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Bridgewater State University visit to St Mary’s University College

From May 20-22, 2024, St Mary’s hosted a group of 16 education students and two staff members from Bridgewater State University (BSU). The group was undertaking a Study Abroad tour to Dublin and Belfast, focusing on teaching and learning for social justice. This trip grew out of a collaboration on a related Shared Island SCoTENS project by staff from BSU, St Mary’s, and the Marino Institute of Education (MIE) in Dublin.

The first leg of the trip was spent in Dublin, hosted by MIE, before boarding the train to Belfast for a three-day program based at St Mary’s. During their time in Belfast, the BSU group also used their evenings and a free day to enjoy local sightseeing: visiting Crumlin Road Gaol, taking two local walking tours, exploring St George’s Market, and rounding off their trip with dinner and watching the UEFA Europa League final on their last night.

On the first day at St Mary’s, students were welcomed and received presentations from College staff on the theme of social justice. Prof Gerard McCann began, giving an overview of the evolution of global awareness in relation to human rights education, exploring the development of this field over recent years and the implications of a shifting global policy landscape. Following this, Dr Geraldine Magennis-Clarke introduced students to critical literacy, drawing on the work of Dr Donna Hazzard. This workshop encouraged students to look beyond the obvious when evaluating texts (in this case, visual advertisements) and to consider their hidden messages and subtexts. Finally, in anticipation of visiting schools later in the week, Dr Claire Connolly outlined the structure of the NI school system and used Bourdieu’s concepts of capital and habitus to help students consider the factors that either perpetuate or challenge social inequality.

BSU students and staff greatly enjoyed and appreciated the presentations and expertise of our staff. The morning’s content provided a basis for their subsequent ‘lunch and learn’ session in the Old Library, where they enjoyed our hospitality and discussed the implications of their learning for their own professional practice.

Tuesday morning saw our visitors out and about. After an introductory presentation on local schools by Ann Pendleton (Full Service Community Network), some of the group visited the James Connolly Centre and exhibition, while others went next door to St Dominic’s Grammar School to observe lessons on the theme of social justice: an English lesson on the Grenfell Tower disaster and a history lesson examining women’s suffrage. Students then had the opportunity to meet senior staff and discuss what they had observed, particularly the similarities and differences in how social justice is taught in US and NI schools. After a quick lunch in the new College dining hall, the full group then went to St Joseph’s Primary School, Slate Street, to join one of their innovative ‘Philosophy for Children’ lessons with a P7 class. Pupils discussed the question ‘Is it ok to do wrong if you can’t be caught?’ complete with a concept mapper and Socratic circle to guide the session.

BSU’s final day with us involved a visit to Christ the Redeemer Primary School. Students and staff joined classes ranging from P1 to P7 for the morning, participating in their lessons, play, and activities. Some students additionally had the opportunity to experience the school’s dedicated nurture room, and one theatre studies student was able to help with preparations for the upcoming P7 production of The Wizard of Oz—particularly exciting as some of the BSU group had seen the same stage production at the Grand Opera House the previous evening.

Finally, the group hopped on the G1 Glider one last time to return to the Falls Road for lunch at the James Connolly Centre and a final ‘lunch and learn’ discussion reflecting on their experiences.

Overall, this study tour was a great success, and both staff and students had a wonderful time. In particular, students were impressed by their visits to local schools, the richness of the teaching and learning experience for pupils, and the way pupils engaged with complex issues and discussions. Special thanks are due to all the staff who were so kind and hospitable to the group, welcoming them into their classrooms and providing insight into education for social justice in NI.

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