It was indeed a great pleasure to visit Col.legi Mare de Déu dels Àngels, Barcelona, on Tuesday 9 May, 2017. The learning community caters for children as young as 1 year old right through to 18 year olds. Regardless of age they attend from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday with a 2 hour break during the day. Students in upper primary and secondary can leave the school grounds and go home for lunch without any risk assessments or permission notes required.
Col.legi Mare de Déu dels Àngels is one of ten led by the Missionary Daughters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. They have a coalition of four of schools in Barcelona, four in the Canary Islands and two in Madrid. Their founder, St Josep Manyamet was proclaimed a saint of the Catholic Church in 2004.
Again, like sister school Col~Legi Montserrat, the whole school approach to learning is based on multiple intelligences research. Their approach to learnining is less about subjects and more so about stimulating the senses from an early age. One of the very first messages I heard from my hosts for the day, Sister Monica Ferré and teacher/interpreter Nelly Velazquez was,
“Creativity is something you can teach through opportunities.”
As one of the coalition of schools led by Missionary Daughters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Col.legi Mare de Déu dels Àngels is focused on learning stimulation before learning memorisation. I was soon introduced to the art teacher working with 3 year olds. They employ specialist teachers for the arts, physical education and technology to work with students as young as 1, 2 & 3 years of age.
As part of my tour, I had a chance to speak with the art teacher (through Nelly) where she told me, “Art is not the aim, it is about arriving at other places.” She went onto explain that each of her activities for preschool students have an aim beyond the required (equivalent) learning outcome. The art teacher explained that each activity had a ‘life purpose’ not stated to the class. She used the following examples for 3 years olds to explain.
Example 1 – Students were required to paint after a reading exercise. After it had dried the teacher asked them to rip up their work. This provocation aligns with life “when all our hard work can be ended in an instant”. After some reluctance, students followed the direction of the teacher who, through ongoing questionsing, prompted the students by asking them how they could achieve a good outcome from a bad situation, just like life! Here are some of the results…
Example 2 – Students were asked to draw with white Crayon on white paper. When they finished nothing could be seen but then they applied water colours over the top. The lesson? Initially you could not see the hard work but we kept working by using a different approach and the end result was worth it.
Example 3 – Students were given a small piece of coloured paper. They were then asked to add to it. They had to create something out of (next to) nothing. It is a little bit like writing with a blank piece of paper. People like Austin Kelon and James O’Loghlin will tell you it’s when some of their best creative work has been achieved.
The school likes to engage with the abstract as early as possible with children. This leaves open the choice for a variety of open ended work for young children. The boundaries are broadened, not reduced.
Another fascinating observation.. With reference to well accepted research about the best actitivies for people recovering from brain injuries and applying that to all people, Col.legi Mare de Déu dels Àngels has adapted this research to mainstream learning. They have developed what I call the ‘graduated monkey bar program’. As 2 year olds olds, students are required to hold onto the monkey bar for 5 then 10 then 15 then 20 seconds up to 3 year olds, all the time holding the bars with the same grip as a holding a pencil. As 4 year olds students are required, with the help of a teacher to swing from one side to another until they grow to become 5 year olds who do not required the help of an adult. They use their sight to grip each bar with ‘pencil grip’, they swing from side to side to develop the balance of the body as well as the resilience through physical strength and mental toughness to ‘hold on’ to the bars for the entire time – and there was not a ‘soft floor’ in sight!
Furthermore, the commitment to ‘whole body learning’ is implemented with a specialist movement program which starts from as early as 1 year of age. Instead of using occupational therapy approaches for students who are lagging behind developmental stages, all children are encouraged to engage in challenging and even risky movement. However, each exercise has a purpose supported with research to complement the learning development of the whole child. See the video below for 1 year olds.
The diversity of activities and the increasing student choice within each activity as they get older, reminded me of what Sr Monica said at the very beginning of the day,
“We don’t measure intelligence in portions. We bring them opportunities to understand their strengths. All students are good at something.”
Whilst the majority of my blog so far has been focused on early learning, I did have the opportunity to see learning in the primary and secondary settings. As such, I share with you more (but nowhere near all) observations across preschool, primary and high school:
- Activity based activities in mathematics, because, “We do not focus on memorisiation. It is about understanding first and then we do bookworok, but only for 10 minutes.”
- Teachers reading to 2 year olds, wait for it, a story about William Shakespeare. Remember, in early years, it is not about understanding, it is about stimulus.
- Students learning the rhythm of music with with words, not notes. They sound out the syllables of words to a beat and then reproduce that on their violin. I saw the difference between 3 and 5 year olds on the day. The difference was very noticeable.
- Students learning to read through word, gesture, sound. For example, H is for helicopter (with arm swirling above the head) and P is for pine tree (with arms vertically raised above the head forming a triangle). Identifying sounds within words is important and using capital letters to first first read and then lower case by the time they are 4, is part of the method. I am told this approach ensurse all children arrive in Kindergarten with the ability to decode words so they can start their journey of reading for understanding.
- Teamwork occurring throughout every classroom. There was the 4 year old swimming class (yes, they have a pool but are a working class school) where students were expected to jump into the pool, collect floating blocks, swim to the edge and then work in teams to build something.
- Year 7 integrated STEAM class, yes five subjects combined because learning is the focus, not just subject knowledge.
- Year 8 playing chess. This occurs for one hour per week for all Year 7 & 8 to assist with abstract thinking and anticipation. They change partners mid game, “because in life we have to adapt.”
- I saw a Year 10 class called ‘Roboethics’. It is Robotics with ethics. All creations and inventions in this robotics class have to be justified based on the good it will bring to the world.
- I spoke with 17 year old students who fondly recalled their time at Col.legi Mare de Déu dels Àngels. Most of them started at 2 years of age and all of them can explain the importance of the early years learning on their development as teenagers. They are hope-filled, conscientious and confident young men and women who have highly developed social and emotional skills required to serve this rapidly changing world. Oh, and by the way, the school has outstanding mandated test results, not that they concentrate on testing!
Col.legi Mare de Déu dels Àngels is a showcase of creativity and wonderful innovative learning community. Just before my visit came to an end, I saw a wonderful collage of sayings in the foyer appearing as one big sketch note. Sister Monica was keen to highlight the saying in the centre. It looks like this…
And reads as, “The first innovation is to love the students.”
Thank you Sister Monica and Kelly for a wonderful and unforgettable learning experience.