Posts Tagged ‘English’

Dear Ducks:

Well, ladies and germs, I’m sorry for absenting myself for so long. This no-internet thing is kind of killing me, and though I’m bumming from Clay Cafe and work — among other places — for wireless, usually those times are reserved for calling peeps and mindlessly filling out job application websites. I am SO tired of writing my name and address and I think the inventor of the drop-down menu is the Devil. Really, I do. I can’t think of more mindless feature that is harder to automate yourself to doing.

My Prof. 6 class finished up the other day, and I was beaming. Honest. They’ve come so far, I was almost at the point of tears as we said good-bye. Nearly all of their presentations were unbelievably impressive, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t wearing socks, because they would have been knocked off.

In contrast to this was my Ind. 1 group, which is the lowest I’ve gone. I’ve never been so frustrated. I mean, this is what I must have been like as a language student.

As a teacher, I think it’s quite tempting to view the class in terms of power dynamics. Often, the material isn’t interesting enough on its own, and needs a little personal kick to attract students’ interest. The trouble is maintaining a balance between openness, friendliness, and a kind of intellectual equality (after all, they ARE adults), and discipline. I feel strange when I get angry in class — like it’s not my place. But it is. I am, after all, the teacher.

Languages are especially challenging to teach because they compress personality. You have to do everything you did in one language all over again. This has the effect of pressure-cooking the student’s desire to learn, meaning that the pot boils fast and hot. Everyone is really excited to learn vocab. By the end of the class, when they get to the grammar section, you can’t stop them from speaking Arabic; mainly because tehy just feel trapped by the English.

It’s easier with the advanced students to a certain extent. They’ve gone through the everyday. They know jokes. They even have favorite words, in some cases. Others make jokes about accent or — and this makes me really happy, as you can imagine — make puns. Puns! Can you believe it? But the new ones are (understandably) frustrated at sounding like they’re five or mentally disabled. It’s kind of humiliating.

And so you justify the strictness, because when you’re strict, you’re on-topic, on-language; but sometimes, the strictness just kills the class’s chi. Really. That’s what my Ind 1 was like; no chi. Mojo count: zilch. Itness — zero. It just strangled them. And by yesterday’s class, there was a mutual boredom with one another that we were both measuring mutually, simply waiting for the 2.5 hours to dwindle to five minutes so we could leave forever.

That’s quite a contrast.


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Okay, I lied.

These week, I am feeling a little down, not cheerful — although not over rejection. I’m a little upset over students. Unmotivated, terrible, don’t-answer-any-questions students.

Take P, for example. P shows up on time, P is quiet, P attends virtually every class (except for once, when he had a funeral). Unfortunately, P never participates. When I call on P to answer questions on an exercise, he stares blankly into space, and reads the previous question, and does not give an answer. Basically, he’s a black hole of a student that sort of sucks up class energy and patience, and while I’m obliged to call on him and try and help him, the other students have no patience for it, some of them even calling out the answers for him or just sit their in the agonizing silence as he fuddles the words.

I’ve tried everything. I’ve helped him personally. I’ve mixed him with stronger students. I’ve forced him to do things. I’ve let the rest of the class lag behind because of him. Nothing works. Yesterday, we had a quiz and he left his paper blank, because he said he didn’t understand. I explained twice. I asked for questions. I asked him in the middle of the exam period if he was doing okay on the test — IN ARABIC. He said he was fine.

Nothing works.

In fact, this has been the closest I’ve ever come to calling someone legitimately stupid, even though I know it’s not the case. But that’s the trouble: he’s not. He’s not stupid. The man’s got a job. He’s married. He’s forty years old, for crying out loud. It’s just very difficult to deal with someone who is older than you, independent, and obviously paying to be in your classroom, but just not seizing any recognizable effort at an opportunity.

He just keeps showing up, and it destroys the classroom dynamic.

In fact, this is a widespread problem at the Center in general; students are promoted a level on the basis of paying their 400 LE. No one wants to take a course again. But this leads to students that fail at the lower levels advancing to proficient levels where they clearly do not belong.

