Archive for the ‘transition’ Tag

Journeys to Australia

When I started my residency at the English Language School (back in 2005) my first projects were focused on journeys, and the stories and music that the students had brought with them from their countries of origin. Their teachers and I wanted to encourage them to speak about their experiences, and recognise what they had in common with each other.

I’ve just uploaded some of these projects to my Soundcloud account – please have a listen and add your comments!

Some projects focused on vocabulary for transport and modes of travel…


some demonstrated the range of countries the children come from,


and all of them involved every child speaking on their own about their experiences and being recorded (a great oral language outcome). At the end of each project the children were given a CD recording of their stories and music – I liked to think that they would find this CD in a few years time, listen to it, and recognise how far they’d come in their transition journey.


Getting ready to leave

We are at the end of term, and at the Language School where I lead music workshops each week, students are preparing to leave. Some will return again in Term 4, but others will be moving on to new schools, scattered across all parts of Melbourne.

You see, the Language School is a transitional school – students enrol for between 6 months and a year (generally children from refugee backgrounds are eligible to stay for a year) before moving on to mainstream school. For some children, Language School is the only school they have ever known, and they thrive in this environment that is geared towards bringing out the best in them. For many, it represents a place of kindness, encouragement and stability when the rest of their world is in a state of flux and stress. In addition to teaching English, Language Schools in Victoria are also helping students learn how school in Australia works, and aim to give them a positive and successful experience of school-based learning.

It’s a time of mixed emotions. There is much to celebrate in their achievements – these students have learned so much and have made great headway during their months at this school. They are ready to move on. However, it is a sad or anxious time for some of the students, reluctant to leave a place where they have been happy and have thrived.

I can see this playing out in some of my students at the moment. Two girls in Middle Primary have, in the last few weeks, regressed. They need more assistance and reassurance, and sometimes get things wrong that we know they know very well.

“They don’t want to leave,” their class teacher told me. “So they are starting to do some things badly, or to make mistakes, as a way to prove they need to stay.”

Years ago, in my first project in a Language School, I remember a student in secondary school explaining her anxiety this way:

“Here, I have friends, I am confident, I am a leader. But when I go to the new school I won’t know anyone, and I will feel shy and scared again. I’m going to lose everything all over again, and be right back at the bottom of the pile.”

Our songs this term are about houses and homes. The children are singing about their previous homes, and their lives there, and also about their new homes in Australia. Resettlement is an enormous, stressful undertaking for a child, in which they get very little say. They spend years in this state of transition.

“You are wonderful,” I tell the students in music class each week. “You’ve done so well. You’ve worked so hard and learned so much, and you are strong and brave. It’s hard to change schools again, but I know you’re going to be okay.”

And they look down at their laps, or away, and consider this.

“What would you do if…?”

The above heading is the way I started some questions in my recent interviews with newly-arrived students (10-13 years of age) for my Masters research project. They are hypothetical questions, asking the students to tell me what they would do if they were the music teacher, or if they could play any instrument they wanted, or other suggestions along these lines. The idea is that they answers will give me further insights into the way they perceive the music program – in terms of what is already taking place, what they most engage with, what they perhaps miss about music in their home country, etc.

However, none of the three students I interviewed responded to these hypothetical questions very comfortably. Before I started my research, I had discussed my interview questions with the principal, and she had said that she thought the hypothetical questions would be difficult for the students. I thought a lot about how I would present the questions, but knew that I wanted to be able to ask them, just in case I got some rich, informative responses. But I was wrong, the questions were difficult for the students to answer, so yesterday I chatted with some of the class teachers about why this might be.

One suggested that language was the problem. Continue reading

Emergent themes…

Yesterday I finished transcribing the last of my research interviews. Transcribing is a slow task, but I have to say I found it very interesting. I felt like the period of time in which I did all of my interviews was somewhat rushed. I’d like to have had a bit more time between each interview to consider the children’s responses, and adjust my next set of questions accordingly. However, the end of term was approaching, the delays on ethics approval had eaten away much of my time, and I needed to get them done within a short window of opportunity.

Therefore, it is during these transcription tasks that I get to reflect more thoroughly on the kinds of themes that are emerging.

(A quick summary – my research is a set of case studies of three newly-arrived students at the English Language School where I am the resident workshop artist, and their perceptions of the music program. I am interested in what they make of the program, what they feel they get from their participation in it, and why they think it is part of the school program. I am also curious to draw some conclusions as to how their experience of transition (between schools, cultures, and languages) may impact on their perceptions of learning music.)

I haven’t yet started a more formal analysis yet, but just in these early days of considering their responses, I am finding that:

  • The three students were all very aware of the kinds of tasks we did in music, and the demands these tasks placed upon them, in terms of what they had to focus on, and where the challenges were;
  • Music held a lot of pleasure for them – it is something they look forward to each week. They each talked about playing instruments, writing music, having fun and relaxing. One girl said, “Music brings people together”.
  • The participatory nature of the music classes is new for them, and they appreciate this. For many of the students, their prior experiences of school have been more teacher-directed.
  • The quality and seriousness of what they are learning, and what they are composing, is evident to them, and they feel proud of this.

I am also developing new questions, which are broader in scope, looking at the whole issue of transition for children of this age (10-14 years) – how appropriate is the question that I am asking? How much do children – of any background, and even stable schooling situations – question and/or articulate perceptions of what happens in school? How can you elicit responses from students, even with the help of an interpreter, who are in such a time of tumultuous, unpredictable change? If we were to wait a few years, to give their language and cognitive skills time to develop further, how much detail would they be able to recall about this particular time in their lives, and what they thought about things?

I am finding this larger questions equally interesting. It is something about the effect of transition on how we perceive everything. I think. I have a strong sense that these students have landed in such an alien, foreign place that their first big learning step is just to be open to all these new experiences, to make sense of them as best they can, and accept them for what they are. I don’t think they often feel very confident that what they are making of something is actually what is going on. Their way of figuring it out is more like survival skills – to work out what they know, and leave the rest to later.

Therefore, in trying to work out what they perceive of the music program, I have to place everything that they tell me in that context of them not really feeling like they know anything. Not yet.

Does this make sense to anyone reading it? Can you recommend further reading that describes this kind of transition mindset? I need to dig in further… these are my earliest thoughts.