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European Innovative Teaching Award
Project

Building Bridges

School: Mittelschule St. Agatha

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Topic(s) addressed

Building Bridges was a project for the exchange of good practices in order to develop and implement inclusive methodologies. “Social Inclusion” and the development of “Innovative Practices in the Digital Age” were its two main priorities, with both main topics entwined into several subprojects. Every single partner school placed its focus on one of these subprojects and functioned as a mentor in the spreading of content. Our school, MS St. Agatha, coordinated the topic of “Media and Inclusion,” where we transferred our experiences through the use of media as an inclusive tool. We learnt how to edit newspapers and audio-visuals, and we ended up publishing the first issue of a common magazine with the contents of certain activities. Some partner schools took over the idea and have published several of their own school magazines, with the finished products shared among partner schools to understand the activities being implemented by partner schools. IES Monegros (Sariñena, Spain) coordinated “Building Bridges through Music,” an activity in which they used music and lyrics of different languages that were imbued with important social content in order to promote inclusion and multiculturalism. The "Integration through Biology" subproject was coordinated by Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz-Gesamtschule (Duisburg, Germany), where we learnt how to implement school gardens to promote inclusion and turn them into educational and leisure spaces in which students can leave their footprints on a cobblestone common path. We also held discussions with refugee students on the reasons that led people to migrate or escape from their countries. Lastly, the “Inclusion through Social Commitment” subproject was coordinated by Szkoła Podstawowa nr 5 im. Dr. Aleksandra Majkowskiego (Kartuzy, Poland), which saw the sharing of experiences for projects carried out with organisations that are committed to equality and social justice. This also resulted in our collaboration in activities for special needs students and those related to immigration. We introduced the Blended Learning approach through which we presented the concept of education to the whole social community. ICT was a widespread tool throughout the project, not only for pupils, but also for teachers, families, and the social community (the link to the Teaching Award’s annual priority). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to do our best to integrate these learning principles in an even more rapid pace than was originally planned. We successfully managed to overcome this burden and finished off with a far greater outcome than we had expected at the beginning of the project. The project allowed us to implement methodologies and resources that will remain after its completion, with some of them forming the basis for future collaboration projects. We established a network of students, teachers and families supported by our project website buildingbridgeserasmus.com, which was, and still is, a vital cornerstone to the success of our project. For us, a very small school in the countryside, Europe may sometimes appear to be ‘far away’; nevertheless, we managed to install the notion of European citizenship in participants’ minds 3 years after the project’s implementation – not only at our school, but also beyond its borders.

Target groups

The project was open to everyone who wanted to attend. Almost everyone from our 120-strong student community was involved in this project; our small school decided to implement what we had learnt into our normal lesson plan. In music lessons for example, all students from every class sang and studied the song ‘Je te donne’ which three students had learnt during their visit to Spain. Since the beginning of the project, we have been writing articles about our project in our school’s magazine, which is distributed to every single student in our school – there was also a version that was made entirely in English. Social inclusion does not stop at the school gate; we integrated the entire community into this project, and organised an information evening for parents, published newspaper articles, talked at dissemination events, and cooperated with a local museum to display a banner with information on our project. All of these measures were aimed at indirectly informing the community of the large number of people who was involved in our project, and their diverse age range and social backgrounds. As for the students who took part in the exchanges, the so-called mobilities, we focussed on several competences, and opened up the call for our Third and Fourth Grade students. Participants were selected and involved based on their applications and motivation letters, with a small group of teachers having discussed candidates’ language and social skills. Decisions were always made in a team and not based on the opinion of one individual; this open selection also made it possible for students with economic obstacles or with different social backgrounds to take part. The students who participated in the mobilities found themselves in a new environment where no one judged them or labelled them as outsiders, which gave them a fresh start in a new group, and helped them become more open, extroverted, and self-confident. They took their acquired knowledge and experiences back home and gave great presentations on the mobilities. The teachers were selected based on the overall topic of each mobility and their skills or interests, with all teachers having participated voluntarily. All teachers formed a versatile action team when it came to the programme’s selection and preparation, as well as in the mobilities’ activities. The exact number of mobility participants was 30. Three students and the project coordinator participated during the first mobility in Germany, with the second mobility having taken place in Spain with another 3 students and 1 accompanying teacher. The third mobility, which should have taken place in Sweden, was cancelled as the Swedish partner had to quit the project due to personal reasons. The fourth mobility was organised at our school in St. Agatha, where 12 of our students hosted 1-2 children from abroad. A team of 5 teachers actively participated in this mobility, where they offered workshops, guided the students during excursions, and prepared leisure activities. The fifth mobility brought us to Poland, where 4 students joined the project coordinator to visit the Polish partner school. Although 4 students and 2 teachers were selected for the last mobility, it had to be cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Methodologies

Our activities were designed using a methodological approach that we call BITS:

  • B from blended and service learning in order to open the concept and achievements of education to the social community. Some of the work to be done needed implementation at home and the engagement of various environmental actors and different sectors (the reason as to why service learning was crucial to the project).
  • I from ITC with the creation of a web page where results and materials were published and visible to students, families, and social communities. New approaches on ICT resources motivated our students and improved their and their teachers’ knowledge regarding digital competences.
  • T from task-based approach, because our project’s activities were designed to raise awareness and curiosity about the mobility’s tasks, with said tasks implemented in every single school following the completion of single mobilities.
  • S from self-centred and socio-cultural activities, because our activities were integrated into the social context; the development of sociocultural competences in class and during each mobility was one of our goals.

