George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Two young boys in shorts are standing on a beach shoreline.

We had about half an hour until the bus would arrive to take us to the airport, not too long a wait. I wasn't worried about my daughter. At ten years old, she can easily entertain herself. But my four-year-old son? What was he going to do for the next 30 minutes? To a preschool child, half an hour can seem like an eternity.

He began playing with his toy car. Then he noticed a boy similar in age. Actually, they noticed each other. Slowly, they began to interact. At first, they shared glances and smiles. This soon led to sharing toys. And before I knew it, they were running and sliding around the hotel lobby.

I realize that the scene described above is not uncommon. However, there was one detail that I have yet to mention: the boys did not share a common language. This minor detail didn't seem to detract from their fun in the least. They were two little boys who'd just met, and they were having more fun than anyone else in the lobby. In fact, I believe they would have played together all day if we'd let them.

Classrooms around the world are becoming more and more diverse. And that's a good thing. But with this diversity comes an obligation to our students. We must provide ways in which they can interact and feel comfortable, regardless of the language that they do or don't speak.

3 Ways to Connect Without Sharing a Common Language

1. Passions and Strengths

We must allow students that share the same passions the opportunity to spend time together pursuing them -- even when they don't share the same language. By doing this, we immediately place them in their comfort zone. When they work within their strengths, students' confidence rises. Furthermore, as walls come down, students are more likely to welcome and collaborate with those that they may not have previously included or noticed.

I can easily imagine two students who don’t share a common language playing Minecraft during indoor recess on a rainy day. Hands furiously moving, brains feverishly working, and a finished product that neither would have completed on his or her own could be the result of this silent alliance. And all of this would take place while sitting mere inches apart from one another.

2. Time, Space, and Freedom

One reason why the two four-year-olds bonded so well was because they had no timer to worry about, no real boundaries, and the freedom to do pretty much whatever they wanted. When trying to connect students who don't speak a common language, we must give them these three things. Otherwise, they will feel constricted. We must remove any potential roadblocks to their social-emotional comfort.

We must turn the timer off, back away, and just watch what happens. The chances are that students will find a way to connect, but only if we stop doing things the way that we've been doing them. This change may take time. It will take space. And no restrictions are needed. We simply have to trust that our students will know what to do.

3. The Arts

The arts are universal. They've always had the ability to transcend culture and language. Unfortunately, time spent exploring and teaching the arts is slowly disappearing in favor of more standardized, "testable" subject areas. This means that opportunities for students to connect are disappearing as well.

A common language isn't needed to create a work of art. All that's needed is a canvas, a pair of brushes, and some paint -- or the raw materials and tools of any art form that appeals to your students. Maybe just a rhythm and a beat could set it off. Think about it -- what's the main way that people around the globe feel a connection to one another? I believe it's through the arts, whether visual art, music, dance, or a host of other media. We must make more time for young people to pursue creative outlets if we plan on staying connected in a global society.

Seeing the Other as Ourselves

Children have the inherent ability to connect, as was demonstrated by those two little boys in the hotel lobby. As they grow older, we place them in situations and environments that don't allow them to connect in ways that they inherently would. It is our obligation to do everything in our power to help our students connect, regardless of whether or not they speak the same language.

What my son and his new friend demonstrated so beautifully was articulated masterfully by philosopher Jason Silva in Shots of Awe: The Big Picture.

I hope that you find the conclusion he reaches in his video as powerful as I found it to be:

[P]erhaps it is by extending our gaze, using marvelous new storytelling tools, like virtual reality, that we can bridge divisions and bring worlds together, ushering in a form of radical empathy to see the other as ourselves -- where boundaries are dissolved and compassion reigns supreme -- a massive transformation of consciousness, a software upgrade for mankind birthing a new kind of global citizen. We can do this.

I agree with Silva. We can do this!

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Congrats on the new blog and welcome to Edutopia's blogging community Jon. This is such a great piece. I've always been a firm believer in storytelling as a means to evoke empathy and understanding amongst each other. I also really loved that you included the arts. The arts truly is a bridge to many gaps between cultures, communication, heritage and so much more.

Jon Harper's picture
Jon Harper
Assistant Principal

Rusul thank you so much. It is truly an honor to get to contribute to such a wonderful collaborative platform. I agree that storytelling is one of the best ways to connect with people and touch their heart. And I too love the arts and am worried that are slowly disappearing from our schools. Hopefully this is not for long. I can't imagine a day without being inspired in some shape or form by one of the arts. Your support means much.

Janis Weasel Bear's picture

Love this. And, I believe that this is true for all of our learners; regardless of language barriers or similarities. All of these components enrich any learning environment--for students of all ages. Allowing our young the space, time and freedom to discover relationships, healthy social interactions, to co-create, to practice belonging and acceptance is essential for success not only in "school" or "the work place", but in life. Strength-based, holistic learning environments teaches our students more than "curriculum". It's the difference between teaching our young how to survive, or how to thrive. I like this article a lot. It's a reminder and inspiration to carry me through these last weeks of the term.

Jon Harper's picture
Jon Harper
Assistant Principal

Your comment means a lot. These connections are inherent and I agree, they can take place regardless of age of location. We often talk about "college and career ready" but we don't talk about "Life-ready." I think that is what we must begin focusing more of our time on. I hope your last three weeks are awesome!

Carla Meyrink's picture
Carla Meyrink
Founder of TCFL. Avid reader, blogger, runner

I loved this piece and connected with it in so many ways. Recently I had an experience that let me see just how powerfully people can communicate in spite of language barriers. I teach in the Dominican Republic in an international school and our students speak English. There is a local school for the deaf where students read and sign in Spanish. Many of the students wanted to learn English, so we decided to get our students together for weekly classes. The deaf students would teach our kids sign language and our students would teach them English, in a very informal, student-led learning space. For the first meeting, I expected students to be shy and take time getting to know each other...after all there was a huge language barrier! But I was completely wrong. Our students and the deaf students immediately began to mingle and communicate. They used body language, hand signals, hugs and a LOT of smiles. I can't express the emotions the adults in the room were feeling as they watched this interaction - I saw a lot of teary eyes. It was amazing, touching, inspiring. Teachers and directors learned a lot from our students that day.

I agree with your completely when you say, " It is our obligation to do everything in our power to help our students connect, regardless of whether or not they speak the same language." Thank you for an inspiring blog post.

Jon Harper's picture
Jon Harper
Assistant Principal

Carla thank you so much for sharing this with us. What a beautiful story. I am quite certain if I had been in the room, I would have had tears streaming down my face. Life-long memories and connections were made on that day.

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