Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Irish Curriculum by Caitlin O’Donnell

Models 3

I have never had such an incredible crash-course in curriculum as I think I’m getting here at Stranmillis! I’ve been writing (and re-writing) my unit plans for four different preps: Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and a novel unit using a piece entitled The Illustrated Mum. My time in methods courses at Drake prepared me very well for unit planning, and my first student teaching placement gave me great tools for breaking down Common Core standards to a teachable level. The trouble now is trying to do this with a new set of standards and an environment with a different set of educational values.

One of the places I’ve surprisingly found a lot of difference is the “teaching strategies” I’m expected to incorporate into my lessons. In Iowa, I’ve become very accustomed to many Fischer and Fry techniques, but in Northern Ireland I sometimes feel like I’m trying to ferret out what research they feel is most important to use in the classroom. In my year 8 class, one of the big standards (for lack of a better term) is “Working with Others,” and knowing that my students have to improve in this regard helps me put together activities, projects and self-reflection to get them there. For instance, as we work on Macbeth, they will be doing a lot of their scene work in small groups, and I’ve made a lot of effort for students to think, pair and share rather than having a single student in the class respond to my question. This is a continuing challenge for me; I’m trying to meet Northern Irish standards while still using a lot of the best practice I picked up in the States. I’m sure I’ll get better as time passes, but right now my planning takes quite a chunk of time as I negotiate this!

My best experience this week has actually been with my low year 9 girls. The class only has about 16 students, and many of the girls struggle with reading comprehension and behaviour. At the same time, though, I have probably never had a class so enthused about learning, and on our first day of Romeo and Juliet, we had a lively discussion about the Montagues and the Capulets.

“But Miss!” one of the very outspoken girls exclaimed. “Which one of them is Catholic and which is Protestant?”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little speechless. To me, though, this was one of the best teachable moments I could have with a class of young girls who live on Shankill road; teaching the themes of love and hate in a world filled with tension is only too real for them. I did not dissuade this girl from her idea that Romeo and Juliet’s families might be split along religious lines, and it lead to a great conversation about what might happen in a Catholic girl and Protestant boy fell in love during the height of the Troubles. We talked about how often prejudice can hurt people, and when we finally watched the Romeo and Juliet trailer for the movie which just came out, I knew every single one of those girls was completely hooked. For a class which can’t always sit still, Shakespeare has become riveting, and I hope through a little old-fashioned, tragic tale of love won and lost I might just be able to teach them some real-life themes and lessons as well.

by Caitlin O’Donnell

Student Teaching in Belfast by Grace Jones


We’ve officially been in Belfast, Northern Ireland for two weeks now and have settled in quite nicely. I’m learning how to get around, where to buy groceries, and when it is appropriate to use the word “wee” when speaking (if I want to speak like a native, it is appropriate in every. single. sentence). Mostly though, over these two weeks, we’ve been staying busy learning about Northern Ireland’s curriculum and school system. At times this has been an information overload and it’s been hard to keep track of this system that is entirely new to me. But now that I’ve actually spent time in a local school and am preparing my first unit, I am understanding the curriculum much better.

On Thursday of this past week, we went to the school that we will be at for the remainder of the semester for the first time. I am at a post primary school, which is a school for students ages 11-18. It is fascinating to me that students in such a wide age range are all grouped together here. Also interesting is the fact that all post primary schools in Northern Ireland are single sex. The post primary school that I will be at is Ashfield Girls High School. Ashfield is a relatively new school with very impressive facilities, including solar panel electricity, a massive atrium, big and well-stocked science labs, and many windows to look out and enjoy the view of Belfast from. Ashfield is a secondary school, rather than a grammar school, which means that students do not have to take a test to get into the school. Grammar schools require a certain score on a test that you take at age 11 in order to get in. Secondary schools are seen by some to be a weaker, lesser, option.

