Teaching our students to become informed global citizens

I have enjoyed being privy to some of the online conversations of colleagues over the past few weeks as they discuss the importance of Learning Spaces for our 21st century students. More recently, their discussion has revolved around future learning spaces, specifically in relation to refugee crises around the world.

As you may be aware, I spent considerable time investigating this very issue last year in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis, with a central focus on Za’atari. This learning experience is something that has stayed with me since that time and one that changed me profoundly. However, I have had the luxury to go on with my every day life and forget that my reality is vastly different from millions of others. I have been distracted with my first world problems without ever feeling fear over my physical safety or long-term wellbeing.

So, what was the point of spending all of that time, energy, and emotional investment on a topic which I cannot potentially impact directly? Well, here is where I’ve changed my thinking – as a teacher. I bring my knowledge of global issues into the discussions with my students. I enlighten my students with another perspective of what day-after-day life is like for millions of children their own age. I do this in order to help them to develop an understanding of broader values such as respect, civility, equity, justice and responsibility. As the Victorian Curriculum states, Civics and Citizenship curriculum plays a crucial role in helping our students to become active and informed citizens and to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to question, understand, and positively contribute to the world in which they live.

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This is home for all of us, no matter what your beliefs. We really are all in this together.

I have limited control over the injustices which are in place throughout Syria and beyond. That is certainly not to say that I have given up on working towards them changing. Not at all. However, I realise that some of my greatest power is to have the next generation be more adequately informed on a local, national, and international level. As the Victorian Curriculum states, I know that by ‘investigating contemporary issues and events, students learn to value their belonging in a diverse and dynamic society, develop points of view and positively contribute locally, nationally, regionally and globally’.

I have incorporated my understanding of the importance of global issues and future learning spaces (here and around the world) and applied that in a setting where I can have the greatest impact – with my classrooms full of students. Our students may never physically set foot outside of a 100km radius of their current address. However, the children we teach will soon (if not already) be participating as members of our interconnected global society through avenues such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Musical.ly, Snapchat, etc. My aim is to instil the importance for my students to become reflective, active, and informed decision-makers, both now, and in the future.

Ultimately, I am aiming for my students to realise the position of privilege they are in due to their own global location, and to use that privilege with a sense of respect, purpose, and to become tolerant, thoughtful, and informed global citizens.

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Happy teaching!

 

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Today’s spaces to learn

Learning today can literally happen anywhere and anytime. This isn’t necessarily anything new. However, with today’s ingrained global-connectedness, we are now able to be exposed to teaching ideas at the touch of a button.

Many educators take advantage of having other educators only a click away, and rightly so. Our ability to create an engaging, intelligent, and supportive network of like-minded educators on the other side of the world has never been easier. But, we mustn’t forget to implement these ideas with discretion. What do I mean? Well, it is important that we don’t get so caught up in the next big idea that we forget to accurately consider whether it is right for the group of students we are teaching.

As a teacher who is currently doing a lot of casual relief teaching at a variety of schools, I think it is wonderful to see the value that schools currently place on learning spaces. The schools I work in aren’t necessarily in the wealthiest suburbs, nor do they have bucket loads of funding to spend. However, they have ensured they didn’t miss the boat and offer a variety of spaces for their students to learn – indoor, outdoor, online, group spaces, independent spaces, etc.

But (sorry…there is a but), it would seem that some educators aren’t recognising that not all spaces suit all learners, and therefore they aren’t preparing an alternative. For example, many schools now offer large, open learning areas where one, two, or even more classes may work together in a shared space. In just the past week alone I worked in a school where four classes inhabited the same learning space (yes, it was huge!). Yet, they simply happened to cohabit the space rather than actively interact with one another within it.

The large, open space had become divided with furniture to try and create boundaries and limit noise flowing from one room to another. It also meant that because each group was working independently from the others, some classes were running quiet activities whilst others were running something which created excitement (and noise). Furthermore, it was an uphill battle all day for those students who already struggled to focus or filter our noise as their attention was constantly challenged with activities occurring somewhere else within eyesight or earshot.

