During Racing the Planet Games, someone wrote a new rule on our list of classroom guidelines: We are yellow. This new rule was not sanctioned, but when I discovered it after class, I couldn’t have been more proud. Yes, adding this assertion to our rule list likely violated several of the other imperatives around it. More importantly, though, it captured the enthusiasm and sense of belonging that filled the room that afternoon. Nurturing those particular qualities was the goal underlying all of our activities throughout the session.
At the core of TYO’s mission in Nablus is to create a safe space where children can revel in childhood. At the ages of 9, 10, 11, and 12, my students face barriers that already seem insurmountable; they have encountered violence, hunger, an indifferent education, and more. They carry burdens too heavy for adults, while they are still children. As such, my moments of greatest triumph this session have been witnessing my students reclaim childhood.
Our last project, and the one most students reported as their favorite, was planting flower seeds in planters made from old soda bottles. They first decorated their planters, working in groups to identify a team symbol and using that to inspire their artwork. My table discussed the merits and drawbacks of lions, sharks, tigers, bears, and even rabbits before settling on the eagles. I taught them how to give themselves eagle eyes, and in under two minutes, they had taught their new skill to most of their classmates. They were proud of their eagle eyes, and excited to share.
When they arrived early or finished their projects before the rest of their classmates, the students played independently with games we kept stocked in the classroom. Battleship was always popular, as were the Mancala boards made in class from egg cartons. Trumping them all, though, was Go Fish! They used a special deck of cards, in which sea creatures took the place of royals, hearts, and clubs. My undersea Arabic vocabulary grew exponentially from the excited bartering of their games.
My favorite moment of childhood bliss was the daily Hokey Pokey session. I used the words and motions of the Hokey Pokey to teach English vocabulary—we covered left and right, hands, feet, head, and body, along with the very useful “shake it all about,” “turn yourself around,” and “that’s what it’s all about!” Consistently, the students—male and female, from 8 years old to 12—would collapse into fits of giggles as we hokey pokied. They all participated eagerly, every time.
Throughout the session, the students completed ten different projects using materials they normally consider trash. They made flowers out of plastic bags, pencil holders out of cans covered in magazine cutouts, candles in milk cartons, and more. In the process, they practiced resourcefulness, critical thinking, and patience. They left every class with a product and sense of accomplishment. Classroom rules and consequences fostered respect, self-control, and problem solving. But activities and rules alone didn’t make those moments of childhood; they primed the environment for fun, creativity, and exploration, and the kids took care of the rest.
Karen Campion is currently a TYO Fellow as a recipient of the Princeton Class of 1956-81 International ReachOut Fellowship.