A different lesson with the Vocational School of Audio, Video and Telecommunication “A. S. Popov”
“Miss, you missed the most interesting part of today.”
A student uses these words to greet Ms. Margarita Yanakieva, Director of the Sofia Vocational School of Audio, Video and Telecommunication “A. S. Popov”, in the school yard. It is late October. A bit chilly, but pleasant enough for an outdoor lesson in the courtyard. This lesson, however, is not like the lessons you probably remember from your high school years. And this school is a far cry from your stereotype of a professional “male” high school. This is a story of a model school that is boldly moving toward its goal of providing a modern, quality education and opportunities for students to develop valuable skills for the future and their talents.
History and Philosophy Propaganda in The School Yard
“The most interesting thing in today’s day”, the student was referring to, is the joint binary lesson prepared by Nadia Tsvetkova, a history teacher, and Maria Karakoleva, a philosophy teacher at the high school. The two are part of the pedagogical team of the gymnasium, which is now in its second year of undergoing the complete learning experience in the Model Schools Program of the Teach For Bulgaria Foundation. It is the only qualification programme in Bulgaria that supports schools in improving their management practices and updating their teaching approaches, free of charge, by seeking a holistic transformation of the learning process with the student at its core.
In the past school year, based on the experience in the program, the high school teachers have discovered a new strength in lessons that integrate the teaching of several subjects. That’s because the possibilities of this approach are also linked to many of the school’s long-term goals – improving student motivation to learn, more engagement with the subjects being studied, fostering teamwork among students and teachers, and building a strong community.
At the very beginning of the 2023/2024 school year, when the weekly program was being arranged, Nadia and Maria knew that they wanted to make an integrated lesson to challenge themselves and the students. To apply ideas from the Model Schools training and see the impact on the students.
Teachers from the team of VSAVT “A. S. Popov” together with Olga Ninova-Trayanova, mentor of the school, and Maria Velasquez, senior specialist “Support of School Teams” in the Model Schools program Part of the pedagogical team observed the lesson in order to participate afterwards in a useful reflection meeting.
“Planning the lesson was a challenge, and the idea of doing it with two classes gave us even more incentive. Despite the large number of students, it was important for us to explore our teamwork, but also the teamwork capability of the two classes working and learning jointly for the first time,” says teacher Nadia Tsvetkova about the preparation.
Another major challenge for the class is where to hold it because the school does not have a large enough room to accommodate 40+ students for effective work. However, the nice fall weather forecast entails an opportunity not to be missed, which is why the lesson is in the schoolyard. But there’s something else the teachers have discovered and are making the most of — the interest of the high school youth in sports and physical activity.
While waiting for the lesson to start, the courtyard is buzzing with students. A tall, large man with upright shoulders and a coach’s whistle around his neck cheerfully greets us – he is one of the Physical Education and Sports (PE) teachers. It is he who tells us how the students are keen sportsmen and, therefore, exhibit this passion even in the non-PE classes. This is something we will witness minutes later. In the courtyard, besides students, there are teachers who have free periods, the two vice-principals, and the mentor of the school in the Model Schools program. They have been invited by Nadia and Maria to join in as lesson observers and not just watch an open lesson, but also share their feedback and impressions in a special reflection meeting.
Case Solving, Creativity and Motivation
The bell has rung and the students of Classes 10B and 10D – all boys – are already gathered around several desks placed outside. The youngsters are in a good mood – whispering, chatting and occasionally laughing loudly. They have no idea what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t look like it will be a standard history or philosophy class.
When the two teachers raise their hands to signal for silence, the din of teen talk stops and curiosity rises. The classbegins with everyone arranging themselves in a circle so they can see each other. They receive a form with emoticons on which students note what their emotions are going into the lesson. From the beginning, teachers share that they will be running the same survey at the end of the lesson to see what has changed. This measurement of students’ emotional state is important feedback that gives teachers guidance about students’ experience in that lesson, but also whether changes are to be made prior to going into the class.
The lesson continues with questions that provoke the students to come to a conclusion regarding what the topic of the lesson would be—propaganda.
“We liked this topic because it is broad and gives students the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and critical thinking skills that are tangential between the two subjects,” the two teachers said.
