Family history in perspective

8th September 2006 at 01:00
A primary school project aimed at promoting cultural tolerance and integration has been a community success, writes Su Clark

Hearing a girl and her grandmother on the bus discussing the migration history of the girl's father was a gratifying moment for Tessa Humby, an early years principal teacher in Edinburgh. She had wanted her project at Bruntsfield Primary to cause a buzz and the short journey up Lothian Road proved it had.

It began as a small-scale project to show that all cultures were valued and to help pupils understand why people migrate, but the Moving Stories project soon took on a life of its own. By this summer, two years after it was first mooted, it had generated a language tree, a beautiful book, several huge tapestries and a series on BBC Radio Scotland, and there is talk about an exhibition touring museums. It had also helped to build a greater sense of community within the school.

"We were looking for a way to cross the barriers that sometimes exist, be it language or cultural, and to give parents the confidence to come into the school," explains Mrs Humby, who works in the English as an additional language department at Edinburgh City Council.

"It began with creating a language tree along the same lines as one at Preston Street Primary, but we wanted to reinvent it as our own, so we decided to look at migration. It meant all the children, not just the bilingual ones, could research migration stories within their families."

The results are interesting and often moving. Dorothea (no surname is given in the book) was born in Berlin in 1924 and in 1935 fled Nazi Germany because her family was half Jewish. Frances Lubetsky was the youngest of five children in a poor Jewish family living in a part of Romania where Jews were persecuted. While she was still young, they escaped and came to Britain.

Diane Shearsmith lived in Thurso in a cramped, dark house without running water or electricity. She moved to England and began working as a maid.

Other stories from the children show the emotional side of migration. "When we finally got there, I felt alone because I had no friends and I couldn't understand what they were saying," reads one excerpt. "Very soon it felt like a home from home, I could understand the language and I knew the local customs. I made lots of friends and I taught them the Finnish swear words!"

"It has helped the children identify as a group together," says Mrs Humby.

"One boy said he wanted the others in his class to know his story so they would know him better."

The school also ran a patchwork project, where the children designed and made squares that represented the journeys taken to bring them to Edinburgh. Parents were asked to get involved with the designs and at a school open day the children and parents joined together to make the squares. They were sewn together as huge banners that hang proudly in the main hall.

The parents also got involved in producing the book, with the parent teacher association securing pound;5,000 towards the costs. The designer and photographer, Tim and Angus Bremer, worked for a reduced rate and sales of the book have also helped to cover the costs, says Mrs Humby. "Jane Berry, the other EAL teacher who helped to lead the project, and I did end up giving it quite a lot of our spare time, but it was worth it."

Shortly before publication, the children were invited to air their stories on BBC Radio Scotland. A producer came to the school and interviewed several, who were featured in three half-hour programmes in June.

The school plans to sustain the project by developing a database that can be used as a school record and resource.

The greatest outcome, however, has been the cohesion it has brought to those involved. It has engaged the parents and gone a long way to achieving one of the key aims of promoting inclusion, tolerance and equality.

"It brought the children pride in where they all came from and created an interest in each other's stories," says Mrs Humby. "That is a very positive result."

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