Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Settings Day 2 - #playiceland

Day 2 in Iceland dawned bright & early (with a text message at 6.30 from an excited team member to say it was snowing!). Around the hotel the snow was like the kind we would get at home, more slush than snow but as we were heading out of the city on the bus we could see the snow getting deeper & deeper, and while waited for our next bus the scene was like a real winter wonderland. 
The first school we were visiting was Krikaskoli, an amazing school in so many ways - it came about as the result of a competition for the best design of a school building as well as a complete ethos & philosophy. The building is incredible, such a brilliant piece of architecture & extremely well finished. The basic design is that of a tree, so the ground floor is supposed to reflect the trunk of the tree, whilst the first floor is the branches & the roof the leaves etc. 
A beautifully designed school
The classrooms are all upstairs & even the little ones (2 year olds) learn to go up & down the stairs. Their playground is directly off their classroom & almost on an upper deck of the rest of the playground. It was hard to grasp how the outdoor space looks as it was completely covered in snow but it was lovely to see the children out playing in the snow, sliding down banks & throwing snowballs.
Kristen was very generous to take the time to show us around this school that has based itself on the democratic model of John Dewey. The administration side of the school was all housed in the one area, with lots of offices, meeting rooms & again a beautiful staff room where people could really relax away from work. There was a large picture window out into the main foyer but a blind could be pulled down if privacy was needed.
As the building is based around a tree, each of the classrooms have a 'nest' a horseshoe shaped soft padded area where the teacher & pupils gather for group time. We also saw some boys lying inside the nest doing some maths whilst others sat at desks & one boy even stood on a chair. It did make me question why we as teachers spend so much time & energy ensuring children are sitting 'properly'. On reflection if the work is being completed does it matter if a child is lying on the floor to do it?
Completely on task.
Once again I saw lots of schedules for children with ASD but couldn't have picked anyone out of the main group. The classes have time for 'workshops' every morning, we saw small groups doing physical education, woodwork, home economics & craft. It was incredible to see children as young as seven learning how to clean, they were washing chairs, walls & windows & their teacher explained that the next workshop they will cook something. She also told us that when they have cleaned a room, the children have more of an appreciation for keeping their school clean & tidy.I found it interesting to see primary age pupils taking part in many activities that would be restricted to secondary school in our system - wood work, home economics etc.
Cleaning, craftwork & woodwork for primary children.
In the afternoon I was lucky enough to visit Reykjakot & spend some time with their amazing vice-principal who was fantastic at answering all our questions. Once again, this school separates the children by gender from the age of 2 but it wasn't as rigid as the first school we had visited. The actual founder of the Hjalli model had taught in this school & they liked most aspects of her philosophy.The children played together in the playground & mixed together in one of the groups where numbers were too low to sustain 2 classes. This preschool had a wonderful homely feel about it & all the staff & children seemed very comfortable with each other. Their staff room had a book case full of fiction books for staff to dip into during breaks etc. - not a school book in sight!
Wonderful vice-principal at Reykjakot
Gorgeous art work at Reykjakot
I thoroughly enjoyed my chance to visit both these schools & since coming back have reassessed my attitude to how children sit in the classroom & story room, as long as they are not blocking another child from seeing the book etc. why do they have to sit in a particular position? The staff were so friendly & welcoming in the schools that I also hope that any visitor coming into my setting would be made as welcome. I have so much to reflect upon after this visit to Iceland that I think it will take a few more posts to cover it all!!

I am eternally grateful to Tom & Hulda & all at Fafu Toys for making this trip possible. I hope they know how much the experiences I had on this visit will influence my practice for many years to come. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Settings Day 1 - #playiceland

I was lucky enough to spend 3 days visiting a variety of preschool & primary settings in the wider Reykjavik area in the company of 33 other education practitioners from across the UK & USA. The whole scenario came about through a vision that Tom Shea & Hulda from Fafu Play had way back in March/April. Tom wanted people to see & experience the 'ethos' of Icelandic society first hand, by visiting settings & also for us to share our good practice & experiences with peers from Iceland. Hulda did an amazing organisational job of sorting everyone into groups & managing to find 2 settings a day for us all to visit - no mean feat!

