Discovering Hidden Talents


If you spend a day in any of our classes here at TYO, you will quickly learn that they are not just about increasing the students’ skills in a particular subject.  Instead, we take a holistic approach in our teaching, which includes improving the children’s overall psychosocial well-being.  Many of the youth here have lived through traumatic experiences, and the effects are exhibited in the ways in which they interact with others.  Issues such as shyness, anger, and anxiety are just a few of the complications that we must consider in our lesson plans.  Therefore, for my sports class, it is my goal not only to increase the students’ athletic abilities, but also to work on life skills such as teamwork and communication.

In order to accomplish these goals, it is necessary to first establish a baseline for assessment.  To do this, I set up a few exercises, which enabled me to evaluate my classes’ initial abilities.  The first exercise simply measured athletic skill by gauging the accuracy at which students could hit a target with a soccer ball.  The second exercise, however, revealed much more about the children’s psychosocial health.  The task entailed timing how long it took pairs of students to pass a soccer ball between designated cones in a serpentine fashion.  In addition to challenging their athletic skills, this exercise demonstrated how well students were able to communicate and work together in accomplishing a goal.

While I knew evaluating the students ahead of time would be helpful in terms of measuring their progress, I was surprised at how telling the results were in terms of other issues.  The serpentine passing drill was conducted in nearly complete silence.  The only times the students spoke at all were out of frustration, either towards themselves or their teammates.  Moreover, it was interesting to note that the children seemed more concerned about getting their ball from their side to the other, as opposed to getting it to their teammate; the emphasis of the passes was on the individual performance as opposed to the pair’s success.

Ideally, I will be able to use my class time this session to teach the children about the importance of communication and collaboration.  While these skills are important to the success of any sports team, they are also keys to success in life.  Through a series of teambuilding and communication exercises each class period, I hope to draw the students out of their shells, and teach them these necessary skills.  By the end of the session, I hope that the students will not only utilize these skills in relation to sports, but also in relation to their community as a whole.


Last week before beginning my initial assessment, I asked my students what they wanted to learn in drama class. Overwhelmingly the response was acting, as one would expect, with a couple of boys skewing the trend and affirming that they wished to play games and simply have fun. To assess their capabilities in the acting department, we played a couple rounds of charades. The only “acting” instructions I gave them was how to indicate the category of their phrase and then I let them rely on their basic instincts. The results varied. Many of my students were initially discouraged because they could not imagine how they could possibly convey a message without words. Instead of letting them get away with this justification, I asked them to try after a couple of classmates had acted out their phrases. Although there was some reluctance, I managed to have 100 percent participation.

I noticed in all of my classes that the game became less about acting and more about winning, which means that a lot of cheating took place.  When I turned away kids would mumble words, encouraged by overly competitive volunteers. If they weren’t cheating, they somehow managed to communicate non-verbally with their teammates in a manner that did not involve acting. Most of the communication relied on head movements in response to questions for the team. A nod indicating that they were on the right track was the most movement I got from some students who simply waited for the right questions.  While technically not cheating, there was definitely little charading.

Through my assessment and other acting games, I’ve learned that many of my kids know much less about acting then I expected. More importantly, they are less willing to make fools out of themselves and make mistakes. This will definitely be my biggest struggle - helping the majority of my students lose their inhibitions and increase their self-confidence. My students forget their enthusiasm to learn drama when they need to stand in front of their peers and demonstrate their new skills. The contrast between their wishes and their actions is a bit baffling and expected. Acting can be intimidating even when you are equipped with proper skills. Instead of breaking out of their shells, many of my kids recoil back into their shyness. Rather than attempting to participate, they allow the more outgoing kids to take over. I hope that with this class, my kids will be able to find their inner voice and be more comfortable expressing themselves among their peers.  That would be the greatest discovery.


Last week I ran my initial assessment activities, which were both an organizational requirement and a useful tool for understanding where the kids are coming from and so I can tailor my lessons to them. The trick, of course, was to run a test without the kids knowing it actually was one. Giving them a series of multiple-choice questions on color-mixing would be an unforgivable crime in an after-school art class, not to mention intimidating the kids who’d never learned it before. Just as parenting magazines might suggest that you slip broccoli into brownies, I tried to hide my tests into fun art activities for the kids.

