It has been a positive time in the school. Our situation in Grande Synthe has changed considerably. Over a weekend a group of volunteers turned up from Belgium and installed a fire, cut windows into the side of our tent, completed the floor with pallets and installed a set of desks donated by a Belgium school. The effect of this modest support has been staggering. We have gone from a situation of going out each morning to collect children and bring them to school, to a situation where we have children waiting for us in classes and turning up at all times. We have gone from seeing 50 children a week, to now having almost 50 a day. What has effected this transformation seems to have nothing to do with teaching or learning and is basically due to the physical environment.
First and foremost the most important addition is a fire. It is effectively an old tin can with a whole cut in it for a door, but our ability to generate heat has now made learning possible. Frankly it’s a pain having to try and light a fire in a tub which doesn’t ‘draw air’ properly, but we persevere each morning and its impact is transformational. Previously the children would be shivering in the cold February field that we are in, and having to take refuge under blankets in order to study. Now we are still significantly below a ‘minimum’ work place temperature, but we have cheerful smiling faces telling us how much better they find it. Even the five year olds are now able to complete a two hour classroom session without having to go early because of the cold.
The other major change is having desks and having enough light to be able to write on them clearly. Previously we had to sit on the floor and lean on benches in order to do writing. We had to try and position the benches near the tent flaps for light, but not so close that we got chilled in the wind. Now we can sit on chairs and write at desks. It is so much more comfortable for the children and we can spread them out across the table groups so that children at similar stages can work together better. Some of the ten year olds have been displaced for so long that they have never actually started in a school before. This is their very first experience of school. And they are so proud of it, that they are now there first thing in the morning before teacher.
We have changed almost nothing of our teaching and learning. We still have to struggle with written exercises in parts of the tent that leak. We have lost count of the amount of time leaking water has smudged ink and made equations impossible to read. We still have to improvise and vary lessons according to the age and background of children who turn up, without being able to plan or know in advance which children we are actually going to see in each lesson. But suddenly, a bit of light, a bit of heat and desks to write on, have done more to improve learning than anything else imaginable. If it was ever in doubt, then our experiences over the last fortnight have confirmed once and for all, just how important the environment, layout and set-up of a classroom is.