Diary of a digital classroom
There were three of us on the trip to Dunkirk - myself, Stephen Noble, and Jen Bannerman (former Equatorite) who I work with on a refugee support project called Creative Caravans. We hired a van to take the classroom plus a portion of the aid collected in October. The journey to Dunkirk was pretty long - about 13 or so hours of driving or sitting on ferries.!
The centre we visited on arrival is split into two small buildings, older children in one and toddlers in the other. Across the path is the former women’s centre which burned down two weeks previously. The women now gather in a small space in the courtyard behind the kitchens.
The children arrive in dribs and drabs, there’s no set start time or defined schedule. Many go out ‘trying’ with their parents at night; trying to get on trucks to cross into the UK. Part way through the visit we saw large groups of people leaving the camp with rucksacks, they were trying for a ride to Belgium.
The first day we gave the volunteers a demo after lunch. We planned to run a class the next day around the theme of body parts. We went back to the hotel and found some resources to support it and called it a night.
Word got around that there were ‘iPads’ in the centre, the kids turned up asking about them the next day. An eight year-old-boy was waiting near the centre, too shy to try and speak, none of the volunteers recognised him so we motioned for him to come in and sit down.
I was worried the language barrier would prove a sticking point with the apps but almost every child raced through the different apps. Our approach changed after this. Every child had to sit down when using a tablet and sit one-on-one. Our ideas about how the apps functioned and what would legitimately gain their attention changed as well. Most of the children were too far out of the routine of schooling to be expected to sit down and plod through tasks quietly.
After changing the approach most of the kids used the apps appropriately and by the end one of the older boys, who’d had a hard time with his English and was embarrassed about falling behind his younger peers won the contest to name body parts in English. That made our day and we went back to the hotel feeling like it was going to have an impact.
On our last full day we took the classroom into the toddler’s room. Little bundles of quieter but equally curious children turned up and we kept to the same tactic of running through the class one-on-one before leaving them to learn independently. Some of the older children from the previous day also came in and wanted to try again (“Mine’s the blue tablet miss!”). When it seemed like it was all under control and running smoothly I went outside to sketch the teenagers playing table tennis. Occasionally they’d come over to see what I was doing but shied away when I asked if they wanted their portrait done.
The end of the day was signalled by taking a parachute out into the playground. One of the boys who attends the centre has a sister with cerebral palsy, the volunteers were working on convincing her mother she could bring her to the centre for a full day. She was sitting in a push chair beside the parachute watching the fun when one of the volunteers decided to push her underneath the parachute as it was lifted. I’d not seen her express herself beforehand but her face lit up in a wide smile, and I think we all had to hold back a tear. We left Helen with the classroom and an instruction manual, and the promise that we would continue to push updates.
The next day we set off for the Calais ferry and got lost inside the terminal. We saw a few refugee families with children and sleeping bags slung over their backs leaving the terminal, having failed to get on. When we eventually got on the ferry we were trying to figure out exactly how and where you would board a truck when ‘trying’– all the trucks are covered in security tags. We looked beneath the truck body at a set of metal racks between the wheels. “There?”…Surely not.