4 different school years, 14 pupils – and all in one class! The Nature Park School in Brandberg is remarkable, environmentally aware and has strong regional roots. These feature are valued by both the children and their parents alike. The school principle, Stefan Dengg, gives us an insight into this small and special school in Brandberg.
Small school in the midst of nature
The school in Brandberg has been officially termed a Nature Park School since 2009. The small but perfectly formed Nature Park School lies in the middle of the village of Brandberg with it’s 367 inhabitants. In it’s garden, nestled between the surrounding mountains, some pupils are playing. They greet us with radiant and friendly faces. Colourful drawings, photos of pupil activities and excursions and handcrafted animals decorate the entrance of the Nature Park School. The pupils, sitting in front of the four computers in the the foyer, look at us inquisitively. The school principle, Stefan Dengg, comes around the corner and asks us if we mind waiting for a moment. “The lesson will be finished in just a few minutes and then I’ll have time for you. But please feel free to look around in the meantime”, smiles the principle before returning to his class.
Brandberg’s pioneering Nature Park School
The bell marks the end of the school day. Stefan Dengg shows us into his empty classroom where we learn more about the small school. “We were the first school of it’s kind in west Austria. After a probationary year we were allowed to officially call ourselves a nature park school.” The principle proudly shows us some newspaper articles, photographs and mementos of the founding of the school. “In order to call ourselves a nature park school, we have to fulfill several criteria but there is still plenty of scope for school autonomy”, says the principle. Here is a summary of some of the features of a nature park school:
• The school must lie in a nature park borough.
• The concept of the school must be in line with the aims of the nature park.
• The learning objectives should be based on 4 themes: protection, regeneration, education and regional development.
• The nature park and the school should work together on joint projects.
• At least one nature park day and several project days are to be included in each school year.
• Teachers must receive yearly training on the subject of nature parks.
• Every school has to complete a school project related to the nature park.
The differences are what makes the school special
“In comparison to other schools, there is a special atmosphere in our Brandberg school. The advantage of such a small school, with just 14 girls and boys, is that there is a friendly environment. We know each of our children really well and are able to build a close relationship with them”, explains Stefan Dengg. His aim of making the children more environmentally aware and helping them develop a love of nature is more easily achieveable with a small number of pupils. Currently six boys and eight girls between the ages of six and ten are enrolled at the Nature Park School. “Three are in year one, three in year two and there are four pupils in both year 3 and 4”, the principal informs us.
A maths lesson for four different school years
In addition to the classroom lessons, nature park lessons and projects are taught outside in the fresh air. But how is it possible to teach a maths lesson for four different school years? Stefan Dengg gives us an example: “I taught my last lesson outside. I had thought up a different task for every school year. The three pupils in year one practiced the numbers 1-3 and drew round circles on paper. The boys and girls in year two used a textbook to find tips for understanding written mathematical problems. With the remaining eight older children, I measured the circumference of trees. That way all ages of children were busy.” As simple as it might seem, lots of creativity and imagination goes into planning the lessons.
Learning in the fresh air
The school’s focus on nature and regionalism is reflected in the teaching. Outdoor projects such as excursions in the nature park, collecting rubbish and nature park days strengthen the children’s environmental awareness. “The activities outside of the school develop the children’s’ ability to assimilate knowledge and to concentrate”, explains the principle. In science, children are taught about chamois and ibex instead of lions and tigers. “Local wildlife is given preference. It’s the same in other subjects. For example, in music we learn traditional songs from the Ziller Valley”, says Stefan Dengg.
Nature park projects and the book of local tales
The three teachers are always coming up with new tasks for their pupils. In addition to nature park projects, compiling their own book of local tales from the nature park particularly appealed to the children. “We took stories from the nature park and the pupils wrote them in their own words. As well as composing the texts, the pupils were able to use their creativity to illustrate it. The book was then printed and 50 copies were sold. The pupils were thrilled to be able to hold their own book in their hands!”, explains the principal. “I am really proud that my drawing was put on the cover”, exclaims Kathi enthusiastically. According to Stefan Dengg, “projects such as these strengthen the community and help to develop the children’s environmental awareness in a fun way.”
Funny stories from everyday life at the school
Towards the end of our meeting, Stefan Dengg tells us a funny story: “Once we were visiting a guesthouse in the village, just next to the school. The pupils were really pleased to be given sweets. After about an hour, as we were walking back to the school, I heard someone shout to me. An observant hiker had found several discarded sweet wrappers on the pavement between the guesthouse and our school. Disappointed, I asked the pupils why they hadn’t thrown their rubbish in the bin, especially as they are learning about environmental awareness. Their answer surprised me. They said, ‘We were just preparing. Collecting rubbish is on our lesson timetable later today and last time we found almost no rubbish on the roads.’ Stefan Dengg hadn’t expected this response. “Naturally I told them that this wasn’t the right behavior, but I wasn’t quite as disappointed as before”, smiles the principal, saying goodbye to us and preparing himself for his next lesson.