“What is a new reality and how do you build it?” is one of our most frequently asked questions. A new reality is one in which participants have “more voice, more choice, and more responsibility.” There are as many ways to build a new reality as there are stars in the sky. Therefore, the best way to explain a new reality is to provide successful examples. In this four-part series, we spotlight efforts in Kortrijk, Belgium to build a new reality by changing the way people work, learn, and deal with family conflict.
By Kerra L. Bolton
It was the toughest crowd I’d faced so far.
The group of middle-schoolers looked at me expectantly, as I fumbled with the laptop. I was touring ’tvier Secondary School in Kortrijk, Belgium, while exploring grassroots efforts to build a new reality by adapting restorative practices to meet the unique and urgent needs of communities.
Founded in 2015 by a group of local parents, ’tvier is an experiential school that bakes restorative practices into its culture, curricula and pedagogy. The school models a “new reality,” because students, teachers, parents, and community members form a collective educational experience.
Children learn better when the adults in their lives provide an academic environment in which students can co-create learning experiences and milestones that work best for them.
The school’s pedagogical approach is based on “three pillars” – experience, investigation, and cooperation.
“’tvier is a dialect word that stands for ‘fire,’” said An Algoed, one of the school’s three care coordinators. “To teach is to ignite knowledge, so that you are enthusiastic and on fire.”
The curricula is based on research and studies of what works in schools.
Lessons follow the Catholic school education curricula, which enables the school to be innovative, while adhering to Flemish academic standards.
Courses such as mathematics, Dutch, French, English, and Latin are self-paced.
Students who need focused and one-on-one instruction get it. The other students continue to practice the subject matter during independent study hours. Educators evaluate students throughout the learning process to make sure they master the material.
Accountability is integrated in the curricula by allowing students to evaluate their own progress through the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” method. Rock means that a student is progressing on an average pace. Paper means that the lesson is easy. Scissors denote that the student is having difficulty mastering a lesson and may need extra help.
In addition, each student is paired with a counselor, who follows the student for two years. The counselor is responsible for the student’s learning trajectory, works with the student individually or in class, and serves as the parent liaison.
Competencies such as planning and studying, and social and emotional skills are also integrated in the school’s curricula.
“It’s more than hands-on learning,” said Astrid, a ’tvier student. “Usually, the teacher writes on the blackboard. Here, I can choose what I do and learn for myself.”
The investigative aspect of ’tvier comes as students are encouraged to research questions and apply what they learn to achieve their creative and academic edge.
School days are broken down into circles, planning moments, independent working hours, quiet hours, instruction moments, a forum, and a project week. Students can work on their lessons during independent work hours, with some guidance from teachers.
The “real world” is more complex than traditional curricula that present subjects in silos. That’s why educators at ’tvier bundle the natural sciences, engineering, history, geography, and the arts, as “projects.” Religion and physical education are also offered.
Students spend six weeks acquiring the basic knowledge of the subject, then applying what they learn to a project, on which they work individually or in a group.
“I like that we’re in small groups, because you can connect with more people,” said Liza, a ’tvier student. “You can get to know more people.”
Students present their project at the end of six weeks, to parents and the larger community. The presentations allow students to practice presentation and social development skills, while showcasing the student’s work.
As a cooperative school, educators believe in treating all members of their learning community equally. They prioritize dialogue and consultation. Students are viewed as vessels of opportunity and possibility, not problems to be solved.
“We work together – teachers, parents, and pupils,” said An, who also supervises the school’s care coordinators. “We talk a lot on the phone. We are building this school together.”
Circles are an integral tool for learning and community building. Educators introduce students to the circle concept early. Circles are also used to begin the day.
“If you have a circle, you create a bond with the teacher and your coach,” Astrid said. “If something happens, it’s easier to talk with them.”
Parental participation is required. However, parents can choose the level of their participation, such as leading a workshop or becoming a member of the school’s board.
’tvier involves parents and other community members to participate in the students’ education through its Friday workshops, which they call “studios.” Neighborhood members are invited to give workshops on music, languages, technology, and other creative skills as a way to supplement the curricula while truly involving the village to educate the child.
Expanding the Village
Here’s where I come in.
Other than my Americanness, I wasn’t much different from the other adults who add their verse to the academic conversation in which ’tvier engages its students, parents, faculty, and local community.
But I wanted to the ’tvier students to understand that while their school differs from traditional Flemish schools, they were connected to a larger, global community of students who were experiencing new ways of learning, connecting, communicating, and participating as responsible and active citizens.
I was fumbling with the laptop, because I wanted to show the students a short video I produced with documentary filmmaker Cassidy Friedman, as part of a larger series on “restorative cities.” In the video, students from Detroit participate in a proactive restorative circle.
Inspired by the openness and warmth of the circle, Nyla—a student who is about the same age as the Belgian students—talks to her teacher about a problem she is having with the peer group. Nyla and her teacher discuss the situation, come up with some strategies to repair Nyla’s relationships, and agree to meet the following day.
I’m not sure if the Dutch students caught the nuances of the Detroit video. But I hope they saw a reflection of themselves, and the possibility of what a new reality might bring—one in which our differences matter less than our common humanity.