I have always believed our choices are predetermined by our past. Not as a kind of superstition or destiny, but as a footprint that has been marked in our DNA. I am convinced that the reason I decided to work with refugee children was not a coincidence and is closely related to my family’s background. It was the year of 1922 when my grandparents were forced to abandon their home in Istanbul, Turkey become refugees and start a new life in Thessaloniki, Greece. I know that deep inside, those roots are an integral part of myself.
In our turbulent world, as increasing numbers of people are displaced every year, our classrooms will undoubtedly change and we need to be ready to cater for the diverse needs of all the children we teach. In this blog post, I’d like to share my experience of working with primary refugee learners and what it has taught me.
Creating a safe environment
A number of studies have been conducted to develop methodologies and teaching techniques that could be used in a refugee or migrant education programme. Key aspects need to not only consider the educational, but also the social and psychological needs of children who come to the English language classroom with effects of trauma, stress and culture shock.
In my experience when working with refugee children in Greece, it is essential to consider how we organise our lessons by using robust and familiar routines. Only when learners feel that the classroom environment is safe and protected will they be able to accept new challenges and learning opportunities. “If we can help people feel good about themselves and safe with us, they will be able to learn so much more in the lessons to come.” (FutureLearn).
It is also crucial to provide children the space to express their feelings in the context of a safe classroom environment. We can do this by giving learners the opportunity to use the language they have been learning during collaborative project work. Giving positive feedback which recognises and prioritises the effort they have put in is extremely important. There should also be a clear outcome where they have an opportunity to share interesting information via a range of formats (posters, class magazines etc).
Tasks which have clear instructions and where the teacher demonstrates stages one at a time with plenty of repetition are effective confidence boosters. I’ve found role plays where the children can use their imaginations and play a variety of personas to be particularly successful. As with any primary classroom, children may need additional support when on-task to ensure everyone is engaged and participating with confidence. Finally, I’d say it’s vital to make materials relevant to the students by drawing on age appropriate contexts and choosing topics they can genuinely relate to.
Working on a lesson plan
A pedagogical approach I’ve recently experimented with is the Balanced Literacy Approach, which is effective not only for refugee learners, but guides all learners to lifelong and proficient reading. As I mentioned above, when designing a lesson for refugee children, we need to create routines because they quickly establish stability. A typical BLA lesson plan may incorporate the following routines:
- Circle time: used to introduce the topic of the lesson and enable children to share their knowledge, ideas and predictions before dealing with a text
- Stories: either read by the teacher or as shared reading where the whole class read the story together. Both develop learners’ reading comprehension, critical thinking skills and model the social element of reading
- Reading workshops: dedicated to phonics and word study, as well as reading strategy development
- Independent practice: allows learners to develop at their own pace with the support of the teacher. I also include music to get the children moving and help them relax and feel comfortable
The BLA approach is based on the premise that learners who read with understanding at an early age gain access to a broader range of texts, knowledge, and educational opportunities, which I believe all young learners including refugee children are entitled to. What’s key when thinking about refugee learners is the sense of community that stories create in the primary classroom. Stories develop trust and help students see the world from different perspectives fostering greater understanding, tolerance and acceptance of diversity.
Self-expression through poetry, drama and art
The more I have worked with refugee children what I have come to realise is their particular need to express themselves creatively. So with this in mind, I developed a series of lessons around poetry. I introduced them to sonnets, haikus, circular poetry and I discovered that poems work as a great vehicle to promote understanding about identity and to help children develop a strong sense of self. Poetry has also been an engaging ‘entry point’ when crafting lessons which catered to their needs and interests, as I learned so much about their families, feelings and diverse backgrounds.
My learners particularly enjoyed entering Nick Bilbrough’s poetry competition for the IATEFL Voices magazine. This really helped me to motivate the children to use English beyond the classroom by offering a real world outcome. Like most young learners, my students love drama activities and improvisation which gave them opportunities for practicing recently learnt vocabulary. Art work also brought further opportunities for self-expression, collaboration and high levels of engagement.
If you teach refugee children, please remember this inspirational quote from Maya Angelou, ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ What do you do to make your learners feel at home in your English language classroom? I’d love to read all your suggestions in the comments below.