What do we know about the lives of our students?

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The front cover of the manual of the 5 session course from the NSW Department of Education, ‘Teaching students from a refugee background’ – 2016

No one’s life is ever entirely trouble free. Most Australian teachers can generally empathise with loneliness, boredom, rejection, fear of failure and some physical pain but do we have any real idea of what those students who have been forced to drop everything and flee in fear from their homes have experienced and the hurts that they bear? How can we, their teachers, learn some of their story and help them? What do they need and how can we be supportive of them?

Maya Cranitch says, School is the place where children with a traumatic past can regain their childhood. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of education for successful settlement in Australian society, and the essential role of teachers who provide targeted teaching as well as a supportive classroom climate. – ‘Classrooms of Possibility’ Chapter 2 page 30, PETAA Publication 2015.

Yesterday in Module 1 of the NSW Department of Education course, ‘Teaching students from a refugee background’, Kim Cootes, Cindy Valdez-Adams and Alice Clarke, all EAL/D specialists from Fairfield Public School, began to open our eyes and hearts not only to the traumas and needs of our refugee students but their strengths and talents that need to be recognised and factored in when teaching them.

The message was brought home to us when we viewed the video Surviving War, Surviving Peace  in which students and adults from a refugee background shared their wartime experiences as well as the physical hardships, struggles and emotional stresses they had experienced on their journeys. As they recounted the horrific details of their pasts we could see the strain and sorrow on their faces and hear the fear and anger in their voices. When speaking of the challenges of settling in Australia they expressed the bereavement they felt for family members lost or left behind, the nightmares they continued to have both waking and sleeping and how isolated, alone and alien they felt especially when confronted with racism and lack of understanding from the people with whom they had taken refuge. Their plea is for their teachers to be sensitive towards them. They said things like – Give us time, don’t put pressure on us – Don’t treat us badly. We have already had a hard life. 

There is another one day course available in NSW called STARS in Schools which is designed to help teachers to support these at-risk EAL students with settling in and learning. Kim Cootes touched on the five points of the ‘star’.

We first have to help these students to feel safe. They need to know where they should be, how the school runs and what the rules are. Students who speak the same language are an invaluable resource for helping them to settle in and to make friends.

Because they have lived in fear and learnt not to trust people in authority these newly arrived students have to adjust and try to learn to rely on other people to do the right thing by them. This means that teachers have to explicitly plan ways to rebuild their trust.

When we were viewing the video,Surviving War, Surviving Peace  one young man spoke of his loneliness and about missing those who had hugged and loved him. Even those students who have not been separated from their parents can feel distanced from them because their traumatised parents have been so busy focussing on surviving that they have been unable to show their children enough affection. The students’ attachments with significant others have been broken.

Because refugee families have not chosen where to live and have not been able to control the situations that they find themselves in they need to relearn how to take responsibility for their own lives and futures.

Kim Cootes mentioned that as teachers it is our natural inclination to want to begin teaching these students speaking/ listening, reading and writing skills as soon as they come into our care. Experience has shown that other fundamental needs have to be met before these students are ready to take on formal education. We must not forget that with all the new experiences and foreign noises happening around them, they are actually learning a great deal. They are being bombarded with stimuli and information and sometimes need to tune out. We as teachers, need to be sensitive to each student’s particular needs and help them to settle before we expect them to engage in formal learning.

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Handout 2 from Module 1 ‘Factors affecting learning for students from a refugee background’ – page 51 ‘Teaching Students from a refugee background’ (c) State of New South Wales (Dept of Education), 2016

So, how do teachers help these refugee students to adapt and learn in our Australian classrooms? Maya Cranitch in ‘Classrooms of Possibility’ Chapter 2 pages 27-30, PETAA Publication 2015 discusses the implications for teaching these students compared with other EAL students in light of of their disrupted and traumatic past. The process of acquiring a new language can take much longer than normally for EAL students because they have experienced disruptions to their education which has also been hampered by the lack of trained teachers, resources and adequate learning areas. Generally speaking, they are also unaccustomed to Australian learning styles and they have had little, if any, exposure to texts of any sort. Maya Cranitch says that although EAL teachers are able to analyse the students’ language learning needs we are not well prepared to assess the strengths and skills that refugee learners bring to their classrooms. By focussing on what the students cannot do instead of their learned ability to switch between several languages, their ‘cultural capital’ and the skills that they have developed to survive their extraordinary lives we can sometimes contribute to their feelings of not fitting in.  Cranitch says that building on students’ capabilities could constitute positive and powerful assets in the classroom, not just for the individual students, but also for the classroom community as a whole. (‘Classrooms of Possibility’ Chapter 2 page 30, PETAA)

