Introduction to the interview with Gabriela Casandra Hurghis

by Antoinette Camilleri Grima

Gabriela Casandra Hurghis

Gabriela Casandra Hurghis is Head teacher of Colegiul National "Unirea" Brasov, Romania. The National College "Unirea" is situated in the historical centre of the city of Brasov and dates back to 1897 when it was inaugurated as the Civil School for girls. Today it caters for about 900 students aged 11-19.  The students" profiles are mainly in the humanities, but there are also classes for Mathematics and Information Technology.

The humanities section consists of bilingual and intensive English, French, and Spanish classes and in 2006-2007 German will also be included.

In this interview, Gabriela Casandra Hurghis explains some of the ways in which this school has made important strides in motivating learners to learn foreign languages largely through project work and autonomous methods (ProiectBilingvXIF2005final.exe).

Hurghis has a significant contribution to make in illustrating how a number of suggestions provided in the Guide for the improvement of language education are translated into daily practice in a whole-school context.  This interview focuses on the following:

  • The diversification of material for language learning (Guide, section 6.5.1): "Unirea" students are encouraged to work on projects linked to their community resources.  The activities which take place outside the school premises are meant to support the development of linguistic, social and cultural competences, all of which have become indispensable in today"s enlarged Europe;
  • Longitudinal co-ordination of language provision (Guide, section 6.3) (Guide_ACG.ppt).  Students at "Unirea" proove they have acquired cross-curricular competences by obtaining certificates (Diplome Approfondi de la Langue Française, levels B1, B2) and by continuing their education in francophone universities.  "Unirea" students create their own "education programme" on the basis of their personal wishes and competences.  It is interesting to note that this school has also incorporated the services of the French Embassy and of an organisation for retired teachers.
  • Decompartmentalising language education (Guide, section 6.4). At "Unirea" teachers are encouraged to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to language education, and to work in teams.

The National College "Unirea" ( was awarded the title of "European School" in recognition of its multilingual education, for its numerous school exchanges with similar institutions all over Europe, as well as for its general orientation towards international co-operation.

Diversifying Language Learning Material

A. Camilleri Grima interviews Gabriela Casandra Hurghis

Question: First of all can you give us some background information about the education system in Romania?
Hurghis: Education in Romania is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6/7 and 14/15.  Most children choose to continue their education beyond the compulsory school age which offers them a general type of education. There are two ways of continuing Secondary level education.  The Lower Level (ages 14/15 to 16/17) comprises professional schools and is compulsory for those students who have not obtained the required grade for entry into the Higher Level. The latter type of school (ages 16/17 to 18/19), and the Baccalaureate, are the entry points to the institutes of higher education.  The National College "Unirea" is a high school based on a general and theoretical education with special focus on the study of foreign languages.

Question: Does your school, therefore, follow a different curriculum from other high schools? Who decides the curriculum?
Hurghis: In Romania there are two types of curriculum: a national one, compulsory for all students, and a regional one, which is drawn up by the schools themselves according to their specific needs and their profile. The curriculum consists of a description of content and examples of activities.  At the end of high school students are expected to have mastered certain competences which are assessed by national examinations.

Question: What about the study of foreign languages?
Hurghis: Romanian students are obliged to study two foreign languages, starting with one foreign language in third grade, at the age of 8.  They then take up a second one in fifth grade, at the age of 11.

Question: What does the curriculum say about foreign language learning?
Hurghis: It is possible for a school to establish bilingual classes as a way of teaching a foreign language.  In this case students have five class hours per week in which one of the foreign languages is taught alongside History, Geography and Civilisation courses which are taught in that language.  Alternatively, the students can choose to follow an intensive language course of four class hours per week in a chosen foreign language plus Civilisation courses in that language.  Thus, students following the bilingual programme receive more hours in the foreign language as well as using the foreign language as a medium of instruction. According to the regional curriculum, the school may increase the number of these hours and of courses by 1 or 2 hours per week.  The study of other subjects through the foreign language is allowed on condition that qualified teachers are available.  These classes are also divided into smaller groups of students.

