Sunday, 23 April 2017

#ISV2017 "What Else Could we Do?" - Post No. 2

To read post no.1 about my study visit to Berlin follow this link:
3 young children who shared their stories with us - the boy in the red hat had been living in the centre for 2 years.
On our second day of the study visit, we had the opportunity to visit a refugee centre in Moabit. None of us had any idea what to expect when we saw that on the programme as we have no experience of such centres in our areas. This was an old school building that had become empty as a result of falling birth rates in Berlin. Now it housed 260 people. 
On our walk to the centre we passed a memorial to the local Jewish people who had been transported to concentration camps during the war, the fact of this being right beside the refugee centre made it very poignant.
Our purpose was to meet up with a young trainee teacher who was offering extra language classes to the children in the centre as an after school activity. 
The first thing that struck me as we entered the building was the fact that there were security guards positioned at the entrance, we had to sign in and the thought that someone living there has to do that every time the enter or leave struck me as feeling like a prison and definitely didn't feel like a homely environment right away.
The building looked, smelled and felt like a school, there were lots of people milling about, mostly men hanging about the entrance smoking, children sitting along the corridors playing on tablets or chatting to friends and women with small babies pacing the corridors. It was noisy.
The room where the student teacher was holding German lessons was a bright, colourful room with lots of evidence of play and children - there were games and toys on the shelves and larger pieces of play equipment around the walls. There were only 3 children in the room and they were all very different ages - ranging from 12 to 6. They were full of energy after a morning at school and wanted to be moving about the room. We watched as they played some games with the adult and then we chatted to them about their backgrounds etc. The student teacher explained that she never knew how many children would turn up for each session and as it is voluntary they could wander in and out during the time as well. They could also be at very different levels of German and some might only have just arrived a day or two earlier. The 3 children were keen to introduce themselves in German to us & tell us a little about themselves. Being children they automatically said things like "my name is ..... and I am .... years old' so when it came our turn, Ian went first and followed their lead with a "I'm Ian and I'm 33 years old", of course the rest of us had to follow suit or we'd have looked churlish!! We did tease him about that afterwards of course.
While we talked to the director the children built a castle.
We were delighted that the director was about to join us for a brief chat about the work going on in the refugee centre, he was an amazing person, very young and yet so passionate about his job and the plight of the refugees in Berlin. He was a social worker who had fallen into the role of director when the previous one left and after 2 years was burned out after working 24/7 in the centre but he wasn't leaving to do something easier, as he had decided to move to a role in a local school working with refugee children in their aferschool programme.
He spoke with such passion about how it was so important to make sure anyone moving into Berlin was given every opportunity to integrate into society and allowed to contribute in a meaningful way to local life etc. He was frustrated by lots of the problems he had encountered during this time working in the centre and the many hoops people had to jump through to access the most basis of entitlements. 
The idea is that people spend up to 3 months in such centres before moving out into a more homelike setting but one of the boys we spoke to had been living there for 2 years. This child spoke of not getting to sleep until 3 a.m. because of the noise in the centre each night. 
As the director pointed out was it really fair to the children in the centre to be expected to attend extra language classes after a day at school when they should really be playing? He was also concerned that whilst at the centre children were catered for almost all day and therefore parents had no expectation to look after their own children and this became a problem when they moved out of the centres and most if not all of this support was withdrawn. He was very concerned that families were depending on young children to provide them with their future in Berlin - the pressure on the children was too much, they had to act as interpreters for their parents and were being robbed of their childhood.
The biggest issue in his eyes was the complete disempowerment of people while living in the centres - they had no cooking facilities so even this basic skill was taken from them.
We had an opportunity to see around the centre to have a look at the facilities on offer to the residents. 
No matter how hard anyone had tried, this was still an institutional building and could never be seen as a home in any way, shape or form. I began to feel very sad and emotional as we walked through the building and you realise that life has to be really terrible where you come from if this is seen as better option. The volunteers who work hard to help make centres a better place were incredible, we met people who ran the clothing bank where residents could come to pick out new clothing, they had it set up like a proper shop and I was struck by the dignity they were trying to give people back as they had to choose used clothing. 
The volunteers had worked hard to make the clothing bank feel like a proper shop. 
There was a canteen but it could only hold 30 people so most have to eat in their rooms, meals are provided and as you can imagine aren't of a great standard or even the type of food most of the residents are used to eating.
There were 3 toilets in the building, so you can imagine what they were like and 6 washing machines but no driers for the whole building. I could only imagine how damp the rooms must be as people try to dry their washing.
We were humbled to chat to a young man from Afghanistan who at 17 was living in the centre alone and seems so sad and lonely yet was adamant he didn't want to go back home. Sadly as Afghanistan is viewed as a 'safe' country he is most likely to be sent back soon.
We heard about retired doctors who were volunteering weekly to offer a drop in clinic for residents and how one resident a tailor from Syria was helping to teach sewing skills to others in the centre. 
We later learned that this activity had almost been withdrawn from the plan as there were issues with the director now being available to meet us and a worry that it would be 'too much' for us. However all of us agreed that this had been such a worthwhile part of the programme and that it really needed to be part of it and future study visits too - we could never have understood the barriers the children were facing without seeing where some of them are living. All I could think was, how is a child supposed to concentrate at school when they have been awake until 3.a.m? I was also very struck by how vulnerable the young children wandering around the corridors unaccompanied were, they were very trusting and willing to please adults. 
Once again, though we heard the phrase "what else could we do?" from the staff and volunteers who were doing their best to make an abnormal situation as normal as possible. 
A massive thanks to all who made us so welcome at the Moabit refugee centre and the British Council DE for organising the visit.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

