It was very rewarding to learn about great theories, educational tools and applications for foreign language classroom during the first half of my MFLT masters program. When I start planning for my Experimental Module (EM) course, I was really looking forward to be in an authentic and actual classroom to effectively bridge between academics and practical experience as an Arabic teacher. Currently, my teaching classes are a one-on-one setting. My EM module is a great opportunity to expand and broaden my skills, and to enrich my teaching experience. It was great to see the verity and wide range of options that the MFLT master program offers, for students to complete the EM course. It is an indicator that we (as teachers) have countless opportunities to learn, connect and reflect on our studies and profession in our daily work. Although I only chose one module to proceed with in my EM, I am determined to seek opportunities in the future to continue revising and evaluating my teaching skills. I chose the teacher observation module to focused on many classroom topics that I am interested to learn more about it. In this module, I expected to shadow an Arabic teacher in a K-12 classroom setting for at least 12 sessions. I was expected to observe as she engages in daily classroom duties. I made myself available to assist in class in any capacity. I also hoped the teacher would agree that I teach a few lessons. The goal is that the observation and the hands on experience would give me a deeper understanding and insight into the teaching process inside an Arabic classroom. I also had to document at least 12 entries in written, audio or videos format, to give some insight about every session I observed. In addition, and to reflect on my experience, this essay presents a picture of my EM journey and how it impacted my understanding of foreign language teaching in general, and teaching Arabic in particular. There was always a question in my mind about commonly taught languages and how those classrooms may have been runs differently. Do teachers have different challenges than less commonly taught languages (like Arabic)? Hence, I contacted my hometown public school district and asked if I can observe tow different Spanish teachers. My EM course opened up a door of opportunities to engage with foreign language teachers and build bridges between my academic learning and real life teaching experience.
As part of my preparation and search for Arabic classroom to observe, I read many articles in teaching foreign languages in general, classroom management, and many other topics related to teaching Arabic. I wanted to be as prepared as I can be to swiftly connect between the teachers’ styles and what I have learned so far during my studies. However, I stopped reading at some point and asked myself, am I reading to set expectations? What would I do if the teachers who I will observe (whether in Arabic or Spanish classes) have different teaching techniques and philosophies, what if it works for them and proved to be successful? My observation is not intended to be an evaluation, but rather a collaboration effort within the foreign language teachers’ communities. Therefore, I started my EM with the mindset of looking forward for great learning experiences. Description of the EM Process: Finding a K-12 Arabic program in a classroom setting to observe was not an easy task. Arabic is a less commonly taught language in my state and not offered by many schools. Many of the schools I contacted happen to have been in the process for implementing an Arabic language program. I was lucky to finally find a private school [Rutgers Preparatory] which offers Arabic language to its upper school students. They have only one Arabic teacher who teaches / covers all four levels. The school asked for a permission letter from MSU that explains the requirements for the EM course, and a copy of my curriculum vitae to discuss with the school committee. After informing me that my application was accepted, the school asked for an interview with the world language department and the dean. It took close to a month to complete the process and set the first day for me to start observing Arabic classes. The head of the world language department recommended that I should observe the four different levels of Arabic, and then I may focus my observation later on one or two levels based on my area(s) of interest. The language classes at Rutgers Preparatory upper school runs on a six-day cycle, which means that the schedule changes from week to week and the same class would fall on a different day of the week. In addition, sometimes teachers needed to adjust class schedule based on school events. Many weeks I did not know my schedule until Sunday night, some weeks I would not even know until the day before. That inconsistency and unpredictability in the schedule was tough to manage. It was different when I applied for K-12 public school to observe Spanish classes. I asked if I can observe two different Spanish teachers to maximize my benefit. The school only asked for a letter from MSU to state the requirements for the EM course but there was no interview. The process was much longer because the school’s staff was extremely occupied by the PARC testing. It took almost two month to complete the process. Then I was informed with the schedule and ready to start. It was a great opportunity to observe two different world language teachers who have distinctly different teaching styles and approaches within their classroom. Impact ofEMon my language teaching career The gain from my EM experience was substantial on many different levels. The two main categories to describe the impact of EM on me as a teacher are: 1) First category is teaching related, to all the methodological aspects that reflect on teaching Arabic as a foreign language. 2) Second category is being introduced to a taste of how challenging the job market for Arabic teachers; as far as demand and the opportunities. First, I’ll talk in details about some of the methodological aspects that highlight my EM experience and how it did impact my understanding to my profession.
