Children educate teachers with their testimonies from war zones

Fatima, a nine-year-old Syrian refugee to Sweden, is featured in photojournalist Magnus Wennman’s documentary film Fatima’s Drawings. Magnus Wennman, Author provided

Children educate teachers with their testimonies from war zones

Fatima’s dream is recalled in a single sentence:

“Once I dreamed I fell from a ship and then I woke up… and was afraid.”

Fatima’s dream attests to a haunting reality that leaves her sleepless and afraid in waking life.

In the short documentary and animated film Fatima’s Drawings, award-winning photojournalist Magnus Wennman unravels Fatima’s story, attesting to her experience of war in Syria.

The film featuring Fatima’s dream and drawings, and my full story about it, is found online at Museum of Dreams. The site is curated by Sharon Sliwinski, associate professor in Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies. It provides a forum for what the late education researcher Roger Simon called “pedagogies of witnessing.” Fatima’s story is an example of this — of learning or being taught by what we feel, see and hear in testimony.

In the faculty of education at York University, with my colleagues Mario Di Paolantonio and Warren Crichlow, I work with emerging educators to investigate and support the idea that teaching, at its core, is not only about imparting knowledge. Rather, it is about a willingness to be vulnerable to, and taught and changed by, the lives we face.

Witnessing the lives of refugee children

A pedagogy of witnessing is particularly relevant in responding to children who have lived with and through war and trauma. Former UN Special Advisor Jennifer Welsh said in her 2016 Massey Lecture that the world is witnessing “forced displacement on a scale we have never seen before.” According to UNICEF, more than 31 million of these displaced people are children.

Refugee communities produce and articulate new forms of knowledge through witness and testimony, writes human rights scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge in Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees. Children’s testimony, in particular, compellingly articulates unknown and unheard versions of war. To Stonebridge, children are not only personally affected by war, they are tiny “historians of their age.”

I began to consider a pedagogy of witnessing 20 years ago at Queen’s University with educational sociologist Glenn Eastabrook in response to pressing questions that arose for us when we examined teachers’ fraught reception of newcomer children.

Our report was never published because, at the time, the findings were too controversial: we found Ontario teachers ill-equipped to respond to situations of war-affected children from Somalia. We found part of teachers’ difficulties responding to war-impacted children stemmed from their unfamiliarity with actual experiences of war — a lack of knowledge that cannot be addressed by policy and training.

Some of the problems we chronicled are still inadequately addressed in schools, such as a lack of culturally responsive teaching, the persistent effects of trauma on learning and the capacity of schools to address achievement gaps based on race and income.

These issues necessitate policy changes — for example, changes in curriculum — to effectively animate classroom spaces where newcomer and refugee children can belong and thrive. They also require of teachers a personal and professional mindset shift. Teachers must develop capacities to acknowledge and respond to the students they encounter, to be open to learning anew and to adapt their wider practices as a result.

Schools and teachers need to learn more about responsive forms of knowledge. Some examples of responsive knowledge would be, for example, paying attention not only to what children say, but to visual cues offered through their unique expression, body language and drawings.

Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity

After my research at Queen’s, I encountered children devastated by mass migration and war in my elementary school classroom. As I recount in my book Literacy of the Other: Renarrating Humanity, both my education and conventional teacher education did not prepare me to teach them.

In the case of one student from a war-torn country who drifted aimlessly in the classroom, I realized I had to provide him with a forum to hear what he called “ghosts haunting me” in order to learn how to reach him.

From him, I learned of a historical conflict I knew nothing about, one in which his life was caught. His efforts to testify to his lived experiences continue to guide my research on how teachers engage with children’s expressions of mass violence, degradation and war.

What children know

Resources such as the Museum of Dreams are critical to helping emerging educators consider what aesthetic, historical and cultural knowledge is needed for teachers to acknowledge the conflicts, events and circumstances that shape young lives.

I Dream of Peace.

Children’s testimony speaks and can teach adults to hear the hardest of truths: children do know war is happening to them and their worlds. So insists children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak in the preface to I Dream of Peace, a collection of visual testimonies given by children living through the Yugoslavian war.

The visual testimony offered by Fatima, through her drawings, came to life after Wennman met her when he was photographing children for a project about refugees in Europe and the Middle East.

The film Fatima’s Drawings follows the girl’s memory of war, where ordinary children are born and raised in hostile conditions of adult carnage and cruelty.

Fatima’s Drawings.

Nine-year-old Fatima illustrates the family’s harrowing flight from Idlib by foot and boat. She reports on what happens at sea as any seasoned historian might:

“There was a mother who gave birth to a baby.”

Fatima draws, in the middle of the boat, a figure of a man holding a baby. At the edge of the drawing, another man stands over the baby near the side of the boat. “A boy or a girl,” Fatima wonders. “I don’t know.”

“I watched as two men threw the baby into the sea. It was the first time I saw something like that. It was not good. I do not like the sea.”

What we learn from Fatima’s testimony is her unthinkable witness: a baby tossed to the sea.

War does not leave Fatima even when she reaches safety. Although she finds her new home in “beautiful” Sweden, Fatima cannot stop dreaming of war.

When our educational systems are not prepared to consider the horrific events children witness and continue to live, children’s knowledge goes unheard. Hearing children deepens teachers’ capacities to support and respond to children before, during and in the aftermath of war.