Thank you, Amie Robinson, art and special education teacher at PS77 in Brooklyn, NY, for sharing your fellowship story with us. Last summer, Amie researched the impact of sketchbooks as communication tools among displaced youth and non-native language learners at a refugee camp in Greece. She’s now incorporating this experience into an alternate assessment social studies curriculum focused on developing global empathy and citizenship by having special education students connect with the students she left behind in Samos. Here’s how…
Upon returning home from Greece many people have asked me, ”How was your fellowship?” It is a simple question, but one that has been extremely difficult for me to answer.
During previous travels to Greece, I witnessed vast numbers of refugees newly arrived on the islands, and was profoundly moved by the sight of children covered in Mylar blankets and clinging to their families, confronted by unfamiliar surroundings and languages. I started following stories in the news about the refugee crisis more closely. As a teacher I was particularly struck by the lack of education for thousands of children stranded in Greece long-term. I knew I had to get involved, so this summer I went to the island of Samos and volunteered at a refugee camp, with the incredible support of Fund For Teachers.
My project introduced sketchbooks as a communication tool among displaced and non-native language children in Greece, and now incorporates that experience into an alternate assessment social studies curriculum focused on developing global empathy and citizenship for my students in New York City. Cliché as it may sound, I believe that art really can help change the world in its power to illuminate and inform.
Communication can be difficult for my students with autism, and for those identified as English Language Learners (ELL), it presents an even greater challenge. Obstacles in communication can lead to frustration, anxiety, and behavioral problems that disrupt learning. Art builds self-confidence by giving students a voice. Over the past two years, I have seen the power that creative expression has while inspiring and transforming my students’ learning. The portable nature of the sketchbook allows them to express themselves outside of school. I wondered if sketchbooks would provide displaced children in Greece a similar non-linguistic space to tell stories, make connections, and build expressive language skills.
I arrived on the island of Samos on July 15, and spent the first day exploring the town of Vathy, walking through the steep and narrow streets and watching the sunset over the port. The next morning, I had an introductory meeting to begin working with Samos Volunteers, a grassroots organization responding to the needs of the growing refugee population on the island. After being registered with Greek police and I was walked into the camp with the other new volunteers from New York, Sweden, Germany, and Poland. The tour of the camp was heartbreaking. The conditions that the refugees live in are entirely inhumane. New arrivals can be soaking wet from their journey and are often made to sleep outside on concrete before they are processed by the police. We were shown the overcrowded levels of the camp, many without running water or toilets. During our tour, a woman fainted from the heat, while another pleaded hopelessly with the police until she collapsed in anguish. The physical and psychological conditions can take their toll on individuals living in the camp, and while there are international aid organizations on the island, they are not equipped or appropriately staffed to handle the increasing numbers of refugees.
That night I sat down and cried. I reflected on everything I had seen that day and questioned whether or not I was strong enough to contribute. I reminded myself that one of the reasons I applied to Fund For Teachers was to step outside of my comfort zone and usual routine, and on my first day volunteering with Samos Volunteers I was encouraged by the incredible strength of the people with whom I worked. Their warmth and determination in the face of unspeakable suffering was inspiring. Furthermore, being part of a devoted volunteer team deepened my understanding of true collaboration. Every role—teaching English and art, coordinating creative activities for women outside of the camp’s stifling conditions, swimming, jumping rope, cleaning, serving tea, sorting clothes, or playing backgammon—was equally important to creating a safe and engaging community. As the weeks flew by, I learned from others skills that I thought I had, such as humility and patience, as well as some new ones, like learning the Arabic words for colors.
While on Samos, I spent most of my long days working at a shelter for vulnerable families. In the morning, I volunteered teaching English to adults from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Following the these sessions, I would work with their children (ages 3-16) to connect an art activity to their days’ lessons. I was so excited to present them with their sketchbooks and even more excited when they returned to school the next morning and shared pages filled with beautiful drawings. One of my favorite moments from my fellowship was the peek-a-boo like game the kids created to show me what they had drawn in their sketchbooks each night. They would open and close the cover quickly, revealing only a small part of each drawing at a time, until eventually they displayed the entire page, erupting into laughter. As I look back at these photos of their sketches, I am reminded of something a young woman from Syria told me, “just remember, although they are refugees, they are still first children.” The drawings—of ice cream, birthday parties, cats, fashion designs, rainbows, hearts and flowers—tell stories of childhood, familiar to us all.
In the evenings, during recreational activities, we extended our art projects to include collage, crafts, and painting. The children were all so curious and talented, and I was constantly fascinated by watching them explore new materials and make creative decisions. I was really excited when the education director from Samos Volunteers asked me to have them collaborate to create a large canvas painting that would be auctioned to raise money to provide supplies and programs to the refugee camp. We started by looking through their sketchbooks to find images. For one beautiful and moving painting they chose eyes, mermaids, and fairies dancing together in an ocean of tears. In the second, we used drawings that they had made of robots and how they imagined the future. They then worked together to plan compositions, transfer their designs, and paint the canvases. It was thrilling to watch their drawings come to life, and to see each of their personalities expressed in the painting. We had so much fun each evening working together, especially my youngest artist, who decided to paint her hair blue!
I am so excited to share the many drawings, paintings, and photographs created by my students in Samos and introduce them to my students in Brooklyn through the stories they tell. My colleague and I are collaborating to develop an Art and Social Studies program at our school that focuses on global citizenship. We are working on lessons that translate the experiences of young refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Burundi, and Congo to place a human scale on a global crisis. We want our students to develop critical thinking skills to connect to their world in a broader sense, and in our first session we introduced the crisis to students using the questioning technique to develop their research question, “What is a refugee?” We were surprised to discover that most of our students had no prior knowledge of the topic, but impressed by how quickly they engaged with the serious issues at hand.
Over the course of the unit, we hope that our students will recognize that they can make positive change. In fact, with only one co-teaching session into our project in Brooklyn, they are already asking, “How can we help?” As a culminating learning activity students will will learn techniques in bookmaking and create sketchbooks for children at the Samos refugee camp. They will also organize a fundraiser to raise money for organizations helping refugees, including International Rescue Committee, Samos Volunteers, and MSF (Doctors Without Borders).
Being a Fund for Teachers fellow has expanded my classroom beyond borders, and I can’t wait to deliver handmade sketchbooks to my “habibis” and “habibtis” when I return to Samos as a volunteer again this July.