‘What would it feel like to leave everything behind?’ In the wake of the Syria conflict, Stewart Cook, teacher at Frances Olive Anderson primary school, posed the question to his class of eight- to nine-year-olds. A year since he started a Connecting Classrooms partnership with a Lebanese school hosting 40 per cent refugees, he explains how the project has transformed his pupils.
When the British Council first pitched Lebanon to us as a partner country, my mind turned to its history of civil war and political unrest. But I soon realised that times have changed. With its blend of beliefs and ethnicities, Beirut offers the perfect contrast for us in rural, monocultural Lincolnshire. Staff and pupils at my school in the sleepy village of Lea engage in a thriving partnership with Mohammed Shamel, a city school hosting more than 350 Syrian and Palestinian refugee children. When these children recall first-hand stories of fleeing their homelands to seek sanctuary in Beirut, my pupils open their eyes to another world.
How UK pupils put themselves in the refugees’ shoes
To introduce our project on conflict and peace, we ran a series of activities based on the British Council’s Living Together education pack. The resources provide an ideal starting point and can be adapted to suit the specific project objectives. I asked my class to make a list of the belongings they would take with them in an emergency. As expected, they listed everything they could think of, so we had a discussion about the material possessions they couldn’t be without. Halfway through, a planned air raid siren sounded, one that the pupils weren’t expecting. I gave them 30 seconds to take what they could and assemble in the playground. They panicked, rushing to escape from the classroom in time. The experience was intended to give the children a momentary taste of what it might have felt like for their peers who had left their homes in an emergency.
What the children discovered during a UK-Lebanon video conference
Using Skype between Lebanon and the UK has been a great way for both groups of children to get to know each other. The contact promotes a strong sense of empathy between the pupils and really brings the project to life. Our virtual class on the conflict and peace project opened minutes after a security alert had occurred in Beirut. We talked about personal safety and whether the children were worried about going out. Our pupils also asked the refugees questions such as: ‘How did you feel when you had to leave your home?’ and ‘What did you take with you?’. The children's answers were sobering. One child described his quick escape from Damascus, taking nothing more than some money and the clothes on his back.
How UK pupils now look at the news in a different way
Basing partnership activities on global themes gives pupils an opportunity to apply what they've learnt in the classroom to the real world. The children have started commenting on what they hear and see on the breakfast news in relation to the conflict, realising the real-life impact of something that was once incomprehensible to them. Having discussed their project with our head teacher, they decided to forfeit their festive parties to donate the funds to Syrian refugee children instead.
How to sustain the relationship
As this is a partnership, it's critical that both schools are in regular virtual contact. Teacher visits also provide an opportunity to come up with new project ideas and find ways to include them in the curriculum. We're building relationships that make the partnership between our two schools sustainable in the long term, and the experience has exceeded our expectations. It works because the teachers and children in Lebanon are just like us – we're all eager to deepen the relationship and develop our pupils' awareness of the world around them.
With a host of Lebanese schools eagerly seeking a UK partner, we’re on hand to identify the best match for your school and put you in touch straight away. Once your partnership is set up, your school could benefit from Connecting Classrooms funding of £1,500 to support joint projects and reciprocal teacher visits.
Visit British Council Schools Online or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get started, and download the Living Together education pack to introduce the theme of conflict and peace in your primary or secondary school.
Connecting Classrooms is a global partnership programme between the British Council and the Department for International Development (DFID). DFID contributes £17m to the global programme and will provide additional support to schools in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan that have been affected by the crisis in Syria.