Another example: M. M and I used to go to the same church. He is chatty and amiable outside of class, where he insists on speaking English (no matter how much Arabic I use). He tried explaining to me in class about Easter vigil next Sunday happening in a Smouha church instead of Sacre Coeur on Port Said Street. I didn’t get it; his accent was way too thick and he dropped most verbs: “Shurstch Sunday fa da feast come night Smouha.” After class, I asked in Arabic what he was saying earlier and he looked uncomfortable. He turned to Ahmed and told him in perfectly clear Arabic what he meant, and to tell me in English, and then I said, “Oh, that’s what you meant!” and asked him “Why didn’t you just say that to me?” Again, he looked uncomfortable. Ahmed was embarrassed. He said that he felt really stupid that P did that because everyone knows at the center that I understand Arabic.

Both these students are Sudanese. I’m not attributing the bad attitude to the fact that they’re Sudanese, but Nessma pointed out that most teachers have the similar problems with Sudanese students. Quite a few of them just enroll in a course and pay 400 LE to prove that they’re doing something in the country; it has something to do with immigration laws or whatnot. As a consequence, they just don’t care. And the administration doesn’t care about the quality of the classroom experience either, as they just keep packing the students in my classes — opposed to giving me a next section — and putting the problem students in with the good ones.

When people really make up their minds to not understand, they really make up their minds.

It makes me a bad teacher, I know, but I get so relieved when these kinds of students don’t show up for class. And yet, these are the students that need the most help. They pay their money, they enlist in the class, they’re obviously there for a reason. You can’t just teach the good students — the bad ones need it more. But damn it all, how the hell do you teach someone that doesn’t want to be taught?

Sometimes I get the fear of God put into me by things like this; one day, I know I’m going to have my talents counted — “Am I using them well enough?” I ask myself sometimes.

Sometimes I just don’t know. Sometimes I don’t know how.

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In my advanced class the other day, the following exchange was had:

Me: Who knows what the Big Bang is?

Mahmoud: You mean the clock?

Me: The what?!

Mahmoud: You know. The clock. In London. It’s big. (Thinks for a moment) And it bangs.

Uproarious laughter.

Point of clarification: we actually did end up talking about Big Bang theory as incidental to the grammar exercises we were going over, which in my all-boys’ class has been a veritable gold mine of debate and controversy. The other day we talked about genetic modification — seriously. It actually helps that three of the students are medically qualified and are constantly telling them to lay off the giant thermos of coffee they see me touting around the center like a wino’s brown-bagged bottle of Tokay.

Initially, I thought that teaching boys would be a giant headache — all that testosterone floating around and everyone trying to assert themselves. But actually, it’s pretty awesome; it’s kind of like I’m the cool kid that knows what we’re doing and is directing the flow of things. But it does mean I can joke around about generally haram things that I’ve seen my girls blanche at.

For instance, when Mahmoud (a skinny, but altogether charismatic young man with a bit of an eye for trouble) started elucidating us on the differences between bango (common marijuana) and hashish (just what it sounds like), my eyebrows went up. When one of the Muhammads asked, “Does it feel like being drunk, or is it different?” I nearly burst out laughing. I had to fight myself from saying “Keep talking! Keep going!” which is the little devil in me just aching for conversations on the forbidden in a society that is big on forbidding.

When Mahmoud complained that one of the exercises was boring (it was), he asked

Mah: Why do we have to do this?

Me: Because I’m evil. Like you. Because you smoke hashish on the weekends. And Mohammad gets drunk with you. And Osama chases women. (Osama is one of my best male students with a keen ear for slang, but rather meek and clean-cut looking.)

Muhammad 2 : (interjecting) And me?

Me: You probably get drunk, too. (I turn to Amr, who has a Muslim Brotherhood-beard)

Amr: Don’t look at me. I worked double shifts this weekend. No break. I hate it.

It’s nice to joke around about these things. I turned off the music this class, and discussion raged. It was great.

