Ireland Study Abroad

By Matthew Silver

College of Education

SUMMARY: The Emerald Isle and the Shenandoah Valley share an ancient connection. Distant ancestors from Ulster Scots settled in the Shenandoah Valley and the Appalachian Mountains. This connection is the basis for the partnership between JMU’s College of Education students and students in Newry, Ireland.

When one thinks of the Emerald Isle with its almost mythical landscape and historic cities, the Shenandoah Valley seems completely unrelated. Yet, it was this understudied connection between Ulster Scots and the present population of the Shenandoah Valley and the Appalachian Mountains which drew former JMU professor, Dr. Hood Frazier, in for a closer look. Distant ancestors from that mythical landscape had settled significantly in the Appalachian Mountains. This academic interest would ignite a robust partnership for JMU’s College of Education students.

In 2014, Dr. Frazier along with Dr. Tim Thomas were invited by Deputy Principal, Richard Melaniphy, to bring JMU student teachers to Newry High School in Northern Ireland for four weeks of observing and assisting in classrooms. Ireland, so familiar and similar in culture, yet so different in many ways. JMU students gained a chance to explore the same familiar classrooms and halls of education with a new perspective—the Irish (erm, Northern Irish) context of learning. JMU students have continued to participate in this study experience under the leadership of Dr. Aaron Bodle, Dr. Robbie Higdon, and Dr. Reece Wilson.

newry_group.pngThrough the years, this study away program has blossomed into a rich partnership for schools and educators in Newry as well as in the Harrisonburg community fostered by the work of Dr. Robbie Higdon. In March 2022, Dr. Higdon along with Dr. Dara Hall and Dr. Kris Wiley visited these schools to renew and expand this partnership. The joy radiates from their eyes and smiles as they excitedly discuss the kind of transformation experienced by the participants that have engaged in the partnership initiatives.

But why Ireland? How could teaching in Ireland better prepare students to teach in Harrisonburg and Shenandoah schools (or any U.S. school for that matter)? Dr. Higdon clarified, “It’s a familiar context… and yet it’s vastly different.” A classroom is a classroom, but there are little differences that add up. Maybe it’s telling a student to pull up their “trousers” versus their “pants” she added, smiling (In Ireland “pants” means “underwear”). Dr. Wiley explained an essential component of the experience: teaching in Northern Ireland (and soon, in the Republic of Ireland as well) helps us interrogate our own identities and challenge our conceptions.

newry_hall.pngReligious expression is very external and apparent within Irish schools. A JMU student was shocked to see public school teachers go over Christian doctrine in their daily catechism lesson. Another student was asked about weekend plans. When answering that he was going to Derry (yes, the “Derry Girls” Derry) he was corrected by a Protestant teacher, “You mean Londonderry?” When asked by another teacher the same question about weekend plans, the JMU student dutifully replied he was going to Londonderry. “You mean Derry?” a Catholic teacher corrected.

As uncomfortable as the religious tension is, this context is a feature, not a bug, of the study away program. The COE faculty who have been involved with this partnership see the implications for discussion of race in school when students return to the United States. Student teachers are so rooted in their own context, that it helps to understand a similar phenomenon in a different context. And, boy, do the students learn. There are “shared education” activities in Northern Ireland schools in which students from Catholic maintained schools and integrated schools participate in a common activity such as a field trip. In some cases, both Catholic and Protestant parents will keep their kids at home on these days. Addressing such a deeply rooted and generational issue is a perfect sandbox in which JMU students can explore their own cultural issues.

newry_higdon.pngThroughout this program, Dr. Higdon reflects how “the students just blossom” as their confidence builds, they gain new insights, and develop deeper connections. Dr. Wiley recalls his own start in education, “We thought structured intercultural experience was a nice add-on. In today’s United States, it is essential for our teachers.”

The program is expanding, and students will soon be able to observe and assist in the Republic of Ireland at Coláiste Chú Chulainn, as well. The Emerald Isle is throwing its arms open wide to JMU student teachers. This experience hopes to offer a chance for transformation and deep insights.

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Published: Thursday, June 9, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, September 1, 2022

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