Posts Tagged ‘medical students’

Some time ago I figured out somehow that if I taught for five days a week, two classes a session, I would actually be doing pretty well for myself — unfortunately, teaching here doesn’t quite pay what it deserves, what with all the preparation that goes into every hour. Everyone kind of forgets that; every hour in the classroom has a corresponding hour of preparation.

Anyhow, I’m getting there: this week has me booked every day, at every level. I have a new large class in Sidi Bishr, with fifteen different students from college, master’s programs, and random walks of life. They’re shy types and I overestimated their abilities with their first class; I think this scared a few of them away. This also means that I’m going to have to fall back on the awful book that they keep insisting that I use (and so far I’ve gotten away with not using with my conversation classes). By awful, I mean awful: it doesn’t have any reinforcement, and the cartoon illustrations are terrible combination of the eighties at their worst and the racist caricatures of Little Black Sambo. All textbooks seem to take the form of photocopies, re-bound with the International British Academy cover on them.

I’ve started teaching at the branch out in Stanley, just past the big neo-Ottoman bridge and beach of Durrell fame, just around the corner from Costa Coffee. It’s actually a pretty nice place, though the classroom has literal pews, and echoes with every phrase I use. Though I’ve only had one class with this group (about seven students), I already feel like it’s my best one — perhaps that’s just because I finally figured out a structure. Much to my chagrin (and recalling that I hated this back in high school), I’ve started giving quizzes with the start of every class to make sure that not only do my students show up on time, but that they review last session’s lessons diligently. Moderate success so far: the medical students flipped out last time — including Mohammad Samir, who practically had a heart attack — but I’m confident that results will show in a few weeks.

Lately, I’ve been trying to study for the GRE, and failing miserably. Suddenly, I remember that I haven’t taken any math since high school — and it shows.


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By now, the whole internet is abuzz with the recent controversies surrounding the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar University, Muhammed Tantawi, who has hinted at the rather surprising stance of “banning’ the niqab (the full-face veil) in public institutions. Read Bikya Masr on the subject here.

My father found out about this one before I did; he called me up a few days ago to say, “Hey, Egypt’s banning the burka.

In disbelief I said, “Ridiculous. I just passed five women on the street with them on.”

Clarification for the folks back home: the niqab covers not only the hair and neck and shoulders, but the face as well– typically, they’re black. The ninja-like appearance has led Kenyans to call niqabis “ninjas.” No joke.

Little did I know. Tantawi, known for his rather liberal attitude, reportedly gave a niqabi a metaphorical lashing when she repeatedly refused to remove the veil; he kept insisting (to his right) that he knew “more than the people that gave birth to her,” and that the niqab was NOT a part of Islam. When she finally took it off, Tantawi is reported to have said, “And you look like this? What would you have done if you were even a little bit pretty?” (In theory, the niqab guards men against the temptation of a beautiful woman’s face — basically, Tantawi was shutting her self-image down)

Naturally, “the West” is jumping on top of this; I recall one article on the subject of feminism in the Middle East starting out: “The Oriental Woman is fascinating. Is she veiled? Is she not veiled? Is she oppressed? Is she liberated?” And what with Sarkozy’s remarks about how the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of a historically downtrodden “oriental woman,” and with British bank robbers donning the gear — both as an incitement of hate and a concealment of identity — it’s not surprising that something like that makes people nervous.

Yesterday, I round-tabled the issue on a group of fifteen girls and (sadly) one guy. All of them Muslim, all of the girls hijabis (wearers of the hijab, which covers the hair). In addition to making me very proud — they fought and struggled their way through English over the past few weeks and yesterday, they made indications of hitting proficiency in their expression of ideas — there was almost universal disapproval of Tantawi’s behavior. The  “liberated” woman is capable and more than able to make her own decisions; that she can cover up or uncover herself as she pleases.

I’m going to pass you along at this point to The Economist from a few weeks ago; Charlemagne had a good column related to the Antwerp headscarf ban controversy. The section I was most shocked by:

By 2008, discussion was how to wear the scarf. Not whether. In 2007-8 there were 15 girls who came with long robes, gloves, and only their faces showing. Scarves became longer and longer. I had a lot of confrontations with those girls, I said to them: “you’re spoiling the educational project.” I said to them: “you’re stigmatising yourselves. You’re breaking with society by wearing those clothes.”

