Brushing Off the Chalk: UNICEF Looks at Education Innovation

September 30th, 2014

There we were, sitting in a lecture room at the University of the West Indies, brushing off our shoulders and laughing self-consciously.

What were we up to? Well, Marvin Hall, founder of Halls of Learning, had just instructed us to get into the spirit of his presentation by “brushing off the chalk.” The audience (mostly teachers, university students, community activists and entrepreneurs) were enjoying themselves thoroughly by this time, at UNICEF Jamaica’s Activate Talk: “Far from Chalk and Talk: Learning from Innovative Approaches in Education.” Despite the UNICEF staff’s concerns that the audience might be thinned out by the ongoing Chikungunya outbreak, it was a full house. And we laughed a great deal.

UNICEF's Connolly: Looking for a spark.

UNICEF’s Connolly: Looking for a spark.

As UNICEF Representative Mark Connolly observed, Jamaica excels in education – on paper. But we all know that we need more than examination results and grades. Connolly was expecting – hoping – for fires to be lit. Or at least, some “sparks” to fly during the discussion. Although it may have been a little quiet at first, I certainly saw more than a flicker in the eyes of those present by the end. The presence of an enthusiastic group of young people, and the ebullient moderator Emprezz Golding, helped energize the conversations.


“Little but tallawah” Deika Morrison is an entrepreneur, NGO energizer, business consultant and a woman with a vision. “I’m not a parent or an educator,” she declares, I’m a problem solver.” The co-founder of the non-profit Do Good Jamaica talked about her beloved project, Crayons Count Jamaica (nearly three years old now), which gives Jamaican tots the tools for creative learning and is featured every Saturday in the Gleaner. Morrison never stops advocating for early childhood education. And every year she receives a huge shipment of exciting materials to distribute, thanks to tremendous support from sponsor National Bakery. Morrison glows with pride, telling us that this year Crayons Count has gone island wide, providing 2,500 early childhood institutions (approximately 125,000 children ages 3-6) with tool kits – standard recommended materials. Nor has she forgotten the teachers; with the support of the U.S. Embassy, seventy educators were trained in 2012, and the Learning Lorry trains some 60 – 72 teachers per week.

(l-r) Deika Morrison, Jason Henzell, Marvin Hall, Renee Rattray interact.

(l-r) Deika Morrison, Jason Henzell, Marvin Hall, Renee Rattray interact.

Then there is EduSports. Jason Henzell recalls his abiding love for sports, with memories of his father (the late filmmaker Perry Henzell) distributing footballs brought back from a trip to Brazil. He also recalls his own educational transition from the “glamorous Hillel Academy” in uptown Kingston to Beverley All Age School in the quiet hamlet of Treasure Beach on the south coast. Like Deika Morrison, Henzell has a business background; he owns and manages Jakes Hotel Villas and Spa. But he is a community man at heart, founding  BREDS Treasure Beach Foundation in 1998 with a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer. “Children don’t need more time in the classroom to learn,” Henzell asserts. He believes physical activity is an important way for children to develop and learn. Under its Sports for Development co-sponsored by UNICEF and others, BREDS has reached 1,250 children in eleven schools, expanding to 4,000 in seventeen schools in the next year. Another tool for team-building and motivation is the General Colin Powell Challenge Course, co-sponsored by the Jamaica Defence Force, UNICEF and others, working with the government’s Citizens Security and Justice Program to bring young people from volatile communities to really challenge themselves.

Marvin Hall: Give the children a little freedom to explore.

Marvin Hall: Give the children a little freedom to explore.

The last two presenters are both former teachers, who left the traditional system but continue to infuse their ideas into schools across the country. Renée Rattray heads the JN Foundation’s education programmes. A former school principal with non-profit experience, she has an indefinable “presence” and energy. Rattray doesn’t want any more “excuses” from teachers who are not ready for innovation, she says. She wants to see educators “Get It” (get everyone learning, focusing on people); “Set It” (set the tone for success); and “Just Do It” – to coin a familiar phrase. Rattray wants to see the “magic” of learning back in schools. She introduced a “magician” in the audience – Theobald Fearon, Principal of Godfrey Stewart High School in Westmoreland – a school at one time to be avoided, and now one of JN Foundation’s Centres of Excellence. Rattray also believes teachers can learn from each other, citing Bill Gates’ “Flattening Classroom Walls” concept.

Renee Rattray: No excuses!

Renee Rattray: No excuses!

Marvin Hall is a former Mathematics teacher. He believes in the “hands-on” stuff. No chalk and talk for him. Since 2008, he has conducted robotics summer camps and workshops. “Lego Yuh Mind” involves building – Build from Design, Build from Real and Build from Imagination. His most recent summer camp, reaching over 500 children at twelve high schools, encouraged financial intelligence, developing skills in Buying and Selling (kids love to conduct transactions themselves, Hall observes), Profit and Loss, Entrepreneurial Thinking and Participation in a Market Economy. The enthusiasm of the students delights Hall: “One of them threw his money in the air to make it rain!” he laughs. He also believes in the school/community nexus, deliberately taking his workshops into inner city communities.

What about the results – the insights – the potential for the future?

Jason Henzell says the vast majority of teachers he surveyed about his sports programs noted a marked improvement in self-esteem, discipline and academic focus among students who participated. Deika Morrison notes how quickly young children learn, and the teachers’ growing enthusiasm for the teaching methods. Renée Rattray has seen how the community has rallied round Godfrey Stewart High School – “I don’t believe that parents don’t care” – and the importance of that relationship. Marvin Hall has proved that “if you give the kids the freedom, and put the tools in their hands…They will take it in all sorts of directions.”

Bright ideas, determination and drive, partnerships and support, with all these ingredients, the possibilities for learning – and for a love of learning – are endless. So how do we make Rattray’s magic “commonplace,” one teacher asks?

“It is contagious,” she responds, with conviction. “It spreads.”


Would you like to support any of these organizations through volunteering, perhaps? Here is their contact information; they all have Facebook pages. Do get in touch.

Crayons Count:   @CrayonsCount

Do Good Jamaica, The Guango Tree House, 29 Munroe Road, Kingston 6    Tel: (876) 970-4108

BREDS Treasure Beach Foundation:  @BredsTB

Calabash Bay P.A, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth   Tel: (876) 965-0748 or (876) 965-3435

Jamaica National Foundation:  @JNFoundation

32 1/2 Duke Street, Kingston    Tel: (876) 926.-1344

Halls of Learning:   @hallsoflearning   Tel: (876) 869-8862


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