ESRA Magazine
ESRAmagazine categories

Creating Temporary Schools For Evacuee Children


By Yael Biber Aviad

Translated from the Hebrew by Norman Silbert

Sunday morning. In the rear courtyard of the youth hostel in Mitzpe Ramon I - the principal of the primary school opening in two days, for the 70 children evacuated from Kibbutz Erez – am trying to start the first staff meeting. With me, I have my favorite set of cards showing photographs of all kinds of doors. Through which door, I ask those present, do you step to take on this project? I have planned an initial activity aimed at introducing our joint challenge and creating a bond between us. Ten members of the kibbutz are staring at me. I have the feeling they are not quite sure what I'm doing here. Besides my set of cards, which seems to be quite pointless right now, I come armed with experience in setting up and managing several schools but, most importantly, I come motivated by the desire to help the children and adults who had spent long hours in their security rooms with the threat of death hovering above them.

These people from the kibbutz had all joined forces to become the school staff. Some came with experience in education and teaching, while others hadn't set foot in a school since finishing their studies. Arnon, an optician whose shop is in an area currently designated a closed military zone, Romi, a social worker who usually works with prisoners, and Rotem, a law student who was due to start her internship. Some of them have partners currently in the army, most know people who were murdered, killed or taken hostage. All of them are still trying to comprehend what has happened and to grasp the fact that they have been forced out of their homes for an indefinite period. Using any remaining emotional strength, they stepped forward to set up a school for the children of the kibbutz. However, on that Sunday, shortly after arriving at the hostel where they were staying, I realized that none of them believed that the school would actually open that week.

That staff meeting was one of the strangest I have ever conducted. Rather like Alice's tea party in Wonderland, but under tragic circumstances. Some people joined in the middle while, at the same time, others left. Some were smoking during the meeting while others were busy on their phones. Someone who (by coincidence maybe?) happened to be passing was invited by others to join the team, and did! "You'll never see my son at the school," he told me, "since they fired an RPG at our house he has refused to get out of bed" (he did, however, make an appearance later).

Taking a deep breath, I realized that I was going to have to adapt my standards for staff meetings. However, at the same time, I understood that if I couldn't mold them into a functioning team, they would never be able to help the children. I told them that we would have a staff meeting every day. Although their faces expressed disapproval, I knew it was necessary.

The building designated for use as the school was the arts wing of an existing high school. It took some imagination to adapt the spaces into classrooms. One class was allocated an area that served as the dance studio. "Be careful with the new parquet flooring" said the janitor "we only got it this summer." First grade would use a small room originally meant for one-on-one meetings. Luckily there are only nine children and, at this age, they are still small. I asked the help of a friend, a very talented internal designer who knows how to create spaces that children can enjoy. I asked her to work her magic and to create classrooms for us.

A grim term became part of the new professional terminology I was learning – "trauma pedagogy". What was our school day going to look like?

Obviously, the base line had to be a substantial amount of time spent regularly with one person – the classroom teacher. The day had to be short and start slowly. Then comes the question of academic studies. Generally, my work is to assist school principals to overhaul public schools making them advocates of equity and to be relevant - meaning relevant to the students, the educational staff and the contemporary world. To achieve this requires instruction in methodologies different from frontal teaching. This is something that is difficult for teachers, even under normal circumstances. To the team of shattered people before me the mission seemed impossible. Impossible, but essential.

The position of classroom teacher is stressful and demands professional experience. We have five classes but only three classroom teachers. Some classes have two age groups. Second and third grades, for example, are together. Two more local teachers will be joining. There is an advantage to team members from outside the nuclear group – like me, for example, who still has the emotional resilience, the will to help and a home to return to. I get home to Tel Aviv only on weekends. During the week I live in a wonderful Air B&B that the kibbutz has rented for me. Over time it will become evident that the children are having difficulty accepting new faces. Eventually, the committed teachers who have joined us will find a way to reach out to them.

Monday. Tomorrow the school should be opening. I ask the staff to prepare a lesson in which the children are active and don't have to sit passively and listen. I feel that every lesson should be like that – but that's a discussion for another time. It will not come naturally to some of the teachers while others will have no difficulty. The text books are still at the kibbutz. I see this as an advantage, an opportunity to create better ways for the children to learn. However, to do this requires a mind that is uncluttered. People in survival mode tend to lean more toward what is familiar.

From a logistics perspective everything is going well. The administrator in charge, Ortal, has also served as a parliamentary assistant to a Knesset member. Everything is moving at a pace I can barely believe, yet it's still not fast enough to open the school tomorrow. We realize we need another day and decide that the school will open on Wednesday.

Tuesday. In the dance studio, about to become a classroom, are 70 new school bags and piles of office equipment – all donations. After all, a pencil case is hardly the first thing you would think to grab when forced to flee your home to save your life. A group of mothers is organizing the equipment and taking care to match the design of the school bags with boys or girls. In another room, parents are whitewashing the walls and, in the kitchenette, soon to become the staffroom, the crew is setting up a coffee corner.

The time is already 16:00 and the truck with all the furniture hasn't arrived yet. Finally, it arrives at 18:00. Suddenly, almost like watching a movie set on fast-forward, in a couple of hours the kibbutz members have assembled the desks, rolled out the carpets, dozens of pouffes fill the gloomy corridors with bright color and, magically, we have a school.

