Swapping inner-city UK for the natural beauty of Iceland-face to face is best

The following article comes from Janice Morran, EAL Teacher at Bellahouston Academy, Scotland, UK.

Some called us a little odd: “You are applying for funding during a global pandemic, to take young people to another country?”, we were asked in a bemused tone. On news of our successful application other questions followed, “You are only taking first year students? They have been stuck in the house for two years, their parents will never agree.”., “Why are you taking him, he hardly attends school. She has poor behaviour…”, “ You are only targeting pupils on free school meals, is that inclusive?”.

To be honest my colleague and I relished such questions. The answer to them all was a resounding, ‘Yes!”

Inspired by the 2021 Cop26 conference being hosted in Glasgow, we applied for Turning funding for a global project.  Our aim: to give our learners an opportunity to learn first-hand how better-targeted uses of existing resources might provide solutions to issues around climate change.

We had two key drivers: tackling the overt and hidden barriers created by poverty, for example, poverty of ambition; and offering our pupils the transformational experiences that global face-to-face projects provide. Targeting the youngest, most disadvantaged learners in our school, we hope that this early intervention will allow them to develop and reach their full potential, both personally and academically.

We linked with Helgafellskóli, collaborating to research and analyse the impact of climate change, and to learn about one another’s countries and cultures. Initially, digitally via Padlet; From the beginning we established a warm rapport across the internet. Despite not having video conferenced prior to arriving at our host school, Helgafellskóli could not have been more welcoming.

What struck me was how open our learners were open to the opportunities offered to them; I had concerns that post-pandemic coupled with limited or no prior experience of overseas travel they may be a little apprehensive.  Following a beautiful forest walk to the school, by 10.30 on the first morning, the Icelandic and Scottish pupils had instantly bonded. Indeed, they had formed a huge Snapchat group before the break had ended. New friendships were forged in what seemed like minutes.

Many of our pupils living in inner-city Glasgow, had never travelled beyond their own district before, never flown, seen the sea, mountains nor forest.  With our peers in Helgafellskóli, not only did we work together in school, but enjoyed the ‘Golden Circle’ tour and visited a geothermal-energy-powered farm to understand the how growing tomatoes in Iceland is made possible by harnessing geothermal energy.

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It was a transformative experience for all involved. Staff in Helgafellskóli commented that their class were motivated to put greater effort into their classwork, knowing they were preparing presentations for a real audience.  They also observed a general improvement in behaviour. The Icelandic staff are now exploring opportunities to take their learners to another country, perhaps to visit us.

It can be difficult to ‘measure’ the soft, yet vital, skills, however they are a huge part of what happens with face-to-face global visits and are essential skills for future employability and further study. One of our pupils, a Syrian Refugee child, had previously been quiet and reserved in class, perceiving himself as new to English. On his first day back in Glasgow, he asked his English teacher if he could give a presentation to his whole class, there and then, about the week in Iceland.  He stood up and confidently told the class all about it, using his iPad to screen cast photographs and he fielded questions, this was just the beginning for him… For me, this highlights the impact of face-to-face global experiences and, as a proud member of the Global School Alliance, I would encourage all schools to get involved in these positive, authentic and transformational visits.