Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A school in Tobago

My friend Mary Rutten Hall has a school in Carnbee Tobago. In existence for 19 years now, the school has 39 students enrolled for the current year. The Michael K Hall School - named for Mary's father-in-law, the schoolmaster parent of playwright Tony Hall and Dennis "Sprangalang" Hall - is a place of learning through play and practice, an integrated approach to education.  Here, Mary's process draws groups across different age levels, and synthesizes concepts according to themes. Not only has the system worked to fulfil the standard curriculum, it gives students confidence in their own ability to investigate, understand and share findings. Mary's school has proven itself by graduating students into mainstream secondary schools, and grounded their growth into enterprising citizens in a wide range of professional and technical fields.

In the early days, the MK Hall School was housed on an acre plot in Carnbee. Today, the school is an annex to Mary's home and includes an ajoupa roundhouse as one of its classrooms. If necessary, the lessons could be taught in a field or a village hall. All it needs are teachers with the commitment, knowledge and will that Mary has exhibited. It has been commended and visited by government officials and educators; but over the years, no one has looked into its process to see how it may be emulated for children - especially those at risk - in rural and even inner city communities.

Inside the school house, children from five to twelve explore themes and concepts in culture, the environment and arts. Outside, they plant food, keep horses, make mas, play music and sport, and roam special places on their island, becoming literate and numerate in the process. It is a brave ingenious curriculum that Mary devised and refined, based on her experience as a teacher, and training in psychology, special education and nursing. With fewer resources today, the learning continues with more ingenuity from Mary and her teaching team, and heartfelt responses from a happy student group.

In his day, Lloyd Best conceptualised "school in pan" - where panyards could be the classrooms for children of the community. Mary Hall provides the model and practical application of the school in the community. It is a school based on co-operation rather than competition as younger students learn from the older as much as from the teachers. It is the kind of teaching care that is urgently needed in communities all over Trinidad and Tobago. (Join the Michael K. Hall Community School on facebook: Read some of Mary's comments below:

Teaching in Themes:
We teach themes throughout the year, based on the festivals of Trinidad and Tobago. This works out very well as there is all the support information that we need each year in the newspapers, on the radio and television, there are actual events for children to go to, the history, the geography, religion, foods etc can be taught within these themes. We might cook for the various events or festivals, thus using the math and science that would entail.  Each year the children do these  themes, but at a more advanced level, and with a wider scope as they advance - more vocabulary, more geography, more history, more art, etc.  

What we have found is that we can also inject any other relevant themes along the way. These would include environment, which means absolutely everything outside of ourselves, starting with the plants and insects in the school, the garden, the care of animals we have had as pets, and extending to the community, the wetlands, the turtles, the endangered species of T&T etc. 

Teaching Math:
Here are a few examples that came up naturally, as they always do once you are teaching in themes.

1. When we got the horse, we kept a record of the costs of feed, veterinarian services, equipment etc. We also offered riding lessons for a fee, on Saturdays. The students made a record of these costs and the income too.

2. Carnival mas bands always give an opportunity to apply circumference (head pieces) and measurements of the body for costumes, cost of material for the costumes etc.

3. When we got Mandy we had to make a pen for her, so the Gr. 4 and 5 students went out and measured two different possibilities for a  fenced pen, two different shapes. We did the perimeters of each, and then found out the cost and number of posts that would be needed in both designs, and the cost of the fencing. And we chose the most economical 'shape' for the horse pen.That was one of our most successful lessons in perimeter, and area!

4.  With the garden, when it is flourishing, we hold a Friday market at the school. The children weigh the vegetables where applicable, and price them and then sell them at the school market.

Once you are not thinking in subjects, but in topics or themes, everything is already linked - as life is.  So there are always ways to bring in all the subjects, regardless of the theme. 

The Integrated Approach:
  Art is used in all our subjects but is also taught as a subject. Many of the drawings or paintings are of plants, leaves, flowers, from our school yard, so this connects nicely with our science. Our gardening is on-going, and we use it to teach most of our science, as most of the science in primary school relates very nicely to work done in the garden.

Environment, agriculture, art are central to our teaching. We did a carnival band once to teach Pollination. We also did a carnival band of Forest Animals - box puppets which the children wore on the outside of their bodies, the message was that the endangered animals of the rainforest had come down into the streets of Scarborough, as a mas band, to appeal to the people to help them to survive.

We, as teachers, always have the syllabus close at hand, and make sure that we constantly refer to the syllabus in every subject. Every subject is connected to every other subject, and you get a clearer picture of that when you teach this way. You can write essays on any subject. You do descriptive writing in every subject.  We use the Christmas Concert as a chance to highlight the music programme of the school, but also for the children to design the programmes and make the Christmas decorations (usually using recycled materials.) They also learn group skills and leadership skills by helping organize the concert, help with rehearsals, instruments, solos, props, group presentations etc.

The children become very independent, as they progress up the school. They also take responsibility for younger students ( peer teaching). Having the various ages together is a real benefit to all and not the opposite. 

1 comment:

  1. There should be more schools like this in the world. Great work being done here.