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The children’s house

| November 14, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Kim Eusto-Brown

When I was a preschooler, I often used to play at a rambling old house in Auburn Road in Kenilworth, Cape Town, belonging to family friends.

The house had nooks and crannies, staircases, sash windows and a wild garden filled with trees that dropped acorns and orange leaves in autumn. It always seemed to be filled with children – hiding, exploring and doing the kinds of things children did in the pre-electronic era. The Children’s House, we consequently called it.

So it was with a definite sense of déjà vu and a feeling of coming full circle that I found myself, 25-odd years later, standing outside the gate of our self-same Children’s House, now transformed into Auburn House School – a small, independent, pre- and primary school where the love of learning is encouraged through (and based on) freedom, selfdiscipline, collaboration, independence and respect.

Learning along the way

In the intervening years, I had qualified as a high school teacher and taught in government schools in Cape Town, and then taken gap years with a backpack and a world map. On my return to South Africa, I met Sally Hall, and it was through her that I became interested in the philosophy behind the Montessori method of education. I joined her at her school, Auburn House, working initially with the nine- to 12-year-olds and with a small group of high school students studying through Cambridge International Examinations.1

Then other parts of Africa and a retrenched husband called, and off we went to Kenya and Nigeria to teach in international schools. It was through this work that I became involved in the management of schools: meetings, syllabuses, curricula, policies, discipline, rules, detention and punishment – all a normal part of schooling, but I felt there had to be another way! The basic structure and systems in any educational institution are essential, but children do not need to be punished and humiliated, or abide by lists of rules, superficially rewarded or be standardised and continuously tested to become self-motivated, self-disciplined, well-rounded, respectful, free and contributing members of society.

Departing the Kenyan highlands of Nairobi in 2011, I found myself teaching in a dysfunctional, ill-managed and corrupt Johannesburg government school until Sally made contact. Fortuitously for me, she needed a deputy.

In the beginning

It’s significant to me that many of the early schools started by Maria Montessori (an Italian physician and founder of the Montessori education philosophy)2 were called Casa de
Bambini, which means Children’s House. For her, “schools” were simply places where a group of children gathered in a prepared classroom to explore, interact, play together and learn
new skills through their activities and experiences, in a safe environment. In other words, Montessori in a nutshell.

And so it was for Auburn House, which started off very informally; in fact, without any “house” at all. Parents would simply drop off their children in the morning at a designated spot, and off the children would go with a teacher and assistants to discover all that Cape Town had to offer – from beaches to forests, museums and more. While delightful, this free-range learning did have its hair-raising moments, so a hunt was started to find suitable premises. My erstwhile playground in Auburn Road ticked all the boxes.

Beginning with 20 pre-primary learners in 1983, the school now caters for ages three to 13. It has expanded into another two houses and the three properties have been joined to form one large campus. Auburn House is now also the Cape Town Training Centre for Montessori Centre South Africa (MCSA),3 having always been involved in the training of Montessori teachers.

The prepared classroom

Recently, the head at the Montessori School of Tokyo, Pete Juds,4 visited the school for a morning and interacted with most of the children and teachers. These were his departing words: “The children are happy; happy children learn. What they learn is entirely up to them and what they are learning we cannot know.”

The prepared classroom or environment creates and allows for this. Each house is prepared and set out for the ages that it caters for – Auburn House three to six years, Hillbrow House six to nine years and Tompkins House nine- to 13-year-olds. As the child progresses through the school, the furniture becomes bigger, the books change, technology creeps in, the manipulative materials become fewer and the children grow and become ever more social and morally aware.

The Montessori outcomes, which are social, moral, cognitive, physical and emotional, are easily met and the children can be treated as sensitive whole humans with differing developmental needs. The curriculum covered is not just a list of content, or outcomes to achieve, but is integrated, holistic, dynamic and complex. Content, method and philosophy are one. The curriculum is developmentally based and therefore the children are in a prepared classroom that provides numerous opportunities to learn what they are ready to learn. Each child learns at his or her own pace, and the chosen topic stimulates the child’s interest and imagination. Children thus become independent and self-directed learners.

How do we track each child’s progress?

Each day or week, individual children conference with their lead teacher and together they draw up a plan of work for that period of time. The teacher may make suggestions or offer advice. At the end of the time period, the teacher once again sits down with the child and they go through the contract together – making plans, discussing achievement, identifying difficulties or barriers. Throughout this time, the teacher would have recorded her own observations of the child, with minimal intrusion or interruption. All teaching staff do continuous, nonintrusive daily observations, to guide them with their recordkeeping, lesson planning and each individual child’s progress. In this way, the children become responsible for the planning, management and assessment of their own work.

I’d be the first to admit that, for a while, we got it wrong at Auburn House and dropped the ball. The children were not being moved from concrete work into the abstract. They were stuck and the need for progression was not being initiated by the lead teacher. Record-keeping was too limited and did not complement the individual planning needed for each child.

But we have since regrouped and tightened up on our systems. It was hard work for all involved, but I’m confident to say that the love of learning has now returned, for both teachers and children alike.

This is borne out by a message I received from a parent recently:
A few weeks ago, my child who is six years old, put together a short PowerPoint presentation on his computer about what it’s like to be at Auburn House. In the presentation, he says that if he were to be in a “normal” school, he’d have to spend “all day, everyday listening to a teacher talking… yada yada yada” and “sit behind a desk all day every day”. He concluded the presentation by saying he’s so lucky to be at Auburn House because he doesn’t have to do that and that’s why he loves school so much!

The parent went on to say that her son really enjoys being able to go at his own pace, because he can move faster through the areas he’s good at and a bit slower on areas that he’s not as good at. “It’s very clear to me, as a parent, that the children are aware of and appreciate the positive impacts that the Auburn House environment has on their daily lives and their learning,” she concludes.

Taking charge of their learning

I was one of six children growing up, so we were, in a lot of respects, our own little preschool. We learned to share, to get on with one another and, with only one mother between us, we had to learn independence. Those life skills learned at an early age have been invaluable to me throughout my life so far. And I’d like to believe that at Auburn House we’re equipping our children with a similar start in life. An extract from an Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA) mentor’s report by Jenny Masterson, for Auburn House, suggests that we are on track:
It is always rewarding to explore different educational philosophies and to see them in operation at our schools and so it was with eager anticipation that I set off to spend a day at Auburn House. I was not disappointed, as Auburn House has been a pioneering force for Montessori education in the Western Cape. A stand-out feature from the youngest learners to the Grade 7s was the children’s ability to direct their own learning – planning their own programmes with teacher guidance and taking responsibility for their own work and choice of activities. Learners work at their own pace within a three-year phase and assessment is ongoing within that time frame.

Peer assessment is common and could be open to abuse, but learners soon become aware that this is not helpful to their progress. The skills developed here enable the learners to take charge of their own progress and this is a real life skill in itself.

Without realising it, as educators with good intentions, we often stand in the way of children’s inner striving towards selfperfection and independence. When we are able to remove any hindrances to children’s natural development, they will flourish and likely surprise us with their pursuit of knowledge, their innovative thinking and their limitless curiosity. Our long-term goals should be to assist each individual child to reach their full potential, and then ultimately become the adults that can affect positive change in society.

And that, really, is the essence of Auburn House.


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Category: Summer 2016

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