Wonderings after a visit to a class for immigration students

The other day my Master’s class of multi-everythingers (multi race, multi language, multi discipline, multi idea etc etc) got the chance to visit another class of multi-everythingers. I would say that I probably left with more questions than answers, but I don’t mean that like it’s a bad thing.

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The school we visited with a heating factory in the background

We had a lot in common us and them: they had also moved to Finland quite recently, they were also trying to get to grips with Finnish education system and they were also having to find themselves in this new and foreign environment, This other class was bit different to us in other respects: they were all young teenagers, most of them could already speak better Finnish than many of us could ever hope to and they were immigrants. Their stories for why they came to Finland were all different: Some were asylum seekers, some were refugees, some had immigrated with their families, the list continues.

Even as a class 10, they are not a uniform bunch. Some have been to school most of their life, some have been to school a bit and some have never been to school. The aim of the class is to get each immigrant student up to the level of a grade 8 or 9 mainstream Finnish student in about a year or two. This means content wise and “culturally” (which would mean how to interact with other students, teachers, exams, tests, homework, goals etc). So really it is a time of curriculum catch up, socialisation and they are learning to communicate and read in Finnish.

Because of the varied starting points of each learner, they all have individual study plans. The study plans are worked out between the teacher and the parents (if there are parents). This means that in a way, the teacher could be teaching 10 different lessons for each part of the day. This requires the teacher’s full attention and pedagogic knowledge because she cannot teach ten different lessons at the same time. So how does she do it? She gave us an example, when she is teaching history to some of the students, she is teaching Finnish to the others.Vocabulary is written up on the board, in History, the past tense would be used often and so the lesson becomes a Finnish language lesson too.

Along with their personal study plan and an attentive teacher, each learner has the books and textbooks they need so that they can self study so that teaching is not only teacher based, but some times, teacher facilitated. I think the textbooks I saw were all in Finnish (I could be wrong) so you can see how language learning would be a priority over content for the beginning. They also have the right to learn their mother tongue (if a teacher can be found) and attend instruction on their community’s religious beliefs. They are encouraged to “keep and grow their cultural heritage”.

The teacher and the class are aided by two teacher’s assistants and a “cultural master”, the latter’s role was not too clear to me – well, how she differed to the teacher’s assistants.They are not all in the classroom at the same time, so generally their are minimum two adults in the class of ten for most of the time.

We had the chance (us the group of 25 adults)  to sit in their classroom and chat with the teacher and the class (of 10 young teenagers) asking about how their schooling worked. In the classroom and as some of them followed us around on our tour of the school, they repeatedly told us how safe and happy they felt in the class. How they felt valued and seen for all the right reasons.

For me, it was this feeling of safety in the class that made me start to wonder… what is the situation for immigrants in Finland? Do they normally feel unsafe? Do they normally feel like they stand out? That people judge them negatively by their outward appearances? I also questioned this idea of holding on to one’s culture. I can see where they are coming from with this, but I wonder if this is can also be viewed as a way of cementing otherness. A way of saying you will never be us. You are essentially different and will forever be foreign. So, on the one hand these special classes hold all the keys to the much envied Finnish education but on the other, they deny them inclusion into “Finnish” society. Please do not assume from this what I am not saying: I’m not suggesting that all immigrants should be stripped of their “culture” and beliefs and be force fed Finnish “culture”. I am just wondering.

And then other questions about South Africa surfaced: Do we have anything like this? First of all, our naming in day to day language of immigrants is different: all non-South Africans are “foreigners”. People from DRC are labeled “refugees” regards of their reason for coming to South Africa. As for other foreigners, we will label them by their country (Malawian, Zimbabwean, German, Nigerian, British, etc) and those have certain stereotypes. In this, we too deny them complete entry into our “welcoming, rainbow nation”. Maybe in our relentless striving for nationhood, we have createa very strong “not South African”.

I’m pretty sure that we do not have “special” education for the children of these foreigners, or if the children themselves  are the foreigners because they have come into the country alone. Perhaps this is easier to see in cities closer to the boarders? In Cape Town, some immigrants go to the “foreign” private schools: the German School, the French School, the American School while others, no matter their language go into the mainstream public education system. I’m guessing it’s a sink or swim mentality towards these learners because that is what most of the school children in South Africa have to do anyways.

Today, in another class, we were cautioned to not take the Finnish model and try replicate it in other places, especially because the entire Finnish population is about the size of only a medium sized city. True. but is the “immigrant child” something we consider in our educational planning?

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