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Culture

Telling Tales to Combat Juvenile Violence

Reports of teenage violence amongst immigrants that hit the headlines in March triggered a number of local initiatives to combat the problem, including one unusual project at a Berlin elementary school.

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Can fairy tales help immigrants learn German?

After police were called in to crack down on violence in a Berlin high school, recent weeks have seen the issue of immigration return to the top of Germany's social agenda. Politicians across the board convinced that addressing language skills needs to be the first step forward.

But that's easier said than done. Schools across the country have been brainstorming to find how best to get children with non-German mother tongues up to speed before their failure to keep pace slides into anti-social behavior.

The cross-cultural appeal of fairytales

It might sound like a tall tale, but one Berlin school has decided to counter the harsh realities of inner-city immigrant life with flights of fantasy, dreaming up a project monitored by researchers from Berlin's UdK art school in which first graders are read a fairy tale twice a week.

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With 80 percent of the pupils at the Anna Lindh Elementary School hailing from immigrant families, language tests conducted both before and after the school year will show whether or not the experiment has helped the children's linguistic progress.

Bringing stories alive

The stories are read by professional actors. Rather than sitting at the front of the class reading aloud in a time-honored tradition guaranteed to put the average six-year-old to sleep in five minutes, they use liberal doses of pantomime, altering their voice and expression and bringing the stories to life in a way the children can grasp even when they don't understand every word.

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Actors helps bring the stories alive

Sabine Kolbe, who trained at the UdK, says that when she first began the job, the children were restless and easily distracted. But it wasn't long before she noticed a change in their attitude.

"Listening and recognizing language patterns has an immediate impact," she explained, and points out that the story-telling process also provides plenty of opportunity to learn new vocabulary. "When we read the Grimm Brothers' 'The Seven Ravens,' we came across the word 'jug' and no one knew what it was. So I brought one in the next time and the children learned a new word."

Pessimism

The initiative was the brainchild of Marie-Agnes von Stechow, a 61-year-old expert in German language and literature who tutors struggling school children. In her experience, many of them have far more pressing problems than learning to read and write.

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"I've been doing this kind of work for five years and I've seen how urgently these children need help," she said. "They have no idea what's to become of them. I once asked a 10-year-old what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said he'd never get a job anyway so it didn't matter. They know their horizons are limited and that stops them from making any effort to learn."

Von Stechow is convinced that the roots of this pessimism lie in linguistic isolation. "Language is the only way to reach out to them and make them equal members of society," she insisted.

Getting the ball rolling

After the Deutsche Bank Foundation pledged 32,000 euros ($39,400) of support, she joined forces with the Anna Lindh Elementary School and the UdK art school to design a project she's confident will be a boon to children who come from other cultures. The underlying principle is that fairy tales have universal appeal -- in any language.

"(The project) is about sitting together and listening, while linguistically, words and sentences are often repeated, which allows for better understanding," she said.

That's not all, she insisted. The fascination of fairy tales is as much about content as language.

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"In fairytales, conflicts tend to be solved in a very simple way that children can easily understand," she pointed out. "Moreover, the whole process is an enjoyable one which improves kids' imagination and motivates them to read." Initially limited to two years, the scheme at the Anna Lindh School is still the only one of its kind in Germany. But Marie-Agnes von Stechow hopes it won't be long before other schools realize that telling tales isn't always a bad thing.

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