Posts Tagged ‘students’

It’s been a while, Ducks.

Rather than make apologies, though, I’ll just jump into the thick of it.

I’ve taken a summer job as the “Dorm Head” for the Middlebury College high school Arabic program, which has the lofty title of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA). For those of you that have been through the Nine (now ten) Language Schools—in any species—it’s the same deal, only with high school students. Arabic 24/7, no cheating or you’re out. This kind of linguistic approach has its flaws on the high school level (my opinion), but it’s worked for me and my friends, so I’m a fan. It’s also a little nice to play hero-Orientalist to a group of high-schoolers for a few weeks. I’ve packed a ton of stuff from Egypt (movie posters from the 1940’s, TONS of Ramadan cloth, and a kilo of incense to start) to deck the dorms out, Nevadomski-style (something that was lacking terribly last year), and my calligraphy has improved significantly in the past year. I’m excited.

At present, I’m waiting on the shuttle to take me to our new site at Oberlin College, which won’t arrive until 3:30, so I’m taking advantage of the free wireless and the people watching.

To be honest, friends, I’m not sure where this blog is going. Over the past month, I’ve been mining the thing from front to back for material for the novel (which, unsurprisingly, will have a blogger-character. Oscar Wilde said that every first novelist’s book portrays the author as either Faust or Christ. Deep in the thick of it, I see why). I’ve been wanting to write on Gaza, but it’s been so overwhelmingly heartbreaking that I can’t quite sum up the energy to lambast the efforts on both sides, and so I either end up looking like I support Israel (I don’t) or Gaza (I don’t either). So I’ve given up. Is anyone still reading this thing, a month later? My initial inspiration for the opinion-side of this blog—the infamous “microcelebrity” Cairene blogger known Sandmonkey—has even flagged in his own efforts.

Can an Orientalist look at his own society as an Orientalist? An Occidentalist?

Probably. There’s always Stuff White People Like, but I’m inclined to think that’s more humor than serious academic thought. Not that I’m a seriously serious academic. This is a blog named after a duck, after all.

Last summer’s experience as an RA at MMLA (same old Arabic school) was quite a rich experience to say the least, and a shocking one sometimes. It was the first time I’ve been on the opposite side of the spectrum, and now I understand why it was so difficult. Whereas in Egypt I was a teacher of a culture I represented, here, I’m little more than an enthusiast (and sometime antagonist/critic). Isolated from most things Arabic (aside from what you bring with you), it becomes more and more difficult to bring that to students who have no idea what you’re talking about half the time. Case in point: many of the kids really knocked colloquial Arabic as a language (understandable, I suppose: you say things like “over shwaya” for overdone and “meeteeng” for meeting. It has so many loanwords it’s not funny to me anymore), and so they insist on cultivating their MSA, instead of laying a legitimate foundation for a diglossy—learning the very necessary fact that someone who says they “know” Arabic should, in reality, know not just one language (the classical variety), but two: the MSA-classical mix that appears in media and reading, and the colloquial variety that is only spoken and never written. The absurdity of sticking to the MSA variant is almost as ridiculous as meeting a person who said they only spoke English with Saxon vocabulary, because all the French, Latin, and Greek loanwords weren’t “English” enough.

This is just the student-teacher stuff. Don’t even get into the residential life drama that happens on a daily basis. You know what I’m talking about.

It should be an eventful summer.

A little postscriptum: when I got off the plane about half an hour ago, the signs to the bathroom were in four languages: one of which was solid, no-joke Arabic. It made me smile.

Salaams, friends.


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Well, it’s daylight savings time as of yesterday (two days ago?) in Egypt. This has really messed me up. I’m terrible at changing clocks and whatnot – usually on the day itself, I never change my watch. Don’t ask me why. It must be one of those boyish idiosyncrasies left over from when I insisted on setting my watch by the Atomic Clock in DC or Greenwich Mean Time  because I thought I should get used to it (I was going to be an astronaut, after all). Apparently it’s done nothing but give me a complex over clocks and watches being correct about their second hands, and I almost never change my watch when I set it.

Result: Heba calls you at 8:26 PM and says ever so mildly, “Michael, you are late. Why?”

That’s because my body and brain and everything else in me told me it was 7:26 PM, Heba.


