Future educators expand vision via Northern Ireland

by Janet Smith


Newspaper article with group photo of JMU students in Newry, Northern Ireland
The Newry Reporter welcomed the JMU group, as did many residents of the city. (Photo courtesy of JMU student Amber Blakovich)

Twelve JMU students initiated the university’s first summer educational practicum in Northern Ireland designed to explore the Irish educational system, including the central role of the arts in Irish culture.

As they and their professors, Drs. Hood Frazier and Timothy Thomas, blazed a trail, several of the students reported experiencing very different classroom models while observing in the schools in Newry. A mid-sized city near the eastern coast of Ireland, Newry is home to Catholic and Protestant schools as well as consolidated schools where students of both faiths and others attend.

For the four-week practicum Amber Blakovich of Vernon, N.J., and Danielle Gallagher of Suffolk, Va., were assigned to Newry High School, which draws students with a mix of cultures, abilities and backgrounds from Northern Ireland and, with the opening of the borders of European Union countries, Eastern Europe. Blakovich, who is majoring in music education with a concentration in choral music, worked with the high school’s music director and students as well as with students with special needs.

“Most of the music we did in Newry was creating our own and creating a positive space for creativity,” Blakovich said. Rather than heading to band, choir or orchestra class as their U.S. counterparts do, students at NHS studied musical terms and creative composition using computers.

National differences in practices of educating individuals with special needs were observed by Blakovich, Gallagher and Emily Vaughters of Winchester, Va.

“Although both systems claim an inclusive system, much of what I observed was far different from what we would consider inclusive,” Gallagher said. The mathematics major explained that her practicum experience showed that “there seems to be a belief that a student’s intelligence is static – there is only so much each student can achieve.” This differs from the U.S., where “there is a belief that all students’ intelligences are capable of the same learning.”

Vaughters, an interdisciplinary liberal studies major who was assigned to St. Paul’s High School’s Learning Support Center, was “able to see the huge amount of differences that there were in the way that special education services are provided.” Her students, whose abilities varied widely, stayed together as a class for the entire school day.

Gallagher was surprised at the diversity she found at NHS. “I came in expecting to be learning new curriculum and teaching styles while teaching hard-working, high-school-aged children of Irish heritage. Rather, I ended up teaching a group of students just as diverse as any classroom here in the United States.”

Each of the women believes the Northern Ireland experience has been valuable.

“I think being in a different country’s school system really made me appreciate the system that the United States has, and makes me want to study to be the best teacher I can be within that system,” said Vaughters.

“I look at the school systems in the United States in a different light now that I have had this experience and I can bring that into my classrooms that I observe and teach in the future,” Blakovich said. “I have also learned about myself as a teacher. I am coming back into the music education program as a more confident music educator.”

Gallagher also hopes the JMU students’ presence was valuable for the students of the Newry schools. “I found that much of my students’ views on other cultures are stereotypes. For example, when I asked some of my students ‘what is the first thing you think of when I say America,’ their responses were either pertaining to celebrities or guns. In just having discussions with my students, I think that their conceptions of the United States have been broadened.”

To learn more about the students’ impressions of their summer adventures, read two posts they compiled while in Northern Ireland that appear on JMU’s Be the Change blog.

Learning in Northern Ireland:

Hospitality in Northern Ireland:

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Aug. 12, 2014

Published: Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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