14 Aug 2019
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Happy little Vegemites

An innovative learning program is opening up new continents and new cultures to South Australian students.

Few things are more uniquely Australian than Vegemite. As a group of Chinese students struggled to come to terms with our iconic but strange tasting sandwich spread, their counterparts at St Francis Xavier’s Regional Catholic School in Wynn Vale came to the rescue.

A quick lesson in what to spread it on and how to spread it was given via an internet link. It was a humour-laden moment in the school’s innovative Engage with Asia project, which aims to help pupils learn about different cultures through language.

It all came about after Roma Chiera-Garnelli, the school’s teacher of languages (Chinese and Italian), established connections with China. In 2017 Ludgero Rego, Catholic Education SA’s language consultant, approached her with the idea of building on this by trialling an interactive project with Shengfei Primary School in southern China.

“Instead of connecting students directly, like the old pen-pal system, we looked at connecting teachers and classes through the internet,” Chiera-Garnelli says.

The project has quickly grown and now involves six teachers across all year levels at the school, while nine other Catholic schools across the state have also formalised online inter-school partnerships in the Sichuan Province. Two other schools have linked with their counterparts in Japan and Indonesia.

“While the students are learning about another culture, they are also learning where their own language and culture sits,” Chiera- Garnelli says.

The program has expanded from just language to involve maths, history, science and music.

Teachers guide pupils’ learning and interaction, while Simple PowerPoint-style presentations allow communication skills to involve writing as well as talking.

“The focus is to develop a partnership in planning authentic lessons based on our curriculum needs, where students communicate and share learning between the two schools,” Chiera- Garnelli says.

Initial discussion is conducted by Australian and Chinese teachers via WeChat, China’s messaging and social media platform. Chinese pupils create works that are analysed by Australian pupils, who then create questions in Chinese. Pupils then interact in a scheduled videoconferencing session via Zoom.

“They share their work and my students then ask questions for clarification and to extend their understanding of the topic,” Chiera-Garnelli says. “Then we send them work and they prepare questions to share at the next Zoom session.”

Learning how to interpret a message without imposing cultural beliefs and expectations has been a positive experience for pupils and also those teachers who have never learned a second language or felt they had a culture other than Anglo-Saxon Australian. Meanwhile, pupils have assumed more of a role in the aims and objectives of their own learning.

“Students are becoming more aware of the world around them and the world ‘far away’,” Chiera- Garnelli says. She credits the face-to-face interaction in the Zoom sessions as a key to the new level of intercultural understanding all the participants have achieved, an understanding which will develop further when some of the Chinese students will visit the school in August.

Leonora Azzopardi has had two children go through the Engage with Asia program and believes it is a great opportunity for students to learn directly from others their age what life is like in comparison to their own.

“It helps them to be exposed to the real world and takes them out of their comfort zone in a safe environment while still being quite authentic,” she says. “The kids come home with a different outlook, making suggestions that maybe they would like to go there one day to experience China in its totality.”


Source: 2019/20 South Australian Catholic Schools, Advertiser Feature (Fourth Edition)
Words: Hamish Cooper
Photography: Mike Burton

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