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Educating under fire

Andrew Foster on why children in a war zone need lessons to be fun

About half of Gaza’s children are refugees attending schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The shortage of school buildings and the need to ensure every child has a place means schools operate two shifts a day. The educational context is made even more complex by the ongoing conflict, which makes maintaining teacher development a real challenge. UNRWA, which supervises the education of Palestinian refugees in the region, has the difficult task of ensuring teachers and supervisors have ongoing professional development.

Last October a group of 19 UNRWA staff attended a British Council ‘train the trainer’ course to learn how to deliver a primary course for teachers using materials previously used by the British Council with over 900 teachers in the West Bank. This is the first stage of a two-level cascade programme. Working with the British Council team based in Gaza the trainers set up the first phase of training in six locations there, aiming to train 150 English teachers.

This was due to start on 19 November – the evening of the first in a series of missile strikes. For the next eight days everyone’s concerns were for the safety of family and loved ones. Twelve days after the ceasefire the team’s rescheduled programme started on 3 December with two sessions a week rather than one to make up for lost time. Suheil Tarazi, the British Council’s Gaza office manager, called it ‘a challenging decision, but a correct one’.

After an eight-day bombardment that destroyed houses and schools, Gaza’s traumatised children are finding it hard to readjust to daily life and school, which is why ways of learning that are fun and not stressful are sorely needed.

Replacing the pressure of study with engaging activities that are fun for children is a focus of young learner English practice, and our course encourages teachers to try activities that children can join in and enjoy, make resources and reflect on how their classes found them.

UNRWA has 147 primary schools across the Gaza Strip. It is hoped that 150 more teachers will take part in the second-stage training, starting in March. One of the teachers, Fatma Al Jarrah, said, ‘This course is so good and adds lots of fun to learning English, especially for kids. The course investigates the problem from the very beginning by letting us learn the characteristics of learners and how to deal with this age group based on the things they like.’

We in the Council hope that all involved in this training will find something to help them and the children in their classes through trying times.

Andrew Foster is English project manager of the British Council Palestinian Territories