Thursday, November 13, 2008


I took another audacious step down a road I once despised-Teaching Highway 101. It most likely leads to nowhere, and derails off a cliff high above the ocean to plunge the unwary traveler into the tempestuous waters below. Wet and sputtering, I’ll swim to shore and find a new path…But, for now, it is firm, dry, and oh so exciting! After that vivid metaphor, you’re probably once again scratching your heads and wondering what on earth the Middle East is doing to the once-sane Wawa. It’s done a number of things to me, actually, include force me to match every outfit to a coordinating scarf, resume my loathe/love relationship with men, accept the inevitability of sand in my life, and make me a teacher. This last statement, of course, being the one to which my slightly incongruous metaphor refers.

I had a meeting yesterday with the curriculum development coordinator in the Om Uthayna offices. Om Uthayna, for those of you unfamiliar with the innumerable neighborhoods of Amman, is an area of this city not too far from my flat. We discussed several projects for me, which I will probably detail in a later blog, but then she mentioned that one of the English teachers, Zaid, from Jebel Nassir is stuck in Iraq. And by stuck I mean, unable to return to Amman, where he has been working, because Jordanian authorities refuse to allow him to cross the border. Aside from his personal tribulations, this also places RI (henceforth short for Relief International/Schools Online) in a slight quandary-who’s going to teach English!?! Well that, my dears, would be me. Yup, I’ve gone from never having really taught English, to teaching casual conversational classes to adults, to instructing genuine lessons to genuine, school-age pupils!

Rowan offered me the option of graciously refusing. Never, or, as the British-accented and educated Rowan might say, wicked! Yesterday was my first day. I arrived as usual in Jebel Nessir, directing the cab down shari3a (street) Istiqlaal, through the windy hills of East Amman to a rolling stop in front of RI. I made my usual round of greetings on the 2nd floor offices where I usual work, sitting in the library and gently exchanging conversation with anyone courageous enough to engage the odd foreigner in lessons. However, after making use of the clean (a rarity in Amman, trust me; the bathroom at the uni are appalling, to put it mildly. They have neither seats nor toilet paper, and rarely soap), females-only bathroom, I trooped downstairs where the majority of the classrooms are located. While many of the people on the 2nd floor are staff members (i.e. salaried Jordanians), almost all (if not all) of the teaching staff are volunteers, i.e. Iraqis. Which only means that I get to learn yet another dialect, and, trust me, the Iraqi dialect is fairly quirky and quite unlike Jordanian. The word for whiteboard is loh7 is Jordanian, but saboora in Iraqi.

Anyway, enough on linguistic variations. On to my adorable students! Another phrase you probably never thought I utter (or transcribe, I suppose, since it’s difficult to utter a blog…). After eating lunch with the volunteers, I met the other English teacher, Hassan, a fascinating man who taught English in Iraq for 30 years and prefers sweaters that zip and checkered berets for attire. He briefed me on the current level of the students, allowed me to peruse a few textbooks, and then sat down to watch me teach. Ahhhh! There is not much of a curriculum to follow; the students don’t actually have textbooks, or any materials other than a notebook and pen. Basically, we teach them what we think they should know…Meaning, I need to do more research on English acquisition! All of the students that I have taught are learning some form of present tense verbs-the simple present, present continuous, or present perfect continuous. However, as some of you may have experienced, it is one thing to know what you should teach, and a whole other concept to actually teach it! Throw in the fact that most of the students don’t speak much English and I find myself faced with a real challenge. Particularly because I want to engage the children in something more than a grammar lesson. Of course, when instructing on English, it is necessary to write verb forms and rules on the board, but I feel it is also imperative to involve the students, to get them participating, active. Rowan is a major proponent of active learning, and with good reason. Children who merely sit and copy (or don’t copy) what I write on the board may retain a small portion of the lesson, but those who play games with the lesson are more likely to retain it, if only because they remember the enjoyment of the activity.

So that’s my theory. However, standing in front of 15-20 students who stare at you inquisitively, attempting to stutter through explanations in broken English/Arabic, is entirely another. I ended up mainly teaching grammar, but also calling on each student to give me examples, to pull from their memory other verbs they used, etc. My favorite class was the youngest age group, who are still learning colors, animals, simple phrases, etc. By the end of the class, we were roaring like lions and giggling profusely. There are a couple students in each class who swiftly distinguish themselves as the most gifted, and I somewhat wish I could pull them out and teach them individually. In them I see both passion and intelligence, an eagerness to learn that is not always reflected in their classmates. They are the students, mainly girls, who jump up and raise their hand, “Miss, miss, I know the answer,” or who sit demurely, but always have a complex sentence prepared when no one else can produce an example.

Today I taught one class and then watched Hassan teach the most advanced level, absorbing some valuable instruction skills from his lesson. Although fluency in Arabic is something that may take me a little while to master. He is a wonderful mentor, though, and thoroughly enjoys teaching me Arabic words while I answer his questions on obtuse English usage questions. Everyone is graciously, and sometimes a tad obsequiously, kind to me. I always find myself with a cup of tea in my hand when I start the lesson, courtesy of one of the volunteers downstairs, and they never fail to provide me with a bagged lunch before I leave, the same food that the students receive. Never mind that it’s the same food every day, or that I can’t eat half of it; it is the gesture that I appreciate, and the bag of peanuts I always munch on the cab ride home!

On Monday evening I went shopping (although I didn’t buy anything!) with a few of my co-workers, including Niraan the librarian, Noor the data enterer, and Raheer…I forget her title. In my area, Tala3 Al-Ali exists a street of clothing stores offering Western-style apparel at inexpensive prices. Because I suspect they are factory overstocks, or items that didn’t sell well, one often needs to search to find something suitable, but the four of us spent several hours happily plying through various racks, laughing at some of the absurd fashions, and conversing in a mellifluous mix of Arabic and English.

Hmmmm…let’s see…this week has otherwise been quite mundane. I currently have the house to myself. Jess is meeting some family friends in Jerusalem, and Kathy is, you guessed it, in Wadi Rum with Fadii. Originally, I and one other friend had planned to accompany her and also witness a horse race through the desert. I assumed we would be staying at Rebhe’s camp for free, as before, particularly since Fadii invited us to join him. However, when I tried to confirm this with Kathy, she told me I would be paying for my accommodation. So much for Bedouin hospitality…I suppose it only extends as far as their hopes of sleeping with me. So, rather than waste a fair amount of money on another unenjoyable experience in Rebhe’s camp, I cancelled my plans and will spend the weekend in Amman. Besides, this new teaching gig of mine runs 6 days a week, so breaking away on the weekends (i.e. to Syria) is temporarily impossible until they find a new teacher. Just as well, because then I can’t spend money J

In about 10 minutes I am embarking on a Christian experience in Amman. The British character in class (not Cute Brit, we’ll call this one Cambridge Brit) invited me to join him at a church service tonight. As it will be conducted entirely in Arabic, wish me luck!!!