This month’s blog consists of a reflection on a trip to Argentina, made back in November. It was organised through the British Council’s ‘Connecting Classrooms’ programme, which supports teachers who want to try to build sustainable partnerships with schools in different parts of the world. The programme provides an opportunity for partner schools to explore a variety of social, environmental and cultural themes, and is a growing community which now includes over 5,200 schools and 936,000 young people across the world. Connecting Classrooms ‘equips students with a deeper understanding of other countries and cultures, their rights and responsibilities as global citizens, and the skills needed to work in a global economy and build a fairer, more sustainable world.‘ Teachers also benefit from gaining understanding of other countries’ education systems, being better equipped to teach about global issues, and improving their own teaching skills.
The thermometer read 32 degrees as we journeyed from the airport into Buenos Aires, the flowers of the jacaranda trees shining with electric lilac against the grey city streets. This was my third visit to the city known as the ‘Paris of the South’, and it was good to absorb some familiar sights as our taxi picked its way slowly through the dense traffic towards our hotel in the east of the city.
My room was on the fifth floor, and I drew the curtains to a fantastic view over the famous Recoleta Cemetery. It is said that the real estate within the walls boasts the highest land prices in the city, and somewhere deep in the middle of the cityscape of elaborate tombs and memorials is the final resting place of national heroine, Eva Peron.
The weather held for the next day, when there was a chance to visit some of the regular tourist attractions, such as the Casa Rosada (Pink House), Plaza De Mayo, and the giant obelisco in Plaza de La Republica, overlooking 16 lanes of busy traffic – allegedly the widest street in the world. I was really pleased to return to the San Telmo area – steeped in the history of the tango – and visit the antiques market that creates itself every Sunday morning, selling coins, old vinyl, crafts and silver cutlery. I also enjoyed a pilgrimage to La Boca, the slightly edgy old port area where the corrugated houses painted in a multitude of bright colours surround La Bombonera stadium (the ‘Chocolate Box’) – the home to one of the city’s leading soccer sides, Boca Juniors. Relaxing on the tourist street of Caminito with a cold beer at a street table in the sun, while watching the tango dancers strut their stuff, certainly helped to get rid of any remaining jet lag.
Most of the afternoon was spent in the Puerto Madero area – an area of old riverside industry that had been regenerated in a similar fashion to London’s docklands. Much development has taken place her since my first visit around ten years ago, and this part of the city is now a substantial asset to both portenos (citizens of Buenos Aires) and tourists alike. Apart from the old brick warehouses now housing smart shops and exclusive restaurants, one major feature in this area is the reclaimed wetland nature reserve (Reserva Ecological Costanera Sur), which is home to over 200 bird species – and just a few minutes from the centre of the city.
However, with our weekend sight-seeing over, it was soon time to apply ourselves to the purpose of the visit, which was as part of a British Council ‘Connecting Classrooms’ project. I was not looking forward to the 5 hour coach journey to Mar Del Plata, where our school twins were to be found. As it turned out, the journey with the amusingly named ‘Tony’s Tours’, was a pleasure. With a modest speed limit carefully observed by the driver, combined with full reclining seats on the upper deck, it was possible to relax in some comfort and watch the world go by. After we had slowly made our way to the edge of the city limits, we passed huge shanty settlements clinging to the roadside, before reaching the open plains of the Argentinian countryside. The vast expanse of the flat landscape was punctuated by grain silos and giant poly tunnels, with beef cattle grazing in huge numbers, and horses nearly as common, often wading through the often flooded pastures. Although our trip took a full five hours, it covered only a tiny section on our map of Argentina – demonstrating the true scale of this enormous country.
Mar Del Plata is a large city of 800,000 inhabitants with an interesting history. It is a huge beach resort that has grown around a core of an old fishing port and a military base. Still the main coastal playground for the citizens of Buenos Aires and the rest of the country, it was once said that if the rich Argentinians were not holidaying in France, they would be found in Mar Del Plata. After exploring the seemingly endless chain of sandy bay beaches, we measured on the map a virtually unbroken stretch of sand covering no less than 50 kilometres.This made the beaches of our own famous ‘golden coast’ of North Devon seem quite insignificant.
