My 6 year old son starts a new school next week and he seriously cannot wait. He looks longingly out the car window whenever we drive by and says proudly, “Hey, mom! There it is! That’s my new school! I’ll be a (wait for it…..) FIRST GRADER!” His excitement and boundless optimism are achingly beautiful to me and I say small prayers that they will remain intact during the coming year. His joy is matched by his mother’s tentative hope that somehow first grade really does manage to live up to his sky-high expectations, that somehow learning becomes an imagination-fueled kaleidoscope of fun, games, drawing, tree-climbing, and dramatic play – with ice cream handed out every day to boot.
My apprehension and anxiety on my son’s behalf is accompanied by my own growing to-do list: get birth certificate copied, obtain immunization records, purchase supply list items (preferably during the statewide Tax-Free weekend which I’ve already missed). This one-page list comes complete with pictures and links to Amazon in case I am unsure of exactly which magazine holder is crucial to my son’s 1st grade success. Last year, I was the parent – THAT parent – who did not go buy the all-natural paraffin-free non-toxic beeswax crayons; another well-intentioned family later emailed me a link to Paleo Mom’s blog on the dangers of Crayola. This year already feels like a set-up, a test I am somehow not going to pass, as if my son’s ability to decode diphthongs and his mathematic awareness will be forever impacted by his mom’s inability to pick out the right box of odorless non-Sharpie.
Contrast this with the constraints of designing a preschool curriculum in a place where paper disintegrates and cloth (the closest replacement) is a limited commodity. Actually, as it turns out, almost everything is a limited commodity in refugee Camp Goz Amer in eastern Chad, Africa. Materials are incredibly hard to come by, although each “Pond” (in-home preschool) gets a start-up kit of items such as Arabic alphabet blocks, animal counters, magnets, and balls. The environment is harsh for the people, but harsh, too, for planning. Markers dry out, paint is used up, rubber bands crack. If it is too heavy to carry in your luggage, it is out (although god only knows how much it costs iACT team members Sara-Christine and Gabriel to get the few books about counting and hygiene in Arabic into the country in the first place). We focus on designing lessons around social-emotional learning and peaceful conflict resolution as well as basics of health and wellness, early literacy and elementary math skills. String, canvas squares, tin cans, rocks, and sticks form the basis of the students’ learning tools– what can be readily found in their environment is what we plan for and use.
The Little Ripples team is committed to creating a sustainable early childhood education model that can be quickly and easily replicated in a crisis situation by any entity. Although refugee camps are not meant to be permanent, community-building starts here. The LR trainers buy everything possible for the program from within the camps themselves; what cannot be bought there has to be brought from the US on one of their training trips. Even then the logistics are daunting; materials (and people) are flown to Koukou, then driven into Camp Goz Amer. Depending on conditions, this can be a half hour or almost two hour drive. This is not a superhighway we are talking about here. The Little Ripples teachers are trained by the team and come from the refugee population living in Camp Goz Amer. They, too, have lost homes and family members to conflict. This is not an import/export model, but one based closely on collaboration, community, and empowerment from within.
And maybe that is what I want most for my own son at the end of a day –more than alphabets and numbers, I want him to know that he is important and loved, that what he does is important and that his choices make a difference. More than the field trips and endless supply of crayons, I want his teachers to care enough for him and the students he learns with to show them their own strengths and greatness, to help them find their own power in this world.
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