Here we are, week 1 of Inclusive Education in Graz done! It’s been a fast-paced week, but we have also all settled in well, so it feels like we have been here, studying in Graz, for a while now. Let me take you back through our week.
Saturday afternoon we all trickled into the hotel – some of us arriving from other travels, some fresh off the plane with a good dose of jet lag. Some of us are experienced travellers, and some of us hadn’t left Australia before. We are all studying education and psychology, and most of us are about halfway through our courses. These are the things we learnt that night as Georg, our Austrian activities coordinator, met us in the lobby and took us out for dinner and drinks to get to know each other.
The next day dawned bright and early but most of us had a late start before meeting up at noon for some ice skating adventures. Some of us took to skating more naturally than others – some were doing loops and others struggled to let go of the wall – but even those of us who just watched were entertained. By the time we finished skating we were cold and hungry so we headed to a nearby cafe. Many of us got soup for lunch – the warmth is very appealing in this weather!
After lunch we went for a climb up some stairs (well some of us did – others took the lift) to the top of the Schlossberg – the main mountain in town, that used to house a medieval fortress. We marvelled at the views and the snow and the old buildings. We also marvelled at and participated in some Austrian music culture – an Austrian band were filming a flash mob for a new music video on top of the mountain. They were inviting passing tourists to join in, so we did. We spent some time learning the dance and had a blast participating in the flash mob before exploring the rest of the mountain.
Monday morning, bright and early, Georg showed us the way to the university using public transport, where we met our program coordinator and had a tour of the main campus. Did you know that the Karl-Franzens University of Graz is not named after one person named Karl-Franzens, but after an Archduke Karl and an Emperor Frazens? Well, now we know that too. We were also shown where the Education classes take place, and then most of us took the opportunity of being in town to do some grocery shopping on the way back to our hotel!
Our welcome dinner on Monday night was a feast of traditional (and delicious) Austrian food. Schnitzel, beef goulash, sausages, bread dumplings, apple strudel and Austrian beer were heavily featured. It was a fun evening of getting to know our lecturers, classmates and Austrian guides. As we sat in the restaurant, it began to snow outside! For many of the Aussies in our group, this was the first time seeing snow fall (though definitely not our last).
Classes started properly on Tuesday, and we were immersed in the world of inclusive education. We learnt a lot about the Austrian schooling system and the history of inclusive education in Austria and in Europe, and then we looked at some of the global challenges to providing education to all students. In the afternoon, we did a walking tour of the city of Graz, where our guide told us all sorts of intriguing facts about the historical city centre and the buildings we walk past daily, such as the Landhaus or Government House, the Cathedral and old Jesuit College. We also walked across the river to the top of the strangely shaped modern art museum in Graz, just a few blocks from our hotel. It looks kind of like a large spaceship, especially when it lights up at night!
Wednesday we were up bright and early to go visit Karlsdorf, an Austrian elementary school that is a leading force in inclusive education. We were all fascinated to see how the classes are structured – two teachers, team teaching a group of around twenty students, with students of all abilities and needs mixed into the classroom. We had time to talk to the Principal and ask questions, and we learnt a lot about how closely education is tied to politics in Austria – which is also true of most of the world, really.
That night we went out for dinner and some drinks with some of the Austrian students from the university. I am continued to be amazed by the similarities and differences in university life in different countries – so many things are standard, no matter where you go, and other things you take for granted and assume are done the same way, but are in fact vastly different!
We were back in class on Thursday morning to deconstruct what we had seen at Karlsdorf, particularly in relation to collaborative and co-teaching. We looked in depth at the different theories behind team teaching and weighed up the pros and cons. Then Georg picked us up again and took us to the Museum of Graz, which is currently holding an exhibition on Social Inclusion, particularly in relation to those with intellectual disabilities. It was very interesting to look at how needs for the different parts of life – home, work, play, relationships – are actually very straightforward – humans need safety, independence, purpose and a sense of belonging.
Then on Friday we drove the two and a half hours to Hallstatt, the most picturesque town in Austria. On a lake, it is surrounded by mountains filled with salt mines – the oldest salt mines in Europe. The houses are wooden and were topped with snow, and from up high in the village – like at the cathedral – the whole view looks like a postcard displaying a winter wonderland.
Now it’s the weekend, and we have some free time before gearing up for another week of hard work learning about learning and being Australian student tourists in Austria. Some of us are off to places like Salzburg, others are visiting castles and historical sites, and most are just keen to see more of this city we will be in for another two weeks.