Alwarood is a kindergarten which was recently created in Bethlehem to provide a progressive, child-based educational program. It is supported by CBPPP. To see more pictures of the kindergarten, please take a look at their Facebook page.
Sarah Measures, a Cambridge educator, spent several weeks there in December 2012. Her report follows:
On 30th Dec 2012, along with my husband Roger, I visited the Alwarood (meaning “The Flower”) kindergarten in Bethlehem.
We spent three days at the kindergarten observing the teaching and talking with the staff, ending with a wrap up session where we watched videos of the kindergarten classes with the teachers and Samer (one of the founders). We spent additional time with Ramiah, the principle of the kindergarten, and her family.
The Context of Occupation
There is a context to taking care of children here which cannot be ignored. The impact of the occupation is on every aspect of Palestinian life. Walls are being built around every major city in the West Bank, separating the people from their land, and the Israeli settlements are expanding into this land, depriving the Palestinians of a major source of income, and confining them in urban ghettos. In Bethlehem and neighboring towns, Palestinian schools tend to be on the edge of the cities near the walls and settlement roads; in other words near conflict areas. Children are exposed to Israeli police vehicles. Teenagers are frequently arrested, sometimes for rock throwing or other minor offenses, though often without reason, simply for being in the wrong place. Israeli law permits 6 month detention without trial for any Palestinian, even children down to age 12. However, in practice Palestinians often serve sentences of several years, because the administrative detention can be renewed any number of times, again without judical review. So prison terms for children of many years are not uncommon, made worse because of the uncertain duration. A child may reach his release date, only to be told that he an additional six month term as been added to his sentence. Young children are traumatized by both the very real possibility that an older sibling could be arrested, or even more when they are taken away and imprisoned far from the family making visits difficult or impossible. These incarcerations are so common for teenage boys, that is considered almost a right of passage of Palestinian male.
The 2nd grade daughter of one of the teachers tells her mom to stop buying Israeli sweets because they will use the money to buy guns. Families talk openly about the occupation. Families of eight are common here and conversation is not censored. As a result from the earliest age children know that their teenage siblings may be randomly picked off their street by Israeli trucks. They know in the middle of the night soldiers may bang on the door and take away their teenage brothers or themselves when they are older. Particularly targeted are oldest boys in the family. We talked to a fifteen year old, who with a nervous smile says boldly that he is ready when they come. Of the six or seven men we spent most time with, most had spent between 2 and 6 years in jail. According to one university official, research has shown that spending years in jail, separated from families, cause the young men to become rebelliousness not only toward the Israelis, but also towards their own families and the education system – any authority figure. The impact is not just on these young men, but on their families. Not surprisingly generalized attention and anxiety issues are said to be a problem among children. Sometimes reactions are more severe such as bed wetting among children up to age 12, though this is less common currently than it was a few years ago.
The Intention of the Kindergarten
Samer Jaber, our generous host for this trip, is one of the founders of the kindergarten. I asked him what his goals were in founding it:
- To provide a safe, secure place in which children can begin to go out and engage with the world. The first place in which they begin to meet more people and expand their world should be a safe one.
- I asked him to define “safe”. He said, “To have a wall to protect them. To always have someone to watch over them and someone they can turn to if they need it. So they never need feel alone. Safety also means having a place in which they feel sufficiently safe and secure to tell what they feel.
Ramiah Jaber, the head teacher of the kindergarten has four lovely boys. I asked her what most excited her about working in this kindergarten. She replied:
- The children love to go to this school
- The children get to express what is going on for them through physical activity and through drawing.
- They learn to associate of the written word with pictures
- We read a lot of stories to the children. (such as international folk tales)
There are five kindergartens in this area. I asked them both why they thought this one was the best. They said:
- The approach used is learning by playing, rather than learning through rote memorization of verses of the Koran.
- They never shout or hit the children. (Extroadinary as it sounds, this is not uncommon in some schools.)
- The staff have completed teaching degrees.
- The staff/child ratio is higher.
- This kindergarten alone offers children a space to play in and a school renovated to meet children’s needs
It was my observation that the teachers have made incredible progress towards meeting these expectations. These beginning goals seem completely appropriate to form a foundation of trust and safety for learning.
