On the 7th March 2013 I told the story of ‘The Mystery of the Scratched Table’, in Portuguese, while Maggie Smith told it in English, to a group of 30 children aged between 6 and 7 from the Sacred Heart Primary School in the London Borough of Islington. The event, which was planned as part of World Book Day was supported by The Brazilian Association for Educational Initiatives in the UK (ABRIR), in partnership with the London Borough of Islington.
Maggie and I were a little nervous beforehand as it would be the first time we were going do a bilingual storytelling in an English school. I opened the session, introducing and showing on a map, how Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, as well as other countries in the world. It reassured us to have 2 boys, one from a Brazilian and one from a Portuguese background, in the class, visibly excited by the opportunity to hear a story in Portuguese in their own classroom. But I was wondering: ‘How are all the other children going to respond?
Very quickly we found there was no need to have been concerned, because the children soon interacted with the animal puppets representing the wild animals from the story and were curious to learn about them. Throughout the session, lots of little hands were going up everywhere. The children became involved with the mystery story ‘acting as detectives’, as Elsa Rossi, who was watching the session, noticed, because they enjoyed ruling out the culprits: ‘An alligator’s mouth is too big’ guessing that that animal wouldn’t have just scratched the table, but completely destroyed it. When asked how the family in the story might get rid of the rat, a little boy suggested spreading poison on one’s fingers and rubbing them on the animal. Later on, when the children had found out who the culprit was, they offered suggestions for its motives: ‘Perhaps it was hungry’, ‘Maybe it likes eating wood’…Or finding an answer for the family’s dilemma: ‘bring a branch from a tree indoors’ or ‘let the animal go’. Who knows how many more ideas would have occurred to them had there been enough time for everyone to contribute? When they were asked what they liked most about the story, the group said ‘We liked it all!’ And the class teacher, who, Elsa Rossi noticed, ‘…was involved, smiling, and taking photos,’ decided, having consulted her class’s wishes, that they would go on working with the book in the following lessons.
Maggie and I witnessed in particular how naturally the children listened to and understood the story in the two languages. When asked about that, they said they had enjoyed hearing the story in both Portuguese and English. One even said he was going to learn Portuguese now. At that moment Maggie asked an obvious question: ‘Does anyone in this class speak another language apart from English?’ Half the class put their hands up. First children who spoke European languages spoke up: Italian, Spanish, Irish and Polish speakers. And then, others were encouraged to add themselves, which informed us that in the class there were children speaking Filipino (from the Filipines), Amharic (from Ethiopia), Somali (Somalia) and others speaking Eritrean and Nigerian languages. I noticed that some children were clearly proud to tell us what languages they spoke, and thus more about their identity. For example an Ethiopian boy used the occasion to tell us that Eritrea had once been part of Ethiopia. Fátima Lessa, who also observed the session, suggested that that the event might have inspired the children to want to know more about other cultures. I leave experts to decide how best to interpret this whole experience. For my part, I agree with Maggie’s view that it was ‘a privilege to have been able to interact with such an intelligent and interested audience.’
(Photos by Fátima Lessa e Elsa Rossi)