by Taslim Damji
[This article was first printed in the Summer 2017 issue of TEAL News.]
On April 4th, 2017 BC TEAL launched a nationwide campaign in celebration of Refugee Rights Day. On this day in 1985, the Canadian Charter of Rights recognized refugees as having the same fundamental human rights as Canadians—the right to life, liberty and security of person.
This campaign connected the relationship between security of person to a sense of belonging and inclusion in our diverse communities—not just for refugees, but for all individuals. It included webinars and an activity package for teachers and was intended to highlight our commonalities and the importance of feeling safe and accepted for who we are. By applying an intercultural lens, activity participants were invited to explore and further cultivate these feelings.
Intercultural is a word we hear often these days, as are diversity, community, and inclusion. As increasing numbers of people arrive in Canada, our understanding of culture and identity shifts and evolves in noticeable ways. Sometimes we embrace the changes that greater diversity brings, but often discomforts and questions arise for both Canadians and newcomers.
How then do you apply an intercultural lens to Refugee Rights Day? It starts with how people identify themselves and how they identify others. Do we focus on how we are different or do we focus on how we are similar? Do we anticipate that we may have something in common with another person though, on the surface, they may seem very different to ourselves? How do we respond to that difference? Do we embrace, reject, or feel uncertain about it? How does difference shape our behavior towards others? How does this affect who we include in our communities? How do our thoughts and feelings about “others” impact our own ability to belong? All big questions!
The EAL classroom provides a primary community, and a good place to start strengthening that sense of community is by getting to know each other. We often don’t know much about each other’s cultural background, ways of doing things, or personal histories. Through lack of contact, media representation, or unsuccessful interactions, we may be unaware of stereotypes that exist in our classrooms. There can also be an underlying assumption that others have the same codes of interaction as we do. It can be challenging to interpret behaviors except by our own standards and norms. In a classroom context, teachers making time and space for the group to be curious about and open to each other is key to modelling and growing intercultural sensitivity as well as preparing learners to find greater acceptance in the community at large. This ability is as important as language if our goal is to promote healthy, inclusive, and diverse communities.
These themes seem weighty, but the activities provided in the activity package were intended to foster a feeling of commonality while at the same time acknowledging difference in an enjoyable way. They also aimed to raise awareness of what inclusion, community, and diversity mean to our students and to explore how we can “do” these in our daily interactions. It was great hearing from so many of you about your experiences doing the activities in the package. This article is to celebrate your class experience using the materials. I’d like to thank Augusta Avram, Jennifer Low, Debra Dahlberg, Tanya LeBar, and Leanna Inokoshi, all of whom teach a range of classes and levels, for taking time to share their experience using the materials, and here’s what they had to say.
Teachers talked about selecting activities appropriate to their groups and providing a safe space to explore…
Augusta: “Before doing the activities, in private, I asked the refugee students in my class if they were comfortable discussing the topic. My experience with refugees has taught me that I need to be careful because of possible issues around trauma. Also, I used the image of people holding hands around the globe as a starter, and not the pictures.”
Jennifer: “I gave the theme and the topic ahead of time and told the students that if anyone felt uncomfortable to let me know. I wouldn’t have done it if someone had told me they weren’t comfortable. I started with the tree visual to introduce a broader sense. Then, as I put each picture up I checked in. I like how the sequence led into more pleasant pictures, but the focus was really on community and diversity and inclusion”.
Teachers also talked about some of the conversations and activities that students had engaged in. They used different materials from the package including visuals, reflections, concept maps, value statements, and a total physical response (TPR) style activity to raise awareness and open conversations.
Debra: “Students talked about how they had come to Canada. Two had come as refugees. They were both comfortable telling their stories. One woman hadn’t been in her home country for over 10 years and had lived in so many different places with so many different people. The other man was comfortable telling his story as he’d told it so many times. Maybe he felt that he was educating people. We also looked at the photos of the camp, the boats, the people. They talked about how refugees are from all around the world and then I asked them why someone would flee from their country. But the activity that worked best was the “Walk across the room…”. That was so much fun. They really enjoyed it and the self-reflection, too. We tend to look at the obvious, the external”.
Tanya: “I did have refugees in the class and they were okay with the pictures. I felt comfortable because my parents were refugees also, so I talked about my parents living in a camp for 3 years. I thought it was nice to finish with an optimistic picture—Welcome to Canada! People in my class were absolutely sympathetic and empathetic. They knew what’s going on and were very willing to talk about it. They didn’t feel discomfort.”
