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SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

SPARK Schools: Where Vision Drives Reality

Every school has a vision statement nowadays but most don’t take them very seriously. I remember talking with a student in Baton Rouge several years ago about his school. “Everybody is always talking about helping us ‘Be Great,’” he said, referencing the school’s vision. “But they’re not even giving us the tools to be alright.”*

I recently spoke with the head teacher at a school made of mud bricks in rural Malawi. He was quick to hand me the school’s vision statement, which talked about preparing students to contribute to the future development of Malawi. But when I asked what he wanted to prioritize to make that vision a reality, he raised his arms and laughed.

James Baldwin, the great black American writer and intellectual, has a line about how artists and revolutionaries are both “possessed by a vision and that, they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it.” Most educators talk about vision as something that provides direction. But it was this more radical idea, of a vision that possesses and drives that came to mind when Elizabeth and I met Dee Moodley, Blended Learning Lead and instructional coach at SPARK schools in South Africa.

Dee is a remarkable woman. She is quick to laugh and reflexively curious. She’s concise and passionate in her views but also eager for feedback. When you talk with her, the conversation seems to almost overflow with ideas and reflections gathered through her almost two decades of experience.

Dee Moodley

Dee Moodley

When Dee talks about SPARK’s vision, the ideas are inextricably linked with the priorities to make that vision a reality. SPARK wants their children to be able to compete on an international level, so they use the most rigorous international curriculums. Most schools in South Africa let out around 1:00. SPARK goes until 4:30. The vision is also a central part of the teacher recruitment process, “We’re employing individuals for what they believe in… We need teachers to believe that children can succeed. One-hundred percent. And that’s not a dream for me, it’s a reality.” But making it a reality for other teachers can be tricky. Many teachers who come to SPARK have been in schools where the students struggle to meet the much more basic local standards. So, getting them to expect students to master the most rigorous curriculums in the world can be challenging. (For more on the holistic support systems SPARK creates for its teachers, check out our previous post)

One teacher with almost 10 years of experience talked to us about how starting at SPARK was disempowering. Initially he felt that the expectations were too high and the rigor too fast-paced, “and your planning is different because the outcomes you’re going to reach are completely different than what you’re used to.” But he was originally attracted to SPARK by the vision and values so, he chose to see the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Now, this sense of continuous growth is what he enjoys most about SPARK.

Several other teachers had similar stories. Taking the vision seriously made their work much more difficult, but it also made the work more rewarding. In every group we spoke with, people would bring up SPARK’s vision as something that motivated them and bound them together. There was a clear pride in their conviction that, the school would do whatever it takes to make sure every student could succeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable comments came from Patience Ndlovu, a staff member who was first introduced to SPARK as a parent. She spoke about how she was initially skeptical of ‘these new schools,’ but when she first visited SPARK she was struck by the warmth that welcomed her. She was further impressed by the positive feedback from her child, “I could see that this is coming from an educator who is positive. The minds that created SPARK are coming right through to my little child. I was imagining this just seeping through the whole community and I just love that. I was thinking that this is where education should be going. That’s why I love being part of this, I don’t know, this goo juice seeping through to the next generation.” You know a school is truly vision aligned when a parent sees a direct link between the founders of the school and the attitude of her child.

At SPARK, the commitment to students (and to the personal growth necessary to help students) really is like a ‘goo juice’ that seeps into every decision at the school. Talking with the faculty, there is a sense that they are part of something exciting. Something that may have the potential to ripple across South Africa to redefine what people should expect from education. But for this greater vision to become a reality it will take a lot more than SPARK showing the way. It will take many more people who are willing to be possessed and driven by a new idea of what’s possible in education.

  • Will

This is our second post about our day at SPARK schools. Our first piece can be found here.

*This student, Dominique Ricks, has since gone on to graduate from college and become a teacher. He was recently voted ‘Teacher of the Year’ at his school outside of Baton Rouge.

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

The Obvious Need for Structured Social Spaces

We sat down with Hillary and Jody over lunch to talk about the Social Club they organize for students at the middle school in their community. We left quite impressed. Hillary is an alum of the program but neither of them have any kind of formal education training. They haven’t read a lot of youth development literature. They didn’t use the phrase ‘social-emotional learning.’ But they grew up in this community and they know that the children here need more than the content knowledge they get in school. They need a place, “to talk about their lives and the issues in their community.” What’s the goal of Social Club? Hillary hesitates and then raises her hands from the table, “I want them to change their idea about what is possible in the world.”