Question: Are your students admitted on the basis of special qualifications in languages?
Hurghis:  In order to be admitted to our school, the students must take an entrance exam consisting of the Romanian Language, Mathematics, and Geography/History. The average mark obtained at this exam has a decisive role in establishing their place. Moreover, in order to be admitted to a foreign language bilingual or intensive class, they must take a special advanced test in both the written and oral modes.

Question: What have you done in recent years to diversify the language curriculum? What concrete measures have you taken to improve teaching provision?
Hurghis:  For the past sixteen years, the National College "Unirea" has been engaged in exchange programmes with similar institutions in Norway, France, Ireland and Italy.  Within the framework of a Comenius project, our school worked together with schools in The Netherlands and France on the importance of water. Furthermore, thanks to Socrates exchanges, our foreign language teachers have taken in-service courses within the further education project in several European countries.  Similarly, foreign language assistants are annually present at "Unirea", intensively collaborating with our teachers and students.  Diversifying the offer of foreign languages signaled an important step to a plurilingual education programme.  In the beginning, bilingual classes in English and French were set up.  In 2005-2006 Spanish was introduced both as a bilingual stream, and as a foreign language for the second graders who also learn English and French.  In 2006-2007 a German bilingual class will be introduced.

Question: I can imagine that students find it interesting and motivating to work with, and to meet, other youngsters from different countries.  Which international project are you most happy about?
Hurghis: Among the projects our school is proud of there is the contest Join Multimedia, an annual Europe-wide student competition organised by the Siemens Company which is open to students aged between 12 and 21.  Romania participated for the first time in 2005 with teams from Brasov, Medias and Bucharest.  Students could choose to work either within a school team or as part of a cross-border team.  At our school, teacher Doina Vasilovici worked with two teams of 17 year old students from the Maths-Computing class in 11th grade.  One team was made up of four students and another team of six students.  The topics chosen were "Dream Job" and "Light moves the World" respectively.  After working on the project both at school and at home, the students produced two CDs, an on-line presentation (100 MBS storage capacity), and a three-page write up.  These projects were awarded diplomas and prizes.  In 2006 one five-student team worked on the production of a CD about "Our Region", Brasov city and its surroundings.  Amongst other things, the students took pictures of strange places and architectural details.  In both competitions the requirements were clear: to produce original texts, original sound tracks and images.  The students worked very well in teams: sharing ideas and creatively generating data in an atmosphere of enthusiasm.

Question: This sounds interesting in terms of diversifying learning material, considering that it is done in a foreign language, for foreign consumption, and for a definite purpose. Have you carried out any other international projects?
Hurghis: There is L"histoire de P"tit Louis.  This project was created by two French students at the Sorbonne who invited students from Eastern European countries to meet each other through their imaginative project which consists in writing a chapter for a story.  The purpose is to arouse the students" curiosity and motivation to discover their European neighbours and find out about their national cultures, and to find out about what is different and what is in common between them.  The first chapter of the story was written by the French students, and the teams from the different countries were in charge of continuing the story. The students were coordinated by our teacher Delia Antonescu. (

Question: This sounds like a very original project.  It is based on creative writing. Have you participated in any project where the focus was on non-language content?
Hurghis:  A teacher of economics, M. Laurentiu Luca, led a sociological research project which lead to a publication.  The students sought to answer the question: "What do Romanian adolescents expect from today"s society?"  The publication contains the results of questionnaires and an interpretation of those results.

Question: In what other ways do your students experience a diversification of learning material?
Hurghis: The diversification of material, and teaching/learning methodology, forms part of a larger project initiated by the French Embassy and the Romanian Ministry of Education..  In fact we are proud to say that our school was among the first in Romania to set up bilingual classes for French in 1990.   We now belong to a group of fifteen high schools in Romania carrying out this project aimed at reorganising the French bilingual studies and teaching French by using it as a "tool" rather than as an end in itself.  As part of this, students are guided by their teachers to choose a topic for a project which takes up a certain amount of work and commitment inside and outside school.  Due to the fact that Brasov is a tourist city situated in an important historical region of Romania, the students opt for topics related to tourism and national heritage. Thus, we first produced a tourist leaflet of the surroundings of Brasov. In the second year we achieved a leaflet of Brasov and a CD - Rom.

