In 2015, 70,384 children applied for asylum in Sweden.
Many of them are traumatized. Many are unaccompanied. And those who are granted refugee status in Sweden are placed directly into schools in an unfamiliar country, with lessons in a language they can’t understand.
“The kids who come here are put immediately into classes,” Ida Sandor, a teacher at Västerholms Friskola in Skärholmen, southwest of Stockholm, explains.
Sandor says 99 percent of the students at the school come from a non-Swedish background, and out of 800 students at the school, about 100 are totally new in the country.
“There are about 70 who arrived this year, and maybe another 50 who arrived last year,” Sandor tells The Local. “And a lot of the students who were born here have parents who don’t speak Swedish – so the only Swedish they get is in school.”
So how do the students manage? How does the school make sure each student gets the support they need?
”I have developed a method for learning Swedish through dance,” Sandor says.
She’s no ordinary teacher. For the past few years Ida Sandor has been working full-time with a project called 'Dance, language and identity’ (‘Dans, språk och identitet’), incorporating the Swedish language with movement.
“I follow the curriculum for Swedish classes in my dance classes,” Sandor explains. “We work with the alphabet, vocabulary, context, traditions, and self-expression.”
The idea, she says, actually came from Sweden's National Institute for Dance in Schools (Institutet Dans i Skolan) but is financed by the Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet), a government agency. And it’s a programme which has always inspired Sandor, who has dual degrees in dance teaching and history.
“In my last year of studies I was actually writing my thesis on how to use dance as a method of learning,” she says. “And then the school actually called me when they had received financing from Kulturrådet, and asked if I wanted to work with exactly that.”
But what exactly does the programme look like? Is it really possible to learn a language through dance?
A GATEWAY TO CLOSER RELATIONSHIPS
“It’s actually one of the few classes where kids can really participate from day one. Even without language they can show me what they want,” Sandor remarks.
“Dance is a form of communication that everyone can speak. If I am clear with what I express in my body, they can see it. They don’t need to hear it; they can feel it.”
Not only are students able to communicate with their teachers in a new and immediate way – the dance classes are also a gateway to closer relationships with other students.
“They’re able to interact with each other and immediately become part of the social network, making friends and feeling seen and included without having to talk.”
And for new students whose paths to Sweden have been less than smooth, dance serves a dual purpose, helping children to handle the traumatic events in their past.
“Particularly for the new students, it’s somewhat of a sanctuary,” Sandor says.
The structure of the classes vary by age group. With younger students the class might be as simple as learning one letter each week.
“In preschool and early elementary school they learn the alphabet and how to put words into sentences,” Sandor explains. “So one week we will focus on the letter A, making the sound of an A, forming our bodies like an A, and feeling like an A.”
For example, the students might work in pairs and shape their “buddies” into animals starting with a – like apes (apor).
“When we’ve worked through the entire alphabet we start making words and sentences, and the students can write with their bodies and tell stories – like what happened before they came to Sweden and what is happening now.”
'WE HAVE TO BE FLEXIBLE'
With older students Sandor tries to collaborate with other teachers and connect the dance class to relevant themes. When middle schoolers learn about the slave trade in history class, their lessons are reflected through dance.
“Part of the curriculum for Swedish in intermediate school is being able to express your feelings in different situations,” Sandor explains. “So we work on expressing ourselves through dance.”
Students dance with and for each other and then discuss what they felt and saw.
“We play out different situations, too,” Sandor says. “So with a class that has been through quite rough things, we may imitate things that have happened in their lives, and I might make a choreography matching the situation. And they can dance it and be sad, angry, happy, or whatever – they’re allowed to feel anything.”
There are times when reflecting on personal experiences through dance can become too stressful for students – but the teachers are prepared for that as well.
“Of course there are challenges with this method, since it’s brand new,” Sandor acknowledges. “And you have to be sensitive to the fact that the kids aren’t always receptive. Sometimes they’re traumatized. Sometimes they’re depressed. Some of them have lost their parents, and some have problems at home.”
If a student starts breaking down, she says, the teacher simply has to be ready to switch exercises and approach from a different angle – while also acknowledging the issue.
“We have to be flexible, and do things in a way which lets the students know – ‘I see you’,” she says. “And maybe we can talk about it afterwards too.”
Sandor notes that she was prepared to meet resistance when the programme began – but actually, there hasn’t been any.
“There are a lot of different cultures meeting here, and not everyone is comfortable with dance,” she says. “But not one parent has complained.”
And as for the kids themselves – they’re shy at first, Sandor admits, but soon warm up.
“I thought the students might be against it, and of course they’re shy. But when they realize we’re not doing couples dancing they relax,” she laughs.
NO JUDGING ALLOWED
The class is also the only subject where students aren’t graded, Sandor adds – removing any performance anxiety.
“I make it very clear from the start that your dance is yours, and there is no judging allowed,” she says. “In the first few lessons we just do a bunch of fun stuff, and I always make myself look goofy so they know they can relax.”
And the project, which was initially intended as a three-year trial, has gone so well that the school has made it permanent. Sandor is thrilled.
“I love my job,” she exclaims. “All schools should do something like this.”
The programme is supported by Sweden's National Institute for Dance in Schools, which promotes dance as a learning tool in many subjects, and Sandor says that schools with fewer foreign students may benefit more from using dance with math or history than with language.
The institute has similar integration-focused programmes in Kiruna, northern Sweden, where they work with both refugees and the indigenous Sami population. And in Skärholmen too, it’s been a priceless tool.
The kids love it and the teachers say that the children’s grades have gone up as well.
“Dance creates a zone where students can immediately join a social community and make friends. They can share experiences, and just be with one another without all the drama, without all the paperwork,” she says.
“A lot of these kids have been through really hard things, and they don’t need bureaucracy – they need something else.”