International education programme reaps rewards

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
Primary pupils and teachers from five European countries have been visiting each other's schools

Original paper headline: When you fit the pieces together, the picture is not puzzling at all

His office looks like a travel agency, with piles of brochures about castles and Highland Games sitting in neatly-stacked bundles.

With just 24 hours to go before the visitors arrive, the headteacher of Meldrum Primary in Aberdeenshire is checking his lists to make sure everything goes smoothly the moment the flights touch down at Aberdeen Airport.

Eighteen pupils and 16 teachers are flying in throughout the day from Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Germany. Some of the younger children are nine and 10 years old and most will never have been this far from home without their families. Their English is basic and the thought of a plate of steaming Haggis could be enough to set a lower lip quivering.

But Alastair Beaton is looking calm. He has been collaborating on international educational projects for several years and Scotland is the final destination for this Comenius Partnership group who have visited all the participating countries together over the past two years.

The visitors will get a real flavour of Scotland during their stay - with trips to castles and a farewell ceilidh on their last night. They will also get a taste of outdoor learning in the countryside: "We wanted to give the children a Curriculum for Excellence programme very much in the Aberdeenshire 3-18 framework, which is entitlement to outdoor education, active learning and using the culture and resources of Aberdeenshire," says Mr Beaton. "So they are having a day out to experience what it's like in Aberdeenshire."

There is also time in the classroom: "It's to give a proper insight into life and school by experiencing school and staying with families."

That means being prepared for new culinary experiences. "If there's one rule - we have always said you must at least try, have a taste first, and that's gone for the staff as well," he says, laughing.

Fortunately, the parents in this project already know that pizza transcends national borders. But Mr Beaton remembers a colleague venturing outside her personal comfort zone on a trip to Spain. "The P5 teacher just closed her eyes and went for these squidoctopus things in the paella. It had an awful lot of legs and it wasn't just a prawn, but she went for it," he says proudly.

Mr Beaton has been headteacher at the school since 2006 and within months embarked on this project. "I've always had an interest in international education. I was involved in Aberdeen City as a development officer, and had Comenius projects running in my previous school.

"There was an opportunity in 2006 for a contact seminar in Edinburgh, looking at the expressive arts as a possible source of inspiration for partnership working. So I persuaded one of the teachers, Hazel Sim, to go with me. She loved it because there was a whole array of countries represented and teachers were showcasing their schools and saying: `This is the sort of thing we do here.' Over that weekend, we gelled with four other people."

These teachers from five European schools decided each would work on a collage illustrating the different landscapes and architecture through artwork, photographs and 3D models. There were audio-visual elements too with cultures reflected in dance, song, poetry and interviews with local residents.

As well as the art, Meldrum P1-7s had opportunities to work on writing, language and presentation skills. "The idea was that the collage would fit together and build up piece by piece, a bit like a jigsaw, so we came up with the idea of `Puzzled Europe' as the name of the project - creating the perfect picture," says Mr Beaton.

Today, artwork from all over Europe is on show, with short films running on laptops in reception, which is festooned with children's paintings. There are intricate 3D models of pupils' towns, which have been carried on and off planes across Europe by careful teachers.

A surprise bonus has been the revival in letter writing, with children preferring to send hand-written missives to their pen pals, anticipating their arrival, rather than emails. "We thought emailing pen pals would be a great way forward - using new technologies. But the children have been much more inspired when they see actual letters. So when they get the Christmas cards, they say: `Oh gosh, look at the way they write, it's so different from us,'" Mr Beaton says.

But modern technology has its place - after two French teachers in Slovenia and Aberdeenshire linked up, their pupils began texting each other in basic French.

P4 children interviewed former pupils who had been at Meldrum Primary up to 70 years ago. The stories were made into a booklet and PowerPoint presentation.

This is the first school in Scotland to train parents to access the Glow intranet, so mums and dads can watch a film of this visit which children will edit for a dedicated Glow page.

"The finalised DVD that we are going to produce is also going to be the school's contribution to the Meldrum community Homecoming celebrations," says Mr Beaton.

Slovakian teacher Katarina Szokeova came to Aberdeenshire for three months to improve her English and taught classes throughout the school as a guest in the homes of several teachers.

She describes the benefits of Comenius in an email: "The project has been a great experience for us all. We've all learned a lot about the participating countries, their traditions, culture and way of life. Pupils could find new friends, practise their English and become aware of different lifestyles. Teachers could learn more about different school systems, see new ways of teaching and try to fit it into our curriculum at home."

The visiting children are to join Meldrum pupils in exploring the countryside on a Forest School day at Haddo Country Park. The following day at school, they will review what they've seen and heard outdoors in a joint writing workshop with visiting author Deborah Leslie. While the children work together, their teachers will evaluate the success of this two-year project, which is now drawing to a close.

Big country

It's their first day out and 18 children from distant corners of Europe are with their young Scottish hosts, thrashing through the bluebell woods at Haddo Country Park, near Ellon, Aberdeenshire.

As an icebreaker, this day in the countryside is proving a winner and despite the language barriers, the visitors are looking more relaxed.

The activities are simple and designed to encourage children to look at the countryside with fresh eyes and take note of what's around them. They take turns to be blindfolded and explore the sounds and textures.

They also try to find matches in nature for coloured swatches they've been given and it's surprising how they manage to pair up maroon and orange fabric with bits of bark and leaves.

Another group is searching for pictures of wildlife hidden in the woods - then re-assembling to learn more about the animals and naming them in all their languages.

"It's a sort of treasure hunt and they're hidden in the places the animal might be found," explains one of the organisers, John Mowlster, from Banff and Buchan College, which is running this event.

The children re-appear and John is discussing the animals whose pictures they've found. "Anybody know what sort of owl this is?" he asks them. "Is it a barn owl? Is it a snowy owl?" they call out. "It's actually a tawny owl," says John, who worked on this estate for many years and is an expert on the bird and wildlife.

Then there's the naming of the owl in some of the visitors' languages: "It's buho," says 11-year-old Maria Santiago from Spain. "It's sova in Slovakia," says Patricia Nikolovicova, 14. "And Eule in German," says Svea Lucht, 9.

Kirsty McKenzie, 11, has Patricia staying with her. "I have to speak a bit slower so she can understand, but she can speak pretty good English," she says, as they run off.

Over the packed lunch, Meldrum's depute head Mairi Manson explains why they decided to head outdoors during the visit. "I have been out with John before on another Forest Day. We thought it would be something different, where the children would work and communicate together quite easily.

"The Comenius project has been fantastic. It's been a really good opportunity for our school to take children abroad and visit other schools; for the staff to work with staff from the foreign schools and find out about the different education systems and the differences between the communities."

Mum Caroline Roff is host for one of the visitors, 10-year-old Miha Ivanic from Slovenia, and has come along to help. Her son Calum, 11, stayed with Miha's family last November.

Calum says: "I liked the difference of it and the fact that you did stuff you wouldn't normally do - the different food and different hobbies - Miha plays basketball and badminton. I liked Slovenia - and it's a bit warmer than here."

All the families involved in this trip have been able to email each other before the children set off, which Caroline says is reassuring when some of the children are so young.

She has been delighted with the opportunities Comenius offers children to broaden their horizons. "It's good - it's scary at this age, but it's so brave for the children to do this and they are learning so much."

Calum has built up a friendship with Miha after his trip last year. "The family is lovely and was really good to him. He loved it. When I phoned him, he said: `I've got nothing to tell you. Everything's fine - bye'," she laughs.

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