In the evening we hold a meeting with the parents in the hostel where most of the families are staying. At the entrance is a memorial candle next to the picture of Amir Manzur Na'im - a member of the first-responder team that saved the kibbutz and who died in a battle with the terrorists. We all meet in the dining room. The faces of the parents show their exhaustion following everything that has happened. Their eyes reflect their heartache and anguish. Some have just returned from funerals. Others will be going tomorrow.

I have to offer them a sense of hope and I cannot fake it. I am positive that the school will be good for the children. After talking to all the parents, one of the mothers approached me. "I am not sure my son will be willing to leave me" she says, "he hasn't budged an inch from me since the day it happened." I don't have experience with starting school under such traumatic circumstances, but I feel that what works well with young children on their first day in first grade, should work in this case. I suggest that she stay with him in the beginning and that she leave after familiarization with the new environment is over. That sends the message to the child that he is in a safe place. If that doesn't work, she should go home with him and return the next morning. That generally worked really well for our first day. For many children, who have a more extreme reaction, the difficulty often manifests itself at a later stage, after they have settled into a routine.

Wednesday. Again, like last night, I'm having a hard time falling asleep. However, this time it's from excitement. In the morning the school looks like September 1. The school bags are ready and waiting on the chairs as the children start arriving. The children have shed the pajamas which many of them have been wearing for the past two weeks. The parents were no less excited. They can hardly believe that they will soon have some time for themselves – time to start putting their lives together again and to work out where they go from here.

By the time of the staff meeting the next day, we could see that the children and the parents had become used to the idea that they had to wake up early and get ready for school, so the decision was made to bring starting time forward by half an hour. After another week, we decided the time had come to add more subjects The sports class is the responsibility of Moran, sister of the late Amir, and Liraz, a student of Industrial Engineering who is waiting for the start of the academic year, which has been repeatedly postponed because many students are in the army. Among other things, Barak, a farmer, will be teaching math. His fields are temporarily located in a closed military zone. A local teacher will be teaching English. She will be joined by none other than…Barak, the math teacher! This is his first week as a teacher. I realize that I have to devote a lot of time and effort to training the staff, some of whom are taking their very first steps as educators.

The children are not quite sure what kind of school this is. We decide to let them choose a name. A girl in third grade suggests the name Amirim, after Amir Na'im, and the name is agreed by a large majority. Clearly, now we must have a ceremony to mark the opening of the new school.

It takes place in the school's third week. The first graders sing a song about the alphabet. They are overexcited and become confused. The sixth graders have prepared a hip-hop dance. Rotem, the law student who had volunteered to organize the ceremony, suggested they change the music they had chosen to something a little less frenetic. Next on the makeshift stage is Shahar, Amir's widow. When she talks there is not a dry eye. I look at the young teens who are at the age when a show of emotion is very embarrassing. For them, the ceremony has a more complex significance. With great empathy, eighth grader and talented pianist, Tal, plays John Lenon's song Imagine. An actor from Tel Aviv, who volunteered to come to Mitzpe Ramon to help the evacuees, sang the Hebrew rendition of the song, whose words are:

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world ….

I understand that for this community the opening of the school represents a seminal moment on their road to recovery.

Yam and Stav are friends who grew up together on the kibbutz. They are teachers with several years of experience and a love for their work. Both women are highly motivated and looking for a way to channel their energy and enthusiasm. We have a dream, they tell me. Their dream is to establish a learning center. And so, the most fascinating place in the school is created. It was originally the space built for music studies. It has dry-wall dividers that allow the musicians to practice without disturbing anyone else. This allows us to create several work stations in a space that is not suitable for a classroom.

Pupils from the 6th grade with their class teacher in a lesson on Man and Society
The “soft” design of the physical space to suit the emotional needs of the children
In the morning of the first day of the school

Many of the children still feel emotionally overwhelmed at the moment and are finding it difficult to be in the classroom. We allow them to go to the learning center to destress. A fifth grader, who is a math whizz, asks to go to the learning center in order to work quietly on his own while the rest of the class is learning something he already knows. We create an individual program for another student who is in a constant state of emotional turmoil. The learning center has pouffes scattered around and, naturally, offers books to read and games. An important person in the learning center is Hagai who, under normal circumstances, works as a physiotherapist. The healer in him is evident in this room which serves as a kind of emotional retreat and a place for those seeking reassurance.

During the fifth week, the members of the kibbutz meet to decide on how permanent this temporary situation is going to be. When will they be returning to the kibbutz? That's a question no one can answer. The best option for employment is to move to a large, vacant building in Beersheva. Within the coming two months a school for the children who were evacuated is planned to open nearby. The other option is to remain in Mitzpe Ramon, a tiny town of, normally, 5,000 residents and about an hour away from the nearest city. The advantage of Mitzpe Ramon is the educational framework established by the community with our school taking center place. The group decides to stay in Mitzpe Ramon. This is a vote of confidence from this community, but with it comes an obligation. We cannot repeat the miracle of setting up a school in three days. Now we have to create a meaningful educational environment.

The media frequently uses the term "image of victory". Many understand that in the terrible war we are fighting now there will be no "image of victory". However, I have an educational "image of victory" the look on the face of a young girl to whom we were able to give the time to be curious about something in an environment of normality, together with friends, under the watchful eye of her teachers. 



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Captcha Image