Teaching RE to Refugees: Hot-pants and Headscarves – The Dialectics of Identity.

The ‘Othering’ phenomena is something that is clearly reproduced, reinforced, and experienced by people all around the world, regardless of their race, language, gender, class, nationality, or religion. In classrooms made up of truly diverse groups of children, what are the challenges faced by RE teachers and how do they tackle the ‘Othering’ impulse? With this in mind, I visited a German Vocational School, a dual system school, which offers its pupils work apprenticeships three days a week. I was lucky enough to observe one such truly diverse classroom.

With a total of 14 pupils aged between sixteen to nineteen years old, from a variety of different countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, I sat in on a lesson concerned with the traditional and culturally relevant issues that surround being a good ‘Host’ and ‘Guest’. This was done by asking the children to pretend they were hosting a dinner party. Before the lesson, I met with the class teacher who explained the difficulties he faced when teaching a classroom filled with refugee children. He was a Math teacher, but due to the particular nature of the German RE system, he had taken over the teaching of RE for these children. In the German confessional approach to RE, all children of a particular faith are taught RE by a teacher of their own religion. In the case of this class, an Islamic RE teacher was required but was not available. The next option was an Ethics teacher. The children rejected an Ethics teacher, as they requested that their Religious Education be taught by someone of faith, any faith. As a Catholic, the Math teacher volunteered to take over the role.

Over coffee, he informed me of the many difficulties the children had faced. Many of them suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome that could be triggered at any moment. He explained that for some of the children their parents had died making the dangerous passage to Europe; some had been sleeping in the woods and some were involved in criminal activities. He explained that the police were at the school almost every day. Speaking of how they faced the ever-present prospect of being deported, he reminded me that they were, in fact, still children.

It was pointed out that the refugee children were not fully integrated with the other children in the school. The nature of the racial, cultural, ethnic tensions was a significant problem when the class first came together and was at times, still an issue. Clearly, much of his time had been spent in a pastoral role, working to bring these children together in an environment that was conducive to learning. Later, as I observed the lesson, his success in this was evident. It was genuinely heartwarming to see the interaction between the students themselves and the teacher. The groundwork that he must have put into this group of youngsters was wonderfully inspiring. With such a diverse and traumatised group of young people, to see the friendly and respectful discourse between them was humbling. Witnessing a young Roma girl in hot pants laugh and joke with a young Somali girl in Hijab, dressed head to toe in black, was a beautiful and touchingly humane experience.

Clearly, merely bringing young people from different backgrounds together physically is not sufficient to reduce prejudice and develop positive relations; the teacher needs to create the conditions for all children to establish what has been termed ‘intercultural competence’. In this sense, the UN suggest pedagogical tools such as the inclusion of cultural products, critical cultural incidents, qualitative research methods, as well as role-play that all serve as instruments to make students cross-culturally aware and avoid reductionist and essentialist views regarding Identity. These pedagogical tools were implemented admirably throughout this lesson. Personally, I have always focused on adopting a pedagogy which starts in the world of the child, which then considers the social world in which the child is situated, then the religious – concentric circles considered in succession.

Ultimately, my focus is always on the ‘Personal Search’ of the Scottish Curriculum; this lesson was a masterclass in that approach. While the lesson was in a language I didn’t know, the level of reflection amongst the students was palpable. Never has the material resonated so clearly – this was done by a focus on the context of real-world examples, shared experiences – a focus on the human, rather than the notion of a ‘fixed identity’. A differentiation of ‘Identity’ was allowed, even planned for (guest/host). The manner in which the teacher was able to tailor this approach to let the topic/subject matter become truly relevant to his students was critical. I always aim to use praise effectively in the classroom and promote an atmosphere of trust and openness. I am still working towards engaging with all my pupils through discussion and proper questioning techniques – rarely have I seen this achieved with such effectiveness as I did in this lesson. So much so, that the children took the task seriously and engaged correctly. The role-play was quite lengthy and all the students seemed to enjoy themselves and think carefully about what they were doing.

Furthermore, it became clear that the traditional summative approach would prove to be a barrier to learning in this classroom. Later it was revealed that the teacher had refused to impose a grading structure on the class. Instead, differentiation was found by the child’s application to the discussion. Less confident students were able to contribute and where encouraged, while the most confident contributed actively to discussions. Discussions, in which pupils are led to be reflective are particularly productive for the learner’s engagement in the learning. It is also an invaluable opportunity to recognise achievement and celebrate success, as was done throughout this lesson. This formative dialogue based pedagogy harks back to traditional storytelling modes of knowledge transmission, again something that might claim to be a ‘shared global experience’ and transcends all sorts of cultural barriers.

The genius of this lesson was the focus on genuinely universal concerns; we all ‘break bread’, in fact, there is no more of a traditional and culturally vital arena in which we communicate and transmit knowledge than over a meal. This lesson worked because rather than focus on a supposed ‘Global Ethic’, it focused on the existence of shared Global ‘experiences’ in which one’s own value system comes to the fore. Having guests and being a good host translates to any language or cultural context – it is a fundamental shared and tradition-based cultural experience into which the student can explore their own values and the values of others. In teaching a classroom of refugee children, taking the lesson back to the ‘Home’ was a poignant and beautiful analogy – fundamentally, a child (human) centred approach.

The teacher’s use of slapstick humour and exaggerated facial expression was used to significant effect. Another truly universal cultural experience – slapstick humour; the teacher played the Hanwurst to substantial effect. As the lesson progressed, the teacher skilfully drew an analogy between the student’s own experience as refugees in Germany, with the guest and host role-play just completed. Again, this was a profoundly moving moment in the lesson in which the atmosphere completely changed and the student self-reflection was palpable. This inspired transition was an example of the personal search aspect that is so important in the Scottish system. The linking of Hospitality and Humanity was deeply evocative.

Throughout the lesson, the ‘dialectics of identity’ was investigated – Guest/Host, Native/Foreigners, Story-teller/listener, Mother-tongue/ German, Victim/Hero, Rights/Responsibilities. Is this key in intercultural dialogue?

In the final part of the lesson, the teacher introduced the story of ‘The Good Samaritan’. In an inspired touch, he worked with the Islamic version of the story. I think it would be fair to say the story of the Good Samaritan never resonated so much with me. At the end of the lesson, the students, so used to being written off, lined up at the door to shake the hand of their teacher before the end of the day. I found this whole lesson an emotional experience. Afterwards speaking to the teacher, he explained that the student asks him to pray for them and that they are proud to have their teacher pray for them. He spoke of how he blesses the children, but not with the cross. He explained that they discuss the Mother Mary looking down on them. In any other context I would be appalled by this, but here today and in this context, I was moved. There was pureness and humanity to his actions that transcended the politics of belief.

At some point, my observations ceased from being an academic exercise, and my thoughts went to one of my second-year students that had chosen to take their own life during the last few weeks of my placement. I started to think about my doubts over the role of RE in schools.  The question of whether there was anything more that I could have done had been lingering over me those last few weeks. I left this class with a renew and brighter outlook on the question.

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