As with any placement, I was extremely nervous to go to Ashfield for the first time and this was doubled by the fact that I was in a still unfamiliar country. This anxiety was for naught as we (myself and a student from UVA who will be teaching science at Ashfield) felt very welcomed. I was given a tour of the school and spent a lot of time with the head of English who I will be working closely with. I wouldn’t call her, Sam, my mentor however because I will be working with six different teachers and teaching six differeng years, or grades, in order to get a broader understanding of NI schools. This is going to be a great experience but also so different from what I did in Iowa, where I had just two plans and three differeng grade levels to deal with.

On the day that we were at Ashfield, they had their Harvest Service. Yes, Service as in a 45 minute church service involving prayers and a short sermon. At a public, government-run school. This was, obviously, a completely new experience for me but it was quite interesting. After the service, I was able to observe a year nine class (12/13 year olds). I don’t think my observation was a very authentic experience as the students were primarly focused on me and how American I am (my favorite question they asked: “Do you speak English in America?”). Ashfield is putting on “The Wizard of Oz” this fall and the students found out I’m from Kansas so everyone was all a-twitter. I am excited to see how putting on this play/musical influences their understanding of America/Kansas. After this observation, there was a ten minute “break.” Which really just means the students hung out in the hallways while all the teachers drank coffee or tea and had buscuits (yes, this is a part of the structured school day here). After being handed a lot of curriclum and some framework for what to create a unit off of, I was on my way after a whilrwind first half-day at Ashfield.

Now I am about to begin my first unit plan and I am sifting through the NI cirriculum as I begin to understand what my work here will consist of. It is absolutely fascinating how different education is here and I look forward to sharing more with you all.

by Grace Jones

Student Teaching in Belfast, No. Ireland by Caitlin O’Connor


Since we arrived in Northern Ireland two weeks ago, I’ve had the chance to explore Belfast City Centre, hike the Giant’s Causeway, go inside an old Victorian farmhouse, and learn a lot about a new and really complex school system. The latter has been the most fascinating to me; there seems to be a powerful push towards subject integration and teaching life and work skills, and while there are some differences which surprise me (a huge, life changing test at age 11!), some of the differences are things I would like to incorporate into my practice when I return home, such as the emphasis on pastoral (student well-being) care. In addition to the curricular differences, the political life in Belfast impacts the schools, the pedagogy and, most importantly, the students’ home lives in a foundational way.

The taxi ride to my student teaching assignment goes through the area of Belfast which has borne the brunt of the Troubles, and I never thought I could learn so much from one car ride. I met Michael the taxi driver at the bottom of the Stranmillis hill, and about thirty seconds into the ride I realized I’d completely won the taxi driver lottery. Michael is this middle aged man who says “Ach” a lot and drives like a somewhat safety-minded maniac. He’s also previously been a Black Taxi driver who gave tours of the political areas of Belfast, and is the driving version of a Belfast historian.

My school is an all-girls secondary school in northwestern Belfast, and I had been told previously that it’s a bit of a rough community which was close to the sectarian violence during the Troubles. As we drew close to school, we turned onto Shankill road and Michael began to explain the paramilitary past (and sometimes present) of the Loyalist Protestants and Republican Catholics. Twenty years ago Wednesday was a bombing which killed nine people, so there were wreaths and memorials and some heartbreaking pictures of two girls who died. I can’t believe that my students live in a community so scarred by violence; the drive gave me a huge perspective shift on where these girls are coming from.

When talking to the staff at my school, one of them told us a bit more about the girls’ backgrounds. Many of the students come from one of the most deprived areas in the UK, and the school is classified as a “full service” institution, which essentially means that they have extra programs and resources to support both the girls and their community. The building is beautiful, with Smart boards in each classroom, at least three gym facilities, and even a salon where girls in a vocational program can learn about hairdressing. These girls may come from a rough community, but it’s incredible to see the resources this school has in order to help these girls make a better life for themselves.

I haven’t had much of a chance to observe in classrooms yet, but I did get to meet up with one of my mentor teachers. I’ll be teaching three different classes with three different teachers in three different grades, which is a little intimidating, but I hope this will give me a well-rounded perspective on English education at what they call Key Stage 3 (KS3). This stage is roughly equivalent to middle school in the USA, which I am very excited for as someone with a middle school endorsement. The mentor teacher I met with is in charge of a Year 8 advanced English class, so I’ll be teaching Macbeth to a group of 11-year-old girls; I’m nervous but pretty pumped to introduce a group of Northern Irish girls to Shakespeare!

