AG FÁS LE CHÉILE SAN AOIS NUA—BUILDING BRIDGES—BREAKING BARRIERS

Cathy Connolly Frieda Bent KFTD, KARE Co. Kildare Fourteen students from KARE took part in Ireland’s first-ever joint educational project for language learning involving students with learning disabilities.

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An Irish-Swedish language and drama project grew out of discussions and collaboration which began early in 1997 between a group of teachers from KFTD (Kare Further Training D , Co. Kildare) and Polhenskolan, Lund (Sweden). The idea was formalised into a Lingua project (within EU Socrates Programmes which promote European cooperation in education). The project was designed to be incorporated into the KFTD curriculum. Students at KFTD come from the special school system, which caters for most special needs, but which often limits the opportunity for social interaction enjoyed by their chronological peers. A main thrust of the KFTD programme is to address students’ low self-esteem, poor self-confidence and their consciousness of disability, rather than ability. Teachers felt that the Lingua Action E programme would afford students an excellent opportunity to discover new capabilities.

Staff in DFTD visited the Swedish partners to explore plans for the project. The young adult Irish and Swedish students with intellectual disabilities would be the main driving force in the project, within existing curriculum areas such as self-advocacy, information-sourcing and communications.

The project was given the title ‘Ag fás le chéile san aois nua—building bridges, breaking barriers’. The project’s purpose was to greatly improve the students’ communication skills in their own and each other’s language, through the development and performance of a drama celebrating the groups’ similarities/differences. The students would develop a play, share ideas, explore cultural differences, engage in European awareness and learn the basics of a foreign language. Even in their own language, KFTD students often choose the ‘easy option’, letting others advocate on their behalf. Learning to speak in another language proves to them that they are capable of expressing themselves in their own language too.

Several students were asked if they wished to take part in the project and those selected were invited to an information night in February 1999. Most of the students felt quite overwhelmed by the new experiences described—but the prospect of visiting a foreign country sounded attractive to them and they confirmed their participation.

The classroom-based curriculum for the project consisted of European awareness, Swedish geography, history, climate, traditions, and some basic Swedish vocabulary. Both student groups contributed much to developing the content of the bilingual drama, which was given the title ‘Us and them’. In August, the two parts of the cast were ready to meet—in Sweden. The KFTD members arrived at Dublin Airport with fresh haircuts and passports in hand. It was the first flight, and visit abroad, for many—to say that they were excited about the trip would be an understatement! Understandably, the first shared meal after their arrival in Sweden was a little awkward. Barriers were soon lowered during drama rehearsals at Polhernskolan (an integrated high school). The students watched each other sing and dance—feeling just a bit silly at first, but sharing their embarrassment as part of the process. KFTD students soon fell into step behind their new Swedish friends in the school lunch queue. Afternoon trips offered other opportunities to make friends, and they soon discovered they shared the same sense of humour. There was a visit to an archery centre where people are trained in ancient Viking weapons. The visitors worked in teams to solve puzzles and had the opportunity to try out archery and blow guns. One of the Swedish teachers hosted a traditional Swedish crayfish party with Swedish songs, and Irish accordion music provided by KFTD’s very own in-house musician, Seán.

Farewells at Kristanstadt Airport were eased by the prospect of returning home. Having already performed their play to a Swedish audience, the KFTD students really looked forward to seeing each other again soon.

During their Irish visit, the Swedish students and their teaches stayed in the Divine Word Missionaries’ Centre in Maynooth. Some of the Irish students stayed there too, at ease with their visitors. When words failed, music was their shared language. Swedish and Irish voices sang along with Boyzone and Abba. Several day-trips were organised, including one to the Guinness Brewery, and a favourite evening was spent at a Midnight Legend’s gig at Maynooth College. There was a full house of family and friends at the show in Naas on 9 September 1999. Some members of the audience were moved to tears watching previously quiet and unsure individuals performing confidently on stage.

Although the drama exchange project has now ended, a new Lingua Action C project has followed. Swedish teacher, Cecilia Andersson, is in Kildare for several more months teaching Swedish language and European awareness. With their newly discovered confidence in their abilities, the KFTD students are now well-motivated to undertake further learning experiences. RADA, watch out!

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