My Proficient 5 class is wrapping up today with the final day of presentations. Over the last few classes there’s been a distinct us-versus-them between the five men who are vocally chauvinistic against their ten female counterparts, who are equally resistant. In a stunning display of mild-mannered, but effective, assertiveness, one of the girls even used the occasion of her conclusion in the final presentation to shut down a few of the boys, asking:

D (girl): Did you like my presentation?

M (boy): Yeah, it was brilliant.

D: Do you think you could have done a better job?

M: No. You were great.

D: Than isn’t this an instance of how women can do just as good a job as men can?

(Oo’s and aah’s from the class)

Totally unexpected. But wonderful.

One of the more absurd suggestions I’ve heard from the men in the mixed-gender class was the idea that women should not be in the workforce because they are preventing men from taking their jobs; that if women left their work, men would be able to take over, and thus be able to afford apartments, cars, marriage, etc. I obviously don’t agree, but considering how frighteningly long it takes for men to get married — just because they have to save up so much — it’s scary to see the logic behind the chauvinism.

I should get back to those papers.

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I don’t really get angry. I get irritated, I get peeved. But anger — no. It’s just not my style. I pride myself on my sense of patience. My endurance of uncomfortable situation. My grace, if you will. This is not bragging, this is fact. I fail, naturally, on occasion, but Hemingway’s “grace under pressure” is a condition I’ve aspired to since reading The Sun Also Rises for the first time senior year of high school.

Alas, the past evening has tested and tried and broken that resolve, if ever briefly.

One never really knows how dependent one is on the Internet (capital I) until it goes. Ours has been patchy for the past week, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s been patchy at night, usually when I’m trying to call Melissa back home or discuss something with my bank or mutual funds or the loan collection agency that’s been sending me e-mails for the past month. It’s usually something important. And then it cuts. And gets back on. And cuts. And no matter how many times I call the guy, there is always something. A list of the most recent excuses:

– The elevator in the building the router is in isn’t working.

– It’s the weather.

– Someone has stolen your wireless. (By this, he literally meant that someone had hacked into our account, stolen our IP addresses, and booted us out. Pal-ease.)

– There are really bad winds today.

– Unplug the router and reconnect it (this is his answer for everything. If I tell him I’ve done this thirty-five times already, he insists that the 36th time will do it.

To be honest, I heard all of these excuses (in succession) last night, until said Muhammad said, “It’s working! I see it here! The problem is with your old computer, Michael.”

Response: None of us has Internet, Muhammad. (Translation: don’t blame my f-ing computer, bitch.)

I have a problem.

Despite my electronic impotence in the matter, I think I stared at my screen for a solid hour and fiddled with the router trying (in vain) to fix things. I watched an old episode of NCIS, looked over an old journal, set up the translation of a quatrain, and read an H.P. Lovecraft Story (I short one, I confess: “The History of the Necronomicon”). Still nothing. I stared for hours, and when Melissa called my cell phone and asked me what was up, I continued my distracted fiddling.

I woke up this morning and more of the same.

I don’t exist until I hit GoogleReader. It’s pretty terrible. It’s my window to the world, and ever since I hooked my regular sites up to it, I’ve been reading more and more online. Within a month I’ve become an information addict, and keeping a blog doesn’t help.


I used to think that bloggers were pretty arrogant for assuming that they have a particular insight into the way the world works. After all, who the hell am I? Mike Mewshaw imparted some interesting wisdom on to me once upon a time: if you don’t write it, who will? How many people are in your position, after all? Most people are pretty ordinary and the only way they’re going to “experience” anything is through writing. Isn’t that what you’ve done? Write for yourself. That’s what that means.


On the surface, that seems pretty arrogant, I suppose, but it’s not to be dismissed. Sure, people can access the information without you — after all, this isn’t Iran, and you’re not coordinating protest movements through the streets of Tehran via Twitter — but for many people, you are their own window on the world. You’re positioned in a way that most people in your own community are not.

I get the impression that Ibn Battuta would have used Twitter and kept the Rihla in blog-form if he had the resources. Isn’t it interesting to make the parallel?

