Words beyond walls

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Vivi Lachs reports from the West Bank, where Palestinian schools are rooting ICT in their curriculum

Qalqilya is a West Bank city standing on the green line, the line marking the border of land occupied by Israel in 1967. The wall Israel is building runs parallel with most of the green line, but weaves into the West Bank to surround Jewish settlements and put them on the Israeli side. This has changed the topography of the land, splitting village farmers from their farms and making it difficult for people to get from place to place through checkpoints and gates without special permission. There used to be many roads to Qalqilya; now the city is surrounded by the wall, and only one road survives.

A new Palestinian curriculum was introduced in 2000. It was phased in, two grades a year, and is now complete. For Grades 5-11 (Years 6-12) there is a brand new subject; technology. The technology curriculum, with its content of computer skills, teaching generic computer programs and programming, brought an immediate need to provide computer rooms. Yousef Odeh, the deputy director of the Qalqilya Directorate of Education described the struggle for funding, getting contributions from the Ministry of Education, Europe and other Arab countries: he "distributes labs according to number of students and no other criteria". However, as the technology curriculum comes into effect from Grade 5, schools with older students get priority.

Asharka school is a beautiful building with pillars and arches surrounding a large courtyard. There are classrooms on every side of the courtyard - two storeys with balconies looking down. Each classroom has internal windows with tinted glass that slide open, giving an open-plan and transparent feel to the school. Teaching is in public view, classrooms are spacious and full of students, 840 girls, Grades 1-7. There is one science lab with four computers to serve the need of the students.

Large staircases lead up to the next floor, passing full-length glass windows, cracked and with bullet holes, and artwork on the wall made from bullets collected within the school grounds. On each floor, you can look from the corridor into what appears a normal classroom, with see desks, children, but through the window, and less than 50 metres away, you can see a very large, long wall - "The Separation Wall". Yousef points at the students quietly working, "They worked here as it was being put up, and now they sit and learn surrounded by the shadow of the wall."

Abu Ali Iyad school is for Grades 8-12, and the pressure to teach the technology curriculum is much greater. They have one full-time technology teacher for 840 students who study in classes of up to 49. The computer lab with 15 computers is in constant use, seven classes a day, six days a week.

"Most computers need changing at the end of the year because they are used so much," the principal explains. "We buy two computers each year."

The school's IT teacher adds: "Out of the 15, three are not working. We have five students per computer, so it's not very effective. Parents ask what they can do, and we recommend they buy computers at home."

Ad Dab'a school, a few kilometers from Qalqilya, is typical of village schools - fewer students, less resources. You have to step over piles of rubble to get to the computer room in the basement. There are six computers with a neat row of chairs by each: two Pentium IIs, bought second-hand from Nablus, four Pentium IVs from the French government, and a broken down printer donated by a village resident.

"If any school has four computers, it's not technology," said their technology teacher, "it's impossible for teachers to teach."

Due to the proximity of a Jewish settlement, and the weave of the wall, Ad Dab'a school, has ended up on the Israeli side of the "fence" as it is at this point. There is no checkpoint. A gate is open for three hours at different times of the day. The school principal lives in a village on the Palestinian side of the fence and for a few months the Israeli authorities denied him permission to cross (security reasons). He had to go to another school and run his own school by phone.

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