When the migrant child and Estonian school meet, quite few questions might arise that we need to discuss together. Every child has right to best possible education. How to provide it in an increasingly heterogeneous society?
When Angie from Costa Rica chose Estonian school for her child, she wanted the child to know more about Estonian language and culture. By the Christmas time, the best decision Angie could make, was to take the child out of school and take back to the home-country. “The whole process was very stressful for me and my child. I tried as much as I could, I found my child a private teacher, but I really had the feeling that the school´s attitude was "sink or swim". I felt that it seemed too much of a hassle for the school to handle my daughter's language integration and the school basically told me to send her to a Russian school where they have the language immersion.“ As of today, Angie does not know what decisions she will make in the future, wondering maybe she should consider Russian school?
I do not know how Angie’s case looks from the side of the school. But I do not that is one of the many. Every year I meet parents – new migrants, Russian-speakers who live in Estonia, and families who have come back to Estonia after having lived in other countries – who are being asked whether they haven´t thought that English or Russian school would better suit their children. Usually, the question is being asked during the first year, sometimes during first months or even first weeks.
Does migrant child “spoil” the education of other kids?
The discussion about how to adapt the school l system so all kids would get best possible education, is not new. What is new in Estonia, however, is the emerging discussion in the media whether Estonian children should even study in the same classes with the children who do not speak Estonian because it might affect their learning in a negative way. The teacher will speak in amore “primitive” way, use more nonverbal methods, and the native students progress will be hampered.
What does the research say about educating together students of different languages and levels? The research is rather scattered yet and it is not easy to compare the results of existing studies since they have been made in different countries, different migration groups and with students of different age. When we look at the research made in Europe, we can see that the results are mixed: that in some cases the immigrant children do not have any impact on the results of native kids, in some cases the impact can be negative, and in some cases even slightly positive.
However, what the research shows, is that the success of native children is influenced by a multitude of factors such as how long the migrant children have been staying in the country, what education have the parents of native kids, how the school system is built up and how flexible is curriculum. Also, preparation of the teachers and the methods they use are of importance.
This means that a lot is in our own hands. In the long run, segregating the different language groups in not sustainable for a society. Therefore, we should look into what we can do to provide best possible education for all our children. And something to be encouraged by: even in a situation where the schools have to accept many children from poor families who do not know the language – as it happened in Florida schools after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 –, there does not have to be any negative impact on the native kids schooling, or, actually, the impact can even be slightly positive.
Support with establishing social interactions
During past years I have been happy to see that most of the teachers truly want to support the migrant kids and try to do their best in the situation that was unexpected and for which they were unprepared. At the same time, I have noticed that there are some misconceptions that prevent the work from being successful.
Sometimes, the teacher might expect that a language teacher of the migrant child will “prepare the child” and the teacher will ultimately get a child who is “ready” and can be taught exactly as a regular Estonian child. The problem is that the migrant child will never reach his or her full potential if the result will mostly depend on the language teacher. The child learns while listening to the language and using it in the context. For a child who learns the second language, in fact, every teacher is the language teacher. This implores that also a biology teacher has a basic understanding of the acquisition of the second language and about what is the content and language integrated learning (CLIL). It does not mean that the biology teacher will need to become a language teacher. However, if the teacher knows the s/he is an important source of language anyway, then s/he can make small adjustments that help the migrant children to manage better.
It is also important to keep in mind that the migrant child does not only learn Estonian but also new cultural norms and connections. During this process the child experiences a lot of uncomfortable or confusing situations and needs support to understand new cultural norms, and to create new meanings. But first of all, the child needs to communicate! Neither knowledge of the language, nor the knowledge of the norms can develop in vacuum. They can only develop in meaningful interactions with others, by trying out, getting it wrong and by getting a supportive reflection. That´s why it is crucial to think about the quality of classroom interaction in the classroom – how the teacher communicates with the child, how other students communicate with the child. Therefore, it is also so important to help the migrant child to enter the group and establish safe and positive connections with other children.
Diversifying the toolbox
Sometimes, the teacher might hope that using a certain material or textbook will get the migrant child to learn in a same way that local Estonian children. While it is clear that as the time goes, we will get more and more supportive materials, the textbook itself does not teach anyone. At the same time, some methods support the migrant child better than others and it would make sense to use them more often in the teaching.
Sometimes, a small adjustment might already help. It is but natural that a child who still learns the language will be supported by visualizations and creating connections to existing background knowledge of the learner. Images, graphs, “pies”, semantic mapping, use of synonyms and letting the child to search for the meaning using his or her fist language – all of that helps to achieve a better learning.
I am sure many teachers already use modelling as instructional strategy (for example, demonstrating how to get through the task, letting the students better understand what is expected from them by observing how the teacher does it). But it would make sense to consciously use it in a more regular way, since often the biggest barrier for the migrant child is not understanding what exactly s/he needs to do. I recall a second year student who just arrived to Estonia and whose family spoke neither Estonian nor English being given a rather complicated children book („Nukitsamees“). The family panicked: is the child expected to read it? In this situation, the modelling would have helped the student to understand the school´s expectations.
In a multilingual and multicultural classroom, it is recommended to make use of methods that will help the migrant child to put things into the context, will leave them less dependent on the verbal cues, and of presenting the results in the written form. Such methods could be e.g. project learning, cooperative research, concept-based learning etc. It is also important to think about making learning outcomes more concrete and specific. Also evaluating the learning should be more flexible and focus on the content of the work and the meaning, not on the grammar or comparing the child who still does not master the language on a native level to other kids who do.
Does it pay off to go through all this thinking and adjusting for just this one child you have in your classroom? Absolutely! I have often seen how happy are both the teacher and the child when a small change in teaching suddenly helps the child a long way. Actually, you should consider making these changes even if you have no migrant children in your class, since it will benefit all the other kids, too. By diversifying the methods there´s nothing to lose, everyone can only win!
Nastja Pertsjonok is head of International House Tartu