Part one

Born in Iraq, Zaynab is 16 and came to Australia via Iran when she was 10. She lives with her parents and two younger siblings. Her father is often away working in a regional town and her mother doesn’t speak English.

Zaynab is in Year 10 at a large outer suburban Melbourne secondary school. In her English class, students are learning about debating. Her teacher, Mr Costello, is keen to engage students with topics that appeal to young people. The class has been asked to choose one of the following statements and think of arguments for and against:

  • ‘Elite sportspeople are excellent role models for our youth.’
  • ‘Reality television is making TV viewers less intelligent.’

The class gets started, but Mr Costello notices Zaynab doesn’t have a pen or anything to write on. Against school rules, she’s looking at her phone under her desk. Mr Costello approaches Zaynab and asks her why she doesn’t have any materials with her. She replies that she forgot and asks to go to her locker.

Zaynab returns with an exercise book that she clearly uses for Maths. She opens it to write something with a pen she’s borrowed from another student. Zaynab only gets as far as copying the topics from the board before she asks if she can go to the toilet. Mr Costello sighs yes.

When Zaynab returns to class, she’s well behind where the other students are up to in their work. Mr Costello asks the class to form groups of four so they can share their ideas. Zaynab doesn’t try to join a group, so he assigns her to one. Group work begins and Mr Costello sees that Zaynab is not participating. He also notices she’s again looking at her phone.

Mr Costello is concerned about how Zaynab will fulfil this year’s course requirements and what she’ll be able to achieve beyond Year 10. There are 10 minutes left until class finishes and he wonders what he can do to support Zaynab’s learning.

Part two

Mr Costello asks the class to stop work and listen. He tells them he has noticed that some people have forgotten the school rule about phones. ‘Could you please be more careful and remember not to get them out?’ he asks.

Zaynab looks sheepish and quietly puts her phone in her pocket. For the remainder of the class, Mr Costello asks different groups to share their ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments and he writes them on the board. When class finishes, it’s obvious to him Zaynab hasn’t done any work.

During a spare period, Mr Costello is in his office, which he shares with Ms Nguyen, an EAL teacher. He tells her he’s concerned about Zaynab, and Ms Nguyen asks him some questions about her. Ms Nguyen is aware that English is not Zaynab’s home language, and she wonders if Zaynab is having trouble understanding the curriculum and what’s expected of her.

Mr Costello shows Ms Nguyen his class plan for studying debating. She points out that the topics are engaging for students familiar with mainstream Australian culture, but might be not be familiar to some EAL students. She also wonders how comfortable Zaynab is with debating, and whether she feels confident to voice disagreement in a classroom setting.

Mr Costello gives a lot of thought to what Ms Nguyen has said. He wonders also about Zaynab’s poor organisational skills and the fact she seems lost when asked to find other students to work with. He leaves his office and peers into Zaynab’s current class. They have a casual relief teacher, and most students are mucking around and chatting with friends. Zaynab is alone and again looking at her phone. Mr Costello wonders if a lack of friends is also affecting Zaynab.

Two terms later, Zaynab is starting to flourish. With the school’s support, Mr Costello has observed Ms Nguyen’s EAL lessons and has also attended professional development sessions on mainstream EAL strategies. He’s using what he learnt to make the curriculum more accessible to EAL learners like Zaynab.

Mr Costello also had a chat to the school librarian, who runs a lunchtime games club. The librarian has been instrumental in finding ways to involve and encourage Zaynab in the life of the school. Zaynab has made two friends through the games club, and Mr Costello now also ensures he finds supportive ways to establish group work in his classes.

Zaynab’s organisational skills remain a work-in-progress, but she’s not the only student in his class who needs support in this area. Mr Costello is trialling using plastic pocket display folders so that students’ paper and worksheets are easier to manage. He also allows time for students to organise their folders and return them to their lockers before the bell goes.