Nova škola is a primary private democratic school in Samobor (Croatia). We talk with Irijanda Birin about what democratic education means for her and how democracy is put into practice in the daily life of the school. We go deeper in many other aspects such as the typical timetable, curriculum treatment, activities design, homework and assessment among others.
School as a home for the students
«I was working in a public school for five years and I was not that happy, I couldn’t give to the kids what I really wanted to give them. So I quit my job at school, what it is not very easy, and decided to establish an Association with my husband and my friend.
Our goal was to make something between school and home where the kids could come, do their homework, because for example, many of them didn’t have internet access at home (10 years ago). So we had everything and the kids could do everything at this Association, called Nova škola. We had Italian and german lessons and later on Iva came and she taught English. We did different kinds of workshops, we travelled a lot with the kids so they could bring the life into the school. I never thought we would have a school, that was not the plan, but it came naturally to that time when I said “Ok, it’s time”.»
One of the few alternatives to Public schools in Croatia
«The major part in Croatia are public schools and we have maybe five private schools or six, I am not sure, and three alternative schools, Montessori, Waldorf and Democratic school, our school. We had some problems with the permission for another alternative school. I think it’s normal because you have really to explain what you are doing, what kind of school that is…We waited for five years for the permission and then when we got it it took another two years to find the place, the building to do all the rest of the papers.»
How democracy works in the practice
«Democratic and free education means for us to involve the kids in making decisions, in creating rules in school, because we think that way the kids are taking responsibility in their life and even here in the school. And that is something very important even later on in life.
Every Monday we have a big meeting and that includes all the pupils from our school, even the teachers. We talk about the plans of this week, we are talking about what we want to do, all the topics we are talking about. The first meeting of the school year was last week on Monday. The kids created the rules of the school, what kind of school they want to have, how they want to feel here. And that is amazing how the kids respond, ask and how they see the world. We have kids from last year and they were very active on this meeting because they had already experience. The first graders of this year were listening, what we were talking about, what it means meeting, someone is asking me something, that’s a new moment for them.
The voting system here is really democratic, so that means that every kid and every teacher has the right to vote, one teacher one vote, one kid one vote. And its very interesting because you rise your hands if you agree or disagree and if someone wants to tell something, he can rise his hand and explain his problem, because some kids have some problems. They are telling us and we are resolving together the problem, ok let’s make a rule of it…it’s really beautiful how they do it.»
Daily routine at the school
The morning circle
«We start with the morning circle, the greetings, wishes for the day and the plans for today. The kids get their weekly plans to see what they will do this week or this day. «
Presentation of new materials
«Later on, the kids are with their main teacher, they have a presentation about the new materials in different kinds of subjects.
After that they have snack, they rest a bit. After they are often outside, which is very important for us.»
Freedom to choose what, where, when and how to work personalised materials
«They have files where we prepare all the materials for the students individually because they are very very different. And they work alone or they can work with their friends or with the teacher if they want to, they can choose the place where they want to do it, at the table or on the floor or wherever they want, or which material they want to use. So we give this freedom, because it’s not to open the book in page 71 and doing all together the same thing, because the kids are not the same so that’s very important and it’s great how the kids, they are not comparing each other. «
Time to listen to stories
«After that they have lunch and after lunch they are going to the library with the teacher and they are lying on the floor, or the pillow and the teacher is reading a story. What they are doing now for example in first grade, they are reading mythology about Greece, which is very interesting for the kids. What we are doing is that we want the kids to love the books, what is very important. Sometimes when they don’t have to do anything they are mostly choosing a book and reading or just looking at the pictures.»
Afternoon time for creativity and play
«In the afternoon, after that, there are different kinds of workshops, arts even music, handcrafts, ceramics, even programming or they can play outside, different kinds of things, even a garden, so they can choose what they want to do.»
Resolving conflicts through popular mediation, reflection and emotions
«The differences between our school and other schools is that violence here doesn’t exist because if something happens, a conflict between the kids we have immediately a meeting. We are teaching the kids in this meeting to express their feelings in front of other kids and people, what is not easy, even we grow-ups have problems with it. We are teaching the kids how they feel. Even the other kid who did something wrong, he has to express why he did it, what he felt and how he feels right now seeing this boy crying.»
