Case Study: Whitehouse Common Primary School

Whitehouse Common Primary School is located in Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham, West Midlands. The primary school at the heart of the community began their international activity in 2006 winning a UK eTwinning award in 2007-8 and since then has been widely recognised for their commitment to developing an international perspective; most recently attaining the Global School Alliance Bronze Global School Award.

Lisa Stevens, Primary Language and International Coordinator at the primary school shares the impact of international links.

Our journey began in 2006 when a colleague asked me to help with a project he’d set up via eTwinning with a Spanish school. I was soon not just helping but in charge, and our project Somos lo que celebramos (We are what we celebrate) was my introduction to the wonder of international projects to teach you as much about yourself as about others.

Many more eTwinning projects have followed over the years including teddy bear exchanges, projects about food and also environmental issues. One such project was Voices of the World which joined children around the globe to celebrate languages and our ability to understand one another whilst learning to use an exciting array of tools like Voki and Animoto to create and collate our outputs.

In 2009 we were fortunate to be part of a two year Comenius Regio project between the education departments, universities and 3/2 schools in Barcelona and Birmingham,  which linked us to Els Pins. Through the project we learned about CLIL, celebrated culture and explored how Pupil voice is used in the UK. But more than this, we built a strong link with the school, our pupils for the first time spoke to their peers in Spanish and colleagues caught the vision and power of international links. The relationship was deepened by the opportunity for staff to take part in job shadowing coupled with language classes at the university which built confidence as they introduced some Spanish to their classes back in England.

Connecting Classrooms led to links with a school in India and later with Colegio Esperanza in Tlaxcala, Mexico which broadened children’s understanding of Spanish as well as challenging stereotypes about Mexican people and the Mexican landscape. Before we went to visit Mexico we asked the children to draw a Mexican person and write words that they associated with Mexico. Cue lots of large hats, moustaches and comments about Puerto Vallarta/Acapulco. After our return with photos, online meetings and also the visit of our Mexican colleagues we revisited this and had some valuable discussions around how we see the world and the world see us.

We’ve also done projects that haven’t been funded or involved visits but have been equally as valuable. A couple of examples:
How’s your Christmas? was a simple project that involved sending and receiving Christmas greetings. We ended up with cards from over 30 countries, mostly written in their own language, some with ornaments and gifts included. We displayed them all in the school hall and it became hard at times to get the children out of the dining hall as they were having such a good time reading them all. There’s a video here so you can share the wonder too!

Hands of the World was a powerful project that used Makaton to unite children aged 3-19+ from across the globe in singing and signing. In the singing part, each school was allocated a line or two from a song, learned it in Makaton then all our lines were cleverly stitched together by the project founder Shorn Tonner Saunders to make one video. The songs sung and signed were all chosen for their theme of togetherness, of aspirations for the world, and celebration of having a common goal.

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Alongside this, we learned Makaton signs for everyday language that raised awareness of alternative ways of communicating and again led to powerful discussions about access and (often unconscious) prejudice.

Most recently Whitehouse Common has been blessed to be part of Let’s Go Cultural! an Erasmus+ project that concluded in August. A five way project between Whitehouse Common and schools in Elefsina (Greece) Beykoz, Istanbul (Turkey) Deutschlandsberg (Austria) and Cartagena (Spain) it centred around sharing and celebrating our tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Originally a two year project, COVID reared its ugly head around the time of our second project meeting – at Whitehouse Common – and meant that project meetings 2 and 3 were missed by at least one country. I wrote about the project in April 2022 just prior to the final project meeting in Greece – you can read it in Languages Today magazine or here.

Rather than share the whole experience I’ve chosen to highlight the impact.

As a school community, we have the motto No Outsiders at our school but this project challenged us to explore this once more. In terms of culture, what does it mean to belong? What is English culture? What is British culture? Does everyone understand the same thing by those terms? Can it be defined? As a school community, what’s our culture? And how do we express it? Throughout the Project, our community has been invited to share what culture means to them. A couple of examples:

1. Around the World in 80 Books

For World Book Day 2022, our school went on a trip around the world through books with each class looking at one book (at least) set in another country that they explored in terms of geography, language and culture. Alongside this, staff and children were encouraged to bring in books from other countries/cultures that meant something to them. Many brought in books in their home languages, books about the countries of their relatives and others phrase books from countries they have visited. In addition the ‘dressing up’ element of the day was to dress in the colours of a flag – again, many chose to celebrate their culture whilst others chose the flag of one of our partner schools.

