Settling in a new country

7th March 2008 at 00:00
A year and a half after she came from Poland with almost no English, the experiences of a now fluent teenager have been turned into a film to help schools support immigrants

The two 6-year-olds' eyes light up when Dominika comes into the room and jokes with them in Polish.

When Dominika Srebrzynska, 13, arrived at Inverurie Academy, she had very few words of English. Now, a year and half later, she speaks fluently and her academic performance is impressive.

Every week, the second-year pupil visits nearby Kellands Primary and buddies P2 pupils Klaudiusz Data and Agatha MacKowska, who also came from Poland and are having to learn a new language in a different culture.

"Dominika was able to help settle the children, make them feel secure and safe and understood by someone who could speak their language. It helps Dominika's English too when she comes here," says Colin McLean, the headteacher.

Dominika arrived in Scotland with her parents just before starting secondary school. "I think they came here because of me, for a better future," she says. Before coming, the only thing Scottish she had heard about was the Loch Ness monster.

"It was very hard and scary at first," Dominika admits. But with support from new teachers and classmates, school in Scotland turned out to be less monstrous than she had feared.

"It's great. It's better than Poland. We haven't got so much homework," she laughs.

Dominika's experiences have now been documented in an animated film in which she stars, alongside seven of her new Scottish friends. The film will be used as a teacher-training resource in Aberdeenshire to highlight a success story and share the impressions of the newcomer and her friends.

Her happy confidence is largely thanks to teachers such Jennifer Clark, the support for learning principal teacher at Inverurie Academy and former member of the English as an Additional Language working group in Aberdeenshire.

"Dominika was the school's first bilingual pupil. She came in first year 18 months ago and had no English at all," Mrs Clark explains. "She was assessed by the EAL service, but I felt my support team could meet her needs without any additional input from them, so we supported Dominika.

"In first year, she had four periods of supported study. She went to all the subjects, including French, which is very often the subject people take youngsters out of, if they are learning English. But research shows you should continue with as many languages as possible.

"She was getting the support that I would give to other youngsters coming in. Her English is now very, very good. And her French jotter in first year would probably have been, if not the best, among the best in the class.

"In second year she has a full timetable, except for one period a week. And over the two years, one of the other things she has done is act as a buddy for Polish primary children," says Mrs Clark.

Kellands Primary currently has six Polish children, who have been reassured by the presence of someone from their homeland. "We just treat her like a teaching assistant," Mr McLean smiles. "The children love having her in class. I think they see her as a big sister in some ways."

The short film about Dominika was made in collaboration with Peacock Visual Arts. Pupils who appear as cartoon characters with her also learned about the film-making process in workshops with Adam Proctor, the digital co-ordinator at Peacock.

"What the DVD highlights is how the school has supported Dominika and really, by immersing her in the life of the school, she's learned English in a context, with support round about that," Mrs Clark says.

The DVD is going out to all Aberdeenshire schools, along with new EAL guidelines to highlight the positive experiences of children such as Dominika.

"Part of the reason for doing this is that, very often, perceptions about children from abroad are that schools can't cope with them," says Doug Milne, the headteacher at Inverurie Academy.

"Now nobody is saying we don't need additional resources; of course we do. But, in actual fact, the real way to help children like Dominika settle into a new school and a new culture is to get them involved in the school as quickly as possible and not to see them as somebody who has to be withdrawn," Mr Milne says.

And her new Scottish friends have benefited from her presence. "I've learnt quite a lot about schools in Poland and about what it was like over there. It sounds a good place," says Emma Hobben, 13.

In the film, pupils talk about their response to Dominika's arrival. "I felt shy. I'd never met someone from another country before," says one. "I thought she might be a bit different, but she's not," says another.

"Now Dominika is the opposite of shy," a friend says. And having mastered English, she has been considering adding Spanish and German to her repertoire.

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