Teaching and learning with refugee children and teenagers on the island of Chios

This guest blog post was written by Elena Natale, one of our past Primary PGCE Trainees.

Elena volunteered in Chios from 17th September – 17th December  2017



“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” – Paulo Coelho

The difficulty of putting my experience in Chios into words is overcome by the urge I feel to speak up. Volunteering for three months for Refugee Education Chios, I had the pleasure of meeting many individuals and hearing their stories. I now feel a duty to generate curiosity and interest in these stories and share what I have learned.
During the first few days of my time in Chios, I was flooded with contradictory feelings; excitement to get to know the children and fear at how to overcome the barriers between us. I worried about settling into a new place, and adjusting to this new life. All these feelings quickly took a backseat as I started sharing my days with the children.

“Choose connection over perfection.” – Julie Hanks

At first, my focus was to try to get through the day as smoothly as possible. I would try to keep the children engaged and prevent outbursts of negative energy in the form of panic attacks, violence, withdrawal, and other manifestations I had not yet come across.

The ‘perfectionist’ teacher in me was determined to engage the children, without too much disruption, in learning through the super creative lessons I had planned out. This goal soon disappeared as I realised that the children’s needs could not be met through traditional educational practices. Instead, I saw that through their occasional ‘shocking’ behaviours the children were calling out for recognition and support. They needed a safe space where they could be themselves and build spontaneous relationships, which they maybe lacked in their daily life in the camp.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Martin Luther King Jr.

fish 1

Recognising this changed my whole approach to the experience. My own personal goal became that of trying to transform my classrooms into small communities for, and of, children. I took the time to observe the children, their interactions with each other and with us volunteers, and get to know them through play. I started to introduce some routines and structures that challenged the children to work together, to listen to each other, to share something about themselves, and to take responsibility of their own learning.

This was a challenge for all of us, children and teachers alike, that did not come without difficulties, but the feeling of trust in each other became the connecting force that we relied on to welcome and address the days with open arms.

“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” – Pooh

As the days passed, we would take steps forwards and backwards in relation to our daily achievements, but there was never a single day I did not feel personally satisfied with what we had accomplished. There was never a day we did not end with a smile and our hands raised in the air, like strong teams do, in recognition that the experiences we had lived had been common to all of us.
Some days, the achievement was keeping all the children in a class, or receiving an excited hug from a child on the way into school or after a long day. Other days, it was seeing children express their needs and communicate through drawing or some form of language. I was delighted by the children’s landmarks of growth: saying please and thank you not just to teachers but to each other; offering to clean up the classroom to the sound of Despacito; a group made up of all different nationalities playing UNO together; a class holding hands together; a whole class dancing salsa together, irrespective of gender, race or any other category; a whole class agreeing both verbally and with their actions that differences between individuals are good and make us strong.
The list of what I call GOLDEN MOMENTS is neverending. The point is that, with the right support and guidance, so many of the students were able to unleash their inherent force and energy that derives simply from being the children they are.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can choose to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

Sometimes, my feelings of satisfaction were shattered when we arrived in Vial camp and the crude reality that the children lived in emerged right in front of our eyes. This had a profound effect on the volunteers, but clearly had the greatest impact on the children who would quickly change their behaviour and attitudes. It felt as though suddenly everything that had been built up in the classroom crumbled as the children prepared to go into ‘survival mode’.

classroom display

Seeing this from the outside definitely gave me a clearer understanding of the startling behaviour that some children manifested in school, and helped me to become aware of the nature of the big beast we were trying to fight against everyday. Though I never imagined I could fix the situation completely, seeing it made me more determined to continue my work with the children in a spirit of flexibility, open-mindedness and sensitivity.

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” – Malala

The children themselves were a huge source of inspiration to me, and they fueled my determination. I came across this quote, which immediately made sense to me: “Our children can be our greatest teachers if we are humble enough to receive their lessons” – B. McGill.

The children I was working with had been through so much in their lives and had so much to teach us. There wasn’t one day I didn’t learn something from them. Each child had something to teach me about resilience, or how to adapt to new situations and people, or how to express oneself non-verbally. They showed me how to learn from the simplest and smallest of things, and how to be creative whatever the circumstance.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Another key part of my experience was the team of volunteers and co-workers. Each of us had arrived in Chios for a different reason. We’d lived quite diverse experiences and therefore brought with us a different repertoire of skills and knowledge. However, we were all linked by one feeling: a love for humanity which manifested itself in a passion for education in its many forms. This helped create a community of enthusiastic and reflective individuals, ready to share knowledge, skills, experiences, and emotions with each other and with the students. Though I arrived worrying about being with people I didn’t know, I quickly saw that living and sharing everything with the team was key to feeling energised, supported, and understood. They encouraged me to not be afraid to be myself, and to channel my energy into the work we were so invested in.

