‘Fortunate few’ responsibilities

On Friday my youngest child began her first official steps into starting primary school. It had been a long time coming (for her!) as she’s been asking since Easter how long it would be until she could go to school. So, when her first day of ‘school transition’ finally rolled around, needless to say she was beyond excited.

Whilst she quickly and happily settled into what would be her new learning space along with a moshpit of other 4 and 5 year olds, I did pause to reflect on her good fortune. As a young girl, had she been born in any number of other countries, she would not have been entitled to an education. However, she, along with her two older sisters, have both had not just the right to attend school, but an expectation to attend, learn and then contribute back to their community.

When I studied my own family’s dynamic a little further, I also realised that my eldest child, a boy, who would have been more likely to receive an education wherever he was born may not have been as fortunate to have had the additional help he has needed. As a child with autism, what would his outlook have been if were a child in Zaatari?

So, while Friday was a milestone event for my little one and something that I am consciously aware she is lucky to be experiencing, it is also a timely reminder to remember that millions of others just like her don’t have this as their reality.

There are millions of children just like my own (and yours!) all around the world whom we don’t see. As a result, they are still growing up, but without the skills and knowledge they will need to contribute fully as adults. And, whether we like it or not, those future adults will be involved in making decisions and choices in our global community that we are all a part of.

What then?

#YesAllGirls

Food for thought.

Happy teaching.

 

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“Generation Standstill”

I have had the opportunity to revisit the Syrian refugee crisis over the past few weeks for study purposes. After looking into it intently almost a year ago, and then revisiting it in May of this year, it is somewhat disheartening to see that although some progress is being made, there is still an awfully long way to go.

Throughout my latest research, I came across a documentary about Syrian refugees titled “Generation Standstill”. The title immediately resonated with me as it perfectly and succinctly captures the precise dilemma faced by millions of Syrian refugee children. Not only have they lost the tangible and familiar objects of their past, but they are being robbed of their futures as well. Globally, the UNHCR reported just last month that over half of the world’s refugee children (3.7 million) have no school to go to.  Adding to the problem is the rapid rise in worldwide refugee numbers, including children. In 2014 alone, the refugee school-age population grew by 30%, meaning that an additional 12,000 classrooms and 20,000 teachers would be needed annually to meet the demand (UNHCR, 2016). 

The conflict in Syria has reversed the positive educational trends that the country once enjoyed, with school enrolments dropping from 90% in 2009 to only 60% in June this year (UNHCR, 2016). That 30% drop means that 2.1 million children in Syria are without education. Every. Single. Day…..Indefinitely.

For those who have fled Syria, only 39% of Syrian school-aged and adolescent refugee are enrolled in schools in Turkey, 40% in Lebanon, and 70% in Jordan. These numbers equate to a further 900,000 children accessing education. Every. Single. Day….Indefinitely (UNHCR, 2016).

So, where does education fit in within a liminal space for those who are now part of “Generation Standstill”? UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, states “As the international community considers how best to deal with the refugee crisis, it is essential that we think beyond basic survival. Education enables refugees to positively shape the future of both their countries of asylum and their home countries when they one day return.” (UNHCR, 2016).

One thing that has remained constant over the course of my 15 months of reflecting on the Syrian refugee crisis is the reluctance of many countries to actively work to address it. It is evident that the task at hand is too great for Syria’s neighbouring countries, and some countries have gone above and beyond in terms of welcoming refugees and assisting them to settle, recover, assimilate and start new lives. However, the silence of others is deafening.

There are challenges for Syrian children to attend education. Some are turned away from schools for not having the necessary paperwork even though legislations states they are able to attend. Others are concerned for their safety when commuting through parts of large refugee camps or foreign countries, or suffer bullying whilst struggling through language barriers. Ohers spend their days, seven days a week, being the sole breadwinner for their families, cutting their education short in order for their family to survive. It is time that the future of learning spaces for refugees adequately addresses these challenges. My mentor suggested mobile education – education that comes to the children. Another suggestion I considered was education via television, as many have access to a very basic television, even in some of the most appalling living conditions. Many others before me have discussed the benefits of education via online channels. All of these are worthy of being considered if there is the chance that children can begin preparing for their future again.

