More Classroom Management!!!

Though I really want a noisy class, my students here in Aleppo are going a little bit beyond my hopes and expectations. I fear that I will have to make an example of a few students this week and assign some lunchtime detentions. It will be my own brand of detention: lunch taken in silence followed by a debrief of why the students are staying in and making a plan to ensure they do not find themselves in at lunch again. (Lofty goals for a thirty minute lunch break!) I am somewhat hesitant to assign detentions though because I have observed that these consequences do not seem to stick with this particular group of students.

I think that these students need a tailor-made approach. I agree that they need to practice their listening skills and being respectful towards others, but they should be practicing these habits through opportunities that either play on their strengths or are so meaningful to these students that the kids cannot help but get tuned in and focused.

I have encountered a lot of middle-school aged kids as a camp counsellor, and there are always kids who are not listeners. When considering boys in particular – it is the behaviour of the boys in my classes that other teachers and myself are finding the most challenging – these guys can often be self-centered doers and jokers who feed off of one another. They like to talk, which unfortunately interferes with their listening. While I agree that these students can do some great work when they finally sit down and get to it, the fact that there is a regular struggle between teacher and student to get to that productive point suggests that these students are lacking buy-in. The typical presentation of the material does not jive for these students.

Some teachers manage this group by being strict disciplinarians and maintaining a rigid class structure. Personally, I find it hard to believe that a student constantly sent into the hallway or to the vice-principal is going to eventually start learning effectively, although the rest of the class might be kept in line through this one person’s punishment. I think that it is better to channel students’ energy rather than fight and contain it because the majority of these students are going to grow out of their self-centered behaviour anyways! Students receive countless reminders about listening to and being respectful towards other, but it is a lot nicer for everybody involved if students are praised for when they do listen instead of being reprimanded when they do not.

As I go through my last week of in-class teaching, it is my hope to put some of these vague notions into practice. Wish me luck as I try making up lessons for students who really like being at school but have trouble listening once they have an opportunity to start talking!

Happy Easter!

Culture Shock, Socializing, and Frames of Mind

I think that my culture shock, such as I have experienced it, has been mitigated over the past couple weeks by the fact that I teach in an English-speaking environment, I have a number of people from the school looking after me, and that I am here for such a short time. I have also tried to stay open-minded about the circumstances in which I have found myself, and I am continuously grounded and focused by thinking about the students that I have the opportunity to teach.

This past weekend was split between traveling with others and living on my own. While I definitely learned more with others - Bartering 101 with John and Wain, Passion processions in Azazieh with Berdj and Laura, and Armenian social life with Maria and Alig – it has been important to discover that I actually can function independently in a city where I essentially do not know the language. I can go grocery shopping, get from my apartment to the city center both on foot and by taxi, and deal with small bouts of minor homesickness. (Sam Roberts and Joel Plaskett were no small help this weekend)

I have heard from foreign hires who have taught elsewhere in the Middle East that Syria has been their most difficult placement because so few people speak English. It seems to me that there are a number of teachers looking forward to the end of their contract because the challenge of learning the Arabic language makes a deep integration into the culture much more difficult. While most teachers know enough Arabic to function, one individual told me that she felt it would take a much better understanding of Arabic to strengthen any of the relationships she shared with the Syrians she had met. The majority of foreign teachers therefore feel confined to a social circle of other teachers at the school in Aleppo and the scientists at the associated research facility.

In order to overcome the challenges of living in a small community and thrive on the international education scene, I think that a teacher needs to exhibit one of three characteristics: a solid knowledge of the local language that allows the teacher to participate fully in the host community; a true love for exploring cities, the Great Outdoors, and/or tourist sites; or a enjoyment of hobbies unrelated to teaching that can be done at home regardless of where “home” is. I want to teach abroad to engage with an entirely different community of students, but I know that I will need to bring other pastimes and interests when I take on a contract to teach outside of Canada.

Right now, I am really missing having a guitar to play. Music plays a big role in shaping my frame of mind and helping me to re-focus myself. Since I hugged my parents at the airport and said goodbye, I have constantly been evaluating how I am feeling and why I am feeling that way. I am happy to report that I have felt really good since I stepped out of the airport in Aleppo. It has been difficult to get to a phone or computer for a longer period of time, which sometimes weighs me down when I first wake up or when I am heading to bed, but as one of my associate teachers often said, the promise of “just another day in paradise” helps to both start my day and send me off to sleep.

