Teacher, leave those kids alone: Students seize the blackboard in Palestine

Published October 9th, 2012 - 01:08 GMT
Teach for Palestine is leading an educational revolution in the West Bank
Teach for Palestine is leading an educational revolution in the West Bank

Nablus, the northern West Bank city, is more associated with the sweet delight of Kanafeh and fierce opposition to the Israeli occupation throughout the Second Intifada. Less known is that a teaching revolution that not only educates but empowers children, is taking place right now in the heart of the city.

Teach for Palestine (TFP) is an educational NGO entirely funded by private donations by the Nablusi community that teaches English to children aged between six and fourteen. They are pioneering a new format for education in the West Bank: children running the class rather than a traditional ‘teacher.’

It is a novel approach in a society more used to dusty old professors and rote learning than modern classes. Peer-to-Peer learning, as it’s known, uses bilingual 11 and 12 year olds from a private school in the city to teach after-school classes in the poorest areas of town.

According to Ben Francis, Executive Director of the NGO, the model works and yields positive results. “It gives the kids linguistic aspiration to see a fellow Palestinian who can speak the English language fluently,” he says.

Figures from the United Nations show adult literacy in Palestine is at 95 per cent, an impressive feat alone, even more so when compared to the regional average of 75 per cent. But education in the Middle East and North Africa is almost always based on a one-way system: teacher at the front of the class, pupils behind, reading and reciting.

Rote learning, or education by memorization, “enables students to be able to recite every grammar rule in the English language, but to hold a conversation with them is almost impossible,” Francis explains.

Rawya Abu Rabi, 13, is one of the new breed of student-teachers. She does it because  she feels it is a positive step, “it is really good for the community, and it brings us together”. Working with a teacher, Rawya looks after five pupils who respond positively to having someone their own age help them learn a new language and she can speak with them on their own terms to help them understand.

The old mechanized style of teaching is being challenged by TFP. Children teaching other children builds on their already successful techniques that give students the gift of critical thinking, enabling them to gain confidence in a language that is increasingly important to the global economy.

The peer-to-peer programme also yields results outside of the classroom.

Nablus is a divided city and children from the well-off areas attend private school well away from their poorer compatriots. These two groups of students would not usually mix.

“These classes bring people together, it puts each other on their radar,” Francis says. “The relationships that start in the classroom continue outside,” he adds.

However, not everyone is a fan of English teaching in the Middle East, claiming that it denies children a link to their Arabic heritage. Francis says the key for TFP students, which operates on a voluntary basis, is the ability to get the problems of Palestine out of the Occupation walls.

The skill of a second language “enables pupils to put their side of the story up, tell people what has happened, it empowers students to have their voices heard,” he says. It also allows students to set their sights on a university course beyond the West Bank. With more courses globally being offered in English students can go and work towards a degree.

The new peer-to-peer style could have wide ranging effects on Palestinian society, too. Young people are feeling increasingly inspired to take action, as seen in the recent case of the worlds youngest mayor, 15 year old Bashaer Othman in the city of Tulkarem in the northwestern West Bank.

Tell us what you think. Is this a good idea? Should Peer-to-Peer learning happen everywhere? Let us know your thoughts! 

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