Shortly after completing its centenary, Colégio Elvira Brandão (Elvira Brandão High School) in the south of São Paulo, realized that it needed to change if it was to survive for another hundred years. Run by the same family of educators for four generations, the school is reinventing itself to keep pace with the rapid changes in the world today. The challenge has been accepted, and the road to innovation lies ahead.
The school began by making changes to its teaching environments. The walls were painted bright colors, the reception area was made more visible and the classrooms were reconfigured.
At the end of last year, all the places at the high school had been taken up. Along with the teachers and the management team, the students were asked to redesign their rooms, and brought round tables, sofas and benches. In addition to choosing the model, colors and position of the new furniture, they were also responsible for painting one of the walls of the classroom.
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In one of the 12th grade rooms, for example, rows of desks were replaced by collaborative work tables. One wall was also decorated with the phrase Carpe diem, which in Latin means seize the day. “We sat down, planned everything and then went looking for the furniture we were going to buy,” says Victoria Rizzo, 16. According to the student, who still says she is still not entirely used to the new layout of the room, the decor chosen by the group was inspired by the movie Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir. Boasting a totally different look, another class chose colored chairs and painted a pineapple wearing glasses on the back wall of the classroom.
The changes in the physical structure emphasize the focus on new methodologies. Classes are no longer centered on the teacher, and students are seen as the center of the educational process. In addition, the corridors are filled with eye-catching projects and drawings by pupils. Tables and blackboards around the school offer invitations to draw, leave messages and even learn.
The changes began with the arrival of the new principal, Renato Júdice de Andrade, who accepted the mission of helping to build a new school model. “There is a big difference in creating an innovative school and turning a school into an innovative establishment,” said Andrade, reflecting on the challenges his team has faced along the way.
As the principal explains, there have been many such challenges, from dealing with the questions of parents, who were used to another school structure, to training the teaching staff. “The teachers who were here had been hired to work in a different type of system. Then we turned around and said “we’re going to do it differently.” It was as challenging as it was exciting,” he says.
Teacher and math coordinator Peter Robert, who has worked at the school for almost 14 years, experienced a little of this period of transition. Recalling the first meeting about the change of direction in the school’s pedagogical focus, he describes a mixture of anxiety and excitement. “The sense of motivation was intoxicating. I was tired of teaching class and always following the book. Today I think about how to educate all the time.”
Encouraged to think of new lesson formats that would make students the protagonists, the teacher had the idea of creating the Master Leader project. Inspired by the MasterChef cooking competition, the project divides the room into groups where only a handful of leaders, who change every semester , are given instructions. These leaders have the task of organizing the teaching content and deciding how it will be presented to their classmates, while the teacher assumes the role of mediator and helps to answer questions.
Giovanna Cabral, 13, was recently a leader in her eighth grade class, and had the mission of presenting corresponding angles to her classmates. “It was very interesting because I think I gained more responsibility. We have never had this experience before,” says the student, who has been studying at the school since the first grade. “The teaching used to be very formal, not like it is now. I learn more this way,” she reflects.
“The teaching used to be very formal, not like it is now. I learn more this way”
Among the other changes that have been incorporated in the school, the bell that marked class changes has also been removed. “Before there was a bell that rang. Now there’s a clock to tell you what time it is,” said Luis Otávio, 7, a third grade elementary student. Used to hearing a noise to tell him recreation time is over, he says he now pays more attention to the time. And he has only been distracted once. “I went to see the classrooms of the older students and I was seven minutes late. But when I got back, I told people all about it,” he reveals spontaneously.
When asked what he thought of the new rooms, he doesn’t hold back: “I went in there. I thought it was pretty crazy. Different from the other rooms. Instead of having a board and chairs, there’s a thing like a stand. There are some tables, some chairs, a little couch and a small table with a computer,” he says. But what really caught the boy’s attention among the changes to the school was the library, which before was “dark”. Now, with its glass windows and new decor, “it’s way cooler”.
One area that has had a complete makeover is the computer lab, which has been transformed into a “maker space”. The computers that were once stuck in the same space have been distributed around the school. “The computer lab, in that space, made no sense. We improved the Wi-Fi infrastructure in the school, so that mobile devices could be used. Technology permeates the work of the teachers in the classroom. They don’t need to stop to go to the computer lab,” explains educational technology manager, Celise Correia.
In addition to working towards the goal of including hands on activities in the curriculum, the technology manager says that the methodology of hybrid education has begun to be gradually implemented among the elementary school classes. It has been challenging, however, and investment in teacher training has been required.
“The computer lab, in that space, made no sense. We improved the Wi-Fi infrastructure in the school, so mobile devices could be used”
“The beginning of last year was a shock. Then I realized that we had reached a new understanding of the relationship between teachers and students,” recalls Ana Cristina Whintaker, responsible for cultural projects, training and school events. “I think it’s a wonderful change. I’d been disillusioned with education for a long time. When I saw that this proposal could work, it brought my spark back.”
Along with the new school projects, the teacher organized a knowledge sharing network between staff, parents and students. Through this initiative, Katia Campanile, a mother of two students, approached the school to start a literacy project for the institution’s cleaning team. So great was her involvement that she has now been hired by the school to look after the volunteer area.
All the experiences remain fresh and have brought new challenges. But according to school principal Renato Júdice de Andrade, there is evidence that the school is on the right track. In December last year, Elvira Brandão was recognized by the MEC (Ministry of Education) as one of 178 innovative Brazilian educational institutions . “It was a really encouraging message. It told us that there’s still a long way to go, but we’re on the right track,” he said.
Translated by James Young