Using international projects and partnerships to bring MFL learning to life
When I was about six, I was given an illustrated children’s atlas full of colourful maps and amazing pictures of people and places in far-flung corners of the globe. Sadly, I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I do know that it became one of my most treasured possessions. I vividly recall sitting on the bed, in the room that I shared with my younger sister, poring over the images: two children in traditional Indonesian dress, a vast prairie in North America, a bustling market in India. I suppose, if I was to pinpoint it, that was the moment that my eyes were really opened to the vastness of the world outside of my own experience. After all, up until that point in my life the longest journey I’d ever made was our annual summer trip from the Midlands to the (mostly) sunny Suffolk coast. That atlas was the first of many other books, over the years, to became a passport to other landscapes, climates, languages and experiences and filled me with a longing to travel and explore all that the world had to offer. It’s a feeling that’s never left and it’s why I still have that atlas, thirty years later, even though it is incredibly dog-eared and so out-of-date it includes a map Yugoslavia.
It’s this joy of discovering more about the world, its cultures and its languages that, as Languages and International Dimension Lead at my inner-city primary school, I want to encourage and develop in the children that I teach. I consider myself incredibly lucky to work in a school of great variety and diversity, which is full of children with very different experiences of the world. Some pupils were born in the UK and have not yet had the opportunity to travel abroad, whilst others come from further afield and may have lived in several different countries (and learned to speak multiple languages) before arriving with us. But the one unifying characteristic that I have found amongst all of these children is their fascination with the cultures and traditions of other countries. This is evident in language lessons; during our celebrations of various aspects of Francophone culture; and on our themed days dedicated to the languages and cultures represented within our own school community, most notably European Day of Languages.
When I first began teaching primary French, about four years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could incorporate elements of culture into my scheme of work to really enthuse pupils, give context to language-learning and bring it to life for pupils. We celebrated la fête des rois and le 14 juillet; sang songs in French at Christmas; and learned all about the tradition of le poisson d’avril. However, by the end of this first year, I was beginning to feel very strongly that in order for the pupils to forge a real connection to the curriculum content, we really needed to find a partner school in France. I was also very aware that we were spending a lot of time talking about la Métropole, with only very minimal references to the roughly 200 million French-speakers who live in other Francophone nations. And so began the process of connecting with teachers and students in many parts of la francophonie and developing projects to grow and build on children’s understanding of life in the French-speaking world.
At the time, e-Twinning was an incredible resource for creating links with schools all over Europe (and beyond) and this was how we made the initial contact with our now well-established partner schools in Guadeloupe and in the Maine-et-Loire department in France. Like so many educators in the UK, I was heartbroken to hear that the Erasmus programme, and with it e-Twinning, would not form part of the UK’s Brexit deal and would become inaccessible to British teachers on the 1st January 2021. I had used e-Twinning for a variety of projects, not just with our French partner schools but also for more general collaborations, such as a Year 2 Christmas tree decoration exchange with over 14 different schools around Europe. Apart from the amazing capacity to connect easily with teachers and work together on any number of projects through the e-Twinning platform, the loss of Erasmus also meant the loss of funding for teacher and pupil mobility, which had previously allowed practitioners to visit and learn from colleagues around Europe and for pupils themselves to also visit their partner schools (not to mention great e-Twinning conferences like the one that I was lucky enough to attend in Bratislava in 2019). The government’s new Turing Scheme, currently open for applications until the 7th May 2021, promises to fill the void left by Erasmus and provide “international opportunities in education and training across the world.” Currently running for one academic year only, it’s a great time for schools who already have partners abroad to apply for funding for pupil visits, although it will only cover the cost of outward travel. Let’s hope that it is a success and continues to run after next academic year.
The British Council’s Connecting Classrooms programme in another fantastic way to forge links with countries in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Our school’s link with our partners in Rwanda was created this way and the team at the British Council are incredibly supportive in helping you get started and develop your partnership. Connecting Classrooms provide a whole range of free, online Global Learning Resources, which allow pupils to work alongside their peers in the partner school to examine aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals through a variety of projects. This is really helpful for teachers who want to develop their pupils’ global understanding but don’t perhaps have the time to create whole units of work themselves. Of course, you could also plan a project independently but, for me personally, the Zero Hunger Project that we are currently working on in Year 5, alongside our friends in Rwanda, has been working really well, with some minor adjustments. Once a partnership has been established though Connecting Classrooms, then schools may apply for funding to carry out teacher exchanges, either individually or as a ‘cluster group’ of several schools, depending on the number of teachers involved.
The British Council also offer a really great Schools Partner Finder where teachers from anywhere in the world can register, search for partners and create links with schools all over the globe. Through this tool our school has found, and is currently working with, schools in Djibouti and Chad on two very simple projects based on the beautiful picture book Under the Same Sky, which gets pupils thinking about the similarities that connect them to children who live many thousands of miles away in completely different countries.
Of course, we should never forget the power of personal connections. I have made links with schools abroad through people that I’ve met at weddings, conferences and through online groups. Most recently, I was contacted by a wonderful colleague in the Languages in Primary Schools Facebook Group who was able to put me in touch with a partner in Senegal so that my Year 6, who are currently working through a unit based on the country, could find out more about the lives of children of their age living in Dakar. Incidentally, for those interested in finding out more about school life in Senegal, live school tours are also available through heygo.com and come highly recommended. When trying to find prospective partners, it’s also important not to forget to consider any parents or staff members who may have contacts in schools abroad and could help to facilitate partnerships. Sometimes it’s that personal link which helps to create and strengthen the collaboration between two schools.
And don’t forget, any links, projects and exchanges between your school and a partner school in another country may qualify you for the British Council’s International School Award, which recognises a school’s efforts in bringing an international dimension into their curriculum and embedding it within the wider culture of the school.
How do you celebrate the rich culture of the French, Spanish or German-speaking worlds? Do you have partners in other countries and if so, how did you find them? As always, it’s great to hear your thoughts and experiences.