In addition, the topic prompts students to make connections to the contemporary world, media, technology, and everyday situations, through which they develop valuable critical thinking and information evaluation skills, rather than simply reproducing texts from textbooks.
ClarrificationsSolving different casesOne of the groups has the task of keeping track of the group dynamics of their fellow classmates
However, the lesson is just beginning because the teachers split the two classes into groups at random (the groups include students from both classes who have not worked together before). Each group is given a specific assignment related to the lesson topic: answering questions related to reliving a specific historical moment; writing a press release praising the regime of a dictator; a freeze-frame picture that depicts the development of the Holocaust; coming up with alternative government agencies, who would change the state for the better; etc. One of the groups is also given a special assignment to monitor group dynamics among the other groups: how effectively the students are working, is everyone involved, how are decisions being made in the group, etc.
“It is 01.09.1939. Germany attacks Poland. Two days later, the UK and France declared war on Germany. Humanity is facing a Great War. Suddenly, a media blackout is issued, which is in full force for a week.”
How do you feel about not lacking information on current events?
What would you do to alleviate the situation?
How would a media blackout look today?
Create a press release, which hails Stalin’s, Mussolini’s, or Hitler’s regime (choose one of the three totalitarian leaders).
Three student groups work on this task. The topic is the Holocaust. The first group has to portray the stages of the Holocaust through body poses. The second must defend its opinion on whether it supports or opposes the Holocaust. The third group must recreate the meaning of the “Frozen picture” painting the image in a positive light.
The tasks are challenging, but the students are provoked and intrigued. Here they have to show not only knowledge and apply creativity, but also work together using their strengths, keep precise track of their work time, and then present their work to others.
The boys organize themselves at different speeds. Some discuss exactly what they understand in the condition of the cases at length. Others immediately start giving ideas, explaining what needs to be done passionately. Others try to gather more information and consult the teachers, who circulate among the groups and give further explanations of the conditions. The atmosphere is creative and even the teachers who are observing the lesson can’t resist joining a group and provoking the students with further questions.
The group that has to write a press release praising a chosen dictator of the twentieth century, must also share what people’s attitudes towards that person were and currently are, what medium they would use to send the message and why. The boys hesitate, unsure, but enthusiastically write down their ideas on a chequered sheet.
A few metres away, another group answers questions about how the citizens of Poland felt during the media blackout at the beginning of World War II. A heated discussion ensues, with students sharing not only what they know about that historical period, but also their associations with what is happening during the war in Ukraine today.
Near them is the group that has to recreate a frozen picture of the Holocaust, assigning roles and determining how to arrange everything into a picture.
По време на урока
“Putting students in a different learning environment and at the centre as main drivers of the process, they were initially surprised and less motivated, but throughout the lesson and at the end they were active, motivated, and satisfied. Their desire for future collaborative lessons was strengthened. The proof of this is the checklist with emoticons about their attitudes and expectations at the beginning and at the end of the lesson”, Nadia and Mariana say after the class.
Indeed, in the process of working, in the presentation of the tasks, and even the brief discussion/reflection at the end of the lesson, the students are more enthusiastic. Two lessons have passed imperceptibly and the impression is that something special has happened, making the class one to remember.
Some of the students with their teachers following the peculiar class session.
Reflection After The Lesson: Making It Meaningful For Everyone
The bell for the end of the lesson has rung, but this class continues in the principal’s office where Nadia and Mariana, together with some of the supervising teachers, the principal, Mrs. Yanakieva, the vice principals of the school, the mentor of the high school from Model Schools, and another colleague from the program have gathered to discuss what they have seen, to share their impressions, the strengths of the lesson, the areas for improvement, and the possible next steps on the school’s path. The reflection with other colleagues is key to the development of the team and a fundamental part of all experiences in the Model Schools programme. For it is the reflection on an experience that is the learning moment that allows not just good practice to be shown and seen, but for them to be openly analysed, built upon for the future, transferred to other classrooms and to be a useful qualifying experience for the high school team. Reflections after observing lessons help the school team to grow and be open in finding solutions to difficulties and challenges on the way to set goals.
Maria Velasquez is taking notes while observing the lesson.
