Trustee Emily Hogge is spending 12 months on the ground in South Africa. She is providing monthly despatches exploring the impact our work is having on local communities in KwaZulu Natal and Cape Town. Her previous reports can be found here. This report describes her visit to a new school near Durban.
I ventured out of Ingwavuma to spend four days at Misty Meadows farm near Durban and the astonishing school founded there and run by Cassie Janish. I was going to visit Sisi, one of the pupils, whom we are now sponsoring, and to deliver some teacher training to a group of local teachers.
Misty Meadows School
As you drive towards the school, you could easily mistake it for a children’s play area with its sand pit, slide, trampoline and yoga dome sitting prominently amongst scattered rondavels (roundhouses). On closer inspection, you notice the painted birthday tree, the school sign made of shells, the painted rocket made from recycled materials; the wellies scattered around the swings.
The school, with 44 children ranging from 2 to 11 years, has been created as a learning ecosystem which provides an encouraging and free space for children to harness their interest in the world, develop their skills and self-teach. It has four teachers including Cassie and her mum. They welcome children from all races and social backgrounds. The children learn in English but there is respect for every child’s mother tongue, so Zulu is spoken interchangeably with English. The school thrives on community involvement, welcoming local people to pass on skills or knowledge as well as encouraging the children to spend time engaging in activities or teaching in the local community.
Misty Meadows is a child-centred learning environment where the children direct the learning conversations, are given freedom to explore their own ideas, experiment with their bodies and minds and explore the environment they live in.
This year, Cassie has taken on a Zulu child, who spoke very little English when she first joined. I was amazed to see the difference between her level of English speech and understanding and the children in my own class, who also, with very little English, started 7 weeks ago. Without putting in any strategies, one-on-one work or extra homework, Cassie has managed to open up this child’s English dramatically, allowing her to express herself, join in and access the work. In comparison, the children in my class, despite receiving interventions and extra homework, learn much more slowly in their generic classroom environment. Cassie’s secret is an encouraging, free and exciting learning environment where the discussion is rich and English is freely translated to Zulu without restraint.
A day in the classroom
If you walked into the classroom at 9am, you could mistake it for a school playground; it’s full of noise, children rolling around and people hopping on one leg. But if you take a moment to look around, you will find every child is engaged in learning; they are exploring how to learn in their own way. Although they are not silently listening, tracking and answering the teacher, by the end of the ‘lesson’ they have all explored, understood and digested the concept put forward by the teacher.
The freedom the children have to move around, ask questions, sit on cushions and go to the toilet when they please, takes away the conventional classroom’s everyday pressures and restraints. The children have no need to rebel against the order, as there is no order opposed on them. They are free to engage in the discussions and work happening in front of them. They don’t have to think about what they can do to get out of the classroom and they can simply leave should they wish; they don’t have to worry about disrupting the silence of the classroom because it is not silent. When they need silence, peace or calm then they can find shelter outside – under the tree or in a corner of the classroom tucked away behind some cushions.
The timetable is unconventional – in fact there isn’t one really. The day starts with an activity based on exploring their mind and body such as yoga. The teacher then brings a concept into the classroom with a worksheet for the children to explore. This learning can take any form and although the teacher approaches it with a pre-determined stance, it can be diverted or led any way by the children’s interest, questioning or feelings. The children also spend time exploring the land around them through nature walks – a great relief from a hard morning’s work.
The teacher is not afraid to be led by the children; there is no pressure to make sure that national curriculum aims are met or certain targets are achieved. For example, after some argument over whether to read a story or not, Cassie asked the children to vote. She then explained how they would act as a democracy. This led to a 20 minute discussion of what a democracy was using examples in the classroom and from adult life. There was no fear that the first lesson was overdue to start or that they would be late for break time; instead the discussion flowed until it was naturally over.
A holistic approach to education
One of the school’s central aims is acquiring skills, so that although the children do learn English and Maths, they also learn crochet, sewing, building, designing, music and sport etc. The school uses the local community to access these skills, inviting tradesmen to come in and share their knowledge with the children or going out into the community to experience local trades. For example, they recently went to a neighbouring farm to listen under an old oak tree, to a woman playing the piano.
In addition, the school promotes a range of sporting activities after school, helping to encourage parents to take the children to sports practice, martial arts, swimming and ballet. Such lessons give the children an opportunity to develop their fitness and skills and to interact with children from outside the farm environment.
I attended a session about how words can hurt. One child sat on a chair in front of the rest of the class and every person in the class – including the teachers – said something horrible to him. This was a practical way to show the power of hateful words. They chose the oldest child, thinking he would be the strongest: he broke down in tears which then resulted in half the class crying. This painful and emotive experience touched the children. It had a much more powerful effect than talking to the children about how you should not say nasty words to other people or punishing them for doing so.
Misty Meadows is a haven for pupils with special educational needs. There are children, who in a main stream school, may have ended up on Ritalin for their inability to focus and sit still. In Cassie’s classroom, there is no need for them to sit still; they can focus in their own way and at their own time. If they need to get up and walk around the school they can, if they need to tap their legs they can, if they need to roll around on the floor they can. This freedom allows them to feel safe, secure and unrestricted. As a result, they access the learning in a way that suits them, allowing them to increase their knowledge without taking Ritalin. They are also able to harness their energy during physical activity sessions such as nature walks, dam-swimming, den-building.
The school has, in my view, perhaps too much reliance on worksheets for the school-age children in English and Maths. The worksheets create boundaries and restricted expectations for the learning. My hope is that Cassie can harness the pedagogy for which I have provided training and resources to deliver her ideal teaching strategy; child-led learning in all subjects including Maths and English.
During my time at Misty Meadows I delivered a two-hour training session, attended by 10 teachers, representing five local schools from the area including four in the local townships. The training was based on two teaching pedagogies which I learned during my teacher training in England – Mantle of the Expert and Talk for Writing. Both pedagogies aim to increase the creativity, fun and movement in the learning environment. In addition, especially Mantle of the Expert, they are child-led processes that take away the teacher’s control and puts the children in charge of their learning. These are innovative ideas and in complete contrast to the ‘normal’ way of teaching in South Africa at the moment. However, there is space for these teaching pedagogies in the new South African National Curriculum (SANC), in which creative teaching strategies are now an integral part. But a teacher has to be willing to step outside of the norm and do something different. The problem is not the SANC itself, but the general cultural style of teaching.
At the end of the training we had a fantastic discussion about the limitations the teachers feel are in place. The teachers were willing to admit that they were unhappy with their teaching, that it was dull and boring for their learners, leaving them feeling helpless and restricted.
This honesty is something I have never experienced before and opened a window for me to give them ideas for how they can still maintain the level of writing, handwriting, spelling but also add in creativity, fun and movement. Although this may seem small it was a major breakthrough. By the end of the session the teachers seemed excited by these new ideas and willing to give them a go in their classrooms. They were also keen for me to come and visit them in their schools and deliver further training at Misty Meadows with a focus on maths. I am hoping to do this later over the coming months.