Special needs pupils in Sussex and Finland have been developing friendships across Europe and testing their communication and IT skills via a new online partnership scheme. Yojana Sharma reports
From Finland comes Odso Bear, with just a smattering of English, to sample the delights of Ashdown forest in East Sussex, while Spencer Bear from the UK, with fewer than three words of Finnish in his vocabulary, is taken on a tour of the narrow streets and typical varnished timber houses of Porvoo in Finland.
The teddy bears' overseas adventures are avidly followed by special needs (SEN)pupils from two mainstream institutions, Sackville school, in East Grinstead - Spencer's birthplace - and Kumpula school in Porvoo, an hour east of Helsinki, which is Odso's home town.
The Backpacker Bear project, is part of a link between the two schools, set up through eTwinning, the European Commission's partnership programme for schools. Odso and Spencer sent holiday snaps and diaries of their trips abroad, which pupils could read online.
"The children were really excited when Spencer bear arrived in Finland - they took him to all the sights in and around Porvoo," says Paso Siltakorpi, a teacher at Kumpula school. "Even at their age (14 and 15 years old), they like teddies and treat them as if they are alive."
The bears helped pupils to picture their twinned school's environment and surroundings. Porvoo's rivers and streams contrasted with Sussex's forests and downs.
"Getting interested in countries outside their own is good for citizenship and widening cultural awareness," says Anne Jakins, SEN co-ordinator at Sackville. Many of her special needs pupils have communication difficulties.
Spencer and Odso have broken down the barriers and sparked a spate of emails between the pupils from the two schools. As they began to communicate more, discussing the bears' adventures, the emails have become less formal and more relaxed, Ms Jakins says.
"The bears help. It softens the children. They can show a bit of heart," says Mr Siltakorpi.
For SEN pupils, a traditional foreign exchange visit can be a difficult challenge, so eTwinning provides an alternative mode for pupils to link up through specific projects. Most schools go through several stages with eTwinning. First, staff exchange personal emails, then pupils get to know each other via email, introducing themselves, their schools, their hobbies and interests. But going beyond that requires a common interest between the schools. Because Finnish schools have government funds to translate their school websites into English, linking up with an English school was the best option for Kumpula.
"I wanted the pupils to learn about a different culture and we teachers wanted to learn more about inclusion of special needs, as our country is moving towards that model," Mr Siltakorpi explains.
The next stage is to use technology to launch a theme for discussion. This often develops into a multimedia experience as schools exchange videos and sound recordings. Thanks to Nick Falk, Sackville's ICT co-ordinator, many innovative games has been set up to keep the communication going between the twinned schools. The first joint venture between Sackville and Kumpula was Through the Window, a project looking at cultural similarities - and differences.
The Spring Project was a geographical comparison using an interactive map of Ashdown forest in Sussex. Hotspots were included for pupils to click on and learn about local flora and fauna on a route through the forest, which Odso Bear later followed.
Using computers to build a school partnership has huge benefits for special needs pupils, some with autistic spectrum disorders. "There are fewer distractions and students are very focused, " says Ms Jakins. The response from Porvoo provides exciting feedback and improves the quality of writing, she says: "The opportunity to change the work they have done and to proof-read makes a big difference. Students take more pride in their work, knowing that it will be read enthusiastically by the Finnish pupils."
The link can also help defuse a sensitive situation."If a student arrives in an emotional state, sending an email to our partners in Finland calms them down," she says.
Being twinned has broadened Sackville pupils' outlook beyond their local area. Initially they could barely locate Finland on a map. Now they have become interested in Finland's links with Russia and Scandinavia, and more broadly with the European Union.
Sackville and Kumpula have discussed a future festival project to enable pupils to gain a broader insight into each other's cultures, using live video and digitally formatted music technology to communicate.
The link has hitherto been so beneficial that Sackville school is working on embedding eTwinning into the curriculum,"so that it not just an add-on," Ms Jakins says.
With Mr Falk, she has set up an eTwinning support group in the Sussex area to encourage other schools to embark on an electronic partnership."Unlike other twinning schemes, eTwinning is able to closely match schools'
particular needs and interests," she says.
The partner-finding tool on the eTwinning website (see box, below) closely matches projects and specific interests, guaranteeing a match with a like-minded school. And unlike those schools that are linked through the Comenius project, schools can be eTwinned for a short project or, as is the case with Sackville and Kumpula, for as long as they like.
eTwinning puts you in touch
It was launched earlier this year in Brussels by European Schoolnet. In this country, it is run by the British Council. The eTwinning website* has a partner-finding tool so that schools across Europe can set up a link based on common interests or projects.
Once the partnership is registered with eTwinning, schools are given access to bulletin boards, message systems and file-sharing to develop the link further.
The eTwinning multilingual support service runs a helpdesk in Brussels which can steer newcomers through the process. Support staff provide tips on how to get the most out of the links - in particular for specific projects such as mathematics or science - and are able to consult a network of teacher-advisers on curriculum issues specific to particular countries.
The eTwinning website also has examples of successful partnerships and a database of projects and topics that can be customised by teachers. Some 6,000 schools - 500 in the UK - signed up in the first six months after eTwinning was launched in January. Some 700 collaborative projects have been established, 70 of them involving UK schools. European Schoolnet has recently launched a Europe-wide eTwinning award for the most inspiring link.