Learning ‘round the world

Welsh students bring different point of view to Oakbrook

By: Kristyne E. Demske | Shelby - Utica News | Published February 28, 2011

 From left, Oakbrook Elementary sixth-graders Natalie Scarcelli and Emily Traub spend the day with Monique Heffernan and Kate Brock, students from Barry Island, Wales, Feb. 18.

From left, Oakbrook Elementary sixth-graders Natalie Scarcelli and Emily Traub spend the day with Monique Heffernan and Kate Brock, students from Barry Island, Wales, Feb. 18.

Photo by Deb Jacques


STERLING HEIGHTS — With the world fast becoming one big village, schools are trying to keep up, doing their best to see that students are connected to one another and can learn about different ways of life.

And for one day in February, sixth-grade students at Oakbrook Elementary were able to learn all about schools and community in Wales without ever leaving their school when five students and two administrators from Barry Island Primary School came to visit.

Ty Golding, deputy head teacher at the school, and Janet Hayward, head teacher at the school, had come to Michigan — specifically East Lansing — to give a presentation and participate in iNet, an international technology conference for educators. It has been held around the world for approximately seven years, but this was the first time it was held in the United States, at Michigan State University.

Golding said he and Hayward had presented at iNet before, but it always seemed to be all about students and education without including any actual students. This time around, Golding said, he asked to bring some of his students who were using technology to help their community.

Barry Island, located on the southern tip of Wales in Great Britain, used to be a large tourist destination. But with the advent of cheaper flights to warm spots on the European continent — like Spain and the south of France — Golding said the community’s major economic driver had been waning.

“Their idea was to build a website,” Golding said of his students, which would allow users to “engage with local historical figures and have online interactive” features to try to draw people back to the area and let them know what Barry Island has to offer.

The idea came about, he said, from the students’ study of citizenship. He said many Barry Island children face the same dilemma as they age — “Do you leave for personal development or stay and further community development?”

The visiting students are in grade six and included the head girl and deputy head girl of the school, as well as members of student council. Golding said the head and deputy head boy of the school were on another trip to Seville, Spain, at the time, and most importantly, the website “was these girls’ idea.”

“Barry Island was going down with the population,” said 10-year-old Lacy Sjodin. “We wanted to open it back up, really. We’re trying to …”

“Build it back up,” continued 11-year-old Georgia Meredith. “The holiday camp went bankrupt.”

The trip, a 16-hour plane ride away from home, was the girls’ first visit to the United States.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing how different America is to Wales,” Meredith said. “The size of the buildings … they’re not so big” in Wales.

The girls said they were learning other things, too, like how Michigan is a state, but Wales only has counties, cities and towns.

“I think it’s amazing,” Meredith said.

Golding said students at the school are also working on rebuilding a tidal paddling pool in the area. Barry Island has the second-highest tidal range in the world with a 10-meter variance in high and low tide.

“Because of the huge tide variances, it’s difficult to get out to the beach,” he said.

A similar pool had been destroyed, but the students won a bid to have the recreation pool rebuilt. Between the “@BarryIsland” website and brand the students are working on and the pool, the students are trying to “give people a reason to visit,” Golding said.

The visitors arrived in Michigan Feb. 12 and left Feb. 19, spending the first several days at MSU. But they also put the word out that they’d like to visit a local school to give a new experience to the Barry Island students, which is when Oakbrook Elementary stepped up and invited them to visit Feb. 18.

“We saw it as an opportunity not only for them to visit (but also for an) exchange between the teachers,” said Oakbrook Principal Brian Shepard, who hopes to create a future partnership between the Barry Island Primary School and Oakbrook.

Oakbrook Elementary School also participated at iNet — speaking about its Mandarin immersion program — as did Heritage Junior High, which presented its International Baccalaureate program to the conference.

“I think the biggest thing is to talk about the differences in their schooling,” Shepard said, explaining that once students in Wales finish primary school in grade six, they go on to high school, which is a mix of junior high and high school here, but students are promoted based on skill, not age cohort.

He said he’s looking forward to possibly using video-conference technology or Skype to have his students learn about Welsh culture, including things like St. David’s Day, a holiday coming up in which the Welsh students are split into four “houses” to showcase different facets of the culture.

Long term, he said, “it would be neat for us to be able to enter into more partnerships” with schools around the world.

“We are becoming more of a global society,” he said. “It’ll be something they’ll remember, I think, for a long time.”