Studying amidst the war

Children have to study. But studying and teaching in the current situation in Ukraine is complicated. Even when students are in relative safety, when they have access to the internet and the ability for distance learning, the schooling cannot be the same as before the war. To explain the changes and needs of the educational process after February 24th, 2022, we address the experience of The Restless alternative school in Ivano-Frankivsk. 

In the shelter

On the first day of the war, The Restless alternative school was turned into a shelter for forcefully displaced people. People arriving from the most dangerous areas lodged in the classrooms. At the same time, the school did not cease the teaching process but made it completely online. Anyway, around one-third of the students happen to be abroad. And frequent air alarms made normal offline lessons impossible, as children have to move to the basement every time there is an alert. Thus, the education moved to ZOOM. 

On the other hand, this could not be that kind of online learning everyone got used to during the pandemic. Svitlana Tarakhkalo, the school’s founder, explains: 

“Children learn all the time, no matter if there is war or not. But they cannot think about tangents and cotangents or subjects and verbs. They are worried about other issues. What is going on? What happened yesterday? Which information is true? It is important to talk to children about the things that bother them. Until they live through these emotions, they won’t be able to concentrate on anything else. That’s why we care not only about education in the classic sense, but also about communication”.  

How to talk about war

Emotional intelligence classes where children learn to understand their emotions and cope with them, acquired a new sense. As emotional intelligence tutor at The Restless Olia Novak says, she always starts from pupils’ needs and interests at the lessons. After February 24th, she asked them if they wanted to talk about their thoughts and feelings concerning the war. The kids said “yes”.

“That was very organic,” she says. “Parents are often afraid of talking to kids about war because they don’t want to traumatize them. But children don’t live in a vacuum. They see and hear everything, they feel everything, including adults’ fear and anxiety”.  

They started discussing these things in the lessons, and started looking for the answers to questions like “what should we do when we feel fear?”, “is it normal to experience such a fear?”, “how could we cope with it?”. 

Of course, the conversations about emotions are different for different ages. For smaller kids it was mostly playing: creating stories about their dreams, about safe places, drawing the fears and tearing them off into pieces. Children of the 5th – 7th forms were conducting interviews with each other, talking about themselves, and about their recent feelings. 

“It’s harder to motivate senior students. They don’t want games because they consider themselves adults. But they need to talk about their feelings. For example, the feeling of shame or guilt when they do something for themselves, something pleasant. Someone feels anger towards the war. Or feels joy because he or she missed a day at school. We explain that all the feelings are natural”, says Svitlana Tarakhkalo.

When children talk about this, they alleviate tension and come to realize they are not alone with their anxiety, annoyance, and pain. They start working with their emotions. Not distancing from them in a way “I cannot cry”, “I cannot be angry” but understanding them, accepting and influencing them. 

Learning and teaching in a cellar

These and other classes took place only online for a while. But the school administration searched for the possibility of returning to offline learning. 

Distance learning was a necessity, not a benefit, especially for the forcefully displaced people. Usually one family occupies one room in this shelter, and sometimes two families live in one room or several families rent one apartment. Parents who work, do this from home, at the laptop. Such conditions make learning and working harder for everyone. For the same reason, there is an enormous need in kindergartens now.  

On the other hand, if a child goes to school, not to ZOOM, much easier to integrate into a new community and lessen the anxious thoughts about the war. 

“The top issue is having a safe environment for children – for those kids who need help more than others, who live in shelters. They need a chance to develop themselves, to switch on other activities and to spend time away from the family, to build new social networks instead of those they have lost”, explains Yulia Liubych, education coordinator at STAN NGO, the school’s partner.  

That’s why The Restless soon started searching for a space for offline lessons and moved to this new space in early April. The school is located now in a cellar, so they do not need to move in case of an air alert. A theater studio used to function in the space before, so the school did not need to spend resources on repair works. There are rooms for the lessons, physical activities, and yoga. 

The school continues online lessons and gives an opportunity to attend either offline classes or classes in ZOOM. 

Alternative lessons

The Restless is an alternative school. This means lessons here are a bit unusual. For instance, along with the history lessons there are collaborative history and geography lessons called geostories. 

History teacher Volodymyr Polovskyi explains: 

“History is closely connected to geography. Maps are everywhere. And in both disciplines events are going on in some space. Many times I wanted to say: ‘You should learn this in geography class. But why not combine? Geography is about space and the natural environment that are important for history. Later, students study social geography and economic geography intertwined with history”. 

There is also a collaboration with literature. Bohdan Kyrsta, philologist, sometimes teaches the lessons together with historian Polovskyi. The recent lesson was about a historical event called The Black council (1663), an event that serves as a background for a novel by Ukrainian writer of XIX century Panteleimon Kulish. The philologist went into the novel details, while the historian immersed the class into the historical background of the novel. 

There is also a lesson about up-to-date events where students discuss the topics of infowars, propaganda, politics, power, society etc. 

The study program is adapted to the war conditions. Svitlana Tarakhkalo explains: 

“We often try to include such things as singing or literature. They allow us to relax. Or physical exercises: at least twice a week we go to the exercise class located nearby at a safe space”. 

Before the war, the school often exercised at the public park. This has to be changed due to safety reasons. 

From mid-April the school is implementing the psychoemotional support program in a partnership with STAN NGO. A special mentor approach they practice at school also helps children from other regions to integrate. These are lex non scripta. As Svitlana Tarakhkalo explains, this means that seniors support younger and fresh students. 

“This is how it is at The Restless. When a new boy or girl comes to school, other children welcome him or her and get acquainted with the school”, she says

The activities of the Youth Organization “STAN” in 2022 are supported by IM Swedish Development Partner (Sweden), Save the Children (Sweden), Hilfswerk International (Austria), Studio Kitsunya (Netherlands), MitOst (Germany), LGBT + DK (Denmark), Prague Civil Society Center (Czech Republic), People in Need (Czech Republic), Eastern Europe Foundation (Ukraine), Global Fund for Children (USA).

The IM Swedish Development Partner Foundation and Prague Civil Society Centre support the organization’s team and the activities of the resource center, where the coordinating headquarters of the Carpathian region’s shelters are located.

Save the Children Foundation supports comprehensive work with children and young people affected by hostilities. International organizations Hilfswerk International, Studio Kitsunya, Space-Eye and other charitable organizations provide humanitarian assistance for shelters with sleeping places, and food for people at the railway station. The Eastern Europe Foundation equips shelters with equipment to improve living conditions.

BARN and Child Rights Eurasia provide baby food for the youngest IDPs. Global Fund for Children (USA) supports anti-crisis work with children. MitOst and LGBT + DK assist in relocating cultural managers and activists in need. People in Need helps provide psychosocial and legal assistance to the people.