The hardest thing about blogging, I think, is writing about it. You can blog, sure, that’s no problem. But media is changing, the way people interact is changing. Photography changed the way that artists looked at the world; it no longer was about creating a realistic impression, art was no longer about accurately reflecting the world. It was about the artist’s perception, the act of creation. In the same way, with the Internet, with so much accessible to the world, the way we write, the way we view literature has to change. No longer is literature literature for the educated few, but for the masses. Books can be accessed in an instant. In my opinion, books, literature, novels, whatever, have two distinct paths that they can go down (shut up, Michael):

1. “Democratization”: This is the route that e-Books seem to be leading us to. Cell phones with books. A book at all time. You carry around all your photos on your iPhone, why not your favorite poetry, your favorite book? Think about what happened to music when you no longer needed CDs: it became cheap. I think about high school when I used to buy one CD: that would last me months. I would listen to each song and memorize practically everything before buying another CD — CDs were expensive, and I was on a limited budget. Nowadays, I’ve got music in my library I didn’t even know was there, because everything is bought in extremely cheap bulk (www.mp3fiesta.com) or is acquired from swaps, burns, or pirates.

Who listens to the radio anymore (aside from our parents)? New music is acquired through Pandora and other websites dedicated to the “customization” of your tastes. You need never listen to pop again. In fact, things like Pandora make me wonder if “pop” is actually a relevant category anymore.

Kindle, iPad, the Sony thingamareader (whatever), these are hailed as the “future of reading,” but I’m not sure. The Internet is. The Internet is free, and people will always read what is free and popular and spread easily and quickly by their friends. Literature’s future is on the Internet, only no one can figure out how in holy hell to make money out of it.

The problem with the freedom and accessibility of all that information is that it changes the way we view literature and the written word. Ours is a generation of multitaskers, chatting in one window, talking with a friend via Skype, writing an e-mail. There is no focus, no calm, for the traditional novel in this context. So writing must change from the fluidity of the longer narrative to the shorter, more succinct spitfire prose of online articles. Part of the reason why Dan Brown’s fiction is so successful is its readability — the short chapters make it easier to pick up and trek through and pause for a rest when we’ve had to much prose, too fast. It’s a result of information obesity: we need to stop for a breather on long narrative runs.

As a consequence, this kind of prose also appeals to the lower spectrum of the literary field. Some time back, Lev Grossman wrote a pretty terrible article for the WSJ on the “death of the literary novel.” It’s really bad. Grossman argued that plot had over taken “style” and “difficulty” as the priority in contemporary fiction, basically pushing forward thrill-fueled rides like The Da Vinci Code and romantic entanglements as Twilight as the “new literature” of the latter half of the twentieth century. People didn’t want beauty, they want interest. They don’t want difficulty in reading, either.

In large part, I can see Grossman’s point. It’s hard to imagine a world where it was easy to read “The Waste Land,” or pick up Joyce’s Ulysses for fun. It’s hard to imagine why they were successful when they remain closed or incomprehensible texts to so many. The Internet is the Great Democratizer. It levels the playing field, and while it makes all things accessible, it also makes clear that some things people just don’t want to access. If something doesn’t appeal to you, it’s not labeled as “boring,” but “bad.” The difference is pretty clear between the two. As a consequence, if the future of the novel is one based on plot, and not beauty, are we to see the decline of literature in the future?

That was a long tangent.

My point: how do you write about blogging in a literary fashion? I think the nature of the novel has to change drastically in the next fifty years and adapt to changing attitudes about the written word. People don’t read blogs for beauty; they read blogs for content. How will the next generation of writers adapt to the changes and incorporate new media into literature? If Hemingway had written about blogging the Spanish Civil War and Lt. Henry tweeting updates to Catherine Barkley, A Farewell to Arms might be a different story. High school reunions have become irrelevant; Facebook allows us to follow our entire high school/college class up until the point they die, really. Our ideas about writing and human relationships (the core subject, if not the foundation of literature) have changed so drastically in the past ten years with the advent of social networking and public-blogging that it is difficult to imagine the first novel that will incorporate those elements into its infrastructure with grace, poise, and sensibility.

