My experiences with the project ‘trait d’union’. A plea…

May 10th, 2011 by Robin Schulz-Algie

… for the continuation of the project in Bilbao including its school exchange.

by Robin Schulz-Algie, DSB Bilbao/Spain.

I’m a student of English and Political Sciences from Berlin and work at the moment – for the duration of one year – in the Kindergarten of the German School in Bilbao, Spain (Colegió Alemán Bilbao) to gain work-experiences for my aimed Master degree in ‘Children’s Rights and Childhood Studies’. In this context I got in touch with the Comenius Project ‘trait d’union’.

My work consisted mostly of meeting once every one or two weeks with one part of the participating students in the school’s computer room and to assist them in participating in their particular ‘International Editorial Teams’ (IET). Furthermore I then was also offered to accompany the students’ school exchange to the VIII Liceum Ogólnokształcące in Krakow, Poland this April.

I offered to help the project’s coordinator Lothar Thiel because I like the idea of gaining intercultural competences already during one’s school education. I myself got into contact with the term for the first time during my university studies and, as intercultural competences nowadays play such a big role, I think, the earlier one starts dealing with the idea behind it, the better. Furthermore I, myself, am supported partly by a Comenius scholarship this year and so I also saw the possibility to give some effort in return. However, this article is not a report about concrete experiences and outcomes of the project or impressions that I collected about interculturality in Krakow (as they have been written by the students and are part of this magazine anyway), but more something like a plea.

Despite the fact that you’re holding the result of one year’s work of the project in your hands now [I wrote this article as a contribution to the printed issue in the first place] and despite the fact that the group who worked on ‘trait d’union’ in Bilbao met quite frequently and contributed to three of the IETs, there is a considerable number of people at my school (mostly parents) who merely see ‘trait d’union’ as a classical school exchange program which on top is merely part of a voluntary school subject and don’t want the project to continue in its present form in the next year. Some voices say that the participating students who can’t be motivated by marks – as they are used to in their other subjects – within the project, understand it as a cheap holiday or something along those lines. The idea for the next year is to continue with the editorial work in the project but to quit the school exchange part of it.

To proof the mentioned voices wrong and as a plea that no school exchange program as well as no voluntary school project is ‘merely’ something, in the following I would like to give some impressions of my work in the project that in my view illustrate what distinguishes it from a classical school exchanges as I know them from my own time in school.

The awareness and evaluation of intercultural differences among (European) countries, as it was one of the major ideas behind the project’s initiation, was definitely always a part of a well prepared school exchange program. What was new for me in this respect was the fact that now there is a term to talk about it more differentiated. This may seem trivial at first sight. But it is true. Phenomena that we observe in our environment are a mass of separate parts when we lack vocabulary and categories to sort them into our perception of the world. I who myself work in a Kindergarten at the moment witness this every day.

Having in mind categories of intercultural differences such as those suggested by Geert Hofstede (commonly used as a starting point in the scientific discourse)

  • Power distance
  • Individualism and Collectivism
  • Masculine and Feminine Cultures
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Long-term and short-term orientation

may help to shed light on the chaos of impressions one usually faces being a guest in another culture. And more then everything else to distinguish intercultural from interpersonal differences which, in my opinion, is very hard to judge, especially among European cultures that have so much in common.

I am not saying that the students with whom I worked in the project now have a well differentiated map of cultural differences among European countries participating in the project in their hands or heads. And I don’t think that this is the main idea of the project. To achieve that one needs a lot of experiences, I think. Also I don’t think that the students have to deal with the whole subject matter in too much scientific detail, as I for example did as part of a seminar in my university two years ago. But, nevertheless, they have their first contacts. And often enough this is very helpful for the ‘contacts’ to come.

For example – again speaking as a Kindergarten teacher – is it proven how first and only slight contact with different school subjects (like natural sciences, mathematics, reading or writing) already in the Kindergarten make it tremendously easier for the kids to get to grips with the subjects in elementary school. I am very sure that this is, in some respect, also true for students who enter university with experiences in the field of intercultural competences, or who enter work directly where nowadays it also is almost inevitable to come across the subject matter in one way or another.

Apart from these very valuable first contacts with the subject matter the students gather, off course, the project is merely a voluntary school subject that offers its participants as an incentive a school exchange program. But in my opinion this is one of the greatest things one can experience during the time in school: Getting into direct contact with students from foreign cultures and, more than that, working together with them using new media.

The students from Bilbao really enjoyed their time in Krakow and so did the others, as far as I was informed by the other teachers. And they came back with a whole lot of new impressions about cultural differences and common grounds. Not at least because at the same time the VIII Liceum Ogólnokształcące hosted a group of students from a school in Mannheim, Germany as well which was very interesting as my students told me. Despite the fact that it’s a German School that they come from I had the feeling that they usually hardly have any direct intensive contacts like that with the German culture at all.

Not at least because of this observation I’d find it a real pity if the project couldn’t go on like it was realized this year in the German School in Bilbao. The school exchange is a very important part of it and it is the part that makes intercultural differences something perceptible. Despite the fact that I think ‘trait d’union’ and the evaluation of intercultural differences on the internet platform do their part in helping the students to acquire intercultural competences, it is meetings in real life with real people that convey the greater part, that help us understand each other.