Elsen Academy classroom
Elsen Academy classroom

A Learning Environment Conducive to Growth

What is the responsibility of schools today and what do parents look for in a school for their child? How should schools remain ‘forward focussed?’

Reading, writing and arithmetic, what we used to refer to as the ‘3Rs’ are still very much part of the educational package offered by schools, but what else is important? How are schools adapting their practices to remain both relevant and sustainable while preparing young people for the future world of work? Are schools expected to ‘do it all’ or must parents take more responsibility in terms of their child’s holistic development and growth?

The National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) curriculum is what many South African schools follow, delivering the content into the brains of our children. In the Foundation Phase, children are exposed to literacy, numeracy and life skills, and as they move through the primary school and senior primary phase, these are expanded to include content subjects such as natural science, history, geography, creative arts (this includes music, drama and art), technology and economic management science.

As they head into the final three years of high school, students are expected to select four subjects on which to focus for their final examinations at the end of Grade 12. Teachers are also mandated to expose learners to various other ‘soft skills’ such as collaboration, problem-solving, citizenship and so forth, while delivering their lessons and assessing content knowledge.

Elsen Academy learning during COVID

Rejigging the teaching and learning timetable for Foundation Phase

At our school, Elsen Academy in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, the Foundation Phase teachers have adapted their teaching and learning in several ways. We have included more movement into the day. Our students have two physical education lessons a week and enjoy their dancing session on Fridays. We have extended their break times to 45 minutes so that when they come back into the classroom they are ready to learn, as they have had enough time outside to play.

The children also use iPads and certain apps like Reading Eggs and Mathseeds to supplement their reading, phonics and maths. We find that the children cope better with continuous assessment and we try to assess in a way so as not to make evaluation into a scary situation. We have the timetable up in the classroom, so that the children know what to expect, and there are breaks scheduled during the day to incorporate puzzles and building blocks.

Moderations at the Intermediate Phase

In the Intermediate Phase Elsen has adapted the timetable and the structure of the school day. Tanya Cummins, the phase head, realised during COVID-19 hard lockdown that the learners responded well to having fewer ‘lessons’ in a day. She and her colleagues also realised that the work set was achievable within the allotted hour time frame and created a timetable that has more break times, three every day and four on a Tuesday. Learners no longer write examinations, but instead have control tests on Tuesdays and Fridays.

This year we also incorporated two physical education lessons into this phase, as our learners need to move. Technology has become more important than ever, so tasks and assessments during class time are on Google Classroom. ‘I personally use Google Forms and the apps on the iPad for at least one of my classes each day,’ says Cummins. We have removed the stressful sound of the school bell, and teachers keep track of times for lessons, creating a much calmer learning environment.

Elsen Academy learning during COVID

High school phase adaptations

Our high school teachers have implemented Google Classroom in their everyday teaching to ensure learners can work with technology. All the subject teachers upload their resources, including videos, revision work, activities and old examination papers, in order to help learners with assessments and examination preparation. We have also invited our parents to join these classes so that they can see what the learners are doing and have access to these resources.

Homework for each day gets posted in a ‘register’ classroom and parents have full access to this information. Learners are encouraged to complete projects and assignments on their laptops and share these with teachers in order to use less paper. Since we can no longer have formal assemblies due to COVID-19 regulations, we’ve converted this time into a test period every Friday morning, which frees up more teaching time and provides more opportunities for informal assessments which helps learners retain knowledge.

This year our matric students have initiated a fundraising committee of which they will be in charge. This committee will help with all fundraising events and come up with suggestions on how to use the funds raised. We also encourage other further education and training (FET) institutions to come and speak to our high school learners. In 2021, we had three different cooking schools visit our students to broaden their knowledge about the world of work.

After school activities and social and emotional support

When lessons are over, learners make their way to various after-school activities. Whether it is playing a sport, learning a musical instrument, pursuing a special interest in art or drama, or the pressure of trying to pass that subject or achieve that 80% average, in order to get the necessary distinctions that makes applying to tertiary institutions easier, their day often extends well after 18:00 or 19:00, especially if we include the homework dished out by the teachers.

In terms of providing more emotional support to learners, our registered counsellors have successfully implemented group therapy sessions for Grades 4 – 7 and we are looking at including the high school students this year. These sessions to help learners deal with classroom issues (friendship dynamics, organisational skills, dealing with the teacher pupil relationship and building social skills).

We offer social skills classes for the Vocational Phase students to strengthen their relationship skills and social media etiquette. Foundation Phase pupils also attend social skills lessons which help them address challenges such as bullying. This year we will hold workshops on Protective Behaviours with these students.

Elsen Academy high school

Stay alert to the needs of the child

Schools are institutions. Many have stood the test of time and lived through many a storm (and a pandemic). Some have kept up with the times, some are racing ahead and others are still wondering about the benefits of swopping out long rows of desks and blackboards with flexible seating arrangements and whiteboards.

If a child is happy to go to school, has some friends, is getting on with most of the teachers, is involved in the school beyond the classroom, is making progress, seems emotionally balanced, enjoys the school atmosphere and feels part of a wider community, then that’s a good sign that things are working well.