There can be very few informed people around the world who would deny that as a planet we are in crisis right now, and that there are many places in our world which must be considered as crisis hot spots. One such area is a place that I have come to know rather well and to care very deeply about over the past few years – Gaza.
With more than 2,000,000 people living in a narrow coastal plain of only 365 km², the Gaza Strip is ranked as one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. It’s also an extremely vulnerable and highly unstable area which is subject to repeated conflict and shortages of basic requirements such as clean drinking water. A recent United Nations report declared that, without drastic change, the whole region will become uninhabitable by 2020.
12 years of blockade and wars have had a devastating effect on more than 1,000,000 children currently living in Gaza. Some students live in very crowded housing and their basic needs are not fully addressed due to various problems, such as poverty and unemployment. Students at UNRWA (Ministry of Education) schools are Palestinian refugees and many of them have experienced trauma. Their parents / caregivers may also be emotionally affected in ways that make it hard for them to provide the support their children need. In such circumstances, some students are left behind because they have special educational, psychosocial or physical needs that the current system is unable to cope with.
Despite all these huge problems as well as well-documented funding cuts, UNRWA, the United Nations body responsible for the education of Palestinian refugee children, continues to provide quality education for the 300 000 students studying in about 300 UNRWA schools in Gaza. To maximise the limited space and resources, these schools operate a two (or sometimes three) shift system but classes are still large (minimum of 40 students per class).
What is even more impressive, given their circumstances, is that Gazan school children in UNRWA schools are consistently producing powerful theatre to practise and develop their English skills, and to tell their stories to the world.
To provide an international outlet for this creative work, at the end of 2017 the Hands Up Project launched a play writing and play performing competition for Palestinian children. The task was to write a play in English that could be performed with a maximum of five actors under the age of 16, and in a maximum of five minutes. We received 88 entries from all over Palestine (the vast majority of which were from Gaza), and a panel of judges from around the world assessed their scripts and the videos of their performances. The highest ranking ones were invited to perform their plays at theatres in the West Bank and the overall winning group spent a week in the UK, performing their play at the 1st Hands Up Project Conference at Westminster University and at various schools and theatres.
But putting on a competition like this is not just about the experience of the winners of course. Creating and performing a play in English is a rich learning experience for everyone involved. It can help with the development of the learners’ English in a number of ways:
- The script that they produce connects words, chunks and grammatical structures through contextual, thematic links.
- Because it is both a spoken and a written text it allows the benefits of activating both modes.
- Bringing the script to life forges a strong link between language and physicality. This can make language more memorable.
- It provides meaningful pronunciation practice.
- Learning the lines provides masses of purposeful and internal language practice.
- It can stimulate learning through the push which comes from performance.
- The processes involved (brainstorming ideas, learning the lines, rehearsing, discussing how the play should be performed etc.) combine very controlled and very free language use, both of which may be necessary for real language learning to take place.
Creating plays also provides children with a platform in which they can explore the issues that are important in their lives. As Scott Thornbury (2018) maintains:
‘Drama is expressive: it invests an imagined world with the thoughts, experiences, feelings, fears and hopes of its creators. In the context of Palestine, this is an incredibly important function – it provides a means of thinking the unthinkable, of saying the unsayable, of dreaming the undreamable. And it is transformative: it empowers its creators by enhancing their English skills, and hence giving them a powerful voice in the wider world. But also, by construing their lives as narratives that can be performed and shared, drama eloquently affirms their identity as Palestinians and as global citizens.’
Here’s an excerpt from a short play on the theme of bullying that was created and performed by Mohannad Radwan, Ezzeddin Jaber, Naser Alhafi, Salah Aqel, and Hassan Alnairab from Palestine B Boys UNRWA School, Jabalia Refugee Camp, Gaza with support from their teacher, Imadeddin Almadhoun.
Scene: At the school canteen, at lunchtime. Four boys come into the canteen and see another boy getting ready to have his lunch sitting at a nice table by the window. Boy 2 approaches Boy 1 and
slaps him from behind.
Boy 2: Give me your lunch you coward, and get away from this table.
Boy 1: Why did you do that? Leave me alone!
Boy 2: You are sitting at a nice table and I want it.
Boy 1: I was sitting here before you, so it’s my place.
Boy 2: pushes Boy 1 again violently.
Boy 3: Yes, it’s his table. You have no right to sit here. GET UP!
[Boy 4 and Boy 5 are standing near Boy 2, watching with an evil smile on their faces]
Boy 1: I will not leave here. This is my place. You cannot take it from me.
Boy 2: Yes, I can, and I will because I have them [pointing at Boy 3, Boy 4 and Boy 5].
The full script of this plays and many others made by Palestinian children were published in a book, ‘Toothbrush and other plays’ (Gilgimish, 2018). Also in the book are links to the YouTube playlist where the young people can be seen performing their plays. Many of these plays have already been performed by other learners of English around the world. If you would like your own copy so that you can use the plays with your learners they are available here. All proceeds go to supporting the Hands Up Project’s work with young people in Palestine.
The last time I visited Gaza presented all of the 150 children who have a play published in it with their own copies of the book. As a teacher, teacher trainer and writer of teaching materials this has to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my career to date.
Parental / caregiver permission was obtained by the author of this blog post for the use of the children’s photographs.
Thornbury, S. (2018) Forward to Toothbrush and other plays. Gilgimish.
Nick has run teacher development courses in many diverse contexts around the world and is the author of three resource books. He now works full-time on the registered charity he founded https://handsupproject.org/, teaching English online through storytelling and drama activities to young learners in refugee camps, mostly in Palestine. You can contact Nick at [email protected]