I’ve been a volunteer teacher for EdLumino since December, and I’m currently based at Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk.
I head into the camp with the other volunteers at 10.30am. It is -3 degrees, and although the floor is slippery and uneven, the ice masks the smell. As it’s not raining, we have the luxury of outdoor space today.
Our catchment area is a muddy mess of tents, between which lie piles of rubbish and discarded clothes. We reach the school tent via a makeshift path of wooden pallets and chicken wire: the grass that once covered the park here has been replaced by mud.
Some children join us as we walk through the camp. On the way, we stop to point at cats, saying “cat” together, and then at a chicken, shouting “chicken” and “poulet”.
We unlock the classroom tent – it’s as cold inside as out. A plastic box that contained biscuits has gone overnight – it’s no major loss, but it was a helpful makeshift table.
We laugh about the lack of, well, anything. We spray-painted the alphabet inside the classroom, but ran out of paint just as we got to U. It makes a temperamental interactive whiteboard or projector back home seem pretty insignificant.
Today we will teach the alphabet, followed by numbers and body parts. There’s no register but they tell us their names, and we repeat them. The children giggle at our pronunciation, while others repeat patiently; they’re teaching us, too. We start by singing the alphabet; the children are loud and enthusiastic.
Next, we tackle written work. As Arabic is their first language, most students write their letters from right to left, bottom to top, but they’re eager to learn a different way. Older students often step in and teach alongside us, helping to bridge the language barrier.
When we get cold sitting still, we opt for active learning in the playground, singing and acting “heads, shoulders, knees and toes”.
At lunchtime, the children go home – no playground duty out here. When they arrive back, we practise counting and I notice that a few students have very swollen knuckles and visibly broken fingers.
These children have amazing resilience, not just in their learning, but in all aspects of their life. We challenge them with their writing and pronunciation, and have high expectations for their achievement.
My colleagues sit with older students who taught with us earlier, listening to them read. Afterwards, my colleague says that one of the girls is so gifted she would be Oxbridge material in other circumstances.
I continue teaching two little ones, using early reader books to help with their literacy. One student is off-task – he’s spotted an aeroplane. We’re getting cold, so we venture outside and spread our wings to be aeroplanes for a while. It is like no lesson that I have ever taught before.
Our caretaker is a cat. He kills a rat by chewing its head off in the tent. The kids don’t flinch, but I do. A colleague quickly removes and buries it.
As there is no electricity, when daylight fades, the school day finishes too. We give students a bag of sweets before packing up. As the students cross the rickety bridge back to their tents, they shout, “Thank you, teacher!”
We teachers stand for a moment feeling privileged and humble. Out here, it doesn’t matter whether you are traditionalist or progressive. What matters is the children that we teach; ours will go home and proudly share their new words and songs with their families in cold tents. And then they will return to school tomorrow, with big brave smiles and boundless enthusiasm.
@nataliehscott For more information, visit edlumino.org
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