With the help of teachers, educators and New York photographer Emily Schiffer, students of the French Heritage Language Program at International Community High School in the Bronx, New York, and students of Jean Macé middle school in Mulhouse, France, have realized a common photographic and writing project describing their experience of immigration, integration, and multilingualism in a new environment. This exhibition, entitled Je Suis Qui Je Suis, is the result of a year of transatlantic exchanges and features portraits and texts realized by the students about exile, the future, and their hopes for a new life.
The exhibit made its debut in Mulhouse, France, on February 14th, and will be presented for the first time in the United States during the Soirée de la Francophonie, on March 20th at the United Nations headquarters in New York, in partnership with the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. The exhibit will also be showcased alongside a conference on bilingualism, held on April 13th at the Lycée Français de New York. Other dates are already planned in France and the US.
Behind this exhibit is Professor Christine Hélot, a French sociolinguist from the University of Strasbourg, who kindly accepted to answer a few questions about the project:
How did you get the idea for the project "Je suis qui je suis? What is the philosophy behind it?
The project “Je suis qui je suis” was thought of as a first approach to conduct research on bilingual education in New York City. I was interested in looking at the model of the Internationals Network for Public Schools and how they conceive of language education. The philosophy behind the project has to do with research methodology, which posits that you involve the individuals you are interested in, in a research process, which will also help them make sense of their own experience. That’s how I decided to develop a photographic project that would bring newly arrived students in the Bronx to reflect on their identity through making self–portraits and then writing about themselves. Because one of my PhD students in France was teaching newly arrived students as well, and getting them to write identity texts through poetry, we decided we could also get her students to engage in this project so that both classes across the Atlantic could exchange their photographs and creative writing.
Who are the people involved in this project and how did you work with them?
This is a collective project that would have never been possible without the help and strong dedication of many people on the ground. First of all, Fabrice Jaumont at the Cultural services of the French Embassy who supported the project from the start, and the French Heritage Language Program and its coordinator Benoît Le Dévédec who helped me find the school in the Bronx, dealt with the school authorities and organized work sessions with the students, and two teachers, Mohamed Ka in the Bronx and Timea Pickel in Mulhouse who both teach French to new immigrants. Thierry Kehou who helped with the writing activities in the Bronx and Emily Schiffer, the photographer from New York who taught photography to the students. I also want to mention the French film maker Mariette Feltin who is documenting the whole project and hopes to make a film out of this research experience. And last but not least, one should not forget the students at the International Community High School in the Bronx and at the College Jean Mace in Mulhouse who showed a lot of enthusiasm for the project and were prepared to share with us their experiences of exile and of building a new life in a new country.
How would you like to see this project evolve? Are there any other exhibitions planned?
After Mulhouse and New York, the exhibit will be held in the Hotel de la Région Alsace in Strasbourg in March 2014 during a well known event called “Le mois de l’Autre”. I would like the exhibition to travel to other countries in Europe and to other cities in the United States. My dream at present would be to propose the exhibition to the Cité de l’Immigration in Paris. Interestingly, this project has already inspired other researchers, in particular a PhD student working in the Val D’Aoste. She was using photography as part of her ethnographic research but had not thought of getting her students to write texts as well. After hearing about the Je suis qui je suis project she added the creative writing dimension and her students produced very powerful texts as well.
In what sense do you think heritage language teaching can play an important role in education today?
I think heritage language teaching is very important to support languages acquired in the home context or in schooling prior to migration. But more than the concept of heritage language teaching, it is the model through which it is implemented that should be considered. If heritage languages are not further integrated in our schools’ regular curriculum they will always remain marginal and teachers’ attitudes towards multilingualism will not change. What we need today is multilingual education where students can use all their linguistic and cultural resources to learn at school. If we want to prepare our children to face the challenges of the 21st century, we should equip them not only with linguistic skills but also with an understanding of different cultures.
Christine Hélot is a sociolinguist working at the University of Strasbourg. She holds a PhD from Trinity College in Dublin for her research on bilingual language acquisition. Her area of research focuses on bilingualism and bilingual education. She is the author of “Language Policy for the Multilingual Classroom”.
For more information about this exhibit in New York, please contact Benoît Le Dévédec, Coordinator of the French Heritage Language Program at firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 2005, the French Heritage Language Program has helped over 2,000 students from Francophone backgrounds in underserved communities enrich their knowledge of the French language and maintain strong bonds with their respective cultures and identities. Today, our program serves more than 700 students from the elementary to high school level, and is present in New York, Florida, Maine and Massachusetts.
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