AS 10 four- and five-year-olds lean forward out of their tiny green plastic chairs, teacher Margaret Brown holds up a small yellow duck and poses a question.
“Do you think it will float at the top of the water?” she asks her junior infant class.
Heads nod and hands fly up to say it will, one eager little hand almost hitting the teacher in the chin. Ms Brown, too, is leaning over the low desk in the middle of the room, with a plastic storage container on top of it half-filled with water.
The duck did indeed float and next she holds up a rubber eraser, with most of the boys and girls offering up their opinion.
“It’ll sink,” most say, although one or two believe it will float.
“I think it’s going to swim,” suggests one child.
But he is proven wrong, as the eraser hits the bottom.
“It’s teeny,” observes a girl, squinting through the side of the box at the eraser on the bottom.
Next come a block of wood, and then a coin. Ms Brown asks the pupils what they think it might be made of.
“I wish it was, but it’s made of another metal,” replies the teacher.
As the same question arises over a plastic ruler, it is placed in the water and one boy cries out: “It’s sinking like the Titanic!” as it hits the bottom at an angle.
The class is covering topics that run through a number of strands of the science curriculum for infant classes, encouraging skills such as predicting, then grouping objects that float or sink, and learning about forces .
But like other classes at Rockboro Primary School, there is an extra emphasis on science, with an extension to the school day introduced last year used to devote extra time to maths and science teaching.
In Deirdre McArdle’s senior infants class next door, the 11 pupils have been learning about photosynthesis — the process by which the sun provides energy for plants — and how they absorb the carbon dioxide breathed out by humans.
As an extension of this lesson, they move on to an experiment with a clay volcano, made in class and about five inches high.
One of the pupils is tasked with spooning some baking soda into the mouth of the volcano, and another carefully pours some vinegar from a small jug.
The vinegar has had some food colouring added, so the experiment has the desired effect when another pupil gives the whole concoction a quick stir.
“So what’s going to happen?” Ms McArdle asks.
Various replies come back, including the suggestion that carbon dioxide will be released and that something will spill over the top.
“I think it’s going to explode very fast,” suggests one eager participant.
Sure enough, a red foamy liquid obliges, pouring out from the mouth of the replica volcano and spilling down the sides.
The children have seen what happens when a chemical reaction takes place between the baking soda — which they have used before to make cakes — and the vinegar.
The chemical reaction invoked by the mixed ingredients prompts a question from the teacher about who or what breathes out carbon dioxide.
“Plants,” answers one pupil, who quickly corrects himself, “no, I mean, us.”
Other children are given a turn at adding the coloured vinegar or some extra baking powder, as their classmates chant “More! More! More!” and their ‘lava’ continues to spill down the volcano and runs around the metal tray underneath.
The experiment leads the questioning back to the earlier part of the lesson as children recall that plants take energy from the sun and that they release oxygen that humans need to breathe.
Ms McArdle explains that she has a love of science herself, leading to the use of experiments and teaching of concepts such as photosynthesis, which pupils at most schools would not learn until fifth or sixth class.
“It just brings education alive in the classroom, doing things like this, they love it because it’s fun,” says the teacher.
She also teaches French to other classes, as she is fluent from time spent living in France before coming to work at Rockboro four years ago.
“We’re all flexible here. Each teacher has different strengths that they share with the rest of the classes. I love giving the pupils a basic understanding of science now, and it might inspire some of them to keep going with it later on.”
ANOTHER staff member adding to the school’s range of teaching skills is Naoimh Riordan. She teaches the 10 fourth class pupils but also gives computers and technology lessons to all classes at the school.
Today, she is teaching her own class how to use software on computers in the school’s recently upgraded computer lab.
But the IT skills start from very early on, with basic use of the mouse and keyboard taught to infants, but they soon move up to higher skills into senior infants.
“Once they hit first class, they are going into more detail like changing fonts and font size, then they learn to use PowerPoint, and in fourth class we do typing, word-processing and spreadsheets.
“We also have a school in Portugal that we correspond with. It started out with emailing, and we’re going on to using Skype soon,” she said.
The fourth class boys and girls are already accustomed to using the computer webcams, as they spend the lesson designing greeting cards.
A 10-year-old pupil, Alex, has centred the camera on his face and explains how he can choose from any surrounds to display around him. He picks a New York street scene, in which his face features in a giant screen surrounded by neon lights, overlooking a busy traffic scene below.
“So I can just take a snap of this and I’ll save it onto my desktop. Now I’m going into another programme and I’m going to make a greeting card.”
He clicks out of the photograph and up pops a blank page on the screen, into which he quickly imports his earlier picture and squeezes it into shape to fit the page. Next, he gets the computer to turn the page, where he selects a number of colourful images and writes a message for his mother and father.
