Words beyond walls

6th May 2005 at 01:00
A lack of computers has forced teachers in Ramallah schools to look at more creative ways of teaching the technology curriculum

Nicknamed the "Paris of the West Bank", or a "five-star prison", Ramallah is the largest city in the region. It has three types of schools: governmental (run by the Palestinian authority), UNRWA (funded by the UN for families of refugees from 1948) and private. Al Tire UNRWA girls'

school's mission statement says it will "provide an academic environment in society, create a socially and psychologically ideal environment, try to create a united generation that is cared for, has high self esteem, able to solve problems in a scientific way and deal with technical issues competitively".

In the town most schools have computer rooms. However, it is difficult to deliver the technology curriculum because students have to research and use the internet, and schools are not connected. Principals are worried by the lack of adequate supervision, and the lack of funding to pay phone bills.

Teaching styles in Palestinian schools are traditional, whole-class teaching with students working independently.

Ironically, trying to find a solution to the schools' lack of connectivity has forced teachers into setting more creative learning in groups. The principal of Bint Al-Azwar government school explained that teachers set internet research as homework. Teachers divide the class into groups, ensuring one person has a computer at home, or students will go together to an internet cafe. The principal of Al Amari UNRWA boys' school claimed that "the new technology curriculum has forced students to have a computer at home", in effect subsidising education.

Teaching style and technology is an issue which is being taken up by researchers at the Al-Qattan Centre for Educational research and Development in Ramallah. This autonomous organisation, funded by the Qattan family, encourages teachers to reflect critically on their classroom practice and promotes "learning by doing" and the use of digital technologies. School computer labs may be booked up with teaching the technology curriculum, but Al Qattan researchers want subject teachers to see how technology can support their subjects.

One strategy is to support teachers to do "action research" on their teaching styles. Teachers video their classroom practice, write diaries and attend workshops. Al Qattan is opening an important debate on the nature of teaching and learning. Individual teachers appreciate this opportunity, and school principals are pleased as it has brought extra funding for upkeep and development of their computer rooms.

Wasim, Al-Qattan's drama researcher, ran a video-editing project after school. "I wanted to see what kind of learning would happen if I asked students to use another medium outside school," he explains.

The project involved four teams of film-makers: male teachers and male students from a boys' school; female teachers and female students from a girls' school. The boys' group made a film about children working and filmed children on the streets and in shops, editing it with a voice-over of their observations. English subtitles were added and it was shown in the Marginalised Youth International Film Festival in Lebanon. The girls' film followed one of the students on her summer holidays in Ramallah, cooking, washing, swimming and shopping.

The next term, they showed the film at school to classmates, teachers, parents and principal. "They were very critical of themselves, saying if we would do this again we would change this and this," said Wasim. He now wants to keep the momentum going and develop the students' skills further.

Paris or prison, in school and at home in Ramallah you cannot get away from politics. In an Al Qattan art project, students wrote letters to famous people on whatever topic they chose. More than 95 per cent wrote letters about politics to Blair, Bush, Sharon, Arafat or a settler. It is at the forefront of peoples' daily experience. The headteacher of Al Tire school wants her students to have a normal life. "We try to have available as many activities as possible to minimise the effect of the political situation," she said.

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