At one point during my visit to Swannanoa School, a teacher eagerly explained, “What makes these classrooms really different? It’s the culture. Warmth, belonging, and pride.”
It’s true. The culture is so vibrant, so strong at Swannanoa that at times I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Principal Brian Price came to Swannanoa two years ago after a previous experience as principal at an intermediate school with a modern pedagogical approach. (In NZ, modern pedagogy is one of the terms that means drawing on the science of learning and emphasizing active learners, differentiated learning, learning how to learn, and collaborative teaching.) His experience taught him that when parents are first introduced to modern pedagogy, they will either love it or hate it based on how their children respond to a personalized approach. They’ll love it if their children are confident, high achieving, and possess strong peer relationships, and they’ll be displeased if their children are shy or without a lot of mates, as they can end up feeling more exposed and isolated. Thus, Price learned that creating a strong sense of community and a culture of belonging is an important part of the process of making the transition to modern pedagogy. This culture is taking hold at Swannanoa with a shared responsibility to make sure everyone is successful.
It’s a bit odd to find the name of a school based on a Native American language in the midst of a country claiming Te Reo Māori as one of its three national languages. Swannanoa (meeting place of two mountain ranges) is a Decile 10 (upper income) primary school serving 320 students in Year 1-8. Based north of Christchurch, Swannanoa is considered semi-rural, although only two decades ago it was a rural school with only thirty-six children. The combination of economic growth and the 2011 Christchurch earthquake transformed the community, as people are moving further out into the Canterbury Plains toward the Southern Alps where the lots are larger and the earth is firmer.
Overview of Swannanoa School
Two years ago, Swannanoa School started on its path toward a more personalized approach to learning that draws on the research of learning: high engagement and high motivation strategies; supporting students in becoming effective learners; and meeting students at their point of challenge. An early step in the transition was refreshing the vision and values with a crystal-clear focus on the well-being and relationships among members of the school community. Another critical step involving the staff was considering effective pedagogical approaches and other core concepts introduced in the New Zealand Curriculum. This led to rethinking what type of experiences students need to learn as well as letting go of the idea of a prescribed curriculum. Today, the buildings have been remodeled to support multi-age groups of approximately seventy-five teachers with teams of three teachers.
In the upcoming three articles, I will highlight my conversation with Brian Price, principal of Swannanoa.
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