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Friday, May 15, 2015

Pen Pals and the Arts: Revealing Differences Between Irish and American Schools

I can’t believe that my time at Scoil Mhuire has come to an end! Reflecting upon my time abroad, some of my favorite memories are of working with the teachers and students at this school. Some the memories that stand out the most are from the pen pal project I started with students from my previous pre-practicum at Edison K-8 in Brighton. Students and teachers in both schools were enthusiastic about the idea so it turned out to be a lot of fun and a valuable learning experience for all. The class at Scoil Mhuire began by writing about their interests and asking questions of the American students, mainly about the weather as Boston was in the middle of the never-ending winter at the time. My CT and I co-taught a lesson on letter writing to help the students produce something they were proud to send. My CT then sent the letters in their decorated envelopes off to Boston and, after spring break, the girls were extremely excited to receive responses from the students at Edison. They shared their letters with one another and were pleased to find that many of them had similar interests and were learning about the same things in school.

These pen pal letters also brought to light how different the two schools are. The class I completed my pre-practicum in at Edison was incredibly diverse in terms of ability, race, gender, language, and SES. Edison is also a much larger school and has less of a community feel than Scoil Mhuire does. Additionally, Scoil Mhuire is religiously affiliated which shapes many of the activities throughout the school day. Finally, the funding for these schools is vastly different. Scoil Mhuire relies on student tuition and donations while Edison, as a public school, is state funded.

I think the difference that became the prominent to me through the pen pal project was the different situations the classes were in at the time. Both classes were extremely busy which made the pen pal project quite difficult and meant that I could only oversee one letter each way. Although they were both busy, the reasons why they were busy were very different. At Scoil Mhuire, students were absorbed with their JEP project (which I wrote about in my earlier post “The 11 Year Old Entrepreneurs of Scoil Mhuire”) and were working ardently to finish in time for their Showcase Day. In contrast, over in Boston, students and teachers were consumed with work preparing for and taking the new PARC test.

Contrasting these situations has allowed me to look at the American system of standardized testing with a more critical eye. In Ireland, students take one set of standardized tests in their final year of junior school: the Junior Certification examinations. These tests are used to assist in determining the level at which students should take their Leaving Certification examinations at the end of Secondary School. As they only have one exam to worry about, students and teachers at Scoil Mhuire, seemed to be more relaxed than those at Edison. This allows more flexibility in the curriculum and enables focus on many different subject areas.

One of the ways in which the lack of testing enables freedom at Scoil Mhuire is in terms of the Arts. The teachers and headmistress at Scoil Mhuire are extremely dedicated to music and drama and firmly believe that it is a crucial part of their students’ education. This means that the Arts have a much more prominent role at Scoil Mhuire than I have seen in any other school. Each morning, at assembly, students gather and sing their school song “A Mhuire Mhathair,” throughout the day students leave lessons to go to violin lessons, and in the afternoons the school is filled with the sounds of recorders as the headmistress travels from class to class giving lessons. While at Scoil Mhuire I also saw art field trips, sat in on drama lessons, and experienced the hype over the school musical, Practically Perfect Mary. Many students seem to thrive in these artistic settings and I think it is wonderful that they have the opportunity to be exposed to the arts in such an inclusive way.

Ultimately, my time at Scoil Mhuire has opened my eyes to the many possibilities in different systems of education and has motivated me to bring what I have learned here back to my future classrooms. I have loved being a member of the Scoil Mhuire community and feel so fortunate to have been able to observe and help with so many different activities. Thanks to how welcoming the teachers and students were, I was able to help with the school musical, chaperone a field trip to the zoo, teach a unit about Native Americans and set up a pen pal project. I’ve learned so much from all of these experiences and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with such wonderful teachers and students!

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