Cross-cultural collaborators

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Shropshire pupils are enriching their linguistic skills by working with peers in Germany and Greece via e-mail and video links. Alison Thomas reports

Was ist dein Lieblingsge-schAft?" "Wie kommst du zur Schule?" The group of Year 9 pupils gazing anxiously at a blank computer screen in Ercall Wood School in Wellington, Shropshire, take advantage of the delay to indulge in a bit of last-minute conversation practice. It's a far cry from the apathetic approach towards revision language teachers often encounter. But these 13-year-olds have the ultimate incentive. They are about to meet real German teenagers. They want to get it right.

Ten minutes and several agonising technical hitches later, the screen springs into life to reveal Georg Keller of the Robert Schuman Realschule in the Black Forest and a group of 13-year-olds. "Hello. How are you all?" he says cheerily. The video conference has begun.

For the next 40 minutes pupils on both sides of the screen take it in turns to make short presentations in the receivers' language on a range of topics, such as school, leisure, food and drink, and shopping. They also ask questions, a skill often neglected in the classroom, and do their best to cope with replies.

This may be the first time Year 9 have "met" their German counterparts, but they are no strangers. Both schools have already compiled magazines for each other which offer a colourful glimpse into their respective education systems, lifestyles and local environment presented in the contributors' native tongue. They are also in the early stages of setting up web sites, another means of sharing information.

"It's all part of the process of establishing relationships," Tony Parker, head of languages, says. "Some of our pupils are taking part in an exchange in June, and by the time they go, they'll have communicated with their partners on screen and through e-mail. But a lot of our children can't afford trips abroad. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to experience a foreign country at first hand, to be involved with pupils of their own age. It gives their language work real meaning."

He also believes in the power of new technology as a motivating factor, especially for boys. "Ask them to write a letter in German and they'll do it under sufferance," he says. "Even finding a pen-friend may not be enough to get them going. But for some reason they do enjoy sitting at a computer, typing in a message and getting one back. Personally, I'd rather get a letter in the post, but they prefer e-mail. The rewards are immediate."

These initiatives would be exciting in their own right, yet they are only part of a wider multi-dimensional project involving four European schools. It all started 16 months ago when the new Anglo-German partnership agreed to broaden the scope of its aims by applying for funding from Comenius, the chapter of the EU Socrates programme which awards money to multilateral partnerships working on a joint cross-curricular project. Drama was chosen as the unifying theme and two Greek schools - the Gymnasion Kamaron in Kamares and the Pagrition School in Crete - were invited to join them in their venture.

"In terms of direct linguistic benefits, a French school might have seemed the obvious choice," Mr Parker says. "But our aims were much wider. We wanted to open the children's eyes to a culture beyond the conventional western European ones. As the birthplace of drama, Greece seemed ideal. " Having succeeded in their bid, the four schools communicated by fax and telephone to co-ordinate their plans and details were finalised at a weekend conference in Crete. They now have until July to complete their projects and record them on video for their partners to share. The Realschule's contribution has several strands including the creation of an intriguing "living" picture to be published on the Internet. Pagrition School is adapting poetry for a theatrical production while Gymnasion Kamaron's presentation will reflect aspects of Greek drama, poetry, sculpture, pottery, art and architecture. Meanwhile, Ercall Wood is preparing a medley of songs, dance, sketches and mime based on the theme of Europe past, present and future.

"The initial phase of the project has involved the entire lower school, " Mr Parker says. "They are the authors, and in English lessons they've been writing essays, discussing issues, planning things together. A group of keen pupils will now be selected to act as a project team. It will be their job to edit this material - adapt it, find musical arrangements, word process it - and integrate the various elements into a programme which the Year 10 drama group will perform."

Headteacher Peter Rubery is committed to the project, all the more so as the school's recent acceptance as a technology college requires them to focus on information technology, cross-curricular links and internationalism. As an English teacher, he is also involved in helping children prepare materials. But he is the first to admit that without the support of enthusiastic, energetic staff from a wide range of departments such a challenging project would never have been possible.

Mr Parker agrees, but stresses that schools with less ambitious aims could also profit from the Comenius scheme. "We favoured drama because when I sounded out interest, English, music, drama and IT came forward," he says. "Another school with different strengths might prefer an environmental theme or something scientific. Whatever the emphasis, you could develop something less complex and still gain enormous benefit."

He also believes that the whole-school project has had tremendous spin-offs for his department. "This is not about promoting languages in isolation. It's about creating things together, working as a team, developing a range of skills across different subjects. It's also about raising cultural awareness and widening horizons. The Greek partnership may not have a direct effect on our pupils' foreign language skills, but their contribution enriches the whole project. They have a different mentality, different ways of expressing themselves, and they're superb at drama. They can teach us an awful lot. "

The linguistic benefits of the German link, on the other hand, are already evident. Now that e-mail and the Internet are up and running, volunteers will be invited to come in at lunchtime to download mail and set up new pages on the web site. Mr Parker is also excited by the possibility of sharing texts and developing joint projects through Intel Proshare. "The potential is enormous. The way Year 9 coped with their first video conference was impressive. Who knows what they'll be doing by the time they reach Year 11?" His enthusiasm is shared by Peter Rubery. Until six months ago he had never tackled a foreign language, but when the video conference began he was the first to take the microphone and have a go - in halting but comprehensible German. When complimented by Herr Keller on his competence, he beamed with delight. It's not just the pupils of Ercall Wood who are being inspired by this project to raise their sights.

For information on Comenius contact: Central Bureau, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN. Tel: 0171 389 4426. Fax: 0171 389 4271.

Ercall Wood School's web

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