Martina Bodnarova is tackling the challenges of the Slovakian education system in order to ignite a movement of cooperation, empathy, and creativity to spread beyond the classroom walls.
The New Idea
Through SuperClass, Martina is cultivating and spreading empathy in Slovakia, beginning with the educational system. Her idea is based on the premise that every child has the right and capacity to participate and shape the cultural life of society. Martina uses the Slovakian school system as the mechanism to actualize her vision. She has developed an applied model of inclusive pedagogy to transform educational practices in Slovakia that unites dialogue and cooperation, while also fostering community and social conscience. At the heart of her methodology, Martina incentivizes new values in the school system including participation, openness, and teamwork. Through incentives, she creates an educational framework that values the unique qualities of every child. As a result of SuperClass, kids learn to act together when solving a problem and mastering a challenge, taking advantage of the unique set of skills in the group. Martina creates space for kids to express themselves freely, which for many, is the first time they are recognized as part of a solution.
Through SuperClass, Martina insinuates the teaching of empathy, cooperation, and changemaking behavior into the school system so that children learn these skills. She does so, however, under the guise of a competition, with language and performances familiar in Slovakian school classes and extracurricular activities. Even though SuperClass enters the school system looking like a competition, in reality it is non-competitive in its approach. Through SuperClass, Martina brings kids together to independently envision, plan, design, and create a performance around a particular theme. The competition theme varies by year, but always reflects current social issues and mature subject matter. These themes aim to increase the cultural awareness of children, teaching them to feel, think, create, and discover their talents. Every child, regardless of his/her background, race, ethnicity, or school, is ultimately a co-creator and a winner, and receives recognition by SuperClass. SuperClass incentivizes kids to cooperate with each other and the teacher. It improves their social and communication skills, equips them with new perspectives for their private and professional life, and encourages them to participate actively in the community.
Because SuperClass is active on the national level, it creates meeting points for children from a multitude of schools, regions, towns, and social backgrounds. In SuperClass, all children are equal, whether they are from different ethnicities, rich or poor families, have disabilities or are young offenders housed in juvenile detention centers. Martina’s idea is successfully spread through engaged teachers within various subjects, especially Slovak language, literature, religion, ethics, and music. There is a growing interest by students and teachers to apply the methodology beyond this traditional sphere, such as in the geography or mathematics curriculums. Martina sees her model of inclusive pedagogy as a tool for transforming and humanizing the entire field of education.
The education system in Slovakia has deteriorated over the last two decades of transition. Young people are trapped by inactivity and passivity in the classroom. Children need to be liberated from this indolence, yet require stimulation and motivation that is currently missing in the classroom. Without building cooperation, empathy, and teamwork as key values in schools, the educational system will continue to deny students the opportunity to learn and positively relate to one another. Martina creates a simple mechanism to enable children to think and reflect on valuable ideas, and then act on them together.
The primary and secondary education in Slovakia is deficient in terms of its promotion of independent thinking and student initiative, creative learning, updated teaching material, methods, and syllabi, which are often inherited from the former communist educational system. Due to these factors and low salary compensation, the number of qualified teachers is decreasing across Slovakia. Children are not encouraged to ask questions, form opinions, or discover the world around them. Successful education is correlated with passing grades, as individualism and competition are at the core of the official pedagogical concept. The result is a system in which teachers are trapped in a spiral of poor remuneration, social status, and lack of access to further education. Students and teachers do not find school to be a fun place to learn, let alone to exist. This deteriorating school-wide morale, learning environment, and student performance leads to more visible problems such as low school attendance, bullying, and an increasing prevalence of school dropouts. It also leads to a small and elite percentage of kids who have access to the opportunities that exist for educational growth and development. According to official statistics, only 4 percent of children in Slovakia are so-called “talents.” This small group of children has the opportunity to represent their schools or communities at championships and competitions and receive dedicated support. SuperClass supports the other 96 percent of children and proves that every child is gifted, willing to learn, and full of potential and creativity.
Without the necessary emotional skills to master challenges and seek opportunities to grow, aggressive behavior, bullying and indifference are consequences that play out in the classroom. Schools, however, do not currently reduce bullying and aggressive behavior effectively, which further inhibits children’s learning and development of emotional intelligence. These emotional skills are also key for reducing the social segregation that continues to undermine fair education and employment prospects for marginalized communities. For example, thousands of Romani children are erroneously placed in special schools or segregated in Roma-only schools across Slovakia. Martina’s idea is founded on the assumption that all people are naturally able to empathize with one another and create change, they just need to be surrounded by conditions that foster it. She believes the school system is the ideal entry point for activating change from within children, rather than allowing problems such as aggressive behavior, bullying, and social segregation to persist and become norms in society.