They always said, “you’re stigmatising us”. In 2007 and 2008 I banned gloves, very long robes. Even that was hard for the girls. We saw girls starting to wear veils who had not before, and asked them why. They said they did not feel very comfortable without a scarf, I must be accepted. We had girls who wore scarves at school, but teachers saw them outside the school without scarves.

There was a sense that girls wearing veils were showing they were more pious. My view was each girl had the right to wear a scarf, to preserve equality. The last two years, there was a sense of a heavy, oppressive atmosphere over the schoolyard.

Karin Heremins, the headmistress of the last school in Antwerp to ban the headscarf, noted that the introduction of extremely visible, extremely conservative elements created an “oppressive atmosphere” over the schoolyard; to my mind, comparable to having visible gang members — students are aware of their presence because it’s visible.

Now, before I get eaten alive by that comparison, think about this: we’re talking minors. Kids. Kids are not nearly as mature as adults. Women can wear what they like, in my mind. However, it’s a kind of a reverse-Catholic schoolgirl-skirt: nice girls at school wear short skirts because everyone else does —  because they don’t feel “in” or “cool” if they don’t. The ones with long skirts are stigmatized as square. In comparison, in Antwerp’s case, the same kind of clique-fashion mentality has hijacked the headscarf. The headscarf is a beautiful piece of clothing and represents something beautiful (the desire to conceal, the desire to withhold something for only the most intimate in a woman’s life), and reducing it to an on-again, off-again item destroys it.

Interestingly, the girls in my class all had identical stories about the first time they put on the hijab; their parents sat them down and said, “You can do this, you have a right to, but you also have a right not to. And if you put this on, you cannot take it off.” The argument was that people would talk.

Hind, who’s very, very, very vocal in class, was at pains to stress that there is no compulsion in Islam; that no one can make you do anything in Islam (except pray, which parents are permitted to spank their kids over). They can only “advise” you.

Can a fourteen year-old girl contemplating something all her friends are doing really make that kind of decision? Imagine telling her to get a tattoo; there’s a reason why you can’t until you’re eighteen.

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Right now, it’s six o’clock in the morning, and I have one of those sunrise bouts of insomnia, which usually results in a run on the Corniche, but today I’m not feeling it. The world seems to be on fire — literally. I’ve opened my windows and let in the cool morning air (blessed October), only to discover a charred haze over the world, and the sunrise behind the Nasserist bloc-style buildings rosier than usual. Is the delta on fire? Maybe. I’ve had a lot I’ve wanted to post this past week on teaching and how classes are going, but I’ve kept getting distracted either from exhaustion or the courthouse, and hazy morning air seems as good an excuse as any for posting a little early today.

I’m teaching another course: an intermediate of three students (two from the Faculty of Commerce, one mother of two) that meets twice weekly. It’s also my first class with a niqabiyya; Deena, the mother, wears a full veil that covers everything but her eyes (gloves, too), which is rather unsettling at first (you think I’d be used to it by now) when you think about never knowing a student’s face. It actually almost makes you rethink the student-teacher relationship as an anonymous one — does the teacher really need to know the student’s identity to be a better teacher?

Cause I dont think they understand...

Cause I don't think they understand...

My medical students have surprised me these past few weeks. Rather than their usual complaining (they had a text a few sessions ago), they’ve rolled with what I’ve put out for them: listening comprehension exercises, dictation homework (I made them write out the lyrics to “Iris” and “Wonderwall” from an e-mail link, paying special attention to contractions), and loads of presentations. I’ve made it a habit to have an improv period at the end of each 3-hour session with “situations” they draw out of a tea tin and have a few minutes to prepare and improvise. They speak more fluently then they realize, and with every pronounced p and ch, I beam.

A few of them have really astounded me, and now I think I am beginning to understand the teacher’s thrill and fascination with his students; one student (Asmaa) gave a presentation on how she loves to drive — how her father taught her, how she’s saving money for a car, and how she learned to fix engines, and how she drove the desert road by herself. And the odd thing is, she’s higabi (I can almost hear Fadhila’s voice saying, “Michael! Just because someone wears higab doesn’t mean she’s any less interesting than you!” or something like that). True, I know. Muslim women are not oppressed. Young women are liberated. There is some feminism in Egypt. But when you find it (especially among the rural girls that have come in from the Delta to go to the university), it’s like a fascinating and exotic plant. Not because the girl wears the veil, but because she’s just badass. I’d probably be just a little less amazed in the States if a girl told me she drove across the desert all by her onesy.

