Sunday, July 17, 2011

An overwhelming creative experience

Astronauts entering the space shuttle: Zero Gravity theme.

I was invited to visit Opunake Primary School to see the culminating display of their current topic 'Zero Gravity'-  open to parents and the public the last two days of the term.

To make a change from suffering from the  endless wet days we had been having I decided to take up the offer. I knew more or less what to expect as I had visited several other end of term culminating displays. To add to the fun I decided to ask an old friend of mine to come just for the ride which is about 45 minutes from where I live. I didn't tell my friend we were going to visit a school. I didn't think it would be much of an enticement and when we pulled up at the school he said he would be happy to sit in the car until I had completed my visit.

I insisted he accompany me and to say that it was a mind changing experience for my friend would not be far from the truth.

Opunake school is a very special school. However, before the appointment of the current principal Lorraine, things were less than wonderful. Opunake is a decile four school with a forty percent Maori role and, at at the time of Lorraine's appointment, had little parental support and the staff somewhat demoralised.

Although I am a fan of individual creative teachers, believing they hold the power to develop ideas that can change schools, this power is magnified if a school is led by a creative principal

What makes the school special are the educational changes Lorraine has introduced to develop a more positive  inclusive learning community at the school. The changes are based around a collaborative approach to teaching combined with the use of a range of innovative teaching strategies.

At the end of each year students are asked to think about what concern they have and they would like to study.  This idea is based on the writings of American Middle School educator James Beane. Students contribute their ideas and from  their ideas common themes are  decided upon for the next years studies. Interestingly enough the students ideas easily cover normal curriculum requirements.

Once the theme has been decided upon a provocative title is decided upon and then the theme is explored for the term, or longer. Themes I have observed have covered 'Harry Potter' ( mainly maths and science)  'Are You my Mummy' ( Egypt), 'Shackleton', 'Space', 'The local Environment' - I can't remember the exact  more interesting titles.

The current thee was called ' Zero Gravity' - about space exploration.The photo  above does not do the study justice.

The  theme follows along the following process.

The teachers plan an interesting introductory experience to motivate a range of study  questions from the students which become the basis for the study.  For the Egyptian study the teachers put on a shadow play which involved  teachers acting as priests preparing body for the mummification  process. This was authentic enough for a year one student to tell his mum that the teachers cut up a year eight students but that it was OK because the young learner concerned said he had seen the 'victum' later in the library!

Following the introductory experience the  teachers plan activities for students, arranged in family groups, to be involved with.Older students are 'trained' to assist younger children. For the current study eighteen science experiments were planned - providing more physical science than most primary students experience in a year. This involves afternoons for the first week or two.

Literacy and numeracy programmes cover the mornings  no doubt content from current themes is involved.

The 'end on mind' is to prepare exhibits for the end of term display.These displays transform a room ( once two classrooms) into what can be best expressed as a school version of Te Papa. Once the displays are in place it is impossible to recognise the rooms as classrooms.

Following the family grouped experiences teachers, in their individual classrooms and teams, plan out their exhibits for the  display room and undertake  research about the theme. The school uses an inquiry approach across the school and a range of thinking skills but, as important as the process is, the whole point is to develop the end of term display/experience.

Back to our school visit.

Visitors enter the room through a Ground Zero Entrance Gate and are welcomed by an episode of Star Trek to add to the ambiance. Once over a a raised foiled covered entrance way the main room is entered.The entire space floor and ceiling is covered with black plastic.No outside light enters - light come from spotlights,computers and digital projector screens.  Visitors are confronted with large models of spaceships, moon buggies, alien tea parties, science experiments, white coated astronauts and a robot that has moving arms ( powered by students who take turns). Metres of tin foil has been used contrasted with white painted rockets, space shuttles, and moon buggies. And, as you get used to the experience, there are an endless range of childrens' research, art and language to admire.

To add to the excitement students are guiding their appreciative parents around and, while we were there, the local kindergarten was visiting. One can only imagine what they were thinking.

The next day I returned with a retired teacher who was, in my opinion, one of the most creative teachers of his time.I also invited a scientist ( who had been an adviser to the nearby Maui plant) who now writes science features for the local paper.

They too were impressed.

Opunake is a special school.

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