Misty Meadows school, Dargle
By Garth Johnstone
In Dargle there’s a school with a difference. It’s run by community members for local children, with an appreciation for an alternative set of processes and outcomes for pupils.
Key to everything they do is providing rich diversity in an enabling ecosystem, situated in beautiful surrounds.
“This is very much ‘our school’,” says Cassie Janisch, who runs Misty Meadows on the farm she and family members settled on about 12 years ago. By “our”, she means the local community.
On the day we visit there was plenty action among the smaller kids, who attend “little school” (ages two to six). I was passing through and didn’t get the time to interact with those from “big school”.
Cassie says she, her husband and her sister’s family farm on a small scale on Misty Meadows Farm and started the school when their children were of school-going age.
“Our main aim was for our kids to grow up in the country. There are eight kids who live on this farm… four farm workers’ kids, my three and my sister had one. It just made sense to start a school, otherwise we would have to drive them into town every day. I got a private grant, which allowed us to renovate existing rondavels to get started. From then, through school fees and some sponsors (all community members and friends of friends), we built some classrooms,” she says.
“It’s evolved into very much a community effort. We leverage the talents available. Some parents pay, some kids are sponsored and some (parents) do school-fee exchanges for lessons, yoga classes, music lessons, art, ‘practical self-sufficiency lessons’, ceramic work, farming, gardening lessons (they have a beautiful veggie garden) etc.
“That is how I keep the school running,” she says. The cost of running the school is R60 000 a month to educate 60 children. Durban Rotary sponsors children.
It’s immediately noticeable that there’s a high adult/teacher-to-child ratio and each child gets a lot of personal attention. The kids are outside when I visit, sitting under the trees. Some appear to be doing something formal, like reading or speaking to a teacher, while others are roaming around the grounds, playing, exploring, exercising, as the adults keep a watch.
Learning and playing environments
Two interesting dome-shaped structures catch my eye. Cassie explains that they are geodesic domes, which were famously designed by the architect, designer and futurist Buckminster Fuller, with help from artist Kenneth Snelson. One of them looks a little light-weight, but when I get closer, it’s clear they are very solid, as I discover when I grasp the side and try to push it. These are learning and playing environments. I am informed that the enclosed dome has great acoustics. They are also known to provide a calming environment.
One building is in the shape of a pentagon. “A pentagon is a five-sided shape, which is about bringing ideas in, whereas a six-sided shape, like a hexagon, is about maintaining stability,” says Cassie. “For a school, you’d want a five-sided shape.”
There are also classrooms and the great outdoors, of course, for learning.
“Moving the kids around into different areas and environments is crucial for learning. They have to move.”
Cassie says a lot of the children at the school are unlikely to go to university, so they are being skilled to find employment opportunities and fulfilment in the “real world”. If a child wants to go the university/college route that option is open to them (The school embraces technology and distance learning is also an option).
“We teach how to read and write and work with numbers all the time, but we don’t do it in a standardised way so that everyone is learning the same thing at the same time and being tested. What I find with children is that when you just trust them, you will find they are learning all the time. They amaze you with what they know. For example, they already know about percentages from charging cellphones, tablets etc.”
A rich learning environment
“What I do believe is, if you are in a very sterile learning environment, where you don’t have access to a lot of books, learning resources or stimulation, your outcome is not going to be as rich as when you’re in a system where there is. Here, there is lots of adult supervision from people with different skills, talents and outlooks, lots of conversation, lots of kids to play with, different genders, varying ages.
“There are so many diverse ways that you can make a living in life. If you learn those talents and realise they are talents, and you can apply them in your life from this age, then you’re not going to wait around for someone to offer you a job.
“I want to enable our kids to be highly skilled in whatever they happen to be interested in.”
A major influence is the Italian system of Reggio Emilia, where “the environment is the teacher” and at least two teachers are recommended for each group of children. The idea is that you get different perspectives, rather than one teacher’s viewpoint.
In a school that embraces the outdoors and where nature inspires learning, it’s only natural that sports, getting to grips with farming and the environment have a significant place.
Some of the sports the pupils take part in are MMA, soccer, yoga, frisbee and basketball. Cassie says the MMA sessions are interesting: “They can defend themselves.”
Every Friday is Farm Friday for the littlies. They roam the fields and pastures to see ducklings hatch, interact with chickens, goats, dogs, pigs, birds, see cows milked etc. Some highlights include helping milk the cows, making ice cream, collecting eggs and eating fruit from the trees. The older kids have their own mini veg gardens.
And the benefits of a smaller school with a non-corporate, individual ethos?
“I want my children to grow up as part of a multicultural, multiracial community, where the kids all know each other well and are friends.”
• The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education views young children as individuals who are curious about their world and have the potential to learn from all that surrounds them. Educational, psychological and sociological influences are important factors to consider in understanding children and working to stimulate learning in appropriate ways. Reggio teachers employ strategies such as exposing children to a wide variety of educational opportunities that encourage self-expression, communication, logical thinking and problem-solving. – Source: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/reggio-emilia-approach/