Let me clarify that I am absolutely an advocate for providing a variety of learning spaces to suit a diverse range of learners. However, educators still must tailor their programs to suit the student group they have from year to year and the learning spaces where they are situated. Teachers don’t often get to choose what classroom they will teach in, and most often they make the best out of whatever room becomes theirs. However, in the instance above, a better alternative may have been to engage in greater teacher collaboration so that classes sharing an open space were also sharing similar learning activities. This would potentially reduce the likelihood of distractions from other rooms interfering with their own students’ learning.

Also, a missed opportunity for the four classes mentioned above was that an open learning space invites occupants to share and interact with one another. There absolutely needs to be breakaway spaces for students who need less noise, less sensory input to work. However, if the shared area is effectively utilised, then it can potentially create a more harmonious, large learning environment, instead of trying to manufacture separate ones which challenge each other.

So, I would encourage educators to absolutely embrace new technology, new ideas for classroom designs, and new teaching strategies that we are fortunate enough to be able to research and share at the touch of a button. But, please remember to incorporate the ones that will be most beneficial for your student group from year to year whilst making the best use of the learning environments you have to work in.

Happy teaching!

Student wellbeing and learning spaces – is there a connection?

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As an adult, it is hard not to make comparisons between what school life was like for ourselves as children versus today’s students. I’m of a vintage where I still have vivid memories of the smell of freshly printed copies of worksheets (albeit, I was inhaling toxic spirit fumes that had lingered on our purple-printed papers, but that’s beside the point!). However, there are aspects of our school days that stay with us into adulthood, and beyond. Some good, some great, and even some that may be downright awful. One thing I don’t ever remember being taught about in primary school was the importance of my own emotional and psychological wellbeing. We certainly covered general physical health to some degree (e.g. exercise, nutrition), but I can’t recall anything extending beyond that, even in my high school years.

So, what has changed to make this become necessary today? Firstly, I am a huge advocate for explicit teaching and discussion about wellbeing. I am of the firm belief that children who feel secure, calm, (and ideally happy) are much better suited to be engaged in their learning versus children who are not. The current Victorian Curriculum has numerous links to student wellbeing, both physically and emotionally. Many include topics that we as teachers will be covering include things such as analysing our own emotions and how they can influence our decision making with friends and family. Many schools now have Wellbeing Programs in place, along with Wellbeing Staff members.

Concerns about our students’ mental health today is real. The statistics are alarming. The 2015 Australian report of The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents states that in Australia approximately one in every seven children and/or young person has experienced a mental health disorder in the last year. Rates for depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide among teenagers is particularly worrying, with approximately one in ten indicating they have engaged in self-harming behaviour, with three quarters doing so in the past 12 months.

In a class of 30 grade 5/6 students I taught last week, we discussed the everyday pressures they face. Extra tuition outside of school, extra-curricular sporting/artistic/music/language classes, scholarship tutoring. In this Grade 5/6 class alone, we ran a survey and more than 70% of students had some kind of activity scheduled for every weekday after school. Furthermore, there was no child with less than three weekday outside-of-school commitments, whether that be before or after school care, sports, tutoring, or tuition. On top of that, the days they had off were often spent rushing around for their siblings’ activities. (As a parent of four kids, I know this feeling all too well – “Quick! We don’t want to be late!”, “Hurry up! It’s time to go!”).

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Our children today lead busy lives, which isn’t to say that we didn’t when we were children, but with the onslaught of constant online connectedness, I think we have failed to pass on the gift of being switched off and just being a kid. I am not trying to romanticise the olden days of my youth – there were plenty of times I would complain of being so bored with nothing to do! But, I had an opportunity to be bored, to not be rushed somewhere every day, to slow my pace and to just be. How many of our students today can say the same? 

With the Australian Government committed to provide strategies to focus on prevention and early intervention of mental health issues, it is no wonder that we now see it filtering into our curriculum. And although some of the statistics are for children who will have left the primary school system, I feel it is important that we equip them with knowledge and strategies (and even support services) before that point.

Since I am not a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or the like, it is highly unlikely that I am going to be directly involved in the ongoing counselling of my students, other than to offer immediate crisis support if and when necessary. However, there are things that I can do to empower my students, and that is where learning spaces fit in. We are aware that children have different preferred learning styles, but they also have preferences for the spaces in which they learn. These spaces can vary from day to day, and from task to task. The important thing is to ensure you provide options. Allow students a little bit of independence to make responsible choices about where they are choosing to learn. Of course there are consequences if they misuse your trust, but a student who is already under pressure and possibly trying their hardest just to get through the day is going to be more inclined to do so when provided with an activity that matches their learning style along with a learning space that innately appeals to them. 

