Promising Teaching Practices

Supporting Refugee- and Migrant-Background Students in a Canadian Elementary Classroom: Challenges and Promising Teaching Practices

This case study was conducted in a culturally rich and diverse elementary school in the Greater Vancouver Area. The school has a long history and an established reputation for welcoming refugee-and-migrant background students and their families.

Study Aims

  • To explore the perceptions of a group of experienced teachers regarding the language and literacy learning needs and challenges of refugee and migrant background learners in their classrooms alongside their views on successful educational approaches for these learners. 
  • To explore with one Grade 6-7 teacher, Elisa, how a co-designed social studies, language arts and social-emotional learning project promotes investment in literacy and subject-area learning.

Teachers’ Practices

For our first objective, we gathered data about the teachers’ practices and the students’ needs and challenges through two focus groups, which were later thematically analyzed and contrasted with a post-project interview. Teachers shared their views on language and multimodal teaching, creating safe learning spaces for and with their students, and how, as a school, they place socio-emotional well-being as foundational and critical to students’ successful learning.

Cross-curricular Unit of Study

For the second objective, our data came from the students’ and teachers’ project work in the classroom (audio recordings), the students’ multimodal artifacts produced in class, field notes and teachers’ interviews before and after the unit was taught. Some of the key activities included:

  • My Most Important Objects
  • Graph of Emotions
  • The Olive Pit

“My Most Important Objects”

The ‘My Most Important Objects’ activity aimed to help the students connect to the task’s topics (‘the migration story’ and ‘objects can keep a record of events’) at a personal level from their perspectives as members of refugee- and migrant-background families. Additionally, it was a goal for the students to develop and achieve the specific BC Curriculum competencies and content objectives and corresponding language objectives for the task.

An example of one of the focal students

“Graph of Emotions”

The “Graph of Emotion” activity’s general objective was to work with the students on the social studies Grade 6 content curriculum learning standards concerning: 1) The urbanization and migration of people; and 2) Global poverty and inequality issues, including class structure and gender and to use social studies inquiry processes (e.g., ask questions, gather, interpret and analyze ideas; and to take perspectives). It also addressed aspects of BC Curriculum Core Personal and Social Competencies.

“The Olive Pit”

The “Olive Pit” activity was a series of activities (class discussions, post-it note predictions, thought bubbles) designed to support the students’ attainment of BC’s social studies and language arts curriculum content and competencies and their social and emotional learning. One additional intended purpose of the “Olive Pit” activity was for students to interact with realia (3D objects) to connect them with their other senses and modes, not only with sight and the visual mode. Therefore, we asked the students to touch, feel, smell, shake and listen to the matchbox with the olive pit or piece of macaroni inside, which we had given to everyone.


In order to synthesize and visualize my finding in relation to the initial codes and themes we interpreted as a research team, I created a model (see image to the right) that helped me integrate the current and the previous findings and codes. The model shows how the different agents and supporting practices are interconnected, almost like a tight weaving, which gives the necessary support and stability to help refugee and migrant background learners resettle successfully.

This research showed how well refugee and migrant background learners are capable of responding when they are given high support and high challenge tasks in their classrooms, leaving aside the deficit perspective that these learners have been subjected to for too long. 

This study reaffirmed and confirmed the enormous potential refugee and migrant background learners have and how competent they are when they are afforded opportunities and supported to participate and invest in activities that challenge them, keeping in mind the development of their positive personal and social identities and competencies.

This website showcases a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Insight Grant no. 435–2017-0338). The study has been reviewed by the UBC Behavioral Research Ethics Board (Certificate no. H17-01074), and the procedures were found to be acceptable on ethical grounds for research involving human subjects.

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