Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Classical WMUK 89.9-FM is operating at reduced power. Listeners in parts of the region may not be able to receive the signal. It can still be heard at 102.1-FM HD-2. We apologize for the inconvenience and are working to restore the signal to full power.

This online learning program is teaching preschoolers in crisis situations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the past couple of years, millions of kids in the Middle East have been tuning into a remote learning program called "Ahlan Simsim."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AHLAN SIMSIM")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Arabic).

KELLY: The title means "Welcome Sesame" in Arabic. It is an Arabic-language show from the Sesame Workshop created for children affected by conflict and featuring Muppets called Basma, Jad, Ameera alongside old regulars like Elmo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AHLAN SIMSIM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Elmo, speaking Arabic).

KELLY: Well, the show, as reporter Anya Kamenetz describes it, is the largest-ever humanitarian intervention specifically intended for small children's development. She's written about it in a piece for the MIT Technology Review. Hey there, Anya.

ANYA KAMENETZ: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I know there's this huge push to get this programming in front of kids, especially kids who may be refugees, who've been displaced by war. Give me a sense of what it is because it's not just a show, right? How does this work?

KAMENETZ: So there's different aspects of this program. So in the big picture, there's been about almost 30 million children in the last few years that have just watched this show across various different types of networks and organizations. And then the IRC, International Rescue Committee, partnership was taking those videos and pairing them with basically a preschool program. But what happened was in the early weeks of the pandemic, they had to pivot that program. So they decided that they were going to see if they could use WhatsApp to deliver basically online preschool in collaboration with these videos at the same time.

KELLY: And I thought some of the details that you reported are fascinating in terms of the content, things they're including, things they're intentionally not including. An example that caught my eye - no nutrition lessons for kids because these are kids who are barely getting enough to eat. They don't need to be lectured on, like, choose healthy vegetables.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, it's really heartbreaking. I mean, as part of the reporting, I get a chance to communicate by Zoom with some of these families. And they mentioned to me that, you know, the kids - they're not even able right now to buy milk or yogurt. They're buying pita and za'atar spices. And so, yes, they left out nutrition. They also really had to think about the trauma that these kids had been through. So a very typical thing that you'd see on a preschoolers' program is a boat, and they didn't include boats.

KELLY: And the no boats - this is because so many have been refugees and had to take boat journeys, or...

KAMENETZ: That's right. They're aiming at - you know, primarily at Syrian refugees living in camps in Lebanon. Just the idea of people having to leave their home is something that they had to really address in a very delicate way.

KELLY: Oh, yeah. That's heartbreaking. One challenge that occurs to me is that if you're going to do remote learning like this, you need a solid internet connection. You need a device to engage with it. Has that been an obstacle?

KAMENETZ: Oh, my gosh, yes. I mean, you had families - you know, they're going up on the rooftop to get a better connection. They're borrowing phones from other family members, showing how committed these families were to making sure that the kids had this learning and this social-emotional services.

KELLY: Well, I guess my next question is, does it work? I know that researchers at NYU, New York University, have studied that.

KAMENETZ: That's right. So when they looked at the case of pairing the videos - the "Ahlan Simsim" program - with the services, which was WhatsApp calls with preschool teachers and kids, they found that an 11-week program produced almost a year's worth of learning and even social-emotional progress. So 11 weeks of this online programming, the kids are gaining as much as they would with a year of regular preschool.

KELLY: Wow. How do they explain that?

KAMENETZ: It's really amazing, right? So first of all, you have to understand, obviously, the context here. About a third of the mothers in these families were illiterate themselves. And so with the preschool teachers, a lot of times, they are leaving voice memos instead of messages, and they are literally coaching the parents to write letters to show their children how to do it. And so what Sherrie Westin and other folks at Sesame told me and people on the ground told me was it just is a testament to the dedication and the amount of reverence that these families had for education.

KELLY: Are there any lessons here for remote learning outside of crisis zones? I'm thinking of, you know, American kids, many of whom - most of whom did remote learning during the pandemic. And I don't know of any parents - this is anecdotal. But as a parent myself, I don't know of anybody who thought their kid in 11 weeks achieved what they would have in a year's worth of actual real school.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely not. And so this is something that we should be cautious about overgeneralizing because remote learning is not anyone's first choice, and it shouldn't be. But what really is remarkable about how they structured this program was that this is a full-family engagement programs. And it's sort of a misnomer, in a way, to think of it as online learning, at least in a passive way. So I think that that's really important to keep in mind.

KELLY: NPR alum Anya Kamenetz. She's now a freelance education reporter. Her piece in the MIT Technology Review is headlined "Yes, Remote Learning Can Work For Preschoolers." Thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.