Misty Meadows School is a multi-racial, multi-class, multi-grade community school situated in the Dargle Valley in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. They currently (2019) educate over 60 children ranging in age from 2-15. Since its inception in January 2013, the school has demonstrated how diverse communities can integrate around a common cause – the children. The school ethos is Freedom with Responsibility and not simply freedom at any cost. The children are expected to abide by this Golden Rule: “Treat others how you wish to be treated”. Each child must participate in the school activities, tidy up after themselves and take responsibility for maintaining their school facilities. Children are free to voice their concerns in morning circle time where mutual agreement is sought through listening and negotiation, not compulsion.
The Zoe Trust supports three children, Sisi, Nthambi and Njabulo who attend Misty Meadows school. They are all from disadvantaged but loving homes and are thriving in this child-led and engaging environment.
In August 2017, we funded a computer lab: a purpose-refurbished room, equipped with 6 computers and an internet connection. This project opens up a whole world of teaching and learning for all the children at the school but especially the children from disadvantaged homes who don’t have access to electricity. We are happy to have done this in partnership with Geeks without Frontiers and with our sponsor Kirsty and her wedding guests.The children took control with enthusiasm, immediately appreciating the value of this new opportunity and online learning materials. The head Cassie’s post describes beautifully what a positive impact this has on the children’s learning.
In January 2018, we supported the school to set up a make-space area for children to learn practical skills such as woodwork. We raised money for the initial capital costs and the project is now co-funded by regular sponsors who support the monthly running costs, including the payment of a local farm worker who has a passion for teaching woodwork. He is a wonderful role model for the children and provides calm, purposeful and productive wood work lessons to a range of pupils at the school.
After a trip by Emily Young in September 2019, we sponsored the construction and resourcing of a science and art lab for the storage of equipment. This space allows the school to purchase more equipment and keep it safe, including microscopes, sewing machines, paints and material.
Misty Meadows School – Creating a Learning Ecosystem
Case Study, September 2019 written by Cassie Janisch
Our school in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands functions as a learning ecosystem and provides a fantastic model for others to learn from to radically transform education in South Africa and beyond into a more efficient and effective system for supporting children to achieve their full potential.
About our school
Misty Meadows School is a multi-racial, multi-class, multi-grade community school situated in the Dargle Valley in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. We currently (2019) educate over 60 children ranging in age from 2-15. Since its inception in January 2013, our school has demonstrated how diverse communities can integrate around a common cause – our children. Thanks to our school , we are improving social integration in our broader community (white, black and muslim, rich and poor). Visitors never fail to compliment us on our diversity as they witness the confidence, competence and joy of all our students.
The school ethos is Freedom with Responsibility and not simply freedom at any cost. The children are expected to abide by this Golden Rule: “Treat others how you wish to be treated”. Each child must participate in some of our school activities, tidy up after themselves and take responsibility for maintaining their school facilities. Children are free to voice their concerns in morning circle time where we aim to seek mutual agreement through listening and negotiation, not compulsion.
Organisation and Finances
Misty Meadows School functions as a non-profit voluntary association. An initial private grant established the school in 2012. Several funders continue to support the school by sponsoring school fees for individual children from disadvantaged backgrounds (we currently have 16 sponsored children), paying for new buildings, or sponsoring IT equipment, workshop and sports equipment. The majority of our operating costs are covered by school fees, which are kept at a level that is affordable to families in our community. We charge R1,750 per month (approx. £95) for primary school and R1,450 per month (approx. £78) for pre-school. These fees are slightly lower than our nearest government funded private school. We currently receive about R70,000 per month (£3,750 approx.) in school fees and this is our operating budget. 75% of this operating budget pays for teacher salaries, while the rest pays for learning resources. We do not currently pay rent, maintenance (lawn-mowing, road maintenance) or electricity charges as these are sponsored by the private family farm where the school is situated.
Four full-time staff members and six part- time staff members are currently employed. We rely heavily on community volunteers to support these staff members. Eight parents volunteer to run sessions with the children. These parents offer a wide range of opportunities for the children including biomimicry, yoga, music, gardening, art, self-sufficiency and sewing. By using the skills of our parents and local community members we’re able, at relatively low costs, to provide a wide range of options. These opportunities will inevitably change as our volunteers and school community change.
The pre-school children enjoy a large outdoor area which includes a jungle gym, a tee-pee, a sandpit and Wendy house, trampolines, a yoga dome and two thatched rondavels. Each week, the pre-school has a set theme; themes such as exploring different countries, types of food, words, festivals and events. The teachers create activities for the children including art, cooking, daily storytelling and maths. Alongside these activities, the children take part in weekly sport and yoga sessions. The children also explore the local environment during long forest or farm walks.
The Primary School
The primary school is divided into four classes based roughly on age but self-selected by the children with the freedom for them to move throughout the year: Grade 1, Grade 2-3, Grade 3-4 and Grade 5+. The site, located on a hectare of land, contains two classrooms which are used flexibly for a range of different lessons, a computer lab with WIFI and four school laptops, an outdoor playing field and a woodwork space.
