Resilience and Grit

I saw a lot of grit last week. Most of it was in my eyes as the desert winds whipped up a mix of sharp sand in my face. I saw an awful lot of resilience too. Heartbreaking resilience and heartening resilience. Children who walked hundreds of miles to reach refuge. Alone, without adults, past lions, not really sure if Kakuma really existed.


I also saw wonderful resilience and resourcefulness. Children determined to be children in spite of everything, and making toys out of whatever they could find.


I met resilient adults, giving up time and energy to help others. I was stupidly naive going in – I expected to see well meaning white westerners assisting needy, traumatised Africans. I cringe as I write it. What I saw was Africa helping Africa. No dependency culture but instead a culture of communal responsibility and growth. In all that seeming chaos, there was a commitment to human dignity, to integrity, to making the most of every single, limited resource. What happens there is a triumph of hope and determination. Grit. There is, apparently, a saying in Africa that if you travel alone, you travel faster, but together we travel further. What a great way of summing up the achievements at Kakuma.


An experience like that can’t leave you unchanged. I came home to a parcel which I couldn’t bear to open – toiletries costing more than £50 – things I barely need. We take so much for granted. So much is wasted. But we can’t suddenly collapse into hessian sack cloths and stop moisturising! Think of the wrinkles. We can, however give time and thought and a little, just a little of what we have. We won’t miss the cost of a bottle of wine or a cup of coffee, but believe me, please believe me, every penny of that would make a difference to these determined, resilient children and the adults working around the clock to care for them. 80% of the refugees in Kakuma are children. Many, many of them orphaned, having witnessed the slaughter of their parents. The best hope they have is education. And so, I’m not going to apologise for asking again (and again), to please donate. You would be amazed at how far they make a little money go.

Aftermath. Kakuma Part 3.

It’s 30 hours since we left Kakuma and I’m finally home. I sit here, looking out over a lush, green garden. The sun is shining, and my children, having fleetingly greeted me, have returned to their gadgets and games and I’m left to reflect on what I’ve seen.

There were thousands of children in need and many thousands more that we didn’t even see. But one has wormed his way into my heart so deeply that every time I close my eyes I see him. Obama. Five years old (we think). He never spoke a word. “He doesn’t speak. He is sad,” an older girl tells us in the playground on our first day there. His face is deadly serious. He wears a shirt that once must have been white, but has been stained brown with the dust. Over the days that I see him, it is the only thing he wears. Like many of the other children, it is the only shirt he possesses.


Obama barely leaves my side in the days we work in Hope school. On the first day, he stands mutely beside me, silent, solemn, never smiling. But there. On the second, he sneaks into the shed that serves as the Headteacher’s office and clambers on to my knee and I read him a story – The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. He stares at the pictures, finding the small red leaf that symbolises hope on every page. But still does not speak or smile.


On the third day he takes part in my classes – all of them, moving from class to class with me like a little shadow. But he doesn’t sing or perform the actions of the naming songs we are doing. On the fourth day, I play music through a speaker attached to my i-pad. For him and some of the other children, it is the first time they have heard recorded music. The others laugh and smile, joining will-i-am with cheery choruses of “I like to move it, move it” though they don’t dance. Obama doesn’t smile. Doesn’t sing. But he does dance. And his dancing is stylish, though very seriously done.

On the last day he is with me again and I know I am going to get into the jeep and drive away. I know that even if I return, the chances of seeing him are remote. I realise I’m about to cry, so I steel myself and pull funny faces at him in the playground. And then he smiles. Briefly. A little row of white baby teeth appear. The last I see of him, he is running, barefoot in the dirt after the jeep, waving but solemn once again. And as he disappears into a cloud of dust I burst into tears.

I impose my own imagination on Obama’s story, picture the horrors he has seen; the hardships he has suffered. And even if they are not true, his current situation is grim beyond description. I know he is one of many. And I know that helping the school, rather than singling out one child, is the right thing to do. So I’ll keep a little picture of Obama on my desk and whenever I feel like giving up on the fundraising, I’ll look at it. I’m minded of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as I sit in quiet contemplation looking at my garden :-

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.

Please help me to give Hope school the resources its name deserves and to help children like Obama. The cost of a coffee or glass of wine will make the hugest difference to these children.

You can text WWEP01 £3 to 70070 for a small but significant donation.

Or use our Just Giving page here and leave a message noting that the money is for the Classroom Challenge.

Thank you so much.


