OISE graduate Christina Tjandra connects with kids, in classrooms and on the page

By Perry King
November 8, 2023
christina tjandra the jar that holds the universe
New doctoral grad Christina Tjandra self-published her first book The Jar that Holds the Universe. The novel is borne out of her sociolinguistic research. Photos courtesy Christina Tjandra.

This week, doctoral candidate Christina Tjandra will cross the stage at Convocation Hall with a second OISE degree in hand, new research questions, deep connections with students and a self-published children’s novel.

The Language and Literacies Education scholar, originally from Indonesia, graduated with a Master of Arts from OISE in 2019In her SSHRC-funded master’s research, she conducted research conversations and photo voice activities with newcomer students to help her understand which languages plurilingual children are drawn to in their environment and how classroom activities could impact their identity negotiation and language learning. 

For her doctoral studies, which was also supported by SSHRC, Tjandra took her sociolinguistic research further – moving from learning about plurilingual children’s observation of their environment to actively involving them in re-imagining their linguistic landscape and creating multilingual placemaking designs. 

An arts-based approach undergirds much of Tjandra’s scholarship.

“The arts help communicate meaning, especially for children. It helps them articulate their thinking,” says Tjandra. “Sometimes, there are things that they can express better when given the opportunity to draw them out on paper, which aligns seamlessly with the nature of this research.”

Tjandra’s own academic trajectory – two bachelor degrees in design and education – coupled with her professional experience as an artist and a teacher, deeply inspired her research (this includes her trail-brazing methodology combining practitioner research, collaborative action research and research-creation).

“Christina’s journey from Indonesia to Toronto prepared her well to put herself in the shoes of recently arrived children in Toronto schools. These children navigate cultural and linguistic diversity in their everyday life as they interact with their peers while being schooled in English,” said Labrie, a professor in OISE’s Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning and Tjandra’s supervisor through her master’s and doctoral studies.

Labrie says he admires Tjandra’s ability to create an open space for the children who took part in her study as research partners. That’s because this gave them the opportunity to articulate their own vision for a more welcoming and inclusive school environment. 

“The final oral examination committee was unanimous in hailing the quality of her thesis, its innovative character and its creativity leading to tangible advances in the sociolinguistic study of plurilingualism and space design,” says Labrie.

Inspired by how plurilingual children navigate between the concept of ‘space’ and ‘place,’ and their efforts in creating belonging, Tjandra recently wrote and self-published a contemporary fantasy novel called The Jar That Holds the Universe.

The Jar, the beginning of a universe

The Jar That Holds the Universe was written during the period when Tjandra was working on her dissertation proposal. Although The Jar that Holds the Universe is a contemporary fantasy novel set in both the Earth and a magical place called Alkaa, many of the themes from her dissertation profoundly influenced the book, with a primary focus on the themes of belonging, identity, and the quest to find a home.

"In a nutshell, the story revolves around an 11-year-old girl living in two worlds, as she attempts to navigate her identity and embarks on a journey to find her true home. I also incorporated narratives about language equity and the celebration of Toronto's diversity through the characters," Tjandra explained.

At the age of 18, Tjandra began writing the first three chapters. However, life took over as she focused on completing her studies and adjusting to her new life in Toronto. On her 30th birthday, she stumbled upon the long-forgotten chapters on her computer and was so driven by its premise that she couldn’t resist diving back into the project. She began to write, often through the night, to re-launch the passion project. 

“I wrote consistently for the next eight months,” she re-called. “During the day, I was working on my dissertation, teaching, and working as a teaching assistant in OISE’s Masters of Teaching program. At night, I was writing the book.”

The book follows the adventures of Quinn Parker, an 11-year-old girl who was sent as a newborn to Earth from a hyperspace (that is, a parallel universe) called Alkaa. Growing up as an Earthling in Toronto, Quinn has never known where she is really from, why she looks strikingly different from everyone else, and why she has a unique red marking on her left arm. 

Three days before her 12th birthday, Quinn begins to experience strange incidents that lead her to a thrilling journey back to Alkaa. She quickly learns that the universe as we know it is contained in a jar and is kept as an important mystical artifact that keeps the land of Alkaa alive.

“In addition to stories about the quest of finding belonging of living between two worlds, I also included some stories about language equity and inclusivity in the book. Overall, I think it’s a fun read.”

Her classroom was her research lab

Many elements of The Jar are drawn from her doctoral research in the classroom –  an undertaking that began right in the midst of the pandemic. “Right when the schools reopened in 2022, I went straight to the classroom,” said Tjandra. 

“The kids were in virtual learning for so long, so this [research] project [ML1] became a way for them to reconnect and have some creative fun together.”

“I asked the kids, ‘What would you like to see in your environment? Which languages would you like to see around you to feel more at home and belonged? What about newcomer kids joining your school? What do you think would help them feel less like strangers, especially if they don’t know the language and don't speak English?’”

To answer these questions, Tjandra took nearly 300 photographs coveiring each corner of the school. She then asked the children to draw on top of these photographs to manipulate the school’s linguistic landscape to capture its diversity and foster linguistic inclusivity. 

tjandra art school
About 300 photographs were produced for the children to draw on top of – to change the school’s linguistic landscape to capture its diversity and foster linguistic inclusivity.

“I mean, they are so smart,” Tjandra said. “This project really gives space for kids to show their voice, their agency.”

This is what Tjandra refers to as “identity work,” where educators process their understanding of themselves as professionals. It is work she urges primary school educators to undertake in professional development and beyond.

“I think it is very important for educators to do identity work with plurilingual kids. As an immigrant, I came to Canada when I was 15. During my initial years in Canada, I struggled with my identity. I was bullied because I spoke a certain way, and there was a time when I pushed my first language away.

“If there were supportive teachers around me, who could have guided me in appreciating and celebrating my cultural and linguistic identity, I believe I could have been more responsive than reactive. This emphasizes the value and dedication of teachers in celebrating the diversity within the classroom and their role in integrating related activities into the curriculum.”

Labrie worked with her through this and was impressed with Tjandra, as she came into the doctoral program with clear research questions she was keen to explore in more detail. 

“Like many students who were undertaking their fieldwork during the pandemic and the partial return to in-person activities, she faced the challenge of having to completely reconsider her research methodology as the world turned upside down all of a sudden, but she managed admirably,” he says.

“Completing a doctoral thesis within four years is already a great achievement. Completing a thesis of such an outstanding quality is even more so,” he added. “Writing a novel for 12-year old kids inspired by the very themes of a doctoral thesis at the same time, is frankly exceptional. Congratulations Dr. Tjandra!”

Tjandra is currently in the early months of holding a research associate role with Wilfrid Laurier University. Her future is bright, and she hungers for more opportunities to learn and grow.

In the near future, she says, she looks looking forward to the working with young students in a similar way. 

“I truly miss being in the classroom. I would like to work with teacher candidates to share this important work and advance my research. Additionally, I hope to undertake more extensive research involving children from different demographics and age groups, while also engaging various school communities. I am genuinely excited about continuing this important work.”

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