After a while, Samer and Ramiah expressed another goal: to help the children learn to think for themselves. The rote learning approach, common in most Palestinian schools, teaches children to unquestioningly accept what they are taught. It does not teach novel thinking and in exams would penalize it. It does not equip them to be thinkers who can navigate the modern world of work or politics with dexterity and creativity. It is the intention of the founders of this kindergarten that children will accept the culture within which they were born and yet learn to ask “Why?” I began to hear their desire to teach critical thinking, innovation and novel problem solving.
It is my belief that the current focus on the first set of goals will set a good foundation for the second set of goals and is developmentally appropriate for the kindergarten.
The kindergarten is a lovely building renovated extensively with a grant from SIDA (Swedish counterpart to USAID). This grant requires the property to be used as a kindergarten for at least 10 years.
The school is open five days a week, Sun through Thursday. 8:00 to 12:00. There are 2 unheated classroom with high vaulted ceilings. Kindergerten 1 (KG1) for 4 year olds is known as the class of butterflies and KG2, for five year olds, is the class of fruits. Together they serve 38 kids.
Samer is one of the founders of the school, and takes an active overview role. His aunt owns the school, which was originally the family home.
The three professional staff members earn only $100 per month. (The going rate for teachers is $600-$700 plus benefits.) Unemployment is officially 35% and the real figure more like 45-60%, which contributes to the willingness to work for low wages. Samer commented that the fact that they are partial volunteers also indicates high motivation.
Ramiah, Samer’s sister-in-law, is on the board, and serves as the head teacher of the school and teacher for Kindergarten 2 (KG2) for five year olds. She has an undergraduate teaching degree. She has four boys of her own, and is warm an loving mother.
At school, she is quiet, respectful, wise, and gently authoritative. She has worked very hard to put this program together. Knowing that her training was some years old, she spent the last year volunteering in many different kindergartens in order to learn more skills. She has developed an impressive curriculum and leads the other staff in implementation, while allowing them freedom to express their own talents. She is committed to being a constant secure presence for the children. She holds the overview of the structure of the day, making sure that the curriculum is attended to, actively teaching from time to time, interacting with parents and supporting individual children at times.
Afnan Salah teaches KG2.
Afnan is vibrant and energetic. Happy and clearly passionate about her first year of teaching, she gives clear instructions, is focused on helping the children learn their early academic skills and also makes much use of physical exercises/rhythm/song and repetition to help children stay regulated and learn cognitive skills. She is eager to learn anything new and a wonderful person to have on the team.
- O is the social worker for all the children and a teacher for KG1 (four year olds). She has studied in Sweden and brings a strong skill set with her in working with movement and games to promote healing, emotional strength and confidence. After work in the kindergarten, in the afternoons, she volunteers in a center of palliative care for children with cancer. She also works for the empowerment of women and girls and helps them understand the meaning of being a woman. She is an empowered, charismatic and dynamic young woman with a great love for the children. She makes a point of telling the girls how beautiful they are and how good they are. She reframes what their parents say to make them feel good. E.g. your mom was just joking when she said you were ugly. She had some additional training from he Holy Land Trust as well.
Khitam is a caretaker, cleaner, that also interacts in a limited way with the children.
Although only started four months ago, this is already a very strong program. From my western perspective and my strong bias in favor of child centered, therapeutic environments for children, I observed several great strengths of this program:
- The relationships between children and staff are warm, caring and supportive.
- Structure, routine and predictable sequence of the day provides a predictable and secure environment.
- Frequent physical activities combined with music and rhythm are regulating and healing for children with have high anxiety and high activity levels. (It is the belief of the school that the children need a lot of physical play together and physical activities to build self expression, gross motor skills and co-ordination.)
- A non-coercive, flexible approach to discipline. An acceptance of children’s emotional expression and mistakes in social interaction.
- A mixture of teacher centered and child centered activities.
- Opportunities for informal, unstructured socialization during breaks, recess and celebrations.
- The successful social inclusion of some children with emotional difficulties.
The children are happy, joyful, eager, often noisy and shouting or pushing over each other to participate in academic lessons. Most of the children interact freely and exuberantly with each other. Some of the children appear to have difficulty with modulation of emotion, are very active, withdrawn or emotionally reactive. This program is excellent at providing an environment which supports the regulation and gradual socialization of these children. Towards the end of my visit teachers began to ask how they could support the learning of some of the children who were learning most slowly.