Last session, my Sidi Bishr crowd had a full-out discussion for 45 minutes on family values. Beforehand, I handed out a vocab sheet and a list of standpoints, asked them to prepare talking points and reasons why you might agree or disagree with them, and told them that was the centerpiece of our next class. They rocked it. Even Aziza, a master’s student who’s pretty shy about expressing her opinions, was quite vocal — getting into arguments with one of the Muhammads about whether or not young adults should stay at home until they’re married.

Katie’s lent me a few books which have been useful in that respect — lots of fluency-orientated activities that are particularly helpful for advanced students (they certainly take the pressure off my lecturing on grammar). But there are several focus points I find helpful; fluency exercises focus on the development of opinions and beliefs in the target language, and the most advanced levels progress to cooperative problem solving. To that end, next week’s discussion topic (seriously):

Tomorrow, the world will end; a comet will collide with it, and everything will be destroyed. Martians, however, land and say they can take twelve people with them to start an Earth-colony (and human civilization) elsewhere. Decide amongst yourselves who will be in the twelve (doctors, artists, writers, etc.) and do not forget details like gender. How will you decide specifically who from all the billions of people on Earth.

Oh yes, friends: Martians.

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So far, I’ve been teaching about two hours a day; today was double that– new conversation class in Sidi Bishr of about five (really good, enthusiastic) students that really only need a few tweaks of pronunciation and more subject-specific vocabulary (Unlike my Libyan students, they have an excellent command of “to be”). Today was spent on contractions, which was relatively straightforward and they caught on pretty quickly, though they puzzled somewhat over my explanation of “ain’t”; I never thought I’d be teaching incorrect grammar (forgive me, Mr. Balkcom) for the sake of conversational “authenticity.” Alas.

This hour-and-a-half class was followed by a desperate taxi-dash to Rushdi (the expat district) where I was greeted by a sour-faced young receptionist who made sure I knew what I was getting into: “Medical conversation, ya Mister Mike.” Yes. I understood the first fifteen times you repeated it.

I had everything set: names of biological systems, a complete anatomy translated, a number of various diseases. From what Muhammad Adawy led me to believe, this was a group of students from the College of Pharmacy that needed diagnostic skills in English: i.e., “Where does it hurt?” or “Is it a shooting pain?”

Not so. This took about fifteen frustrating minutes, when the most vocal of the girls spoke up and said they had studied medical English for four years. Great. There goes my lesson for today (and eternity).

The rest of class time consisted of a musical education– thank GOD I brought my laptop with me (whim– and whew!). We began with the first verse of Enrique Iglesias’ “Bailamos,” followed by “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Celine Dion. At that point, I was really hating myself for even having those songs on my computer, so I switched up to a little Elvis: “Blue Suede Shoes,” which, (remarkably) they loved. I was pleased.

I managed to shock them, though, by imitating the King’s infamous gyrations, adding that he was the Abdel Halim Hafiz of American culture. The girls giggled. It’s odd doing those comparisons in reverse: Abdel Halim Hafiz is usually described to me as the “Elvis of Egypt.”

Biggest hit of the day was “Beauty and the Beast,” though– and I thank God for musicals; sweeping instrumentals, vocal fireworks…essentially, an Umm Kalthoum-type of music, which nearly everyone in Egypt loves. I’ve often theorized that the reason that Celine Dion is such a hit is that her style echoes classical Arabic songs– repetition of lyrics, high instrumentation, and an emphasis on showmanship. I really am developing a respect for teachers (more than I had previously); students are wicked demanding.

Front page of Al-Ahram today: 55 swine flu cases traced back to an “outbreak” (?) at the Sporting Club (I live almost next to the Sporting Club. Khalid attends the Sporting Club daily). They’re shutting it down. Actually, even university classes have been postponed a week due to swine flu.

‘Oudhu bi’Llah min as-shaytan ir-ragime.

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