You can’t just walk into a classroom and point a microphone or video camera at the children. You have to earn their trust and be around long enough for them not to care about you. That point never truly comes, but at some point – you sense it, suddenly, and skip all the way home, happy, eager to reap what will come as of tomorrow – it’s still possible to become less foreign to them.
Some children smirk when I ask if I can sit down at their table. Smirks of feigned unwillingness, smirks of pleasure. They move along to make space for me to pilot a questionnaire I had devised. When first piloted, it didn’t work well. I noticed how attentive the other children at the table were, all eyes and ears on me as opposed to on their worksheets. Clearly, I wasn’t invisible yet. Child after child merely repeated the answer given by the previous child. Why were they parroting? I knew they were. What had I done wrong? Why didn’t they trust me? I had to change my strategy. For the final version of the questionnaire, I invited the individual children to sit with me on the bench, away from the others. Suddenly, the responses became much more colourful:
Q: what do you write at home?
A: I copy things (#1), words (#2), the letters I know (#3), names (#4), whatever I want to (#5), stories (#6), rubbish (#7)
Rubbish??? Is that the child speaking in his/her own right, or simply ventriloquating?
Q: why do you think you’re learning to write?
A. for school (#1), dunno (#2), to write words (#3), because I like it (#4), to give letters (#5), because mum says so (#6), because it’s good (#7)
At playtime, a child came up to me.
Madame? (The children knew not to call me Maîtresse (teacher). I wasn’t one. And he didn’t dare call me by my first name, as they did with their real teachers.)
Will you ask me those questions?
It was a plea, not a fear. A child from the neighbouring classroom; one not foreseen by my studies.
Si tu veux (if you want).
He returned to his play with a smile.
OK. So much for being invisible.
at home, in my logbook:
…children (learners) as teachers: I learn from them and must learn from them before I can ‘teach’ them anything (of use). Researcher (me) as learner far more than as teacher. Teacher/learner roles in the adult/child dyad co-reside, forever shifting, shuffling, re-negotiated. If I publish, then surely because I have ‘learned’ something I want to share.
I not only worked in a bilingual school, but with parents whose children attended a traditional, monolingual French school. Parents are as eager to share their views as the children. Parents who often want to do more than bake cakes for Open Day. It’s not always easy. A German mother, living in Alsace, tells me why:
Q: How well would you say that your ideas about school match the French ideas of what school is and what should be taught in school?
A: There’s this story that the children are already told when they’re in nursery school, the old stories about the big bad wolf who’ll do horrible things to children or people in general and that really does get on my nerves because I know for a fact that wolves don’t do anything of the sort. I think it’s a real pity that this big bad wolf theme gets handed down from one generation to the next although the truth is that wolves are a protected species and we all know that in the meantime. And so I went to school and told the teacher that this should stop. At first I was treated like that typical wicked German woman who thinks she can stick her nose in school affairs and I told them that, at the very least, they should explain things to the children. In the end they did in fact go on a school trip to a zoo and took a look at wolves. But basically they just keep passing the idea on even though there are stories in which wolves play quite a different role and if you ask me, it’s such a shame that parents even have to talk about such things with teachers or indeed that such themes come up in schools at all. And these are the kinds of things where I do make an effort to get involved or ‘stick my nose in’. As far as how the children learn to read and write, that’s not necessarily my thing, but when it comes to how aspects of society are dealt with, or religion, or sometimes how the family is depicted, then I do indeed consider that my business and if I have the feeling that they’re going completely overboard then I will indeed allow myself to at least talk to the teachers about it and let them know that I most strongly disagree with what they’re doing. And I also explain why.
At a primary school in Luxembourg, the teacher made use of a parent-teacher evening to lessen the gap between home and school. Parents could not only take a look at their children’s schoolwork, but leave a comment in their diaries. The diaries were written as part of Year One German classes in order to provide authentic writing activities. Via the parental contributions, these diaries become shared (home-school-teacher-parent-child) plurilingual semiotic socio-cognitive-affective spaces:
German text reads: Mama und Papa s(e)ind so lieb (Mum and Dad are so kind). This is an English child schooled in Luxembourg. Aged 6, she speaks English, French, German and Luxembourgish.
This is a Luxembourgish child, whose parents, taking their cue from the fact that the diary is in German, answer in German:
mum and dad love you so very much. You’re the best little boy (in the world). Keep up the good work! Mum sends you lots of kisses for you to take to school with you every day so that I’m always with you. Mum and dad love you!
Now, a Luxembourgish parent, replying in Luxembourgish to the child’s German ‘Papa pas gut auf’: Dad, pay attention:
Hello, my darling cuddly mouse! I’m really paying attention now, and when we’re done, I’ll write you some more. The teachers have now told us so much that I can’t remember all of it…. But I still remember a little and I’ll tell you that tomorrow. Big big kiss!!
Another Luxembourgish parent answering in Luxembourgish:
Mummy was here with Godmother and we’ve seen all that you’ve done. Isn’t it fun at school! Big fat kiss!
These diaries allow us to see more of the child and their focal points of the day:
Reproduced with the kind permission of the DECOPRIM project leader, Dr Gérard Gretsch, Luxembourg. From left to right: today the doctor is coming to our school… I have a headache… fashion show. It was great!… I’m playing football… I’m going to get something to drink… teacher, mama, little mouse… I’m riding a bike
And now, my favourite entry, written by a Portuguese-speaking mother who spoke none of the state languages. The teacher puts me in the picture: ‘the parents never come along because they can’t speak Luxembourgish. They don’t understand French and they don’t speak German. Sometimes they send someone else along’. But the mother came herself, this time. And she ‘answered’ with flowers:
As we saw with Lisa, parents may find ways to surmount barriers and support, in their own way, their children’s development.
What I like most about these diaries: parents happily disregard their children’s school status as beginners, as apprentices, of literacy. Instead, the parents write meaningful, authentic texts – not exercises – which engage their children as fully-fledged members of their literate community, as is the intention of the teacher by introducing these diaries in the first place. There is no talk of error, or worse: of rubbish. And why should there be? A limited level of skill need not be an impediment for full community membership.