May 30, 2018
Since November last year something odd has been happening around the II. OŠ Rogaška Slatina in the peaceful town of Rogaška Slatina. On Saturdays and public holidays, while most kids were fooling around in the snow, or, perhaps more likely these days, hibernating inside with their gaming machines, a handful of young students have been coming into school of their own accord. With lights down low, the small party of students, quietly seated in an otherwise empty dining hall, seemed oddly melancholic without the usual hustle and bustle of school life around them.
There was a strange lull as the students took time to greet me. Granted, it was oh-so-early on a Saturday morning, but they seemed unusually reserved given there were no other teachers around observing their behaviour. As we started to converse I soon recognised what might have been interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm to be in reality a wave of nervousness slowly diffusing through the room. The reason? Both work and play were to be conducted in English that day.
As an UK expat having lived here for a few years, this was a strange environment for even me to adapt to. Living outside of the major Slovene tourist centres, I rarely hear English beyond my own interactions, and still cannot help but turn my head if I hear a passer-by speak my native tongue. Limited Slovene that I have, it was still hard not to automatically reply with the word “hvala” as the day progressed, or translate the odd word as required. I can only imagine how hard it might be for this group of young adults, aged between 12 and 14, to switch their mindset to 100% English for the day.
The motivation for the seventeen students sat before me was their selection for Team Crystal, Rogaška Slatina, who were due to compete in the British English Olympics (BEO) 2018. BEO, organised by Oxford International Education Group, is an English language and academic contest designed for the world’s brightest international students, simultaneously offering an authentic cultural programme to 12 to 16 year olds from around the world. 2018 marked the 10th anniversary of the competition, and included more than 2000 students from 139 schools worldwide, the vast majority of them private fee-paying schools and many bilingual institutions. Twenty-three countries were represented with Team Crystal being the sole representatives of Slovenia, and only the second Slovenian group to ever attend the competition, following Osnovna Šola Ivana Cankarja from Vrhnika in 2017.
The training has been tough, especially for the older students who already have more than their fair share of work to do preparing for their graduation from primary school. Their English skills are excellent but the competition places a whole new range of demands on the students, which they are not used to practising in school. The theme of this year’s competition was “Out of this World”, and there were seven elements to the competition for which they had to specifically prepare:
- BEO TED TALK A science and technology presentation regarding the impact of robots on future commerce and society.
- BEO DEBATE 2.0 A debate surrounding the educational challenges facing the world in the modern era.
- BEO Country Spotlight A presentation where each team must represent a given country at a university fair for professors and students of science and technology - Team Crystal were assigned Singapore.
- BEO Drama Festival Write and perform an original short play within the “Out of this World” theme.
- BEO A Cappella Contest To write a song in English relating to the theme and perform it a cappella.
- Improvisation Challenge An unknown task testing creativity which would only be announced on the day of the event.
- Mystery Challenge A 3-hour mystery challenge, announced on the day, to test their creativity and linguistic versatility.
As well as researching the topics and writing the texts for the presentations themselves, workshops were held covering various topics such as non-verbal communication, pronunciation, teamwork, improvisation and public speaking. As something so new for the students here, who typically learn in a different way, this proved to be a challenge for both students and teachers alike, but ultimately led to great developments in the confidence of these youngsters working in a second language.
In addition to the intensive preparations for the competition, the students were further responsible, alongside their friends and family, for a variety of fundraising efforts to allow them to finance the trip. Many local businesses showed generous support with financial and material sponsorship, parents of the team members made contributions and some employees from the school grouped together to make an additional donation. A charitable concert was arranged at school featuring some of the many talented musicians who were former students of VIZ II. OŠ Rogaška, as well as musical performances from current students and the school choir. The headmistress, Karla Skrinjarič, highlighted the goals of the school in fostering and recognising the talents of all students, from all backgrounds, whether musical, academic, sporting or otherwise. The concert was a resounding success with over 1000 people attending. Further fundraising was achieved through the sale of calendars, charity raffles, cookie sales and more to reach their goal and set on their way.
And so it came that on a dull Tuesday afternoon in late March, the Team Crystal students made their way to school for a later than usual start, laden with suitcases, snacks and the red peak caps that had become to show their team status. As they waited for the bus to pull up to the school gates they got their first taste of England - rain! As predicted, there would be plenty more of that to come over the following fortnight. The bus rolled through the grey mist towards Ljubljana, carrying seventeen students and two teachers full of hope, expectation, excitement and nerves.
After all the hard work the students were delighted to finally reach English shores and show what they could do. Their residence for the stay was Ardingly College, a prestigious independent boarding school in the South of England. A colleague of mine noticed a photo of the school building one day and described the place best by his immediate remark: “It looks like something straight out of Harry Potter.” Quite a change for a group of pupils from the East of Slovenia, most of whom had ever visited England before.
Over the following two weeks they not only competed as Slovene representatives in the competition, but also enjoyed a full cultural programme to experience what England has to offer. Excursions included a trip to Portsmouth, where they saw HMS Victory at the Royal Historic Dockyard, as well as guided tours of London, Oxford and Brighton. Further extra-curricular activities such as an international night, a talent show, and a disco added to their evening entertainment.
Throughout the preparation period there had been one clear goal for Team Crystal from the small town of Rogaška Slatina - to do their best and to have a good time. Many feared they would freeze on stage or that the team would come last, but as the hard work increased so did their confidence. They never felt they would be competing for the top prize, but they would hold their heads high and hoped to succeed in the “Fair Play” category at the very least. As nervousness slowly gave way to competence, common goals began to prevail - be prepared, do your best, and enjoy yourself. Their talks went to plan and they were satisfied with their performances. The talent show performance was a success. They excelled themselves in the improvisation category in which they had to write a play about a Renaissance man travelling in time to the modern day. Everything went to plan, with no major hiccups.
After eight days of incessant activity the whole delegation of more than 2,000 students finally gathered to declare which teams had been selected to progress to the next round of the competition. With no expectation of progressing, it was with great delight and excitement when “Team Crystal, VIZ II Rogaška Slatina” was announced as one of the teams to proceed to the semi-final. Even more impressive, Team Crystal were nominated as winners of the “People’s Choice Award” and were presented with a plaque for the best debate of the competition. It didn’t take long for the news grapevine to relay the achievement back to Rogaška, and there was a distinct buzz around school for the rest of the day to welcome us into the weekend.
One more round of competition, and another mystery challenge awaited them to see if they could do what they had once imagined impossible and progress to the Grand Final. Following a tremendous effort, this turned out to be just the smallest step too far as they missed out by the narrowest of margins to make the final four teams left from Ardingly College.
The official winner of BEO 2018 was Instituto Moderno Americano from Mexico, but back in the small town of Rogaska Slatina the students of Team Crystal are the real winners - young local heroes welcomed home by proud parents, teachers and friends. They have worked hard, listened, learned and blossomed as a result of this challenge, and the teaching staff of VIZ II. OŠ are deservedly very proud of their progression. They have undoubtedly had the experience of a lifetime.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ernest Hemingway
To see more pictures and videos of the students in action, please visit their Facebook page.