As American interns, many things were new to us about education in Palestine. For example, students in first to third grade never repeat a year. Regardless of whether or not they pass a class, a student cannot in that age-range cannot be held behind. Another major difference between here and education in the United States is the all important Tawjihi examination, taken at the end of twelfth grade, which determines both whether a student is able to go to university, and what they can study there. Tawjihi scores were just announced last week which lead to celebrations late into the night for those fortunate 62% who obtained a passing mark this year. The difference that has affected our experiences as interns the most, however, is that for our students, genders are usually separated during formal instruction. According to studies in 2008, only 29% of schools in Palestine were co-educational. For students that we have interacted with, in a conservative society such as Nablus, they go to a girls-only or boys-only school and then go on to a co-educational university and are expected to thrive. Once there, they are often uncomfortable working with or speaking to their peers of the opposite sex by the time they reach young adulthood. TYO however, understands the importance of mixing genders in its classrooms.
As an intern group, we have had many debates about whether this is a worthwhile practice, given the resistance interns face from their students when they try to create mixed gender groups, or do mixed gender activities in the classroom.
Some of us interns didn't understand why TYO insisted on having boys and girls working together when that’s not what they’re used to in the school system. Statements that we originally wrote off like, "girls and boys distract one another in the classroom" became bits of our reality once we started teaching.
But as we got to know our classes more, we started finding that often, all-boy groups or all-girl groups were rowdy and sometimes, too difficult to get through to. This often frustrated our volunteers who tried to lead a single-gender group but could never accomplish anything. So we mixed genders in small groups.
Of course, this didn't always come easily. Kids argued, put up fights and refused to cooperate. But once they saw that the activity was so fun, exciting and engaging, it didn't matter who they were sitting next to or working with.
The other day in Sarah's class when students were making kites, one of the girls wanted to paint hers as a Palestinian flag, but she kept messing it up. Sarah gave her a new piece of paper, and the boy next her immediately leaned over to show her where the colors were supposed to go. She smiled and thanked him. Sarah was so amazed that she asked someone later if the two students were related and was pleased to know that they weren't.
We've also seen improvement in our Community English classes.The students, all young adults, seem totally comfortable working together and playing games on teams. It's most likely because an overwhelming majority of them are volunteers at TYO and have been working with their colleagues of both genders in the classroom, so they are comfortable interacting with each other.
For most of our kids, complaining about working with the opposite sex is just an initial reaction to something they aren’t used to. After the first few weeks, they got to know their classmates and it became much easier to get them to work together. In life, boys and girls will have to interact with one another, and students at TYO are being prepared for the real world - a world in which boys and girls coexist.
- Hilary, Jay and Sarah
Hilary, Jay and Sarah are interns at TYO in Nablus.