Our group spent the first day in 2 very different settings, the first was a Hjalli school, where they follow the philosophy of Margret Pala and teach the children from the age of 2 upwards in classes divided by gender. Having grown up in a society where children are separated by religion and gender at times, I was intrigued by this system. On reflection I could see why some were in favour of this system but in my opinion it was more for the boys to flourish than to empower the girls, as women in Iceland already seem very independent & strong thinkers. The whole gender divide challenged me less than the lack of resources available to the children. I can see the point of pairing back on 'stuff' & do feel we have too much in our classrooms but I'm not sure how much progression there can be in 3 years spent playing with just hollow blocks. This is one sector I would like to revisit & see as many of the different schools within this model as possible. We observed 2 English lessons & from that it was easy to see why everyone speaks such impeccable English in Iceland, the lesson reminded me of how the children in the main school learn French back home - it was fun & all done through games & songs. I like the pictorial signs in the foyer to encourage as much independence as possible - getting dressed for outdoor play in the snow must be like a military operation!
Learning colours & body parts through play
This I could copy for getting on wet weather gear
The second setting was very special to me, Steikkjaras preschool, as I have had links with this school for over a year & was hoping to be in a Comenius partnership with them for 2 years but were unfortunately unsuccessful.
Bottle babies greeted us at the entrance!
This school is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach & has close contact with the wonderful nature that surrounds the school. We went off into the forest to meet up with the class who were out on their weekly visit. This setting felt most familiar to me as I could relate the time spent out in the forest to our visits to Peatland or An Creagán but on a larger scale. The children were busy & engaged for the 2.5 hours we were outdoors with them, they played happily on old pieces of machinery & scrambled up on rocks & over river beds & stone bridges. It was very apparent that these children feel a particular affinity with this space because they visit once a week. They wanted to show us an area where older children had cut down trees to make shelters, not that this was an issue, but the fact they left lots of rubbish about made the children cross! The time spent in the forest was unhurried & the children were totally self directed, every teacher kept saying that this was their favourite day of the week & they couldn't believe they got paid to spent the day in the forest having fun. I know from experience that when we had funding to go to the forest once a week for 2 years, it was definitely the least stressful day ever.
After meandering back to the school, the children went to their classroom for some snacks & drinks while we were taken to the staff room to do the same. Staff rooms in Iceland are for relaxing, no computers or work related info on the walls, just coffee machines, candles & flowers. We had a chance to share some photos from our settings & ask questions before being shown around the building. 
A home corner created in a store cupboard!
The rooms in the classrooms are much smaller than any you would see in the UK or Ireland but have lots of different room branching off for the variety of activities. This school, being influenced by Reggio had dedicated studios spaces for art activities & a specialist teacher too.
A room just for art!
I noticed lots of schedules on the walls for children on the Spectrum but could never have picked any child out as having ASD. It made me realise a child who uses a schedule with the Boardmaker symbols could travel anywhere in the world & be able to follow their schedule.
There was a very warm feel to this school, with parents wandering in & out to collect children & stopping to talk with us & ask about our stay. Luckily, in Iceland, they can still have the school doors unlocked.

It is always good to see familiar resources when you are visiting settings elsewhere but also to see things that could be introduced back home. I was very taken by the way choices were made in the Hjalli school & could see me introducing this in 3rd term - the children chose were to play by picking cards & obviously some didn't get their first choice. These choices were also recorded by the staff so they could see which areas a child preferred to go to to or tended to avoid.
Choosing areas to play in & tracking where the children tend to go.
The art work on display in the Steikkjaras preschool was inspiring & something I would like to try with my class - I loved a mobile made up from all those lost 'things' that gather up as the year progresses.

I am eternally grateful to Tom & Hulda & all at Fafu Toys for making this trip possible. I hope they know how much the experiences I had on this visit will influence my practice for many years to come.