In addition, our implementation activities were programmed as collaborative projects that also encouraged group working and peer learning. The use of cloud solutions for collaborative working and storage, has been a very useful tool to our success, and although this work approach was new to our staff, it was successfully introduced among our colleagues. These skills gave us a significant advantage in tackling the sudden shift to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in comparison to other schools. As we decided to have task-based activities, it was clear to the project’s coordinators that a multidisciplinary approach would be the cornerstone of our project. One of the activities we organised during the mobility at St. Agatha is a good example of this, where we built an actual bridge to figuratively bring two sides together; in this regard, teamwork and the inclusion of every single student was key to the activity’s success. This task-based activity was approached via the Think-Pair-Share method, where, after some brainstorming, we decided to build Leonardo Da Vinci’s bridge. At first, students learnt about Leonardo Da Vinci and the era he lived and worked in, which made students think about the project’s construction (Think). Later on, students were split into small groups and given a small-scale model of Da Vinci’s bridge, for which they had to come up with different theories as to how the entire bridge was built (Pair). The last step was to share the ideas and come to a final construction (Share). In sum, this cross-curricular activity proved to be a fairly big success. Our project’s website is full of activities that were built up in a similar way, with our students having profited substantially from the project through their acquisition of several skills. The acquisition of knowledge was not the biggest priority, instead, the development of multiple skills and attitudes were considered to be of greater importance. In a workshop at the Centre of Education in Gdańsk, Poland, we learnt how to deal with stereotypes and prejudices, with even such awareness being vital to the process of their growth and their identity as active European citizens. The mobilities activities took place in settings that were very different to every-day school life, and were thus full of non-formal and informal learning opportunities. Our students, between 13-15 years of age, were taken out of their comfort zone and experienced traveling to a foreign country, without their parents or relatives. On top of that they stayed with a host family and worked on several topics in a foreign language. Naturally, such experiences cannot be simulated in a classroom, with said experiences having profoundly affected their language skills.

Environments

Our school offers a very general educational programme based on the needs of our pupils, with a wide variety of interests and knowledge at our school. This means that it is our task to prepare every single individual to the best of our abilities for their future. To achieve this, we placed significant focus on extracurricular activities, where we obtained a great number of certifications (a remarkable number for such a small school). Also, the Erasmus+ programme offered us an opportunity to build a network of like-minded within Europe. Our organisation is rather small and this had a positive effect on both vertical and horizontal communication. The transmission of information and communication from headmaster to the teaching body is often direct and respectful, with the positive learning climate experienced by the school also partly created by non-teaching staff. The direct connection with the school’s housekeeper, cleaning staff, and canteen personnel was always present and facilitated the solution of any problems or needs. As far as digital learning was concerned, we can say that we were one step or even several steps ahead of regional, and in fact many schools in Austria. We introduced the ‘bring your own device’ system during the 2018/2019 (October 2018) school year, and worked closely with a computer company which enabled a field study test case at our school. Although this was in addition to the Erasmus+ programme, it nevertheless had a positive effect on the skills of our students, which was a big advantage in working with our European partners. In 2017, our school became a member school of eEducation Austria, and in the beginning of the year 2021 we reached the status of ‘expert school.’ A few teachers took the lead in digital learning, with the system of blended learning introduced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the moment of the outbreak, half of the school’s students already had a personal device, which later expanded to include three-quarters of our students. The headmaster invested a substantial amount of money in the extension of the school’s broadband Internet service, with said infrastructural investments going a long way in tackling the new reality of distance learning. Furthermore, close contact with our Erasmus+ partner schools was also a big advantage, as we could learn from several network members and prepare ourselves to face the abrupt advent of the digital transition. We wish to further broaden our network and to foster our students’ activities on a secure platform such as eTwinning. On the one hand, we want to enable our learners to get in contact with good practices, while on the other, we want to share our expertise. As a school, it is our moral duty to embrace the future, look forward, and use our acquired skills to continue the path we have chosen to take. This path leads our young students to adulthood, and to become active and responsible European citizens. The role of the school is envisioned as that of a companion on students’ journeys, with the school acting as a drone that has a birds-eye view of the situation and of what lies ahead, of which shortcuts to take, and which spots are good for a period of reflection.

