Finding a soulmate in a like-minded school

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
St Thomas Primary may be small, but it is famous for its global outlook

Just over 50 pupils attend St Thomas Primary in Keith, a small agricultural town in the Moray countryside, where it sits at the top of a hill alongside the church.

Children in the Scottish countryside don't usually get the same opportunities to mix with youngsters from different ethnic backgrounds, as they do in some inner-city schools.

"We don't have that here and that's what drives me, because I want children to know that there is more to the world," says Cathy Francis, the school's headteacher relief and a passionate ambassador for international learning. "It is lovely here, but there's more to the world than all white and all British."

This year, the school won the Anne Frank Award from Grampian Racial Equality Council, an annual prize for promoting diversity and encouraging anti-racism. The children's creative writing and global outlook were identified as winning strengths.

Children wrote poems commemorating Anne Frank's death, imagining what it would be like living hidden in an attic. After studying Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, they wrote to ask newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama about his dreams for mankind.

This is a Comenius school, which has been awarded International School status by the British Council and given a European Quality Award for eTwinning.

Parents must be impressed when they ask what their children have been doing at school. "We were on a video-conference with a school in Pakistan" sounds more impressive than maths or spelling.

Children here have held video-conferences with their partner school in Pakistan and now use Glow, the Scottish schools' intranet, to communicate with others in Europe. Their latest Comenius project involves primary schools from Poland, Italy, Germany, Romania and Greece, where some of the teachers have user names and passwords to allow them to video-conference or "Glow Meet".

"When we first video-conferenced with Pakistan four years ago, we caught a bus to Elgin to use the council chambers, because nowhere had the bandwidth to do it," says Mrs Francis, a chartered teacher and "Masterclasser" for LTS International Education. Now the children use the interactive whiteboard in their classroom for live conversations via Glow.

Ten-year-old Aiden Clifford from P6 described a recent session with one of their partner schools in Germany. "We've talked about how to say some Scottish words - like `bonnie'. We also showed them some pictures of Keith, of the River Isla and the Post Office. It's nice for us to know what the people look like over there too."

The children also have typical 10-year-old conversations about football and favourite games, as well as more formal exchanges about joint learning projects. Even the nursery has been involved with a project on the Chinese New Year.

The school also represented Moray at the Confucius Classroom Hub, when it was launched in Aberdeen, and held a Glow Meet with line dancing and ribbon dancing from their own classroom in Keith.

Its first partnership began five years ago with Lahore Lyceum, a private English-medium school in Pakistan. "We have a formal partnership agreement with them and we've been running projects covering all ages within the curriculum from nursery to P7," says Mrs Francis.

British Council funding helps finance teachers' visits: "I've been to Pakistan for two weeks and taught there. And we've had three visits from staff there; the most recent was the first week of this academic year when two staff were over. The whole week is taken up with international work, whether it's cooking or cricket or writing or maths."

As part of the British Council's Connecting Classrooms initiative, both schools explored electricity and energy consumption for their project on "Planet Partners".

"We looked at generation, at supply and demand, carbon footprints and held quizzes," says Mrs Francis. "We found out that Pakistan were doing a lot better than we were. They were much more sensible and had a much more realistic carbon footprint than we do."

Children at both schools took questionnaires home to their parents and families made pledges about saving electricity and reducing their carbon footprint. "It was a really good project. We used email, messenger and normal snail mail to communicate and also video-conferenced with Pakistan," she explains.

The school's Comenius work developed from eTwinning, which operates like a schools' dating agency where you submit all your interests and aspirations and find your soulmate in a like-minded school.

St Thomas opted for a school in Poland and a joint art project where children would learn more about their own community and share their work. They made a joint calendar, which was printed and sold and then exhibited at the local library.

"We received a European Quality Award for that from the eTwinning people," says Mrs Francis, now an ambassador for eTwinning.

She has now formed a professional learning community with another three Comenius primaries - St Peter's at Buckie, St Sylvester's in Elgin and Craigellachie - so they can share knowledge and experience.

At St Thomas, their most recent Comenius project - with five European primaries - has involved a joint art project on "Christmas in Our Town". The teachers met in Germany and will re-assemble as a group in Keith in February.

The children are already planning the entertainment: "When they come from different countries, we're planning a Robbie Burns Day and we'll make them haggis," says Aiden.

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