The school day is split up into five: morning circle, activity one, activity two, break time (30 minutes), and activity three. Although the children are encouraged to attend the organised activities, they are free to determine their own learning journey and are not forced to take part. However, we’ve found that most children choose to participate in all lessons and few regularly miss sessions. Activities change and adapt as different opportunities arise and adults join and leave the ecosystem. At present, activities include gardening lessons, self-sufficiency lessons, biomimicry lessons, woodwork workshop, arts and crafts projects, IT skills, yoga, mixed martial arts, sewing, maths lessons, 1:1 reading, writing lessons, structured word inquiries, learning style and personality explorations, and music lessons. Sports sessions take place after school on Mondays and Wednesdays.
The older children have allocated time each week to undertake one project per term. At the beginning of the term they choose a project, and they present it to a panel of parents and community members at the end of the term. During their weekly project sessions, they are mentored by one of the teachers who supports them in developing their ideas and furthering their project.
Our Education Philosophy
“If we change our fundamental metaphor for the education of children from the manufacture of a product to the flowering and fruiting of a plant – then we begin to see that our role is not to rigidly control each step in the process, but to create the conditions – the soil, the water, the light – under which human brilliance may unfold and flourish”. – Carol Black, Schooling the World
“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn”. – Einstein
Misty Meadows School provides a group of children with the best possible conditions to learn and reach their potential, whatever that may look like for each child. We are neither limiting nor prescriptive about what and how children learn. In a beautiful physical environment we’re providing them with access to a diversity of curiosity catalysts, perspectives, experiences, learning resources, support, encouragement and opportunities for collaboration with their peers. We call this “an enabling learning ecosystem”. Just as seeds have the capacity to become flowers, only those that receive sufficient sunlight, water and nutrients actually do. In the same way, all children have the capacity to thrive, but they need the right learning conditions to do so. Not every child has good learning conditions at home but everyone is enriched by the diversity that our learning community offers them.
Our school operating principles form the pattern that we follow so that children can customise their learning outcomes.
We enable and support children to thrive by:
- Focusing on recognizing whole children with minds, bodies and souls
- Providing a wide variety of learning resources for children to use in ways that make sense to them; including books, technology, games, stationery, equipment, people, ideas, tools, time and space
- Providing high quality mentoring and support from a diverse group of kind, committed, reflective adults.
- Providing a beautiful, multi-faceted physical space in a gorgeous natural setting to learn in and from.
- Offering curiosity catalysts in many forms; including weekly themes, facilitated conversations on a wide range of topics, a wide variety of organised activities to participate in, exposure to experts in different fields, and exposure to cutting edge thinking and ideas in many fields.
- Finding and accessing resources to extend specific children’s specific interests on a case-by-case basis.
- Providing a network of friends (a learning community) comprising a variety of ages, races, classes and genders with whom to collaborate
- Facilitating a mutually-agreed democratic process for raising, listening to and addressing grievances, and encouraging children to learn to resolve conflicts without always relying on adult intervention
- Modelling good communication and conflict-resolution skills for children to observe and learn from.
- Offering a range of opportunities, physical, mental, emotional for children to grow and achieve self-mastery
- Offering a learning environment in which children are not afraid to make mistakes, learn from the natural consequences of their choices rather than those forced on them by others and develop respect for each other through an understanding of the emotional and real-life consequence of their actions.
- Providing an opportunity for children to learn how to persevere when things get tough, and not to expect instant gratification with everything they do, or to give up too quickly.
Morning Circle – a key principle
School starts each day with a morning circle where all children from all year groups share time together. This time is led by the children who start by sharing their positives from the previous day or evening. Children sit in a circle on cushions or bean bags in an informal, respectful way. After every child who wishes to has had the opportunity to share their positives, they have the chance to share grievances. The children bring any grievance from home or school to the circle where it’s shared, listened to and resolved. They’re encouraged to raise and share issues they’ve had with other individuals; answer concerns raised against them; offer solutions and resolve issues together. The adults in our circle model useful strategies for resolving grievances. The goal is always to restore group harmony rather than to punish anyone for bad behaviour.
We’re finding that the children’s confidence is enriching over time as, within this safe space, more children are able to share their positives and grievances. We now see children from all grades confidently and eloquently raising concerns, listening to others’ opinions and putting forward solutions leading to successful resolutions.
B: “When I was playing on the trampoline, I heard Pupil A saying ‘stupid monkey’ and I didn’t like it.”
A: “I don’t like monkeys because they steal all of the fruit which means that we can’t eat it or sell it.”
B: “But nature is important, and we should like all nature.”
A: “I am sorry if I upset you because I didn’t want to upset you, but I do still think monkeys are not very nice animals.”
B: “Thank you. Okay.”
Naomi, 14, Grade 8: The teachers make the teaching work for me. Teachers take time to explain questions I don’t understand and put in effort to really help me. I have made my first friendships ever at Misty Meadows. When you have a problem, you can resolve it in morning circle and usually walk away as friends again. I suffered from bullying before I came here and now I just have really good siblings. I go to school to learn and make myself 100% who I can be, and I get that at Misty Meadows. It is my home away from home.
