You Never Stop Learning
Every session, TYO interns teach a variety of classes to children, women and community members. This week, our interns reflect on their experiences of teaching classes to adults.
It's a few minutes to ten on a Monday morning at TYO, and up on the 4th floor, a cheerful crowd of women (mothers, grandmothers, students, teenagers; from the local neighborhood and the Nablus refugee camps) are bustling into the computer lab. Whilst a few pause eagerly outside the door to sip the last of their coffee, the desktops whir into action as friends greet each other across the room, discussing their children, complaining about the challenges of doing laundry in the winter, and swamping my translator and me with desperate queries: "How do I change the language settings on my computer?"..."I want to learn Photoshop"..."I'm still aching from the aerobics class last week".The participants in my Women's IT class are any teacher's dream: enthusiastic, responsive, and fervent for knowledge. For some, confidence at the computer screen is a pre-requisite for their dream nursing or secretarial job...for others, the skills promise new opportunities to learn, communicate, integrate into the community, and to stay up to date with news and culture. The women get started on an Arabic typing software whilst attendance is taken. In each class, their words-per-minute speed is increasing, as individuals are gently weaned off the one-hand, one-finger approach. Next, they grasp a brief tip-of-the-week, for example concerning healthy computer posture, or keyboard shortcuts, or internet privacy and security, or how to back-up your files with a flash drive. All the pupils - who are part of the Women's Group here at TYO - are fully aware of the immeasurable importance of computer literacy in this modern era, but naturally struggle to become adept living in an environment where their computer access is minimal. Most of the women attended school before the computer age, and for the younger ones, technology courses are afforded a very low priority in the curriculum. According to the World Bank, the number of internet users per 100 in the West Bank and Gaza is a mere 8.8.
Today, a midterm test on Publisher is distributed to assess what they remember since creating Eid Mubarak greeting cards before the break, and I give my special attention to a lady who wants to open an email account so she can keep in touch with her sister in Jordan. Before the lesson ends, one particularly capable pupil completes the test and cheekily sneaks onto Facebook whilst my head is turned. When it comes to the Internet age, Nablus is no different.
As interns, most of our interaction in the Nablus community is focused on the youth, but every Monday and Wednesday, we have the opportunity to connect with another demographic through the Community English classes offered at TYO. The students who come to learn and practice their English skills are diverse, from high school students to young adult professionals. Many of them are TYO volunteers, choosing to stay late after an afternoon of assisting with the youth classes.
In Palestine, English is part of the general education curriculum starting at the elementary level and continuing through high school, but that doesn’t translate into a population of fluent English speakers. Some people make more of an effort to put the language to practical use, either out of necessity or interest, so there is a wide range of ability represented in the Community English classes. This range is accommodated by having leveled classes taught by the interns. On one end of the spectrum, Andrew teaches the alphabet to the absolute beginners, while the intermediate students in James’ class debate the merits of technology and learn about the Gunpowder Plot.
One of the challenges that Abi and I face in teaching the beginner and elementary levels is explaining new words or concepts to a group of students who have a limited vocabulary. This makes for some rather creative explanations. There have been several instances in which my students and I have used mime to express our thoughts, or covered the white board with illustrations, Pictionary-style, trying to make ourselves understood. These nonverbal forms of communication are essential and add a comedic element to the classroom.
Attendance can be sporadic due to the five o’clock start time and dreary winter weather, but I always have my core group of students who come consistently, ready to learn and have fun. Ayat is one of my regulars. Last summer she was a student in the absolute beginner class, so when she discovered her placement exam results had moved her up to the beginner class, she was thrilled. It meant that she was ready for a new challenge. Ayat’s dedication to learn English is obvious. She comes to each class armed with her notebook, in which she diligently records new vocabulary words, and she is always the first to volunteer a response during class discussions. What I like most about Ayat is her big personality. In a classroom that is at times dominated with males, she holds her own. The men aren’t particularly interested in learning the names of different household items used for cooking, or the distinction between a stiletto and a kitten heeled shoe, but Ayat makes sure they are important classroom topics.
