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How Larissa Equips Refugee Children to Overcome Obstacles

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In Nduta Refugee Camp in northern Tanzania, a group of students sit expectantly in their desks. All of a sudden, a wave of energy washes through the children as their teacher, Larissa, starts singing a song and motions for the grade two students to join in. The lesson has started.

Larissa leads the children one by one from their desks to find a seat on large grass mats. Today’s lesson is focused on vocabulary, and the students eagerly wave their hands in the air, trying to answer Larissa’s questions before their peers.

Larissa is from Burundi, but she has been living as a refugee in Nduta camp for eight years. There was a time when she didn’t find much satisfaction in her job as a teacher and struggled to find motivation to create lesson plans. With limited professional training, outdated curriculum, and little technical knowledge about how to adapt lessons to the diverse needs of her students, Larissa often felt frustrated and ineffective. Her students were struggling to keep up with lessons and grasp simple concepts, receiving poor grades or even dropping out, but she didn’t always know how to address their needs.

But, since she attended Right To Play teacher training, Larissa’s love of teaching has been renewed and she is using her passion to inspire students to engage in learning through play-based lessons.

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The impacts of displacement on educational environments

More than 72,000 Burundian refugees live in Nduta, a refugee camp a 45-minute drive from the Burundi-Tanzania border. In 2015, a wave of political instability and conflict rocked their home country and caused more than 400,000 Burundians to flee. Since the conflict subsided with a change of government in 2020, many refugees have chosen to leave the camps and return home. But others are hesitant to leave because they are afraid that the conflict may reignite. Others are not sure what employment opportunities await them at home and fear they may not be able to provide for their families.

The UNHCR estimates that more than 25 percent of children living in Nduta between the ages of six and 14 are out of school. They also estimate that for every three boys who attend school, there is just one girl. Among children who are enrolled in school, many miss class to spend time helping with household chores. Even when students do graduate secondary school, most lack the resources to continue to post-secondary education. Generally, lack of opportunities for jobs that require schooling contribute to a negative view of the importance of education, especially for girls and children with disabilities.

“Parents do not want their children to go to school. They want their children to go to the edges of the camp to cultivate [gardens] or search for firewood. Parents don’t want children to be educated, saying that the education provided in the camp is just a waste of time,” says Larissa.

The issues that Larissa faces are not unique for teachers in the area. Many of the schools in the camp do not have enough classrooms to accommodate all their students, and many existing classrooms are in a state of disrepair. Teachers may rely on corporal punishment as a form of discipline and classroom management, which leaves children feeling afraid of making mistakes or engaging with their teacher.

“Parents don’t want children to be educated, saying that the education provided in the camp is just a waste of time.” – Larissa, Right To Play-trained teacher

Teachers receive little or no professional training, which makes it difficult for them to adapt lessons to accommodate the different learning needs of students in their classrooms. Many students who have been in and out of school because of displacement, have missed or fallen behind in core skills like counting and reading. Without training or access to teaching materials, teachers struggle to help their students catch up.  Coupled with this, many girls are not included or called upon to participate in class, which decreases their motivation to attend classes and prioritize education in their lives.

“As a teacher, here in the camp, I face many challenges. Especially, when I want to teach, I don’t have enough equipment such as teaching guidebooks, textbooks, or equipment for activities to help students understand the lessons better,” shares Larissa.

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Larissa leads her class in a play-based learning lesson.

In 2020, Right To Play launched a program called My Education, My Future, which aims to improve access to quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. Through the program, Larissa and more than 150 other teachers have participated in trainings, over the course of 18 months, that equip them to create safe, engaging, and inclusive learning environments for students using play-based learning methodology. These trainings teachers learn how to support students to develop holistic life skills like confidence and problem-solving. They also learn how to encourage stronger academic performance by teaching core concepts from the curriculum using specially designed games and activities to capture students’ attention.

Moreover, teachers learn skills to promote gender balance, encouraging children to sit together to break down barriers and encourage interaction between boys and girls. This training also encourages teachers to call on boys and girls equally to actively engage all children in the lessons. Right To Play staff offer regular classroom check-ins to help teachers implement these new approaches.

