Posts Tagged ‘teaching 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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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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Two days ago, one of my students sat me down and asked me, “Sir, why do you hate Egypt so much?”

I was completely flabbergasted.

Apparently, the student in question found my blog online, and I can only imagine that, with the posts in recent weeks, that’s exactly the conclusion you might make if you didn’t venture beyond the first page. That, I confess, is my own doing, I suppose.


I don’t hate Egypt. Egypt’s given me a lot. I’ve found a lot in Egypt. I love Egypt, when it all boils down to it, and the country has really become a part of me, for better or for worse. I’m looking to spend as much time here as about 2/3 of college, which had a profound impact at me (ah, Midd!), and the only other language I can claim to speak fluently is the language of this country.


I suppose it’s the kind of criticism that one expects (or at least I do) from family members. When something you love seems to turn a corner for the worse, or do something terrible, or fuck things up, plain and simple, you get frustrated. You get angry. You cry a little on the inside, sometimes. And I guess I write, to let it all out. Spilling it in blogger-like fashion is my way of working out the problems and the chaos and things that I have trouble with.

I’ve been accused of everything from being “ethnocentric” to outright colonialist in my perception of Egyptian culture. I don’t think so. I’m just trying to understand a society, a culture, a couple of religions. And I’m an outsider to all of them. When I call myself an “orientalist,” I’m drawing attention to that fact. How can I study Egypt as anything but an outsider? Not only am I not willing to give up my own identity, my own religion, my own society, but I couldn’t even if I tried. Egyptian society is closed to that possibility. You are ibn al-balad or a khawaga, plain and simple. There are no in-betweens, and when I have told this to Egyptians, most grow silent and think and say, “Yes, you are right. Foreigners are foreigners.”

This is not a bad thing, it’s just unusual to me. I come from a culture that puts a premium on self-creation. It’s one of the beauties of America. You can become whatever you want to be. Rags to riches. Horatio Alger. And I point out the difference not because I’m claiming superiority of one to the other, but the difference. Perhaps one is better than the other, but it’s just as incredible to me when someone tells me about that division and I tell them about the lack one one. This is probably the third time that I quote this on this blog, but it’s still my favorite verse:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا

Oh People! We have created you, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another (and not despise each other). Q 39:13.

Truer words were not ever spoken.

What I find frustrating in recent months is that despite my several years of trying to understand Egypt and Islam, many people seem very unwilling to extend the same courtesy to me. At home, I find myself pretty consistently under fire for knowing Arabic, for studying Islam (and sympathizing with it), and being more or less in love with the Middle East. That’s in between accusations of being a CIA agent, a terrorist-lover, and un-American. These are ignorant statements all, and I get angry at these things, too.

But how does one “deal” when the society and religion you try to defend to your own countryman essentially screws up big time? How do you defend a religion you sympathize with and appreciate when its followers appear to cross your own principles, both social and religious?

You don’t deal. You talk. You work it out. You write.

My criticisms of Egypt and Islam and Coptic Orthodoxy have not been out of snobbery. That seems masturbatory and ill-conceived (that’s my actual writerly snobbery kicking in). I have no interest in debating what is religiously or theologically sound or correct at this point (mainly because I’ve discovered that the vast majority of time you just end up cementing other peoples’ conclusions, rather than finding your own personal insights — except that people are hard-headed and can’t discuss religion dispassionately). Rather, I ask for insight; I want to hear commentary. I want to hear how I am misinterpreting, how I am crippled by my own inquiries, exactly because I am from another culture.

I elicit an emotional reaction because I want the same from others. But I also want reason, and I feel like I give my own. I am from another culture, and I only have my own culture’s standards to apply to this place. Someone help me.

What else can be said? I’ve left one contradictory society for another.

But hate?


Misunderstanding, perhaps. I am trying my best, Dalia, to understand.

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