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But what about the polar bears? Multilingualism and Identity: Re-imagining a traditional ‘Animal Habitats’ unit by centering belonging

By Maifa Filion, Grade 1 teacher, East Campus

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.

– David Sobel

This article explores how a team of Grade 1 teachers at UWCSEA in Singapore used place-based learning to support language learning while creating a sense of belonging.  

Animal habitats is a popular area of learning for many Grade 1 students. With research* demonstrating that children’s identities can be strengthened through place-based learning and exploring and learning about local habitats is a perfect way into this. We often see children’s imaginations captured by polar regions and as an educator of young children, tension can arise between wanting to give children agency in their interests and introducing them to new areas of learning. Having read The Power of Place by Ark, Liebtag and McClennen 2020 and with encouragement and inspiration from our Interdisciplinary Learning Coach, the Grade One team at UWCSEA East decided to re-imagine the Animal Habitats unit with a focus on the various habitats around our campus and in Singapore, while also including the captivating polar region.

Children learn best when they feel a sense of belonging and an aspect of belonging is building a connection with local environments.  In order to support this, regular visits to our gardens on campus were built into our timetable. As children immersed themselves in the gardens, they were encouraged to slow down, engage their senses and look carefully at what was around them. While in the gardens, children discovered snails, butterflies and dragonflies. Storytelling became a popular feature of these outdoor sessions and children became natural storytellers, based on their observations. The children’s agency began to develop as they were strongly motivated to research the habitats that were supporting these insects. Back in the classroom, children developed the skills needed for non-fiction writing and our librarian gave us a steady supply of storybooks written by Singaporean authors. Pandemic restrictions meant that we could not go on field trips so on weekends, children and their families visited  MacRitchie reservoir and Sungei Buloh, sending photos and videos back to class. This spring boarded into learning about the habitats of monitor lizards, crocodiles, long-tailed macaques and hornbill birds. 

UWCSEA East PS children outdoor learning
UWCSEA East PS children outdoor learning on campus

By engaging with our local environments children deepened their sense of belonging

Building a sense of belonging means equitable access. This unit provides a rich opportunity for language development. Engagements needed to be created so that children were able to deeply grasp the meaning of the key vocabulary and our language learners' needs were met. Inspired by the work of Ceci Gomez-Galvez (@cecigomez_g) an Interactive Word Wall was created by enlisting the support of our languages department and our Grade 1 parent community. Using their home languages, parents, children and teachers created videos translating and defining the key vocabulary and giving the word context. 

Children accessed these videos using QR codes. Parents engaged brothers, sisters, grandparents and neighbours in creating these videos. Our multilingual learners delighted in hearing their home languages spoken and all children built on their learning from language specialist classes.

UWCSEA East PS multilinguism

Multilingualism: G1 Students engaging with our Interactive Word Wall to support development of key vocabulary

Our Literacy Coach guided our Grade 1 team in developing engagements that deepened the understanding of key vocabulary and focused on the phonological awareness of words that children may use while writing. 

But what about the polar bears?

Throughout the unit, children remained curious about polar regions and through discussions, misconceptions about the arctic began to arise. It was time to take our learning to a global level and a connection was formed with Ilitaqsiniq: The National Literacy Council in Nunavut, which is located just south of the Arctic Circle. The children’s learning continues to deepen and they are now creating and sending videos based on the habitats of Singapore to students at Ilitaqsiniq. In exchange Ilitaqsiniq will send us videos about life in Rankin Island. They promise to talk about polar bears too!

*Ark, Liebtag and McClennen 2020

Books, stories and folktales  used in the classroom:

  • Makan Mischief - Evelyn Sue Wong
  • Just a Little Mynah Bird - Evelyn Sue Wong
  • Go to Sleep, Gecko! - Margaret Read MacDonald 
  • Folk Tales from Bali and Lombok -  Margaret Muth Alibash 

Books, people and websites that inspired teachers’ thinking:

To learn more about  Ilitaqsiniq: The National Literacy Council in Nunavut visit