Dineo, 14, Grade 10: I really like how we get educated at Misty Meadows as we get to communicate with other people and be ourselves. We get to choose what we do rather than people telling us what to do all the time. I go to school to learn and I learn a lot here. In the future, I want to share my learning with others and Misty Meadows gives me the opportunity to do that. This school is a lot different to my old school where I had to sit down, copy, do homework, shut up and write exams which I hated. Misty Meadows is different in a lot of ways as we don’t write exams. As we get to do what we want to do, we experience more because we explore nature and learn all the time in our natural environment.
Caleb, 9, Grade 4: Misty Meadow is very fun, I have a lot of friends and there are nice lessons. I come to school to learn and I do that at Misty Meadows. We learn writing, postures in yoga and how to make stuff in woodwork. We have more freedom here than in other schools and so it makes us happier people.
Kai, 10, Grade 4: Misty Meadow is great because I’m making new friends and we have great teachers at this school as they teach us a lot. I go to school because I love it. This schools is different because it’s on a farm, it doesn’t have bullies which means it is better as I am happier, so I learn more.
Themba, 14, Grade 9: Misty Meadow is a great school because there are not many rules only our golden rule. There are no punishments rather when you do something wrong you are helped to resolve it and make it better. Punishments make you scared of the teacher which means you don’t learn. You must be comfortable with the teacher to learn. I come to school to get an education and at Misty Meadows we do that as the teachers guide us to decide what we want to learn and help us learn that. We don’t do tests which means we aren’t learning the same thing over and over again just to get good marks. We know that we are learning though because we can present what we have done, we can teach other people and share our learning with other people. I’m very happy at Misty Meadows, I have great friends and have created trust bonds with friends and adults.
Nthabi, 11, Grade 6: I get to be myself and have friends at Misty Meadows. They are more than friends they are family. People go to school to get more knowledge and I get that at Misty Meadows. I have learnt so much stuff at Misty Meadows I can’t remember it all. For example, I have learnt how many people use plastic in one year and I learnt how to make a dress and a skirt. At Misty Meadows, I get more freedom to be myself and at my old school I just had to sit and listen to the teacher. I learn more at Misty Meadows and I am extra happy here. Before I went to Misty Meadows, I was a no-body and as soon as I walked into Misty Meadows I was a somebody.
Sade, 9, Grade 3: I didn’t like my old school as I had to stand up like soldiers and wear lots of uniform and be clean. I don’t have to do any of those things like stand silently all the time and just sit at my desk and look at a piece of paper. I think the point of school is learning and I do that at Misty Meadows as I am working but with fun in it so that I am not just looking at a piece of paper. Here when we learn to measure, we are actually using tools to measure rather than looking at a piece of paper and not understanding it. My favourite thing to do is woodwork because it is fun and I get to measure.
Mxolisi, 13, Grade 6: I like Misty Meadows because I learn how to make things, I learn how to spell words and I learn how to do music and guitar. Misty Meadows is better than my old school as I feel happier here because they don’t smack children. At my old school, I got smacked for not doing my homework right and it made me sad. I learn more here than at my old school because I am happier. I want to learn to be doctor for animals and I can learn new things to help me be a doctor at Misty Meadow.
James, 10, Grade 5: It is not compulsory to do anything, and you don’t get a detention so I like doing the work as it is easy to get it done and fun. I really like woodwork which there isn’t at other schools. There is a computer lab which I have never experienced. It is fun because there is yoga and music which I didn’t have at my old school. I am learning how to write songs in music and in yoga I’ve learnt how to relax which makes me feel happier. I also have more time at home to hang out with friends and family. I think this school suits me better as it’s not that hard to finish all the work and it is not work that I need someone sitting next to me and ushering me along instead I can figure things out myself. My old school was too much work and I never could finish it so I didn’t even bother to try to finish it. I have already learnt things here like how to do a word sum and about the Bermuda Triangle and how many ships went missing there.
Jayden, 7, Grade 2: I like Misty Meadows because there are not many rules and if there are fights we resolve them without being shouted at. I go to school to learn things and I learn things at Misty Meadows like how to write, music and woodwork. My other school had different ways of teaching. It didn’t have as many different lessons and was way longer. Misty Meadows is better because I am happier here and I learn more when I am happy. I struggle to concentrate but I can spin around and go outside here which makes it easier to concentrate.
Zoe’s parent: It has a positive outcome on our kids. They feel really free to be themselves and they love coming to school. They count down the days in the holidays to come back to school. It is a sanctuary and a healing space and a mind-expanding experience at Misty Meadows.
Nthabi’s parent: I like Misty Meadows School. I wish I had gone to this school when I was a child. I choose to send my children to this school because I think self-directed school is much better than where I used to go as they learn to direct their own learning and get a much better education. I’m still not sure what to do with my life because I was taught to wait until someone told me what to do. My children are very happy at this school.
Lungi, Pre-school teacher: Misty Meadow is a great place to work because I believe in self-directed learning and it makes the children happy and I can see them doing well. Maia (a child with autism) has changed a lot since being at Misty Meadows. She is talking much more, following instructions more and is learning to spend time with teachers and concentrate on the learning.