‘The story of my life is who I am’
When Caroline asked me to write something about EAL students in the classrooms of English-medium schools, I immediately thought of writing about the importance of narrative, or story, in the lives of these children. For the last few years I have been involved in collecting data via semi-structured interviews for a research inquiry into the ways that globally mobile EAL children create and maintain their sense of self. Many children, not only in international schools, but also in national systems have made geographical, cultural or linguistic moves in their short lives, sometimes all three. It became clear as I moved through the interview phase that students were saying something very important about themselves in the ways they answered the question, ‘Where do you come from?’ The great majority began their answers with the words, ‘Well, I was born in …. , and then I went to …., and now we are here’. Only one or two felt that simply saying: I am Polish, or American or Japanese, was enough to explain who they were. In the words of one eminent French academic, their idea of their own identity can be expressed in the following way; ‘The story of my life is who I am’.
Practically I think this has real importance for us as teachers. When, as we often do, we ask students to write something about themselves at the beginning of the school year, we might want to recognise that this standard opening activity can be turned into something of great potential significance in enhancing children’s view of themselves. Either by means of pages in a ring binder or on a tablet or laptop we can encourage children first to create a retrospective account of their various moves, the people who have been important to them in each location, the languages that they use every day and the languages they have been in contact with. With modern technology they can upload photos and invite their classmates to comment and to share similar experiences. One teacher I know encourages children to post images from Google Earth showing their previous homes and schools. Once they have told the story of earlier experiences they can be encouraged to continue the account to include life in the new location.
This on-going record can act as a further meaningful resource in the classroom. Most teachers in classrooms of children who move are used to including a phase that investigates children’s prior experiences when they start a new topic or unit of enquiry. With a physical or on-line record of their personal narrative to hand, children can exhibit their existing knowledge in a meaningful way, enabling the teacher to incorporate a wider frame of reference in classroom discussion. This is truly an opportunity to bring the outside world inside!
I have come to realise that children who move show us only a small part of themselves when they come to school. They have a rich hinterland of experience because of their global mobility that may never be brought to light unless we take the appropriate steps. When we do enable children to share their personal story we enhance their own view of themselves and create a rich resource for all of us to share.
Coreen Sears: [email protected]
Coreen wrote a book back in 1998 which was published by Multilingual Matters with the title: Second Language Students in Mainstream Classrooms – a handbook for teachers in international schools. After consulting, researching and writing during the intervening years, Multilingual Matters have asked her to write a completely new handbook for today’s teachers. It is in the pipeline now with the hope of a publishing date in 2014.