Summerhill Preparatory School Begins Each Day with HEART

After reading about the first robot (called Sophia) having been declared a citizen by Saudi Arabia, we decided at Summerhill Preparatory School in Hazyview, Mpumalanga, that the theme for our staff development weekend in 2019 should be the Fourth Industrial Revolution Strategy for Teaching (FIRST).

We felt it was important to develop skills in children who were going to have to compete with machines for the future job market. I felt so passionate about the importance of developing creative thinkers with strong relationship skills that I wrote a poem about it. The poem is written from children’s perspectives, begging the ‘powers that be’ to supply an education system that will better prepare them for their future.

The Grade 7s of that year performed this poem at the Nelspruit Eisteddfod. Writing the poem gave me time to reflect on the many unique things that we do at Summerhill to make learning relevant within the confines of the current national curriculum. I write this article to share some of what we do.

We don’t have school ‘rules’ per se. We have 11 values. Instead of saying, ‘Don’t do…’, We rather say, ‘Be kind, be considerate, communicate well…’. Our 11 values are belief; bravery; respect; responsibility; initiative; integrity; communication; consideration; kindness; endurance and diligence.

When children display any of these values, they are awarded a ‘brick’ which is coloured in on their house Growth System. Achieving 10 bricks entitles a child to wear civvies to school on the Friday. We also have one child per class stand up in assembly and be acknowledged for displaying one of the values during that week.

When we issue academic reports, part of the report is dedicated to reporting on how the children fare in engaging with the 11 different values. At prize giving, the only thing we award colours for, is the authentic display of a value. If, in a year, a child collects 75-99 ‘bricks’, they get half colours, and they receive full colours for earning 100.

Summerhill Prep School in Hazyview

What we do differently

We follow the Singapore Maths and Science Curriculum. As Singapore is one of the top performing countries as far as maths goes, our children are well equipped to cope with maths in high school and beyond. As part of our Grade 6 and 7 geography curriculum, we incorporate the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) training.

At the end of Grade 7 our children write an external examination and if they pass, receive their FGASA Level 1 Junior Qualification. The FGASA content overlaps to a large extent with the national geography and natural science curriculum for Grade 6 and 7, and it makes sense for our children to do FGASA as we are on the doorstep of the Kruger National Park.

Instead of teaching economic and management science via a syllabus and textbook, our Grade 7s run our Friday school tuck-shop as a business. They have an email address (and when they are sending emails, they are far more conscious about their spelling and grammar than in their English books).

They decide on stock, place orders, work out markups, calculate profit (or loss if their market research is not accurate), count the money and keep a set of electronic accounts. The profit, which they read on their income statement, is used to host a tea for senior citizens and to buy a farewell gift for the school. This is an absolutely real and relevant education and the skills learnt will definitely be used when the children are adults.

Relationship building – an innovative approach

Our most exciting innovation is our HEART lessons, which are designed to build relationships. The ancient philosopher Aristotle said:

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all

Our teachers took this statement ‘to heart’ and realised that we find our time stretched between so many subjects and, as more subjects are proposed by the Department of Basic Education, time needs to be taken from existing subjects to accommodate new ones.

In 2017, the staff expressed their desire to allow more time for reading and relationship building. The problem that then arose was where to find the time to accommodate the new lesson in a busy timetable.

A ‘back to basics’ (the three ‘R’s) approach was identified as being an ideal system for a prep school. If we can send our children off to high school with a high level of literacy and writing skills and the ability to do maths, I think that would make any high school teacher happy.

Over the course of the following months, the idea of going back to class teaching rather than subject teaching in senior primary was explored. While this would have given the teacher and children more space in the timetable without the constraints of a bell ringing to signal the end of a lesson, it was the general consensus that it was still ideal to have subject specialists teaching their subjects.

This debate did not solve the problem of making time for more reading and building relationships. And so, on a day when there was no electricity at school, the teachers gathered to structure a new timetable, which was explored and drawn up manually.

To signify this new ‘lesson’ wherein reading and socializing were to be the focuses, a heart was drawn in by hand on the timetable. This was the beginning of what we now refer to as the HEART lesson, which happens during the first 45 minutes of every day from Grade 1 to 7. To accommodate the new lesson we restructured the timetable by doing away with superfluous lessons which, in their existing form, were not serving their purpose properly.

Education without heart is no education at all

What happens during HEART lessons?

Our HEART lesson incorporates the following:

H ow to build relationships: Through discussion and introspection, teachers and pupils discuss their fears, delights, challenges, what makes them sad, and what makes them happy. Pupils are guided in order to learn how to deal with conflict, how to live the Summerhill values, how to be a good friend, and how to deal with peer pressure. In line with our Christian ethos, their relationship with God is explored and nourished. Children are made to feel comfortable to speak about anything without fear of judgement or ridicule.

E ager to learn: An argument with a parent or sibling or loud music on the way to school often results in a child entering the first lessons of the day in survival mode (or ‘crocodile brain’ according to Gavin Keller). It has been proved that if a child is not in a good space mentally or emotionally, no learning can take place.

Spending 45 minutes at the beginning of each day in a calm environment will put children in a better mind frame for when the academic lessons start. We want children to burst through the door every morning, keen to begin the HEART lesson and start their day of learning. They should be excited about coming to school.

A ware of the world around us: During the HEART lesson current affairs are discussed, and general knowledge quizzes and games are played.

R eading is fun: A lot of reading takes place during HEART lessons. Children and teachers from Grade 1-7 read and are read to. Reading for enjoyment is encouraged. Children are encouraged to recommend books to each other based on their interests.

T ime to BE: This period is intended to take away (albeit for a short time) the stresses and strains that teachers and students may be feeling on that day. Children (and the teachers) can use this time to just be with each other, to just be themselves, to just be loved, to just be a child.

Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, our HEART lesson has become even more valuable, as children’s emotional plates are piled a little higher than normal. We believe that Summerhill children are happy, emotionally sound and strong, and that they are engaged readers and solid citizens of the world. We are so excited about what we do at Summerhill, our HEARTs are bursting with pride!