By Siobhán Fitzgerald, Principal of Eglish National School
Approximately 70% of our students come from the Travelling community and 30% of our students have been assessed as having a special education need. Very proud of the demographic make-up of our school, we actively foster and create a safe, supportive environment in which all of our students feel cherished, stimulated and proud to be the best version of themselves. For us, it's about mutual respect.
We see a huge opportunity, through nurturing all our students’ self-worth and self-confidence, to challenge any existing prejudices in society and move beyond them. We aim to empower our students to be ‘Changemakers’, role models for their brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours. Through encouraging creativity, we help every child find their passion and interest and develop it. This year our students wrote, produced and acted in their own Irish play. By making and selling their own crafts at our annual ‘Bring and Buy’ Sale, entrepreneurial skills are developed.
We celebrate diversity in all its forms, always reinforcing that ‘We are all more alike than different.’
Through self-evaluation, oral language was identified as most in need of attention. With one third of students assessed as having a speech and language difficulty, another big dilemma was the apparent reticence of students from the Travelling community to share information about their backgrounds. We were concerned also about how much time many students seemed to spend passively on technology in their free time, to the apparent detriment of their communication skills. Here lay the challenge and here lay the opportunity.
We are a small school with a big vision, a vision of all our children communicating clearly and confidently, expressing coherently their thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams, listening empathically to one another, developing keen skills of evaluation. We believe in using technology as the tremendous tool that it is to enhance presentations but at the same time, not being mastered by technology.
Using the ‘LET’s Stand’ (Listen, Evaluate, Talk, Stand) programme we encourage, enable and empower students to stand and present in front of an audience a minimum of 10 times a year, every year of their primary school education. Each child speaks on topics relevant to their lives, all the while developing, step-by-step specific public speaking skills. Peer and teacher feedback and evaluation is positive and specific. We get excited about topics that excite our students.
‘LET’s Stand’ targets the development of children’s oral language, confidence and public speaking skills at a time when they themselves most want to talk. This also feeds into the development of positive mental health practices. History boasts plenty of examples of great orators who have changed the world by standing up and speaking out. We are creating confident, communicatively competent orators for the future. Positive, powerful and passionate advocates for themselves and their communities.
Encouraging our students to talk has been easy because they want to be heard. Creating the safe, supportive environment in which this can happen is slightly more difficult. By spending time initially on clearly outlining and explaining the simple, respectful rules for ‘Listening’, ‘Evaluating’ and ‘Speaking’, the rest more easily falls into place. Discrete oral language time can be used for student presentations while many projects are easily linked to other curriculum subjects. Assigning preparation of oral projects for homework is a great way of getting the parents and extended family involved, promoting further increased communication and sharing of stories and culture at home. It’s homework that is not confined to being completed around the table.
Our staff conscientiously model the skills we aim to develop in our students. We actively listen to them. Working as a team, individual members of staff take the lead in their preferred areas of interest and create real opportunities for students to do the same. We realise that not simply teaching, we are moulding the young minds of rural Ireland, cultivating confident, clearly communicating leaders who can and will change the world for the good of us all.