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As an educator, part of our role is getting to know and understand the children in our care. We need to be able to support them with guidance and boundaries in order to prepare them for the real world, but it is possible to do that while still honouring them as individuals. Offer spaces where they can learn somewhere other than at their desks. Provide tasks where they can choose how to convey their learning. Develop scaffolding so that working as part of a group doesn’t become the sole responsibility of one child. Plan for lessons that provide interaction with people within their community and beyond to broaden their understanding and their horizons. But most of all, create a safe, welcoming, and nurturing learning space where they can be themselves and where they will be supported while they learn the skills to look after themselves as well as others.

Happy teaching!

A mindmap for Za’atari’s future learning spaces

I found it useful to use a mind map to highlight areas that need to be considered and addressed whilst developing useful and meaningful learning spaces which respond to the educational and developmental needs of the children in Za’atari.

Mind Map

 

A moment to reflect

For the last few months I have been fortunate enough to be involved with a group of enthusiastic educators whilst researching the place and contribution of learning spaces in education.

The research and learning that has taken place could not have been possible without the collective input of my peers. They have provided me with ideas, solutions, and motivation when at times I felt challenged. I can also wholeheartedly say that without the guidance, support and facilitation of one particular member and leader (thank you Adam Staples) none of this would have been possible.

Our research over the course of the last 4 weeks specifically has focussed on a topic that is not easy to digest – the Syrian refugee crisis. At many times, I found myself questioning the lack of humanity that people are capable of, and wondering what on earth I could do to make any improvements for such an enormous problem.

However, out of this I have come to develop a new sense of gratitude and inspiration. Gratitude for all of the unearned privileges I have been reminded that I have each and every day. But also extremely grateful to know that my children are going to be fortunate enough to be educated by the types of teachers I have come to know within this research group. The group of peers I have worked alongside are inspired, committed and passionate educators. They have approached each and every aspect of our research with determination and perseverance. They have inspired me with their ability to to create holistically-sound programs to meet each child’s educational and developmental needs.

As this experience together comes to a formal end, I am thankful for the changes they have afforded me, for I have a new outlook and perception of just what I can strive to achieve for myself and my students. And I am proud to know that the future of education within Australia (and beyond?) will be influenced by them.

Happy teaching.

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A mission statement for Za’atari’s future learning spaces

I have recently been spending some time trying to gather my thoughts to create a relevant mission statement of what I would hope to achieve by implementing future learning spaces within the Za’atari refugee camp.

Although the process of researching Za’atari as an educational context has been upsetting, disturbing and many times overwhelming, it is also relevant and vitally important that I know. My new knowledge now empowers me to contribute to the urgent changes that are needed, whether that be by becoming directly involved myself or by ensuring my students are educated to become informed, global citizens. Or, ideally, both.

I urge you to consider doing the same.

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(Mandela, 2003).

Happy teaching.

My Mission Statement (link to page)

 

Educational starting places in Za’atari

Teachers all around the world face the challenge of providing a stimulating, relevant and engaging educational program that is going to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to try and prepare our students for life in the “real world”. How then does a teacher prepare a Syrian refugee child living in Za’atari for this? For many, their “real world” experiences have shattered any chance of the innocence of childhood. Many bear the scars – emotionally, psychologically and physically. So, how can a teacher make a difference? What educational facilities are available to them?

The children and families of Za’atari face enormous challenges as they attempt to rebuild their lives from within the confines of an indefinite future of a refugee camp. No set timeframe of how long they will be there. No confirmation of if they will ever be able to go home to Syria or will they be able to start a new life somewhere else? It is uncertainty on top of more uncertainty. An ongoing liminal space.

But, days and weeks and months pass. Children get older and as they do they are continuing to potentially miss out on opportunities which will help them now and in the future.

Although the Za’atari camp is away from the terrors of war, there is still a level of fear, particularly for girls moving about the camp. Their safety against attack and (or rape) is paramount and often this can result in girls being kept hostage of sorts within the confines of their small tent or caravan. However, so much of the evidence collated from around the world today shows that the education of girls is paramount to the overall increase in improvements to local communities and society in general.