2. “Decadence”: This post has actually gone on a little longer than I would like. But I can’t end this post with at least nodding to the other possibility: informational “decadence.” Analogize it to the music industry: when an indie band signs with a major record label, they are instantly shunned by the indie community (perhaps not the die-hards, but you understand). In the same manner, with the complete democratization of literature — a book on every phone, etc. — literature will cease to be about the words and will become confused with the objects. Books will become more and more valued as material objects, and literature pretension will reach heights never before imagined: “You read Shakespeare for class on your Kindle? Well, I read him out of a 2002 reprinting of the Oxford text on simulated vellum paper with gold edges in red morocco leather. Can you imagine? Reading Shakespeare bound in leather is the only way to read him, I think.” Those people that claim that Coltrane is better on vinyl (he is) — imagine that, times ten, with books. “True” enthusiasts don’t dip to the level of ebooks; they read real books. If the world suddenly turns paperless, the act of reading won’t matter — nor even the text — but rather the fact that the connoisseur is reading an actual, physical book.

Speaking of books, it’s time to get back to writing mine.

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The wind is tearing through the streets today like an angry dog, and if you’re unlucky enough to have your scarf come loose, you’ll soon be chasing it down dusty avenues that only reluctantly seem to turn to mud in the occasional drizzle. The weather can’t seem to make up its mind. Every now and then the sunlight pierces through and cuts away a patch of clouds, only to have the hole engulfed on itself, and the effect is like watching something large heaved into the water: for a moment, there is a hole in the water, and then it is gone without any evidence of there having been one.

End of yet another term, and soon I’ll be on hiatus again (a proper weekend every month, it seems). The next month has the promise of being rather empty, considering that I’ve only got two courses that seem to have assembled for the purpose (and I’ve crossed my fingers for the Prof. 5 course being the one I just taught — all of whom are great students).

Some interesting observations in the past few days, which were the last, and I’ve been irked like no one’s business.

The last week has seen not only the Algeria showdown with Egypt in the footballers’ arena, but also the Africa Cup Finals against Ghana. While I have been mentioning presentations until I’ve been blue in the face for the past two weeks, my students all proffered “the match” as an excuse for not preparing anything. I mean, nothing. In one class, I had least a half-dozen students that spoke poorly for about a minute and then sat down. It was immensely depressing, mainly because there was nothing to be done about it; they had total warning about it coming up, and there was nothing to do but give them low grades.

The exception to this was the immense pride and satisfaction felt at my Prof. 4 course — all of whom gave fantastic talks. Most of them also misunderstood one of the requirements, too, but it ended up being a great conversation-starter: I said they had to as two questions throughout the presentation process, meaning “ask two questions whenever, of anyone.” This was turned around into “ask two questions of the class,” after which everyone just started up relatively heated discussions. I was very impressed and felt a little glow inside.

One of the most interesting phenomena was that, although most of the girls were decidedly against the idea of dating, one of its most vehement critics gave a presentation on “dating advice,” which confused the hell out of me. Then, there was a prolonged discussion on whether or not dating was haram because it was not useful, and Bassem (the only boy) valiantly defended the usefulness of getting to know a girl in a public setting. He  also brought up the idea of the salon marriage (which he put in opposition to the “love story” marriage), as a way to make his point. Most girls I’ve spoken to (outside of this class) hate the idea, but it seems the only alternative to conventional ideas of “dating”: boy comes over to house and meets girl and from the first moment, marriage is the subject on the table, and an engagement is probably agreed to within the first few meetings. Kind of like courting, I suppose.

An interesting thing, as well, was a critique of my own culture. Yosra asked, “Why have female friends?” to which I responded, rather matter-of-factly, “To understand women better.” She parried this rather well, too, saying, “If you can get to know the women in your life, your mother, your cousins, your sister, your wife, what need do you have to understand other women? You understand them from knowing them and having them in your life.” There was no real answer I could give that would not make me sound like a seducer of women, and so I stood corrected.