The Dreams of Teachers

I had the wonderful opportunity to sit in on parent-teacher interviews last week with a Grade 7 and 8 teacher. Although I am sure I can look forward to many interviews in my teaching career where parents are angry, apathetic, or simply absent, it was pretty spectacular to start off my experience of the parent-teacher meeting by encountering so many moms and dads who are genuinely concerned and interested in the success of their children. I listened to parents who tutored their sons and daughters, parents who advocated for their children, and parents who took the blame for putting too much pressure on their kids to get high grades. I suppose I should admit that many of these parents are in high-profile positions and recognize the effort it takes to be academically and professionally successful; moreover, there were “power-parents” who did not show up for an interview, but from purely my own experience of the day: Bravo Parents! Even where the student needed to translate for his mother or father, it was a phenomenal opportunity for the teacher, parent, and student to get back on the same page and ensure that the student was playing at the top of her or his game.

When sitting down the other morning to my last prep period of the day, I came to a point where there was no other work for me to do. I essentially have all my lessons planned and prepared until we go to visit Crusader castles! This was an alien experience for me since I sometimes found myself scrambling to be prepared for lessons during my practica in October, December, and February. At this school in Aleppo, I, like all teachers here, have between two and four hours of prep time every day. From one perspective, it is wonderful to have all this time because it enables me to take advantage of my evenings in Aleppo. The flip side of this coin is that I am often teaching for only half of the school day; consequently, I find it difficult to keep my “teaching groove” from class to class and day to day. The time that I spend with students is always the most brilliant part of my teaching day and helps motivate me to come up with compelling ways to teach the next day’s lesson. When I only see the kids for two or three periods during the day, it is hard to keep up a full head of steam!


Managing Age, Language, and Education

What is causing so much nervous energy in my students? As I began teaching the Grade 6 and Grade 7 Humanities classes this week, I was fascinated, intrigued, and a little horrified at the constant motion these students demonstrate throughout a period. The students at this school are all very polite to teachers, and it is pretty wonderful when students go out of their way between periods to pop their head inside the staff room and say hello. On the other hand – wow! The effort it takes to get them to listen to me or each other once they are worked up is a little overwhelming!

As I have been putting together my lessons to teach these students about the Crusader castles we are visiting in just two weeks, I have repeatedly been considering where their motion, their energy, and their sociability flows from in the hopes of tapping into that energy rather than suppressing it! After working with kids of the same age at summer camp, part of me feels that these students are simply acting their age. Eleven- and twelve-year olds can be bad listeners and are very active. I also wonder if the fact that English – the language of instruction – is a second language to the majority of these kids plays into their behaviour. I can tell that a good deal of their discussion is the result of explaining something to a neighbour. Finally, I am also aware that I am working with kids who have been brought up in a very social culture. Students do not see each other outside of school and so class time seems to be regarded as another opportunity to catch up, play, and hang out!

We will see how the week goes, but one thing is certain – I do not need to get the students excited to learn at the beginning of each period. These kids are already firing on all cylinders. Maybe if I build up the excitement throughout the class, I will have a little more success harnessing that energy! On the other hand, the kids here are just as wonderful here as they anywhere else I have been, so I know that I am going to laugh with them in spite of whatever challenges they throw my way!

The Needy Traveler

I have a trying week up ahead: A full day of teaching on Sunday, a short day on Monday because of Parent-Teacher Interviews, a full day of teaching on Tuesday, and then a five-day weekend. (The government declared that the Prophet’s Birthday would be on Wednesday, but students, teachers, and researchers had already made plans for the holiday to be on Thursday, so there is no school that day, then comes the Friday-Saturday weekend, and Sunday is Easter!) Whew! It is going to be strenuous!

As I considered my traveling options for the weekend the other evening, I discovered that I am a bit of a needy traveler! I am perfectly willing to actually go from A to B on my own, but I am less than keen to spend a night in a hotel without a friend to talk about the day and the sights that I have seen. You may think that I am a sissy for not hoping to find another English-speaker with whom I can hang out in the hotel bar, but I simply feel like I need a daily shred of normalcy in a context that is completely different for me! This weekend might be a wonderful opportunity to visit Palmyra, but I am going to hold out until later in the month when I can find a travel buddy. (Most of the other teachers are going sightseeing in other countries, but as I have seen little of Syria itself yet, I would really prefer to stay in one country while I am here!) Instead, I plan on visiting Aleppo’s famous souqs, its Citadel, the many mosques and bathhouses that are more than a thousand years old, and nearby Apamea. I will be making my way through the twisty streets of Aleppo by myself, but at least I will be familiar with the area in which I am wandering. I should even be able to attend Catholic and Armenian Easter services with my new buddy Berdj. Yes, they will be in Arabic, and therefore no, I probably will not understand much of what is going on in the service.

