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We’ve seen the videos of young teachers rapping multiplication facts in high heels from desktops. We all know about Ron Clark academy and being Slide Certified. There are many ingenious schools and teachers and methods that get tremendous results.

How do we take the things we see working in those places and situations and use them as inspiration to create our own unique versions in our everyday classrooms? Seeing inspirational and inspiring schools and educators can sometimes be awe-inspiring, overwhelming, and frustrating because replicating that success just isn’t always practical or transferable.

Here are a few unique schools around the world and practical lessons we can learn from their successes and apply to our own situations, whether we’re teaching in Florida, Texas, California, Utah, Puerto Rico, or Idaho.

Fuji Youchien

You have probably seen this school on YouTube. It’s a Pre-K and Kindergarten in Japan. The building is the thing most people are initially drawn to. Here’s a video if you’ve never seen it before. 

Fuji is a Montessori school, and as such, many of the design elements and activities are student-led. The architecture is unique because it’s nature, play, and child-centered. The teachers and other adults call it “the garden” because the center of everything is a big playground.

Trees were incorporated in the construction of the building itself.

Classrooms have skylights, which work both to infuse the indoor learning spaces with light, and give students a sneak-peek into what’s happening all over the building.

The roof is a running area for kids. As anyone who has ever worked with very small children knows, they love to run in circles! This rooftop play area gives them the opportunity to run in circles all day if they’d like.

What’s REALLY different and unique: Japan is a very child-friendly culture. Very young children are safe enough to go to the grocery store alone, get on a public transportation bus and ride to school or to their friends’ house, or go to piano lessons. This is largely because Japanese culture holds society responsible for all lives - especially the lives of its children. As a culture, they do not litter, they do not take things that don’t belong to them, and everyone watches out for each other. If someone is hurt, other people will go far out of their way to be sure the injured person receives medical treatment.

So it’s not a society that is “me” centered. It’s very much a “we” kind of culture.

This lends itself to much of the success of Fuji school. People take care of themselves so no one else has to. Children raised in this culture are happily independent. They learn from their mistakes (even mistakes like tripping and falling) and are encouraged to be very independent. They also know that if they need support or assistance, there will always be someone - some adult - nearby who will happily assist them.

Practical application of lessons we can learn: We can create and foster this type of independence in our classrooms and schools; although, our results will be necessarily different because of our overall culture in the U.S..

Children are capable of supportive independence, and they are likely more capable than many of us give them credit for.

One of Fuji school’s mottos comes from Montessori tradition: “help me do it myself”. As educators, we have the power to do all the background work necessary so that our students have the opportunity to explore, learn, and grow in a more independent way.

Rather than designing curriculum, lessons, and activities that revolve around us as the teacher, we can work to design student-centered education that requires them to attempt independence.

Virtual and blended learning are often seen as a curse in our education culture, but there are ways to allow those types of learning to foster more independence in our students.

Sometimes, the most important change needed is our attitude and viewpoint. 

Scandinavian and Nordic Outdoor Schools 

Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are primarily the countries that conduct outdoor schools; however, even Iceland and a few countries even farther north do so on occasion.

When the world started going back to school this year after the first wave of the pandemic, Scandinavian countries already had this framework of preschools and kindergartens where children spent the majority of their time outside. Even very young toddlers nap outdoors!

What’s REALLY different and unique: Places in that part of the world, like Switzerland, are much more prone to incorporate the outdoors into their school schedules and lesson plans. P.E. classes go ice skating, play hockey, ski, and snowboard.

So families and kids are used to being outdoors a lot.

And they are able to dress for the weather. Because they are able to spend so much time outside, the “outside” has a lot of “stuff” already prepared to receive students. 

Although it’s cold much of the time, the weather is fairly consistent and predictable. It’s manageable. Tornadoes, massive thunderstorms, hurricanes, heat indexes in the hundreds, and wildfires aren’t issues they generally have to contend with.

Practical application of lessons we can learn: Most parts of the U.S. don’t have the weather-dependent luxury of having school outside all the time. However, we can spend more time than we do outside in many cases.

Venturing outside for nature discovery during science, for example, is something many of us could do more often.

Planting gardens, observing animals, or even observing the weather outdoors isn’t practical in many urban areas, though. In those cases, venturing to bring more of nature into the classroom is necessary.

It takes more work, but giving students a connection to nature is absolutely vital, especially for those children who never get the opportunity to run around in the grass and plant things.

Any time you can spend learning outside is valuable. In the fall and spring, when weather is usually the mildest, have class outside as often as possible. Encourage your school to create seating and shaded areas for outdoor learning opportunities.

Even adding movement to lessons that are normally “sit-and-get” will improve their learning skills. And whenever possible, make field trips to green spaces a priority. City kids often go to museums, cultural exhibits, and libraries for field trips, but if there’s a national forest nearby, it’s possible that is something they’ve never seen. Take a trip into the wild so they can have the opportunity to expand their experiential base. 

Schools that Float

There are two places in the world that have embraced the idea of floating schools: Bangladesh, where children attend boat schools, and Lagos, Nigeria, where there is a floating school in a place called Mokoko.

The Bangladesh boat schools are largely powered by solar panels and connected to the internet (although the internet is heavily controlled by the government). They are used mostly during monsoon season when communities are cut off from the mainland, and children (especially girls) are unable to make their way through treacherous floodwaters to attend school.

Mokoko is a slum-community built on stilts. Many of the children there were simply not able to attend school. The area is very poor, so resources to leave Mokoko for education are very limited. This problem was solved by building a floating school.

The bottom area of the school is just a community deck. The classrooms are located on the second and third floors of the floating school and can fit 100 students.

Sadly, during a large rainstorm, the Mokoko floating school collapsed. However, the local people were working to rebuild the school at last report.

What’s REALLY different and unique: This is kind of obvious, but water and poverty. There aren’t a lot of places where a literal boat or floating school would be necessary - although some places could use a floating school or two!

Practical application of lessons we can learn: Meet kids where they are - literally and figuratively. When kids cannot physically come to school, it’s the job of the community and the school to meet students where they are.

Learning-wise and figuratively speaking, we cannot expect children to jump up to our levels of expectation without any assistance. We have to meet them where they are and understand that not all children are able to operate at the level lawmakers and politicians call “normal”. They don’t start with the same experiences or information, and they won’t end at the same place by the end of the year.

Also, despite the prevalence of poverty (and even perhaps because of it), sustainability and renewable resources are very important for floating schools.

Now, in a time where schools are fighting for every penny to keep the quality staff they’ve attained, things like solar energy could make a huge difference. It’s definitely worth looking into organizations that want to help schools work toward sustainability.

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