At School of the Nations, we believe the essence of effective, meaningful service projects is human connection forged through friendship, empathy, and collaboration.
In 2018, we began an educational extension project called UNAtions – which stands for ‘Unite’ and ‘Nations’ (our school name). We wanted to go beyond the occasional and episodic forms of service, such as inviting students from schools in the region to our campus for special days, which, although positive, has limited impact in terms of transformative capacity.
Over the years, we have carried out various service projects for daycare and educational centers that operate with minimal educational resources and programs. At some centers, students spend the better part of each day sitting on the floor watching TV. The quality of education they receive is below researched standards of childhood education. We wondered how we could support these educators and others in similar situations.
We wanted UNAtions to be a project developed by educators for educators so they could share their knowledge, experiences, and methods to promote children’s learning, development, and their ability to contribute to serving and improving society. Our goal was to work with few schools and those interested in developing long-term relationships. All would take a mutually active role in developing and strengthening educational environments and practices to benefit children.
When we founded UNAtions, staff members would visit one another’s schools because we had not yet imagined how powerful online collaboration could be. Skype and other online communication and collaboration platforms were already part of our communication strategies and helped us connect between visits; however, the pandemic required us to reformulate how we collaborate to continue working together.
With online communication being the only way to connect during the pandemic, we are expanding our online resources of workshops, videos, and curricular materials. Today we are achieving our commitment to service entirely online and increasing our ability to reach out to other institutions who might benefit from our service projects.
We have found it is possible to sustain and even strengthen our connections with schools we partner with online. It has helped having built congenial relations based on trust over time with staff members from other schools involved in our project.
We agreed from the beginning that our conversations would focus on professional issues and would not be hierarchical. Our staff openly shares issues with which we are struggling that are relevant and useful to our partner schools. We do not have a sequence or prescribed way to offer professional development. We customize what we share from our school programs, curricula, and practices based on our partner school’s needs and interests.
Our most advanced collaboration so far is with Escola do Futuro, located in the densely populated area of Zona Leste in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Escola do Futuro serves 400 children and adolescents. The Associação para o Desenvolvimento Coesivo da Amazônia, the institution that oversees Escola do Futuro, is located in Zumbi dos Palmares, which, like other districts in the region, faces challenges with infrastructure, social inequality, and a lack of security.
Working with Escola do Futuro
Two of our early childhood educators, Ms. Meissa Mendes and Ms. Diana Alencastro, were the first volunteers, who, with their then Principal, Ms. Melaney Tinkess, and Executive Director, Ms. Lisa Perskie, helped launch the UNAtions project. When they visited Manaus and began working with the staff at Escola do Futuro, they were met by an enthusiastic, hardworking group of educators. Initially, the staff from Escola do Futuro requested support with discipline and best practices for hands-on learning.
Our teachers started working with small groups of teachers at Escola do Futuro and providing workshops on Positive Discipline. As they began observing teachers in classrooms, other underlying issues became apparent such as a lack of curriculum, a solid understanding of effective instructional strategies to engage students, a lack of understanding of how to plan developmentally appropriate learning units, and an understanding that the curriculum serves as a guide, not a rigid routine to follow.
A key aspect of our UNAtions projects is ‘reading the reality’ of the school environment and practicing active listening to better support the school in learning to prioritize and then working on their needs.
School of the Nations staff and the Executive Director met with the Administrators at Escola do Futuro to consult about their vision for their school’s growth and development. Everyone agreed that all sectors must be involved and need to continuously communicate to innovate and make deeply impacting pedagogical changes. In partnership with their administration, we assessed where the school was in its current development. We set goals to align their practices with their vision, and they built a concrete and straightforward strategic plan for educational development.
One of the highlights of working with Escola do Futuro is their eagerness to learn and apply it despite their hardships. They are quick to use their creativity to solve problems.
It is traditional in the region to believe that good classroom management involves children sitting quietly throughout the school day. Our teachers encouraged the early childhood staff at Escola do Futuro to make better use of their outdoor spaces for learning and use local materials to create engaging and dynamic learning centers. Together, they built a very inviting tropical hut in their Library and created learning centers in classrooms using the brightly colored materials available in the Amazon region. As active learning increased, they saw disciplinary problems decrease dramatically.
Planning with Escola do Futuro’s administrators paid off as teachers began to see the benefits of the strategies they had put into practice. Their success helped prepare them to accept new goals and try more strategies. Successful initiatives are potent catalysts of further change and are even more critical in resource-scarce environments. We wanted to ensure teachers were executing the strategy correctly and that they felt safe.