“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” Mother Teresa

If you asked me which part of the experience I loved the most, I would struggle to give an answer that would do justice to all the people I had met. I had the honour to work with and learn from so many individuals, be they volunteers, children, teenagers or other young adults. However, I can confidently say that I take with me a plethora of golden moments: moments that are more valuable than anything tangible; moments filled with human emotion, and with deep connection to others.

If you asked me what I learned from this experience, I would say this: no situation or hardship can rob someone of their smile or feeling, especially not a child’s. Therefore, connecting to others through shared human emotion is the key to unlocking relationships with people from all backgrounds.

I have come to think that trying to understand the experiences of refugees is like fighting a lost battle. Instead, it is more powerful to build connections through empathy, and commit to opening up a space for individuals to become storytellers of their lives. As Socrates famously said: “I know that I know nothing”; it is clear to me that there is always more to learn, and that, if one is open to accepting this, then this journey can become the most exciting and important one of our lives: “Education is a lifelong journey” – J.Dewey

world children's day

If you would like to know more about volunteering opportunities contact: nicholas@actionforeducation.co.uk or visit www.actionforeducation.co.uk


Harriet’s Work Experience


The Education Faculty Library Team have had the pleasure of hosting Harriet for her Year 10 work experience placement during the last two weeks. We have very much enjoyed showing Harriet the different ways that we support our varied student community and we are thrilled with the window display she has created to reflect and promote our library services.

Harriet has written the following guest post about her time with us.

My work experience in the Education Faculty Library at Cambridge University has been a very enjoyable one. I have not had a day go by where I haven’t had something to do. I have been on visits to other University College and Faculty libraries (Homerton College, Medical Library, Betty & Gordon Moore, English Faculty Library) and by doing this I was able to compare how different libraries are run.


Also, during my time here, I created a number of things including a summer reading list display, advertising for new books and a window display promoting digital resources via the Library’s Moodle site (which included a giant sandcastle) to support students over the summer holidays. On one of the days I was joined by a work experience student from the Betty Gordon Moore Library and she helped me in creating my summer reads list and then arrange it on display.


I was also given the chance to give this student a tour of the Education Library which helped me to improve my knowledge of the collection and also get more used to where everything was. I have learnt many things here as I have gone along, mostly by watching and shadowing the team, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it all. I have always felt like a part of the team and have grown in confidence the whole time I’ve been here. I feel that I will take the skills I have learnt with me and use throughout the rest of my time in school and then continue to use once I have left school. Librarianship is a career that I would consider doing but there are so many different roles around that I am also intrigued to look into how they differ from one another, such as librarians in schools, public libraries as well as academic and medical libraries.

Overall, my Work Experience has been a great opportunity and I am glad that I was able to spend it here at the Education Faculty Library.


As well as a guest blogger, we invited Harriet to showcase her time at the Library with an Instagram takeover to report on her varied experiences. Please do read Harriet’s Instagram diary  #HarrietsWex

We would like to thank Harriet very much for all her hard work and wish her all the best for the future.


Stories from a camp

This guest blog post was written by Elena Natale, one of our Undergraduate students studying education with modern and medieval languages.

30th May 2016 to 9th June 2016



By Elena Natale
It is hard to describe my days in the Dunkirk Camp both because of their intensity and because feelings and experiences are hard to explain in words. However, I feel that telling about my adventure is a necessary step for it to be continued by other inspired people who care about humanity. One of the first messages I want to communicate is that what we hear on the news or read in papers about the refugee crisis and about refugees themselves is just a small part of the picture, often badly painted with lots of misconceptions. This is because the focus is on the politics of immigration and the effects of this on society, rather than on the individuals and their stories. I do not intend to get involved with the politics at all, but rather bring a human touch to the matter. With this in mind, I left my safe, comfortable student life in Cambridge and went to volunteer in the Dunkirk La Linière Camp, spending most of my time in the classroom and the children’s centre.



Figure 1: The Edlumino classroom on the left and the children’s centre on the right.

