My week in Athens

My week in Athens is almost over, and I’ll be sorry to leave the amazing people I’ve met here, who have made me feel so welcome. I’m off to finish my MA and collaborate at distance, but I’ll be back at NBS as soon as I possibly can. So much has happened this week. I’ll try to put it in some comprehensible order…

Scale

The scale of the refugee crisis is truly immense. It’s estimated that there are 60,000 displaced people in Greece, most of whom are in the Athens area. I only started to get a real idea of what that means when I visited a camp. One camp alone houses 1,500 people.

Volunteers

There is an incredible community of volunteers here, some of these are refugees themselves. Everyone uses whatever skill-set they have to contribute. They live very simply, give as much of their time as they can, and are constantly working together to get stuff done. I’ve seen people responding to calls at midnight to go to pick someone up or do some other job. They achieve so much: for example Khora community centre feeds 1,000 people a day. These people are practically moving mountains.

One of the problems volunteers have is that if they’re non-EU citizens (as, actually, I will be in the not-so-far-off future thanks to Brexit) they can only stay here for three months after which they have to return to their own country for a certain period before they can come back. I met one teacher who is from the US and has to fly back there (obviously at her own expense) every time her visa runs out, after which she comes right back. As I said, the level of commitment and humanity I’ve seen here is simply mind blowing.

The students

The motivation level of the students is generally high. English is the lingua franca in the camps and outside in Athens. There’s a mix of L1s, mostly Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish speakers, so English is used as a lingua franca between the residents too. English is absolutely essential for them to be able to do anything, which makes them want to learn.

That said, students can get depressed, which can stop them from coming to class. Some people are trapped in their housing as going out would mean running the risk of getting stopped by police, (which because of racial profiling they often are) and being deported back to their country. Thankfully, if they are able to explain themselves in English the police tend to be more lenient.

Many students are multilingual. I met one man from Afghanistan who could speak six languages and subsequently teased me mercilessly about my paltry knowledge of only two! And yesterday an Afghani 8 year-old taught me how to write my name in Greek (see pic).

What’s needed…

What they need most is long term teaching volunteers. A lack of continuity is a clearly a big problem for both the school and the students. It makes assessment of learning progression very difficult. And, as displaced and often vulnerable people, the students need to feel secure and form a trusting relationship with their teacher, which is impossible if someone new is arriving every two weeks.

Most of the teachers that come have had little or no teaching experience and have no teaching qualifications, but lots and lots of generosity and enthusiasm. They need and want support and training. No Border School offers teachers’ workshops open to all teachers in the Athens area. I was fortunate enough to run a couple of these this week on using technology in the classroom. The students here usually have mobile phones and most buildings (apart from the camps) have WiFi, so using apps and Google searches can be a good way to personalise lessons and can make up for a lack of materials. The teachers were very enthusiastic and they’ve asked me to do more sessions.

But my lack of experience in this context means that I’m not able to help them with everything. What they need most of all is ideas on how to teach adult literacy. They find that it’s difficult to keep students engaged while they’re learning to write in our alphabet, as adults aren’t exactly enthusiastic about copying text from the board. They find that the materials available are either aimed at children, or at people who aren’t literate in their own language, which is rarely the case here. I’m afraid I came up blank when they asked me about these issues.

If you can help with any of these things please do get in contact. Thanks for reading. Please share.

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Taking the classroom into the world

Earlier this week I wrote about global issues, social justice and the possible imperative to bring those issues into the classroom. So it’s only fitting that I take the opportunity to talk about the opposite ― taking the classroom into the world.

Fresh from our workshop at IATEFL 2017, my Dynamite blogging partner Lindsey Clark has just arrived in Athens to volunteer as a teacher trainer at the No Border School, an association dedicated to empowering refugees and migrants through language teaching.

I urged her to write something about it for the blog. When she told me she was (understandably) too busy settling in and preparing for her workshop, I suggested an interview by phone to get her first impressions. (All photos by Lindsey Clark)

What’s it like there?