To arrive at the school, we had to drive through nearly the entire community. The streets are unmarked and the road is crumbling at the edges. There are many wooden shacks, but nearly as many larger brick homes, and an occasional two story house. Children walk and play in the street and adults cluster at the corners. In America we would describe the people here as black, but most of them identify as ‘colored’ – what Americans would call ‘light-skinned’ or ‘mixed.’ This was a distinction codified by apartheid and is still very real in South Africa. The first language in Kurland is afrikaans.

kurland south africa

Hillary asked us if we’d like to run Social Club for a day, and we happily agreed. The room the Social Club meets in has a number of posters that were clearly created by their previous activities.

We showed up to find a dozen children already circled up, about to play a round of ‘two truths and a lie.’ They laughed as we went around and Elizabeth and I were again reminded that children are pretty much the same wherever you go.

social-emotional learning

social-emotional learning

We planned a theater based activity inspired from my time with The Possibility Project. We would ask the students to identify some challenges/issues effecting their community and then talk about what was good in their community. After we had the lists the children would form groups and create ‘mini-plays’ inspired from their lives to perform for each other. I was nervous about the activity for several reasons. These kids were younger than the teens I normally did this with. Also, they didn’t know us and I was afraid they’d be too shy. How much experience did they have with acting? Creating, casting, and rehearsing a narrative arc in 30 minutes is a lot. What if they weren’t able to pull it off?

It turns out these fears were entirely unfounded. The all had experience with acting at some point and they were not shy about listing the issues effecting their community: drugs, violence, robbery, HIV. On the positive side they put: church, school, Social Club, friends and family. We got silly with some wiggle warm-ups and then they jumped into the scene creation with unbridled enthusiasm. We had stressed that these mini-plays were entirely theirs to create and they took this license very seriously. Several times, I approached a group to offer support and was shooed away because they were in the midst of a focused discussion or rehearsal. They got very creative very fast.

social-emotional learning

The first scene was about a boy who turned his younger brother on to drugs. They were visited by a friend who talked about how much they could achieve in life and that doing drugs would get them nowhere. They ended up at church giving their hearts to Jesus. Afterward, Hillary said that this exact thing had happened to someone at her church.

The next group performed a scene where a child was sent by her father to buy beer. On the way, she ran into a friend who said her father shouldn’t be drinking, he should be visiting his mother who was dying of TB. The seen ended with her father asking his mother’s forgiveness for forgetting her and wasting his life with beer. Hillary was especially struck by this scene because sick people in the community are often ignored. Apparently the children have noticed this and don’t think it’s OK.

The final scene was the most dramatic. A sister poisoned her brother out of jealousy, realized the error of her ways, and then prayed for forgiveness. Forgiveness appeared to be a theme throughout.

social-emotional learning

In our last education post I wrote about how poverty is not the fundamental issue with education, like many make it out to be. But I also mentioned that the effects of poverty are real and can’t be ignored. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to experience trauma than their more privileged peers. Too often these traumas are responded to with a sense of pity and lowered expectations, ‘He can’t be expected to do this, do you know what he’s been through?’ But Social Club takes a different route. Social Club gives the children a place to share and process these traumas peer-to-peer while holding steadfast to the idea that they can achieve great things in the world. Hillary and Jody don’t think of it like this though. They just know it’s what their children need.

  • Will

For more on the importance and power of social-emotional programs check out our piece on The Possibility Project here. Or peruse our in-depth interview with that program’s founder, Paul Griffin. He’s really sharp.

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

When we’re young, we tend to think that all schools are like the ones we attend. Even as adults, people who went to well-functioning schools tend to think that all schools offer a quality education. If students who attend some schools lack basic math skills, act out in class, or have trouble decoding a text written for their grade-level, then the problem must be the student or their environment. The problem must be poverty.

But the way students are treated and what’s expected of them, varies dramatically from one school to another. Even a school’s attitude towards itself, how seriously it takes its obligation to educate, can vary drastically.

I recently visited a school in Santiago in a relatively low-income area. We arrived during a break and students mulled about in the large courtyard. When the bell rang, I assumed that we would head to a classroom but nothing happened. Students continued to loiter. Ten, then fifteen, minutes went by. My host explained that the teachers were in a meeting that was running late.

Poverty and Education Students Loitering

Students loitering after the bell has rung

Class eventually started. The teacher had all the students stand and greet him and then spent about 10 minutes hooking up a projector. The lesson’s objective was on sorting information with charts. Students ‘accomplished’ this objective by watching two commercials and sorting the problems and solutions described by the commercials into columns in a table. The teacher then spoke over a chattering room to instruct them to apply this skill to interviews they had conducted. I circulated to three groups during this part of the lesson, but none of the students could show me the interviews. The class was essentially free to socialize. When I asked if all their classes were like this they laughed and said ‘yes.’

In the late 1970s Jean Anyon conducted intensive research to see how schools that served different economic groups in the U.S. treated students. What she found was troubling but, sadly, not surprising.