The 18 pupils in Aoife Healy’s sixth class are, meanwhile, revising what they had previously learned about electrical circuits. They have made their circuits, using simple tools such as paper clips, and small bulbs.
“They’re really interested in this kind of thing and they just want to move on and further themselves now,” says Ms Healy. “They’ve learned how electricity flows and how to make their own switches.
“Later in the year, they will develop this further by introducing mechanics and pulleys and other sources of energy such as magnetism.”
Out in the late morning sunshine, Geraldine Petch’s third class is weeding part of their raised bed, one of six at this side of the school, and each about seven feet square and a couple of feet high.
The school raised around €2,000 to put in one for every class during the February mid-term break and they have spent a number of weeks since then planting seeds that they had germinated indoors in their classrooms.
Part of the challenge for the pupils is how far apart to place the courgettes and peas they will be planting today.
“Maybe about 15 centimetres. How long do we think 15 centimetres is?” asks Ms Petch.
One girl holds her left hand about four inches apart from her right, which is clutching a small hand fork. Meanwhile, one of the boys has retrieved a ruler from the classroom to offer a more exact approach to the exercise.
“We already planted potatoes first, then broad beans and shallots. Today we’re putting in courgettes and peas,” explains another.
As the pupils busy themselves with forks and bare hands at rooting out stones and clumps of soil and flinging them into a nearby plastic bucket, Ms Petch explains how the lessons are integrating different parts of the curriculum.
“We’re combining maths and computation, to determine depth and distance between the plants, with science and biology. The children find it very relaxing but they’re also more appreciative about food, knowing the work that goes into growing things.”
‘What we’re doing here is exceptional’
ALMOST hidden from public view down a hill off the Boreenmanna Road in Cork, Rockboro Primary School carried out a major overhaul of its timetable two years ago.
As well as making big changes to the time dedicated to each subject, the board extended the school day.
“We added five minutes at the start and 10 minutes at the end for four days a week, and moved around all the breaks, giving us an extra hour each week of teaching,” explains principal Susan Dwane.
In the mornings, most classes do an hour of English, Irish or maths. Then they have half-hour classes in the middle of the day. And in the afternoon, there are two half-hour classes and a 45-minute class.
The pupils get nearly five hours of maths a week, where the national curriculum suggests at least three hours a week. And where three hours a week is recommended for geography, history and science (grouped together as social, environmental and scientific education, or SESE) — older children at Rockboro get two to three hours of science teaching alone.
“What we’re doing here is exceptional in the Irish education system, but it shows what is possible to accomplish in these areas while still achieving national curriculum standards in all subjects,” said Ms Dwane.
A €75,000 upgrade of the school’s IT and library facilities complements the work in the classrooms, as staff strive to ensure standards in literacy, maths and science are kept high. Computer science features on the timetables for all classes, with Naoimh Riordan sharing her expertise in the technological world with all classes.
The school may be exceptional in the primary sector by having dedicated teachers of certain subjects and class sizes below 10 in some cases. But it is largely aided by the fact that parents pay fees of between €4,000 and €4,500 a year for each pupil, along with the proceeds of regular fundraising.
However, unlike fee-paying second level schools, there is no financial support from the Department of Education, so Rockboro remains entirely financially independent of the State.
“We also use the expertise of a lot of parents. For example, a parent of one of my pupils has a PhD in chemistry, and did experiments for us in class one day,” said Ms Dwane, who also teaches fifth class.
A lot of children’s families have come from the US or Britain, often with multi-national companies. The school has capacity for 180 pupils, but enrolment is currently just above 100, down from being near full capacity in the mid-2000s.
In the last four years, numbers have been dropping, largely due to the financial circumstances of families.
“But we have seen the number of children of people working for multi-nationals has started picking back up in the last 18 months,” said Ms Dwane.
Michele Power, whose son Ben is in senior infants and who is on the school board, says knowing that science and maths and IT are so strong is vital.
“The flexibility of staff has allowed for all of this to happen. But it wouldn’t be possible either, without the interest of parents to push science and maths,” she says.
“We chose the school because I thought it had a hugely holistic approach to education. But there is also a big interest here in maths and science, and French being taught from junior infants,” said Michele.
“I was very interested in the small class sizes and the commitment to have no more than 20 pupils in any class. My son’s not being subsidised at the expense of anyone else’s children and the fees pay for all the classroom materials.”
The flexible approach of the teachers means students have a number of different teachers during the week, something that Michele says should stand to them in the next stages of their education.
“When they go on to second level, they are used to the concept of not having the same teacher all day, so there’s a sense of continuity,” said Michele.
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