• Anita Demitroff

Beyond Social Science: Opening up Learners' Worlds

Laura was four years old when she first came to our school, which had just been decorated to portray that year’s theme: the Whole World. Laura looked at our display of pictures of children from different countries and started to get excited. “Chinita! Chinita! (Little Chinese girl!)” she exclaimed as she stopped in front of one portrait. It was of someone just like her.

Then she did something that at first puzzled us. Laura ran up to another photo, this time of a boy from Kenya, and also said he was a little Chinese girl. For Laura, accustomed to hearing herself being called “chinita,” that term meant someone who wasn't like the others. She was delighted to see other children who were different, like her.

Regardless of their gender and national origin, they were “chinitas”. Our modest effort of dealing with diversity had had a small impact on one child. Yet, for as often as we have used this theme for projects, we still find that opening up the learners' worlds is a fulfilling if not always straightforward task. Here are six pointers that we've picked up along the way.

1. Start with what the child already knows.

Of course, this is what all teachers do: go from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Your learners' international perspective probably comes from sports, science classes on animals and their habitats, cartoons and, increasingly, a more globalised diet. There may also be reference points to other cultures in the school and community.

However, awareness comes gradually through continued exposure and links made over time, as children develop a sense of what's outside their realm of experience.

This is more a theoretical pointer than a practical rule of thumb. Helping children make connections is a slow process, happens when there is real curiosity and respect on their part, and needs to be done with a lightness of touch, as well as an understanding of how learners take in information.

2. Children listen to other children.

Again, teachers often make the most of peers helping peers to learn. To this end, there have been beautiful resources focusing on real children, but a decline in the market for buying DVDs impacted on companies like Master Communications (MC) and A Child's Eye View. Luckily the last MC project, "Going to School in India," has snippets on You Tube. These are a useful compliment to classes on transport, routines and getting to school. The children themselves take us on a tour of their worlds.

These videos are timeless, so those who have DVDs from these companies should try to share them. The first Child's Eye video on festivals is especially useful. For a more recent initiative, Origin's videos observe children having “play dates” with families from outside their own community.

3. Inclusivity.

Teachers, authors and publishers have made a great effort to ensure that the people reflected in their materials are from different races and ethnic backgrounds, are gender sensitive and take disability into account. It seems we are doing this naturally, rather than self-consciously. A parallel can be made between this and our post about "Susan Laughs," as the follow-up activities to that book were not just about disability awareness. The book's illustrations exemplified pastel techniques for a CLIL Art class; the book's subject was a child called Susan, who happens to be in a wheelchair.

4. Other sources of input.

And it's not just through images, but also through other vehicles that we can open students' worlds.

Music may include instruments from other parts of the world or routines in English class can be from outside their community. One of the most successful summer camp activities we've seen involved making sushi and pasta noodles (a workshop given by Sean Doherty, Welcome School of English, Lugo, NW Spain).

Another activity at the camp entailed making a world map display with bits and pieces from our houses, such as decorations, toy animals, foods and instruments. We caught children visiting this hands-on display off their own bat. It captured their attention and real objects (in a pre-pandemic setting) attracted them more than pictures could.

5. Religious diversity.

As we grow more confident in using multicultural materials, we may find that religious diversity also has a place in our secular classrooms.

As areas like Northern Spain receive an influx of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds, perhaps it will become easier to touch on all aspects of learners' lives.

In this respect, religious festivals might be a good starting point, first touching on how Christmas is different around the world (the Orthodox Christmas falls in January, for example) and then branching out to alternative celebrations.

Diwali, the Festival of Lights for Hindus, Sikhs and other cultures, for instance, was in early November, in 2021. Hannukah, for the Jewish community, is at the end of November, while the next Muslim Eid will be in May, 2022. The Child's Eye videos even came with ideas for schools to help them invite community members to work with the children.

6. Home is where the hearts is.

Reaching out from an intimate family setting and another child's world, we need to step back and gain perspective.

Children gradually make a mental map of the globe and, of course, their own "patches". As nine-year-old Sarah Fannelli ("My Map Book") proved, kids can start doing this early on. For instance, those in second of Primary might map out the route and obstacles from "We're Going on a Bear Hunt." Older children can make human maps complete with time zones through tableaux.

It's not just about fostering imagination with story journeys or building learners' geographical knowledge, but also about making children conscious of their own environments.

A forward-thinking Primary teacher in 1970's Ferrol encouraged his pupils to take snapshots of their journeys into school.

Taking time to notice details during a journeybuilds a sense of orientation and helps children describe the route, a skill tested in language exams. Moreover, it bestows learners with a sense of ownership and responsibility; they are not sitting passively in their parents' car. In fact, how capable children navigate on their own was the subject of this ITV programme.

(Photo: Lestonnac (Ferrol, NW Spain))

A step on from this idea is for all of us to take pictures on longer journeys.

An activity related to photos from aeroplanes was developed for Third of Primary Social Science at Jesús Maestro school in Ferrol (NW Spain) in Rebeca Serrano's class.

The flight from Coruña to Madrid was captured in photos, supposedly from Cubetto the robot’s camera.

Cubetto was then placed on a map of Spain printed to the proportions of a typcal robot mat and, as the robot was programmed to travel diagonally, in a PowerPoint presentation children saw just what Cubetto saw along the way: the Ancares mountains; the Duero, a river; another range of mountains (Photo: A. Demitroff)

near Madrid and olive groves in Castilla La Mancha.

We've come full circle, going outside our worlds and then back again and there are multiple paths to building our learners' awareness of what or who is around them.

The world wasn't created in a day and our learners' own vision of it can't be either.

But we can help them construct their vision.

What ideas and activities have you tried in your classroom?

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.