My time at the classroom run by Edlumino Education Aid, a collaboration of teachers and people interested in education, was very enriching; especially given my interest in becoming a teacher. The classroom is very well resourced and it is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. This is extremely important given that the camp in itself is unattractive in terms of aesthetics and architecture. Children from about 7+ of different abilities and with different previous experiences of schooling go to learn when they want all throughout the week. Depending on the number of teachers and volunteers present the children are taught in small groups or one-to-one tuition and the content of learning and teaching is mainly English and maths. Many children go to school for just a short period of time, most of them manage to stay for an hour. This is facilitated by the ‘bracelet method’, in other words after an hour of learning children receive a paper bracelet as a form of reward and as an entry-pass to the play centre just opposite the classroom.


Figure 2: The classroom

It was an amazing experience to help out in the classroom because many of the children arrive and are eager to learn, it is just about finding the right way for them to do so. This therefore requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to use existing teaching skills in completely new ways. The greatest challenge is to find ways to motivate the children and engage them in learning. This is especially the case because many of them are tired as they have been awake during the night trying to get on trucks, or alternatively they are influenced by their environment and by the other children. However it is not an unachievable goal: I myself experimented teaching using different techniques such as flash cards, visual and sensory objects, alternating some learning games with more structured learning.

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Figure 3: The children’s centre activity area.

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Figure 4: The play area.

Teaching in the camp is a stimulating experience for anyone interested in education and it encourages all those involved to share different teaching and learning approaches. All of these approaches seem to work as children return to school and their improvements are easily noticeable. I would hazard a guess that this is because everyone teaching is interested in the children as individuals and as learners. Added to this there is a shared recognition of the wider role of education: in other words education not just about the teaching of skills and knowledge but also about the development of feelings, behaviours and attitudes towards oneself, the environment and others.

I had a wonderful time at the children’s centre, opposite the classroom, as I had the opportunity not only to become a child again but also to organise entertaining and educative activities for children of all ages. In particular the centre is the camp’s safe space for children: from the small babies to the more exuberant older ones. There they can play and be themselves and rediscover their innocence and their abilities to dream. In it the children have the opportunities to explore and learn using different toys, art materials, sports equipment, books. The presence of teachers and volunteers means that each one can focus and spend time with smaller groups of children and organise games and activities. Having said this it is almost impossible to continue one activity for long because there is so much going on around. Consequently it is always important to have one eye in the game and the other on what is going on everywhere else; this is both to avoid brutal fights or stone throwing and also to make sure that none of the children are left alone or unsupervised.

A typical day at the centre starts around 10.30/11am when the children who are too small to go to the classroom are brought by their parents or by their older siblings. In the morning usually a creative activity, like playing music or some art work, is organised and then the children have a small snack time followed by free play. The centre closes for a lunch break around 1.30pm and the children then come back from 3pm to 5pm. In the afternoon, depending on the weather, the children either do some sports, physical activities or simply play outdoors. During my time at the centre a group of volunteers had just planted lots of flowers and plants so the children took over the responsibility to water them, something that they greatly enjoyed. I also attempted to do some dance routines and simple yoga/fitness exercises with the children. At first it was hard but then I realised it is all about consistency and about adapting the activity so as to suit the interests and needs of the children. It was wonderful to see a group of 10/15 children, who after many attempts, managed to sit together in a circle, do some stretching, make coordinated noises and take part in group interactions. The smallest satisfactions of volunteering with children derive from the simplest things: for example when a child says please, thank you, sorry or comes to give you a hug. All of these small gestures make you feel like you have achieved something great and unforgettable.

I spent most of my time moving in between the classroom and the children’s centre and it was interesting to notice how they both operate differently with different objectives. However despite this they both successfully achieve the goal of providing children with a safe space just for them where they can come and let out their energies, learn, spend time with other children and with adults who care about them. All the teachers and volunteers that I met are inspiring people and it is fascinating to listen to their stories. In particular the long-term volunteers who have been in the camp since it was first opened explained how they have seen the changes from children learning and playing in very small improvised tents, to larger ones to the complete, inviting and well-furnished buildings in which they are now.

What I have learned through this experience is that teaching in the sorts of conditions present in the camp requires a different approach to education: it requires people who are enthusiastic, sensitive and who are able to connect to individuals by catering for their needs of love and affection. The children and their families should be the core centre around which everything is done. Only when the connections between human beings are encouraged and safeguarded can true and meaningful changes of the individuals’ psychological and emotional conditions be made. To conclude, volunteering in the camp is for me about trying to reach the hearts of people and allowing everyone to reclaim their identity.