Thursday, February 17, 2011

What is a teacher?

It’s a big question. Let me explain how we have worked as a learner > teacher setup for the last 6 weeks with K, our Arabic teacher.

We have the book, we do a units work (3-4hours work in the evening after work, food and Eastenders ) and then visit him on Saturday. He goes through the homework, corrects what we have written, does a bit of drilling to improve our pronunciation and, that’s it. Then we go away and do 4 hours homework the next week. We return to his space and the cycle repeats. We are learning quite alot, but all the real teaching and certainly the learning is done by me, my girlfriend and the book in a social-constructivist space on our sofa when we really don’t feel like it.

I certainly feel that the routine is really helpful. We were useless on our own as ‘independent learners’ (prior to having a teacher) we never opened a book or played with the DVDS, we messed about on youtube, did a few photocopies and that was about it. So the whole setup; having a teacher; a routine; assistance; feedback on mistakes; a space to go and ‘be taught’ all these things have helped.

Our teacher is confident in his ability to do what he does, because he has done so, alongside his main work as a translator, for 2 years. However, his role in actually teaching us is limited. He provides us with a routine, he assists but I would argue he rarely explicitly teaches us. For me a teacher would teach you something, set you on your way and then set some homework for additional practice. I don’t want to do down on this guy but if you are going to call yourself a teacher, teach. Don’t just correct us. Lead us. Make materials for us. Create a game for us to play. Give us a dialogue to do. Write on the board. Focus us on meaning then form. Manage the time. Set lesson aims. Get us to write on each other’s backs. Make us stand up when we are tired. Focus on accuracy and fluency. Be a teacher. Or be a homework tutor, perhaps.

I am fairly straight up when it comes to this question but I am not sure if I am being fair. How would you feel if you were in the same position? Would you say anything? Do you think I am moaning about having to do some work? Is 90mins too short to do anything but correct homework? I must say that we are on our way to achieving our goals and he’s been good at focusing us on this. So if we are learning is he teaching? Is the fact we are learning enough?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Where were the Swiss Arabic Teachers?

In late autumn, Lady Love phoned around local language schools and did some web searching and we came up with a potential school.

Optimistically I arrived at the address in the centre of town and went upstairs. It was a residential style door and I was welcomed by a short shrewy, lady who ushered me in and gave me tea. She only spoke French and I was struggling, but she was fairly aggressively trying to get money out of me; that was for sure.

Lady was late. I was introduced to our teacher, a very smiley, young Tunisian guy. He was nice enough but he seemed a little inexperienced. His 'teacher voice', tone and mannerism were what were described as “talking to me like I am a child”. This was off putting and his approach was unclear and muddled, I didn’t know what was going on. There were no aims for our class. We weren’t asked in any detail by him about what we needed and why. We did our one lesson, an expensive hour, and never called them back.

It seems mean but neither of us were happy with the set up. I felt a responsibility as a fellow teacher to say something that could help develop this guy but I was cautious of the cost of getting dragged into a situation where I am paying to develop my own teacher, who was not really a teacher (by title and qualifications) but an American Studies student. I guess defining what a teacher is, is a part of this whole equation and I will talk about that later.

It was after this initial disappointment that things got a bit stressful. We came across lessons on you tube for example – learn Arabic with Maha have a look

Although this is great fun; she’s easy on the eye and gives a great insight into cultural aspects of modern Arabic speakers. I wanted a teacher-teacher, a real one, a professional who lived and breathed teaching, someone passionate about their job, reflective in their practice, someone who makes plans; adapts and makes materials for their classes based on their students’ needs and interests. We were getting nowhere.
Although we found intensive Arabic courses, these were in Geneva at unsuitable times. We were stymied.

I even stooped as low as to spam my MA coursemates. This was perhaps a little out of order but I went through the course list and wrote to anyone with what I thought was an 'Arabic' name or who was based in a possibly Arab speaking location, asking them if they knew someone who would teach us online over skype (my MA is in Educational Technology and TESOL). No one replied, and I am not sure if I would have answered to such a random message either.

The search continued, Lady Love’s former landlady’s ex-boyfriend, a Moroccan, recommended that we go to Lausanne’s’ mosque on Friday and ask around. We didn’t fancy that much. Perhaps it was the link between education and religion but it didn’t seem like how we wanted to proceed.

One final web search brought us to our current teacher who was suggested to Lady Love via a friend. He is a nice man, slightly older than me. He’s an Iraqi interpreter and has been in Switzerland for 15 years. We met and he explained his method, pointing to the book aliif baa (A, B in English), “this is my method” he said. I was a little reticent about this, knowing full well that a book is not a method. A book is a book.

I didn’t mention this but did mention that I am lacking in experience as a learner and that I am probably quite a difficult student in many respects =O). We agreed a fee, he kindly agreed to teach us on Saturday afternoons (which is regrettable now the six nations rugby has started) and we agreed on aims. These were that we would be able to read and write Arabic and say a few basic phrases by the time we left for Damascus. This was in early January. We are 2 weeks away from departure now and it looks like we are on track to meet this, surprisingly.
So we found a teacher, 6 weeks ago.