Classroom and not home is the best environment for doing «homework»
«We don’t have homework because first of all the kids are here from 8:30 until 16:00 pm so that means that they do the work here in the school. We think that the kids when they come home they have to do some sports maybe or maybe music or they can walk with the parents in the woods or just do nothing, just enjoy. We now exactly what we give to each child and we suppose what material they child will use for resolving this problem, this work. At home the kids don’t have these materials, either don’t have us. At home the parents are often tired or they don’t know how to explain, or they don’t understand why they have to do that. «
Making it interesting and appealing for the child
«We have to do what the curriculum says but the kids have the freedom to decide if they want to do it today, tomorrow or the next day. We have this week plan and the kids can decide. If the kid is not able to do in this week is not a problem, he will do next week but we intend to make it very interesting because we are the ones creating this lesson and we have to catch the attention of the kid to come and do this work. Because every kid will do everything if it’s interesting. It’s not “I don’t want to do this, I am not interested”, they don’t know. It’s on us. We have to show them that it’s interesting, nice, beautiful to explore and they will do it.
We don’t have problems with that. I would say if that happens, if a kid says “I don’t want to do this”, even in public schools kids have to learn every day, they have to do plenty of things. And we say, ok they did it, but did they really do it? Because they forgot it even tomorrow or in two weeks.»
Portfolio and «mala mapa»
«Every kid in our school has a folder, and in this folder they have the weekly plan for the week and all the materials that they have to do for this week, what we planned that they have to do and this is called “mala mapa” (small folder).
In the end we have a big one where we are assembling all the things that the kids are doing through the year. And this is what they take home at the end of the school year, share it with their parents to see what they did through the year.
Even in this small folder they have self-evaluation because they have to say every day at the end of the day they write “Did I do this work or not? Why not? Maybe I had some problems. The teacher can do this maybe with you because I didn’t understand that, or I did something without any problems, or I didn’t like that one, I will do it tomorrow.»
Grades synonym of pressure and competition
«In Croatia is usual that all the schools have grades from the first grade but we (private schools) don’t have it from the first to the fourth grade. We have formal evaluation which is a kind of evaluation which is very hard, we have a lot of work to do but the kids don’t know the grades and we think it’s now good for them, specially for small kids in primary school. Because it’s competition, and that’s not what education is about. They have to learn, they have to be open for new knowledge, new experiences.
What happens in public school is that the grade is important because with these grades you have to be perfect, everything has to be an “A”. I think that the kids are afraid of the grades in public schools and it’s a big pressure from the teacher, parents and from the schoolmates. In the fifth grade we have to give them grades but we will do it in a very hidden way, no “that’s for a four, or a three”, not to make pressure on the kids.»
Tech more advantages than disadvatanges
«We are a school and we have to teach the kids how to use technology. We have ipads, we have smartphones and smart TV, laptops…We cannot ignore this, where we live. I see even big advantages. We are happy to have internet today, to have all those informations, beautiful pictures that we can show to the kids. I think it shouldn’t be forbidden because if you forbid something it could become very interesting.
I have to tell that the kids are not so interested in. They are much happier when they go outside and they can play with their classmates, do something in the garden. We don’t see it as a problem, we are controlling it. «
«If you want to create a better place to live in you have to grow children for a happy live»
«Some people think that if we are democratic school that means anarchy or the kids are doing whatever they want. As I told you before we have a meeting, we are making rules and if a kid makes rules there is no way out I would say. They are controlling if you are doing like we said all together we would do.
I heard some people say “You are not preparing kids for the cruel life” and I told this mom “I am very sad that you think that the life is cruel, because that’s not my opinion”. I cannot imagine to be a parent who is preparing his own kid to a cruel life.
This is reality, our school is not cruel, it is normal, it’s natural, it’s for kids. And I hope that our kids will see that life depends on them. If you are creating a cruel life, you will have a cruel life. But if you are creating a beautiful and happy life, you will have a happy life. I would say that this is the main goal for our school, that we are creating people for tomorrow, they are happy, open, I think only that way we will have a better place here to live. «