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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Introduction to Scoil Mhuire

There were some unforeseen challenges in securing a student teaching placement in Cork, Ireland; so it wasn’t until my ninth week abroad that I finally had my first day of student teaching. However, it was well worth the wait. It feels amazing to be back among the students after such a long absence from the school setting, and being back in a classroom has provided positive affirmation that I am pursuing the right vocation as an elementary, or in this case, primary school teacher!

I am placed at a small, private, all-girls school called Scoil Mhuire (pronounced Skol Vera) in a third class (third grade equivalent) classroom. The first surprise was how tiny the class size is – there are only 10 girls in my classroom. As a teacher, I wonder what size classroom is most ideal. While too small of a class may limit diversity and the ability to have different thinkers bounce ideas off each other, there definitely are benefits to having such a small class size, such as individualized attention, the development of strong and tight bonds among the students and between the students and teacher, and the ability to have more creative, hands-on lessons that might not be as feasible with a larger class size. I definitely see many of these advantages at work in this classroom. My CT is able to provide the individualized attention some of her struggling math students need while not preventing the rest of the class from moving forward. What is most apparent, however, is how strongly bonded the students are with their teacher. In talking with my CT, I have discovered that she not only has these students for third class, but she had them as first and second infants as well (I think that is the American equivalent to Pre-K and Kindergarten). They all know each other really well. She’s had the students to her house for a field trip and her husband, who is an artist, comes in every Monday to assist with their art projects. This close bond makes my CT’s classroom feel not just as a community, but as a family. I know this isn’t the typical experience within Ireland. My CT has actually commented that I am not in a traditional Irish school at all, but one that is strongly influenced by English teaching styles (my CT actually is from outside London, originally). It would be interesting to see how this private, English-infused classroom would compare to a more traditional Irish setting.

The school day starts at 8:40 am and concludes at 2:30 pm – a rather short school day by American standards. In the morning, the entire school stands together and sings a song and says morning prayer. The students then go to their respective classrooms. In third class, they start the day off with mental math exercises, then have an in depth math lesson (they currently are learning their times tables). Math is followed by English, then recess. After recess they have a 45 minute Irish language lesson. In Ireland, according to my CT, you cannot get a teaching job if you cannot speak Irish. However, because this is a private school, the classroom teachers do not have to know Irish and they hire a separate Irish teacher. The students are learning a lot of the material through song. After Irish, the students had science (they’re learning about circuits), then lunch. What’s interesting about scheduling at Scoil Mhuire is that on Thursdays my CT only works a half-day. After lunch at 12:50 she leaves for the day. After lunch, third class has choir, which is taught by an external music teacher who comes to the school every Thursday and teaches the entire school singing all at once. After choir, the students have Italian, taught by a woman from Italy, and conclude the day learning the recorder from the school’s headmistress. 

While I want to address some of the similarities and differences I’ve noticed in the academic curriculum in a later post, some of my initial observations include how heavily the curriculum is influenced by music and language. They have two foreign language blocks, Irish and Italian, during the day, and on Thursdays they have choir, singing during Irish, and the recorder. I was surprised by how heavily focused on the arts this school system is. I found it really refreshing coming from BPS schools where the arts are being cut from the budget, but I wonder if all of the time devoted to music and language at Scoil Mhuire influences their academic performance. (I’m not suggesting that it does; I’m just pondering). A second observation was how much time the school collectively spends together. First class through sixth class attend both recesses together, and Thursday’s choir is held with the whole school. Watching the students engage in the hallway and at recess, it is apparent that all the students across grade level know and are friendly with each other. The older students have taken on mentorship roles to the younger students and I really liked how bonded they are across grade level. I think having these relationships across ages is beneficial to the students as it widens their understanding of social relationships to include interactions with others in different peer groups. I think it's important for them both to have role models and to learn how to be an appropriate role model, which is a skill that this school environment fosters.

For the rest of this post I want to quickly talk about my second day of student teaching when I was a substitute teacher. I was surprised by how eager and willing my CT and the headmistress were to have me substitute third class on only my second day of student teaching! I was extremely nervous. I’ve never been alone in a classroom before, and reflecting on my own experiences as a student, I know how students like to challenge and test substitutes. Classroom management is one area in which I definitely need further development, and as a substitute, I knew I was going to need to create a warm and friendly, yet authoritative presence.  Needless to say, I went into the day speculating on how terribly it could end up. However, substitute teaching a third class classroom in Ireland has entered the record books as my favorite experience while being abroad! The kids were absolute angels and were very attentive to my directions (and I called them out on it when they weren’t!) I tried to make completing the series of "busy work" worksheets as fun as possible – during math I invited them to draw out the symmetry problems on the whiteboard, during English we worked through the first few problems as a class, and during geography I shared lots of information about America and Boston which the students loved. It feels good to have come out of the day, not only having survived, but absolutely enthralled with the experience. I can feel myself growing in my confidence as a teacher throughout my experiences teaching abroad, and I am looking forward to my remaining days at Scoil Mhuire.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

First Impressions of the International School of London

When I thought of doing a practicum in London, I thought I would have the opportunity to see a school that was uniquely English.  I studied up on English schools, learning about everything from the uniforms that most students wear to the exams (A Levels) that most students would eventually be taking.  I felt as prepared as I could be.
However, my placement school is not the typical English school - it's the International School of London.  The students are from everywhere around the world, they speak different languages (and occasionally need to be taught to speak English), and have experienced different cultures.  Despite its immense diversity, the school itself is incredibly small: the website lists that there are 350 students enrolled between age 3 and 18.  So far, I've encountered the year 11 (which translates to grade 10) classroom, which consists of 7 students.  On my first day, two were absent leaving 5 students, 4 girls and 1 boy, from countries like China, Italy, India, and Libya.  I am told that the other class I will be joining (year 10, grade 9) will be slightly bigger with 11 students.
It's amazing the way that these students interact and relate to one another.  In my first few minutes in the school, I was in my CT's homeroom and students began discussing, as I suspect they do all over the world, when school would be out for summer.  Students started comparing when school gets out in their home countries, both for summer and during the day.  Some talked about a school day from 10 to 6, while others talked about a break in the middle of the school day to go home to eat with your family.  If my short time at this school has taught me anything, it's that these students do not take customs for granted.  Because everyone in the school is an "other" of sorts, they expect none of their experiences to be completely universal or unique.
One of the ways that this hodge-podge sense of community is reflected is in the languages offered at the school.  As students enter the school, they are taught at least two languages.  If English is not their first language, the second language is English; if English is their first language, then they are taught another modern language.  Then, as they reach middle school years, they pick up a third language, assuming adequate fluency in English has been reached.  This third language can be either Chinese, Spanish, or French, if these languages are not the student's first language.  Offering so many options to so few students mean that the smallest class someone could be in is would have a one-to-one ratio (there is a student who has experienced that in her advanced French class).  
This small ratio is included in English as well.  Of the 7 students in year 11, only 3 have chosen to take the class as a "higher level," opting for more classes in that subject rather than in others.  Thus, on Wednesday, English class consists of only 3 students.
This school is not specifically English, and therefore its students aren't specifically English either: they don't wear uniforms and they follow the IB system, rather than A Levels.  The students, like the school, are international, and uniquely so.  This school treats students like individuals who each have different life experiences to bring to their classes, something that is especially relevant in an international school.  But, rather than just accepting students' nuances, the school lets students use those strengths to make choices influence their own educational experiences, an autonomy that I find both new and refreshing in such young students.