Cross-community initiative sees pupils enjoy Italy trip

Pupils from St Michael's and Lurgan College pictured during their trip to Italy.
Pupils from St Michael's and Lurgan College pictured during their trip to Italy.

TWO Lurgan schools have been involved in pioneering cross-

community work with young people from the town and its catchment area.

Seventy-nine teenagers from Lurgan College and St Michael’s Grammar spent seven nights away on a school trip in Rome. During the trip, the students shared such experiences as visiting Pompeii, Capri Island as well as many of the historic sights of Rome.

This ground breaking trip was the culmination of three years of collaborative work between the schools and was the idea of Joe O’Connor and Alistair Hamill, teachers from the two schools. “Joe and I have been working together with students from the two schools to teach an AS in Critical Thinking,” said Alistair, “and we have seen how well the two sets of pupils have got on.

“It became clear to us that once they were given the opportunity to meet, then friendships developed quickly and

naturally.”

Keen to see how this opportunity could be extended to more than just the dozen or so pupils taking this class, Joe struck upon an idea. “I invited Alistair and the students from Lurgan College to join with some of my students on a trip to Italy,” he said.

“That way, we could really open this opportunity up to a much larger number of pupils. And Alistair quickly accepted!

This idea was quickly endorsed by the principals and Boards of Governors from both schools.

As they planned for the trip, Joe and Alistair felt very strongly that it should be more than a one off. “One of the things that made the Critical Thinking so successful in bringing the students together was the fact that it was a weekly class,” said Alistair. “The regular meeting helped to forge the relationships.”

Joe agreed and added, “It was crucial to us to give the pupils the chance to meet and to get to know each other before our week away.”

To help with this, they organised a team-building weekend last June where the many of the students were able to meet, many for the first time. “Just like our experience in the Critical Thinking class,” said Alistair, “all we needed to do was create the opportunity for them to meet, and they themselves quickly made new friendships.”

As the project grew, Alistair and Joe found support from some other groups and organisations within the town. These included the PSNI in Lurgan, Eamonn Fleming from the Lurgan Town Project and others such as Olive Dobbs from the Jethro Centre. “The support and encouragement these folks are providing has proved invaluable in helping us in this cross-community initiative,” explained Joe.

The weekend away was followed up by some other workshops for all the pupils going on the trip in St Michael’s last November. During one of these workshops, the pupils helped come up with a design for a logo for the trip.

“They were chatting about the significance of symbols in Northern Ireland and they wanted to come up with a symbol that was not owned by either community and was reflective of them as young people,” said Alistair. “And they came up with the idea of “#Lurgan”. The Twitter hash tag is such an iconic symbol these days, especially for young people, and it seemed to sum up perfectly what they wanted to say about the trip.”

During the week away in Italy, the relationships between the pupils were deepened even further. “A trip away to somewhere like Italy, with all its history, is a great experience in itself,” said Joe, “and for the students from the two schools to share this with each other really helped to cement the friendships.”

The pupils themselves speak very highly of their experiences. “It was an amazing opportunity to get to see some of the most beautiful places and to meet amazing people,” said one pupil. Another commented that the trip “opened up opportunities and friendships. It’s a week that I certainly won’t forget – bring me back there!”

And what of the future? “This is far from the end,” said Joe. “We are already planning follow activities for the group. But the exciting thing is that the pupils from the two schools are now meeting up themselves informally.”

Alistair agreed: “We have now managed to give 79 pupils the opportunity to make new friendships and to deepen their understanding of people from the ‘other’ community. And we want to make sure that others from the two schools get this opportunity too.

“This is not about forgetting our own identity and culture. Rather, it’s about understanding the culture of others. And even more than that, it’s about giving a chance for the young people of Lurgan, whatever their background, to make new friendships.”