There is a distinct difference between KG 1 and KG 2. KG1 emphasizes individual expression of gross motor activities and initiation during motor games and song. Movement, imitation, song and group drama activities help to build confidence, physical co-ordination and self-expression. Drawing and lego activities emphasize creativity visual spatial thinking and expression.
The emphasis of KG2 is on cognitive skills such as learning colors, shapes, numbers 1-20, the alphabet and some words by sight. The staff believes that parents will judge their child’s progress largely based on acquisition of beginning academic skills. There is therefore great external pressure to help the children learn these skills in order to establish a good reputation for the kindergarten. My observations, may have been skewed, because we visited at the end of the semester when the children were being tested. However, I also saw open ended activities such as drawing.
There is a lengthy outdoor play involving energetic running, climbing, and jumping, Hoola hoops are brought out and boys carry the seesaw up the ramp, to use as group sled. During recess, Olla is actively engaged in playing ring games with kids, which inspired them to initiate and organize their own ring games. Additional funds will expand the outdoor equipment available to the children (although it was my observation that they made excellent use of the time.)
I observed snack time/lunch to be a time of play movement around the room among different groups of children. Sharing of food and sometimes actually feeding each other. Arguing, laughing, fighting, talking. It is a time of vigorous social interaction which did not get out of hand.
A couple of the children have difficulty separating from parents and entering K1. In the first case I observed Ramiah take time to talk with the mother at the gate to give the little girl some time to adjust. She slowly encourages the mother to come in and help her daughter settle in the classroom. This was respectful of the little girl and gave her time to adapt to the classroom. Soon Ramiah encouraged the mother to leave. The little girl cried for a short while and then soon was laughing and happy with the other children and engaged with the activities. This sensitive care was most helpful for both the little girl and the mother who can see that her daughter is in safe hands even though she is crying a little. This was typical of the care we saw.
O. tells me that when children talk of the occupation and their problems she asks them to think about their problems and burst balloons by jumping on them and imagining their problems gone. When the children talk of Gaza and children being hurt, because they see this on the news then she tells them to explain to her how to draw what is happening on the blackboard. She draws for example a child with an arm that is hurt. She asks them to imagine that the arm is getting better and is now strong again. She asks them to imagine the arm raised in friendship. The children tell her how to draw that too,
O. has had additional training in movement activities while on an exchange program in Sweden, which she uses to promote a child’s self confidence. She brings these great activities to the kindergarten:
- Call and response songs initiated by one child.
- Where is the chalk? (hidden on the body of a child who leaves the room).
- Guess who is the leader of the action,
- Whole group mime of a story about planting an olive tree, its growth etc.
O. and Ramiah free play with legos, free art and semi-structured art projects.
With the funds we bring, they plan a new carpet area with more toys to increase the opportunities for free play.
Observations of K2
This classroom includes structured teacher directed tasks and worksheets to teach the alphabet, handwriting and numbers. For example dictation of the letters or copying letters from the blackboard. Most of the children were highly engaged in these activities. Some of them were unable to do it and watched. Number work is also taught daily through whole body, rhythmic physical activities for example during the morning greeting routine at the front door of the school, all the children engage in a routine of rhythmic body movements while chanting and/counting. This warms the children, engages whole body in co-ordinated fast moving motor activities and is fun in addition to helping them learn to count. I did not see manipulatives (blocks and sticks) used for number comprehension.
Small group activities in K2
Five centers were set up, fine motor activity with pegs, playdough, fine motor with threading, a boys play area with cars and trucks, a girls play area with dolls and cooker.
Fine motor skills through craft activities like sticking, rolling paper into balls and tearing.
Winning and losing games for children in KG2 e.g. Physical games test speed of motor response to instructions. Children are generally good natured about losing. Elimination games which inevitably meant that those with special needs got the least practice and the most failure.
I am told that in both classes when children come in from outside activities they have a quiet time lying with their heads on their hands to relax.
On one of the days we were there, the kindergarten celebrated the end of the semester with large quantities of candy handed out to the children followed by an exotic, delicious and healthy feast of rice, lentils, salad, stuffed egg plant, pickles, cucumber. We sat outside on the benches and the children waited a long time without apparent discipline while the food was organized by some of the parents.
By Sarah Measures