Talking about migration in Latvian classrooms

From the onset, the purpose of Migration Matters (MM) has been to fuel evidence-based conversations about migration — and what better place to do this than high schools? Our collaboration with Latvia’s think-tank Providus marks the first time two of our series, Migration 101 with Hein de Haas and A Migrant’s View with Nassim Majidi, are being used as materials for in-class discussions in around 100 schools around the country. And we hope this is just the start!

The project was the brainchild of Agnese Lace, Providus’ senior policy analyst in the areas of migration and integration. Agnese’s team developed and published a manual for the teachers, complete with methodology notes, concept explainers and lesson plans to accompany the 18 video episodes from Migration Matters that have been translated into Latvian and Russian. They also trained 100 teachers in on-site workshops in Riga and four regional cities to help them teach the material to their high school students.

MM’s Julia Karmo caught up with Agnese a few weeks after she completed the launch stage of the project. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Agnese leading a classroom activity in a teacher-training workshop in Riga

Julia: In what classes do Latvian students discuss migration in schools? And what’s the public outlook on migration in the country?

Agnese: Migration is discussed in several contexts in Latvian schools: history, geography and economics. In history classes, students get taught about different migratory movements in the course of world history and also of Latvia’s history, especially in the context of the Second World War and exiles connected to that. They also speak of migration in geography class looking at the human population movements and demography. Finally, migration is spoken of in the context of the economy and labor force.

The attitude towards migration in the public and political discourse is quite negative. There are fewer people that are negative towards immigration from the European Union (EU) — about half of the population does not support immigration from other EU countries. But more than 80% of the population is against immigration from non-EU countries.

More than 80% of the population is against immigration from non-EU countries.

We were very excited to start collaborating on this, because, on one hand, getting these videos to schools has always been an obvious goal, but this is not an easy process to manage, and especially in the political climate you describe. How did you go about it?

Our approach was to, firstly, involve experts in intercultural communication and also a social sciences teacher to help us develop lesson plans around the videos. Secondly, we knew we wanted to work directly with the teachers instead of just putting these materials online.

We wanted to work directly with the teachers instead of just putting these materials online.

We invited teachers to a series of workshops where we let them take on the role of a student while we take the role of a teacher. We did these trainings with five different audiences: one class in Riga and four in regional cities.

Teamwork during a teacher-training workshop in Riga

We then collected feedback from the teachers. They told us, for example, that we should include more data on migrants in Latvia and Latvians abroad. They want us to include as much information into the lesson plans and this methodological material as possible to reduce the effort they need to present this material in their own lessons.

Another issue we ran into — which shows how much this work is needed — was that one of the coalition parties, the National Alliance, called our work “immigration propaganda”. They did this without closely reviewing the content of our lessons. In our materials we don’t say that migration is good or bad — we say that this is a normal process and that there are so many facets to it that we need to consider. Attention from a nationalist party calling our work “immigration propaganda” shows how easy it is to manipulate society’s opinion on what our work is. And this is just another reason to go ahead and try to educate society about migration processes and different aspects and kinds of migration.

A nationalist party calling our work “immigration propaganda” shows how easy it is to manipulate society’s opinion on what our work is.

I was present myself at the first training session that you did with the teachers in Riga. My impression was that some teachers were very wary of discussing migration with their students because opinions are so heated on all sides. How did you plan out this interaction that students and teachers are going to have around this topic?

The primary thing we tried to do is to speak about the main principles of political education and allowing different voices and positions to be expressed. We encourage teachers not to take a side and to actually say that they don’t have to. I am not sure how successful we were in this or not, we will see that in the feedback. In their post-training comments, the teachers said that they’re not sure if they have enough information to be impartial.

We encourage teachers not to take a side and to actually say that they don’t have to.

A lot of opinions that students bring into class come from home and echo what they hear their parents saying. They often don’t have a lot of information to back their arguments. Helping them to do this needs to include the additional step of teaching students to formulate their arguments and synthesize the information they are presented in various forms.

What educational materials that you’ve created stood out to you as particularly successful in constructively framing their discussion around migration?

Providus researcher Rasmuss Filips Geks leading a “mapping personal migration” classroom activity

The very first question we ask — if their family members or friends are or have been abroad — quickly leads the participants to see that every single person has a relative or friend abroad. And it’s not about distant relatives, it’s about their parents, brothers, sisters and children. Speaking about personal experiences helps us show that the migration process is something normal. It also helps to disassociate the term migration with the notion that it applies only to asylum seekers or refugees. This has been the tendency we’re seeing, that the word “migration” is a synonym for the word “asylum”, but that is not the case.