There is a genuine tension about gender lines that I don’t think will ever be crossed by anyone in that class, which is only a shame because that means none of them are going to be my friends after the class is over (I know that this is not usual for a teacher, but I feel like they would make good friends). Even when I talk to them outside of the classroom (and all the women are huddled around themselves), I feel like I’m intruding. Silence falls on the group. It’s akin to being re-introduced to the group time after time; I am a permanent stranger that interrupts.

Ah, well.

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Feeding Coke to Toys

I’ve started up a Proficient 6 class (the same students as my pulling-teeth-awful Proficient 5 class from last term) and initially, I was wincing. Same kids, again: it’s going to be awful.

Except it’s not. The chapters for this level are actually kind of fun, and if anything, they get me acting like a stand-up comedian, which gets everyone involved and talking: “Oh, let’s make fun of the teacher!” Anyhow, they’re doing much better — and if anything, they’re engaged with the texts.

It’s also nice to have seen the test: I can now teach to it. I had students stop me from last term’s classes and ask why they had gotten such an awful grade on the test when I said they had made such excellent progress. And truth be told, they had; it’s just that the test didn’t test such things. So, if anything, I think that this will help confidence, which is about two-thirds of language teaching — just getting their confidence up enough to speak.

So, we’re talking about pets. After distinguishing the characteristics of what is and what is not a pet, I ask for examples. Dog. Okay; I write it on the board. Cat. Good. Bird. Okay, what else? Toys.

Nourhan, a toy is not a pet.

No, it is!

No, Nourhan, a toy is not a pet.


Because it’s not alive, Nourhan. It doesn’t breathe. It doesn’t eat.

Yes it does!


They do! I feed my toys Coca and they eat catfood! From my hands. Wallahi (By God, I swear!)

::puzzled expression passes over my face::
Nourhan, you’re telling me that you give Coke and catfood to your toys?

Yes, don’t you? What do you feed your toys?

(I mime chugging a bottle) Like, to drink?


(I mime eating) To eat?

Yes, of course.

Nourhan, you are a crazy person.

(Whole class laughs) No! I’m not! I swear.

(I double check) Toys?





No, no no! T-O-R-T-O-I-S-E! Toys!


Apparently, we need to work on Nourhan’s pronunciation of the letter r.

It’s shaping up to be a good term.

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For a while, I’ve kept in touch with one of my erstwhile teachers — Mr. Kevin Tober, who first introduced me properly to poetry and English literature (before that I would go to the beach and people would kick copies of Byron in my face).

But seriously: I always thought poetry was supposed to be a kind of “means to an end”: something that the most tiresome of lovers wrote to either a) get what they wanted, or b) ease the pain. Tober’s class was about literature for literature’s sake: that poetry was expression (and some of it quite devious expression), but it could be enjoyed without an agenda. It could be read just for its own sake, not just the FCATs.

I think about him every time I write. Trudging away at something that resembles a novel, something that resembles a poem; now, every time I crack open the textbooks, I think about him. Applying to grad schools (or anytime you’re forced to reflect with devout earnestness on the past), you get a little bit sentimental. But not this time– I’m starting to see things from the other side.

In every message that the man has sent me, I’ve always noticed the observation: “Don’t give up and don’t let the hours of work get you down, ok? Yes, it is a lot of work that people in the general population just don’t seem to understand or appreciate, but it is also a very rewarding and fulfilling career (not financially, unfortunately, but in so many other ways).”

Last night I experienced some of those fulfillments.

My Proficient 6 class (the highest level I’ve been teaching, which incidentally, is the last in the series) wanted to stop a little early and take pictures. Mister Michael with the boys. Mister Michael with the girls. Mister Michael shaking my hand. Ibrahim (one of the security men) was a little bit peeved with me for staying in late (he locks up sharp at 10:30 PM), and I almost missed the tram. Affirmations of “You’re the best English teacher I’ve had,” and “I don’t want to stop at Level Six” abounded.

Maybe I’m bragging. Maybe they were buttering me up so I’d go easy on the exams (which are later in the week, yikes). But it was nice.

And I was a little weepy-eyed.

I think I’ll keep this up long-term.

This one’s for you, Captain, wherever you are. Hope you’re doing well.

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