Part 2/2

During my last post we looked into the realities of underserved communities in Lebanon. The reality that both refugees and members of the host community are sharing which, in the realm of education, is that students are finding themselves discouraged rather than motivated. For those who are enrolled in a school, common classrooms are typically shared by 45 students and lead by an overworked teacher. Even in schools where the ratio of student to teacher is closer, it is clear from students’ reactions to school that traditional schooling does not work for everyone, especially for those living under strenuous conditions. We, as teachers, need to find ways to support their learning styles and behaviours.

Today we will delve deeper into how I access such communities, some methodologies that have been particularly successful and finally will share two student stories.

Where I teach –

For over two years now I have been working at a non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) called Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP). Lebanon is home to people from a variety of cultures, ethnic backgrounds and 18 religious factions. Unfortunately, they do not all get along and as a result the youth of Lebanon are raised under opposing belief systems and end up holding negative stigmas against one another. ULYP works to unite the youth by bringing them together through education. By providing equal access to quality education, without discrimination, ULYP is successful in bringing people together. ULYP is not a school, but provides classes ranging from English, math, and coding, to sports, theater and art, to respect, equality, and conflict transformation; in such, we are classrooms outside the walls of schools. After school, or on weekends, students from various backgrounds come together in ULYP classrooms. Through teaching in the English programs I have seen a shift in countless students’ reaction to “the classroom.” Suddenly, students are being asked to help hang their work on the walls. Suddenly, they are surrounded by colorful and appealing grammar charts, and there are maps and pictures on every wall. This is the first step to change, when the seed of hope is planted. At this point, and by way of a visually pleasing learning environment, students begin to realize that education can be fun.

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As teachers giving back the right of quality education to each child, we work to instill the belief in students that education can be interactive, that games and learning can exist in the same room, that school is about learning and not grades, and that teachers are here for students not the other way around.

Teaching –

At ULYP, the English curricula we follow are created in house. We combine international best practices and the curricula of the schools that our students are enrolled in. In doing so, we provide students with the knowledge they need to succeed at school while incorporating the skills required in order to pursue higher education, find a place in the professional world, and access the international community. The curricula for any of the given programs are always in the form of outlines allowing teachers to personalize and modify their lesson plans and flow with students in the way with which they are most comfortable. Once teachers are set up, the real work begins.

On the first or second day of the program students are pre-tested and class groups are created based on English level. The pre-test includes grammar, reading comprehension and writing. Classes are usually between 10-20 students. I aim to cover all aspects of the English language, as well as engage students in critical thinking over the course of every two week period. In my experience, working under a specific topic for two weeks, such as culture, has proven to be very successful across levels and group sizes. Generally I meet with each class once a week, for about three hours. Within each two week period the students will learn new grammar points, engage with texts that include new vocabulary, participate in pair and/or group work, and practice speaking and listening. Additionally, the two week topic begins or ends with a writing piece. Personally, I enjoy the two week topic model because it allows for deeper conversation and writing as the students have a chance to learn a lot about a given topic. As a result, students are more conversant on topics than they would be from a lesson on the topic lasting just an hour or two. This is especially important with the populations that I work with as one of my main goals is to give them life-long skills and broaden their horizons. Of course, to keep it interesting, a lot about the topic is covered over the two weeks giving students a well rounded understanding of the given topic. For example, with culture, we started on a broad scale: what is culture? Students analyzed various definitions, engaged with texts, wrote their own definition of culture. For homework, students were asked to research and present on a world culture. Students then learned about how some of the most prominent social psychologists assess culture, did group presentations on the various dimensions of culture, studied and analyzed foreign cultures based on the dimensions and finally wrote a cultural analysis on their own culture. By the end of the two week period I find that my students have not only learned grammar and vocabulary while practicing reading, writing, listening and speaking, but they are conversant on topics based on ideas that stem from learned facts and their personal opinions. The two week period also allows for me, as a teacher, to troubleshoot what parts of the language students need to focus more on and assess their understanding of the grammar and vocabulary. In this way, target skills for small groups of students, and slightly more individualized lessons can be planned for. Of course, these are worked on over the semester, but personally I like having the second class, under the same topic, to refine and fill in the blanks from the previous class. Doing this with a whole new topic and lesson I find to be less interesting for the students. Within the two week period students work on a “project” so anything we go back on doesn’t feel like repetition.

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Stories Worth Sharing –

Yasmine, age 11, Syrian, fled the war and moved to Lebanon at the age of 7.

Yasmine walked into my classroom two weeks after classes had already begun. She was shy. After about two weeks of working closely with Yasmine I realized that Yasmine was not shy, but that she had been completely shutdown from her experiences. Pair work, group work, games, videos, reading, writing, arts, sports – nothing seemed to excite Yasmine. Yasmine never skipped a class, but for the first few sessions sat in class blank, she did not complete the work, did not participate, did not smile or frown, just observed. Fortunately, Yasmine’s mother walked her to class everyday and I would spend most mornings chatting with early parents who did so. I began giving her mother interactive activities for Yasmine to work on at home. For example, one activity was for her to measure various body parts of her family members and compare who has the longest hair, biggest hand, longest arm, ect. At first, the documents would come back mainly blank as her mother spoke no English and could not help her navigate through the worksheets. As time went by, Yasmine and I would spend 5-10 minutes looking at the worksheets together until she understood the general idea and could successfully define the key words. As the weeks went by, Yasmine began participating more in class, and completing the work that she and her peers were asked to do. Still quite, Yasmine was clearly gaining confidence in herself; as the weeks passed she began bringing in completed worksheets. As time went by she would bring the worksheet and insist on telling about the results she wrote down and eventually tell me about her experience through the process. Although during our time together she would insist on speaking Arabic, she was clearly understanding my questions in English and was able to read and write as necessary to complete each sheet. About half way through the year, I could see her English improving, her moral lighting up, but still she would not speak English and was extremely quiet and reserved. On about our 10th trip to ULYP’s campus, where students have the chance to play sports and swim, midway through the swimming session I hear deep, genuine laugher; a voice that was completely unfamiliar to me. I turn around and see Yasmine laughing from her heart as she splashed around the pool. A paradigm shift happened at that exact moment. Yasmine came out of her shell and brought so much life to the group. The laughter was contagious to the point that the teachers and students alike were laughing from their hearts but no one knew why. From that day on Yasmine was present in class, working with her peers, raising her hand to answer questions and participating in everything that we did.

Ahmad, age 18, Palestinian/Syrian, fled the Syrian war 6 years ago, moved from a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria to one in Lebanon.

During one of our outreach sessions we visited a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWAR) school in Lebanon. There, I met Ahmad. “I want to go to university, but I know that I won’t be able to. I think I will work at a restaurant after I graduate.” When Ahmad learned, that through our program he would not only become eligible for a university scholarship, but also would learn enough English to potentially attend an American university, his eyes widened 10times in size. For the next 8 months, Ahmad never skipped a class. He volunteered to be the group leader for his school coordinating between teachers and his peers. He pushed himself every day and did not let his low level of English slow him down. As application time got closer Ahmad was spending more time with his teachers, troubleshooting what he should study and why, voluntarily taking assignments home and working harder than he ever has. “Knowing that I have a chance to go to university pushed me at school, I started caring about my grades and studied much harder than I normally do, especially for the official exams.” All people need is the opportunity to unlock their potential. Today, Ahmad is a sophomore at an American University in Lebanon studying Hospitality Management.

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Zina Abu-Haydar




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