Foreign studies come home

Middle schoolers visiting Europe talk to colleagues at home

Staff WriterMarch 24, 2007 

— Robin McMahon called on her students Friday morning from across the Atlantic.

"French II [class], you have prepared questions for 'notre experience,' " she coaxed, as the students gazed at television screens showing the Smith Middle School teacher and 29 of their classmates sitting around a conference table in Belgium.

For 45 minutes the students who didn't go on the 10-day trip to France and Belgium sat in a high-tech UNC-Chapel Hill conference room attached to the middle school and asked the students abroad what they were eating, whom they were staying with, and what they were learning about the European Union.

The overseas kids laughed when asked about the weather -- cold with rain and snow. They liked the chocolate, especially on top of the Belgian waffles, which apparently were living up to their reputation.

And they rattled off the places they'd been -- Notre Dame, L'Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre -- breaking into song when they got to Champs Elysees.

"Bravo!" the teachers and kids on both sides of the ocean exclaimed and clapped when they finished.

The traveling students held up the European Union's blue flag with a ring of 12 stars while one student explained, in French, that they represent diversity and unity.

The kids in Chapel Hill cooed at a digital camera photo one student shot of a Smart Car. The golf-cart-size car is common on the narrow streets of Europe and has not yet reached the U.S. market.

McMahon has taken past groups of students to Belgium, where she has developed a relationship with St. Benoit-St. Servais, a school in the town of Liege.

But the grant of 51,000 Euros, almost $68,000, from the European Union let her take students whose families couldn't afford to send them.

At least 10 students wouldn't otherwise have been able to go, said Jennifer Waldrup, who is student teaching in McMahon's classes this semester.

After a three-day sight-seeing tour in France, the students stayed with host families in Liege before going on to Brussels.

Rebecca Malizia shared over the television that her host family kept donkeys and horses.

"It was really cool because I had never ridden a horse or a donkey before," the eighth-grader said.

Her mother, Deborah Malizia, and grandmother, Shirley Frucht, showed up early for the opportunity to see her overseas.

"It was very exciting to see her," Deborah Malizia said. "I'm expecting this will be sort of a transformational experience for her."

McMahon was the only North Carolina recipient and one of only nine in the nation to receive one of the European Union's "Getting to Know Europe" awards.

She learned about it when she participated in a project with other North Carolina teachers to write lesson plans about the European Union through the Center for European Studies at UNC-CH, which also serves as a European Union Center for Excellence.

The application process was not easy, said Ruth Mitchell-Pitts, associate director of the Center for European Studies at UNC-CH, who looked over the application for McMahon. It was at least 40 pages long before McMahon even got to the descriptions of activities, she said.

"I'm just blown away by her enthusiasm and her creativity," Mitchell-Pitts said. "She's really quite a powerhouse. She exhausts you if you talk to her. She has so many ideas."

Staff writer Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove can be reached at 932-2005 or cheryl.sadgrove@newsobserver.com.

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