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Spinning alo ng together

Primary pupils learn French and geography with a partner school in Africa. Carolyn O'Grady reports

A secondary school and its feeder primaries have designed a project which brings them together, links two subjects - geography and French - and connects all the schools to a developing country in Africa. It's like one of those 3D puzzles in which the pieces come perfectly and satisfyingly together.

Of course, it wasn't quite as smooth as that, as Neil Jones, language college manager at Elliott School in Wandsworth, admits. There was a fair amount of luck involved, and "feeling our way".

The idea for one piece of the puzzle - teaching geography through the medium of French - came to him on a trip to New Brunswick, where he saw how Canadian teachers taught their French speakers English and vice versa by teaching subjects through the medium of the other language. "We were blown away by how they did it," he says. "They quickly got pupils who had never learned French formally to the point where they could describe, say, the processes of volcanic eruption in French. It seemed a much more meaningful way of learning a language."

Elliott School was already involved in teaching languages to its feeder primaries. The choice of geography as a subject happened almost intuitively, says Neil. However, the fact that they had established a link with a school in Burkina Faso was a factor. "Suddenly everything fell into place. We thought, why not teach geography in French, with the link playing a leading part both in the primaries and in Year 7 here?" says Neil.

"Apart from providing a real case study, which enriches the subject, the link gives the pupils a context for communication, which is connected to the curriculum."

Pupils correspond with L'ecole Primaire de Zorgho Nord (by mail as the African school doesn't have email or fax) and, as well as questions about family, favourite sport, spare time, and so on, they can ask about the terrain, farming and means of transport.

The link has also enriched other areas of the curriculum. Elliott School has introduced African drumming (music is a very important part of Burkinabe culture) and the arts department is planning to focus on African art. Partly, this was a response to concerns about presenting a negative image: "We don't want to harp on about the lack of development or to present pupils there as people who just need things," says Neil.

However, it is also an acknowledgement that such a link improves pupils'

understanding on many levels. Elliott School is now hoping to get funding for a visit by teachers from the school to Burkina Faso and a reciprocal visit from the African school.

Roehampton Church School, one of Elliott's primary feeder schools, has been involved in the geography through French programme for three years. Once a week they are visited by a French teacher from the secondary school, usually Mary Thurston, head of languages.

Observing a lesson, it becomes apparent that geography is a subject which particularly lends itself to teaching some basic French. Mary Thurston talks in a mixture of French and English, and uses materials especially designed by Elliott teachers for the course.

Numbers and letters arise naturally through grid references. Vocabulary includes physical features, such as rivers, mountains and seas, and the five continents - all with many references to Burkina Faso.

During the next lesson, pupils will be writing their first letter to the African school, using a writing frame, and Mary will be focusing much more specifically on France, Burkina Faso and the UK, comparing physical features and looking at development indicators. Every effort will be made to personalise the link with photos of the school and pupils, and descriptions of day-to-day lives.

When they arrive at Elliott School next year many of these Year 6 pupils will continue to do geography in the usual English, but will mirror and expand what they have already been doing in French lessons, looking, as before, at the UK, France and Burkina Faso. "Apart from making progress in their French we have found that pupils' geography skills are much better, and in both French and geography, we know exactly what we're dealing with when they arrive at Elliott," says Mary.

The link is brought to life in large and small ways, says Neil. As we are speaking a young girl enters with a key-ring, exhibiting the kind of plastic plaiting so popular with pupils at the moment. In Burkina Faso, this sort of work occurs in a lot of traditional art. He mentions this to her. It's the kind of personalisation the school likes to encourage.

* The link with Burkina Faso was set up through the British Council's Windows on the World website The trip was funded through the Millennium Awards

* Elliott School is taking part in a three-year study of bilingual learning as part of CILT, The National Centre for Languages' Content and Language Integration Project (Clip)

Burkina Faso

This landlocked country in West Africa covers an area of about 274,000 square kilometres and has a population of around 13 million. The capital is Ouagadougou.

The country was a French colony until 1960 and French is its official language. However, 90 per cent of the people also speak African languages.

This is one of the poorest countries in the world; life expectancy is 45.7 and infant mortality 831,000. More than 80 per cent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, with only a small fraction directly involved in industry and services. Drought, poor soil, lack of adequate communications and other infrastructure, and a low literacy rate are longstanding development issues. Burkina Faso is a constitutional republic.

For more information visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website and click on the link for country profiles


Elliott School's tips on making the link:

* Try to organise a staff visit to the country you have formed links with, to discuss priorities and gather materials. If possible, get representatives from your partner school to travel to the UK to meet your colleagues.

* Get advice on customs and traditions from outside agencies, such as VSO and the British Council.

* Be prepared to accept communication difficulties. Communication by email or fax may not be possible and letters can go astray.

* Establish a project plan with the overseas link and match priorities. For example, a priority for the Burkina Faso school was that the UK school fundraised. This is an important aspect of citizenship (children can organise events), but a UK school will probably want more input. Be clear what that is.

* Try to gather material which personalises the link, such as photos of children, together with information about their daily lives. Children react very positively when presented with, say, a picture of a child of their own age, rather than being told: "Today we are going to learn about Burkina Faso."

* Introduce positive images of the country to offset what could otherwise be a too negative a picture.

* Encourage other departments in the school to utilise the link in their lessons.

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