I also thought I was teaching yesterday (official day off) and tomorrow (only tutoring conversation). This is what happens when tacking down the last days in a city, I suppose.

Mr. Khamis promptly called me up and asked if I could come in anyway, without class.

Below is the reason why.

The box presented to me today by my Proficient 4 class.

How I am going to get this back to the States I have absolutely no idea.

Sand art! It reads: "Best Teacher Ever: Remember us always" and has the names of my students (and a camel).

And honestly, I almost cried.

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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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Just heard today in Independent 1 (lowest level that I teach):

R:”Mr. Michael, what is…orfnaaj?”
Me: “An orphanage is a place where children without parents live.”
R: “A what?”
Me: “A house for children without a mother or a father.”
R: “You mean like the street?”

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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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New course started yesterday, which has all the hopes and promises of being more fun than a barrel of monkeys. How do I know this?


I was anticipating having last term’s Proficient 4 students again, so my weekend was spent scouring the Internet for icebreakers and competitive activities to get everyone’s attitude about the new chapter nice and enthusiastic. I was expecting something small — four girls and poor Bassem — and lots of conversation. I even planned a few jokes about how their tests were awful (as I am currently in the process of grading them, and they are fantastic).

I did NOT, however, count on was that there would be about ten additional people there. Students I had never seen, met, or heard of before. I walked out of the classroom after putting my things down to get my requisite milk tea, only to return and find the little central room packed with hijabis. I practically had a heart attack.


Icebreakers were even more than helpful. What I originally intended to be an interesting way of secretively getting to know more about my original half-dozen girls turned into a genuinely dynamic activity — especially as I now have a couple of loudmouths in class (always a good thing). Here’s what we did:

1. Introductions. After remaining mysteriously silent for the first few minutes, I rearranged the room. People were naturally sitting next to their friends. I asked every other person if they knew the person to their right, and if they did, I moved them across the room. This, to start, was hilarious, if only because everyone got to laugh nervously with one another. Then, I put a number of questions on the board that I asked them to answer about the other person — and I gave them all of Eric Clapton’s “My Father’s Eyes” to prepare to introduce them to the class. These questions rated from the mundane (Name, place born, etc.) to the relatively clever (best molokhiyya you’ve ever ate, favorite dessert) to the philosophical (what is the most beautiful thing you can think of right now?). This time, I was smart and took notes, so I think I’ve already got names down pat. NB: Are these general tricks that all teachers learn?

2. Human knot. I then dashed the class into 1’s and 2’s and had them get into teams and explained “the human knot” to them. (For those of you that have never been to summer camp, that’s when you get in a shoulder-to-shoulder circle and hold hands with someone that is not next to you and have to untangle the ensuing “knot” of people. This exercise is great for getting people to give and take instructions in English, as well as its “funness”). Winners got chocolate.

For the boys, this was actually something of a problem. I had thought about the whole “touching” thing and thought that it wouldn’t be too much trouble (people shake hands, right?), but it proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for the gents. So, boys team! Worked just as well, and they had problems of their own to work out in the knot.

3. Two truths and a lie. More fun, obviously, if you’re a little tipsy, but works in this case quite well as a fast-track way of getting to know everyone. My forgot my own three statements, but I remember the counter argument to one: “You look like the kind of person that would jump off a train, sir.”

4. The last activity was of my own devising and was an amalgamation of a number of things I found on the internet. I had the students break into three groups of about five, and then agree on an answer to each of ten “blanks.” They could give me anything — especially if it was unusual — as long as they all agreed to it. The list included: a famous person, a place, a neighborhood, a weapon, three adjectives. Once they came up with it, I informed them that it was their happy task to then author a story based on the these responses. In retrospect, I should have had them switch lists and write each others’ stories, but the results were still hilarious.

Most of them wrote about Suzanne Tamim, who apparently is a Lebanese singer of recent notoriety, having been murdered on the docks of Dubai on the orders of her jealous husband when he found out she was two-timing him with another (gasp!) husband. I redirect you here for the full awesomeness of the story.

Last half-hour of the class we finally got around to the book, which incidentally was talking about books and reading. We had to cut class short, but damn: I really wished we could have kept going.

Nights like these are reasons why you love teaching.

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