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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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BRIDGE: linking Australian schools with schools in Indonesia

Hamish McDonald
Hamish McDonald is a former foreign correspondent at the Sydney Morning Herald

The relationship between Leongatha Primary School in Victoria and Pondok Labu 11 Primary School in Indonesia is one of the 60 school partnerships between Australia and Indonesia formed under the BRIDGE program of Melbourne University's Asia Education Foundation since it started in 2008. Its success led to it being featured in the Australian Government's recent white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, as an example of innovative learning practices to connect with Asia.

Salza, an impish 12-year-old, was keen to get going. Nudging aside her teacher, Ibu Tias, she took over the piano as she and the nine other visiting children from Jakarta launched into We are Australian, before morphing into the school song of their hosts.

For staff, parents and students it was an emotional moment in the welcome assembly at Leongatha, a town of 5,000 people in Victoria's South Gippsland region. After two years of making friends over the internet with students at their partner school in Indonesia, here they were in person – showing how much they had prepared.

In reply, Leongatha's 570 kids sang the school song of the Pondok Labu 11 Primary School with a mastery of the trilled Rs of Indonesian that impressed Ibu Tias. 'My eight-year-old daughter has been singing it all the time,' says Tim Kemp, a local accountant who is president of the school parents' council, speaking just after the welcome. 'The assembly was fantastic when we heard them sing, We are Australian. It moved us almost to tears,' adds Leongatha's principal, Rob Higgins.

With two teachers in each school designated to manage the partnership and making exchange visits, two years of getting to know each other resulted in 10 of Pondok Labu 11's year 5 and 6 pupils being chosen out of 42 applicants to join the first student exchange in November. With their families putting up the airfare, they flew down under the care of their two teachers and were assigned to homestays with families of Leongatha students.

For all of them it was a case of meeting up with buddies after hours of contact on Skype (the voice-over-internet telephony application), emails and even airmail letters. 'It was like old friends making contact,' said Jonathan Cox, a grade 5 teacher who is one of Leongatha's BRIDGE supervisors. 'They already knew each other.'

When Bima, a 12-year-old boy from Pondok Labu 11, arrived to stay at Kemp's home, it took only minutes for him to be deep in conversation with Kemp's oldest son, Zaidyn, also 12, about the merits of various pop groups and songs. The British boy band, One Direction, it turns out is popular in both schools, with the American female singer, Pink, a close second.

The partnership has brought language study alive for the kids at Leongatha. Previously the school's Indonesian teacher, Monash graduate, Irene Beasley, had been battling on since 1999 with only one 45-minute direct contact session a week with each of the classes above preparatory grade.

She was the natural choice when the school entered the partnership in 2010, and started out making contact with her counterpart at Pondok Labu 11, Noor Endah Tjahyaningtias (known to all as Ibu or Mrs Tias), a science teacher picked out as she had the best English among her school's staff. They emailed and sent text messages, while the children engaged in projects about each other's countries. Leongatha started an annual Indonesia Day and the grade 3 class made mini-books about Indonesia.

Beasley had been using Skype to keep in touch with her own daughter overseas and suggested it as a way for the children to communicate. Tias hadn't known about it, but went out and bought a 'dongle' to connect her school's computer to the internet. It was a take-off point. 'The time difference was an issue, but seeing the reaction – that was a different thing!' she said.

The kids jostled to talk to their counterparts through the video-voice link. Gradually the Leongatha students started trying out their own bits of Indonesian and thinking about how to put their questions and thoughts into the other language. Though neither end has superfast broadband – Leongatha is still on ADSL-1 – the topics for discussion (What kind of wild animals do you have in Indonesia? etc) came up faster and faster.

Social networking

Now Skype is augmented by use of the social networking site, Edmodo, to share information about music, sport, the wayang, whatever. It's a network especially suited for young users, with higher security than sites like Facebook and each posting instantly bounced to the teacher's email for review. 'My inbox is full all the time,' Cox said. 'The kids know this all the time and they've seen them come up. They are also pretty respectful when they try to translate. They put the Indonesian first and the English second.'

'It just shows how much these kids are children of the 21st century,' Beasley said. 'They want to use the technology. It excites them. It engages them. What is interesting is that the kids are driving it now. The kids want to be in contact. We can sometimes step back a bit.'

At Leongatha, Beasley had been reinforced by the addition of an Indonesian teaching assistant, Jeanne from Bandung, who is spending a year at Leongatha and another nearby primary school while she completes her master's thesis in education, under a program funded by the Victorian State Government. The addition of a native speaker to classes has led to a sharp  'de-Australianisation' of pronunciation among the kids.

Teachers on both sides say the Skype and other contact has led to a noticeable uplift in confidence about trying the other language, though formal instruction remains at just one 45-minute class a week in each school. 'The kids feel more purpose in learning the language,' Beasley says. Her colleague, Jonathan Cox, has picked up a fair bit of Indonesian himself in the course of the exchange, as have other teachers. 'In my room now the grade 5 students will now say something, or attempt to say something with me,' Cox said. 'They'll strike up a conversation. I now use little bits in the classroom as well.'

When Tias took the visiting music teacher from Leongatha to another school last year, she noticed the difference with its pupils. 'The children reacted differently in the other school,' she said. 'I am very proud that my students are much more confident and are aware how to behave with Australian visitors. They're more confident in their language too. The effect of the program is obviously there.'

Leongatha principal, Rob Higgins, also sees a big change in the wider school community. 'Before the BRIDGE program, kids didn't see a purpose. I used to get quite a few requests from parents – "I don’t want my kid to do language any more. I don't want my kid doing Indonesian. They can't even do their English. What's the use of doing it?" – maybe four or five a year. I haven't had one of those for ages. Kids queue up to go to Indonesia.'

