How this small community language school in Clayton is thriving

By Indira Laisram
BCLS // Pic supplied

That every community views its heritage as a source of pride is a no brainer. And when settling abroad, often, the older members want to engage the younger members with the opportunity to learn the language and culture, which then becomes a fabric of the society they live in.

Based on this premise, the Bengali Language and Cultural School (BLCS), perhaps one of the oldest Bengali schools in Australia, was established in 1984 by few Bengali professionals who were settled in Melbourne. Of course now with a growing community, there are few more Bengali language schools in Melbourne.

Says Dr Nawshad Haque, a scientist with Australia’s National Science Agency CSIRO and  former BLCS president, “Bengali or Bangla is a very rich language, we want to teach the children not only about Rabindranath Tagore or Kazi Nazrul Islam but also about our beautiful culture.”

Haque, like many others at BLCS, hails from Bangladesh but Bengali is a language common to both India and Bangladesh and according to Britannica, is spoken by more than 300 million people. The school, therefore, is based on the principles to teach students from Bengali and other interested communities and dedicated to that bigger sense of education for all.

So, in the early 1980s as Bengali families trickled into Melbourne, they started conducting small classes in their homes. Slowly, recalls Haque, as the community grew the school got its name and registered with the Victorian government in the 1990s. Initially, BLCS continued in various places, but it was in 2002 that the school moved to its current location at the Westall Secondary College, Clayton.

BCLS // Pic supplied

Although he was not part of its formative years, Haque has been associated with BLCS for 17 years now when his children started attending the classes. In fact, Haque says it was this opportunity to connect with other parents in the beginning that made him get involved with the school. He became a volunteer, was the President and is now an advisor.

Current President of the school Dr Md Samsuzzoha, a lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, who has been credited with introducing the learning management system (LMS), a software application that provides the framework that handles all aspects of the learning process, says the school started with traditional books and slowly changed the lesson plans.

“We kept moving and progressing this way,” says Samsuzzoha, who has also been associated with the school for ten years now.

BLCS follows the general school terms of four a year and has a term-by-term curriculum—all output based. “Community Languages of Victoria (CLV) has prescribed curriculum which we need to run over a term and there are certain key performance indicators which we need to fulfill,” says Haque. The classes are held every Sunday for two and half hours.

BCLS // Pic supplied

While mainstream schools are struggling to go online, BLCS is now moving to parallel sessions of both online and offline classes, thanks to its talented staff and their “good ideas”. The school pivoted online when COVID-19 came along. “So, nobody can miss anything anymore and because of LMS students also have set study plans,” says Samsuzzoha.

Farzana Sharmin Tanima, a teacher who volunteers at the school, says on an average there are more than 40 students each week regularly attending classes. More students attend various events and on other occasions. She teaches children from the age group of four-and-half years to those in the 13-14 age group. “After that they are in grade 11 and 12 when they have to study hard. Also, by that time they are able to read write and speak,” she says.

Tanima believes the challenge is in preparing lessons in such a way that students feel joy learning a new language. Parents determine what is right for a child but sometimes some children are less interested, she observes. She was elated when one such student learnt the alphabets to write “ami tomake bhalobashi” (I love you) to his mother on Mother’s Day. The overjoyed mother thanked Tanima profusely. “After all the hard work, such joy gives you satisfaction,” says Tanima.

The school is run by an Executive Committee comprising ten members and its president is elected once a year through its Annual General Meeting. It also has a Child Safety Officer and a Child First Aid Officer meeting the CLV guidelines. “Because this is a community project, we also try to involve lots of people. We have created some subgroups that can focus on specific goals—something outside our constitution,” says Samsuzzoha.

Going forward, the next target is to introduce the language through more cultural projects, says Samsuzzoha. Now, apart from teaching Bengali language, the school organises different Bengali cultural events such as Ekushey February or language movement day (it is now a Unesco-declared International Mother Language Day), Bangladesh Independence Day, Pohela Boishak or Bengali New Year. It also organises other annual events such as parents-teachers get-together, annual cultural function, among other things. There are three other teachers including a dedicated and qualified cultural teacher for teaching music and dance.

In the words of grade six student ShNaajh, “The fun part is how they teach, instead of just saying this means that in Bengali, they get us to practice the sentences with the others in the class.” She also enjoys meeting new friends and taking part in other activities such as dancing, singing and recitation.

A community school based on the benevolence of active members and some funding from the government, the Bengali Language and Cultural School is a space where art, culture, love and friendships thrive.

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