Martina’s model is unique and simple at the same time, employing a mechanism that is sufficiently motivational so it can live and spread itself. SuperClass is a national competition for school classes, in which an entire school class works together for a full year on a particular theme. The theme of the SuperClass competition varies annually but always reflects current social issues, such as “Can money change the world,” “What it means to get old,” “Cooperation,” or “All for one and one for all.” An entire school class is expected to focus on this theme for the school year and create an original performance or video clip of their communal impressions and view of the theme after the full year of reflection and practice. The preparation for SuperClass begins with topical discussion guided by teachers from various subjects (especially Slovak language and literature, religion and ethics, or music), development of the materials, and practice and training. Children lead each step of the production, however, from brainstorming the first ideas to the presentation, with an emphasis on the participation of all children within the class. In a school system where children are reduced to mere recepients of static information and outdated teaching material, SuperClass opens a space for activation, reflection, collaborative action and student-led learning. The competition rounds are organized in all district capitals of Slovakia, in venues where the children have the chance to present on a real stage. For many children, this is the first time they are in a theater, let alone on a stage being applauded by the 300+ students in the audience from other schools participating. The grand finale of SuperClass is held in Bratislava each year.
SuperClass encourages children to come to school and to stay in school. It provides a simple mechanism to encourage children to attend, and also to think and reflect on valuable thoughts and ideas. For example, for a class to participate, all children must participate. If one child decides he/she does not want to participate, the entire class is disqualified. This has never happened, however, because the class convinces the child who resists through positive reinforcement. New relationships among students are built that foster non-aggressive leadership. The teacher’s role shifts, too, as he/she becomes more of a coordinator, while the class learns to lead itself.
Even though the culmination of SuperClass is a performance, SuperClass is not about the performance, as is the case with many competitions. It is important that children perform, yet not important how perfectly they perform. The performances create the structure to offer kids an entire year to express ideas freely, work together, and not be inhibited by competition. This ensures that minority children, including Roma and disabled children, are included. Children come to compete, but they leave feeling that they have won, and recognize that everyone else has won, too. SuperClass ensures that an entire class works together and respects one another as part of the end product. This process ultimately changes children and their perception of themselves. SuperClass is accredited by the Ministry of Education as a voluntary competition for schools and is part of the official educational program of Slovakia as a recommended project within compulsory school subjects. This allows educational facilities to include SuperClass as a voluntary activity within the school curriculums. Even though the entire Slovakian school system is based on different subject-based competitions, SuperClass is the only national competition that aims to inspire a new culture of empathy in the elementary and secondary schools of Slovakia.
Martina is creating a world where children learn how to communicate without conflict, be empathetic, avoid judgment, develop joy from acquiring knowledge, and approach life creatively. Martina engages a wide range of stakeholders in order to actualize this vision, yet cleverly incentivizes them to participate in SuperClass. The competitions are designed to activate children, engage them collaboratively and create a new class culture. The students love SuperClass because it is fun, interactive, and goal-oriented. Teachers are also key stakeholders required for the success of SuperClass. SuperClass strengthens teachers’ curriculums and strategies in the classroom. Teachers can even earn a larger salary through the continued education credits offered through SuperClass, which are approved by the Ministry of Education. There are currently more than 500 teachers involved who receive feedback and advice by the SuperClass organization on a rolling basis. Parents are involved to support their kids, get engaged in the competition and become ambassadors of the empathy movement. Government officials, churches and municipal authorities consider SuperClass to be a way to revitalize the cultural life in their communities. Experts and academics, engaged as advisors and trainers, process SuperClass academically and promote the results within universities and national educational institutions. The Ministry of Education, a key strategic partner of SuperClass, increasingly promotes it as a best practice and incorporates the approach and methodology into its educational reform. The products of the competitions are spread throughout the country using the power of social media, together with press conferences and mass media.
Martina’s mid-term aim is to establish communication and networks with the more than 3,000 primary and secondary schools in Slovakia. Extensive lobbying is done at the regional educational offices of the Ministry of Education, the body ultimately responsible for approving the competitions for which schools are applying, and the 400 Slovak Mayors, who are generous supporters of SuperClass. Three press conferences per year spread the empathy movement into the media and homes of Slovak society inviting them to join SuperClass, raising awareness and triggering public discussions about problem areas not yet sufficiently recognized, such as bullying and the lack of educational development opportunities for all children.
Since the birth of SuperClass eight years ago, 25,000 kids have completed the program. Martina’s goal is that as children participate in SuperClass, this new type of learning becomes the norm in schools globally. Currently, of the 300 classes participating each year, at least half rejoin each year. Schools who have participated in SuperClass since the first year are more independent and students more curious to learn. To reach Martina’s vision for changing school systems globally, SuperClass has grown significantly since 2006 when Martina founded it. Currently there are SuperClass classes in Romania, Serbia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. At the summer camp for training coordinators, coordinators from new potential countries have participated, including France, Norway, Finland, and Luxemburg. Martina aims to spread SuperClass throughout the European Union and to develop a European network of national SuperClass competitions. Because SuperClass is a relatively simple methodology that generates a great deal of enthusiasm in teachers and students, it can easily be copied and spread. SuperClass will also spread easily through its network community approach, in which teachers become active members within the SuperClass organization and work as ambassadors to spread the idea to more schools.
