What Spirit Shall It Have?

Exploring the heart and soul of school communities

Students decorate benches they constructed for an outdoor classroom.

Recently, I attended a principal’s tour of a new local school because the time has come to enrol our kindergartener in “big school”. As you might expect, the brand-new buildings were impressive, the furniture immaculate, and the attention to detail shown was first class.

The luxury of this new school is in stark contrast to my own. Forty-five years of neglect has created what I politely call a “renovators delight”. It’s 1970’s brown brick and leaky roofs around every corner. What time has gifted our students is opportunity, children are free to reimagine and reinvigorate tired and ignored spaces around our school.

This leads me to ask, which of these schools might be a better fit for our child? Which is more likely to be a “home of opportunity” for young learners?

Aesthetics aside, both have caring staff and share similar programs, pedagogy and values. One is an innovative and abundant hub of learning where seemingly every need and want has been lovingly considered and met before students even step foot through the door. The other is a sandbox of opportunity where children transform decaying spaces into living, breathing places, and leave behind a significant legacy for those who follow.

If asked to choose between the two, which would you pick for your children? Which environment would you prefer to work in? The fixer-upper or the move-in ready? If I was building a school from scratch, the new schools buildings and fittings are pretty close to what I imagine perfection to be. This led me to wonder, can a building be too perfect?

“The building must not be too beautiful, lest it be a place for children to keep and not for them to use.” — A Letter to the Architects by Frances Presler (1941).

I wonder if the pristine environment of the new school might reduce the learner’s role to that of a passive user? Have any spaces been left suitably ‘unfinished’ to elicit input and action from students? In Mark Dudak’s book “Children’s Spaces”, Bruce Jilk suggests learning environments shouldn’t be presented as Pinterest-perfect, pre-determined solutions. Instead, they should mirror the learning being supported and highlight that the learner's input is not only welcome, it is vital.

“It must be inspiring — with a beauty that suggest action, not passiveness on children’s part. Yet it must give children the basic feeling of rightness, and fitness, that gives them belief that they too can be, act and create, and that they, their action and creation are needed.” — A Letter to the Architects by Frances Presler (1941).

“A critical pedagogy of place challenges all educators to reflect on the relationship between the kind of education they pursue and the kind of places we inhabit and leave behind for future generations.” — David Gruenewald, The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place.

“What spirit shall it have?”

This is the question Francis Presler examined in the superb text “A Letter to the Architects” before the construction of the Crow Island School, built in the 1940s to foster a child-centred education in the tradition of John Dewey. The school’s design has stood the test of time and some eighty years later, Beth Hebert, a former Crow Island principal, says

The building still speaks to children. It says, ‘This is for you. We knew you were coming.’

So whether you are building, rebuilding or just reimagining learning spaces, consider asking, what spirit shall it have? New or old, what makes learning spaces responsive to community needs? How do we foster a stage and setting for learners to act, create and care for their schools? I’ll use two themes from the “Design Down” process by Jilk & Copa to explore these questions. I am once again indebted to pammoran and Ira David Socol for generously sharing resources for this inquiry. Their book, Timeless Learning, continues to inspire and inform my practice.

“How will you know when school matters to kids? They will tell you through their work beyond curricula, in what they create and share with the world, in how they treat each other and what they do to make their communities a better place for others, and in their pursuit of learning not as mandated but as they desire.” — Timeless Learning

Community: Leave it better than you found it

What if each community member shared a collective responsibility mindset for leaving their school better than they found it?

Collective responsibility becomes baked into school culture when our youngest learners expect to contribute to community building. Children crave responsibility. They want to be helpful members of the learning community. When students have permission to bend the environment to meet their needs, when they are trusted to make real decisions about comfort, accessibility and functionality, and when they see their school as a dynamic place of shared guardianship, that’s where the magic happens.

It must be a place for living, a place for use, good hard use, for it is to be successively the home, the abiding place for a procession of thousands of children through the years. It must be warm, personal, and intimate, that it shall be to each of these thousands “My school.” — A Letter to the Architects by Frances Presler (1941).

Better is built on doing. It is the aggregation of marginal gains, the belief that every act, no matter its size, contributes to the building and sustaining of community. I have seen the power of this shared mindset first hand. Through our experiential projects, older students gain a genuine sense of ownership of their school. They make real decisions. They gain a deeper appreciation and sense of gratitude for those who came before. Perhaps most importantly, they become aspirational leaders for their younger peers who grow up living their collective responsibility.

The aggregation of marginal gains in action. Each small, interconnected student project that activates dead spaces contributes to the building and sustaining community. It is impossible to walk around our school and not see the legacy of past students. Care and love are evident around every bend.

Building better might include the addition of new spaces, the subtraction of useless areas or clutter, or improving the form and function of existing spaces. Regardless of what better looks like, students ideas, opinions and creations should always be at the centre of this work. But how often is this the case?

Who gets to solve problems at your school? Who decides how money is spent? Who buys the furniture or chooses the layout? Who informs the suitability and fit of potential new hires? If learners are little more than tokenistic contributors, or worse still, invisible during real decision making, community suffers. As Yong Zhao states in the foreword to Timeless Learning, “schools exist to serve the interests of children, not the other way around.” Children should be active co-creators of the worlds they inhabit, not passive recipients of the good intentions of adults.

Spirit: A school must be a home of opportunity

The kitchen is the heart of a home, an interconnected living space that nourishes the bodies, minds and souls of friends and families. Do such spaces exist in schools? Should they? Could you identify a space that is the heart and soul of your school?

Geographically, the library is at the heart of our school, but in recent years, the library has become a place for books, but not for children. Our meeting spaces are sterile. Kitchens, workshops and art spaces were stripped out when the “back-to-basics” movement deemed such things unnecessary. Finding the heart of our school proved a challenging task, so we turned to Twitter to get some global perspectives.

According to Julia Fliss, “Our heart and soul is everywhere WE are. Inside spaces, outside spaces and all spaces that are personalized, interactive, connected & alive.” The message was reiterated by Sophie Fenton,

“The heart and soul of a school? The humans in it.”

Pam Moran believes spirit is born in “spaces that sustain a sense that agency in and ownership of learning matter.” This message was echoed by learning environment specialist Ira Socol who believes school should be a home of opportunity, a place where learners collaborate, communicate, and connect to the world.

What does opportunity look like? It looks like a place that responds to students, not where students respond to adults. It looks like a place that’s constantly positive, but positive in a real world way. It looks like a place where love and support is always there. — Ira Socol, You must see your school as a home of opportunity.

Creating spaces for collaboration, storytelling and mindfulness was front of mind for students who designed and built a new outdoor classroom for our school.

When it comes to defining the heart of a school, educational consultant and coach Tom Barrett asked “Is there a difference here between what is designed, enacted and experienced? We (adults) might like a space like this, even call a school space a ‘hub’, but that might be a million miles from the mental models and experience of our students. We might see this as a single place. For others, it might be much more ephemeral.”

This idea resonated with me. I was looking for a binary solution when perhaps one didn’t exist. For some, the heart of a school might be a physical location, for others, it might encompass the spirit of learning and connectedness and community within buildings.

Either way, the heart of a school must be responsive to the wants and needs of the people who occupy it. Whether new or old, spaces should be accessible, honour the agency of learners, feel loved, and create a sense of comfort. They should provide opportunities for meeting and collaborating and storytelling. Schools should be a home of opportunity, places that nourish children's bodies, minds, and souls.

The recent transformation of dead space into an outdoor classroom that embraces its natural gifts. Project Reimaginate has been a great source of pride for the learners who have contributed to our many projects over the past few years.

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