Although I know I should be pushing myself out of my comfort zone, it is also incredibly important for me to be in a positive frame of mind in order to get the most out of my little adventures. (I will definitely be breaking new ground when I have to do my own grocery shopping with Arabic-speaking vendors this weekend!) I imagine that my students also want to have something familiar, even vaguely familiar, to hold onto when learning new material. Stepping into a new classroom, meeting a new teacher, or beginning a challenging new topic can be intimidating for some students, so I suppose that it is my responsibility to frame something brand new in a way that is somewhat familiar to these individuals.

So how do I ask in Arabic “What time does this bus return to the city?”


Chasing the Language

My first evening in Syria, I was taken grocery shopping by Lianne, the generous, knowledgeable host with whom I am living for the next month. I was not expecting to do any of the talking on this little adventure, but I when I was addressed by one of the grocers we encountered, I discovered that I had no way to respond. I did not even have the vocabulary to say no. What a bizarre experience to be unable to communicate in any way!

In the weeks and days leading up to my trip, I had considered trying to listen to some learn-to-speak-Arabic podcasts but simply could not find the time. When I was getting my passport stamped by Syrian immigration officials, four of the eight individuals with whom I spoke knew enough English to guide me through the process, but my experience in the grocery store indicated that I would not be so lucky all the time. While few of the foreign teachers at the school can speak fluent Arabic, it seems that almost all know enough key words to get around on a taxi, but groceries, and find their way through an evening out on the town. I spent a little time expanding my own vocabulary beyond Marhaba! (Hi!) While I have yet to test out my newly-learned words, I feel relatively comfortable saying la (no), na'am (yes) – at this point I am pulling out my little cheat sheet to see what other words I "know" – ana bah-ki inglizi (I speak English), ma bif-ham (I don't understand), and addaish (how much?). I am also pretty confident that I can identify the Arabic characters for zero though nine. I guess we will see how that goes when I next go shopping.

It seems that Syrians are very appreciative and patient with foreigners that are trying to speak their language. Are we so tolerant of non-English speakers in Canada? Store owners and security guards have bid me farewell in my own language, but I doubt that many cashiers even in Ottawa would make the effort to say au revoir to a francophone leaving their store.

Imagine how difficult normal activities at work, at school, and on the street would be if you were carrying them out in a language for which you knew only a few words. If a person was visibly annoyed or upset with you because of your inability to communicate articulately, how would you feel about improving your language skills after that conversation? What if that person patiently supported you as you struggled through the five words you knew and gave you a friendly salutation as you left?

I doubt that I will learn much more Arabic than what I need to get me through the next few weeks, but I feel very lucky that I am compelled to speak Arabic to carry out regular activities like buying groceries, ordering a falafel, or bargaining in the market. (Okay, well that last one isn't so regular) I hope this experience continues to increase the empathy that I will have for non-English speakers when I return to Canada.


Highlights from the Air

On my flight from Ottawa to London, I found myself sitting beside a woman who works for CIDA. I imagine that she was pretty high up on the ladder as she was traveling to the United Kingdom to represent the agency at a conference on implementing different development strategies. Initially I felt lucky to have found such an interesting neighbour for my flight, but I soon discovered that I was not going to learn much about projects to help the developing world. Sometimes the woman would give a longer answer to a question and other times her response would be curt. Her response might end a conversation, but out of nowhere she would ask another question three hours into our flight. Throughout this bizarre exchange, I often felt like my neighbour was only half-listening to me and cared little for her own work. It was a good reminder to take interest in the stories of students. (Yes – even though I am writing about my little trip to Syria , I will still be getting all reflective on you and relating my experiences to teaching!) I am also pretty satisfied to think that teaching is something that I'm willing to discuss ad nauseum

because I think it is so sweet!

Other events that deserve an honourable mention: the six eighteen-year old boys singing along to the Venga Boys while we were flying to London; discovering that the London skyline has not changed since Mary Poppins sang Chim-Chimmery; experiencing London at its soggiest, rainiest, chilliest, and greyest; and fighting off jetlag while flying across Europe by sitting with a very talkative and genuinely helpful Syrian.