“At Model Schools, we help educational teams become better and more confident in having these kinds of reflective conversations. We want them to make a habit of regularly reflecting and for teachers and school leaders to see the added value in this practice for themselves. We support them by encouraging them to ask the right questions, to not worry about weaknesses and mistakes but to look for ways to overcome them, to see the things that have worked well and apply them more often. In this way, over time, the school fosters a culture of continuous learning, which is the only path to achieving high goals for students and improving the school environment for all,” Maria Velasquez, Senior School Team Support Specialist at the Model Schools program, says.
The benefit of these open conversations and the overall experience in the program, which links the processes in the school logically, is also acknowledged by the school’s principal Mrs. Yanakieva.
“Before joining the programme, initially, there was almost no sharing of good pedagogical practices in the team. Afterwards we had sporadic demonstrations – my colleague Veronika Petkova began inviting colleagues to see her lessons, to plan together. Now that we are back from Covid and are part of Model Schools, we have over ten such lessons done in just a year and a half — without anyone from the management team having to set the task “Do a presentation, Good practice.” The teachers initiated it themselves and we have a lot of good practices being exchanged. This approach to students is infectious and I think the environment is improving. Students’ attitudes to the learning process are also changing for the better because they want this non-standardised type of lessons.” She continues to tell us more about the high school’s journey.
The high school’s principal, Margarita Yanakieva
A School With A Clear Idea of The Path Moving Forward
“I’ve always had some horizon in front of me, some steps in my mind of what I have to go through. The most important one is team building. Because even the most luxurious school, the one with the best facilities, won’t be worth anything if they don’t have a good team and good teachers,” shares Ms Yanakieva, who has been principal since 2020, but has been a teacher at the high school since 1998.
A few days after the lesson, I talked with her so she could tell me a bit more about the context of the school and what the Model Schools program helps them with most.
A strong belief that a successful school is built first and foremost with a strong team of professionals is what led the principal to the Teach For Bulgaria program. The high school applied for Model Schools two years ago but was not approved. Mrs Yanakieva’s clear confidence that this was the right place for her team and would give a strong boost to good practice in the school provoked her to apply again the following year. This time she received the cherished confirmation of participation.
“I felt like the programme was a great fit for us because the team I set out to form is made up of colleagues I know well as well as a few new faces. I wanted to take the creativity and spirit of the young and ignite those who had submitted to the routine. Model Schools provides the creativity that I strive for and gives, on the other hand, a good structured pedagogical interaction. They share with us what steps we have to go through to achieve a good lesson, a good pedagogical interaction,” the principal adds.
Ms Yanakieva shares with me a number of initiatives present in the school: a working school parliament, active search for dialogue and communication with students, parents, alumni and business. The school has even successfully engaged students in improving the school’s facilities (students themselves did a project to rewire and rebuild the high school’s WiFi network after renovations were made to the building as part of their thesis projects), opportunities for sports appearances, and a variety of clubs based on different interests.
The school deliberately works to create a community and a supportive environment where every student and every teacher can feel comfortable and develop their potential, where “there is both a formal and an informal dialogue between teachers and students.”
One of the stories the principal recounts to me is about a group of students who have a rock band who came to her to ask about an opportunity to rehearse in a classroom at the school. In addition to a positive response about using the school facilities, the principal also asks them if they need any additional amplifiers or equipment. “Ma’am, we’re at the right school and we’ll put together our own amps,” the students reply. This response also confirms that the efforts to build the school as a strong community are already bearing fruit.
“Model Schools is able to qualitatively change the environment of a school institution. The programme is not only focused on the work of the teacher in the classroom and the concrete pedagogical interaction. The approach to the school institution is much more global. Participating in it is a worthwhile effort. The learning process takes on a different, more unconventional focus, but is very well motivated, sustained, grounded, and based on many examples the program can give of the work of the different schools that participate in it,” Ms Yanakieva adds, encouraging more schools to take advantage of the opportunities the program creates.
The path of the Vocational School of Audio, Video and Telecommunication “A. S. Popov” continues in the coming months with mentor visits, live and online trainings, reflections and discussions, opportunities for collaborative learning through sharing practices and inspiration for the success of all students.
Is your school ready to take the path to change and be one of the next Model Schools?