#ISV2017 Berlin - "What else could we do?" - No.1

Me, Ian & Nigel - on a Bear Hunt!

This post is lengthy & could be even longer so I'm going to break down my experience into several posts - this is number 1.
In September I was given new role in school that of 'Newcomer Coordinator' - with this role comes the responsibility of ensuring all our newcomer pupils and their families are welcomed into our school and given all the information they need to take a full part in school life, keeping records of each child's entry to school, home language and place of birth. I also help all my other colleagues to keep up to date with any new initiatives or training that is available to help with the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) that must be maintained for each pupil who is registered as a newcomer.
It seems like fate when I then spotted a week long study visit for primary teachers through the British Council in Northern Ireland to Berlin with the theme of 'Inclusion of refugees and migrants in Berlin'. I asked for permission to apply and sent off my online application. I was delighted to hear in February that I had been offered a place and later that month I travelled to Belfast to meet up the others who would be going with me & some of the other teachers who had got places on 2 other study visits - one to Canada & the other to Hong Kong.
There were to be 5 of us but due to family bereavements it ended up with just 3 of us, Nigel, a Principal of another integrated primary school & Ian, a Primary 4 teacher and modern languages coordinator at his school.
At the briefing session in Belfast we were told a little more about the purpose of our study visit and what was expected of us - we were introduced to the 'Appreciative Inquiry' model, as we were to use this to reflect on our experiences. I have to say as a blogger I was immediately drawn to tie model and thought that it made such sense - it's all about trying to see the positive of any experience rather than focusing on the negatives. I am a firm believer in being critical without criticising and so this approach seems like a natural fit for me. 