So, what can we do when we are not there to help firsthand? What can I do, here in Melbourne? What can you do? Take an interest. As an educator, educate your students to the realities of what life is like for children around the world, refugees and otherwise. With awareness often comes action. We want to ensure that the children whom we are educating today will make informed and empathetic decisions when interacting within their global society. Furthermore, we want the students in our classrooms to understand that refugee education “is one of the few opportunities we have to transform and build the next generation so they can change the fortunes of the tens of millions of forcibly displaced people globally” (Grandi, UNHCR, 2016).

And in the meantime, we want to do all that is within our own power not allow “Generation Standstill” to lose both their pasts and their futures. We wouldn’t allow it for our own children, so why should we allow it for any child, any where?

Happy teaching!

Footpath philosopher

Isn’t it funny how words can sometimes have new meaning based on your own recent experiences?

Yesterday, while enjoying the springtime sunshine in Melbourne, I came across some graffiti. I know – not that uncommon. However, I realised as I walked past the series of words left strategically positioned along the footpath that each word resonated differently with me that day than they would have previously.

The first words I came across were these:

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Now, this could mean many different things for different people. However, for me, it was reinforcing the change that has occurred in my own thought patterns. Over the past year, I have spent many hours having my interpretations and perceptions of things challenged, enhanced and transformed. Without this change, my preconceived “understandings” would have continued to limit the choices I felt I was capable of making, particularly in regards to what I could offer as an educator. I have learned to embrace the wonder in the unknown, the beauty in taking risks and the enormous benefits of making mistakes and reflecting on these for an enhanced learning experience.

It also seemed relevant due to my recently broadened perspective on what one person’s role as an educator may be able to contribute on a scale much bigger than a classroom teacher. Investigating the Syrian refugee crisis highlighted to me the importance of education on a global scale, but it also freed my thinking beyond that of purely academic learning for any student, whether they be in a refugee camp in Za’atari or in a classroom in suburban Australia. For me, “Free Your Mind” was reinforcing that sometimes we need to let go of old beliefs in order to experience insights into ourselves that we never knew we could. As a teacher, I believe this is invaluable, as we have to remember to role model that we never stop learning either.

The next words I came across were:

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These two words – Freedom and Unity – written parallel, yet upside down from one another, seemed particularly relevant when considering my new understanding of the situation facing the world regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. In Australia, as with many non-European countries, it is easy to distract and distance ourselves from the issue as we largely don’t have to see or experience the desperation or distraught families trying to find their way amidst chaos and uncertainty. We see snippets of it on our morning or evening news, but we can then redirect our attention to our own busy lives. However, it struck me that the author of these words chose to put these two together in this fashion, for the more I have come to consider the plight of the largest crisis of displaced people since WWII, the more I see that “unity” can lead to “freedom”.

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When people unite, they can contribute and collaborate to become a stronger force in the effort to making positive change in all of their lives. When countries unite, we spread the load and try and avoid potential “burn out” (for want of a better term) on only neighbouring countries bearing the load of the 4 million refugees trying to escape Syria. When teachers unite, they can share their knowledge, skills and experiences in an effort to embrace a better educational program for our students. Through unity, we can work together towards establishing freedom, whether that be for the refugees or for the students within our classrooms.

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Perhaps freedom really comes from having unity to begin with, for if you are not restricted by having to challenge for your position in the world (or the classroom?), then perhaps you have freedom already?

The final word I came across was this:

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I like that this was posed as a question. After all, it is such a personal question that requires intimate reflection to try to respond. However, in light of the train-of-thought that I found myself on during my sunny midday walk, I felt that this word was asking me to consider what “life” would mean without those things? What sort of life am I expecting others to live if I am unable to free my mind beyond my own relatively narrow firsthand experiences of the world; if I am unable to practice unity within my classroom and as a citizen of the world; and if I am not able to recognise a person’s right to the basic freedoms of humanity that so many billions around the world are privileged to take for granted daily?

At the end of my walk, I finished feeling relieved. A strange response, perhaps, given the enormity of challenges that face the world today. However, I was relieved that I had had the experiences over the past year that have given me new perspectives and further insight into what I might be able to contribute as a teacher. Change often begins with one person. I may not be that person that will instigate the huge changes that are needed to fix anything, but what if one of my students are? If I can demonstrate and instil these understandings with my students as their teacher, then I believe I am giving them the opportunity to contribute to more than just their own futures, but perhaps to “the future” on a much broader scale.

Happy teaching.

ps – I should probably put this as a disclaimer in that I don’t support or condone graffiti. (However, I certainly am thankful for the timely appearance of these words).