Finally, I am especially thankful for the opportunity to meet with my friend Jenna, who was such a blessing in the end of a wet and tiring day in jolly ol’ England. My welcome to Syria has been very warm, but there are few things more wonderful than seeing a familiar face when you are facing the unknown!


Motivation in Leadership

I hope to someday serialize and post an essay I wrote for my Public History course regarding motivation and Grade 10 History students in Ontario, but time flies and I have still more ideas to write about. I am continuing to examine the motivations of students during my practicum, and in particular I am looking at the level of commitment that some students show towards leadership camps, which I have referred to in other posts. At these camps, students learn about the essentials of communication, group dynamics, problem solving, goal-setting, leadership styles, stress relief among other topics. Whether these participants in these camps actually develop into effective leaders is an entirely different question, but the organizers of the weekend have a high intrinsic motivation to make their camp a success. There is a high emotional attachment to the camp, many students feel that they change as a result of this camp and want to make a difference in the lives of others, and there is also some pride or status attached to being a part of this camp, which is of course an extrinsic motivation. I am not sure that educators are ready or really want students so interested in a particular course that they put off other school work, become almost obsessively focused on the work, and ignore even bodily needs of sleep when preparing for large activities, but it is interesting to look at how such motivation might be directed and harnessed for the purposes of education. While I suspect that one of the reasons that students devote so much effort to leadership camps might be because it is not a school activity, I think that this potential should nevertheless be investigated.


To Syria

In September, it was a possibility: “Yeah, Syria is one of the places I’m thinking about.”
When December arrived, it was a choice: “I’m hoping everything works to go to Syria.”
By January, the wheels were in motion: “So I’ve got my ticket to go to Syria!”
In February, I was assured: “I think you will be pleasantly surprised about traveling to Syria.”
This past weekend, I began saying adieu: “Check out my blogs while I’m in Syria!”

Being a somewhat less eloquent writer than some others, I find myself at a loss for the words to appropriately describe my intentions at the outset of my visit to Syria. The official reason for this trip is to gain experience teaching and learning in an international context. I have the incredible opportunity to introduce students the history of the Crusades and accompany these young individuals on trips to a number of the castles that were built during this period of history. As a historian, the prospect of traveling through one of the cradles of civilization where innumerable historic figures lived, fought, and traveled even now leaves me awe-struck. While I hope that friends will never peg me as merely the guy who will always be happy as long as you find him a museum, historical site, or dusty manuscript, I simply cannot wait to find myself surrounded by the walls of castles that once sheltered Salah al-Din and his armies or crusading knights from Europe.

To understand my most deep and fundamental desire to visit Syria though, my reader needs only to recall recent history, hysteria, and horrors. Despite its rich past, its cultural diversity, and its devotion to religious values, the Middle East has been characterized in black-and-white images as a haven for terror, a region of instability and intolerance, and a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism. This is simply an unfair characterization of a region inhabited by hundreds of millions of people. If it is the historian’s job to present and analyze information in a fair and balanced way, then this historian is seeking to address the imbalance in the story of the Middle East that is being told and retold in the media and in households today. If educators are responsible for preparing students to live well and make thoughtful and intentional decisions, then this educator believes that students need to hear an alternative narrative to the prejudiced, conflict-driven message that is currently being circulated. If there is ever to be lasting peace on this little planet of ours, that peace is going to come from understanding.

To this end, as I write over the next month and when I return to Canada after my trip, I hope to be an ambassador for Syria. I do want to describe the amazing experiences that I am having and reassure worried family and friends that I am indeed safe and sound, but it is my deepest desire to convince my readers and listeners that we need to consider these people – Syrians, Arabs, Muslims, people from the Middle East – as individuals who are our friends and neighbours rather than a faceless mass to be feared and contained.

I am not the greatest storyteller –I can never think of the appropriate story at the party unless it occurred in the last two months and often need to be reminded of events that happened only a few years before; consequently, my blog posts and the photos I take will help me to recall teachable moments and surreal experiences in the unlikely event that this trip does not leave a profound impression upon me. At the same time, I will likely comment on matters historical here and educational in Humility in Education, and some posts (like the one that you are now reading) will appear in both blogs, so please look forward to posts that are academic but hopefully not too irregular or uninteresting! When you read though, it is my desperate hope that you will also consider the serious purpose of my visit.

Syria-usly? Yep. Seriously.

Finally, I hope that you will share in my travels by commenting on my posts. Well-wishes and wish lists, comments and concerns, stories and suggestions are enriching for everybody who will continue read on.

“What’s new with me? Well, I’m going to Syria.” What an adventure!