Teachers

The average age of teachers at our school is quite high, with 1 colleague having retired recently and several others approaching retirement over the next few years. The challenge to keep everyone digitally fit is not an easy one, but we have succeeded well in the recent past and a serious effort is being made to continue this process into the future. Key to our success is the role of the school’s headmaster, who has initiated 3 key competence departments. The first one is a group of teachers responsible for our school being designated a healthy school (gesunde Schule) in which we have since successfully applied for an ‘environmentally-friendly certificate’ (Umweltzeichen). The second competence is in the field of digital literacy, with 1 colleague (Daniela Kaltseis, e-Learning expert) who has taken the lead by instructing the entire staff body and passing on her skills and competences. In fact, Kaltseis had introduced cloud-based solutions and digital classrooms into our school even before the COVID-19 outbreak and before the necessity of home-schooling and distance learning. Colleagues were offered internal learning sessions at school, with the entire staff having participated in such free-time activities towards improving their personal skills and developing themselves professionally. We all took part in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on distance learning that was offered by the Ministry of Education with everyone awarded a certificate for completion. Our school uses the Microsoft Office package to enhance its communication with students, and although the use of Microsoft Teams as a communication platform was challenging at first, in the end everyone managed it fairly well. Furthermore, the use of platforms such as Kahoot, Quizlet and Exammi have been integrated into the online and offline lessons in order to offer the best possible learning path for our learners. In addition to this, we were also very happy to work closely with a motivated start-up called Chabadoo that began a field study with our school in 2018 for which they introduced their own secure virtual learning environment. The platform’s main focus was on individual and lifelong learning, with teachers able to follow up on their students’ progress and offer individual support with customised contents. The third department installed at our school is responsible for the Erasmus+ project and international relations, where a team of 5 (with the Erasmus+ coordinator as the lead) work closely together. As we are such a small school, with only 16 teachers, interactions with teachers form other foreign schools were warmly welcomed. The cooperation between the 6 schools led to peer learning among international coordinators, with acquired knowledge passed on to the school’s staff. The project’s website, www.buildingbridgeserasmus.com, was developed by a Spanish colleague, and is now being used by every single partner school to present the project’s outcome. This website was built using WordPress, with its construction and use explained to us during a transnational meeting workshop. Due to the pandemic, the project’s activities had to be completed digitally. Also, students from our Slovenian partner school had created an app with a scavenger hunt through their hometown. This creative activity made it possible for us to have a glimpse of our partner school’s surroundings. It is important to mention that all of the project’s activities were completed in English, with the headmaster having supervised and supported all of the project’s teaching and learning processes.

Impact

We measured our impacts through the use of quantitative indicators, whereby we distributed questionnaires before, during, and after some of our activities with their results analysed during closing transnational meetings. However, it was difficult for us to measure certain kind of impacts in a quantitative way such as self-confidence, tolerance, motivation, or open mindedness. This was the reason as to why we often relied on qualitative indicators. We always asked our students for their opinion of activities scheduled meetings with the families before and after the mobilities so we could also ask them for their feedback. Naturally, collaborating teachers, authorities, and organisations were also always asked about their opinions or suggestions. We have indicated the project’s impacts on "active participants" such as students, teachers, and schools, as well as on "indirect participants" such as social communities, organisations, and targeted groups. We achieved a lot in terms of broadening our students' horizons, and, as a result, their motivation to learn about other cultures, to see the world, to be open-minded, and more tolerant grew. Tolerance was promoted throughout the project and students learnt about equality, cooperation, inclusion, and acceptance. We also had the feeling that an open mindset had been created not only for students but also for their families and their environment. Also, students’ motivation to learn foreign languages was also noticeable, with huge gains made with regard to students’ attitudes in language acquisition or the learning of a foreign language. We are convinced that students who were directly confronted with communicating in English with non-native speakers will have learnt something for life. Students also improved their ICT skills noticeably throughout the development of the project's activities, having learnt how to give speeches and elaborate presentations, as well as being able to edit audio or video content. All students, hosts, and guests who participated in a mobility had the feeling that it was a huge step towards adulthood, independence, being responsible, open, and creative. The project allowed for reflection and changed the synergies of our schools, and was undoubtedly beneficial for the entire school community including students, classes, teachers, and, of course, families. Teachers became increasingly involved with the project, with both students and families requesting the school to continue working on Erasmus projects (leading us to apply for another new project). Since this project, our communities have come to better understand the work that we do in our schools. The relationship between the school and the local community has grown, and empathy for the schools has increased. In fact, we wish to use the project´s awareness-raising capacity to increase the involvement of students’ families in school life. Our efforts also resounded well among our closest environmental and target groups. We received very positive feedbacks from all institutions that collaborated with us including education authorities, local administrations, organisations, and the press. Dissemination activities made our school increasingly visible at the local and regional scope, and we have since shared our experiences across different forums where our project and efforts were appreciated a lot, which provided us with good motivation and a sense of reward. Lastly, we established a stable network among participating organisations, and would like to keep this network in the future towards facilitating the exchange of new experiences and collaborative projects among our schools. In today’s global world it is important to prepare our pupils for their future careers and lives. The Erasmus+ project is therefore an ideal tool through which to do this on a smaller scale and within a protected environment.

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Stakeholders

Participants

Dvojezična srednja šola Lendava/Kétnyelvű Középiskola

Address
Slovenia

Fryxellska skolan, stiftelsen fryx

Address
Sweden

Gimnazjum nr 2 w Kartuzach

Address
Poland

Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz-Gesamtschule, Duisburg

Address
Germany