 

Positive relationships
Children at Pinelands North are encouraged to build good relationships with aftercare staff, an older grade 7 pupil, and other children of all ages who 'work' within the school with them like the bird and bunny monitors. We find that having all our children playing together on the playground is exceptionally positive - different aged children play together and care for each other amazingly well. Some children struggle socially and so for them, the section of individual games and puzzles outside my office is a lifesaver at break time or before school.

Feelings of Competence
Grade 4 Market Day
All children need to be 'competent' at something and so we try to provide as varied an offering for our children as possible. Extramurals cater for those who wish to play in teams, and for those who don't, for those who can run and move, and for those for whom movement is difficult! Competency in the classroom is also varied as teachers try to catch children doing the right thing either in writing, reading, mathematics, performing, speaking and many other skills - academic and not.

Opportunties to Participate 
Children at school need opportunities to test their participation is as many varied fields as possible, particularly in primary school. In doing so they learn how to function in society, in their homes and in school. Pinelands North offers so many of these opportunities:
Best Speaker's Competition
Poetry Competition
Early Act Tree of Joy Christmas Gifts
Fun run/walk
Biennual school play
Market Days
Camps and tours
Each of these allows somebody to create a niche for themselves, and in so doing, be accepted widely in their school and society. 

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Our children know how to support their peers!

Feeling very apprehensive about this task.....
I am currently on camp with the grade 5 and 6 pupils from our school, and I have spent the past hour in tears! Let me explain.
I joined a group of 20 grade 5 pupils at one of the ‘leadership’ tasks. The task was to get the whole group across a ‘river’ of mud, from a wooden platform to the bank on the other side, using a rope which is dangled in the middle of the ‘river’. The first task, obviously, is to get the rope, and then to get everybody, individually, across the river while hanging off the rope.
Immediately 4 children took over and problem solved their way to making a ‘rope’ out of shoes and laces. This was then flung several times until it wrapped around the rope, and brought the rope to the platform. The next task was then started – to get everybody across the river on this rope, without anyone falling in or landing out of a roped circle on the opposite side of the bank. Also, if someone fell off the platform while all this was going on, everybody had to start again.
Now, why was I in tears? I know we teach our children to be compassionate, not to make fun of anybody at any time and to be encouraging, but when you see this in action, without any prompting from any adult, then it is very moving!
Encouraging their group to give it a try......
Celebrating another successful trawl through the mud
Some children found the task very easy and they jumped on the rope without thinking and flung themselves over the river. Others however, reacted differently. Some told themselves they’d be fine and after a few seconds of collecting themselves, jumped over the river too. Others found the task completely unnerving, however, and refused to even try. One child in particular made me cry. She at first refused to go, saying that she was fat, and she had weak arms and so couldn’t go across. I think part of it too, was that she didn’t want to let her team down as, if she fell in, the whole group would have to start again. The children on the other side encouraged her so beautifully that eventually she clung to the rope, jumped off the platform…….and fell straight into the mud! Not one child laughed, or made fun of her. She was devastated however, and burst into tears. We tried to coax her into trying again but she insisted that she wanted to change her clothes and then come back. She did this, and eventually we managed to get her onto the platform again after everybody else had gone across. The pressure on her was enormous……everybody waited on the other side and shouted encouragement but eventually she agreed to cross, only after several of the children had told her how she was often the one who encouraged them, that this time it was her turn to be brave, that if she fell in again it would only mean that she would get muddy, and that nobody would laugh at her at all. Through all this I cried……the children said amazing things to her…things we as adults model for them daily.
She breathed in deeply a couple of times, and, after some coaching on how to jump, how to swing, and where to land on the other side, she jumped! And landed perfectly - in the rope circle, and caught by the children who were all cheering her on…..and I cried again! Our children are amazing!