Friday 16 March 2018

How I ended up in Palestine

I have been asked on several occasions how I ended up in Palestine... the journey has been shared, but over a period of three years... so maybe not so easy to track it down.

So I thought I would make things a little easier, and give a short story about how I come to be sitting in a refugee camp in Jenin, Palestine, right now... and for the next five days. I have been here for a week almost.

At the end of 2014 one of my work colleagues at Filosofiska (where I worked then) had connections with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin and suggested a collaboration. The owner of the preschool, at the time, was interested in spreading his passion for improving education globally and so applications for funds were made to The Swedish Institute, so we could make a trip to Jenin to investigate the current state of preschools and schools, and how best we could be of help...
we had two ideas - first - setting up a preschool which was play-based and where the children were empowered in their learning and
second - to work with a preschool in existence to work with a more play based approach and not the academic, strict approach that was visible in many settings -  this is partly due to how they have always done it, and partly because of parental pressure to make their children school ready.

In January 2015 I came to Palestine for the first time and visited many settings. I was impressed by the passion the educators have to give their children the best start possible... but of course there were things that were harder to deal with - the way play was being interpreted (in other words they were making learning fun - through race competitions and other means - rather than seeing and valuing the learning that happens in play). I could see that children were being controlled through physical punishment in many/most of the places I saw - not hard hits, but small taps (for the most part - but there were stories that horrified me) - and this did not sit with me well. BUT at the same time I am coming to another culture and I need to listen to the whys - not just impose my views of childhood...

I held a couple of workshops for one of the settings and also a presentation about play for educators... it was clear during and after the presentation  (especially of the images of children jumping in puddles in my presentation) that I had shared more than what many of the teachers were willing to listen to.
This is why it is SO important to listen first... and to introduce what the learner is ready for and challenge thinking appropriately. For children it is often about social/cognitive maturation and also physical maturation that makes it appropriate or not... with adults culture and history (both communal and personal) plays a huge role too - maybe a pivotal role.

In April a small party of educators and others from the Freedom Theatre came to Stockholm to visit  various settings to be inspired about how another way of preschools could be... I also held two workshops... one inside exploring loose-parts and play... and a second outdoor workshop.

After these preliminary visits it became clear that the best option to move forward was a third option... to start a course for educators in Jenin.

So once again funds were sought after and The Swedish Institute were again backing the project.
At this point the owner of Filosofiska dropped out of the project and I have continued as a private person donating my time.

I then worked from Stockholm helping to set up and form the curriculum for the course and came to Jenin in January 2017 and April 2017 to hold workshops, and lessons about play, child development, neuroscience's impact on pedagogy, various pedagogical approaches, the third teacher  - looking at how the space can help the teachers and children in the learning process (most/all settings have big images of Disney and Spongebob plastered on the walls... I have learned this is a requirement to be able to have a license to run a preschool here... the idea behind is that it makes it obvious this space is for children... obvious for whom I wonder... but that is a whole other post)... I also held outdoor workshops, loose-part workshops and a huge focus on exploring the learning IN play.
It has been about listening to who there educators are, their stories and their needs and changing the course to meet them.
So basically I prepare for these sessions by reading widely, bringing lots of materials, collecting lots of images - and being prepared to use the bits that are needed... so when I am not with the educators I am preparing for them. It is intense.
I have also done presentations and learning dialogues via skype... this is something that is best done after meeting them because then we have established a relationship and we have a mutual trust that is so essential for learning.

In August 2017 the educators came to Stockholm for an intensive two weeks of visiting settings doing workshops as well as meeting people from the library for children, the teacher training college and first aid training.
I know that many of the settings have a lot of children and small indoor spaces... so there was a two day focus on outdoor learning... so that the educators could really immerse themselves in the potential of the outdoors and that learning really does not mean sitting at a desk.

Now there are two parallel courses. One for last year's cohort - to advance their thinking - 6 of the educators have the time and means to continue... and I have based this course on their need to help the parents understand the learning value of play, as this seemed to be the greatest obstacle. So we are doing hands on play sessions and breaking them down into areas of learning afterwards... Then we make plans... so work out a play idea/activity and again write in the plan the learning, the aims, the materials needed, the time and also how the activity could be extended at the time and in the future.

The other group I am starting in the same way as last year... with an introduction to play, neuroscience (to understand the child's reactions and learning) and to loose parts... giving value to things that they never thought to give value to - allowing them to see the world with a new perspective.
Because once you start seeing things in a new way you can go on yourself to make discoveries.

Why am I involved?
Well I am no rich person, so I cannot simply donate money to help others... but I can donate time and energy.
I also think that we cannot just feel sorry for situations in other countries... we need to be active about them if we are truly to make a difference (and it does not have to be in another country).
I feel coming here is appreciated by the women I collaborate and interact with here. My focus is always on listening and a democratic learning/classroom where i define democratic as equality, respect, giving others value, feeling value yourself and participation and responsibility... all of this makes freedom. By working together we can be free together.

