Grade 3 English class before COVID-19.
It was the Tuesday of my second week into teaching, and I was finally beginning to get the hang of it all… or so I thought. For today’s exercise, we were tackling a semester-long project I had invented and coined as the “Verb Monster” activity. Thinking myself quite clever, I’d designed the activity to teach my students simple sentence structure, which included three characters: the Verb Monster, Subject Snowman, and Object Caterpillar, all characters of whom had personality traits that aligned with the rules of their sentence placement. For example, the Verb Monster was shy and always needed the Subject Snowman to go before him in sentences. This way, I hoped, students would get into the habit of putting verbs after the subject as opposed to before when writing out their basic sentences.
Having learned at least half of my students’ names, I noticed mid-way through the Verb Monster activity that Muhamad, a boy usually the first to volunteer himself for an activity or to lead a warm-up exercise, seemed withdrawn, to say the least. As the class continued, Muhamad became entirely despondent, try as the classroom volunteers might to engage him in the activity, he pushed the pencils away, only to slump deeper into his chair.
Within my first weeks at Tomorrow’s Youth I came to see that many of the children I worked with had dealt with more trauma in their first 6 years of life than I ever would in the entirety of mine. Having heard multiple mothers says that TYO was the most exciting part of their children’s week and their own, I learned the depth and sincerity of TYO’s reach in the Nablus community, and the need it filled in children’s lives like Muhamad’s.
Muhamad’s face fell into a furrowed look of frustration, before going slack and staring off into the distance, as if leaving the classroom and his peers behind entirely, lost in a world I only wished I could somehow wedge myself into and better understand. I felt helpless, as a teacher whose only experience with intervention was during aggressive outbursts, Muhamad’s dispirited behavior was foreign to me, and posed an intimidating challenge of teacher-student confrontation. Beyond my role as a teacher, this was a disheartening moment to witness personally, and my first introduction to the withdrawn behavior I had been prepped to handle during orientation week.
As opposed to trying to contain the explosive bonfire of a child’s emotions and physical eruption, I would have to draw out the spark and start a fire of interest, however small. I went over past strategies I had learned about helping children better understand and manage their behavior, which included finding the root of the child’s behavior. Yet, in this moment of Muhamad’s despair, while he was consumed by unknowable internal struggles, the script I rehearsed in my head seemed overly practiced and forced, robotic even. I balked, choosing a much more simplistic yet instinctual goal: connect. In these first moments of interaction, I didn’t need to mine for the innermost personal struggles of this child, so much as foster a moment of engaged distraction, before moving on from there. Baby steps, I whispered to myself.
Taking a deep breath for self-confidence’s sake, I approached Muhamad at his table, and asked myself: What would make 9-year-old me smile? Without knowing whether this seemingly pointless effort would flop or succeed, I crouched down next to Muhamad and picked up his pencil and a scratch piece of paper, before drawing a stick figure that waved to him from the one-dimensional page, accompanied by a “Hi!” speech bubble. I started writing his name in decorative bubble letters at the top of the scrap paper, hoping that maybe this time I would pique his curiosity. I watched Muhamad’s face intently for any telltale signs of interest, immediately beginning to doubt my childish attempt. But then, lo-and-behold, I saw the tiniest of smiles begin to curl at the edges of Muhamad’s mouth. I drew another stick figure, this time with its tongue stuck out in a silly face. The role of teacher seemed to dissolve, and I felt myself becoming a 3rd grade student again, trying to make a fellow classmate giggle with doodles. Neither of us had spoken yet, proving that I should never underestimate the power of unspoken interaction-- play-- in the face of a language barrier.
I nudged one of the discarded crayons in his direction, hoping it wasn’t too soon. Stepping up to the challenge, Muhamad started to draw his own stick figures, far more elaborate and proportional than mine. I laughed and told him that he should be the one teaching me. With this, Muhamad got excited and started to show me the different designs he could draw, like a 3 dimensional box and infinity sign. A few minutes and plenty of geometric designs later, I began outlining the verb words we had learned earlier that day, “eat”, “run”, and “walk”, to see if I could re-direct our efforts. It seemed like we were working as a team by now, and completing the list of verb words became our shared goal. I traded in the crayon for a pencil, handing it to Muhamad expectantly. Am I rushing him? I immediately began to wonder, thinking I should go back to doodling. But just as I thought the surprises of that morning had run out, Muhamad took the pencil firmly, poised it just-so over the outlined letter “E”, scooched his chair closer to the desk, and began writing his way through the word “Eat”. I smiled watching his brow furrow once again, this time out of determined focus rather than frustrated disengagement.
It was, and still is quite shocking and disheartening to see such young lives already so affected and shaped by uncontrollable external factors. But, for this same reason I am all the more impressed when I see children like Muhamad put in genuine effort and engage in class, despite facing obvious internal stress that would make most of the grown adults I know back home throw in the towel and quit. If there is one thing that has most certainly been confirmed during my internship so far, it’s the inspiring resilience of children. Since doodles with Muhamad, I have dealt with many an instance of despondent students, all of whom have unknowingly helped put my own difficulties into perspective. After each of these encounters, my students still find reasons to smile and play with one another, taking one day at a time, one friend at a time, and one class at a time.