An ICT-based project in Scotland is offering senior pupils new and exciting ways of learning. Eleanor Caldwell explains
Are you PiE or not?" For students in the west of Scotland it's a reasonable question. The Partners in Excellence (PiE) languages project has been running since 2000 and has transformed the face of language learning for senior pupils in 29 secondary schools across PiE's three partner authorities: East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire and Argyll and Bute, and won a European Award for Languages in 2003. Funding comes from the Scottish Executive Department and is equally divided between the three partner authorities.
In the past three years, large numbers of students in S5 (Year 12) and S6 (Year 13) studying for Higher and Advanced Higher exams have been producing and directing foreign language films, attending and addressing Euroscola conferences in the European Parliament, where delegations of young people take part in debates on European issues, and conducting surveys about Scotland in the streets of Strasbourg, Marburg and Palma.
One of the first and most popular PiE activities has been its video weekends. Groups of pupils from each of the authorities get together in a residential setting, such as Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, and make foreign language films. Teachers and language assistants attend and are used as language advisers.
The productions, which are slick and entirely in the foreign language, are viewed at an annual film festival where "oscars" are presented. The 40 short films have included a French version of the television programme Hollyoaks, a German horror movie and a Gaelic version of Channel 4's Richard amp; Judy.
Students are extremely enthusiastic, not only about the development of their language skills, but also about making new friends. One girl from Stewarton in East Ayrshire says she had never imagined having new friends in Oban, in Argyll.
The project's key focus is on using ICT. The PiE website is a veritable buzz of activity. It's crammed with itineraries, daily diaries and photos of recent visits to Europe. On every PiE trip students keep in daily touch with the site, reporting on the day's events and giving up-to-the-minute reactions to everything that's going on.
On the most recent trip to Strasbourg, students were amazed at their own ability to approach people in the street and conduct a survey about Scotland, speaking French. They are now keen to apprise the European public that Dublin is not in Scotland.
Kirstine Rennie, an S6 student at Stewarton Academy, was pleased with her own linguistic dexterity when she able to quickly translate her prepared French questions into German.
One visit to the Euroscola conference at the European Parliament was regarded as a "wondrous" experience by many. Students now have long lists of email addresses for their counterparts across Europe.
The Advanced Higher students at Stewarton Academy have a new connection with young people in Norway. The girls recently accompanied a group of S3 pupils on a visit to Sandefjord as part of the younger pupils' lunchtime Norwegian club activities.
PiE's other hub of communication is its newly revamped LanguageZone website. The site is open to all pupils in the partner schools and provides chat and learning environments. Bulletin boards let pupils introduce themselves in French, German or Spanish. They can then join in, by posting messages to keep in touch with everyone.
For learners, the site has a lot to offer. Senior pupils can email a staff tutor to ask for help with work. Stewarton pupil Katrina Douglas says: "I needed help with understanding the difference between ce qui and ce que."
She received "a really good explanation" the next day and is convinced that it was more effective than looking up a grammar book.
Mark Pentleton is PiE project co-ordinator, acting as an adviser, development officer and website manager. He says that the website teacher advice team will increase from four to 12 people and will adopt a more timetabled approach - teachers will be available online at a specific time each week. Teachers are being recruited from across the partner authorities for these roles.
Students can also read messages posted regularly by three young French, German and Spanish students, giving accounts of their life. This helps them keep up to date with French street language.
veline Conlan, who is principal teacher of languages at Stewarton, is delighted to have the website support for her pupils. She intends to use it as a basis for homework. Students could be directed to look at a specific grammar area in the tutorial site, for example. She looks forward to using up-to-date information posted by the young Europeans as a basis for attractive reading work, either on-screen or as hard copy.
Mark Pentleton believes that PiE has "brought forward the university experience.
"Young people from different areas have made friends. Levels of self-esteem have noticeably risen. One very shy student stood up and read her own poem to a large audience. And young people have a more informal relationship with teachers."
Those involved in PiE are convinced it has a formula for success.
Certainly, uptake in languages at post-16 across the three authorities has increased by 80 per cent since 2000 and there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of A-grades at Higher. European and Scottish friendships have also blossomed.
Partners in Excellence, Woodstock Centre, Woodstock Street, Kilmarnock KA1 2BE, East Ayrshire, ScotlandTel: 0044 1563 555638 www.pie.org.uk
PiE'S TIPS FOR SUCCESS
* Set targets: to create a virtual community of language learners, to raise attainment, to increase the uptake of languages post-16 and increase the use of ICT.
* Establish a website. Pie has two: the main PiE site www.pie.org.uk gives details of past, present and future activities. PiE's LanguageZone site www.languagezone.org offers up-to-date reading material in the form of messages from young Europeans. It also offers a tutorial service allowing PiE students to email a teacher for help.
* Form partnerships: work with authorities that are fairly close by, but where students may not have much contact with one another.
* Establish a co-ordinating team: the PiE team are experienced teachers and staff tutors who are recruited from partner authorities.
* Aim to combine languages, ICT and expressive arts.
* Establish contacts with key European locations. Make regular visits and keep in touch through a central website.
* Aim to develop a sense of community.
* Make yourself visible and audible. The PiE team are known throughout the three authorities.