An example of how we showed gratitude in one of my classes is the following Service-Learning activity I did with third-year bachelor’s students in a CLIL’ed Political Science ESP course.
To start the activity, I shared a picture I had found on social media of African students from Sumy State University, in north-eastern Ukraine, close to the Russian border. Forced to flee the fighting, they joined the flow of migrants moving slowly from Sumy to Kiev, then to L’viv in the west of the country, after that across the Polish border into the European Union, and eventually to Belgium.
These students were treated in a racist way all along their peregrination from East to West: they were the last permitted to board already overcrowded trains and had to stand in a different line waiting to cross the border into Poland. In Belgium, they were not allowed to apply for residence, work, and housing permits at the Brussels Heysel complex, but, instead, were sent to Petit Château, a refugee shelter in the city centre, to apply for asylum, which they did not want. They did not want to be treated like “second-class refugees.”
In class, I asked my students to debate and write about this issue, which had been under-reported, remaining under the radar of mainstream media outlets. After the debate, I asked them how they felt. Most of them said they were shocked. However, one student, a mixed-race girl with Congolese roots, said she was not shocked but disappointed. She explained her father had experienced similar double standards when he had tried to settle in Belgium 30 years ago, and her uncle had undergone the same plight ten years later. This was history repeating itself, hence her disappointment. Another student pointed out that it was the hidden face of racism in Europe, which had been compounded by the 2015 migration crisis.
The students asked how to translate the French expressions “deux poids et deux mesures” and “appeler un chat un chat” into English. “Double standards” and “to call a spade a spade” became the students’ additions to our scaffolded list of targeted ESP vocabulary items, one of the ways of promoting Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in language classes.
I then organized a role play, in threes, with one student taking on the role of a border guard, the second the role of a Ukrainian refugee, and the third that of an African student. The students were encouraged to use the scaffolded ESP words. Drama helps to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world. Combining drama and CLIL, moreover, is relevant to contemporary education, as the forces of global change present challenges, also in the language classroom.
My transdisciplinary approach had taken our classroom to the real world, with the learners deconstructing the (artificial) boundary between the former and the latter. Noticing a so-called “transformative moment” had occurred in my students (as well as myself), we decided to take things beyond this girl’s poignant anecdote. We therefore organized a Service-Learning activity: I met up with a few student volunteers in front of the Brussels Petit Château refugee shelter, to help a charitable organization distribute tea, coffee, and sandwiches to asylum seekers standing in line waiting to have their asylum applications processed. The exchanges with the asylum seekers were done mainly in L2, in English.
In a debrief, the students involved reported that they had appreciated the link to the outside world. We all (the teacher included) expressed our gratitude to the student with Congolese roots, who had triggered this transformative moment in her fellow learners.