By Heidi L. Augestad
Published in the Winter 2017 edition of the ISASA Independent Education Magazine (linked here)
What if we re-imagine South African education, so that we might build capacity and aspiration instead of having to deal with dropouts and failure?
This is the question that Streetlight Schools is answering by establishing schools with high-quality education programmes in low-income communities. In January 2016, we opened our first school, Streetlight: Jeppestown. The school is situated in one of the most challenging suburbs in inner-city Johannesburg in Gauteng. Today, we have 128 students divided between Grade R and Grade 2 classes, all living in and around Jeppestown. Well into our second school year and after a thorough process of establishing and adjusting our model, we see great results.
This article provides insight into the lessons that we’ve learned about the trust and responsibility we build upon to create quality schooling, as well as the social strategies that we use to effectively engage with the contexts in which we operate.
Trust and responsibility: the foundation of our school culture
Demonstrating and building an environment of trust is at the heart of why we spend significant time fostering strong relationships. In addition, trust comes with responsibility for each member of our community – whether they are a student, a teacher or a parent. Trust allows space for people to grow and unlock their potential. It is vital for a learning environment that develops self-driven creativity and inquiry that teachers and students feel trusted in their work. We have seen how students organise themselves during learning activities, how they engage in peer education when they solve problems and how they create together.
Responsibility relates to how we understand our roles in education and the expectations we have for each role: teacher, student and parent. For example, the parents are expected to ensure that their child comes to school physically and mentally prepared. The students are expected to follow common rules and routines for our school culture and academic work. Being 100% responsible as a teacher is linked to how we understand the child, the learning process, and the way to succeed in school. We regard the teacher as the most important factor in a child’s school life, as the most important resource in education. If a child struggles in a subject, it is not the child but the teacher who is responsible for identifying the challenges and finding proper solutions, so that the child can overcome challenges and grow further.
Love and reason: recognising the social and emotional needs of learners
Students’ social and emotional well-being is the foundation for their ability to learn. Their cognitive growth depends on their ability to focus, concentrate and enjoy learning activities. That is why we have a strong focus on our social learning environment, emphasising inclusivity and positive relations. Our social strategy has developed along with our increased knowledge and experience of the kind of challenges our students are facing, and a realisation of what we can and cannot do as a school.
The human effects of poverty, unemployment, violence and insecurity, which most families live with in Jeppestown, is brought into our school every day and becomes visible through the students’ behaviour, typically falling along a spectrum between silent and protective or violent and aggressive. The consequences range from slow learning progress to unmanageable behaviour. The biggest cause for the socialemotional challenges we see in our school is the amount of physical and mental abuse students are experiencing at home. Based on a year with a close follow-up with our students, we estimate that between 60% and 70% of them are abused on a near-daily basis.
Roughly the same percentage of students come from broken families, where they either live with one parent or with other relatives. Every day, these children face the emotional stress of not having stable homes or responsible caregivers in their lives. In addition, living in poverty means that they lack the stimuli of toys, books and activities during their upbringing, which would otherwise provide a basis of knowledge and skills needed to be school-ready. Our students’ social baggage is heavy with exposure and experiences related to the adult world: they have very limited resources to filter it or understand how to deal with it. As a way of handling their situations, they often tend to show their anxiety and anger through challenging behaviour. So, what can we do as a school?
Using the Responsive Classroom approach
The Responsive Classroom approach1 has been very useful for us, and comes with a set of routines and cognitive and language tools that schools can use to create a strong and positive culture. The approach is student centred, focusing on children’s emotional well-being and employing positive language and logical consequences. We start every day with a morning meeting, where we address social and emotional issues through reflections and interactive games. Our positive language and logical consequences are visible throughout our school day. The concept of punishment does not exist in our school vocabulary – we rather talk about expectations and good and bad choices as a way of guiding students’ social development.
A truly student-centred academic programme
At Streetlight Schools, we have established different structures to ensure proper basic skills training for students, as well as building their imaginative and creative skills. We collect inspiration from strong educational systems, such as those used in Finland and New Zealand, and the Reggio Emilia approach.2 One of the most successful tools we have implemented is the workshop model, to ensure student-centred, differentiated and interactive teaching and learning processes. It comes with a four-step lesson structure with clear roles and tasks for students and teachers, which other schools may find helpful:
- Opening of the class (2 minutes): The teacher “hooks” the students on the topic of today, often by means of a game, song or reminder of yesterday’s lesson.
- The “mini-lesson” (10–12 minutes): The teacher gives specific instructions about the learning objectives of the lesson.
- Students’ workshop (20–25 minutes): Students are engaged in differentiated learning material that ensure mastery at their level and ability. During the workshop, they either work individually or are part of groups of four to six, which gives them the opportunity to engage in peer learning and assistance. The teacher directs his or her main focus to groups of students who need more explanation and assistance, while facilitating and supporting the other groups.
- Closing (5 minutes): The students reflect with the teacher on what has been done and learnt during the lesson, and everyone assesses how they feel their work was done. The benefits of the workshop model are many. First, the teachers have developed an engaging and cooperative role with the students. To a large degree, the teachers are facilitators of learning, aiming to target each student’s learning needs. Second, the students are engaged in independent and group work with learning material that gives everyone a chance to experience mastery during class. Third, the amount of group work creates many opportunities for the students to take initiative and be responsible for their own learning. The outcome is that our academic results increase and that all our students are progressing on or above the state Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS) level.3 One third of our Grade 2 students who completed Grade 1 with us last year are already at a Grade 3 level in literacy, which enables them to progress at a faster pace in other subjects as well.
The social strategy
Our academic and social work are very closely connected. When we talk about respect and positivity in our school culture, we also adapt this to how we understand teaching and learning, and the knowledge we have about how children learn best. It is our job as educators to ensure that their natural motivation is nourished and thriving, not limited or broken. At Streetlight, we have taken progressive steps to remove some of the practices in South African schools that we don’t believe are constructive. Marks, tests, examinations, pass rates, failure and repatriation are stress-related factors that are more appropriate at an upper primary school level. At a foundation phase level, we believe that learning progress is much better ensured through a focus on the love and joy of learning, engaged and cooperative relations, integrated formative assessments as a tool for targeted teaching and a culture for learning where failure is just another step towards success.
- See: www.responsiveclassroom.org.
- See, for example: http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/06/24/ ctq_faridi_finland.html; http://seniorsecondary.tki.org.nz/Thearts/ Pedagogy/Culturally-responsive-learning-environments and http://www.reggiochildren.it/identita/reggio-emilia-approach/?lang=en.
- See: http://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/ NationalCurriculumStatementsGradesR-12.aspx.