CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 19 . . . . January 20, 2012
Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World.
Toronto, ON: Owlkids, 2011.
64 pp., pbk. & hc., $13.95 (pbk.), $22.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-926818-86-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-926818-85-6 (hc.).
Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.
Review by Gail Hamilton.
Arnoud knew that programs trying to get street kids into schools hadn’t worked. So he decided to try something different- getting a school onto the streets. He designed a cart that contains everything a street educator needs to set up school on a sidewalk.
The cart is made up of a box with panels that slide out like a telescope. Each cart has 250 different activities. The street educators decide which activities to do each day, depending on who shows up for classes. There are activities for teaching math, health, telling time, and reading. The educators also pass on a lot of important information to the kids about health care and community services. Most of the activities are set up as games so that learning is fun and relaxed. The kids also have chances to express themselves through puppetry and other creative outlets. It helps them deal with sad and scary things that have happened in their lives.
In Canada, the term “back to school” conjures up images of children with brand new backpacks filing into a traditional school building where classrooms have rows of desks or tables, chalkboards or whiteboards, and shelves filled with books, coloured paper and tubs of math manipulatives. The schools featured in this book are anything but traditional, and almost all of them fill a need that is specific to the geographical area and to the socio-economic conditions in which these schools are located. The United Nations has declared that education is a basic human right, but there are 100 million kids around the world who have never attended school.
Off to Class highlights 23 unique schools in various parts of the world. There are three main chapters, the first focussing on schools that teach students about sustainability and ways to reduce humans’ impact on the environment. For example, in this chapter, readers will learn about school boats that travel along waterways in Bangladesh when floods prevent students from attending their regular schools. Solar panels on the roofs of the boats provide enough electricity to power four computers, a printer, a CD player and a DVD player. Some of the other schools mentioned in this section include a Tibetan Buddhist school in India which combines the best of both worlds- a blending of modern technology and sustainable design with traditional cultural practices, such as meditation and the placement of the school buildings in the shape of a mandala; a school in New Orleans that has an “edible schoolyard”, planted, tended and harvested by the students to provide them with organic fruits and vegetables; and the Dr. David Suzuki Public School in Windsor, ON, whose transparent walls show students how geothermal heating and cooling systems, solar powered water heaters and rainwater collection systems work.
The second chapter focuses on schools located in areas where poverty or people’s belief systems prevent their children from attending school. In Phnom Penh, for example, a woman set up a school near a dump where many poor children worked, and this school offered free classes, uniforms, school supplies and health care, while in Kenya, another woman worked with a respected Maasai community leader to convince girls’ fathers to allow them to attend classes in exchange for a dowry of cattle, food and other gifts. Other unique schools mentioned in this chapter include a Chinese school where classes are taught in a large cave, an Iranian school which had its humble beginnings in a fishing shed, and a school for orphaned and abandoned children in Honduras.
Non-traditional schools and ways of learning are the focus of the third chapter. In nomadic cultures, because families are constantly on the move, schools must go to them. Teachers in Siberia travel by sledge to Evenk camps where they set up a tent school equipped with a computer powered by a generator. Children at this school not only learn about their heritage and traditional skills, such as hunting, fishing, and caring for reindeer, but they also learn how to speak French and English, use the internet, manage their resources and protect their rights. Portable bamboo schools in Thailand, a Scottish school for students with developmental, sensory or mobility impairments, schools for street kids in different countries (these schools come in many forms ranging from carts and buses to schools on train station platforms), distance education (also known as virtual schooling) and homeschooling are also highlighted.
A double-page spread is devoted to each school. The author describes the history of the school, its founder, its development and growth, and its effect on the local community. There is information about the organizations which have stepped in to help financially or otherwise, as well as the adaptations to curriculum to suit the student population. In many cases, there are first person accounts from children who have attended these schools and whose lives have been indelibly changed for the better as a result of obtaining a good education. These stories are both sad and heartwarming, but, ultimately, hopeful.
Colour photographs of the schools, the teachers and the students serve as the book’s main illustrations. Small inset maps in the upper left hand corner show the school’s location while small fact boxes provide additional information. At the back of the book, there is a large world map which shows the locations of all of the schools mentioned in the book. There is also a list of web resources about organizations and schools in various parts of the world for readers who would like to learn more or to get involved. A table of contents and an index are provided.
Off to Class is a real eye-opener that might spur people to social action. It would serve as a perfect jumping off point for a middle school classroom project to initiate fundraising efforts for a needy school. After reading this book, readers will realize that education should not be taken for granted and that just one person can make a difference in the lives of many.
A most inspiring read, Off to Class proves that, through the combined efforts of caring and committed individuals, organizations and educators, there is hope for the students of the future.
Gail Hamilton is a former teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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