  1. Reduction of child and maternal mortality
  2. Improvement of child nutrition and health
  3. Lower birth rates
  4. Enhancement of women’s domestic role and their political participation
  5. Improvement in their economic productivity and growth
  6.  Protection of girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse and exploitation

“Girls’ education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments, yielding both private and social benefits that accrue to individuals, families, and society”. (Educating Girls Matters, n.d)

That urge to protect their children spreads to the boys as well, and many are restricted to staying nearby their families. However, progress is being made. Even with only 2% of international humanitarian aid being allocated to education, the numbers of children attending some type of formal education whilst living in Za’atari has increased. in 2013, a UNICEF report showed that attendance across all age groups was 51.6%. The figures from 2015 show an encouraging trend amongst the younger children, but a rapid dropoff without suitable upper secondary and/or tertiary options. Some feel that this is due to the perception that the degree with be worthless when they finally return home to Syria. More likely is the lack of any suitable upper secondary or tertiary options to pursue.

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Image 1 (2015)

Many adults and children are involved in education to improve their knowledge and skills, but also to contribute to the community and help pass the time. A teacher in Za’atari said “I graduated from my law degree and I was working as a trainee in Syria”. When he was asked why he had chosen to become a teacher. “I wanted to share my education with others rather than keep it to myself,” he replied. “I’m happy to be able to give back to the children living in this camp.” (Save the Children, 2014)

The facilities of the education spaces in Za’atari are varied. Physically, spaces are split – often one area for girls, one for boys; one classroom session for boys and one session for girls. “In a camp where there is little to do it’s so important to have an outlet to keep healthy and busy. “We now go to bed early because we have something to look forward to the next day,” said a 16-year-old with a smile. “I used to go to sleep at 2am but now by 9pm I am already in bed because I have a long day of activities ahead of me.” (Save the Children, 2014)

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Image 2 (2013)

Pleasingly, though, not all of the educational resources are as basic as one might assume. For example, Relief International runs a program which is designed to cover both the educational and psycho-social development of the children.

  • A remedial education center in the camp which provides classes in Arabic, Math, Science and English for grades 1-11. The remedial classes enable the children to develop their skills and stimulate their participation in their daily environment.
  • Classes for boys are provided in the morning as their formal education takes place in the afternoon and girls come to the center in the afternoon after their classes at the main school. There are four periods of 45 minutes including one for supervised recreational activities where students can enjoy competitive and team building activities, develop their imagination and learn to interact amicably with other students in an open space and a safe and environment. Most importantly, these activities promote a sense of normalcy by giving them the space, time and right to play as children.
  • Each class has a teacher as well as a case manager who ensures the child attends the remedial education classes regularly, tracks the child’s educational progress and provides individual follow up. Their role is also to provide additional guidance, monitor children’s behavior and help identify and work with children who need further psycho-social support.
  • Community mobilizers create a link between refugee families and the center, ensuring awareness about the services provided and information of how to access it, as well as the positive opportunities that extra educational support can bring.
  • To increase the safety of the children, community mobilizers also accompany students between the Relief International center and meeting points in the camp and the main school.
  • All teachers, case managers and community mobilizers are Syrians from the refugee camp. This creates understanding and trust between staff and children as they are familiar and have been through the similar experiences, whilst also providing employment to those living the camp.
  • Other staff are Jordanian from the local town, which also provides employment for those in the host community

(Relief International, 2013. and n.d)

Upon further investigation, the motivation and desire to provide the most educationally relevant and engaging programs whilst still overseeing and managing the wellbeing of each child has commenced through the work of agencies such as UNICEF, Save the Children and Relief International, to name a few.

Perhaps the challenge now is how can these educational facilities and program models be made accessible for ALL refugee children. And furthermore, what steps are necessary to transform them into experiences that provide a comprehensive end-to-end educational model (pre-school through to Tertiary) which will be relevant and meaningful for life beyond Za’atari.

After all, that is the hope of so many refugees confined to living there.

 

Links

Image 1 (2015). Retrieved on October 15, 2015 from http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/settlement.php?id=176&region=77&country=107. Direct link –  Za’atari Camp CCFA; Education/Youth Factsheet

Image 2 (2015). Retrieved on October 15, 2015 from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/jordan-zaatari-schools-syrian-refugess.html