Photographs: Copenhagen International School
Text: Marie Rocher
What do parents want from schools? Preparedness for life. That’s according to a recent American Federation of Teachers poll. That’s a goal of middle school teachers Sheri Gates and Eddie Zevallos.
The ‘tweenage years’, the gap between childhood and becoming a teenager, can be a confusing time. There are developmental changes aplenty, and the added challenges that come with growing up fast in the 2020s. Throw a new country and culture into the mix, and you’ve got a tricky transition to navigate.
“It’s a fabulous age!” exclaims science teacher Sheri Gates, who has some 20 years’ experience teaching around the world. Her colleague Eddie Zevallos, a digital design teacher who’s taught from Pennsylvania to Shanghai, is similarly enthusiastic about middle schoolers, pointing out their energy, humour and honesty is what he loves most.
Both Gates and Zevallos are teachers at the Copenhagen International School, which follows the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.
Discovery and exploration
During Middle School, children have an increased need for independence and agency. That’s a need that’s actively encouraged at Copenhagen International School. Gates explains the school has a strong ‘enduring understanding’ focus, and what’s asked of teachers is how they can promote that. Explains Gates, the IB discards the outdated approach to teaching and allows children to become more actively involved in their learning: “The old school style of education [is] very teacher-directed, and the teacher is the owner of all knowledge, and we’re giving it to our students. They’re just passively absorbing it, not really understanding it fully, and don’t have a deeper knowledge of why they’re learning what they’re learning.”
In Gates’ words, it’s all about getting rid of shallow, superficial learning and asking what the big, takeaway concepts are, and then digging deeper into that.
“Teachers are encouraged to explore learning opportunities and have a real hand in curriculum development. It’s not so much about covering a curriculum as uncovering or discovering the learning,” says Zevallos.
Design teacher Zevallos illustrates this concept with a practical example from his classroom: a project in which children are designing and creating dioramas showing the seventeen UN Sustainability Goals – a practical skills task overlays a critical thinking task. While students may forget the Adobe skills they learned on the project, it’s his hope that such dynamic learning experiences leave them with an enduring understanding of the UN goals as a blueprint of a sustainable future for all (the wider context). Then there are the face masks children made according to WHO guidelines – learning practical sewing skills whilst exploring social responsibility and health in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic.
And it’s not just the children who’re given freedom to discover and explore. “Teachers are encouraged to explore learning opportunities and have a real hand in curriculum development. It’s not so much about covering a curriculum as uncovering or discovering the learning,” says Zevallos.
Structure and direction
But that’s not to say that children should be left to their own devices. In fact, points out Gates, children of this age benefit from clear guidance. She repeatedly draws attention to the IB’s focus on how children learn. “Copenhagen International School does this really well in that it gives constant attention to getting students to think about how it is that they’re learning and providing structures to help them with that process.”
This clear framework translates from each IB school to the next, promoting the kind of consistency which is important not only in guaranteeing a high quality, globally recognised standard of education but also for children who find themselves relocating from one part of the world to the next.
The whole child
A cursory browse of the school’s website reveals two key sections – learning and thriving. “At Copenhagen International School, we’re looking to improve a human being beyond just academics. We’re wanting to improve a child’s feelings of inclusiveness and confidence; we want them to feel like they have a place in the world,” says Zevallos. Not only are children learning hard skills but soft skills – like time management, communication and collaboration. “We’re providing them with a toolkit for further learning and life”.
Further to this approach is finding opportunities to include parents in their children’s education that is beyond periodic ‘parent-teacher check-ins’ or superficial report card discussions. Rather teachers like Zevallos find ways to facilitate what he terms an ‘ongoing inclusive approach where parents play an active role’ – for example, by getting them in to talk about their work, and then incorporating that into the projects children are learning to increase their buy-in.
In teachers like Gates and Zevallos you find educators who’re both grounded in their profession and passionate in their vocation. “Encouraging middle schoolers is tough; it requires a bit of intrigue and excitement,” says Zevallos. Chatting with these educators, it’s hard to imagine not being anything but engaged with the learning experience!