The value of connecting and connections

The holidays bring a welcome opportunity to slow down a little and take a step back from the intense pace of school life. They also give me a chance to look up and out, broaden my focus and think about the ‘big picture’.
School and pedagogy are never far from my mind though: mulling over the kaleidoscope of activities and events of the past term; ideas and priorities for the coming term and, of course, the year ahead.

Thinking about last term, the visit to our school by two entrepreneurial Maasai women from Kenya was definitely one of the high points. Their visit was the culmination of a three-way collaboration between our Art Department, an ethical investment co-operative and fair trade lender called Shared Interest, and Namayiana, a hand craft cooperative in Kenya, run by Maasai women from two local villages.

Last year, pupils in Year 9 (now Year 10) each designed a piece of jewellery in their art class.  The designs were sent over to the Maasai women from Namayiana who translated the designs into finished jewelry designs and then shipped the 90 pieces back to us in Newcastle. Shared Interest provided up front finance for Namayiana to buy the materials and ship the finished pieces to the UK, as well as sponsoring two Maasai women from the group to travel to the UK. The jewellery was unveiled at a special presentation and exhibition in the Art Department, with workshops and talks. The jewellery was then sold to support Namayiana’s educational fund.

The project and the occasion were a great success in many ways: it was a wonderful opportunity for us all to meet and talk to women who live in very different circumstances, to learn about their lives and their enterprising cooperative; the girls learnt about design and product development and were delighted with their pieces, and we have already sold over £1500 of jewellery.
On reflection, there were several ingredients which made it such a success with valuable educational benefits.

The importance of using the skills and resources of people connected to the school – governors, parents and alumnae

It all started when one of our School Governors came to talk to the girls and staff in a school assembly about the work of Shared Interest (where she is Managing Director) and one of its projects: a group of enterprising Maasai women from the Ngong region of Kenya who had created the Namayiana project to make and sell traditional beaded jewellery to provide much needed funds for their communities and also improve the status of the women within their tribes.

Actually, you could argue that it all started long before that visit with Dame Mary Perkins at our Prizegiving at The Sage last September when she made these very points – emphasising the importance of being open to the serendipity of life and believing in people! There is definitely a theme emerging this year.

Encouraging staff to take the initiative and giving them a ‘free rein’ (trusting people)

This talk inspired our Head of Art who was keen to make a connection and work with the Maasai women running the project. With Shared Interest as facilitators, she set some of her pupils the task of creating designs that could be produced using the Maasai techniques.

Direct links are obviously significant: in this case between our school and a particular village and group of people in Kenya. In practical terms, visits are only possible from time to time and can only involve a few students. However, with modern communications and social media it is possible to see and talk to each other freely using Facebook, Skype, and WhatsApp for example.  We have also developed links with the Shia School in Tanzania over the past few years, and girls and staff have visited almost every year. Those links were forged initially by John Donneky, a former teacher who sadly died in 2011, whom we all remember with such great fondness and respect.

Initiatives like this help us to make lateral connections as well as learning about a specific topic

Making links between different subjects – Art, Geography, Ethics,
Business,  and Economics  – as well as linking what pupils learn at school with the ‘real world’  outside – product development, sales, entrepreneurship, possible careers – is an important counterbalance to the micro focus on the specific knowledge and skills required  for different academic subjects.

It can involve a lot of hard work to get a project ‘off the ground’ but the rewards are many and often lead to mutually beneficial, long term relationships.   Also, it is quite a challenge to integrate lateral ‘macro focus’ work with vertical subject specific work.  It takes time and planning and requires teaching staff to be flexible and open to new approaches.

So, although, there never seems enough time to fit everything into the School day, one of my priorities is to make sure that we plan in advance for this type of initiative which looks ‘up and out’ as well as focusing on day to day work, the curriculum etc.

This is particularly important as annual public examinations come into sharp focus over the next few weeks, together with revision, marks and marking, which tend to narrow our thinking and perhaps skew our world view for a while. We must remember that though examinations are undeniably important, there is a lot more to education and life.

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