Teaching in a Refugee Camp. Part 2

Imagine this. You arrive at school at 7am and the temperature is already 30 degrees. By noon, it will be well over 40. You haven’t been able to work at home because you share a room with your three siblings and there are few resources available to you. After assembly you teach from 7.30am until 4.30pm. Your students, like you, are refugees, and although many of them were educated in their home country, and are hoping to pass their school certificate, you are desperately short of resources to help them.

Your blackboard is rendered useless by the relentless dust that blows constantly through the open gaps in your walls and through the door. The gaps are necessary to stop the students from suffocating, but they make teaching on windy days difficult. The dust covers everything; books, desks, the children in minutes. Every day is windy. Although the school tries to make sure that upper primary – the grades preparing for exams – have a notebook and pencil, the pages disintegrate in the dry heat. It is almost impossible for them to keep a record of their learning. And with over 150 in the class, it is hard for you to do anything other than stand at the front and hope they can hear you. Your students have hopes and dreams. They tell you, in fluent English, that they wish to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers. They hope to attend universities. But there are no universities in the refugee camp. Still they try. They hope. One even makes a little tie out of cardboard and fastens it to his shirt so he looks smarter.


Your teaching is constantly interrupted by smaller children peeping through the door. Grey from dust, clothes in rags, hundreds of children roam the playground. Some are tiny – too young to attend school. But their only carers are older siblings and so they come in at 7am and stand in the hot dust all day waiting for their brother or sister to finish. Some cram into Grade 1 classes and even though they swell class sizes to 200, they join in. When lower primary finishes at 12 there are even more children roaming the school site, because many of the children would rather stand in the dirt than go home. Some have no parents and the adults they live with are strangers to them. And there is little to return to – tents are stifling in the heat. The other teachers understand this. They let them stay – no one is turned away. image

This is life for Nancy, aged 24 – a highly intelligent, articulate and aspirational young teacher. This is Hope School. Home to 7008 children taught in just 26 classrooms. Yes, you read that right. There are several schools in Kakuma. But Hope is the newest, set up in response to the huge influx of South Sudanese fleeing warfare at home. The environment and conditions at Hope are probably the most challenging there are. There is no shelter from the hideous dust and rocketing temperatures. In older, more established schools, there are some trees and bushes to give some relief. But not here.


The school desperately needs resources. The children chant that there are 100 cms in a metre, but they’ve never seen a ruler or measuring tape and when I produce one, it becomes clear that they didn’t know how long a metre was or how tall they were. One of the first things I do is draw a height chart on their wall with sharpie markers. But it’s not enough. They need maps, books, mathematical equipment. Even pencils. One child approaches us. “Madam,” he says “I wish to become an engineer but I do not have a pencil. Can you help me?”

New classrooms need to be built so that class sizes can be reduced in order to make teaching even remotely effective. I can’t even begin to explain how shocking it is to witness this level of difficulty; how heartbreaking. I’ve barely been able to teach. My eyes and throat struggle to cope. The children crowd around you longing to touch your hand and so many are hard to manage. When they sing “goodbye teacher” it breaks my heart. And our teacher training sessions feel like wishful thinking, though they are deeply appreciated.

No amount of well meaning visits will help these children. The support and infrastructure that the UNHCR offers is truly astonishing. But they can only do so much. They need money. So that’s what I hope we can really do. UK teachers together, standing shoulder to shoulder with these teachers and saying “We hear you.”

Please give. Every penny will make a difference. The infrastructure is here. Tom stands ready to build. We could have a classroom standing in less than three months.

You can donate through our Just Giving page here. – please leave a note saying that you are donating for the classroom challenge in Kakuma.

Or for a smaller but highly significant donation, text WWEP01 £3 to 70070 Thank you.

Life in a Refugee Camp – Part 1.

It looks like a beach, but there is no sea. The dried out river bed running through Kakuma town is a hive of activity. There are goats, some dead and those that are alive are roaming and bleating in desperate search of water. Groups of adults and children dig down, deeper and deeper in the hope of finding some remaining pools. Mostly in vain. There has been no rain since November, when cruelly, so much came, so fast that it carried members of the community and their homes away with it. As fast as it came, it went and the river has since dried up. Kakuma is facing a drought.


Twenty years ago, the people here agreed to host a refugee community. Set up to serve 90,000 people, the camp is now home to over 185,000 with more people arriving every day. Resources are stretched to the limit but the people working here for the UNHCR are tireless in their efforts to ensure that every arrival is safe and cared for and that the local community in some way benefits from having a refugee camp on their doorstep.

