Teaching about Refugees: Working with Testimonies
Testimonies, or true personal stories, of refugees are a very powerful medium when learning about refugees. They can be even more effective when integrated within other work, or when approached in a variety of ways.
Given that they are likely to be emotionally very demanding, any work should ensure that while the children are encouraged to empathise, they should not be left feeling distressed and hopeless. Plans should include a place for their response, and particularly for younger children, a space that allows for a more positive future, (see below, under artistic/imaginative responses)
A few general ideas are listed below, followed by a bank of specific lesson plans.
It is always a good idea for children to start by verbally retelling the story to a partner, to ensure that they have the main points clear. Challenge them to retell the story in 6 sentences, without leaving out any of the important points.
Further work can be done by retelling:
- in pictures
- in drama
- as a newspaper article/TV report
- as diary entries
This work can then easily be followed up with comprehension questions, or with a grid comparing experiences of several refugees. It is important in this work to focus as much on the similarities as differences, both among the refugees and also to our own lives.
Where a journey is involved (as in Arjun's Story.) you can:
- follow the journey in an atlas
- record the journey on a map
- draw a line map with illustrations
You can investigate the country of origin. Good sources of information include:
- the internet
- Refugee Council books, particularly 'A Resource Book for Primary Schools', which includes background information sheets, likewise their series of dual language folk tales
- Wayland publish a series of books 'Threatened Cultures', including one about Kurds, and one about Tibetans. Other publishers may do something similar.
- children and their parents, particularly in celebrating the positive aspects of the culture, cooking etc.
- Straight dramatic representation of the story, useful for assembly presentations. Alberta's Story has a good structure for dramatisation.
- Presenting key parts of the story as a series of tableaux. Consider what each character might be feeling/thinking/saying at that point.
- 'Hot-seating': someone (usually the teacher until the children are familiar with this activity) takes the role of the person whose story is being told. Children can then ask questions relating to the experience. This can be a useful way of defusing difficult emotions if the story has been painful, or the children are younger.
- Circle Time: for younger children, a small doll can represent the refugee child, and the children can respond to questions suggested by the teacher, e.g. 'Sado has lost all her toys, how do you think she is feeling? Would anyone like to let her play with theirs?' (see also work with Persona dolls) Find out more.
- Set up a dramatic conflict to be resolved, e.g. deciding whether to leave the refugee camp and travel abroad. How much does it cost? What to take/leave behind? Who can go?
These approaches are useful if the emotional content of the testimonies is difficult.
- One part of the story can be chosen and illustrated in any artistic medium
- Write a letter as a sympathetic friend to the child in the testimony
- Continue their story, with a happy ending
- Write a poem: there is a useful bank of poems for use as models
- 'These sorts of things shouldn't happen to children'. Use this as a basis for work focusing on a fairer world, e.g. 'If I were President...'
- If the story is one of triumph, you can make a 'hero' poster celebrating the achievements, or a newspaper article.