There are four key principles of EAL pedagogy that need to be considered and modified for the refugee student;

  1. Learning a new language takes time : Face to face conversations that take place informally, BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) normally take about two years for a newly arrived student to acquire. This may take longer for a student who is learning to adjust to being safe, feeling accepted and to trust others.                                                 In the classroom new arrivals are expected to learn English, learn about English and learn through English all at the same time. This CALP language (cognitive academic language proficiency) takes much longer  to learn than BICS, especially for students who have had disrupted and poorly resourced education. It normally takes up to seven years to acquire but for most refugee students who have no CALP language in their other languages it takes longer and needs to be taught slowly and explicitly in order for them access the knowledge and skills required for the Australian curriculum. 
  2.  EAL/D learners bring their own linguistic and cultural resources to the classroom: The ‘cultural capital’ that new arrivals bring to the classroom, their languages, experiences and world views can be so different to what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ in an Australian mainstream classroom. Images and ideas that are used in teaching may have no meaning or significance for a student of another culture. How language is used to tell a story, persuade or inform also differs from culture to culture.  All EAL students and especially students from refugee backgrounds need to be given shared experiences, taught with concrete materials in hands-on experiences and learn to use language structures while practising new skills and knowledge. 
  3. Beginning learners of English need opportunities to practice new language in meaningful contexts: Learners with limited English need to begin to learn with oral language. They need to hear English used repeatedly and in many and various ways and have many opportunities to practise. Group work is an excellent way for EAL learners to practise English. They are motivated to speak as they need to ask questions, solve problems and share ideas. In their group they are hearing messages expressed in various ways and many times. They also may feel more comfortable speaking out in a small group with their peers than to the class as a whole. The group work needs to be integrated with curriculum content. It should be challenging and yet accessible for all students. For the newly arrived student, vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught and front-loaded, grammatical structures need to be practised beforehand plus, the key concepts and thinking skills need to be identified and taught explicitly and practised in order for these students to be able to participate meaningfully in class activities. 
  4. Learners of English learn best when the learning context includes high challenge and high support:  Our students need to be challenged, motivated, supported and experience success in order to learn. The skill we need to master as teachers, especially of EAL learners is to be able to identify; the essential learning in a curriculum area, the language skills and demands required and, the support needed for these specific students. This skill is needed to scaffold the students’ learning so what we are preparing is just the right amount of support for them and what we are asking of them is not too easy and not too hard. Our EAL students need to access the same curriculum material as the mainstream students. We, their teachers have to know them well and help them access the curriculum so that they can experience independence and success.

‘Key principles of EAL pedagogy’ – Handout 3 Module 1 ‘Factors affecting learning for students from a refugee background’ pages 52- 55 ‘Teaching Students from a refugee background’ (c) State of New South Wales (Dept of Education), 2016

Who is going to help the teachers? Where do we turn to learn how to meet the needs of our very needy, at-risk EAL students? Fortunately there are people who have studied and researched and who generously share their expertise within our education system. It is important to belong to a network of EAL teachers and to attend network meetings, there is an EAL/D group on Yammer, and there is a ‘Global Words’ Facebook site.

Separate Refugee Networks for primary and secondary teachers are also out there for teacher support.
There are fabulous resources on the Department of Education website.
Access is available for schools to  a Refugee Specialist Counselling Team with the Dept of Education, as well as support from local community organisations.

PETAA publishes research in texts such as ‘Classrooms of Possibility’, edited by Jennifer Hammond and Jennifer Miller. PETAA also work in conjunction with World Vision, Global words (2012) to produce units of work which incorporate rich texts that integrate aspects of refugee experiences linked with the curriculum areas of Geography and English. Finally all teachers should seriously consider undertaking courses provided by the NSW Department of Education like ; Teaching English Language Learners (TELL) and ‘Teaching students from a refugee background’ so that we can better understand the needs of our students and how to teach them.

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One thought on “What do we know about the lives of our students?

  1. Thanks Anne, Heart wrenching sTuff to think of what they go through, it is a huge change. Loved the STAR model great guide for developing a plan or policy fir settling in Refugee students in our school. Love that you share… We are life long learners…leaRning never stops!! Jennine

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

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