We arrive on a small propeller plane carrying food supplies from Nairobi. Travelling and working with the World Wide Education Project (@wwepuk) getting here was hairy in itself, involving a nail biting trip through one of Africa’s largest slums in a desperate attempt to get to our plane. But we got here. As we walk to the jeep that has come to collect us, a local woman approaches. Her face is half eaten away with what we assume is leprosy. We have been told not to offer money – we would quickly be mobbed, but we offer some food we have in our bags. She gently places it on the footplate of our car. She cannot eat. It’s a grim reminder of what we are to face.

The aid workers at the camp are hosted near the entrance in one of two compounds. Ours belongs to the Lutherian World Foundation and we are immediately welcomed and taken to our rooms. They are clean and comfortable with running water and mosquito nets and I feel incredibly lucky given the conditions of the people living outside. The compound offers a safe place, with wifi near the offices and power for most of the day and a place where people can come together and talk. After dumping our bags, we are taken on a tour of the camp. The oldest parts of the camp have been around for 20 years and people have built a real community. There is the Somali area, the Ethiopian area and so on – people tend to stick together in their nationalities even here (as indeed do British ex pat communities). There is a thriving bustle in these parts of the camp. Trees have been planted, homes ingeniously made out of cardboard, tins, anything that can be recycled and reused is. Even for toys.


People have set up businesses – we even enjoy a coffee at an Ethiopian coffee house and buy fabric from a local stall. What was a temporary shelter has turned into a town.


But at any moment, these people could be repatriated if the wars in their home countries end, and for some, this would be worse than staying. Many of the recently arrived Sudanese refugees found themselves in this situation. They became established at Kakuma, and returned home when the war ended between the North and the South. Rebuilding a life back in Sudan was hard enough, but new war between tribes broke out and many of them are back. Starting again, with nothing to their names. It is this community that we are here to support.

We are taken up to the new area – Kakuma 4 and here is an entirely different story. There has been no time to plant and grow trees. Many of the people are in tents. And the new area of the camp is in a dust bowl. Within seconds of getting out of the car, dust is in our eyes, our throat, blowing the very ground up in our faces. The temperature is well over 40 degrees. We start to melt. And here are children. Thousands of them. In the two schools we are working with, over 15,000. Add the preschoolers (5-7) and there are 17,500. And look at their statistics. image

Here is the playground for all these children


Tomorrow we return to teach them and to train their teachers. I don’t mind admitting, I’m daunted. Very daunted indeed. But we must try. Because like any other child, these children, many of them deeply traumatised and bereaved, need to feel like they belong to a community. That they matter. Education can serve one purpose – to make them literate and numerate, but it can also serve to give them a safe and secure place to be and can and should offer hope for the future. One way you can help is by donating to our classroom challenge. Relieving teacher to pupil ratios are a prime target to help these children. Even a couple of pounds will help.

You can text WWEP01 £3 to 70070 for a small but significant donation.

Or use our Just Giving page here and leave a message noting that the money is for the Classroom Challenge.

We will make sure that every penny goes into building a new classroom for these children. I’ll keep you posted and thank you.

Much Handwringing about Handwriting.

My eldest son graduated from Oxford this year. That’s not a proud mummy moment. He seemed to be born geeky and there was nothing I could do about it. The thing is, he got there and survived the whole “3000 words a week” thing even though his handwriting is really crap.

His little brother is 8. And weirdly, (even though he is left handed and his brother right handed), his handwriting is almost identical. Small, scrawny, hurried. His brain moves faster than his hand and he can’t quite keep up. This week he was told that unless his handwriting improves, he’s not going to “meet his targets” in literacy. This was said to him gravely, as if it was a BIG PROBLEM. And now he doesn’t want to write at all. Last week, he wrote a poem about a volcano. He mentioned pyroclastic flow, magma chambers, Krakatoa. But it was his handwriting that got the attention. So he doesn’t want to write a poem this week.

I wonder what happens when a child with big ideas and vocabulary to match, stops writing. When they focus on writing slowly and neatly, choosing instead smaller words that will take less time, and shorter sentences.

Shall we just get a grip? There was a reason that doctors’ handwriting used to be a joke. It is common for quick thinking people to rush their writing. And now we have word processors, it hardly matters. Do we really want to put a whole generation of children off writing altogether? Yes, of course, we should strive for good presentation, to discourage doodling and graffiti on work. Or vomit/ketchup stains. But if a piece of writing is legible who gives a monkey’s if it’s cursive? Handwriting for years has been considered indicative of personality. And like many other aspects of education, it seems that individuality, personality and creativity are to be discouraged in the pursuit of conformity. I think it’s a bit rubbish.

