After traveling to York University twice over the past two years to work with Heather Lotherington, visiting scholar Dr. Hercules Tolêdo Corêa has returned home to Brazil ready to expound his academic mentor’s multiliteracies research.
A teacher and professor, Tolêdo Corêa works at the Federal University of Ouro Preto in the Brazilian city of the same name teaching courses on literacies, multiliteracies and Brazilian literature for children.
Brazil, Tolêdo Corêa notes, often experiences cultural differences in the classroom.
“It does not have many people who do not speak the same language in class,” he says. “There are social and cultural differences, and many people coming to Brazil from different countries, especially in the big cities.”
Many of Tolêdo Corêa’s students he says are foreign university students from African countries who can be more difficult to communicate with, despite speaking Portuguese.
To act on his desire to better educate such students, Tolêdo Corêa began looking into Toronto’s success with multicultural education research, given the city’s stature as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. He began searching for professors whose research foci centered on multiliteracies work in the classroom. It was not long before he found Professor Heather Lotherington’s decade-long research project with Joyce Public School.
Tolêdo Corêa wanted the international experience and to learn how to better teach in new ways including students from different countries and cultures through new technologies in Brazil. He applied for a visiting scholarship, was accepted, and traveled to York for two months in September 2017, and another two from April to June, 2018.
“[Hercules] was here trying to better understand what we did,” Lotherington says. “The work we did was action-research with teachers, most of which was done at Joyce Public School (JPS) where we created a new paradigm of elementary literacy education that welcomed news ways of doing things that are needed in a country like this.”
In first connecting with JPS, Lotherington learned that approximately 90% of its students were recent immigrants who spoke different languages—as many as 15 different languages in one classroom. Nevertheless, the school was welcoming of technology, already making a name for itself as a technologically innovative school. For Lotherington, this posed the question of whether it was possible to leverage technology to interconnect languages in the classroom; so from 2002 to 2012, she partnered with JPS to spearhead an action-research project that would help her find out.
The project was not merely to accommodate students, Lotherington clarifies. More importantly, she wanted to create spaces in education that embraced languages—in which everyone could learn. Driving the foundation for such research was the idea of interconnection.
“Everybody spoke different languages and we made it a welcoming place so that, whatever your language was, we wanted to know,” Lotherington says. “We wanted to be able to recognize it. We didn’t want to just say, ‘oh, that’s nice…’ We wanted to be able to say, that’s Brazilian-Portuguese.’”
The project-based planning and project development with teachers and principals would take up the entire school year. One of the earliest projects invited students to retell Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “We’d try to put in some of their cultural background,” Lotherington says. “They repurposed Goldilocks as a space invader, a space alien, as a whale invading goldfish, as a bully Goldilocks who would eat them."
“We eventually had them bring their languages in and would have different retellings. They amended stuff so it didn’t just sit in a folklore story. They made it their own.”
Math teachers would have their students participate in inclusive building games, which made the learning comprehensible. One science project had the class create a recording for outer space in different languages. Another social science class featured a talking book, which spoke about how people were the same, before thinking about what made them different.
“When [children] retold a story, they retold it with their own hearts and narrated it in different languages,” Lotherington recounts. “It was just the most beautiful project.”
As such, the research also promoted an anti-racist component, where the purpose was not merely tokenistic: to recognize languages, but instead to help students better understand other students speaking said languages—“where [teachers and principals] could bring kids together and turn their understanding of one another into a point of pride.”
Funding did eventually end and the principal retired in 2012; however, the research still lives. Teacher participants moved on to supervisory, consulting positions within the Toronto District School Board, and the effort remains very much grassroots.
And the ultimate objective of the research?
For Lotherington, it means “moving into the future and living in the society we live in.”
“We live in multi-cultural, multi-semiotic societies. We teach in and with and for these societies,” she says, noting this is why there is so much interest worldwide for such research. Scheduled to give a keynote and a workshop in Germany this August, she has also already given keynotes in Israel, China, Argentina, Paraguay, England, the United States and Cyprus over the past decade—one of the things that first brought Tolêdo Corêa in, he says.
Tolêdo Corêa shares his own greatest lessons which were understanding the different uses of technology in the classroom to interconnect students of different languages and cultures. Having returned to Brazil earlier this week, Tolêdo Corêa is already working on a new course to share his insights learned at York. To teach the course, he will be referring to Teaching Young Learners in a Superdiverse World: Multimodal Approaches and Perspectives, a book co-edited by Lotherington and Cheryl Paige in 2017.
“I am currently preparing a dossier for a Brazilian journal about multiliteracies and am watching and participating in a course with Heather called New Media Literacies and Culture,” he says. “I am interested in upgrading how literacy is done in Brazil and this is a fresh take.”