My service placement could not have turned out better. I'm volunteering for an NGO called Otvoreni Klub (Open Club) which carries the full title of the "Association for protection & promotion of mental health in children and youth." It was founded in 1996 and while that doesn't seem too long ago it was the first NGO in Niš which played a large role in starting the volunteering movement in Southern Serbia. It has a specified purpose, a large youth group who create actions and attend trainings related to that purpose, and stable departments for Roma youth and youth with disabilities. I came in hoping to involve myself with their Roma work and they were more than willing to let me take charge in that setting.
Their Roma center is located in the heart of the largest Roma settlement in Niš and it's a small house with one main room set up as a classroom. It's designed for additional tutoring and basic classes and workshops for the Roma youth. The teachers (except for me) are of that Roma community (called Crvena Zvezda ~ Red Star, a popular Serbian sports team). There is math, science, and Serbian tutoring and sometimes one of them will organize some sort of creative workshop but there wasn't any English class so I figured that'd be the most useful for the kiddies. There was a preexisting daily two-hour Serbian lesson for three-five year olds who aren't in school yet (Serbian isn't the native tongue for Roma people, it's actually a language called Romani, but in school they are taught in Serbian and no one speaks Romani except the Roma so it's necessary for them to learn Serbian this is a long parentheses.) I started with this class and we split the two hours of Serbian daily into one hour of Serbian and one English but this confused the little ones so now I have two full (2-hour) classes weekly to work with them and the other three are Serbian lessons. Then I have three older groups, one ages 8-10, one that was supposed to be 10-13 but older students wanted to take classes as well and I would never deny them that so now there's another class for ages 14 and up (basically through 18). Each of these three classes meets for 1.5 hours weekly.
I've now had four relatively successful weeks like this (though they certainly didn't all feel like successes at the time) and I've gone through numbers, colors, body parts, and shapes with the younger ones and we've begun with basic pronouns, verbs, and parts of speech with the older crew. When I expressed an interest in learning their Romani language each group was more thrilled than I could have imagined so I've begun to learn some basics in their mother tongue as well. The four and five year olds knew not a single English word and this was the easiest to combat since they were at the same level. In just four weeks this has changed naturally where some have emerged as quicker learners and others retain less. But in the three older classes there was much variance to begin with creating more difficulty when planning the lessons so that it was challenging but doable for all.
The Roma students are 'officially' allowed to attend the schools with other Serbian youth but I've been told that those students and teachers tend to discriminate them and so the Roma youth either go to the poor, decrepit school on the settlement or (and eventually) they drop out. Though they are all 'taught' English in their school from age six, the English teachers hardly know the language and they practice abusive rote learning which is both harmful and disconcerting. This Roma settlement is very fortunate to have a safe learning environment for the children to come to but this is a rarity.
Now before I continue I'd like to thank thank THANK all teachers or educators who are reading this. Your job is infinitely more difficult than I imagined. Kids can be so rowdy and uncontrollable and they can be angels. Usually it's the former but I had one particularly rewarding moment when three girls from the 8-10 year old class took on the latter disposition and asked if I could work extra with them after class and go over more advanced English. For two weeks now I've had this extra hour and I've realized how much more fun and fulfilling it is to teach those who want to learn. All of my students are there voluntarily so they do all want to learn they just don't show it too often. And since it is voluntarily I haven't had a single class with exactly the same students as the week prior. It evened out the most in the past two weeks and I think the classes will keep roughly the way they are. Approximately there are 14 munchkins in the baby class who I see the most, 20 eight to ten-year olds, 17 ten to thirteen year olds, and 16 fourteen and up. This continues to be an overwhelming amount but I've enlisted some help from other youth volunteers at Otvoreni Klub and it's providing a well-appreciated challenge for this semester.
The pictures throughout this post are from the smallest-most manageable-most peaceful class I've had yet with the eight to ten-year olds.
All of what I just wrote constitutes half my job with Otvoreni Klub and the other half is spent in their main office translating documents for their website and records and planning actions and attending/organizing workshops and trainings with their youth group. This is a much more mellow position and I enjoy it oh so much because both my office-mates and the youth group are comprised of great, fun, encouraging, and kind people who make the whole going to work thing a lot more of a privilege than a chore. Recently there was a weekend camp/training in a beautiful, picturesque village 30 km from Niš where we created a series of workshops around integration of disabled and Roma youth into society for middle-schoolers which we'll implement from March - May so I'll help conduct them.
There's probably more I'm forgetting but I'll be sure to keep you posted as the semester progresses. There's so much to say about my students and working in the settlement with the Roma so I'll definitely be returning to this again. All questions and counsel are welcome as always.
Prijatan dan ~ have a good day!