2. The Great WCPS Recipe Book

Prior to the meeting in Turkey, we read Lunch at 10 Pomegranate Street in assembly, a book all about the culinary diversity in the kitchens of the eponymous address, and took from it the idea of creating a recipe book that was individual to our school. Our community was invited to bring in their favourite recipes and they were collated to share with our partners. Recipes included Sweet apple snow fungus soup, Nigerian puff puffs, Thai green curry, scones, jam tarts and Shahi paneer.

And linguistically. What’s been the impact?

One of our partners is a school in Spain and Spanish is the language we learn throughout the school. This has given children an impetus and purpose to learn Spanish.

This has given children an impetus and purpose to learn Spanish.

When penpal letters arrived from Austria, I had to explain to Y5 (aged 9-10) that some of the children were only 5 and hadn’t been learning English for long. They immediately decided that they’d like to try and write some phrases in German so they would be able to understand, a gesture that was very much appreciated by their penpals. They additionally developed a love for and fascination with German compound nouns like Lieblingsfußballmannschaft!

On World Book Day 2021 I read We’re going on a Bear Hunt in five languages – those of our partner schools – and Makaton with the intention of celebrating language and books, as a homage to the diversity of the project but also to model language learning to my pupils. I do not speak Turkish or Greek but did my best to read and pronounce the words correctly.  In 2022 I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar in all five languages (more successfully I think!) but this time I challenged the children to tell the story in Turkish by copying the pronunciation on a video, sentence by sentence, and to explore the vocabulary of the story in the five languages. They declared that Greek was ‘pretty’ as the letters looked like pictures, and identified some Turkish phonics too such as ç pronounced as ch and ş as sh.

Personally the project has been a challenge to me as a linguist. In Spain, I was able to talk to everyone and clarify misunderstandings thanks to my degree. In Austria, I did what I always say to my pupils and ‘went for it’, employing my German skills to make myself understood – and I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was!  As a linguist, I find it incredibly frustrating when I am unable to communicate in someone’s language and Turkey was one such country. However, my effort to learn some phrases was so appreciated, although it did mean some children thought I could actually speak Turkish and tried to engage me in long conversations! And for Greece, I started learning earlier with some of my Austrian colleagues and we were even given a test when we got there! Nelson Mandela was right when he said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”

Since that project ended in August, we’ve not got a huge project on the go (I asked staff to remind me how exhausted I was in May last year if I started suggesting anything on that scale in the near future!) but we’ve got our fingers in some pies! We took part in a Discovering Arabic day run by the British Council and the Qatar Foundation that was great as the participants went back to school and tried out their new skills on their Arabic-speaking classmates. We celebrated Mother Language Day in February with an assembly to share languages we speak, understand or are part of our heritage, and we have signs on all our doors welcoming people in all the languages spoken by the class.

We’ve become more involved in the GSA, joining the Primary Council and also participating in the Let’s Make a Better World project, and we continue to use Postcrossing as an exciting window into homes around the world (here’s a map of our postcards) I’m excited that we’ve been awarded the Full International Schools Award for the fourth time this year but am also aware that we can’t stand on our laurels – nor do we want to!

I am really passionate about the international dimension, the power of links between schools around the world and the beauty of collaborating. Yes, it sometimes leaves me exhausted, juggling and negotiating so that everything is done but it’s so worth it to see the impact on the staff, school, community and, of course, the pupils. Whilst some opportunities are no longer available to us and I still mourn for their loss, it’s not going to stop me. There are still ways to make links and work in collaboration with others and I will continue to search for more!

If you want to find out more about the WCPS International Journey, there’s a summary of advice, links and impact statements here, and you can have a look at the International section of the school website and/or our Erasmus+ blog.

And please feel free to contact me to ask questions or for advice. I’m @lisibo on Twitter and the school is @whcps.

I’ve leave you with a comment on one of my presentations.  

What shone through was the positive impact these experiences have had on all involved – pupils, teaching and school staff and parents.  Senior management have increasingly recognised the value of these projects and prioritised them within school planning.  Comments from pupils and colleagues, and more formal statements from school leaders, provide testimony to their success.