So just to recap it seems that choosing a teacher was heavily effected by contextual factors, time, location, the network available, the lack of schools for this purpose, the limits of our research. We both wanted someone live and alive, not to have asynchronous communication. It was also important that French English and Arabic were spoken by our teacher.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On motivation and Arabic as a lingua franca

(image from hamza text says alif, baa, taa aka a,b,c)

So, when faced with an upheaval to a new country it makes sense to prepare as best you can. Usually this involves vaccinations and then learning a bit of the local lingo, right? Well, this’ll be the first time that I have made such an effort to engage with a language before arriving in a new country. Historically my approach has been to flick through the guide book’s ‘useful phrases’ on the plane or ask someone to teach me on the plane how to say “hello”, “how are you?” “How much is it?” “thanks” etc...This ‘needs must’ approach has served me well, on a practical level thus far, though of course it has limited the kinds of interaction I have. My reliance on minimal language, strong socio-cultural competence, and interpersonal communication skills has done me alright so far. This time, however, it’s quite the opposite approach. I am starting at the bottom and working up, and learning the alphabet sound by sound, letter by letter. I haven’t learnt much in the way of phrases yet and funnily enough it’s hard work!

The reason for all the fuss is probably linked to my motivation. I view Arabic as one of the great global languages, up there with English, Spanish, French and Chinese, in the sense that it can really be used worldwide. No offence to Thai and Bulgarian speakers, but Arabic is just a bit more useful to my future. Perhaps more importantly, I have a lot of emotive, personal reasons for wanting to learn it. Part of this stems from my anti-war persuasion and my country’s foreign polic, partly it is a response to the misrepresentations of and discrimination against Muslims in my country of birth and worldwide. I shan’t go into it in too much detail as this blog is about learning, but needless to say I feel positively towards the Levant and most ‘native speakers’ of the Arabic language who I have met. This would be described as integrative motivation by some. It helps having this or any kind of motivation.

Although it was talked about for months, it wasn’t until that the search began for ways to learn Arabic. I contacted my friend Jessie who had returned from a trip around the Muslim world and his advice was to learn MSA Modern Standard Arabic, okay, a start, but the vast number of ‘Arabics’ that exists is instantly problematic. Which to learn? Which is best? Well like English, none is better, each is just more widely used in different parts of the world and speaking another variety of English will lead to you standing out where the other is dominant. I am not sure if the difference between say Algerian Arabic and Emirati Arabic is more or less pronounced that say the difference between Scottish and Indian English, I guess time and experience (and maybe you) will tell. Syrian Arabic will be our target, preferably with a strong London accent.

Jessie also mentioned that Syrians were amazingly friendly and that Levantine Arabic was widely used and understood so we would be well placed learning how to speak the Levantian version. Ah, the royal ‘we’, yes, ‘we’ are on a mission to conquer the language, me and my girlfriend. Her name is lady Love, she has the job that is taking us there and thus represents the main reason why we need to learn Arabic. And, no, I’m not complaining :O).

We borrowed books from family and friends and these teach yourself Arabic DVDs & CD-ROMS, Rosetta Jones (sic), and Talk Now did much more than gather dust for the autumn months in and amongst the MA books.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The origin of everything, and this

So, it has to begin somewhere and I thought I would begin mine with a birth.

This is a mind-birth.

What I have born is a baby blog.

My commitment to this bouncy baby of a space is:

To write at least one blog post a month (24 posts minimum though I am sure it will be much more than this).
  1. To reflect on emergent issues and thoughts in my teaching practice. This will hopefully allow me to reflect on action I took, consider problems I face, and perhaps give you, as a reader, insight into the life of a teacher of English.
  2. To write about my development in Arabic and my reflections on the language learning process, from a learner (who is really a teacher's point of view).
  3. To occasionally indulge in a bit of comment on the mundane, the trudge of day to day life in Damascus
I can see two dangers that are immediately apparent. The first is the temptation for me to badmouth my Arabic teachers. This is not the intention, or useful, but may well be the case from time to time. Any 'critique' or criticism is done so in an informational and reflective way: in the sense that I can consider how I do things / would do these things as a teacher. The second danger is that this blog becomes a rambling moan hole. If it does start to bore and groan, please tell me to brighten up.

There is perhaps another danger, that of being arrested. Censorship is an issue for some writers in the Levant. However, I reckon as this blog is in English, and thus not accessible to most of the people in Syria, it is not a big concern to the state. Perhaps more importantly the risk is mitigated by the fact that I am writing about teaching and learning and will not write about politics, freedom of speech or anything like this. Even though I have already written this, this is not the purpose of doing this blog. It's about teaching and learning. Phew, that's clear. Good. Moving on to you and me.

I'd appreciate any comments at any time. There's information about me and links to some of my favourite blogs on the right hand-side. I have just left facebook, this was prompted by their censorship of me, yes that's right it was an ideological move. I will survive without, but will miss it, I loved all the photos of friends and the birthday updates were really useful. It was also a great tool for meeting friends and reacquainting with old pals. However, my future is here.

I am writing about teaching and learning in the Syrian context. Thus facebook friends can go a little deeper into my life than - "sun is shining in Switzerland today" or "cooking dinner" or "picture of me on a camel with a beer", or whatever as a status updates. Equally my PLN, teachers, students, interested readers I welcome you too to what I hope this is a useful and developmental space for us. Happy reading, I hope it's as good for you as it is for me.