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.

As intern teachers at TYO we are trained to under all circumstances consider the emotional state of our students when we are in the classroom. These children come to TYO with an excess amount of emotional baggage, which often includes memories of witnessing scenes of violence within their homes and their communities. Moreover, each afternoon they arrive fresh out of their school where ‘emotionality’ is often disregarded. As UNICEF recently reported, teachers in Palestine have frequently admitted to resorting to physical violence, whilst 77% have admitted outright to the use of verbal abuse. Within this unstable environment it is clear that the classroom, which could be a tool for relieving much of the pain in a child’s life, is often a place of more fear and more violence. At TYO, our role is therefore to utilise the classroom as a place that can have a positive everlasting affect on children, to impart onto them memories that they can look back on with a feeling of security, safety and pride.
drama class


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.

Such a study points out the intricacies of classroom environment that have always been implicitly woven into TYO’s approach to non-formal education. Building community and resilience in the classroom has been a focus for programs here since their inception, with emotional support at the core. Teaching a drama class, I’ve noticed the way humor and emotion reinforce values of equality and respect. Kids begin to feel more comfortable around one another, finding a community within the classroom that they perhaps were not initially looking for. When a student eagerly paddles an imaginary boat with her teacher from a foreign place, barriers are weakened and people laugh. It is the kind of laughter that is built on excitement and positivity that affords themselves the confidence and comfort to have fun.


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.

Statistically, Palestine seems to be embracing gender equality, as according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, 51.4% of children attending schools are currently female. However, though on paper these statistics seem favourable, in actuality the way the Palestinian school system is educating children leaves something to be desired. Currently, most Palestinian schools are separated by gender from first grade up until children reach university level. This means that while girls and boys are going to school, they have little to no interaction with peers their own age of the opposite gender. In addition to the divided nature of the school system, cultural norms perpetuate gender stereotypes such as the belief that girls can’t play football or the mentality that men are superior to woman. Thus, in a country where 68.9% of the labour force is male and 7.4% of females, as opposed to just 2.1% of males, were illiterate as of 2012, it is undeniable that vast inequalities still exist between the sexes.


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.