I can tell this is going to be an incredible experience for me, and I’m eager to observe more in the classroom after half-term break. Even though theoretically there’s significant gaps between the American curriculum and the Northern Irish one, I think the day-to-day classroom experience will be more alike than different. This school seems determined to give their girls every advantage to do great things, and I am so glad I get a chance to be a part of it.

by Caitlin O’Connor

Spring semester 2014 in Belfast, No. Ireland


I have been in Ireland for almost a month and a half now and the experience has been fantastic.  While there has been some acclimating to do, namely surviving the awkward meeting people stage, adjusting to the accent (more on that later), and adapting to near perpetual rain, and not getting killed by cars that seem to be driving on the wrong side of the road (or I’m looking on the wrong side), I think overall, I’ve settled in nicely.  Stranmillis University has been very helpful, with a dedicated International Office, who have taken good care of us and have provided many opportunities to explore Belfast and arrange events for us (the international students).

College classes are different here, which has taken some adjustment.  First, classes are the equivalent to five credits at an American Institution, so I am only taking three courses, instead of the standard five back in the states.  Additionally, while courses follow the normal lecture/discussion format I’m used to at Drake, classes meet much fewer times; two of my classes are only on Mondays, while the 3rd is 4 times a week.  This set-up provides a large amount of free time and with only a single, large assignment over the semester, so it feels as if there is very little to do.  Now, we are given large outside reading lists, but it is hard to motivate yourself to read, when presented with so much free time.  Classes are all two-hours long, which makes concentration somewhat difficult, when you’re approaching the sixth consecutive hour of class without a break (my Monday is three classes back to back).  At Drake, I normally had two or three classes a day, all between 50 and 65 minutes, broken up throughout the day.  I’ve found that this model, of shorter, more frequent contact with professors and class make a much more sustainable learning environment for me.

I have just finished by 3rd week of placement at Movilla High School. Located about 20 miles from Belfast, in Newtownards, Movilla, once sustained by factory and industrial jobs, has taken hits in the last 20 or so years, as those jobs dwindle.  Movilla itself is a school losing pupils, dropping from around 900 to short of 300 in 10 years, as students opt to enroll at more modern schools. Yet, while it has indeed been challenging, it has been a good experience.  The students are considered to be “low-achievers” and teaching can be a problem.  Most have problems with authority, and I don’t think I’ve had a day when I haven’t seen a teacher throw at least one pupil out of the classroom or assign a detention due to behavior.  That being said, the kids are bright, if shy, and generally engaged and willing to learn.  It feels the main difficulty is confidence, that students don’t believe in themselves.  For me, it also has been difficult, since I’ve been loaned out across the school, helping in a number of different classrooms, namely English, Literature, and Geography.  I am not specializing in either English or Literature, so figuring out how to teach/connect with the students within those areas has been a challenge, but a good learning experience.

Branching out, the people here are wonderful, always willing to talk and seem genuinely interested in what I, as a foreigner, have to say.  I live in the Midwest back home, which holds a reputation for having very nice people, yet the Irish blow that away.  They are without a doubt some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered.  They are also insanely difficult to understand.  I obviously knew there was an accent when I came to Ireland, but I did not anticipate the amount of difficultly I would have in understanding what they say.  It is English, but the speed at which they talk transforms a conversation.  The accents are also very different, depending on where you are, so going a mere twenty minutes in one direction produces an utterly different accent then what you’ve been hearing.  Understanding the pupils at Movilla has been especially difficult, as they talk rapidly, making me need them to repeat their statements a number of times before I understand.  Or, at times, I just need another teacher to “translate” what they said.

Overall, I am happy to say the study abroad experience has been great, with very minimal amounts of homesickness.  I look forward to the next couple of months and finishing out my school placement, as well as getting some traveling done.

by Brien Behling