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Drawn to teach: Doctoral student Christina Tjandra brings the arts, social justice to her sociolinguistics research

June 19, 2020

By Perry King

As the global community observes World Refugee Day on June 20, Christina Tjandra’s thoughts go to some of her students, Syrian refugees under her tutelage.

“I think about the kids that I’ve worked with, and the type of things that they’ve gone through,” said Tjandra, a doctoral student who is studying language and literacies education in OISE’s department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning. “I have learned so much about them, their history, their families.”

And Tjandra, who delivers an arts-based research, has gained so much insight from them as she explored her Master of Art thesis at OISE – about newcomer English language learner children’s perspectives on, and interpretations of, their multilingual linguistic landscape. In her study she investigates children’s attention, association, and meaning-making processes on the power relationships among languages presented in their surrounding environment.

Using case study as a methodology, Tjandra engages the children as her co-researchers. In 12 class sessions, she invited the children to use photography and map making as forms of communication – to express what they’re actually thinking. “Children see the world differently that how we adults see it. We have so much to learn from them,” she added.

The work that the children produced help her understand how a community or home environments’ value on celebrating diversity could impact one’s multilinguistic identity. It was an eye-opening experience for her.

“These kids share a lot to me, the conversations that we’ve had sometimes go beyond the study itself and I have learned so much about them in terms of their history, their family, and their life ambitions. They are really smart, creative, and linguistically talented kids,” she said.

Once a newcomer from Indonesia at 15-years-old, Tjandra relates deeply to these students. Many of them are placed in ESL teaching environments and are perceived to be academically and linguistically limited. This is certainly not the case, she says.

“They’re very capable children. They are very capable and very reflective,” said Tjandra. “They have experienced things that I couldn’t imagine from their past – but they are overcoming that which is so wonderful.”

And she seeks to breakthrough to her students in a very unique way. Since a young age, she found visual representation as a good way of communicating her thinking process. And with a mother, who herself is a professor of applied linguistics, she was inspired to teach.

A graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), Tjandra was also inspired to educate. So, instead of joining some design firm, she was drawn to teach. Initially teaching toddlers and preschoolers, with a focus on the arts, she returned to school to boost her credentials.

Earning a bachelor of education at York University, her work revealed a significant academic gap between the native English speaker kids and ESL kids who spent most of their day in their ESL classroom.

“I saw a language gap and an academic gap. This was the first reason why I am so drawn to this type of work,” said Tjandra, who has actively used a “social justice lens” in her research. After she received her K-6 Ontario teaching certification, she decided to come to OISE to find ways to understand, unpack the issues, and to contribute with pedagogical innovations. “The professors at OISE, University of Toronto, are globally known as leaders in academic advancement and research.

“I came here to be engaged in a high standard of learning and education research,” she said.

Ultimately, what she sees in these Syrian children is similar to what she experienced as a 15-year-old, and as an undergrad at OCAD – adjusting to life and language in Canada.

“When I arrived in Canada, I was that child who was struggling in school because I had to learn a new curriculum in a language that I had not mastered,” she said.

Tjandra is continuing her MA research in her doctoral studies. “Through engaging in this type of conversations with newcomer multilingual students” she added, “I started to realize that this is just something that I have to do. I am drawn to support inclusivity, equity, and social justice in language teaching and learning.”

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