Sitting in a conference room at the Great Roots Resort in Taipei for the Fulbright Taiwan 2016-17 Midyear Conference this past January, I – along with dozens of other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) – listened to words of advice from the Executive Director of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (FSE), Fulbright Taiwan, Dr. William Vocke. He prompted us to pause and reflect on the impact we wanted to have in our students’ lives before leaving Taiwan, and urged us to make that a reality during our second semester teaching English at our respective elementary schools.
With this in mind, prior to my second semester teaching, I decided that my contribution would be to teach my 5th and 6th grade students at Huludun Elementary School in Taichung City about one of the most urgent humanitarian crises of our time: the Syrian refugee crisis. I was inspired to bring this issue into the classroom after attending a workshop in February about social justice education led by FSE TEFL Trainer, “Elie” Ching-Yen Yu.
Bringing this topic into the classroom was truly a collaborative effort that relied upon the support and creative energy of many, including my co-teacher at Huludun Elementary School, “Sarah” Feng-Ping Hsu, my Fulbright Advisor, Dr. Min-Hsun Liao, and Huludun Elementary School’s administration. When Sarah and I decided to teach about this topic, we had no idea that it would turn into a four-week-long lesson in which students sent handwritten letters to Syrian refugee children, enable us to present at a conference at the National Taichung University of Education, receive media coverage from DaAi TV and United Daily News, and even be slated for integration into the Ministry of Education of Taiwan’s primary school curriculum!
Throughout our four-week lesson plan, our student learning objectives centered on both language development and character building with an emphasis on cooperative and hands-on learning. We defined our learning objectives as follows: students will be able to (a) define what it means to be a refugee, (b) understand basic information about the Syrian refugee crisis, (c) explore the experience of Syrian refugees through photographs and readings, (d) demonstrate an understanding of human rights with regard to refugees, and (e) develop and communicate empathy through writing letters to refugees.
So how did we introduce this issue to our students in a way that was in equal measure kid-friendly, accessible, and appropriate for the ESL classroom? First, we opened our four-week lesson plan by prompting students to write down three birthday wishes on sticky notes. Then, the sound of an air raid filled the classroom as Sarah and I explained that there was an “emergency evacuation” and students had only three minutes to choose five items to bring with them to flee the country. Students eagerly wrote their items on sticky notes, and then categorized them onto posters in small groups. We led group discussions and showed a powerful video that begins and ends with two dramatically different birthday celebrations as a young girl and her family are forced to flee their home country. Then, we transitioned into our introduction to Syria and the refugee crisis.
Part two of our lesson, “Syrian Refugees’ Stories,” continued with the theme of questioning the value of material items, as we shared real stories in which Syrian refugees reveal which items they brought with them as they fled their homes. Afterwards, we showed a sequel to the video from part one and led group discussions once more. We concluded part two by asking the students to consider revising their birthday wishes. Some students changed their birthday wishes from items like “iPhone 7” and “computer” to wishes for “peace” and “family happiness.”
In part three, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid,” we focused on the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis. We introduced the 30 articles in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and led a small group activity in which students identified the human rights they felt would be particularly important to refugees. Then, we discussed how Taiwan and the U.S. have responded to the crisis.
Above: Students read articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in groups and identify which ones they believe are particularly important for refugees.
In part four, “How Can We Help?,” we revealed that students would have the opportunity to send handwritten letters to Syrian refugee children through the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Operation Refugee Child (ORC). Launched in 2015 by a group of five mothers in California, ORC distributes backpacks with supplies to refugee children and families via an “international network of volunteers and local NGOs” in the U.S., Middle East, and Europe.
I explained that I reached out to ORC to my students and that their letters would be sent in ORC backpacks to Syrian refugee children. The students were both stunned and thrilled about the assignment, and Sarah and I were equally floored and heartened by the students’ display of enthusiasm, energy, and empathy as they wrote heartfelt messages of support, voluntarily donated small gifts such as bracelets and stationary, and impressed us with their written English proficiency. Sarah and I spent countless hours helping the students revise their letters, photographing our (many) classes, with their letters, and scanning copies of the letters as keepsakes.
See below for pictures of our students' beautiful handwritten letters and gifts:
When reporters from DaAi TV and United Daily News came to cover our story, some of our students were interviewed and asked to share what they had written in their letters and what they learned from our lesson. This was a proud moment for both of us, and we had tears in our eyes when we heard our students’ precocious sentiments and reflections from our lesson plan.
Sarah and I were also fortunate enough to have been invited to speak at the National Taichung University of Education's 2017 Conference on English Language Instruction (106年5月6日英語文教學研討會海報) on May 6th. We shared our 4-week lesson plan on the Syrian refugee crisis that we taught to our 5th and 6th grade classes to an audience comprised of professors, university students, and Ministry of Education officials. We were humbled and energized by the positive reaction from the audience. (There were even some audience members with tears in their eyes when we showed pictures of our students' letters!) An official from the Ministry of Education (MOE) also was in attendance, and he invited us to share our lesson plan to other Ministry of Education officials in Taipei. Sarah and I did in fact pitch our lesson plan to the MOE this month, and I am thrilled to announce that our lesson plan was approved for acceptance into Taiwan's curriculum for elementary school teachers! Our lesson plan will be published on the MOE website, along with detailed information about our sources, lesson plan materials, learning objectives, and more. We are still in the process of refining our materials for this purpose, but it is an exciting process!
Never in my wildest imagination did I anticipate the “ripple effect” that would ensue from this four-week-long lesson. This has undoubtedly been the most memorable and enriching experience I had during my stint teaching English as a Fulbright ETA in Taiwan. I know the none of this would've been possible without the help of my brilliant and tireless co-teacher, "Sarah" (Fengping Hsu). I am so grateful for her friendship, humor, and creative energy.
All in all, this experience has taught me to never underestimate my students, the value of integrating lessons about respect, human rights, and social injustices in the classroom, and the importance of inspiring students to become social change agents in their communities and the world at large.