My first assessment activity tested the children’s knowledge of basic art skills – more specifically, their knowledge of mixing the primary colors to make secondary ones. We started off by drawing different kinds of lines on the board and finding them in the classroom, and the kids then filled their papers with lines. When it came time to paint the spaces between their lines, the children were given red, blue, and yellow paint and, somewhat cryptically, instructed to paint one section orange, one section purple, and one green. My volunteers took notes on which children knew how to mix the colors and instructed those who didn’t.

As I flitted frantically around the classroom, worrying about the numbers and reminding my volunteers to keep tallies, I was delighted by the revelations that were occurring all around me. When Ishaq’s volunteer showed him how red and yellow mix to make orange, he stood up and shouted “BORTUQALEE!”, only to go through the same very vocal astonishment with green and purple, each new color a revelation. Another child, Ahmed, told me afterwards that it was a really good lesson, which, though he didn’t know it, was exactly the reassurance this art teacher needed. An activity that seemed straightforward to me ended up being more fun and more challenging than I anticipated. Many of the children said they didn’t know how to draw zigzag and curly lines, so it was a valuable exercise in remembering that things that might seem easy or obvious to me probably aren’t to my students. I too was a kid who thought I couldn’t draw, so I’m hoping to build the children’s confidence in their own abilities.

In my second activity, designed to test the kids’ self-confidence, they measured, cut, and decorated paper pinwheels and wrote a wish on each spoke.  At the end of class, the children were invited to come to the front of the room to share their wishes with the class, with the goal of comparing how many kids were willing to open up publicly at the beginning of the session and at the end. Their wishes provided me with a glimpse into their lives, their sources of sadness and their deepest hopes.  Their wishes were religious – to go on hajj, to memorize the whole Quran, to go to heaven – and secular, silly and poignant. At least one was also off-topic and adorable: “I Love You Anna."

These children want to go swimming, to please their parents, to succeed in school, for their fathers and brothers to be released from prison. We have aspiring travelers to locales near and far – Syria, Amman, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Tulkarem – and aspiring professionals – future doctors, engineers, businesswomen, and airplane pilots. While only a minority of children shared their wishes, I was struck by their openness and vulnerability. While I hope my class will help build their confidence and self-expression, I realize that there’s not much I need to teach them in that regard: it’s just a question of giving them a space to release what’s already inside them.


Getting to know the students in my Sports and Games class has been a slow, careful process. The group dynamic in each of my four classes is entirely different and can vary from day to day. From the first class the kids were observant, waiting to see what kind of ideas I had in store for them. Some were disappointed to find out that we wouldn't be playing soccer every day. Some hesitated to play any game that was new or different. Almost universally, the students were unwilling to participate in mixed-gender activities. When I talk to students without my translator, communication is almost always one-sided. It's impressive to watch their patience as they listen to me, trying to figure out which conjugation of a verb I should have used, and rewarding to see their faces light up when they figure out what I'm trying to communicate. It's difficult to watch their frustration when I cannot understand their responses to me.

One of my goals for the Sports and Games classes is to build upon the kids' abilities to work together and support each other. I hope to do this with a combination of team building activities and debriefing discussions. Last week we performed an assessment, using an activity called Labyrinth. In the game, two teams attempt to find their way through an invisible maze, guided only by “yes” or “no” responses from volunteers. In order to be successful, teams need to utilize a number of skills including: teamwork, communication, memory, patience, and perseverance. My role was limited to observing - with the help of my translator - how they applied these skills. After four 20 minute games, it was clear just how much work we had ahead of us. Only one team was able to successfully navigate the maze more than one time. Almost all communication devolved into pointing and yelling with some students even physically maneuvering others only to be further frustrated by failure.

There are so many little things that we, as Americans, learn while growing up that I think many of us take for granted. Skills like self-motivation, teamwork, leadership, and positive reinforcement are almost second nature – even when we fail to succeed in employing them in our daily lives. Just being aware of these capabilities is half the battle, which makes sharing them with the kids a pleasure. What I'm learning from the students is just as integral to immersing in life here in Palestine. For example, how to answer no with only my eyebrows or a click of the tongue, or in understanding refugee camp dynamics, or in the cultural transcendence of hugs and kisses from 9 year old girls. For me, these kinds of connections have been the most unique and fulfilling aspect of teaching classes here at TYO. My hope is that our students' experiences here will have lasting benefits for them throughout their lives, helping them to realize their own potential as students, Nabulsis, and Palestinians.