Here's what happened when I decided to talk about refugees with my students. I teach in Catalonia, a northern region of Spain with a strong sense of its own identity. Over the past couple of years, Catalonia has seen a growing movement for independence. You'll find people animatedly debating language, history and identity on every street corner and in every café. Meanwhile, a wider identity crisis has gripped Europe: what does the European Union stand for? How do we respond to world events? How can we create a future that works for everybody? All of this makes it impossible to teach textbook English and ignore the world outside. It's not just that my students are keen to discuss questions about their identity: they are actually living out these questions and conflicts every day.
So, last summer, I decided to plan a series of lessons about refugees, aimed at secondary school students. I wanted to give them space to explore their history, learn about the present, and think seriously about the future. And of course, they'd be polishing their English skills in the process. We started with the basics: vocabulary. I wanted my students to have the language to share their ideas with confidence. However, I quickly discovered that this was a challenge even for me. There's a bewildering array of terms out there: refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, migrants, immigrants, émigrés. Each word has a carefully defined legal meaning, but we tend to use them interchangeably in conversation, or according to our political views.
Next, I sent my students off to find information. Each small group was assigned a different "mystery name": Dadaab, Moria, New Kuchingoro, Calais Jungle. I asked my students to search online and find out what these places were. Who lives there? Why? How long have they been there? Are conditions good or bad? In most cases, my students were shocked by what they discovered. They had no idea that there were so many refugees in the world, they said. They didn't know the kind of living conditions that many refugees experienced. Most of all, they found it hard to believe that some people remained in refugee camps for years or even decades. However, not everybody reacted in the way I'd expected. One girl at the front of the class put up her hand, and asked: "Why are we learning about this? This isn't a Social Studies class - why should we discuss this in English?" Well, that's a good question.
What does an English language class have to do with the refugee crisis? As a teacher, I was thinking of - you guessed it - inclusivity. I believe that teaching a language isn't just about grammar and pronunciation and comprehension and all the rest of it. As teachers, we have a responsibility to give our students a cultural education. This ranges from the little things (British people love tea) to the big questions (how to value all languages and nationalities equally). My classes include an incredible variety of students. The majority of my students are Catalan and Spanish, but I meet more and more students who have arrived in Spain from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Sadly, I have frequently heard students use offensive words or make tasteless jokes about people they consider foreigners. Discussing the refugee crisis, I hoped, might help them empathize a little more with others.
But I knew that a theoretical discussion probably wouldn't have much effect. Instead, I wanted to approach the question more personally. Why should they care about refugees? Well - because we are all connected to refugees, sooner or later. I asked my students to think about their own history. How long had their families been living in Spain? If they were relatively new to the country, what had brought them here? If they had been in Spain for generations, how had they fared during the Civil War? Finally, I asked them to think about my own history. I move around working as a teacher: doesn't that make me an economic migrant? I've spent time in countries where the situation could become dangerous, on one occasion resulting in evacuation: doesn't that make me a refugee? I could feel the atmosphere in the classroom change as my students began to think this through.
Through the online research activity, they had learnt much more about the challenges that refugees face. Through the lively discussion that followed, they were starting to form their own responses and ideas. I can't show figures or statistics which measure an increase in inclusivity in my classroom. However, I do know that my students left class that day equipped with new knowledge and new ideas, ready to help them in the future as they wrestle with questions of identity, equality and values.