Ennis Phoenix Teacher Exchange

In 2009, Helen Sheil and Heather Kaiser, teachers in Ennis and Phoenix, participated in a Teacher Exchange Programme between their respective schools. Here is Helen’s account of the exchange.

My trip to Phoenix was a wonderful experience, and I would like to sincerely thank all those, in Ennis and Phoenix, who made it possible. I am grateful to Ennis Phoenix Twinning Board for the opportunity to go to Phoenix, and I hope I can offer some support and advice if the programme continues.

The most important factor in the success of this exchange is that Heather Kiser and I happened to get on very well together, and I certainly hope that we will stay in touch (as we are already doing by e-mail) and that we will visit each other again. I would like to thank Heather and her husband, David Julian, for their hospitality to me during my stay in Phoenix. Apart from bringing me to school each day, Heather brought me to places such as South Mountain and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. We also visited nice restaurants and bookshops, etc.

I would also like to thank Lynn Galvin, a teacher and friend of Heather’s, who introduced me to many aspects of Arizona history during the two weeks I spent in Phoenix. Lynn organised trips to museums and historical sites, and accompanied us on afternoon and weekend trips, driving us around southern Arizona during my first weekend there, and bringing us to the Grand Canyon the following weekend. She is an expert on Native American history, and is a most generous and entertaining person. I am very glad to have met her, and plan to remain in contact with her.

Mountain Pointe High School

Mountain Pointe High School is in Ahwatukee, southern Phoenix, and has around 2,500 students. Heather has five different class groups on her timetable, and I met all these classes several times. Her students struck me as polite and friendly. I had prepared material on the following topics:

  1. Ennis – a brief history of Ennis with a map and photographs of Ennis, past and present. I included some details about Coláiste Muire in this topic. The students were very interested to learn about present day Ennis. They commented on the size and shape of the streets, the colours on shop-fronts, the makes of cars, etc. They asked a lot of questions about the lives of young people in Ennis.
  2. Nationality – I made a lesson based on ideas of what it means to be American or Irish (or Mexican, etc.) Students suggested and compared factors that contribute to our sense of nationality. We discussed the idea of stereotypes, e.g. as shown in The Simpsons.
  3. The Famine – I was able to link this in with work Heather was doing on the Industrial Revolution, and this lesson worked very well from both our points-of-view. I used some primary sources (drawings, contemporary descriptions, etc.) and they found this an interesting topic. It was useful to compare the industrialised wealth of GB at this time with the agricultural backwardness of Ireland.
  4. Irish emigration to the US – there are many good sources available on this topic (letters, anti-Irish cartoons, songs, etc.) and I felt this would provide a good link between Irish and American history. Some of the students related the material to their own experiences of being Mexican or Somalian, etc. in America now. They were interested in the historical comparisons. The subject of Mexican immigration is very topical in Arizona, and I was conscious that this could be a sensitive subject for some students.
  5. Northern Ireland – I attempted to explain the background of Northern Ireland to Heather’s most advanced class, but it is difficult to explain or understand NI history within a short time. Some students made good comments (one compared the Penal Laws and anti-Catholic discrimination to Jim Crow in the southern states), but I think this topic would need more thought if it were to be tried again.

The opportunity to visit an American high school during term time was extremely interesting and enriching for me. I met five groups of students, all between the ages of 14 and 16. They were following courses in History and Geography. One of the classes was an “Advanced Placement” class, whose students earn extra college credits for taking the class. This class had 18 students in it, but Heather’s other classes had 36 students each, which would not happen in the Irish system, where the max. is 30 students per class (my biggest class this year has 25 students in it).

The nature of the courses followed is quite different. For example, the World History class aims to cover from earliest civilisations to modern times in one year. The range of topics covered is also broader than in the Irish system, with African and Asian history figuring much more prominently than it does here.

According to Heather, Arizona is one of the lowest spending states on education in the US, yet the school was vastly better equipped and staffed than any Irish school I know. Every teacher has his/her own school-supplied laptop, and every classroom has a data projector, television, DVD and video player, and broadband internet access. There are suites of computers for students to do their own work and research on; the school library could absorb four large class groups at a time, all with their own computers. The library alone had a staff of eight (versus none in any Irish school, unless privately funded), and there were a large number of secretaries, cleaners, canteen workers, groundsmen, etc. There are four men employed to patrol the corridors, and to whom unruly students can be sent for supervision. (I didn’t see any such behaviour!) The school seemed calm, orderly, and very clean.