Question: Can you explain to us how the work is actually carried out?
Hurghis: First of all we form a team of teachers of French together with teachers of non-language subjects that are taught in French, such as Geography, History, Computing and Physics.  Forty class hours per year are reserved for this project, but the students are expected to carry out extra research, to study documents and other sources of information outside school. Each student has a special notebook in which they write information related to the tasks, describe the different problems they meet on the way, and give an account of the stages of the project. The student may write down about any aspect related to the project as it unfolds.  This notebook is the student"s personal document.

Question: This sounds like autonomous learning. Which stages do the students and the teachers go through from the beginning to the end of the project?
Hurghis:  As a first step, teams of teachers are set up and care is taken to approach the chosen themes from a multidisciplinary perspective.  The rationale of the project is explained to students who are also informed about how it will develop and what they are expected to do.  As a second step, tasks are allotted to each teacher on the basis of the forty class hours dedicated to the project.  Students at this stage brainstorm for ideas on the theme.  The third phase is the longest one.  At this stage students work in groups, establish their tasks and carry out the research work.  In the meantime, teachers counsel and supervise students as they work on the material that they research and generate themselves.  The training team holds a meeting at least once a month. Step four is the completion and publication stage.

Question: You have mentioned that work is carried out outside the school premises. Can you explain more?
Hurghis: For instance, for the project on tourism, the students went to the Archives, the City Hall and some museums.  Students are sometimes accompanied by teachers but they can also go on their own.  At one point the students themselves acted as guides to the French teachers who were visiting our school in order to share their experience of projects in which they were participating.  I would like to mention that every year the project teams benefit from the support and guidance of the French Embassy in Bucharest which, along with the Board of Education, has ensured several training courses for members of the teams; the AGIR association also took part in the project through its members who are retired teachers ..\Tools\RoadMap_ACG.doc; ..\Tools\Road Map_results.doc).

Question: I mentioned autonomous learning earlier on.  Key features of autonomous learning are materials and activities.  How have you diversified these aspects?
Hurghis:  Among the material used are magazines, newspapers, bilingual story books in Romanian and French; the Internet; and cameras. Activities include: visits to the school library, the Centre of Information and Documentation, the French Alliance in Brasov and city libraries; the identification of useful sites on the Internet; visits to museums; visits in Brasov and the surroundings; visits to the Association for the Environment Protection, the City Hall, the Forest Protection Association, the Statistics Institute, the Water Company and Ana Electronics Company.

Question: What, in your experience, are the advantages of working with students in this way?
Hurghis:  Among the advantages I would list: the multidisciplinary approach which correlates the project to the school curriculum in different subjects; the experience that students obtain in carrying out research work; their increased experience in using computers; learning how to design questionnaires; working in a team composed of both teachers and students; content learning such as information about the protection of the environment.

Question: And what difficulties do you face?
Hurghis: There are problems like when the IT classrooms are not available; the fact that despite our efforts, we have not yet managed to include all the students in the project, and to make sure that each of them carry an equal share of responsibility; and the lack of cooperation from some Institutions.

Question: Embarking on a bilingual teaching programme has meant a lot more than teaching a non-language subject through a foreign language for your school.  What lessons have you learned from this experience that can be of benefit to others?
Hurghis:  The bilingual project represents an important event in the life of our school for several reasons. As I have tried to explain to you, it has created the proper framework for a coherent multidisciplinary activity targeting several objectives.  It has also contributed greatly to team formation and team building which has resulted in stronger relationships among teachers of different subjects.  These projects help students develop their self-confidence and stimulate them further to take part in other projects.  Finally, our way of working has helped our students develop skills and abilities that they find useful both in their social life and in their professional careers (resource 1 Romania gastronomy.ppt; resource 2 Romania_touristic_information.wmv; resource 3 Romania_historical_monuments.wmv).

Thank you and Keep it Up!

The Role of the Head teacher in the Implementation of Plurilingual Education
Project work for pluringualism
Diversifying the language curriculum
Let's begin with the youngest
Challenges and opportunities of bilingual education
Social and economic considerations in setting up a new bilingual programme
Using a foreign language as a medium of instruction