A multilingual international collaboration

The following story, submitted by former grad student and French Immersion Kindergarten teacher Ellen Lague and Minority Language Professor Heather Phipps, describes the development of a multilingual Saskatchewan-Belgium collaboration that evolved out of Ellen’s participation in the Social Justice and Globalization Study Tour to Belgium (EDFN 803) in July 2018.

“What Fills Your Heart with Happiness? kîkway kîya kisâkasineh mîyawhten kiteh ohcih?”

As part of my Master’s in Education program, I participated in the study tour to Belgium. The course was instructed by Dr. Heather Phipps, with whom I have shared interests in Early Childhood Education, French Immersion instruction, and literature. While in Belgium, we met with Heather’s colleague and long-time friend Caroline Moons, who instructs university students studying to become Kindergarten teachers at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

We discussed doing a multilingual project together with my Kindergarten students and Caroline’s university students. With Heather’s guidance, we chose an activity with Monique Gray Smith’s picture book My Heart Fills with Happiness/ni sâkaskineh miŷawâten niteh ohcih. Monique Gray Smith is an award-winning author of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish heritage. The picture book, written in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and dedicated to IRS survivors, is a positive representation of Indigenous happiness, love, strength, and life experience. Each page, vibrantly illustrated by award-winning, Métis-Cree artist, Julie Flett, expresses the happiness experienced in the simple joys of life, such as holding the hand of someone you love or smelling fresh-baked bannock. Heather suggested this book for the multilingual reading possibility, with a Cree/English edition recently published by Orca Books.

With the book chosen, my students spent most of February preparing for our project with Caroline and her students: discussing First Nation storytelling, and reading two different versions of How the Earth was Created; talking about Nanabosho or Nanabush and how he has several different names; and discussing oral storytelling and why oral stories might change in the telling, and about why February is the traditional time for storytelling because it is when the snow covers the ground. I read My Heart Fills with Happiness aloud with my students every school day in the month of February. During the break, students were asked to think about what fills their heart with happiness using specific examples. I received several responses from parents who loved the idea of our project.

On February 27, students and teachers in Regina and Belgium connected through Skype. Belgian students began by asking my students about First Nations storytelling. Next, we read the book, What Fills My Heart With Happiness in four different languages: English, French, Cree and Flemish. The children knew the story so well, they were excited to hear it read in two languages that were new to them; they “oohed” and “ahhed” when hearing Cree and Flemish. Then, all the students shared what filled their hearts with happiness. One of my students mentioned speaking with her family that lives in the Philippines. Another student spoke about the sound of popcorn popping. The children were delighted to share, and the preservice teachers in Belgium also expressed their joy in meeting with the class.

For Heather, being in Ellen’s Kindergarten classroom during this multilingual reading of My Heart Fills with Happiness was a beautiful and meaningful experience. While reading together across the world and in four languages there was a feeling of interconnectedness, where each person was invited to share one’s own inner joy and to listen respectfully to others. The story is meant to be shared and makes for an ideal read-aloud. The university students listened attentively to the voices of the children in responding to the story, and the children were eager to share their knowledge and life experience. The shared interaction with the picture book inspired the children and adults to reflect on their own sources of inspiration, love, and happiness.

This spring, we were delighted to learn that the author Monique Gray Smith, alongside authors Louise Halfe and Wendy Mirasty, would be speaking on an Indigenous Author Panel at the Regina Public Library. This was a wonderful opportunity to listen to each author’s journey to becoming a writer. Monique spoke about the importance of story and how empowering it is for Indigenous readers, particularly young children, to see themselves represented in picture books. She mentioned that she has met many young readers who tell her, ‘I’m on the cover of your book.’ Furthermore, this story of sharing love and happiness ends with a significant question, “What fills your heart with happiness?” which opens up a conversation for intergenerational sharing and healing as readers of all ages are invited to reflect on love.

A journey that began in Belgium was able to take root back home. In reconnecting with Caroline we could continue the journey of reconciliation with our students, and share the
journey with students in Belgium. Two weeks after the Skype call, Heather and I shared the project with her first-year university students. To be able to culminate our project with meeting Monique Gray Smith brought happiness to my heart and a strong purpose to continue on the path to reconciliation.

By Ellen Lague and Heather Phipps

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