Can a Math Program Help the Traumatized Children of Gaza?
In a bright and spacious classroom, with plants overflowing in the courtyard outside, six students lean forward at their desks looking at the 10-digit addition they are asked to make. One student stands before the numbers on the chalkboard and a red and yellow-beaded abacus. But her attention is on the abacus she visualises in her mind.
The Al Zahara private school in central Gaza is the first to incorporate a specialized program for mental development based on math computations.
"It originated in Malaysia in 1993," says Majed al-Bari, director of the school and the first to bring the program to Palestine.
"The Universal Concept Mental Arithmetic System (UCMAS) was developed to use both sides of the brain," says Bari. "The analytical left side and the creative right side."
Using a simple abacus, the UCMAS program combines visual with textile, logical with theoretical. Citing age four to 12 as the prime period for brain development, UCMAS targets the potential to expand brain usage while young.
"The children learn to identify numbers by the beads on the abacus," Bari explains. "Later, when they understand the idea of quantity they can conceptualise numbers."
But opening the program had its challenges.
"It wasn't easy to start it, due to the Israeli siege. We had to bring materials in through the tunnels from Egypt, print manuals from the Internet, and do teacher training via video conferences with Malaysia," says Bari.
In October 2009, the UN reported that Israel had only allowed two of 122 truckloads of stationery into Gaza. The UN further noted Israel had not approved import of thousands of school desks and chairs.
"Once we started," says Bari, "the program took off quickly. The first year we had 20 students enrolled. This year there are 130. In each class, there are between five to eight students. But in normal schools there are more than 30 or 40."
Olfat Taha's daughter Shahed, five, is new to the program.
"She was too young to go to a regular school when we enrolled her in this school. They accept children of any age, and they are of the highest quality in Gaza," says Taha.
"She was already good at maths, but when she started with the program she improved quickly."
Five-year-old Yazem al-Aqlooq's father is impressed by his son's intelligence and overall enhancement.
"Yazem didn't focus well before. But now he does. Once we were sitting doing math homework and I told him he'd answered incorrectly. But when I checked it with a calculator I saw he was right."
Aside from mental development, the program affects children in other ways.
"Yazem has become more confident and self-aware now, and very independent," says Aqlooq.
Abdel Kariim Moushtaha says not only is his five-year-old son more focused and able to do the calculations, he is a different boy.
"My son has changed a lot," says Moushtaha. "Now, anything that stimulates his brain has become more important to him. And he has become stronger in all subjects in school."
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2010 report on the psycho-social situation of education in Gaza notes the effects of the Israeli attacks and siege on Gaza, saying 83 percent of students surveyed had difficulty concentrating in school; 48 percent had difficulty concentrating during home study; and 81 percent found it difficult to recall their class studies.
One of the benefits of the UCMAS program is improved concentration, along with observation, imagination, memory, and creativity.
With eight centres in Gaza, there are now over 400 students around the Strip benefiting from this mental enhancement technique. But because of the cost of private school, thousands of bright students are missing their opportunity, crammed instead into overcrowded UN and governmental schools.
According to the UN, as of 2009, roughly 88 percent of UN schools and 82 percent of government schools, unable to build new schools due to the siege on Gaza, have been forced to accommodate students in shifts.
Gaza's Ministry of Education and Higher Education in 2009 reported that following the Israeli war on Gaza, school performance and attendance dropped due to the traumas caused by Israeli attacks, as well as the overcrowding and the lack of school materials. Even prior to the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza, in early 2008 the ministry reported a mere 20 percent of sixth grade children passed their standard exams.
Yet, Majed al-Bari is pleased with his program's success. "I hope that it spreads all over Gaza and the West Bank. I also dream that our students could participate in the annual competition in Malaysia."