Before she started using play in her classroom, Larissa would sometimes stay home from school because she felt so unmotivated and ineffective. The children weren’t enjoying themselves, and neither was she.

“Children were not cheerful [in class]. It was difficult for them to ask and answer questions,” says Larissa. "We used to teach without engaging them. We were not using teaching materials and found it difficult to manage the class. Children’s attendances and performance were poor because they were not motivated to learn by teachers and the environment.”

“The training has built my confidence in teaching, which I did not have previously.” – Larissa

But after she started to apply what she learned in the training, Larissa noticed significant changes. The students became more actively engaged in lessons. She didn’t have to work as hard to keep their attention and there were fewer behavioural problems. Larissa’s confidence in her teaching abilities began to grow and the students’ scores started to improve. Many children who had dropped out of school began to return once they heard how much fun their peers were having in class.

“The training has built my confidence in teaching, which I did not have previously. I used to be nervous to teach some classes, but now I am confident to teach any class,” says Larissa. “The children are very cheerful in class and eager to learn. Their performance and attendance has been improving since I started to use play-based methodology in my lessons. My relationship with my students is stronger, as I always play different life skill games with them and teach by engaging them. Now, they are comfortable to ask and answer questions.”

These teaching methods are contributing to a shift in children’s experiences and results in the classroom. A midline study looking at the impact of My Education, My Future found that the program is contributing to improved reading scores for children in the refugee communities in Tanzania. After two years of the program, 51% of children were achieving a minimum standard of reading proficiency, up from 13% at the start.

Seeing these results has made Larissa a passionate advocate of using play to support children’s learning. She regularly connects with other teachers, encouraging and coaching them on how they can apply the approach in their own classrooms. And she hasn’t stopped there.

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Larissa leads the Girls’ Club through their weekly meeting.

girls to pursue their dreams

Larissa wants to equip her students with the hope and confidence to overcome educational challenges and pursue whatever they want to accomplish in the future. That’s why she also leads a Right To Play-supported Girls’ Club. The goal of the Girls' Club is to help adolescent girls develop holistic life skills like decision-making and self-confidence, and to equip the members with information about their rights.

“Since they have been in this club, they all learned to love and support each other. Instead of missing school to roam around wasting time, I have shown them that education is the key to a better life,” Larissa says.

In the club, girls learn about their rights and the importance of education, and are encouraged to share this knowledge with their peers. The Girls’ Club at Larissa’s school has more than 30 members who engage in weekly after-school sessions. The members of the club are ambassadors of girls’ empowerment in their community, where they teach girls who don’t attend the Girls’ Club.

“Before, I did not attend school often because I didn't see the importance of education. I didn't see a future through education. But now, after joining the Girls’ Club and getting the training provided in the club, I started seeing the importance of education. I have been attending school regularly. I even started being more hopeful for my tomorrow,” says Mariette, a Junior Leader in the Club.

"Instead of missing school to roam around wasting time, I have shown them that education is the key to a better life.” – Larissa

Positive results are being seen on a broader scale throughout the Nduta and Nyarugusu camps, where 11 Girls’ Clubs are active. The project midline study shows that halfway through the My Education, My Future program, 89% of girls felt that they could make decisions regarding their education compared to 42% at the start of the project.

Larissa is determined to do everything she can to help both teachers and students reach their full potential by harnessing the power of play. Although many challenges still exist for refugees in Tanzania, Larissa is hopeful for the future of her students and her community. With the skills she has learned and the support of her fellow teachers, she is confident she can continue to create classrooms where students can thrive.

“My expectation on the coming days is to see the children I taught being successful and passing exams. I wish to proceed being a good teacher and sharing my knowledge to fellow teachers on how to teach and build children’s life skills through play,” Larissa says.

The My Education, My Future project has been active in Tanzania and Burundi since 2020. It is implemented in partnership with the Norwegian Refuge Council and made possible with the support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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