These students can brighten my day even if I’ve had a challenging afternoon in my youth classes.
Twenty or so women stroll in laughing, gossiping and excited to take off their layers (hijabs and abayas) and start their women's Aerobics class. The room is full of noise, spandex, kisses and health questions until we start the music and begin. Cheesy but fun eighty's pop or latin beats brings their focus up front as we begin marching. They know the routine and frequently report on how the work-out is effecting them after out initial warm-up. We get their blood pumping with a variation of dance (Zumba style), kickboxing, abs, arms and leg workouts. Dance has been a popular way to get our cardiovascular work out in. The women have stepped, shook and swayed to the "Cupid Shuffle"(hip hop), Bhangra (Indian) and the famous "Waka Waka," Shakira dance. It is not just a place for improving their health but for bringing smiles and laughter into their everyday lives.
Sometimes, their lives that are filled with struggle or isolation. One day, a women came into class haven fallen down the stairs, she has no one, she lives alone and there is nobody to help her. We talked about different excerices for her frozen sholder and several of the other women offered to help. As the weeks go by I notice more and more smiles coming into the women's faces, their hard lined scowls fade more quickly as this space evolves into a support network.
No children and no men are allowed. Its one of the few places they get to be in an all-women's space designed just for them. Like them, I look forward to this time each day to let loose, smile and teach something that I love doing. The importance of their own health is often side-lined by seemingly more immediate concerns, raising children, getting food, and in general, surviving life in an overcrowded refugee camp. Aerobics provides a place for their mental and physical health to improve. Wherever I go, when explaining what I am doing here in Nablus, the reaction I get from women is overwhelmingly appreciative. While riding home on a service (shared taxi), I befriended the wife of our driver, who lives in a small village outside of Nablus. As I explained what I am doing, her eyes lit up. She me explained to me that there is nothing like this for women in her village, that they just stay home with housework. I have heard this story repeated over and over again.
Women are simply over-looked, and their physical and emotional needs seem to be side-lined by the effects of the political landscape (a male dominated space). That is why the Women's Programs here at TYO are so important. It is small steps like this that give women a chance to improve their lives and pass along this knowledge to their daughters and grand-children.
It has been a genuine pleasure teaching English to the staff here at the TYO centre. Although speaking English is something I have done all my life (well almost!) I have never explored in detail the rules of the language and its numerous irregularities! It has been really interesting to discover new things about my own language and great share these with the local TYO staff - Jawad, Haitham, Rimah, Nehad and Inaas.
As a man of comedy myself, I have really appreciated the warm hearted humour of the staff as we learn English together. They are definitely serious about their goal of learning English but have a relaxed, respectful and open-minded approach towards it, which makes teaching them so much more enjoyable. We have been playing a lot of games to practice vocabulary and grammar and a little healthy competition has also helped greatly!
One thing that has been particularly interesting is that the classes have highlighted some of the similarities and differences in cultural background between myself and the students. Many of the teaching materials that I am using within my lessons are based on European/North-American culture, therefore the lessons often raise questions around different customs and norms in our home countries. For example, this week in my class with Haitham and Jawad, we were exploring the theme of jobs/professions and learning new English vocabulary related to this. This gave us the opportunity to discuss the different norms in each of our cultures in relation to employment. I was explaining how it can be the case with British couples that both partners need to work due to economic reasons, although it's still not uncommon to find housewives or stay-at-home dads. The concept of stay-at-home dads was something different for the students, however Haitham and Jawad did talk about how it is becoming more and more common here in married couples for both the husband and wife to be working.
One thing I will definitely take back from my time here is the diversity within Palestinian culture. And I hope that I can help those I work with learn a little about the diversity in my culture also. It's the cultural exchange I experience daily that makes teaching English so rewarding. It is great to see how these adults classes not only help to improve the skills of the local staff and community but can also increase inter-cultural understanding for all of us!