Making ‘outsiders’ feel at home is child’s play

‘Grow from Seeds’ school workshops are piloting practical intercultural education for children

Third-class pupils at Kildare Town Educate Together National School. Photo: Laura Hutton

Third-class pupils at Kildare Town Educate Together National School. Photo: Laura Hutton

 

“It is a brand new time. . . We say let it grow”: more than 50 children in third class at a Kildare primary school belt out their version of the song from the Dr Seuss film The Lorax during a recent midweek morning rehearsal.

It’s the concluding song in a 20-minute play that the children wrote themselves after participating in a series of 10 creative workshops. But this enthusiastic bunch of youngsters at Kildare Town Educate Together School probably don’t appreciate what perfect “guinea pigs” they’ve been for the development and piloting of Grow from Seeds, a practical programme of intercultural education for children in primary schools, not only in Ireland but also in France and Germany.

In September 2012, this school opened with 12 pupils on the roll. Today, just under eight years later, 415 boys and girls are streaming through the corridors of the spacious and airy new building that the school moved into in 2015. And the array of flags hanging from the ceiling of their PE hall is indicative of the 30 different nationalities that principal Gerry Breslin reckons are represented among the pupils.

Pupils at Kildare Town Educate Together National School work on their intercultural play presentation. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Pupils at Kildare Town Educate Together National School work on their intercultural play presentation. Photograph: Laura Hutton

“It brings a real richness to the school and with that comes a range of socioeconomic backgrounds,” he says. When the school started collaborating on Grow from Seeds three years ago, their pupils included about 18 children from Syrian refugee families who were being temporarily accommodated at an “orientation” centre in Monasterevin.

“It was very suitable and appropriate for us to take it on,” says Breslin, “and the kids really got a lot out of it.”

With the programme’s focus on welcoming “outsiders”, it is for any child coming into a school who might feel they are not part of the group, he explains. Particularly apt, again, for their school, which has taken in so many children at different ages in recent years, unlike most other schools whose influx is mainly confined to junior infants once a year.

The idea for Grow from Seeds originated with the education co-ordinator at the Gaiety School of Acting – the National Theatre School of Ireland, Dr Anna Kadzik-Bartoszewska. She had recognised the potential of universal storytelling for breaking down barriers when travelling in Syria and Egypt while doing her art history PhD at UCD. She also saw a gap in intercultural education in Irish primary schools, with few practical measures backing up the guidelines on the topic published back in 2005. In 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised weaknesses in the Government’s response to racism and discrimination, noting, in particular, structural discrimination against children from Traveller, Roma and refugee backgrounds.

Collaboration

Kadzik-Bartoszewska’s concept blossomed into a three-year collaboration between a range of partners, including her employer, also a French theatre school, the humanitarian development organisation Plan International, the Kildare ET school along with individual schools in Dortmund and the Paris suburb of Le Raincy, and supported by Erasmus+, a programme for education, training, youth and sport in Europe. One resource developed out of their labours, a handbook for teachers to use at their schools, was launched at a conference in Dublin last week.

Grow from Seeds is “fully practical”, says Kadzik-Bartoszewska, with every workshop linked to a part of the curriculum, primarily the social, personal and health education and drama strands. Without those integrated links, you wouldn’t get “buy-in”, says Breslin, as “teachers’ time is really precious” and they don’t have the capacity for standalone initiatives.

Also involved in the project was Dr Malgosia Machowska-Kosciak, of the Centre for Human Rights and Citizenship Education in Dublin City University (DCU). As a researcher on Strengthening the Practice of Intercultural Education in Primary Schools, a project funded by the Department of Justice and Equality, she had been looking at how to engage parents – a challenge also recognised by Grow from Seeds.

While it is great to work with children, who are very open-minded, it is more difficult to get support from parents and to promote understanding at that level, says Machowska-Kosciak. The two projects are looking for funding to extend their work, in a joint effort to reach into the community outside the school walls.

It is about integration and tackling racism

The DCU project drew up new guidelines for primary schools, which can be seen on its website along with examples of good practices and various resources.

“It is about integration and tackling racism,” Machowska-Kosciak says, pointing out that intercultural education in this country started with attempts to address racism towards the Traveller community. What distinguishes the DCU-led project, she believes, is its social justice approach, highlighting the importance of children’s rights, children’s voices and global citizenship, rather than focusing on cultural differences.

The growth of young people’s campaigning against climate change makes this approach particularly relevant, she suggests: “We’re all working towards the same goals.”

