Wednesday 1 March 2017

How to teach English to the Facebook generation

Logging on: Transition students from St Columba's College at work in the school library
Logging on: Transition students from St Columba's College at work in the school library

It may be just a cricket ball's throw away from Dublin's M50, but St Columba's College looks for all the world like it could be the setting for a Harry Potter novel.

Originally modelled on an English public school, not too far removed from Eton or Harrow, the college on the edge of the Dublin mountains still requires its pupils to wear academic gowns and attend 'chapel' every day. In summer, the boys and girls play cricket in the cloisters.

St Columba's clings to its traditions proudly, but behind its ornate granite exterior, teachers have embraced new technology with enthusiasm.

The head of the English department, Julian Girdham, started a blog three years ago, and has seen its importance grow enormously. Teachers now use the web diary in the classroom.

Last year, sccenglish.ie won a prize as best group blog at the International Edublog awards, the Oscars for education web sites.

Now, Julian Girdham is a regular speaker on IT at education conferences and seminars.

"When I started the blog, I was just tootling around," says the English teacher and college sub-warden [deputy principal].

"I would update it every couple of weeks. We didn't foresee that this venture would grow so dramatically far beyond the original vision." The teachers in the English department now use the blog to publish reading lists, articles, reviews, essays and poems.

Teachers, pupils and other interested parties contribute to a site that now attracts attention beyond the school gates. The blog is updated daily, and some of the contributions have even been turned into a book.

"If we come across a good essay or poem, we encourage the pupils to email it to us and we put it up on the site. It gives the kids the sense of being published," says Julian Girdham.

"A pupil writes a story, emails it to the blog, we put it online and other pupils read it and see the level they can aspire to."

Around a quarter of the pupils at the Rathfarnham school have contributed to the site. Their contributions range from short recommendations of books to 8,000- word essays.

"We do not put everything on the site. We try to ensure that it is of high quality."

Effectively, the blog is like a notice board, school magazine and book club, all rolled into one.

A lot of schoolwork at St Columba's, including essays, is now typed on computer.

Around half the pupils have laptops. There is also easy access to computers for those who do not have laptops.

According to Julian Girdham, the use of the site is an acknowledgement that today's pupils are part of the Bebo and Facebook generation. They lead and organise much of their lives online.

While many teachers worry that the internet is corroding our literary culture, the English teacher believes it can be used to celebrate it more vigorously.

Earlier this year, the site started hosting podcasts. These have included interviews with academics and writers, and a series of Leaving Cert revision talks on Macbeth.

The school's desire to encourage a love of literature and what it terms "a strong reading culture" is not just shown by the blog. St Columba's boasts a magnificent library, located in the centre of the school.

Ranging from adventure stories for younger pupils to chick lit to high-brow literature, the library has over 10,000 titles.

Earlier this year, to mark World Book Day, the school library held a poll to find the college's favourite book.

Not surprisingly, the teen vampire romance Twilight by Stephenie Meyer came out top with The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini in the runner-up slot.

Facilities such as the library do not come cheap, of course. With annual fees of up to €21,000 for boarders, St Columba's is among the most expensive schools in the country.

Not every school boasts such good internet access, and not every Irish pupil can afford a laptop, but Julian Girdham believes the use of new technology can actually save money.

"Parents are spending hundreds of euro on text books while you can now get laptops for €300. Ultimately I can see a time when a lot of the information in text books will be accessed online. You can also save money on photocopying."

Julian Girdham says the blog has actually cost the school next to nothing.

"We spent €30 on the domain name [the site's web address] and that was it. It is incredibly simple and cheap to set up a blog like this, and it does not require that much time."

Other academic departments in the school now have their own blogs. The home page on the school's Latin website is known as the 'Domus'.

The Latin site even has its own cyber-motto: "Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno." ("A rare bird upon the earth, and very like a black swan.")

Irish Independent

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