Commitment to ensuring the right to education for refugee children, forcibly displaced persons, stateless persons, those seeking international protection and migrants necessitates an inclusive school system. This concerns not only teaching and didactic matters, to research and innovation in education, but also the realm of moral values and social justice.
This poses a direct challenge for trade unions that seek to drive educational reforms both within educational centres and their surrounding framework, supporting teachers through discovering individually tailored, innovative solutions to address a diverse range of students, despite lower salaries, unpaid overtime and lack of available specialised training, among other issues.
Proyecto Roma (Project Rome) is not merely an educational model for public schools, but also a moral commitment to said schools and all their students, who day by day continue to lose their dignity and whose needs fail to be addressed, and we are not referring to the implementation of Special Needs for Educational Support under Spanish educational regulations established with a view to accommodating diversity in the student body. No, we do not meet students’ needs by labelling them on the basis of their specific needs and challenges, but rather by helping them to learn and develop their own individual strengths, enabling each student in a class group to overcome their individual struggles.
This is the story of Abel, together with his classmates and his family, as well as his journey, a journey in which we, as teachers, also take part. His story is told through the lens of the traditional paradigm based on diagnoses aimed at assigning labels to students that result in their being paid inadequate attention outside the classroom; far from helping them to overcome their difficulties, it instead only magnifies them and draws attention to them socially, further excluding and isolating Abel from his peers.
Abel first arrived at our school, a small school in the rural areas of Granada, when he was only 4 years old. Having come from a dysfunctional family, he arrived having already experienced a very difficult life at such a young age.
After completing nursery, albeit not without difficulties, he progressed to primary school, where he joined a class of 14 other students.
Upon completing the second year of primary school, his teacher suggested that five students repeat the year. Abel, of course, was one of the five chosen.
Broadly speaking, the group consisted of: two girls from immigrant families with limited knowledge of Spanish, a girl with high intellectual capacity, Abel, diagnosed with special educational support needs due to severe childhood tonic dysphemia and intellectual disability, and a wide array of learning difficulties among the rest of the students, in addition to an unsustainable classroom environment due to constant lack of respect, in which even families themselves were contributing to the issues faced by many of the children.
As the management team, we had already been observing and analysing the challenges faced by a large number of the students in our school for some time. In Abel’s case, these challenges were not helped by the diversity awareness measures implemented in an effort to help students, including removing him from the classroom for therapeutic pedagogy and sessions with a hearing and language specialist. Rather than improving his level of learning or development, these measures only served to further isolate Abel from his peer group.
It was clear to us that we could not address diversity awareness through uniformity, but we lacked a model that enabled us to develop an adequate strategy that would ensure a successful, high-quality education for all of the boys and girls in our care.
Proyecto Roma addressed the issues that we raised: creating communities of co-existence and learning shared by all members of the educational community, valuing the individual differences of each person as part of the wealth of said community, achieving all this through co-operation and collaboration.
We understand diversity as something that can enrich both teaching and learning processes, in which every student, regardless of refugee status, regardless of their individual differences, can not only learn, but also help others to learn alongside them.
A solid theoretical and epistemological framework: Luria, Vigotsky, Freire, Bruner, Dewey, Habermas, Maturana... It is about knowing why we do what we do, and given the experiences of teachers who had been working with this model for several years already, we were certain that this was the solution our school needed.
As a management team, we are committed to the transformation and improvement of our school, including working directly with Abel’s group. This meant becoming tutor for this group in their third year without forcing any of the five chosen students to repeat the previous year, which entailed countless lost hours of managerial work, a salary supplement for changing from secondary to primary school... and many hours of study and sleepless nights.
During the first year working under the Proyecto Roma model, the Assembly was the strategy that enabled us to accomplish some very solid prior goals; it enabled us to get to know each other, both on an individual level and as a group, to build an environment of trust in which everyone was able to express themselves however they wanted, as differences came to be seen as an asset, something that enriched us as a group. We no longer lost Abel’s presence when he left the classroom for extra support; instead, several hours a week, the entire group benefited from the presence of two teachers in the classroom, which enabled every student to learn everything, provided we all helped each other.
We also learnt that environment is the brain (Luria, 1995) and as a result, we organised our classroom (the thinking zone, the communication zone, the affectivity zone, and the independent zone), and the logical thinking process of said organisation, which we would later use to plan our projects. We established the classroom rules, developed and agreed upon by everyone, removed from the minor misunderstandings and difficulties that often arose in our day to day work, instead making the classroom into a democratic space in which values thrive, as these are not taught; rather, they are either lived or rejected (Maturana, 1994).
We shifted from the concept of “I” to “we”, making ourselves responsible not only for our own learning, but also for the learning of our classmates, making an effort to understand each individual’s personal challenges and coming up with solutions to overcome them. Abel took on the role of group spokesperson on more than one occasion, as everyone understood that this was the best way of helping overcome his speech impediment, and they did not fear that he might jeopardise the group’s work should he not present well; instead, the most important thing was the great benefit it provided for Abel.
The group’s improvement was remarkable, both in learning and in learning to get along with each other. These successes were even more marked in cases like Abel, who had previously been cast as an outsider. Now, however, he was considered an equal by the rest of the class, both respectful of and receiving respect in turn from his classmates. By following the classroom rules (it was difficult for him to remain seated for more than five minutes), we began to observe in him that personal and social growth that had previously eluded us.
With the trust and support of his classmates, Abel was chosen as the spokesperson for his class to present for the entire school during our World Book Day celebration. Abel’s speech had improved so greatly that he succeeded in stunning the entire audience, as everyone present had anticipated an disaster as inevitable.
His progress in the group continued to improve little by little until, by the end of primary school, he had practically reached the level of his peers. Above all, he had succeeded in truly becoming part of the group, with all of the students working together and respecting everyone around them.
The importance of this case is highlighted not only by Abel’s progress on an individual level, which has been more than remarkable, but also by the improvement of the environment in which before he had always struggled to merely “survive” every day.
After implementing these changes to our methodology, the classroom became a richer environment for all students, a space filled with constant learning.
Proyecto Roma, as a transformative, enriching element for educational environments, has helped us to understand that respecting each individual for their differences enables them to learn, and in turn we can all learn from them. It would be extraordinary if girls and boys, adolescents and children, refugees, forcibly displaced persons, stateless persons, migrants or indigenous peoples, alone or together, rather than simply have the theoretical right to a good education were able to truly live experience it like Abel.
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