It’s like no school I’ve ever worked in, that’s for sure. I’m volunteering for the No Border school which is collaborating with, partially housed in, but funded separately from the Khora Community Center (or see here, on Facebook). At the center they run classes and provide services to help refugees/migrants ―  there’s a kitchen, a creche where parents can leave their kids with volunteers as they attend classes, medical assistance and dentistry. There’s also a workshop where they make furniture for the building.

So language teaching is only one aspect; they teach German and French as well. The No Border school works partly from the center but also in other locations around Athens.

What’s the plan for the workshop?

I’m going to be training volunteer teachers in some of the basics. Some have teaching but not EFL experience, others may have no experience at all. They’re from a variety of different countries, as well: Italy, Spain, Greece, France, America, Canada and Brazil. Some have been here for a few weeks or months and some have just arrived. So the first step is figuring out what knowledge and experience the volunteers are bringing with them.

They might need to know about things like lesson planning, giving instructions, setting up activities. One thing we might work on is simply awareness of learner language level and knowing how to grade your own language.

I’m going to both share some of the no-prep activities we demoed at our IATEFL workshop as well as trying to find out where they are with their actual knowledge of grammar. The plan is to start with examples, find out what they know, have them do some basic research, and then help them create exercises.

The school would like to get on online platform up and running to help start the volunteers on training tasks before they come, and I’ll be helping them with that. New teachers are coming all the time. Anyone can sign up for minimum 2 weeks.

What are the students like?

To be honest, I don’t know personally yet. Just judging from the translators and what I’ve heard there are Syrians, Kurds and Afghans. Urdu speakers and Farsi speakers. I’ll find out more as the week unfolds.

What’s the English-language program hoping to achieve with the students?

For some students, they’ve got to start with basic literacy skills in English before they do A1, mostly due to unfamiliarity with the English alphabet.

But others come in with a great background already. I know there are IELTS classes already going. And the exam fees will be paid through funding and donations.

Foto da Kyle Dugan(4)

What kind of materials or resources do you have to work with?

I have to say I was amazingly fortunate to get great help from the publishers at IATEFL. I had checked out No Border’s Amazon Wish List when I was in Glasgow and managed to talk to a number of publishers before the book fair was closed.

Lucy Constable from National Geographic donated a ton of coursebooks from their Life series at from beginners to upper-intermediate, as well as a range of IELTS books. Pearson was also a huge help with lots of graded readers. I brought it all down in the car with me from Glasgow, including a printer got donated as well.

The volunteers are busy writing up a syllabus based on these coursebooks.

How did you get involved with this in the first place?

I wanted to go to Greece. I also wanted to get involved in teacher training, and do it for a worthy cause. I heard about another school setting up schools in tents. I contacted them but didn’t hear back from them.

Then I found the No Border school ― I think on Facebook. I wrote to them, told them I was interested and asked them if I could bring materials. They said yes, bring anything you can get, and like I said before I set about trying to make contacts at IATEFL for resources. I even gave a very brief talk at the Global Issues SIG day.

When I’m finished I’m going to send an outline of what’s been done to Linda Ruas and Julietta Schoenmann of the Global Issues SIG and then they are planning to come here and do more training sessions.

What’s made the biggest impact so far?

The wonderful thing that I’ve seen so far is that everybody’s patient. Everybody’s kind. Everybody talks and listens to each other. It seems like there are constant meetings because there are so many people to keep in the loop.

I’ve been here such a short time but it’s already a pretty emotional experience.  

Yesterday one teacher left who’d been here for six months. It was really difficult for her to tear herself away. You want to give and share as much as you can. 

Of course, volunteers don’t have the worst of it. As one refugee said: “You are volunteers ― if it gets too much you can go back to your families and homes.” They don’t have that luxury.

The school and the community center need support.

If you want to donate money or teaching materials (or find out more about what they need), click the link below.

Donate to No Border School, Athens

Donate to Khora Community Center