The Peace School, located in the London Borough of Brent, is a voluntary, community-based complementary school which teaches Arabic and Islamic Studies to students both from an Arabic speaking and a non-Arabic speaking background. Our aim is to inspire a passion for Arabic language and culture in our students and to develop a sense of pride in a British-Arab bilingual identity. To this end we continually seek to make lessons engaging and relevant for our students so they see a connection to their personal lifeworlds and aspirations. Whilst preparing our students for GCSE and A level examinations in Arabic, our main concerns are much broader and relate to promoting moral behaviour and social justice in the world. A focus on critical and creative skills are seen as essential in achieving this and in preparing our young people as active citizens of Britain and the wider world.
Pedagogically we are always open to new ideas and this is how we first became interested in the Critical Connections: Multilingual Digital Storytelling Project led by researchers at Goldsmiths. I decided to introduce the idea to the intermediate level class I was teaching made up of Arabic background and non-Arabic background students. A crucial first step and an ongoing principle as we developed the project was negotiation with students. I wanted students to feel a sense of ownership of and responsibility for the project and to know that, as their teacher, I was putting my trust in them. Consultation with parents and gaining their support was also seen as very important. Responses from both students and parents were positive and so it was decided to devote one of two 90 minute Arabic lessons each Saturday to the project.
To give students an idea of what is meant by digital storytelling I began by showing examples of digital stories. I asked them to note positive and negative points and then to discuss in groups what makes a good digital story. The set of criteria arrived at through this process helped sharpen students’ awareness and has proved an important reference point in ongoing reviews of progress.
The broad theme set for the first year of the project was ‘Inside Out’. Ideas for how this could be approached were brainstormed and then discussed in groups. It took some time for concrete plans to be developed, however, and this made me aware of the need for a clearer structure and deadlines to support the process. In meetings at Goldsmiths with teachers from other schools in the project, this was found to be a common issue and led to thinking about pre-production, production and post-production phases in digital film-making and to the creation of a 10 stage framework, incorporated in Chapter 3 of the project’s Handbook for Teachers.
A further issue relates to use of digital media. Goldsmiths provided us with digital cameras and, together with the British Film Institute, training on various aspects of film-making and this has been very valuable. However, although the Peace School is run on the premises of a mainstream school, we have limited access to the school’s computers and no Internet connection. Some students have been able to bring their own laptops or iPads to school –However, much work has had to take place out of school in students’ homes and sometimes in my own home. A particular challenge has arisen with the editing stage. We have had some assistance from Goldsmiths and the BFI, but have often had to manage on our own and this has been frustrating and time-consuming at times. In order to maintain communication between students and myself during the week and in holidays, much use has been made of What’sApp. This has proved very helpful in providing practical and moral support as we have worked through the film-making process.
Two of the films created by students in the first year of the project were Profiteroles and Freeze. Both films were created by non-Arabic background students who having been reluctant to take part in the project at first, gradually came round to giving it a go as long as they could decide what their films would be about. Although planning for these films took place in school, most of the filming was carried out in students’ homes. Four girls involved in Profiteroles learnt how to use their basic Arabic to create a spoof cookery show. Knowing that their film would be viewed by a real audience, they were keen to make their film fun to watch and to ensure that their use of Arabic, including pronunciation, was as good as it could be. The second film ‘Freeze’, created by a 13 year old boy of Malaysian background with the help of his sister and classmate, tells the personal story of his passion for a popular form of street dance and includes a demonstration of some basic moves. The story is told in simple Arabic, through an interview format, with subtitles in English, and is interesting in the way in which Western youth culture is related to broader Muslim values.
I was struck by the time and effort students were prepared to devote to making their films. I was learning alongside my students and maintained regular communication with them by email and ‘What’s App’ between lessons. In contrast with routine lessons where I was dictating content and language, it was noticeable how in this project-based approach, students were playing a much more active role in shaping both what and how they were working. It was evident that vocabulary and grammar were being acquired for the purpose of genuine meaning-making and I noticed how this breathed life into the learning experience in a way that rarely happened in regular lessons. Indeed, such was the inspiration gained by students through creating their digital stories that one group spontaneously decided to create an extra film entitled ‘Reflections’ capturing what the experience had meant to them. The film was made in the school garden with comments written on posters, hanging from trees and swaying in the breeze. The comments were bold and heartfelt, full of new-found confidence and a sense of how they could use their talents to change the world. Attending the end of year films awards event students were proud to present their work, but were also strongly impressed by films made in other schools and excited to be part of a project reaching across the globe. The success of this first year made a strong impact on me, my colleagues and parents, and reinforced our commitment to future development of the project at the school.