The easing of the Australian Government travel advice about Indonesia early in 2012 has now made a return visit from Leongatha to Pondok Labu 11 feasible, says Kemp, and the visit by the Indonesian group has been encouraging.

Preparation has been careful, says Tias. 'None of them have ever been abroad before, so it was a big thing and Irene made lots of preparation,' she said. 'We insisted each family has to make contact with their host parents, just in case they have to communicate with their children during their stay. But everything went so well.'

Intercultural communication

Communication between the kids is to the point. The visiting Indonesians are quizzed about their attitude to dogs, traditionally viewed as unclean by Muslims but lolling around the house as beloved pets in some of the host family homes. Young Bima is asked about praying five times a day and the ritual washing beforehand.

'We'd be nervous to ask those questions whereas the kids will come straight out with it,' Kemp said. 'Initially we might jump in and say don't ask that you might offend, but Bima's been very good and happy to answer and explain, and say what they do at home. There is lots of discussion on food and what foods you like. We discovered Bima's like any other kid, getting him to eat vegetables is not easy.'

On the visitors' side, there have been some discoveries. 'I was surprised by the size of the houses here,' said Bima. 'Not like my house – it's very, very small.' Some hesitated to run the shower and jump under because they'd heard about water shortages and drought here. Sorting rubbish into recyclable and other bins is new. 'I ask them if they find any differences,' said Tias. 'They say: Yes, he did this, he did that. But I ask if you find any similarities and the answer is: Lots!'

When a linguistic impasse is reached, the kids run what they are trying to say through Google Translate on the computer. 'Oh, that's what you mean!' is often the answer. 'But you will never find Australian lingo on Google,' says Tias. 'Sometimes even I don't understand. The children use Australian English, or shorten words. I have to ask Jonathan: What is it about?'

The exchange has widened horizons, not just for the students in the exchange, but for the other kids in contact with them, the parents and the communities around the schools. Kemp has been on Skype with the school council president at Pondok Labu, from home as well as through the classroom link-ups. 'The only concern originally was: are we going to be doing something that benefits all students or only a group of students,' he said. 'But I think we've actually seen that by having Jeanne in the school, as well as the students coming and the teachers going over there, it's opened up the perspective completely. There is a lot of benefit all round.'

Aaron O'Shannessy, who has managed the BRIDGE program from inception, has found initial visits from Indonesian schools getting a wary reception from Australian families, but subsequent visits are flooded with homestay offers. Kemp found his own preconceptions, formed from the media, challenged by the 12-year-old who arrived to stay. 'What we often have reported to us in the news media from the Muslim background is very different to what we're experiencing in the home,' he said. 'Which has been terrific. There's a whole different world that we don't see, that's reported differently to how it really is. Bima is a lovely child, very friendly, open to discussion.'

At Pondok Labu, the exchange fits in with a pioneering focus on developing a more worldly outlook among the students. Tias and her colleagues teach the maths and science syllabus in English as well as Indonesian, for example. 'It has been a good chance for us because we are trying to broaden the awareness of being part of the wider community of the world,' she said. 'I am trying to penetrate the understanding of my students, that someday, in 10 or 15 years, they will become part of the world. Indonesia might be their nationality, but they will be part of the global community.'

'Here in little Leongatha we are not exposed to a lot of international students from Asian or any other background,' said Kemp. 'From our side, we get the opportunity to see how, especially in the Asian environment, they are living. We are just not exposed to that in rural areas, unlike being in a city that's very multicultural. It's opened all our eyes substantially.'

Other international linkages

Both the schools are pursuing other international linkages as well. Pondok Labu 11 is developing an environmental program with schools in Japan, South Korea and, it is hoped, the United States. Leongatha Primary has begun a different kind of partnership with a school in Suzhou, China, that will see a group of children and parents spend four days there next April – though without homestays and with one-minute-a-day Chinese lessons to get ready. 'We've got enough kids – we can have multiple programs going as well,' Higgins said.

The Pondok Labu teacher exchange is funded for the next three or four years, with two teachers going from Leongatha to Jakarta next year and one teacher a year coming the other way. 'It's not expensive,' Higgins said. 'Once the Indonesians are here, it's homestay. It's really an airfare that we contribute. Out of our budget of $3 million a year I have to pay $1,000 for a teacher to fly across, and a few extra bits. It's really pocket money.' Six teachers meanwhile will join the China visit. 'By Easter next year 13 of my staff will have had an Asia experience, compliments of the school,' Higgins said.

'The thing I love about the in-country stuff is that it's parents and child,' the principal adds. 'You're not only educating the children, you're educating the community. We've set up links with the Phillip Island Nature Park and their penguin parade. We're actually taking one of their scientists to China to set up an environmental project, to get students here and in China doing similar activities and sharing results on computer.'

The Asian century looms even in this quiet rural corner of Australia. The main local industry of Leongatha is the milk processing plant of the Murray Goulburn Co-operative, makers of Devondale long-life milk and other products destined for export markets in Asia. Chinese cattle buyers frequently turn up at farm gates, seeking to buy cows as China builds up its domestic dairy herd. 'The future for us in the dairy industry, in agriculture, is in the Asian markets,' Higgins said. 'Ignorance isn't going to help us at all.'

Meanwhile, the visitors were making no complaints about the food in Leongatha, even with the prompting that a bit of sambol might help. 'I like all the food here,' said Bima, adding quickly, 'Except pork.' Asked her favourite as she ate a packed lunch with friend, Ebony, with whom she is staying, Salza says, 'Spaghetti. And lamingtons – the teachers brought some up to us in Jakarta.'


Subject Headings

Social life and customs
Language and languages