Adrián Crescini, co-director at La Xixa Teatre interviewed Cristina Castellar, Head of Studies at Escola L’Esperança about practices that help students stay at school during the transitioning years.
Adrián: We are going to talk, above all, about good practices. I would like to know if you have thought, besides what we are proposing to implement with the DREAMS Project, of good practices that you have carried out to alleviate or help reduce early school leaving (ESL), particularly at a preventive stage, during last year Primary School.
Cristina: Before starting the DREAMS Project, when talking about ESL, we always thought about Secondary school, particularly with older students around sixteen or eighteen years of age. And it is true that, as a result of being part of this project, and now that we have starting to work with 6th graders, we realize that this is definitely a stage we need to act upon and influence early on. We had considered, already facing the next school year, to be able to do many more activities, between Primary and Secondary students. In other words, there are some common projects that only High School students used to do before, and now we are introducing them starting from 6th grade onwards, and mixing 6th graders with students from first year Secondary. Why? Because we realize that in that way the passage between stages is not so abrupt. In a school like ours with continuing education from three to eighteen, these types of activities are very necessary. We are now planning to do this types of activities with beyond the DREAMS Project workshops, for example with specific math classes. We hope that by being able to do more things in common with first year Secondary students, 6th graders won’t be so scared to make “the jump”. In fact, there are many boys in 6th grade who have the same level as many of 1st grade ESO (Secondary) students. Hopefully, this will help them break away from the thought that: "Ugh, ESO is very difficult...” and which predisposes them negatively. If they realize that it is also possible to work together, this might make an important change in their transition. This occurred to us after being with you in the kick-off meeting, with all partners here, in Barcelona working together.
A: And what challenges can you foresee to implement more joint activities beyond the DREAMS Project workshops?
C: Well, we could do this in classes that can be more dynamic. For example, maybe in a language class, right? They could work on creating stories as a language activity. So we need to find the right spaces. Also many times making schedules is very difficult; I say this as part of the management team. Adapting STEM classes to make sure students from 6th grade and 1st year ESO work together is a challenge, but it is also a way for them to see they can collaborate beyond a “fun workshop”.
A: So you are thinking of creating joint activities in a way they have the component of being dynamic, and also a component of having students perceive that what they are doing is important. This means taking the DREAMS method and turning it into a math workshop, a language workshop, that is, a curricular workshop; applying DREAMS to content with curricular educational interest, far beyond a one-time extracurricular activity.
C: Yes, we would like to introduce joint activities within the curriculum and as a long term regular activity throughout the year. It is also very important that students work together in a cooperative group. This year, in addition to the DREAMS Project, many teachers have been training in cooperative groups, they are really taking advantage of this methodology and we are very happy with the results.
A: What do you find are the most important pillars and contributions of this methodology that make it so interesting to work with?
C: Everyone cooperates, everyone helps each other and everyone has to give their opinion. Everyone has to participate equally.
A: And how do you achieve that?
C: We are working on this method together with the University of Vic. There is a programme we need to follow, which is very structured. There is a clear Methodological line, and everything is very patterned. There are rules to be followed. This way all students really work. It is different from other methods were students work in groups but some do all the work and others just copy. With the cooperative method everyone works. Of course, the teacher has to be constantly going around and making sure they follow the method well.
A: It is interesting to note that the method seems to, on one hand, teachers are required to be constantly supervising.
C: Continuously, yes. Everything is very marked, and very clear guidelines have to be given. Everything is very timed: “You have three minutes to think and you all have to write. And then you all have to say what you have put” and so on. It is very nice when you see the students working with this method. In each group, there must be different types of students, and so we think that it is a very comfortable way of being able to work in with students from different grades, for example with the 6th graders and 1st year ESO students.
A: And you have already been testing this?
C: We have been testing it, but not with mixed grades, which would be interesting to see how they work. Right now we are piloting, but if it keeps working well we hope this method will imply a comprehensive transformation of the subjects. With this method nobody stays behind: the stronger students continue learning, and those who are generally less motivated or have more difficulties are more engaged than before, so the results are very positive.
A: This method seems like a very interesting resource and best practice. Can you think about other best practices besides this one that could be relevant to our project?
C: I think over the past years we have been undertaking activities which strengthen not only the relationship with the student which is basic to prevent ESL, via tutoring for example, but also the relationship with the families, which is also a very important to prevent ESL. Relating with the family is easier Primary than in Secondary School. Another Erasmus+ project we were engaged in some years ago, the ATOMS&CO project, was focused in this, in involving families with the school as a key factor to prevent ESL.
A: What type of activities do you use to involve families in the school?
C: We have activities such as the family day, or “Dia de L’Esperança” where parents come to school to give a workshop themselves. But despite our efforts it is a difficult task. We have to be realistic about our context, which is not always easy for students or parents. Also, implementing all of these activities is not always easy without the proper resources. There is always many factors to take into account for these practices to be really successful. But when they work it is great, and it is worth trying. For example, when we started introducing social theatre with La Xixa in our school we have seen a real change, specially in the teachers that were trained.
A: And in the students?
C: Yes, definitely, social theatre favours group cohesion, which means students help and collaborate with each other. They are more united as a group, they motivate each other and help each other solve problems. In the groups where social theater has been systematically carried out, we have seen a decrease in dropouts. In comparison to the dropout rate which would be expected taking into account the characteristics of our neighborhood, the dropout rate in 4th year of ESO is very low. This is not only because of social theatre, there are many factors that have contributed to this decrease, but social theatre has allowed us to work with very important social problems. For example, thanks to the social theatre workshops we have been able to work on situations related to gender and sexual diversity, as well as uncovering bullying situations, harrasment, etc. This has been very important to prevent students who are having a difficult time form dropping out, espcially because there has been group cohesion among the students. Older students can really take advantage of this method, I am not so sure about younger students, because of their level of maturity. We will have to see.
A: Yes, these are difficult processes and topics for students to tackle, and group cohesion is very important for youngsters to manage all the pain of uncovering and working with all of these issues. Well I am glad we have talked to discuss all of these practices, which can give us good ideas on how to better implement the DREAMS Project. Thank you very much.
C: You are welcome, I thank you as well. We will keep in touch to keep working on the project.