When silence isn’t golden. A trip to Park View.

It’s taken me a little while to think about what to say in this post. It’s loaded with danger and possible misinterpretation, but I really feel I ought to say something.

Last week I was honoured, and I mean, completely honoured, to be invited to work in Park View school in Birmingham. For those of you who don’t know, Park View was one of the so called ‘Trojan Horse’ schools, accused of failing to protect children from Islamic radicalisation. As a result of its Ofsted inspection in March 2014, 22 members of staff were suspended (this in a four form entry school) and many others left in the Summer. The staff body was decimated. Now I don’t know and I can’t comment on what was happening at the school at that time. But I do know the impact that this decision has had on learning and on learners.

In November, Ofsted returned. The suspended staff were still under investigation and so the school was dependent on long term supply. You can’t replace a member of staff under investigation. And because the school was in special measures, they were not allowed to employ NQTs (or at least were strongly advised against) or to take TeachFirst. And not many teachers were beating a path to the door of a school mired in controversy. So it seems a tad unfair that in this second inspection, the school were criticised for a fall in the standards of teaching and learning. But they were. In desperation, Assistant Head, Lee Donaghy, put out a plea to teachers who might be willing to go to the school and lend a helping hand. And last week, David Weston, Lisa Jane Ashes and I went along to see what we could do to help. Now, we’ve very flatteringly been called EduHeroes for this offer. And we’re really not. First of all, we were paid. Secondly, it was the best CPD we’ve ever had. Thirdly, the real EduHeroes were those still in the school, still keeping smiles on their faces after all that trauma.

We found a staff body reeling but determined to be there for the children. We found children who were desperately hungry to learn, with high aspirations, great senses of humour and who were warm, welcoming and curious. We found a newly appointed senior management team trying hard to build a vision and future for the school. Early, early days of regrowth, but characterised by people who just wanted the best for the children, and also who were scared and scarred. How on earth do you ensure that you can never, ever be accused of radicalising children while answering some of the questions they have about how they are perceived by the world?

I was teaching the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to Year 7 and a unit of work on Information Texts in Year 8. In my first lesson, I decided to work on context for Y7. I always have a key question – this one was “How do human beings learn to hate one another?” We looked at Nazi propaganda. We explored how stereotyping leads to prejudice; how prejudice leads to discrimination and how with the help of propaganda, discrimination can lead to genocide. Did they have any examples of any of these key words? Any questions?

“Miss is Gaza a genocide”?

“Miss is what they write about Muslims in the media propaganda”?

Several times as I taught this lesson to different groups, the subject of the perception of Muslims among the wider British population came up. Not in anger, but in wounded confusion. Gaza came up. Not in anger, but in worry and fear. These children are seeing on the television, other children like them being blown up. It scares them. Under normal circumstances, we, as teachers, would explore these fears. Give the children information. Let them talk. In this circumstance, under the hard light of an accusation, it is hard to feel free to open up these lines of exploration. Yet we must.

When I have taught the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in the past, I have followed it up with a unit of work on the creation of Israel and the Palestine/Israeli conflict. It seems to me that it is impossible for children to learn about either the Holocaust or the conflict without connecting them. But I didn’t feel I could suggest this here. The mood of the staff (and who would blame them) was “best stay clear”.

What happens when human beings have fears, worries, concerns that are left unattended to? What happens if they suppress those questions? How do we know that they are not asked of others who might not offer a balanced or open viewpoint? What happens to a child who believes that they are a part of a hated minority in a country where the majority fears and suspects them? I saw calm, gentle, kind, open minded children turning these worries over and over in their minds. And we have a responsibility, a duty to help them process those worries and to show them that the vast majority of the white British population does not think negatively of them. Shame on our media for portraying us otherwise. Shame on us for not making it clear that we do not believe this myth about our Muslim countrymen.

I don’t have an answer for Park View – I suspect they’ll be just fine. On our second day, Ofsted arrived. The senior management team smiled and sailed through like swans. The children hardly noticed. The staff shrugged and got on with the job in hand, as they’ve done throughout. I bloody loved that school. And those kids. But I ask us all to think about the impact that our own neurosis has on our language and actions; how our myopia about the messages that our media send to children affects them and how we speak to, think through and answer those difficult questions that all our children ask. We should never hide the world from them and we should hold their hands as we seek to make it a better place.