Teens get a handle on everyday social issues
Making Young Social Innovators out of our students is all in a day's work
Although only open since 2009, Luttrellstown Community College in Clonsilla, Dublin, has established a reputation for nurturing community spirit in its students.
This is the school's third year participating in the Young Social Innovators (YSI), a social awareness education programme that challenges second-level pupils to identify areas of need in their communities and find a creative solution.
For the first time, all of the school's Transition Year students are taking part in the programme with five projects, each of which stemmed from the students' own ideas.
Anna Laura Paulino (16) recalls being bullied as a First Year at another school in Dublin. Originally from Brazil, she struggled with the new language and says she found it difficult to make friends.
"Portuguese is my first language, and even though I studied English in my country, it was really hard for me to fit in. I didn't have any friends and sometimes I couldn't understand the homework or the teachers.
"I used to get bullied so badly at my old school, I didn't even want to go in some days," she says.
Now in Transition Year at Luttrellstown Community College, Anna Laura was inspired to try to make things easier for new students who don't have English as their first language.
Bianca Palileo (15), who hails from the Philippines, and Natalia Sikora (16), from Poland, had shared similar experiences, and together with Irish-born Megan Nolan (16) and Caoimhe Cunningham (16) they developed a project to welcome students grappling with a language barrier.
The group organised a weekly lunchtime club where First Years could share their difficulties with others and learn about each other's cultures. They also held a National Colours Day where students swapped their uniforms for clothes in the colours of their flag or traditional national dress.
"We learned lots about different cultures, and we created a bond with the younger students. I think we made them feel more comfortable and confident in their own skin," says Natalia.
Engaging with younger students is an important part of the social innovation projects at the west Dublin school.
One group invited Junior Cycle students to learn basic phrases in sign language at lunchtime, while another held a cyber safety club for First Years.
At the meetings, younger pupils completed quizzes on how to deal with cyberbullying, and acted out role plays where they would decide how to respond to nasty comments on Facebook.
"We learned more about cyberbullying and how to speak up for ourselves, as well as how to communicate in a big group and organise events," says Lucy Bowden (16).
"It really gave us more confidence to stand up and talk about issues we are passionate about," says Alex Hernon (15).
The YSI programme involves a series of regional events, known as Speak Outs, where teams have an opportunity to talk about why their idea will make a difference.
The Speak Out tour visited seven counties across Ireland in the past month.
Another feature of the progrmame is YSI Den, a Dragons' Den-style competition to which 20 teams were invited and were given the opportunity to pitch their ideas and get a share of a €15,000 social innovation fund.
The groups from Luttrellstown Community College competed at the Dublin Speak Out event, where one team decided to bring their project to life with a rap they wrote about homelessness.
Their project involved a food drive just before Christmas, where they donated tinned and non-perishable foods to the social care charity Crosscare.
Darragh Clarke (15) describes YSI as very different from previous classroom group work, and says the project helped to improve the students' communication skills.
"I think what makes a good project is the passion to want to do the work - everybody in our group put in the effort, there was no one being lazy. There weren't any arguments, it was all for the one goal," he says.
However, it wasn't all smooth sailing, and some groups faced bigger challenges than others. A group working to raise awareness about visual impairment had arranged a speaker to visit the school, but saw their plans fall through two days before the event was scheduled to take place, forcing them to quickly come up with a replacement.
"The speaker not coming in meant we couldn't do a lot of things, but we still tried our best," says Ebruba Mideno (15). The group instead held a demonstration for their fellow Transition Years, where they played games such as attempting to read or play football with bubble wrap covering their eyes.
Deputy principal Maria McAlinden says she has noticed the impact of the YSI projects on students of all years.
"It creates a lovely atmosphere around the school. We find it's a very good example for the younger students as well to see the older students coming into their classroom and talking about a social issue.
"It's exactly the way we want the younger ones to be settling into the school."
She describes YSI as allowing for a greater "flexibility" between teacher and student.
"It's a different way of interacting with the teachers after Junior Cert and it gives them great confidence. They can see what they're learning in school is relevant to their own interest."
Transition Year teacher and YSI Guide Carmel O'Sullivan agrees: "It's completely different from the other work we do with Transition Year. It's student-led, not teacher-led, so it was all their ideas."
She notes that this is the students' "first major group project", and that it helped them to "mature an awful lot over the year.
"The students really take responsibility for their own learning. They seem to enjoy that a lot more than me coming in and telling them what they need to do, even though there is a lot of work to it."
Teacher Jane Barry adds: "At the start, they expected us to come in and tell them what to do."
She mentions organisation and problem-solving as key skills the students develop while working on their projects.
"They liked YSI because it was something practical, they didn't just come in to an ordinary class, they had to go and organise things. They liked being on the go rather than sitting in class."
Young Social Innovators celebrates 15th anniversary
Now in its 15th year, the Young Social Innovators has entries involving more than 6,500 students in 2015/16. Working in teams, students aged 15-18 identify a social issue that affects them, their community or wider society, and develop creative ideas and actions for change.
This year, entrants from 211 schools, working in 450 groups , are addressing issues such as mental health, homelessness, obesity and deforestation. Sixty teams will compete in the final on May 10.
YSI partners include the departments of environment, children, education and social protection; the Health Service Executive, Irish Aid's WorldWise Global Schools; Crisis Pregnancy Programme; Ulster Bank, Construction Industry Federation and the ESB.