As a teacher-researcher, I am in the privileged position to conduct educational research right in my own classroom. In practice it means collecting data about an intercultural story exchange project I have been developing over the past three years. Empirical research (taking place in the “field”) is often messy and even more so when you’re juggling teacher AND researcher roles throughout a school day. It’s only when I sit down to really look at the data that I can do a silent happy dance – it feels good to push boundaries and generate new knowledge in the field.
In the intercultural story exchange, two classes in different countries connect by sending each other stories. Each time a new story is received is an opportunity to encounter the partner class through the medium of a story. The Storycrafting method (see my earlier post) is used to enable the children to have free choice in the exchange. When a new story is received, I tell my students to draw a picture. This has become a way for me as the researcher to collect the children’s responses to the partner class’s story, and it’s also nice to send the pictures back to the partner class so that the children there know their story has been heard.
When data has been collected, it needs to be analysed. This is a tricky business when the research participants are children, but the researcher is an adult. To what extent can I know what a child intended by a story? How much can I impose my (adult-centric, research-trained) views on the data? Such is the nature of being a subjective researcher, not to mention being a participant of the research too. Ethically I need to strive for transparency and clarity regarding my own position. Although this is a challenging process, it does not at all demean the value of the knowledge that is produced. I think it is all the more meaningful because such knowledge could not have been generated without the children’s contributions.
One of the big question marks that hung over me as I embarked on this project had to do with the value of the stories themselves in a school context. The purpose of the project was to create spaces for authentic intercultural encounters to occur in the classroom. How can I know this is occurring when some of the stories at first glance seem random, irrelevant or silly? What I have discovered was that a meaningful exchange does take place from the children’s perspective: what to an adult seems silly, in the child’s eyes can be humorous. What seems irrelevant or random, could be important to the child.
It has become clear to me that when the participant children told stories, they felt the exchange was meaningful. Sometimes they wanted to entertain their audience; sometimes they wanted to show their audience something daring and edgy; at other times they have wanted to put a bit of themselves in the story, or share an “inside joke” that is shared knowledge in their classroom community. As a teacher and researcher, the experience has helped me to enter a child’s world and become more adept at different ways of knowing and engaging with each other, ways that children find quite natural. Or in the words of a child:
Once upon a time there was a girl, who found a big seed on the ground. She planted it in a plant pot. One day it began to grow and the girl was very happy. The plant just kept on growing and growing, and it was now nearly reaching the roof. The girl began to wonder which plant’s seed it had been. The girl had to take the plant outside, so that it would have room to grow. Then she realised that it was a big tree.
– Girl, age 10
Primary School Teacher
Doctoral Student in Education
University of Eastern Finland