The Pandemic and Technology
Manaus was one of the cities hit hardest by the pandemic. The death toll was shocking. Many private schools in the region with low monthly fees were forced to close because of the loss of students and teachers. Escola do Futuro lost an insignificant number of students and was able to thrive because of their teamwork and ability to respond quickly and resourcefully to the obstacles the pandemic brought.
The challenges they faced with the pandemic actually accelerated their learning rather than holding it back. Our Upper School Educational Technology Coordinator, Ms. Blenda Batista, held numerous online workshops with the staff of Escola do Futuro, introducing them to educational tools and ideas to engage students in deep, fun, and meaningful learning experiences. They chose to focus on students’ and teachers’ voice and choice, interactive virtual lessons, inquiry-based learning, and gamification strategies. Goals for each meeting were determined mostly by what was discussed in earlier meetings. They measured the sessions’ success every other week through teachers’ feedback and shared how they implemented their new knowledge in their classes.
We recorded the sessions so teachers could access them and continue to benefit from them. These sessions led the staff at Escola do Futuro to create professional learning communities, which have fostered meaningful discussions and action-research initiatives. Teachers learned a new tool, implemented it the following week, and shared their feedback with their colleagues in the following session.
Two challenges we faced were the small number of educational platforms available in Portuguese and their cost. We had to think outside the box to create solutions that fit their context. What enabled our successful collaboration in this initiative was the buy-in of both teachers and administrators of Escola do Futuro.
After a few sessions, teachers were satisfied with the level of student engagement, and they used technology to share examples of learning outcomes with us.
When working in partnership with others, it is paramount to build rapport from the beginning by sharing the same goal and openly sharing difficulties so more people become involved in thinking of solutions.
School of the Nations’ Elementary teacher, Ms. Ana Paula Serejo, also visited Escola do Futuro to present strategies to develop reader and writer workshops for small groups in Elementary and Middle School. They discussed the importance of holistic education approaches that both value and involve students in their own learning.
Progress did not stop during the CODIV-19 pandemic; teachers took it to the next level. Before, they had been working on how students would display their work in classrooms. After the pandemic, their focus shifted to implementing a digital platform that would make many more tools and resources available to teachers and students.
Escola do Futuro recently requested samples of the work we do at School of the Nations, specifically, how we use learning centers in classrooms. Our next step is to record short videos of teachers of different grades using learning centers in their classrooms, which will help lead discussions about pedagogy and how to implement practices that foster autonomy, engagement, and interdisciplinary work.
Learning for Fun
Escola do Futuro has also asked for input and online collaboration to strengthen their English language Program. Ms. Hasti Khoshnammanesh, Coordinator of a long-term student service project called Learning 4 Fun, began discussions with the administration of Escola do Futuro about how students at School of the Nations could support students at Escola do Futuro. Our students already prepare video classes for children for a local institution. Why not share them with others?
School of the Nations’ Learning 4 Fun Project aims to give English language classes and create other pedagogical activities for children. In its eighth year, the project was created by high school students at School of the Nations as a service project. Our students send weekly video lessons to three institutions: São Judas Tadéu Institute, Monte Moriá Daycare, and Escola do Futuro. The three institutions post the lessons on their online platforms for their students. All three institutions have been partnering with School of the Nations for some time and have benefited from our service projects in various ways. The video lessons follow weekly themes and review what students have learned previously. The Program has had a positive impact on children and is admired by parents and staff at the institutions.
We will continue to base our approach on establishing friendly collaboration, focusing on prioritizing goals to improve student learning and well-being, and building capacities to help the staff of partnering institutions become more autonomous in directing their institutions toward fulfilling their visions and missions. We have witnessed promising developments both before and during the pandemic despite the limitations of interacting online. It is challenging to build a working relationship virtually, but it is possible to achieve encouraging results and real progress through online relationships and service.
As we work with people, we encourage them to envision creative ways to apply what they learn to their own reality, identify and use locally available resources, and work with their staff to promote change from within. We encourage them to be problem-solvers and to trust their capacities and abilities to promote the necessary change in their communities on their own. It is not about telling people what to do but sharing experiences and actively listening to their problems—empathizing—so our partner schools become progressively more confident in creating viable, meaningful, and, most importantly, sustainable paths to growth and development.