The Reciprocity Project Connects Rural Educators Across Borders

The Reciprocity Project connects rural educators worldwide, promoting place-based learning and global awareness.

November 2, 2023 |

In this article, we explore the experiences of Oonagh McAlister, Anna Martin, and Mariah Garzee, three educators involved in the Reciprocity Project, an initiative that unites rural teachers from different countries. Through this project, they aim to empower their students to appreciate their local environment, embrace diverse cultures, and become active agents of change, breaking down geographical borders and demonstrating the positive impact of rural education.

The world of education is an ever-evolving landscape, constantly searching for innovative ways to connect students with their communities, both locally and globally. One groundbreaking initiative that has been making strides in this endeavor is the Reciprocity Project. This project, part of the I Am a Rural Teacher campaign, is a collaborative effort between the Welsh Government, Rural Schools Collaborative, Teton Science Schools, University of Denver, and the University of Colorado—Denver. It aims to create a network of international rural teachers and school leaders who work together to support place-based instruction and connect learning to the communities and the world around us.

The Reciprocity Project will engage more than 25 rural teachers from Wales, Northern Ireland, and the United States. In this article, we will focus on the experiences of three remarkable teachers who will be collaborating in the pilot of the Reciprocity Project: Mariah Garzee, a sixth-grade teacher from Monmouth, Illinois; Oonagh McAlister, a primary school teacher at County Derry Primary School in Mayogall, Northern Ireland; and Anna Martin, a primary school teacher St. Brigid's Primary School, also in Mayogall, Northern Ireland.

Oonagh McAlister - County Derry Primary School, Mayogall, Northern Ireland

Oonagh McAlister, a primary school teacher from County Antrim, Northern Ireland, started her teaching career at County Derry Primary School in Mayogall. Her dedication to her students and her community is evident as she teaches a class of 33 eight and nine-year-old children. Oonagh's school is a nurturing and caring environment, focused on creating a happy and caring community where everyone is encouraged to learn and reach their full potential.

Oonagh McAlister and her Primary 6 class.

When asked why she wanted to be a part of the Reciprocity Project, Oonagh expressed her excitement about the opportunity it presents to her students.

She believes that the project will help children celebrate their own community and place while also learning about other communities around the world.

Working with a partner school in the United States will allow students to learn about different cultures, appreciate their own community values, and gain a deeper understanding of life and schooling in another country.

Oonagh's hope for her students is that the Reciprocity Project will help them develop a better understanding of “place” as a concept and expand their knowledge of the world around them. She envisions the project leading to activities that focus on sustainability, community building, and rural resilience. Through these activities, students can build empathy and question their personal beliefs, ultimately fostering a global mindset and encouraging bonds with peers from different backgrounds.

Being a rural teacher to Oonagh means working in an area that thrives on close community links and values. She sees the school as the heart of the village, well-supported and valued by the local people. The cooperative spirit, strong connections, and open communication among community members contribute to the enriching experience of teaching in a rural setting.

Anna Martin - St Brigid’s Primary School Mayogall, Northern Ireland

Anna Martin, another primary school teacher at the nearby St. Brigid's Primary School in Mayogall, Northern Ireland, shares Oonagh's passion for rural education. Anna, a native of Ballymaguigan, a small village in Northern Ireland, began her teaching career in September 2022. At St. Brigid's, she is responsible for teaching a class of 29 Primary 5 students and coaching girls' Gaelic Football skills as part of two after-school clubs.

Anna Martin's Primary 5 class.

Anna's desire to be part of the Reciprocity Project is driven by her love for collaborative work and a genuine interest in celebrating communities. She is excited to work with a teacher from the United States to explore the differences and similarities in teaching practices between the two countries. Anna hopes to expose her students to a global perspective through this project and allow them to connect their learning with the world around them.

For Anna, the project offers her students the opportunity to engage in curricular projects that connect them with their American counterparts. It enables them to develop a sense of place, promote rural resilience, and contribute to sustainability efforts. Additionally, she anticipates her students developing a wide range of skills and knowledge in various curricular areas.

Teaching in a rural area, according to Anna, means working in a countryside that is located outside towns or cities. The school's central role in the community and the strong community ties make rural teaching a rewarding experience. The close-knit local community fosters cooperation, engagement, and the opportunity to actively contribute to community development.

Mariah Garzee - Central Intermediate School, Monmouth, Illinois, United States

Mariah Garzee, a 6th grade teacher at Central Intermediate in Monmouth, Illinois, brings another unique perspective to the Reciprocity Project. Mariah's journey as an educator actually started in Monmouth, where she attended Monmouth College and received her bachelor's degree in Elementary Education. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction, with specializations in English as a Second Language and Learning Behavior Specialist 1. Her school serves approximately 300 students in a town of around 8,700 people. Approximately 24% of students at Central Intermediate are English learners and, within the whole district, there are over 16 different languages spoken with students representing 19 different birth countries. Mariah's diverse classroom highlights the global aims of the Reciprocity Project, as it offers students from a range of cultural backgrounds the opportunity to connect, learn, and thrive in a global context while celebrating the richness of their own rural community.

Mariah Garzee teaching during Multilingual Night at the Monmouth Educational Farm.

Mariah's enthusiasm for the Reciprocity Project stems from her belief in the unique opportunities it offers her students. She sees it as a way for her students to explore their own community and place, while also gaining insights into another culture and education system. As someone who has been involved with place-based education and the Rural Schools Collaborative, she understands the value of connecting students with their local environment.

For Mariah, the project presents an opportunity for her students to connect with their local environment, actively participate in projects that spark their interest, and foster a sense of civic responsibility. She firmly believes that even young learners can affect meaningful change when given the space and confidence to do so. Furthermore, she hopes that the project will broaden her students' perspective on the concept of a community, helping them comprehend the diversity of experiences around the world.

Growing up in a rural community, Mariah is acutely aware of the prevalent notion that success is often equated with leaving these areas behind. However, she strongly believes that rural communities are often treasure troves of untapped resources and undiscovered benefits that can significantly contribute to a student's development. As a rural teacher, Mariah sees her role as one that entails facilitating a deep dive into the wealth of opportunities that their community offers. She ensures that students, whether they choose to stay or venture elsewhere, develop a profound appreciation for their roots. According to Mariah, this appreciation should serve as the foundation for nurturing within students the desire to problem-solve and enhance their immediate surroundings by leveraging the assets available to them. In reconnecting with their community, educators like Mariah not only contribute to their own growth but also strengthen the bonds that unite them, propelling them forward together.

The Reciprocity Project is a testament to the power of international collaboration and place-based education. Through the experiences and aspirations of educators like Oonagh McAlister, Anna Martin, and Mariah Garzee, we see the immense potential of this project to enrich the lives of students and teachers alike. As they work together to explore their own communities, celebrate their unique places, and learn about others from across the globe, the Reciprocity Project is breaking down borders and creating a more interconnected, empathetic, and globally aware generation of students. These educators are not only teaching their students but also leading by example, showing how rural education can be a force for positive change and community development, both locally and across borders.

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