Speaking of personal experiences helps us show that the migration process is something normal.

Another task that we have created is to simulate the very emotional decision of what to pack in your bag if you only have 10 minutes before leaving your home for a long time. In the Latvian context, it is often associated with the historical experiences of deportation. This exercise can create different associations for teachers and for students. It is a risky exercise. But this way of looking at where you have been, where you plan to go or where your family is also helps to normalize the conversation.

Being present at the discussion in Riga, I could see how these exercises made teachers be more receptive to a more nuanced view of migration. Were you able to see the same result consistently and also in smaller regional cities which have probably seen less migration?

Teachers in smaller cities have seen just as much migration as the teachers in Riga. Some of the rural areas have emptied out because of emigration and the ties to migration are actually closer. I found it very interesting, though, that when we were in Daugavpils, which is one of the most multi-ethnic cities in Latvia where a lot of people have migration elements in their family history, that a lot of people didn’t even think first that the fact that their grandmother came from Belarus was an element of migration history because it’s so normal there. And, again, it helps to speak of migration in more neutral terms.

Teachers watching a Migration Matters video lecture during training

I know you will collect the feedback after the end of the school year, but what have you been hearing so far?

The main feedback we had was from after the trainings, which basically was that current, relevant information on migration is something that they really need and appreciate. What results are we hoping for? This project is a small step towards changing the negative outlook on migration in society. What a lot of politicians also don’t understand, is that whenever we look at migration as something negative, we also condemn those who have left Latvia and then might seek to come back at some point. A lot of return migrants have actually encountered negative attitudes from their peers: “you’re a traitor”. I think it’s very important to normalize the discourse about migration in this society and that would be the long term outcome of including migration in high school curricula.

Our short-term goal is that Latvian teachers become more open to talking about migration and are not afraid to address these politically sensitive issues in class.

Our short-term goal is that Latvian teachers become more open to talking about migration and that they are not afraid to address these politically sensitive issues in class. This is not the only sensitive issue, there are many: corruption, transparency, trust in institutions, trust among inhabitants of Latvia, non-citizen issue, language issue — these are all topics that are on our current political agenda and that should be also discussed among high school students. But a lot of times the teachers are afraid to discuss them, because they’re not ready to be in the middle of a confrontation between two polarized opinions. But this is something that is very crucial for a modern education system, that teachers are equipped to do this and that students know how to form their arguments and to speak of politically sensitive issues.

From what you’ve seen, what do you think helps normalize the conversation about migration? You mentioned using personal examples at the start of the discussion. Is there more worth pointing out?

The main lesson for me was to tone down my positivity about this, maybe, and to empathize with those who are still afraid or aren’t sure what migration means. This is something that those with a more open view on migration and integration processes often forget, that, you know, being kind of unsure or scared is also normal. It is important to be aware of this and also be open to listening to these opposing views. This is the only way we can normalize the conversation. Normalizing doesn’t mean that there will be an immediate shift to a positive outlook. It means that everyone can converse and that it’s okay to be scared of immigration or to not like it.

The main lesson for me was to tone down my positivity and to empathize with those who are still afraid or aren’t sure what migration means.

The reactions we sometimes heard from teachers in our trainings were: “Yeah, but, you know, I’ve also heard this and that”. Well, you have to be ready to acknowledge that, yes, there are crimes linked with migration, illegal migratory processes and organized crime networks. That is a problem and you have to be able to recognize this. You can’t deny all the negative aspects that are associated with migration as well. And you have to be ready to speak about them. Only with transparent information and acknowledging that there are things that need to be regulated or improved — that is the only way that you can actually maintain a dialogue with those who are not sure yet what they think about migration, for example.

What are the next steps that you are looking at in terms of this project and this direction of work?

In terms of this project, our next step will be to gather the feedback, improve the guidelines for lessons, and publish them officially. And then we will see if we can cooperate with other NGOs but also possibly with state institutions to see if this can be expanded on. Training the teachers is just one aspect, I think another one is to train other people who will encounter migrants at some point or another in their work, such as representatives of state institutions, the immigration department and so on. Currently we are also working with helping employers with the practical aspects of inclusion. Our plan is to work with local society on various levels and in various forms to increase their understanding and lessen their fear.

It has been a real pleasure to talk to you! Thank you and best of luck. On behalf of the Migration Matters team, and the professors involved, it is really great to hear that these videos are being used and thanks for sharing your process with us and our community.

**Please get in touch with us at team@migrationmatters.me if you’d like to hear more about the project in Latvia or want to collaborate with us on bringing Migration Matters video lectures to schools.**

By Julia Karmo