A place to belong: drawing on deep experiences to promote learning

Issue: Volume 95, Number 11

Posted: 20 June 2016
Reference #: 1H9d2S

A collaborative project that brought together musicians, artists, recent refugees and the Island Bay community began with the simple question: ‘What is home?’

What does it mean to truly belong somewhere?

Children at Island Bay School in Wellington explored the ideas of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ earlier this year through their collaborative project ‘What is home?’

This initiative invited the year 3–4 students to make artwork after hearing moving and true stories of life in pre-war Syria and the journey to a new life in New Zealand.

Five stories, 119 vibrant paintings, and one exhibition later, the project has allowed the children to let their empathy and creativity flow in the classroom.

Deanne Daysh is a year 3–4 teacher at Island Bay School. Her class, together with four other classes in her syndicate, took part in the project.

It began when Michel Alkhouri of the Make Foundation approached Island Bay School principal Perry Rush to ask whether any of the syndicates might be interested in doing a project with them about Syrian refugees.

“We were very excited to take part,” says Deanne.

Storytelling and stringed instruments


Make Foundation arranged for a number of resources to be brought into the class to support the project.

The first was a video clip featuring Naia Alkhouri, daughter of Make Foundation founders Michelle and Michel.

In the video, Naia performs a song she composed herself about leaving her home in Syria, to the backdrop of images of Damascus.

“That video was our ‘tuning-in’ exercise – our starter for the project,” says Deanne. “The children were hooked straight away by both the music and the imagery.”

Next, a group of five refugees, including a five-year-old boy and two teenagers, visited the syndicate and told their stories about how they left their home – one story for each of the five classes.

“Working collaboratively, each class interpreted their story and rewrote it from what they remembered,” explains Deanne.

The children were free to adapt the story creatively – for example, one class retold the story as pandas having to leave their forest home.

The Make Foundation arranged for a musician to come in – she played music on her electric violin, to recreate the emotions and moods of each story.

“Together, we talked about how our storyteller might have felt when he had to leave his home behind. The children came up with ideas and feelings for each stage of the story,” says Deanne.

“We got all the words coming out, and we put them all in the story."

“This kind of creative work – interpreting stories and songs into art – doesn’t happen often in the classroom, as much as we’d like it to. But to use music like this to express our feelings and empathise with other people’s experiences and feelings – it’s very powerful and moving,” she says.

Pastels and paints

Each student was assigned a paragraph of their class-created story, and they went on to create an artwork from that particular element.

Local artists visited to conduct workshops on using special painting techniques. These were employed by the students to create large-scale artworks on paper, with pastel and paint as media.

“The children were incredibly motivated and excited to make the artwork,” says Deanne

“We researched Syrian buildings and towns so the students got an idea of what the houses would look like, then they had to change them – we had planes flying overhead, and bombs dropping down to destroy the houses and cities.”

The boy who had told his story to Deanne’s class had spoken of the toys he left behind – in particular, a yellow car and a red car. These toys were in turn represented in the children’s paintings.

The classes also did roleplaying to explore the idea of leaving home.

“We set up roleplaying scenarios where the children had to imagine they only had five minutes to pack their bag before leaving home – what would they put in their school bags? How would they decide what they would need to take? What are their most important belongings?"

“This was something that really engaged them – it really hit home.”

Art as a medium

Deanne says the art project was a wonderful way to explore troubling concepts such as war and suffering in the primary classroom, in that it allowed her students to listen to real-life stories and interpret them in an empathetic manner.

“As a middle-years teacher, I really liked approaching this big topic, in a non-controversial way, through storytelling, roleplaying and art-making.”

“These stories are out there – our students know that war is happening and there are refugees. But this was a safe, caring way to talk about what is happening and we kept bringing it back to the idea of ‘home’ and ‘family’, because they are concepts these children understand and can relate to from their own experience.”

The project in its entirety had multiple curriculum links – through the music (both listening and performing), through the story-telling and writing, and creating art independently and in groups. It also linked to the Key Competency: Relating to Others.

Sharing the stories

Deanne says the project made an equally big impact in the school community. She received feedback from parents about how much the children were thinking about the work they had been doing in class.

“I had a number of parents come to me during this project and say ‘my child has been at school for three years, and this is the first project they’ve wanted to talk about with us at home’." 

“Not only were they enthused and engaged with the work in the classroom, there was the motivation to have those talks and discussions with their whānau.”

The ‘What is home?’ project was completed with a special event for the wider Wellington community.

The students’ paintings were exhibited in the Island Bay School hall, and pieces of music were performed for those gathered.

“One of the really wonderful things was the way we were able to celebrate what we had learned with our school community,” says Deanne.

“The parents were able to come and look at the work the students had done. We had over 300 people come that evening – there was a great vibe.”

Make Foundation co-founder Michelle says it was heartening to be able to share the work with the wider school community.

“It was pretty special hearing from parents how enthused the children were about the project and how much they were sharing about it at home."

“That enthusiasm was evident at the exhibition when parents, siblings and friends turned out en masse to see their work. The Syrian storytellers and other members of the Syrian community came to the exhibition too and they were deeply moved by the children’s work and its integrity,” she says.

A book is being planned that will showcase the stories and artworks. Proceeds from these books will help fund a music project in Lebanon for Syrian refugee children.

Make Foundation

Make Foundation is a registered charity working to bring music, technology and art projects to refugee communities displaced by Syria’s civil war.

On its website, the foundation writes its vision is ‘that the voices of displaced Syrian children soar to possibilities beyond their current struggle.’

Co-founded by Michelle Carlile-Alkhouri and Michel Alkhouri in 2015, the organisation aims to link children with international issues.

Michelle says the organisation grew from a desire to do something constructive for those whose lives and homes have been destroyed by the Syrian civil war.

“Through our creative projects we raise awareness about the hardships suffered by this displaced community. We also promote values of empathy, compassion and collaboration between our participants,” she says.

You can find Naia Alkhouri’s song 'I know a place' on the Make Foundation's website(external link) 

BY Melissa Wastney
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 10:02 PM, 20 June 2016

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