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Why I’d rather teach illiterate Roma than Princeton students

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
The empowerment of a people begins with educating its women.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A recent piece in Quartz argued that the the Roma, a group of people who migrated from India to Europe over 1,000 years ago, could save Europe’s flailing economy. But this young and able-bodied population is woefully unemployed and underpaid. Governments must decide that it is important to educate and enfranchise Roma children and their families together.

I learned this firsthand in 14 years of working with Roma families.

I have observed that they carefully maintain their ancestral skills and their Sanskrit language while being an oral culture. With them, education is not through being formally taught in alienating schools in rows at desks but through direct observation and practice within their families.

However, illiteracy levels are extremely high, likewise resistance to schooling where children are met with bullying from other children, pressure to do drugs, and the teachers’ and parents’ strong cultural prejudices against their presence. It has been thought wise to have Roma children at a young age attend non-Roma (Gadgé) preschools.* Leslie Hawke (Ethan Hawke’s mother) has spearheaded such a program excellently in Romania. I have heard the head of the Equal Rights Trust propose this practice at the EU in Brussels. But I feel* it is akin to the “Lost Generation” of Native American and Aborigine children in America, Canada and Australia from being wrenched from their families and placed in abusing boarding schools, alienating them from both cultures.

Though I have taught at all levels, particularly at pre-school and university, my own practice with Roma families is the opposite of the above. I believe it is best to have schooling for the entire family, for it to be carried out in Romanì, their language, in a library setting with books, where parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren come together and write out their names, the alphabet and, with Romanian Roma who are Christian as well as European Citizens, the Lord’s Prayer, as children were taught literacy for centuries. Seven participants in our Alphabet School in Florence, young mothers and a widow with children, were next given library schools to be in their homes in Buzau, Ramnicu Sarat and Constantsa in Romania, receiving a stipend of €100 ($125) a month for a year, plus money for firewood, so they could stay with their children rather than begging in Florence for their families’ survival leaving the children with grandmothers in Romania as they formerly had to do. This family schooling strategy does not create a gulf between illiterate parents and their literate children but a shared culture added to their Romany base, enriching rather than depriving these families. Early learning is the most intense. It should not be at the cost of the centuries of skills which are lost when children are taken away from their homes at the best age to absorb these in the family. This project thus enables early home schooling as the base for later formal schooling and literacy to which these children will have already been exposed together with their mothers and fathers.

It is also important for schools, particularly the teachers, to learn from Roma of their migration from India, the Sanskrit language, and of the centuries of discrimination and slavery, gulags and lagers, they have experienced. It would be helpful to teach how our alphabet is one family, spreading from outside Europe, originating in the Near East amongst Semitic peoples, then becoming adopted almost globally today. Likewise we can learn that Roma with their Sanskrit/Romanì language, and we, are from one Indo-European linguistic family, though distant relatives.

Minna Sundberg

For years, only Roma men attended the once-a-week Alphabet School. Finally, they explained that the women and children did not come because the women do not accept being in the same room as men who are not their husbands. So we placed the men and older boys under the arch at a trestle table, the women and babies and children in the library with the rocking cradle they have made. We prepare rolls of blessed bread with chicken liver paté for sandwiches, apples and water. We give each participant each Sunday €2 ($2.48) because they give up begging outside churches to be present. We have used clothes others give us for them to choose from. After school the women weed in the cemetery, on weekdays the men garden. I only give paid work to those willing to participate in Alphabet School, literacy being a requirement for employment. I also explain that where women are educated, as in Kerala, though in great poverty, life expectancy increases and infant mortality drops. We discuss the problems Roma families face, with lack of housing, health care and education. Everyone is treated with respect. The atmosphere is joyous, learning, a game.

The educational methods we use are those from Paulo Freire, Margaret Macmillan, and Maria Montessori. The Roma, both women and men, and I together build cradles and bookshelves for the library. A Roma couple wrote schoolbooks together with his drawings, in four languages, Romani, Romanian, Italian, English, which we also recorded orally. Among their favorite books are the engravings in the Diderot/D’Alembert Encyclopédie, and an illustrated Dante’s Commedia.

I have taught university students at Berkeley, Princeton. and Boulder. I prefer teaching illiterate Roma, all ages, and learning from them the richness of their culture, the excellence of their skills, and the strength of their families. We reciprocate, giving each what the other lacks, with dignity, in this pilot project.

*An earlier version of this article included language that incorrectly implied the head of the Equal Rights Trust supported taking Roma children from their parents to attend non-Roma (Gadgé) preschools. The paragraph has been amended to more accurately reflect the views of the official in question.

Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Zoita with Dante
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Roma women learn the alphabet.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
A group of Roma women takes care of the tombs.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Roma men writing, women gardening and nursing a baby, tourists arriving.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Fernando, 12, Esmeralda, 10, with New York University students, and Brunetto Latino text on Justice in medieval Italian Esmeralda can read.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Marianne learning to chisel letters on marble.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Daniel learning to chisel letters on marble.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
St. Parasceva on the computer screen.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Library school with photographs of Roma.
Photo/Julia Bolton Holloway
Vandana and Maria, sisters, pose for a painting in 2007.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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