On the 5th of March the 3 of us met up in Dublin airport to travel onto Berlin. We got the train into the centre of Berlin and found our hotel easily, it was so centrally located in Alexanderplatz that we were within walking distance of most sights and had a range of transport options on our doorstep too. The 3 of us found out we had similar outlooks and were ready to learn from our colleagues in Berlin as well as sharing some of our practices and experiences. 
The programme had been drawn up by Frauke in the Berlin British Council office and I have to say, it ran like clockwork the whole 5 days and each meeting we had built upon the information we had received at the one before so by the end of the week we felt we had a very comprehensive picture of how the education and social care systems had reacted to the huge influx of refugees into Berlin.
We met with representatives from the Berlin Education Senate & Inspectorate and heard how they had worked closely with housing, police & town planning to figure out where best to place refugees - it seems like a lot of joined up thinking & something that seems quite alien to us in N.I where we tend to react to situations rather than plan ahead.
We met with social workers and psychologists who worked closely with the schools to help place children in schools as soon as possible - the key seems to be to ensure all children have access to education quickly so they could become active members of society. 
We visited schools throughout the week to meet with those who teach in the 'Welcome Classes' - in Berlin when a child arrives into school with no German, they are placed in a 'Welcome Class', a small class of up to 13 children of mixed aged groups, with the aim of getting their spoken & written German up to a level where they can then move out into a mainstream class. 
I had seen similar system in Florø, Norway in 2006 & had been impressed with this idea, our then principal had mooted this idea when we got back home but our education authority had seen it as segregation and discouraged it. So I was very keen to see if it was working 11 years later in another country and with such a huge influx of children with no German in the schools. Interestingly, Berlin has always had this system, it is not a reaction to the recent refugees but the number of the classes is now on much bigger scale. (**Welcome Classes increased from 639 in Dec 2015 to 1,053 in March 2017 with over 12,000 children in these classes)
The amazing Joana from Anna-Lindh Schule, who spent well over 2 hours answering our questions and inspiring us with her passion for the children she teaches.
The teachers in each of these classes were amongst the most passionate individuals I have ever met, they were determined to give all the children in their classes the best start possible and to help them become active members of society. For some this meant, taking the children out onto the public transport system to help them navigate their way around a strange city or taking them to the opera to help them enjoy all aspects of the culture in their new home. It was about helping the children enjoy as normal an experience as they could in an otherwise very abnormal situation. However, the overwhelming feeling of all the teachers we met was that there wasn't enough integration going on, the classes felt very separate from the rest of the school - in some cases the classes were in different buildings altogether. There was also an issue of how the 'local' children were being prepared for all their new peers and being supported in their acceptance and understanding of what some of these children had been through. On our last day we met with an agency ( who work hard to do just this, whilst supporting all newly arrived young people, they also ensure that they offer lots of opportunities for locals and refugees to mix together. (Interestingly in Berlin a child is seen as someone aged between 6 and 21 and they are working to move this to 27)
The wonderful Welcome Class at Theodoar-Heuss Schule, who made us so welcome too.
So what did I take away after my 6 days in Berlin? 
I learned that there are not hoards of refugees swarming the streets of Berlin, I heard Berliners say over & over "What else could we do?" when asked about the reaction of the city to the huge influx of refugees. I saw children being children and smiling, playing, keen to learn & teachers who were so passionate and caring and determined to make a difference in lives that had been transformed.
I, personally, felt that the separate Welcome Classes are not as good a way of helping children integrate and acquire language skills as our more inclusive model of supporting children in small groups that are withdrawn from class for extra support or given the support in class. I really felt that our children who have English as additional language pick it up quicker from their peers with additional support rather than being intensively taught separately. We have over 20% of our pupils coming from a 'newcomer' background and yet I would defy anyone to pick them out at playtimes etc. whereas I did see the children from the Welcome Classes playing together outside and tending to stick together - obviously they felt safer with the children they knew from their classes.
However, we don't have the huge numbers that the schools in Berlin have had, we also don't have children arriving into upper primary who have never attended school and need to learn the most basic of skills and tasks, so I can see why the smaller numbers of a Welcome Class can be such a reassurance to some children. 
I did like the way the Welcome Class teachers had time to really work with the parents of the children in their classes - they had weekly meetings to discuss progress, issues etc. and this allows them to build up good relationships with the families. There was a real drive to help these families fully access all that Berlin society has to offer & I felt that this is something we could do much better, our system tends to concentrate on educating children without seeing the family behind the child.

Massive thanks to all the British Council N.I and DE for all that they did to arrange this study visit and make it such a worthwhile experience and to all the schools who welcomed us and took time answer our many, many questions. 

Here is a link to the British Council DE's post about how to help refugee children settle into school:

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Guest Post: How to celebrate Spring - Icelandic Style!

This post is from the wonderful Unnur from Leikskóilinn Stekkjarás in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland. I have been so fortunate to visit Unnur in her school twice now and each time her enthusiasm and great attitude have been infectious. Here is a wonderful little post about how they let the children celebrate the warmer Spring weather, keep active and there is lots of problem solving & collaboration happening too. (As Unnur said herself: "Hopefully the pictures will tell you a little story as well")
'Get the hat/scarf out of the tree' - such a simple game!
Spring greetings from Iceland.  Yes we are optimistic here and the first sign is when we go into the woods and play the 'Get my hat out of the tree' game. We have played this game for a couple of years now and it is always fun time and a sign that the children are waiting to go out to play without winter jackets. 
The game is normally played around a tree that is either dead or about to be chopped down. So we need to throw our hats as high up in the tree as possible and either shake the tree if it is a tree that is going to be chopped down or if the tree is still in good condition then we go and find some long sticks and take turns in getting our hats down.  
Sometimes we need to ask a friend to help if we can't reach and sometimes we need to help a friend to find a better angle to get the hat down.
A fun thing to do when the we don't bring anything with us to the woods except good humour and warm things like hats & scarves that aren't needed.
Hope you all have a good Spring.