“For some it was an opportunity to learn new things, for others it was an opportunity to make friends.”
This is one of the impressions shared by 5th graders from the Anglo-American School in Sofia after their visit to a kindergarten in Radomir with predominantly Romani children.
Why did students from the Anglo-American School (AAS), one of the most prestigious schools in Sofia, visit a Romani kindergarten? What prompted them to take the first step towards something so thoroughly outside their experience? Joseph Herr, a mathematics teacher at AAS, tells us how the idea was born:
“The first project I decided to do with my students was about the Romani people in Bulgaria. I was curious to understand the main reasons for the negative image, the incorrect assumptions and stereotypes around this ethnic group. Subsequently I decided it would be good for my students to learn more about the everyday life of Bulgaria’s most vulnerable community – the Romani community. A more in-depth understanding of their actual problems and the reasons behind their social situation would help to dismantle their stereotypes and prejudice. My diverse classroom is in ever greater need of fostering a more tolerant and supportive environment; an environment open to accepting the unfamiliar and the different.”
The school project Joseph started involved about 20 children from the 5th and 6th grades of AAS. The project helped them reach their own conclusions and form their own ideas regarding the social position of the Romani people in Bulgaria. It helped them learn and understand a lot not only about the Romani community, but about many other communities in and outside Bulgaria.
When Joseph Herr started discussing the subject of the Romani people with his students, he realized he needed support from experts, so he turned to the Trust for Social Achievement Foundation for information and practical materials to help build his project.
After Mr. Herr shared his specific needs with the foundation’s team, they offered to organize two separate initiatives for his students to participate in.
The first one was a workshop where the children learned about the origin, culture, and everyday life of Romani people, and about the factors negatively impacting their situation and development as a community. Furthermore, the students had a chance to meet successful Romani role models who talked about the difficulties and challenges they had faced in their education and career development.
“But we don’t have enough materials to do this task properly, it’s not fair, other students have much more information than us!”, a group of Anglo-American School students protested, speaking as one.
This is how the first initiative started, during which the students took part in role-playing games designed to put them in situations which would help them understand the degree to which a family’s social and economic status affects the development of the children in it.
Students shared their thoughts in a reflection session after the role playing games: “When we talk about achievements and results, we always credit the person’s qualities and very rarely consider what other conditions and factors may have an influence.”
The second initiative was a visit to a Romani kindergarten so that students could interact with children from the community. The institution the students visited was the Osmi Mart (Eighth of March) kindergarten in Radomir, which enrolls a large number of Romani children.
After the visit the students were given time for reflection during which they expressed their satisfaction with the experience.
Here are their impressions:
“It was a great experience. We had a chance to get to know each other, we learned many new and interesting things about each other. I didn’t have any Romani friends before; I do now.”
Dara, student at the Anglo-American School
“It was a great visit. I got to know who they were and what they dreamed about. Even though they’re very young, they already know what they want to be when they grow up. They have dreams just like the rest of us!”
Yoana, student at the Anglo-American School
“I liked that the teachers are trying to show that Romani people have potential. They are trying to show that people have an incorrect idea about the Romani.”
Ivan, student at the Anglo-American School
After the visit at the kindergarten, the students said they really felt like “successful role models”. The visit blossomed into an exciting exchange between the AAS students and the kindergarteners.
Bistra Toneva, the principal of the Osmi Mart kindergarten in Radomir, expressed her readiness for collaboration and partnerships in the future. She and her team believe that it is precisely this sort of initiatives that hold the key to success and positive change.
“I believe that the visit to our kindergarten had a tremendous positive effect on the children. For days afterwards they were very excited and kept asking when they could have another such meeting. They were fascinated that the students from AAS could speak another language, different from theirs. In my opinion, this type of interaction could have a substantial positive influence on the children’s development. The environment they are growing up in is rather closed and limits their exposure to successful role models, which is what the AAS students were to them. I believe that such initiatives have a motivational effect not only on the children, but also on our teaching staff. Creating an atmosphere of this kind lends variety to their daily activities and makes them feel valued and special. It is my personal conviction that if we try and open our hearts to what we are unfamiliar with, we would realize how much we do not know about ourselves.”
Bistra Toneva, principal of Osmi Mart kindergarten
After the visit at the kindergarten and the role playing games among the students, Joseph Herr judged the endeavor a successful approach that should be utilized and adopted in other schools in Bulgaria:
“These initiatives provide an opportunity for the students to learn interesting new things. This is a new adventure for them! The children changed their ideas and attitudes towards the Romani. They now believe that all children are entitled to protection and support, regardless of their ethnicity.”