Musical classroom helps young refugees feel at home


Music can be a useful tool for young migrants to express themselves, overcome trauma and relate to other students. Now, one teacher in Sydney's west has gone to extraordinary lengths to bring rhythm to the classroom.

Just after 10 o'clock on a Friday morning at Lurnea High School, 20 students file into a small classroom for what many describe as their favourite class of the week.

The room is full of students who are all new arrivals to Australia, many who have fled war zones. Lurnea teaches students from over 38 different language backgrounds, but offers an intensive program for those who arrive with limited language skills. For three terms they attend classes at the Intensive English Centre, before entering high school. 

"It would be a mixture of more than half refugee students who have fled war," said teacher Kate Clarkson. 

"Many of the students would have missed a lot of schooling and they arrive with this extraordinary job of having to learn the language and get used to Australia."

For many of the students, stepping foot in Ms Clarkson's music class is a welcome relief.

Vocal warm-ups are followed by elaborate movements and group exercises. Some of the students speak to each other in Arabic or other native tongues, but are encouraged to sing in English. Their enthusiasm doesn't wane in the 40-minute class, many staying into recess to play the keyboards and guitars.

"I find it's a formula that's worked because the kids are right into it, and it's a really stress-free way of learning English," said Head Teacher of the IEC, Helen Lee.

"It's the best way for them to express themselves because learning a language is a lot more difficult than people expect, and music and drama takes away all that formality."

Nabil Al-Zuhairi, 14, came to Australia from Iraq in 2014 and has taught himself how to play the piano. He didn't speak English when he arrived and said he looks forward to his one morning of music lessons per week.

"When someone talks with the music, it makes you relax," said Nabil. "When I want to play on the piano, I play from my heart."

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Maryian Nagib was born in Egypt and arrived in Australia late last year. The 16-year-old says Ms Clarkson is a very popular teacher, who "helps us to relax" and that she "wishes we could have music every day.

Kate Clarkson has been teaching for 17 years but only recently took over the music class after a vacancy needed to be filled. Ms Clarkson has never had any formal music training but wanted to give her students the best experience she could.

After a competitive application process, she was one of 50 teachers chosen to attend a prestigious music workshop.

“TunedUP” is run by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and consists of a five-day master class.

The aim is to give teachers a solid musical foundation and provide them with clear lesson plans. The skills Ms Clarkson learned at the workshop are already having an impact at Lurnea.

"I don't think I'll stop singing and dancing because I think it's really valuable and the kids really love it," Ms Clarkson said.

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