Sunday 19 November 2017

'It's a no-brainer - anybody who doesn't grab it, is crazy'

Erasmus+ and me: Alex O'Mahony

Teacher Alex O’Mahony at Holy Spirit Boys’ National School, Silloge Road, Ballymun.
Teacher Alex O’Mahony at Holy Spirit Boys’ National School, Silloge Road, Ballymun.

It was during a visit to Germany in summer 2016, when it was dealing with an influx of about one millon immigrants in a year, that primary school teacher Alex O'Mahony drew inspiration for his recent Erasmus+ project.

Alex, who has a particular interest in phonics teaching, works at Holy Spirit Boys' NS, Ballymun, Dublin which has a history of involvement in the EU Comenius programme, a predecessor to Erasmus+ for the school sector.

Over the past couple of years, he has been involved in arranging an Erasmus+ project: two colleagues went to Leicester, UK, to explore a new approach to phonics, called SSP, and five went to London on a maths project. Generally, staff were interested in pursuing opportunities in English-speaking countries, but Alex's horizon was Europe.

On a visit to Germany last year, he came face to face with the immigrant crisis, which set him thinking about integration of refugee children into schools.

He says while his school and others have enrolled non-English speaking pupils, to whom some language support has been offered, "we haven't really addressed their needs". In fact, he says, "we haven't got the skillset in place to address these needs."

He says, in 2016, Germany was where it was all happening on this front: "They were integrating one million refugees and integrating children into the education system."

There, refugee children's introduction to schools is via Wilkommen classes, for intensive language learning for six to 12 months, before they are expected to function in the mainstream.

"It made me look at how they organise language integration. It is very different from Ireland and the UK; normally it is 45 minutes and back to the classroom. That can work with small numbers, but if there was an influx of immigrants, what have we got in place?

"It has to be language first; you can't throw children into classes without the language."

This summer, thanks to Erasmus+, Alex, and two colleagues, Mary Nilan and Clodagh McKenna, job shadowed at Grundschule im Beerwinkel, a primary school in Berlin. "They showed us how the school runs and how their language classes work."

Alex says the "main thing about Erasmus+ is that it gets you thinking, it gets you looking around to see what can we use here, what can't we use here. It gets you analysing what you are doing. By opening yourself up to the rest of Europe, you are opening yourself up to a whole range of ideas."

According to Alex, "anyone who doesn't grab the Erasmus+ opportunity is crazy; it is a no-brainer."

Irish Independent

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