Since that first year I have continued to include multilingual digital storytelling in the scheme of work for intermediate level classes I have been teaching. These have all been mixed classes and have included Arabic background and non-Arabic background learners. Two films inspired by the theme of Journeys and closely related to students’ personal experience
were Visit to Lebanon and Trip to Malaysia. The first of these was made by a student who had shown little interest in Arabic lessons, but whose attitude changed dramatically with the opportunity, drawing on photographs and short video clips he had taken, to create a film about his first visit to Lebanon to attend his uncle’s wedding. In common with teachers from other project schools I realised the powerful motivating effect that creating digital stories around personally significant events could have on students and on their learning of Arabic.
Also inspired by the theme of Journeys we decided in that same year to make a more substantial film on the life of the famous Arab explorer, Ibn Battuta, involving students from a number of classes as well as parents. Making this film brought to life the achievements of Ibn Battuta in the context of the time in a way that engaged students far more than answering questions on a passage in a textbook would have. It involved them in Internet research on the route followed by Ibn Battuta and then in storyboarding and scripting a series of scenes to be acted out in the film. The work was of value for students linguistically and culturally and also fostered a strong cooperative ethos which had been an important aim for me. We were delighted to be able to share our work with our partner school in Algeria Lycée Moulay Hasen (Oran) and to compare it with a film made by a class studying English there on the famous British explorer, Captain James Cook.
In following years students worked around themes of Fairness and Belonging. In relation to Fairness, the film ‘Fairness Across Time’ took a historical perspective on the subject drawing on work students were doing in their mainstream schools on North American Indians and Black History. They used green screen to recreate scenes (a) showing violence towards North American Indians by white invaders (b) portraying the Civil Rights Movement and the life of Martin Luther King. The film ends with students’ own reflections on racism. A film made on the theme of Belonging was ‘Jobs’. The story showed how selfishness and not having a job can lead to social separation and ultimately to crime. Work on these two films demonstrated how multilingual digital storytelling could go beyond language-and-culture learning and provide an opportunity for students to make their voices heard on issues of social justice, in other words putting active citizenship into practice.
In recent years the Critical Connections project has been extended to explore how interactions around museum objects including art works can provide a stimulus for students’ own creativity including through digital storytelling. We have been fortunate in being able to focus on the work of artist, Ali Omar Ermes, several of whose works are housed in the British Museum and colleagues Luma Hameed, Reem Abdelhadi, Jim Anderson and I have created a practical Resource based on this. Ermes’ work foregrounds Arabic letter shapes and short words incorporating extracts from Middle Eastern poetry over the centuries and this fusion of language and art provides a rich and stimulating context for Arabic language-and-culture learning. A number of units from the Resource have now been trialled at the Peace School and have led to the creation of a range of digital stories. A report on the unit ‘La, Kalla, Wa Lan’ (‘No. Not, Not Ever’) describes how the unit was taught and includes comments from students as well as a link to the digital story created. To guide other teachers in making effective use of the Resource, Qatar Foundation International funded a professional development programme in London, Leeds and Birmingham led by our team. Related materials are available on the QFI website (Resources for teachers).
Looking back over the past seven years, I can say that the Critical Connections: Multilingual Digital Storytelling Project has had a big impact on my students, my school and myself. As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, a major challenge for schools operating in the complementary sector is engaging students particularly those in their teens. Involvement in this project has led to a positive shift in students’ attitudes with corresponding benefits for language-and-culture learning. This is because creating and sharing of multilingual digital stories has provided a relevant, challenging and exciting context for language learning. The opportunity to create stories related to their own lifeworlds, interests and concerns, rather than prescribed textbook topics, has been important for students. The use of digital media and the sharing of work with a global audience has also held considerable appeal. Encouraging student ownership, collaboration and responsibility through the project has empowered students and given them the confidence to make their bilingual voices heard. As we have developed our multilingual digital storytelling work, so parental support and involvement has grown also. Multilingual digital storytelling is embedded in the school’s scheme of work and steps are being taken to involve more teachers in this work.
We are always keen to share our work with others and the recognition we have gained through various awards, including British Academy and European Language Label Awards, has assisted us in doing this.
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