Spiderman and his brother have gone.
I don’t know where and it is highly unlikely that I will ever will. But Education is the ultimate hope profession; we do not really know where our impact, words and effort ends. In England, I hope my students will be happy in their future lives and occasionally hear wonderful stories of their successes. Doctors, beauticians, teachers, footballers. Here, in Dunkirk, I hope that wherever Spiderman and his brother have gone that they are safe. I hope that Spiderman is well and happy. He taught me that an essential part of the ESL or EAL learning process is to allow a child to opt for silence, to allow them time just listening, watching. Spiderman taught me but that this silence can be overcome, it is just one stage in a learning journey. These children, the refugees that we teach, are phenomenally resilient and they will get up and go to school every day not because of a law but because they as children intrinsically want to learn. All kids do. We see the silence pass and talk begins, tentatively and slowly, when they are ready. Some of our EAL learners have done this before, already learning and speaking Kurdish, Arabic and a little French, for others, English is their second language and the whole experience is new and often overwhelming.
This week I have worked with two students, who in particular, modelled brave resilience, in their learning and lives, which was beyond anything I had seen in school environments in recent years. They are superheroes too.
The first, a beautiful Disneyesque 11 year old girl. Shiny dark hair tumbled onto her shoulders, huge dark brown eyes looked at me over the desk. She sat in our cold school tent today for over 4 hours, out of choice and determination, working on numeracy. She would ask me to work through a modelled example together, each time we would do an activity, a maths problem, before she proudly set off on own. She wrote neatly, forming numbers correctly with her carefully selected turquoise gel pen and she was keen to work independently when given the chance. When struggling she kept going, looking to a timeline sketched out on a mini whiteboard, for assistance. If stuck she asked for further help. She loves school. She told me that she loved school in Iraq, but hasn’t had chance to go to school for 2 years. She missed it.
I am honoured to work for Edlumino, which we have been told this week, is the first school to deliver lessons in a legal refugee camp in Europe in over 70 years. What a privilege to be part of something so important. And I was blessed to teach this bright, conscientious girl. She speaks very good English, willingly translates for the younger children, she supports her peers without fuss, including patiently encouraging her slightly less resilient, spirited and spritely little sister. Some of the maths questions challenged her, for example, she can count up in multiples of 2, 3 and 5 with no problem, she really enjoys working out the next numbers in a sequence. But she struggles with counting down in the same way. She needs time to process and think, to do the mental arithmetic. You can almost hear the cogs whirring.
In England we give our students ‘think time’, but as teachers often instinctively want to assist, support, to help. If we are sat in that awkward feeling silence for too long we can sometimes intervene too early, disrupting a child’s chain of thought, but today, in the cold tent, this diligent girl persevered. These children do not give in easily. They don’t fear mistakes. I have never heard a single one say ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I give up’.
One number sequence had her thinking for 4 long minutes. 4 long minutes. I sat, watching the clock, shivering, waiting. Her body language told me that she was pondering, deep in concentration, thinking, trying really really hard. Her mouth occasionally moved in time to the thoughts whizzing through her mind, but the words were silent, internal. I watched. It was really mesmerising. EAL children need the opportunity to be silent, so I held my tongue. And she did it. I drew her a star on her work and she beamed upon her success, her small triumph. I had to walk this girl, this child with pure grit, through the grit- a vast improvement on the mud of the old camp- back to her hut to make her go and warm up for a bit. 15 minutes later she returned for more, but now with her coat. I gave her a ‘Great work’ sticker as she left at the end of the day; all students love a sticker. And she grinned at me once more, big brown eyes shining with glee.
Student number 2 was a 12 year old boy, new to camp this week. He has really bad scars on his wrist, arm and shoulder, but says he is okay now. ‘No problem’ he said, with a toothy grin and trendy specs. His fingers are knarled and bent, broken, all of them, but he kept writing. He is a seemingly happy child. He loves animals and wanted to show off his spellings. We looked at pictures and practised our phonemes, and saying the words. He was amazed by a picture of a hedgehog, an animal he had never seen before, and giggled at its name. He wrote words out on paper, like a spelling test, and then carefully, with such concentration said them again and again, refining his pronunciation, enjoying speaking and listening, whilst transferring them to his exercise book. If he formed a letter incorrectly he drew a neat line through his mistake and started again, taking care to rectify any upper or lower case errors that he made in his initial efforts. He didn’t give up, just kept trying to do better. Later he asked to stop writing. He said his wrist was hurting and asked to read.
We used some L3 Biff and Chip books and he did really well, reading most words correctly, studying the pictures and asking for the words, breaking down those he struggled with and teaching me the Kurdish translations. He spotted rhymes and practised his intonation, exclaiming ‘oh, no!’ loudly and with great enthusiasm. I see how important it is to use Kurdish to support these children’s learning, but this boy patiently taught me to pronounce his words in the same way that I had helped him. He persevered when I failed to pronounce ‘r’ correctly, I can’t roll it for love nor money, and he kept helping, determined that I should experience some success too. As we read he laughed with delight at the silly stories, a light tinkling laugh. Repeating words with increasing confidence each time they appeared. He is a gentle boy, not hardened by his recent experiences.
He answered questions at the end of each story, able to understand and appreciate, as well as decoding. One question asked what sort of shop would you like to run, shells, ships or something else? He looked straight at me and said he didn’t want to have a shop, he wants to come to school instead. I said he could. He was delighted when I explained that school is open for the next 3 days, 5 days each week. It was like a wish had come true. Another question asked was what he would he like, a bun or a hat, or something else. I used an example of ‘I would like a new phone’ showing him my cracked iphone screen and again he grinned, sympathised and told me ‘I would like to learn more’. The power of open questions in contexts like these amazes me, the students respond at their own level, allowing an instant assessment of where to go, what to move onto, next.
This boy, in his black framed glasses, feels secure and safe in school, away from the building sites of the camp and swerving children on bikes outside. He is quiet and just wants to read, to write, to study, to learn. At the end of the lesson I put his exercise book on the makeshift shelf (a plastic box on its side) and suddenly, passionately, he jumped up, ‘no, no, no’ he followed me into the makeshift stock cupboard (the end of tent) and together we found a hiding place for his book. He knows that sometimes the tent gets raided for resources, our Kurdish-English dictionaries in particular are gold dust, and he feels that his work is too important to be lost. Together we hid it, carefully, between two plastic containers, ready for him to find it and add to it, with another teacher tomorrow. Tomorrow he wants to do maths. He is pretty good at that too.
These 2 children absolutely epitomise resilience, generosity and a real love for learning. In ten years time they could be anywhere, in a month even, such is the nature of our cohort, but with such character I do hope that whatever their futures may bring that they will maintain their passion for learning. I don’t know what will become of them in their teenage or adult years, but tomorrow they will both undoubtedly be back in our school tent, keen to try something new. And my colleagues will be waiting with warm welcomes, in the small cold school tents.
Natalie Scott is a qualified English teacher, currently teaching in a school in Hertfordshire. To read more from her reflections on teaching and education go to https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @nataliehscott