Anyon observed that working-class schools mostly prioritized order and discipline. Instruction was organized around copying and memorization, while larger concepts were ignored altogether. ‘Good teachers’ were those with quiet classrooms and discipline was often enforced with sarcastic or derisive language. Students resisted this treatment by rejecting the legitimacy of the school and the relevance of the work in front of them. When students were asked if they could ‘create knowledge’ the answer was almost uniformly ‘no.’

In Affluent-Professional schools (think accountants, lawyers, engineers, small-business owners) things looked different. Students wrote essays and engaged in projects. Creativity was valued and it was emphasized that each students’ work should be unique. Consequently, students showed immense pride in the products of their work. Discipline was maintained more by influence than outright control. The teacher would regularly initiate conversations with the class about the type of behavior she should see and why. When students were asked if they could create knowledge nearly all of them said ‘yes.’*

Poverty and Education talking with students

Talking with students at the working-class school

People often say that students in low-income communities have trouble focusing or act out in class because they are mimicking the unstable environments they live in. They come from ‘broken homes’ where they can’t be expected to have learned values like respect and responsibility. But in my ten years of working with low-income communities, I’ve seen that values of responsibility and especially respect, are emphasized more, not less, in low-income communities.

I have experience teaching in both working-class and affluent-professional contexts, and I know that if I treated my affluent students the way working-class students are treated, they would rebel. They would reject my legitimacy as a teacher and, at best, put forth some minimal effort to complete the work I gave them. Later, they would then talk with their parents, who would quickly express their concerns to the principal. The principal would listen to these concerns with a great deal of respect, and I would very quickly find myself in a serious talk about my teaching strategies.

“Teachers with other ideas, systems they bring from somewhere else, they generally don’t last,” said Shannon Watt. We were talking about how the affluent Southern Cross school was able to maintain such a strong culture. I asked what she meant. “For instance, we’ve had teachers who want their class to stand up and formally greet them at the beginning of class. No. Here the teacher comes in and they may say ‘Hi,’ but there’s no formal greeting. That’s not going to work here. If a teacher tries to be overly strict it’s not going to work for the students.”

When Shannon showed me around some classrooms, I saw 4th graders solving problems with multiple different strategies. I asked a student how he completed a math problem and he jumped right into an explanation, including the reason he used a certain the method.** Later the class was asked if there’s a relationship between multiplication and division. There was a thoughtful silence. The first student response was that, ‘they both involve numbers.’ This caused a laugh, but the teacher let them think about it some more. A few other students offered answers, and soon they were explaining how knowing your times tables makes division easier. When I asked this class why they like school, almost all of them said, “Because I like learning.”

Poverty and Education southern cross

Ms. Javier, the 4th grade teacher at Southern Cross

It’s true that many students from working-class communities put forth less effort in class and act out more often than their more privileged peers. But when they do this, they are not normally ‘bringing their home life into the school.’ They are simply having normal human reactions to the way they are being treated. If anything, students with unstable home lives are those who yearn the most for school to be a sanctuary of caring and support. When schools fail in this responsibility, these young people often feel it as a kind of betrayal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that poverty is a non-factor. The effects of poverty on young people are real and can be very deep. Nor do I want to suggest that teachers in working-class schools should go into work tomorrow and pretend that they can reverse their students’ relationship to school with a new management plan. Questions about where to go from here are tricky, and I’ll explore them later in this series. For now, I’ll just say that poverty, in itself, is not the primary problem holding schools back. The way schools react to poverty, how they choose to treat students from low-income backgrounds and the stunted expectations they communicate; those are the principal problems facing education.

  • Will

*Anyon also profiled middle-class and executive elite schools. For a full description you should check out her paper. But a general overview is that middle-class teachers give students some more choice but the focus of most work is finding the ‘right answer.’ Students are more engaged but don’t feel that the content is relevant. Executive elite schools actually offer less opportunities for creativity than the affluent schools but the workload is generally much higher. There is an emphasis on ‘excellence’ and students behavior is corrected by reminding them of the ‘responsibility to succeed.’

** I also visited a 1st grade classroom where the teacher talked about how challenging it was to get students to explain their work. But she also talked about why it was incredibly important. This was interesting. The 4th graders were obviously used to explaining their work and they were quite good at it. Some people may attribute this skill to their more affluent home lives, but doesn’t it make more sense to credit this skill to the perseverance of their earlier teachers?