There is no “points system” as in Ireland, which is better for students and teachers. However, teachers are expected to make grades available online, and are constantly responding to student and parent e-mails regarding homework, general progress etc.

There seem to be far better options available for teachers to engage in in-service training, further education, and travel and exchange opportunities than exist here.

Arizona history

Heather and Lynn Galvin planned many out-of-school activities with the aim of introducing me to as much of the history and heritage of Arizona as possible. I thoroughly enjoyed all the trips and visits we made, and I learned enough to make me realise how much more there is to know about American history, especially American history pre-1492, which doesn’t really figure in Irish trains of thought at all.

During my two weeks in Arizona I saw:

  • Arizona State University, Phoenix
  • The Heard Museum, Phoenix
  • The Peublo Grand Museum, Phoenix
  • South Mountain, Phoenix
  • “Singing Winds” Bookshop, Benson
  • Fort Bowie, Bowie
  • Amerind Museum, Dragoon
  • Birdcage Theatre Museum, Tombstone
  • Ramsey Canyon Nature Reserve
  • Montezuma’s Pass (6,500 feet high – view of Mexico!)
  • San Xavier del Bac Mission, near Tuscon
  • Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix
  • Huhugam Heritage Centre, Phoenix
  • Flagstaff
  • The Grand Canyon

This list is not exhaustive! We got through a lot, but Lynn assures me there is lots more to see, and I certainly hope to get back to Arizona again. The terrain and heritage of the area is fascinating, not to mention the flora and fauna. I was left feeling that Ireland is like Legoland, tiny, in comparison to Arizona. Yet, I know Heather enjoyed seeing the Cliffs, the Burren, Loop Head, the Connor Pass, etc. Also, so much for Christopher Columbus! I had never realised that Native American history is so complex and extensive.

Future developments/Recommendations

The following thoughts come to mind, which I would be happy to discuss with members of the Ennis Twinning Board:

I intend to develop a unit of work to be used with my Transition Year history classes on the story of Olive Oatman, a 14-year old white girl who was captured by Indians in 1851 and held captive for several years. There are numerous internet sources available on her, I bought two books on her, and she would be a useful way of teaching students how to research a subject about which they know nothing. It would also arouse their interest in Native American history and alert them to bias in primary sources. This would be a valid piece of work for Transition Year, and might even provide students with suggestions for their Leaving Cert History projects (worth 20% of their overall mark, and which can be done on any historical subject).

I think that Heather and Lynn would be willing to make further suggestions as regards suitable subject matter for future project work. For example, Lynn is currently planning a conference to mark the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, many of whom were held in Arizona.

Heather and I are considering the possibility of establishing links between some of our students (via the internet) and doing some joint project work, but the details of this have still to be worked out.

The student exchange programme could probably be better advertised, and I would be willing to help promote this.

It would be great if further teacher exchanges could take place. I would certainly be willing to encourage people to go. Teachers involved in Transition Year should be an obvious target as we are free to incorporate new material into our teaching programmes, and are not restricted by set syllabus requirements. It seems to me that History, Geography, Music or English teachers could be obvious targets, but no doubt any teacher could benefit from seeing the American education system.

Heather and I both came on this scheme as replacements, and fortunately it worked out very well for us. If we had had more contact before our exchange, it is possible that we might have been able to plan our joint classes even better. Both of us were conscious that we had to keep our students working on their normal course work as well as giving time to the visiting teacher, and with a bit more planning we could perhaps have made even better use of our time. Having said that, I was still very happy with what we did with each other’s classes.

Irish Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe’s abolition of paid substitution for teachers absent on “School Business” could be a serious setback for the teacher-exchange scheme, especially as education cutbacks bite ever deeper next year. Coláiste Muire very kindly bore the cost of my absence during the week before Easter, but schools might be unwilling to pay for an avoidable absence in future.

Helen Sheil, Colaiste Muire, Ennis