We had the opportunity to visit a range of educational institutions, starting in a state secondary school before moving on to a private school, and eventually to the city’s university. The educational system in Argentina is divided into four distinct levels, with the preprimary level (kindergarten) not compulsory and enrolling children from 3- to 5-years-old. This is followed by primary (elementary) level schooling, which is compulsory and consists of 7 grades. Pupils at this level must remain until all 7 grades are completed or, in case of repetition of grades, until age 14. The secondary level is attended by youths from 12- to 17-years-old, or 16 if they are employed and attend night school. Higher education includes private and national universities and institutions that provide teacher training and advanced training in technical careers.
The school year in Argentina runs from March to December and lasts about 200 days. Schools are closed for national holidays, such as Good Friday and Easter, and two weeks in July for vacation. The students we met were all looking forward to their long holiday break between school years, lasting for up to 10 weeks.
One interesting aspect of the Argentinian system is that public universities are tuition-free and open to anyone. However, the hidden costs of education, like transportation and materials, often makes it hard for students from low-income families to enrol.
The students we met were all delightful. They were articulate in their second language, and gave us a really warm welcome in each school, asking great questions as we exchanged ideas and thoughts on our different countries and education systems. It was something of a surprise to find a shortage of basic classroom resources in all of the institutions we visited. Even at the inspiringly named ‘Einstein Academy’, an over-subscribed state school supported by small fees paid by parents, only a tiny library was available for students, and the small classrooms were virtually empty of textbooks sets, whiteboards and computers. The green chalkboards brought back fond memories from my early days of teaching. At the University, where we spoke at length with a group of trainee teachers, the scruffy decor and aged furniture also provided a surprise. The classroom we used had a hole in the roof which leaked badly in the winter months. Perhaps the luxury of ‘free’ provision at this stage of education meant that there was limited resources left to provide the peripherals we might have expected to find?
I was interested to find direct reference to the Malvinas conflict in some of the schools. In one, a sign above each classroom door features a photograph and obituary of a young soldier who lost his life in the conflict. Questions from the students sought out our views on this sensitive issue, and we responded honestly, but with a deliberate diplomacy.
The contact with students is always a highlight of a trip like this, but possibly the most productive part is making face to face contact with the teachers. Although we had already exchanged e-mails, projects like this are given a real boost when you meet fellow professionals properly. Students had already exchanged written work and films describing ‘Amazing Places’ in their own countries, and also swapped student views on ‘What Defines Your Country?’ as well as answers to the rather more open-ended title ‘What is Happiness?’ Teachers were able to discuss future developments, and how best to reinforce the links that had been started. One issue I did not anticipate was the difficulty for Argentinian students to gain easy access to technology. I based the work in my classroom around the use of I Pads, and have had to rethink this idea to better fit our mutual circumstances. During our trip, we made plans with the teachers to forge direct links with Skype calls, and also make use of social media and a web site to allow students to manage and control the sharing of their work.. It is hoped that we can reinforce and sustain our links using these ideas before May, when we look forward to hosting our Argentinian partners here in North Devon. Perhaps one day, we will be able to establish a programme that allows for student exchanges as well.
This is the second British Council project I have been involved with, previously hosting a group of visiting teachers from Saudi Arabia, before travelling to Riyadh to see schools there. The visiting Saudis made quite an impact in North Devon, their national dress being a really unusual sight for local people. Their interactions with students proved a really interesting and valuable experience for all concerned, and we were incredibly well looked after on our reciprocal visit. The value of exchanges such as this as a focus to breakdown stereotypes and develop global citizenship cannot be overestimated. We are currently involved in establishing another British Council project with a partner school in Nepal, as well as contributing to Neil Emery’s Amazon project which uses I Pad technology to establish links with village schools in the Ecuadorian rain forest. This, along with our regular visits to Ugandan schools as part of our cooperative work with the Amigos charity, puts us well on the way to my goal of establishing school connections in each of the continents.
Finally, I must express my sincere thanks to Nick Langmead from Braunton Academy and John Davies from Pilton School for their leadership, guidance and hard work in helping to establish the British Council connections for a group of north Devon schools. I hope they have enjoyed the benefits of their labours as much as I and my students have!
If there are any other teachers out there who have ideas to share about establishing international school links, I would love to hear from you!