Being on the precipice of change

Change. It does strange things to people. Some people thrive on change. They seek it out, deliberately trying to bring excitement, newness, adventure or difference to their day-to-day lives. Others avoid it at all costs. For some, even the smallest change can be enough to disturb their inner sense of self, their understanding of their world and/or their ability to cope or function, and as such, change is feared and avoided at all costs.

Whether we are able to cope with change or not, the irony is that change is one of the few constant things that joins us on our path throughout our lives. There are the obvious physical changes that we all go through as we age from newborn to adulthood. There are the intellectual changes that we progress through, some though formal learning and others through lessons of life. Then there are also the emotional changes that we experience, and some may argue that these are perhaps the most influential of all, particularly when it comes to how we perceive future changes.

Being on the threshold of change can be cause for emotional turmoil, particularly if you are unsure what that change is actually going to be, such as in the case of many of the Syrian refugees I have been studying lately. However, being on the threshold of a known change, whether a change by choice or by necessity, can also be cause for a similar response. Some people say it is the waiting, the not knowing, that is the worst. Preparing for the unknown. Very few people crave uncertainty. But, it is part of life. So, how do we help our students cope with it?

There are many variations of a popular quote, but ultimately I see this as a way of trying to intellectually remind ourselves to try and reduce the impact of our impulsive, emotional responses to liminal spaces.

reacting to change

After studying just some of what the Syrian refugees in Za’atari are coping with, I would argue that sometimes it IS about what has happened to you. But, I would also agree that how you react matters as well. The most inspiring things about the Za’atari refugee camp was the ability whereby so many people displayed a commitment to overcoming their adversity and to making steps towards their inevitable changes becoming positive ones. This is no easy feat, especially given the dire state of affairs and limited resources at their disposal.

On a slightly different tangent, I have also seen the enormous challenges that my own son, who has autism, has had at times with change. With a great deal of guidance and tuition, he has learnt tools to help him cope with change. He has gotten particularly good at coping with the little, annoying changes that may not even bother many people, but they are ones that are significant enough to come up on his radar and disturb his emotional-balance at that moment. He is now able to reduce the emotional impact of these and concentrate on how he reacts instead. Not always, but a lot more than he used to be able to do.

However, one thing he still struggles with, as do so many others (whether they be on the autism spectrum or not), are the long, drawn-out changes. The ones where we aren’t sure what is actually going to happen. The ones with no definitive answer….yet. The liminal spaces filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. It is during these times that we often rely on our own inner voice to reassure us that we can get to the other side in one piece. For my son, that is when he needs others to become his inner voice to quiet his fears. For many Syrian refugees, I believe it is similar – they need citizens around the world to demonstrate that we will help alleviate their fears about the changes they are forced to face.

As an educator, perhaps how we approach change in our classrooms can help equip our students with some of the tools they will need now and in their futures. Liminal spaces, or being on the threshold of the unknown, offers an opportunity for a person to reflect and evaluate what is important to them and for them as they prepare to react and move forward. Perhaps if we encouraged our students to look inwards during times of uncertainty we could help guide their inner voice to react in a way that offers optimism and confidence. This would offer chances to highlight and remind students of past times when they were faced with, and coped with, change.

If we could assist students dealing with change to not view it as unavoidable, annoying part of life, but rather as an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our incredible abilities to transform (even without noticing), imagine how this might prepare them for the changes they will face throughout their futures?

Change is the essence

 

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

 

I am an educator. My hope for the children of Za’atari.

What can I do for a child

with innocence lost

whose young eyes have seen things they should not?

 

What can I do for a child

watching with a guarded stare

whose life has been changed, seemingly beyond repair?

 

What can I do for a child

filled with anger and fear

who no longer believes in dreams once held dear?

 

What can I do for a child

whose despair is shared by the faces they see

who begins to forget the child once filled with curiosity?

 

I am an educator

I strive to open minds and touch hearts

but we must transform these spaces so we can all take part.

 

I am an educator

I promise to show patience, kindness and empathy

in an effort to remind you that you are important to me.

 

I am an educator

I will offer you a safe space to learn and grow

where you can remember how to dream and strive for more.

 

I am an educator

I will encourage you to reflect and explore

so that you, too, can stretch beyond these limits that should not be your ‘norm’.

 

I am an educator

I will be here for you every step of the way

and we will work together for you to find hope again one day.

 

 

By Kayri Shanahan

 

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.

nelson-mandela-education-quote

(Mandela, 2003).

Happy teaching.

My Mission Statement (link to page)