These are people that do not feel free... and they are in a situation that is complicated in so many ways. What we want is to support the children to not just accept their status quo, to think creatively, with respect and empathy and are able to come up with sustainable solutions in the future that will benefit all.

That is why I come. Yes it sound rather over-ambitious. But I believe that peace is worth making a stand for - or in my case, worth making a journey for and sharing what I know.

Just as in Reggio Emilia the mothers wanted the children to have the power and belief that they could make the future a better place - so is the case here.

me recharging my solar energy...
it has become a bit of a joke here that I will stand in the sun and soak up a few rays while everyone else sits in the shade...
but I know when I return I have a few more months of winter before such warmth will hit my skin... for instance right now in Stockholm it is -9°C while I have a glorious  20 °C- with 28 predicted in a few days!!!
And a rare moment with my sleeves rolled up... they are down when there are men around.
photo by Suzan Wasfi

I was asked the following
 I wonder if you could share more about the process of understanding others' cultures (or maybe you already have and I missed it). You said it's important to listen...what, then, do you do when a teacher in another culture expresses a perspective with which you profoundly disagree? How do you move forward toward a shared understanding that benefits children?
At first I thought I would write a new post about it... but then thought it might be best to simply add it to this post, so that when others read this post and wondered the same thing... then they could easily find the answer

what I found is that first you have to build trust before you can start to question each other about things you profoundly disagree about... because then you know that this questioning, this discussion, comes from a place of understanding, a place of working together to make it better for the children and NOT from a place that I know better than you and you should do as I say...

it also means that you have to be open about what they are going to say... to ask more questions to understand, to share what you have learned and observed through your own experiences...

As I mentioned above, I struggle with the physical and mental punishment that is dealt out (in any form). In my first trip in January 2017 as part of this course I made the decision not to bring it up. I made the decision to focus on the positive things that I could share that would make a difference... for the educators and the children - and also talk about brain research, trauma etc - as a kind of seed planting for the future.
At the end of the second visit in April I was asked the question by the educators if I had any ideas how I could help them stop the children from hitting each other... I felt this was the perfect time - I answered that I did not think it helped that they saw and experienced adults hitting children... their answer is "we do not hit hard" and "it is so they learn right from wrong". I answered that children will try to emulate this strategy... they will make judgements about their peers behaviour and hit to "correct them" (I actually witnessed that happening - one 2 year old was doing something the she should not... a five year old went over and spanked her and said "la" - no). Some children will interpret that they are being hit because the adult does not like what they are doing... so they will hit other children when they do something the child does not like... which will result in them getting hit back... a vicious circle.
They asked me if I ever hit my children... I answered truthfully, no. My daughter was in the room and she was able to confirm this... they sat amazed, as they perceived my daughter as a well mannered, intelligent human... and she managed to be this way without ever being hit.
After the session I went into town with one of the educators, my daughter and her daughter. Her daughter has a brain defect that has impacted her development - she needs constant care, and despite being 8 years old has not developed a verbal language to communicate. When we were in town the child started to walk out into the road, which would have been dangerous, the mother raised her hand to correct her by hitting, remembered what I had said, put her hand down and then observed how her daughter self corrected, got back onto the path - all without the need of being physically reprimanded. It was a powerful moment for the mother and myself... as the mother came to me... and said "did you see, I did not hit and she learned anyway".
It was pivotal for me. Trying to find that balance of listening and sharing... of understanding and struggling with a behaviour I profoundly disagree with... as I think any form of physical or psychological abuse/punishment/reprimanding does not benefit the child... or the educator/parent and child relationship.
I am quite sure that if I hit my adult students every time they misbehaved  or got things wrong it would not improve the learning, it would not improve the trust and it would not improve a playful and joyful atmosphere. it is more likely to create resentment, distrust fear and the energy would then be on that rather than on the learning... it might have made a quieter classroom/workshop, it might have meant they came on time, or took shorter breaks... but it would have meant the learning was less genuine... all I was doing was creating space for me to speak... not a space for learning.

I do not think it is easy. We always want a quick fix. But it is seldom going to work that way.
If I had been in a room where a child was being physically hurt or psychologically abused I am not sure what I would have done... what I saw was gentle taps (which is still physical punishment... I think sometimes their signs of love... pinching cheeks was harsher) - but I heard stories from the past and the present about children who are hurt to the point there was blood or a bruise. None of the educators I have collaborated with felt this was in anyway acceptable. But I heard of stories of preschooler being hit by rulers on the hand for not going to the toilet properly etc... of being reprimanded for not sitting and doing the work... (BUT that is a form of abuse that happens in other countries too... forcing far too young children into academics - I would equally struggle in some kindergartens in USA for that reason).

So I listen to understand. I build trust. I plant seeds of knowledge and research without directly targeting the problem - so that when the time is right - (in a way when it is developmentally appropriate) we can raise the issue to discuss it openly, fairly and with respect.

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