 

 

Respect for Teachers in Peru: A Familiar Struggle

Respect for Teachers in Peru: A Familiar Struggle

Milagros is much loved by her students. When we passed through the gate of her school a pair of them ran up and embraced her on either side, pressing their cheeks against each of her hips. In class the students are anxious to show her what they’ve done. During our conversation later in the day, children came to hug her and offer her parts of their lunch. Her school is far away from the more developed center of Arequipa, Peru and while the surrounding area doesn’t resemble the archetypical images of poverty in the developing world, it’s clear that there isn’t much money here. Milagros transferred to this school to have the opportunity to teach 2nd grade because, “Many of the children don’t know how to read or write. And that is something very important to me.”

I asked Milagros what surprised her the most when she started teaching last year, “The teachers, because they don’t have any passion. But I think I understand maybe why, because they always have trouble with money and time, and the government doesn’t respect their jobs. But many of the teachers get so angry with the students.”

International education school classroom in Peru

Milagros reminding her class to raise their hands to speak

A couple weeks earlier I spoke with a pair of young German women who had just finished a year of teaching in Peru. I asked them what they thought the biggest problems with education in Peru were and they were quick to answer, “The problem is the teachers.” They described classrooms where the teacher would simply sit in the back of the room and read PowerPoint slides. “The students aren’t motivated but I wouldn’t be motivated either… And who would want to be a teacher when you get paid around 350 Euros a month?”

The other German explained how her co-teacher at a private school had to share a house with five other teachers, and then the more animated one spoke up again, “I think a lot of it is how…” she had trouble finding the words, “In Germany, if you say that you’re a teacher, it’s like,” her face lit up, “‘Oh, you’re a teacher!’ but in Peru if you say you’re a teacher,” her face turned sour, “It’s like ‘Oh… You’re a teacher.’”

In a taxi in Cuzco, I asked the driver what he thought about public education in Peru, “The main problem is that there isn’t very good instruction. The teachers don’t have a good education and they don’t know how to teach.” He then spoke with pride about his son who had recently graduated and was now studying biology. But he was certainly not impressed with his son’s teachers.

School in Peru International Education

Milagros’ school and the volcano that looks over it

Even Milagros’ principal was critical, “The teachers here,” she said with some hesitation, “keep to themselves. They are not always trying to get better and sometimes they lose patience when they get older. But this is something we have to work on.” Talking with Senora Mamani was interesting because her demeanor reminded me so much of the sharp and dedicated administrators I know in the Unites States. People who are trying to do as much as they can with limited resources. But Senora Mamani’s resources are even more limited than her U.S. counterparts, since she is the only administrator at the school.

And this may be the single most startling fact I’ve learned about education in Peru. Jose Revilla told me that while there are about 60,000 schools in Peru there are only 48,000 people in administrative positions other than principals. When you consider that many wealthier schools have many administrators the situation looks even more dire for schools like Milagros’.

How can you expect teachers to get better if there is no one to coach and support them?

“Ojala que vengan. We don’t have personnel here. We don’t even have anyone to clean,” said Senora Mamani when I asked about other administrators. She then offered the same resigned but committed smile-shrug I’ve seen so often in administrators in rural Louisiana.

International Education Principal in Peru

The School Principal, Senora Angelica Guispe Mamani

An article in El Comercio (a major Peruvian paper) quotes education experts saying that the main reason most people become teachers is because more selective fields are out of their reach. They’re looking for an occupation that’s easy to get into.

Senora Mamani cited a lack of parental support for their children’s academics as the primary obstacle to education, but when I asked why parents aren’t supportive it turned out that this too was connected to the prestige of teachers, “I think it’s because they don’t respect the teachers. They think that teaching is a simple activity when, in reality, it’s completely the opposite. It’s the most difficult.”

/international Education - Students at recess Peru

Elizabeth with students at recess

Teachers are the foundation of a country’s education system. In the United States, public policy focused on merit pay, and the transformation of tests from tools for student assessment to weapons for teacher evaluation, has triggered a backlash to this kind of ‘blame the teacher’ talk. But the reality is that the U.S. suffers from many of these same problems (though to a lesser degree). And with this in mind, I think it’s interesting that none of the people I talked to in Peru spoke of a need to fire or punish bad teachers. People only spoke of the need to provide more support, more training, and more resources for teachers.

It’s true that teachers can’t be the only agents of change in turning education around, but we shouldn’t forget that they are by far the single most important force in the lives of students and that the spectrum of teaching is very, very wide indeed. Unfortunately, policies in many U.S. states have served to poison this conversation and have scared many accomplished people away from, or out of the profession. I wonder how different the dialogue in the U.S. would be if policies focused on how to help teachers develop instead of how to rank them according to their students’ scores on multiple choice tests? As Jonathan Kozol once said, in a less than eloquent metaphor, about students and testing: “You don’t fatten the sheep by weighing them.”

It seems that in Peru people know what to do but they don’t have the resources. In the U.S. we have the resources, but we don’t seem to know what to do with them.

Will