SuperClass was recently recommended as a best practice in an official strategy paper of the Ministry of Education discussing the future of the Slovak education system. And in 2010, SuperClass was the only project from Slovakia chosen as a “Good Practice Model of the European Educational Network.” As such, it will be promoted in all the states of the EU as a role model for teaching applied humanities. Martina is at a key turning point in her work as she begins to scale across Europe, after building the infrastructure and momentum in Slovakia.
Martina was born into a family of teachers and physicians, which fostered in her a thirst for knowledge and a passion for education. From early childhood, she was exposed to the problems in the school system and the importance of quality education. In her youth, she became involved in projects aimed to improve health and education systems. During high school, Martina was a member of a group that brought drama performances, including puppet theater, to hospitals in order to improve the patient experience, in particular oncology departments. She later worked on a large-scale project for elementary schools that focused on environmental education and ecology. Martina went on to complete her master’s degree in cultural management at the Faculty of Philosophy of Comenius University in Bratislava just as the revolution was beginning.
The fall of the iron curtain and the disintegration of Czechoslovakia took Martina to the streets, where she experienced the power of collective action and persistent passion for social transformation—entirely driven by young people. At the time of the revolution, Martina did not know if the young people would succeed or if they would be persecuted. Despite being pregnant at the time, Martina and her friends joined the movement. She created the posters used on the streets and reassured neighbors that the times were changing for the better. Martina distinctly remembers that this drive for change came from young people, who were active without fear. During these difficult yet transformative times, Martina understood that change is most possible when young people believe in its possibilities, and then drive it forward. She saw university students as the first to join the movement, followed by secondary schools one by one, and finally companies and enterprises. Surrounded by soldiers and police, Martina remembers questioning if the soldiers and police would listen to the orders from the top or to their own children’s plea for freedom. For the most part, they listened to their children, and Martina experienced how a powerful idea spreads quickly throughout society. But she also understood that sustaining a movement requires the long breath of building up infrastructure. This observation led Martina to found SuperClass years later.
Martina began her career in the turbulent aftermath of the fall of socialism. High unemployment rates, social disintegration and the cultural vacuum left in Slovak society inspired her to experiment with arts as a means to lift self-esteem, create meaning, and build community. Beginning in 1993, Martina developed educational and artistic programs for children outside of the official school curriculum and experimented with a number of pedagogical methods and tools. After the birth of her second child, Martina became part of a team that established a center for people in crisis. In the 1990s, and despite her involvement in pioneering a number of other children’s programs at the time, Martina pioneered the field of art-therapy in the hospital of academician Ladislav Derer in Bratislava. She later became a manager of children’s projects at the National Centre for Music. During this time, she was routinely confronted with the competition-based and exclusive practices of the Slovak Ministry of Culture. For several years, Martina struggled alone to make the changes she envisioned from within the system. She recognized that systemic change would be far too slow through this method, so in 2005 Martina founded SuperClass.
A mother of three, Martina is particularly committed to creating a world for her children and all children that promotes empathy. Rooted in her own experiences as a mother, she recognizes that change must begin in the schools. Her son was regularly bullied in school, and despite Martina’s pressure, the teachers were never able to address the bullying in the classroom. Reinforced by her experiences during the revolution, Martina knew this transformation to free, creative, and active youth and school systems would involve a slow process of change in the way the young generation thinks. The children in school today and the children in future generations were not part of the same revolution that Martina experienced, but SuperClass enables Martina to bring that experience to children so they have the same ability to look at what is in front of them and say, “This is what I have to do.” This mission requires opening up the eyes of children and helping them recognize their potential to envision and act.
In 2005, Martina happened across an episode of American Idol on television. She was impressed by how it attracted so many young people, yet was shocked by the passivity and consumerism it promoted. This was when she had the simple realization that helped to inspire SuperClass: she realized that by turning the concept of American Idol upside down, combining it with inclusive pedagogy, and using the national competitions as an entry point into the official school system, she could ignite a national movement of empathy. Why not attract children working on themselves so that they would be motivated to be active in developing a program themselves? Martina implemented a successful pilot program within the National Centre for Music, which was later rejected by the institution because of incompatibility with the official practice. She launched the SuperClass initiative later in 2005 while still working at the National Centre, which was enormously successful with 300 classes joining the initial competition. In 2006 she left the National Centre to commit herself fully to SuperClass and develop her vision that every child can work together to create an empathic, meaningful and just society.