I also did the Walk across the room…” activity. Things that they had in common were being afraid, worried, feeling lonely, missing home. We used the commonalities to springboard into diversity and inclusion. We then went to mind map. I used community instead of classroom –I wanted it to be as broad as possible. Diversity was easy. They talked about race, religion, sexuality. But inclusion was really hard. What does inclusion mean and how do you do that? Seeing difference is easy, but how to include is more of a challenge.”
Teachers had different reasons for choosing the activities they did. Some did a single activity and others worked their way through more of the package…
Augusta: “I like to get into culture, where they explore it on a deeper level. The refugee and newcomer experience have a lot in common, for example, identity crisis. I encourage them to explore their own biases, too.”
Jennifer: “It was an important topic and a great way to lead into the term. The idea of diversity and inclusion—feeling different/feeling the same; feeling included/feeling left out; appreciating diversity; making sure that everyone feels included so that they can participate more fully. How can we make it work?”
Debra: “I like to tie in topics like this to let students know that multiculturalism is fairly new to me too; 30 years ago it was different. We’re constantly evolving, new people come, there are changes.”
Leanna: “I used the visual photos of refugee experiences to elicit, teach, and share language around ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ with the end goal for students to create a poster board with visual images cut out from newspapers and magazines to express what they see as forms of social inclusion.”
Teachers told of student response to the materials…
Augusta: “They like to talk about what’s going on in their lives and about what makes one different from others. The cultural difference is there, and it helps if you discuss it. You celebrate the difference, yet at the same time you desperately want to belong. You end up questioning how you do things and what you believe. If you create a safe space to explore this, they like it, they enjoy the challenge. One of the students said: It doesn’t matter what our differences are, everyone has equal rights and should be treated respectfully.”
Debra: “There was lots of laughter and then sometimes surprise. It really pulled the group together and in the end everyone felt connected to everyone else in the room in some way. At some point everyone found they had at least one thing in common. You have to find a gate to open first. The package had a nice structure”.
Jennifer: “Initially, students wondered, ‘So why are we talking about this?’ Yes, it was Refugee Rights Day, but these are all broader themes. Students said ‘we’re really glad we’re learning this. It helps me think differently. It’s important to learn about’. It was neat—the next day we had a refugee student enter the class and is now part of our classroom community.”
And of their own response…
Augusta: “I like to share my own identity story as someone who came to a new country. It doesn’t matter what the reason is for you being here. You are here now and it’s a difficult time, but there are commonalities… I wanted this activity package to be about all of us.”
Tanya: “The class is really open and I try to normalize things. I see the students look to me for my response. They are watching me for how I will respond. Refugees often tell their stories and we just deal. We listen and sometimes there’s nothing to be said. We’ll have a moment of silence and then I’ll say, ‘Is it okay if we move on?’”
And overall, teachers reported…
Debra: “The whole experience was very positive… It gave a better sense of what diversity is and how we can be included because we do have things in common. It opened the door to other possibilities, to meeting new people and other Canadians. That we can see beyond what’s on the outside.”
Leanna: ‘The student’s especially liked being divided into groups to work on their poster board that reflected what they deemed as “Social Inclusion”. They liked the creativity, the visuals, the variety and freedom of choice, cutting, pasting and overall enjoyment of working together to create a positive message as a group.”
I asked instructors if they had any comments or advice for fellow teachers using the package.
Here’s what they shared:
Augusta: “It’s important how the teacher presents this because it models respect. Encourage learners to describe their own experiences.”
Tanya: “Know your class. Make sure you’re comfortable with it. And if you’re not comfortable with it, ask yourself why you are not comfortable. Be a little brave! Allow a little discomfort.”
Jennifer: “It was a great lesson and links well to every day. Creates a safe space to create more openness”.
Leanna: “This was my first time teaching a lesson on refugees, but I found it enlightening and educational. The lesson [was] easy to follow for an instructor and provided many choices/activities for different levels to accommodate multi-level classrooms.”
I hope that being able to hear about different instructors’ experience provides support and encouragement to keep using the materials in the coming months. Keep in mind that United Nations World Refugee Day is June 20th or you can apply these activities to any curriculum theme connected to growing community, celebrating diversity, and cultivating inclusion.
To access the materials discussed in this article go to:
Good luck on your intercultural journey and, if you do use the materials, we’d love to hear from you. Post on our EAL Act!on Blog or share on Twitter or Facebook using #EALaction.
From the Summer 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: Taslim Damji is the developer of BC TEAL’s Refugee Rights Day package. She has an MA from King’s College, London and two decades of international teaching, teacher training, and research experience. At the time of this article, Taslim was the manager of Intercultural Trainings through MOSAIC Works.
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Original reference information:
Damji, T. (2017, Summer). Refugee Rights Day—EAL Act!on. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Summer-2017.pdf