Flower of Scotland

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Christine Hopkins, head of a four-pupil school in the orkneys, TALKS TO Estelle Maxwell When we came back to school after the long summer holiday we found that one of the sunflower seeds we had planted the previous term had beaten the elements and survived.

It was amazing for the children, who had never seen anything like it growing on the island. They had seen pictures of them of course, but this had lived despite the windburn and the seaspray, and it was quite magical for them and for me.

We had planted the seeds in the classroom and moved them to the schoolhouse and gardens. When I saw the flower I knew it had to be used in class, because the children had nurtured it from seed and I realised they would be captivated by everything about it.

The sunflower became the starting point for a language lesson and grew from there into maths, art and science.

Last year the school roll fell by half - from eight to four - so I wanted to encourage them to interact as much as possible; to ask questions and to go outside exploring something which they could see, feel and smell.

The older two tried to make as many words as they could out of "sunflower" and they all wrote poetry, so there was some differentation going on too.

I like to use the environment as much as possible, so I asked them to describe the flower: its texture, colour, the shape and span of its petals and leaves, the size of the flower head, and the length of time it took to open.

The beauty of having small numbers - I have one five-year-old, one six-year-old and two eight-year-olds - is that it allows for great flexibility.

Our work quickly involved maths - we all went out and measured the height of the sunflower, which was a real achievement as it was 1.5 metres. The older ones produced a database of how high it was and how it grew and we did a graph using the computer.

Then we looked at it scientifically, all the children charted its development and how it changed, and we looked at the pattern inside the flowerhead.

The children also produced a lot of artwork. They did sketches and got a print of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", and by comparing the colours deduced that he got his flowers in the morning when the colours were most fresh; this prompted us to look at the fresh colours in nature.

They really enjoyed it and even now, when it is lying on the ground devastated by the wind, it is still a lesson for them. We have to think the next time about planting the seeds in a place where there is sun but more shelter. It has made a lovely start to our term.

When I am looking for project work I want something which all the pupils in my multi-age class can relate to, but at different levels.

They need something they can talk about and look at, and they are very skilled at encouraging each other; the older ones will say, "I couldn't do that when I was his age, that's very good," and the younger ones will watch and admire what the older children are doing.

It is nice to see and makes for a supportive learning environment for everyone; the school, which is just one room, also acts as our hall, gym and dining room. When I had pre-school children they were in here with us too.

In the afternoons senior citizens come in for activities - they do their thing in the room while we do ours. It is very much a community school, and the children are used to it.

At the age of 12 our pupils go to school in Westray, which is a 15-minute flight away. They get to know pupils there in advance by doing some work with them on our electronic writing board.

There are just 65 people on Papa Westray - the island is four miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide. We have a co-operative shop owned by us and a guest house.

The economy is basically farming and some fishing; most people have two or three jobs. Only the nurse and myself are in full-time employment; our doctor comes over once a week from the nearest island.

It is an unusual but very rewarding place to work. It is like having a family - they see all sides to me and I see the children in their community environment. I do not regret coming here - it is a wonderful place to be in every sense.

Christine Hopkins is headteacher of Papa Westray Primary School, Orkneys

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