Friday, July 22, 2005

Recycling education – Thank you Myrna

It’s the end of an era at the nursery my son attended as a three-year-old. Myrna, who’s been running that school for 35 years, has finally decided to retire. From September 2005, it becomes part of – with some irony – the nursery section of the school my son currently goes to.

Myrna is another of my major role models of the recycling habit. She’s been able to run her school on extremely low overheads partly by being able to engage all the parents in recycling.

Parents are asked to collect milk bottle tops, cereal boxes, colourful card, yoghurt pots, bits of fabric, egg cartons, etc for use in craftwork. Apart from paints, pens and glue, everything that is used at the school seems to be recycled, even address labels and name badges.

Milk and drink bottle tops are used in sorting exercises and in craft activities. Someone drills holes in them and children thread these onto string to make their models. Cereal boxes are cut into various animal shapes for the younger children to learn glueing techniques.

Egg cartons are perfect for painting with brushes, and the ‘dishes’ that hold fruit from supermarkets are transformed into masks by children. Cardboard boxes or all shapes and sizes (for toothpaste, cosmetics, tissues, etc) go into a pool of 3-D objects that children could use.

The cardboard tubes from wrapping paper (well, if you have to use these you might as well make use of the tubes as well!) are used to make traffic lights with the round lids of cheese boxes. Even old socks came in useful. O! You should see the faces on the children as they came out of school with these tubes and socks that have been converted into riding horses.

During my parent visits – which she encouraged parents to do (by appointment) once a term – I overheard phrases like, ‘Now [names of two children], would you like to come and do something special?’ The children would then be sat down to do some writing, drawing, painting or what I call 3-D work.

3-D work involved choosing a base (empty tissue box, lid of a cardboard box, whatever). The child is encouraged to stick and decorate it with a wide variety of scraps – bottle tops, other little boxes, bits of sequins, ribbon, scrap fabrics, etc. The most significant question appears to be: ‘O look, there is a space here, which of these objects do you think would fit into this space?’ The child is then allowed to experiment and in so doing enhance their spatial awareness.

Both boys and girls learn basic needlework skills by making patterns with a large needle and brightly coloured wool through foam pizza bases. They learn order by practising taking the needle through the base both upwards and down, and then delight in their finished work.

Except for formal reports, I have never seen Myrna use fresh paper. The children do their drawings and painting on recycled paper: either used computer print-out paper or outdated letterhead paper which Myrna seemed to have a good stock of, thanks to the constant changes of telephone codes in this country in recent years.

The fact is that offices change locations, change logos, change telephone numbers, and the remnant letterhead can be put to good use. I wonder if people think to donate such paper to schools for use rather than throw it all away.

This is not all that is special about this school. Apart from the recycling issue, her school often ‘boasts’ of a waiting list of 30 children for 22 places. I use the word ‘boasts’ with caution. Myrna does not and has never advertised her school. The popularity of the school speaks strongly of the word-of-mouth recommendations given by parents, health visitors and other care workers in the community.

In my first induction visit, I noticed that she does not have a single negative thing to say to, and about, a child. Instead of ‘Don’t hit’, she says ‘Keep your hands close to your body’. Instead of ‘Don’t shout’, she says ‘I’d prefer you to use your quiet indoor voice.’

She (and the small staff team she leads) focuses solely on what a child can do, and not what he/she is not yet ready to achieve. I came away from my induction session with such a positive feeling that I vowed to learn to be a bit more like her.

I recall how at a parent-and-toddler group a grandmother who kept shouting across the hall, ‘Rachel, don’t ….’ Week in, week out, I heard ‘Rachel, don’t ….’ To the point that when I recounted stories to my husband I referred to this girl as ‘Rachel Don’t’. Imagine going through life being told ‘Don’t ….’ all the time.

In this age of league tables and OFSTED reports, Myrna is outstanding in adhering strictly to a non-selective ethos. Parents register their children (often as early as from birth) on an open register and children are admitted solely on availability of places on a first-come, first-served basis.

We now sometimes read reports of three-year-olds being excluded from school. Myrna does not believe that a three-year-old can be can so bad or disruptive that he/she has to be excluded, and have accepted children that other schools cannot cope with.

Instead she and her staff would work painstakingly to modify inappropriate behaviour (usually by simply ignoring bad behaviour and giving lots of attention to victims of bad behaviour). While I do not see her as a miracle worker, she certainly inspires me to believe that no pre-schooler is beyond the pale of affirmative and positive attention that so many now, sadly, lack.

Myrna spares no effort in listening and communicating with the children. Every child is treated as an individual and taught according to his/her ability/readiness to learn. Soon after my son started she told me to wait while she dismissed the other children.

‘O dear!’ I said. ‘Don’t worry,’ she smiled, ‘it’s nothing bad.’ She then told me that she felt my son was ready to start reading and gave me strict instructions not to push him. Well, my son is not one who needs pushing into reading. The point is: this child was ready.

Some parents, however, have commented that she could be brusque. Clearly she is not cowed or overawed by the social or economic standing of the parents; her focus is on the development and happiness of each and every child in her care. She is not partial to richer parents and takes great effort to ensure that children do not feel the pressure of one-upmanship.

An example of this is to state precisely what kind of birthday cake (namely three strawberry jam Swiss rolls) that their parents could take to school. There is no fear of ‘So-and-So has a Bob the Builder cake, I want to have an Incredibles cake’ or whatever. Her staff team cut and arrange these cakes into a train, and using recycled candles, the birthday child has a great time celebrating his/her birthday in a short ten-minute ceremony.

This is not to say, however, that she is not interested in what goes on at home. She and her staff write copious notes about each child’s progress and parents are required to add their own notes about the child’s development at home. This not only engages the parents in a very intimate manner, it also gives her a chance to advise in areas where parents might need help.

I, for example, have been advised to consider carefully the emotional value my son might attach to a toy before throwing it away. She would also spend time with parents who might have concerns about the progress of their children, lending books to us whenever it is appropriate. I understand that she would sometimes make evening visits in order to talk with both parents in this regard.

While it is natural to think that Myrna will be missed as head of this school, I also think that she deserves a retirement after her years contributing to early education. She has however left us such a rich legacy of sound educational principles and I have no doubt that her current staff team will be able to continue with this ethos of putting children first.

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