Meanwhile, Machowska-Kosciak has written a book, The Multilingual Adolescent Experience, documenting “small stories of integration and socialisation by Polish families in Ireland”, due to be published in June. In researching this she found that non-Irish-born parents living here, who showed they valued their own language and culture, had a positive impact on their children’s sense of identity.

Pupils in third class at Kildare Town Educate Together National School wrote a 20-minute play after participating in a series of 10 Grow from Seeds creative workshops. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Pupils in third class at Kildare Town Educate Together National School wrote a 20-minute play after participating in a series of 10 Grow from Seeds creative workshops. Photograph: Laura Hutton

The best thing migrant parents can do is keep their culture alive, she says, particularly the language, for these “third culture kids” – youngsters growing up in a country that is different to their parents’ homeland(s).

“Some of the children decided to assimilate, to abandon their linguistic heritage, because they felt they had to,” she says, acknowledging that such pressure is “not tangible but it exists”. Whereas she believes Irish schools could do a better job of accommodating differences.

“It is very interesting how children construct their own identity,” she says. Adolescence is always a time for establishing a sense of self and this can be more complex for migrants. It is what parents do, rather than just talk about, in keeping connected with their roots that matters, such as using the language, celebrating traditions and facilitating language learning among their children.

With the increasing importance of intercultural communication, she adds, “you are giving them a wonderful gift for the future”.

Intercultural communication seems pretty effortless for the Kildare Town ET pupils who incorporate nine different languages into their play about a “magical baby” that was abandoned “on a random doorstep in Kildare town”. They performed it at the Grow from Seeds conference, showcasing their response to learning about “others”.

Empathy

Evaluating the benefits of the programme during its development was difficult “because it’s not very concrete”, says the school’s deputy principal, Rachel Burke. But, for instance, they tested for empathy by showing participating pupils photos of other children and asking them to pick those who they would like to be their friends and to say why.

Results showed that the youngsters were making their decisions based on facial expressions of children ie happy, smiling, she reports, rather than skin colour or ethnicity.

“I suppose the greatest evaluation for us is seeing the children themselves,” she adds, “how they bring what they learn from the programme into their everyday interactions with each other. They will try to solve problems in the yard; there is less exclusion.”

“They are a very connected group,” agrees Breslin. Not only did they derive great enjoyment and laughter from the hour-long creative drama workshops, led by Seamus Quinn and Caroline Coffey of the Gaiety school, the programme “really enabled them to get to know their classmates and they were very good at picking up all the nuances”.

The pilot phase is over and it will be interesting, he adds, to see where the programme goes from here, adding: “We will definitely keep it going.”

In the words of the children themselves, “let it grow, let it grow. . .”. The Ireland of their time is now.

Kildare Town Educate Together deputy principal Rachel Burke and principal Gerry Breslin. Photograph: Laura Hutton
Kildare Town Educate Together deputy principal Rachel Burke and principal Gerry Breslin. Photograph: Laura Hutton

‘Compassion, acceptance and inclusion’
Workshops in Dublin junior school

Teacher Elizabeth Daly admits she had doubts on how useful Grow from Seeds would be for her second class of seven-year-old boys at a Dublin school that “doesn’t have a very wide variety of nationalities, ethnicities or backgrounds”.

In fact, it was wonderful to see just how beneficial it was, she says, for the 28 boys who took part at Belgrove Junior Boys’ School in Clontarf.

“The story, workshops and different activities of Grow from Seeds strengthened the boys’ general curiosity in the world and in people, and it was very interesting to see how much they already knew, or had heard, listening to them talking about asylum seekers, refugees and homeless people.”

The first seven workshops tease out different aspects of the classic “stone soup” folktale, in which a group of wanderers win over villagers who initially refuse to offer them any food or lodging. The boys “developed a deeper understanding of the different lives that people lead and showed genuine concern for others, bringing compassion, acceptance and inclusion when in role as the villagers of the story, with in-depth discussions as to how they could help the wanderers”.

Independent of this programme, the class had set up a culture club with a link to a school in Cambodia. The boys paired up with children there, sending emails and photos to each other, and ending the week with a Skype session.

It was interesting to see, Daly says, how Grow from Seeds played a part in this communication.

“It had strengthened the boys’ interest in other places and people, and they loved realising that not only were there differences between their lives here and the children’s lives in Phnom Penh, but there were many similarities too. All of which they celebrated, such as the difference in sport (‘They don’t play GAA in Cambodia?’) to the similarity in food choice (‘No way! I like pizza – and my pen pal likes pizza too!’).”

Read: Fostering a sense of belonging

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