Changing Classroom Conundrums to Classroom Solutions
This week the theme for after school classes at TYO were ‘My Classroom’, this takes into account the need for creating a safe place in the classroom, where children can feel comfortable and barriers can be broken down. With the current climate in the much of the Middle East region, there needs to be a place for children to feel safe and wanted in the midst of violence. In these situations, the school establishment is often not enough. As we can see from the previous weeks events in Syria, children are not always safe within their school environment. TYO offers a space beyond the confines of schools where children and their parents can be reassured in their safety and emotional well-being. As a child, what we experience in the classroom, whether it be something we look back on with pride or with embarrassment, are often things that stay with us and shape our personalities for life. As the setting for lifelong and often life altering memories, the classroom is a place that should be respected. If we all recognise the impact of the classroom on the mind of a child we can more clearly see the affects of ‘emotionality,' meaning the emotional state of the child within the classroom, and the importance of treating it with care. The problem is that in Nablus, teachers often ignore ‘emotionality’ in their classroom, and in some cases they even demonise it or problematize it, and in so doing they can have an everlasting negative impact on the children they teach.
While I’ve already noticed the class growing closer as we are approaching the third week, the difficulty in communication between students with different backgrounds and their teachers has yet to be resolved. Every class has moments where students do not cooperate due to being seated next to someone of the other gender, but those moments are becoming less frequent. For instance, kids not wanting to sit next to each other quickly forgot their discomfort when we began a game of passing a “woosh” sound to our neighbor. Making mistakes became part of the game, as the class collectively giggled with any kink in the circle. As a drama class, laughter has been essential to growing a more comfortable and engaging classroom. While everyone knows that having fun in school creates a better learning environment, a recently published study from a team at City University of New York explores the relationship between emotional climate and fluency of classroom interactions. The study pioneers an approach in delineating the importance of emotion in classroom environments. Excavating emotionally charged actions of teachers and students for their cognitive and psychological impact, emotional support and respect for ideas were found to be instrumental in creating a better learning environment.
My second week teaching classes through the International Internship Program at TYO has opened my eyes to some of the vast differences which exist between Palestinian culture and my own. At the age of 12 I would never have though twice about having to work with a boy on a project. I may have rebelled against the idea because at that point, boys were ‘gross,’ but fundamentally, I had no problem collaborating with them, as I was taught that members of both sexes should be regarded as equal. Children in Nablus, however, have grown up listening to a very different set of values. They have been taught that working with members of he opposite sex isn't correct. As a result of these values, children often times grow up having little to no experience working with members of the opposite gender.
While there is a lot of debate in educational psychology over the value of mixed gender classrooms, both sides acknowledge that exposure to the opposite sex is vital for social development. In TYO’s target refugee camps, education is completely segregated until university, if students choose that path and can afford to go. Unfortunately, this is long after most of their mental and social development has already taken place, and research suggests that these kids may be missing out.
Moreover, the London Institute of Economics recently found that boys specifically were at a disadvantage in single gender classrooms, and that these experiences left them less capable of relating to girls and less successful in their personal lives. Multiple researchers have found that greater distinctions between genders in society, educational or otherwise, contribute directly to gender inequality as well as domestic violence. In simple terms, this means that when kids grow up to see another gender as “other,” they are more likely to see them as unequal, and the classroom is the primary environment from which children find their social cues. Mixed gender settings help students of different genders to be more comfortable around each other, which is obviously important for social development.
With these challenges in mind, TYO strives to foster a classroom setting where boys and girls are seen as equal and slowly become accustomed to eating, learning, and playing together. After all, in the future they will have to be prepared to work side by side not only in professional settings, but in any endeavor to improve their communities. We want our kids to see that they have more in common than they realize and that everyone should be valued for who they are and the unique skills and perspective they bring to the table. This hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve received a lot of resistance when it comes to seating my kids at mixed gender tables. However, I’ve noticed that the resistance quickly fades when they’re engaged in games that force them to work together and cheer each other on. Here the kids are not only reaping all of the developmental benefits of being placed in a mixed gender classroom, but also learning about treating each other equally in their day to day lives. This is why something as small as continually placing a boy and a girl at the same table is part of our long-term view of development for both kids and for the community as a whole.