School Visitor

In late October I was in Greece to give a talk at the Polyglot conference in Thessaloniki and this gave me occasion to round up some materials from the publishing houses present and take them to a school run by Edlumino in central Greece at Ioannina.

Having heard of the great work Edlumino did educating young refugees in Calais, I was keen to see their teachers in action. The day after the conference we headed off and arrived at the Yazidi camp in the early afternoon. We were met at the entrance by James Muldoon the lead teacher there. He pointed proudly to the makeshift tent which was ‘so much better than what they had before’. I had never seen a school room quite like this. It was stiflingly hot and full of very annoying flies, though neither the children (all 35 of them), nor the teachers seem to notice this. I was struck by how young the teachers were. In their teacher training they would have learnt how to work with white boards, iPads and all the digital necessities of our days, yet here they were doing their very best to teach in a tent that didn’t even offer them the luxury of electricity. My first impression was of crowded, noisy chaos. There were two groups of children divided by a flimsy curtain. The younger ones at the back were having a maths lesson whilst the older ones were writing some simple sentences in English. For the younger ones, this was very definitely their first experience of schooling and it certainly lacked comfort but not care!

James was doing some traditional, direct instruction at the front of the class leading the children to discuss basic maths facts for addition up to ten. He then did something very current: he had the children engage in translanguaging i.e. saying those same facts in Kurmanji Kurdish, their home language. Asir Shengali, one of the refugee men who had been a teacher, asked the children questions in Kurmanji to check for understanding. As I witnessed this I thought of the fee-paying, prestigious schools that do not incorporate home languages into everyday learning – these children were lucky to have teachers who understood the importance of their home language. There are many children in our modern-day schools with access to a plethora of digital resources but who have their home language rejected by the school. Language is not only a means of communication it is the essential attribute of cultural identity and empowerment both for the individual and the group. These young Yazidi children were being given the message that Kurmanji was just as important as English

The teachers cared about these children and realized they had to go beyond the regular curriculum in order to reach and teach them. As Jim Cummins says, ‘human relations are at the heart of all schooling’. These young teachers believed in these children, believed they deserved better and questioned whether what they were offering was enough.

Since my visit the camp has been divided up with some families having moved into a hotel in Perama. Katy and Emily found a space to continue teaching the children there while James remained at the camp. Today, December 28th, the whole camp will be cleared. The teaching will be carried on with the help of the University of Ioannina.

While we were there James had his hair cut at the newly built barber’s shop. The Yazidi men built the shop to give a clear message: we have made our home here and we want to stay. The arrival of the harsh winter in this mountainous zone meant of course that this was impossible. One wonders what will happen next for these gentle, courageous people. I heard from James that the University of Ioannina will organize lessons in English and Greek for the children. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could receive the core subjects in Kurmanji too!

Edlumino offered light and hope to these young Yazidi children. Emily, James & Katy, created an ad hoc but professional, nurturing and safe learning space for them which gave them a brief daily respite from the rough and ready world of refugee living. The children will carry this experience with them and remember these young courageous and caring teachers who brought knowledge and joy into their uncertain lives.

Eithne Gallagher

Italy December 28th 2016

Eithne Gallagher is a recognised authority in the field of ESL in International Education and has over twenty years experience of teaching in international schools.She has twice been chair of the European Council of International Schools ESL & Mother-tongue Committee, she is a regular presenter at international school conferences and has delivered workshops and lectures for teachers and administrators across the world. Her writings on ESL & Mother-tongue issues have been widely published in educational journals and magazines and she has published a book entitled Equal Rights to the Curriculum in which she argues for school reform to meet the educational needs of all children growing up in a multicultural society and is the author of the Glitterlings series for children published by OUP. Find out more on her website and follow her on twitter @eithne_g

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