The Grammar Controversy:
Teaching grammar extensively at the expense of other language skills has been the focus of Arabic curricula in the United State as well as in the Arab world throughout the past three decades. The question is what grammar to teach, and why? said Zeinab Taha in The Teaching of Arabic as a Forgien Language publication. During my observation of Arabic classes at Rutgers Prep school, I noticed that their teacher links everything to grammar. It’s the core of the subjects, the drills and all the educational games as well. I admired that the first two sessions as she found great varieties of activities to instill the understanding and the application of cretin grammar rules. However, I questioned the student’s knowledge about many culture aspects that were mentioned during the lessons but were overlooked as a result of the focus on grammar. One of the classes that I taught, I decided to challenge the student to speak fluently without worrying about accuracy. It was Arabic level 3 which I observed before and noticed one certain student who kept mostly quiet and had very limited participation. In prior classes, she would ask her shoulder partner first before answering questions or participating in any class work. The lesson that I taught was about clothing and we described our own cloths and others’ using pronouns. There were visual aids, extensive input between me and the students, connecting and comparing between cultures while explaining the names of clothing items. As for feedback, I focused only on recasting as not to make it as explicit as they usually experienced. This particular student was the star that day! She was encouraged just to start saying simple sentences and build her vocabulary while continuing to push her output in group discussions with her classmates. She actually volunteered to do the presentation mode task with one of her classmate who is a heritage learner. On the other hand, there was another student who was completely trapped in her accuracy and was not participating as much as I expected in the beginning due to her perfection standards. By the end of the class, I asked for the students’ feedback and this student who was very conscious about her accuracy said that the amount of input that I provided was overwhelming to her in the beginning where she was not used to. She also admitted that she cannot believe how much new vocabularies she learned that day. I was very happy to see the students still describing their cloths in Arabic even after the class was dismissed. After this experience, Zainab Taha’s question started to form an answer that can give me more guidance when teaching grammar. I learned that students need to find or be guided to connect between the use of the language and the grammar rules. Students also need to apply these grammatical rules to a like life situation that can enhance the understanding of the grammar, in order to make the students use it effectively and spontaneously.
Speaking the target language / dialect:
The Arabic classroom has its unique challenges when it comes to teaching speaking skills. It has been always the hardest decision for Arabic teacher to imply which dialect in his or her class. Since I currently teach one on one session, I relay on the students’ preference and linguistic goals. Actually, most of my students come to me already decided on which dialect they want to study. However, in a classroom setting, teachers have to make the best possible decision for the students. Many schools used to rely on teaching MSA ( Modern Standard Arabic ) which is the most spoken and written form of Arabic in the Arab media currently, followed by immersion trip to one of the Arab countries to acquire its dialect. During my EM course I was really looking forward to learn what form of Arabic, how and why teachers chose to implement within their curricula and does it proof success. During my observation I found that the Arabic teacher actually introduces mixed forms of Arabic. She choose a text book that foster the idea of exposing Arabic learners to the most common forms of Arabic as much as possible to increase familiarity to the nowadays Arabic language. The text book’s lesson uses MSA. It also presents three main Arabic dialects for the same vocabulary in the beginning of each lesson. The teacher cultivated the Egyptian dialect with levels 1 and 2, and the Levantines (Arabic that is spoken in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) with levels 3 and 4. I found this a great formula in teaching more authentic Arabic especially that the text book directions and reading passage is in MSA. When I taught Arabic level 1, I conducted my lesson using both MSA and Egyptian dialect. It was about learning different sports and how to talk about their favorite ones and their classmates’ as well. I found that the students had no trouble understanding both forms which made it fairly easy for them to engage in speaking task during class activities. It proved that introducing the students to different Arabic dialects was very beneficial. I was very fortunate to be able to observe that method and witness its effectiveness.
Non-native teachers and introducing culture of the target language
During one of my classes in MFLT, there was a question about the preferences in learning the language from native teachers vs. non-natives teachers for their target language. My experience was limited to answer such an important question especially for less commonly taught languages. I was very pleased that during my EM I had the chance to observe two teachers who are not native speaker of their target language. I found both of them great and passionate teachers who manage their class in their best abilities and provide quality in their work. However, there was one concept that made me reflect on this question which is the culture aspect. It was not the teaching style that makes these two teachers appeared unlike; rather it was their way of introducing the culture of their target languages. While both of them incorporate culture aspects within their lessons, one of them introduced it to the students through more of touristic image. It was like a thin layer that you see a certain tradition but do not understand why. It was also some video clips that are very old or not common any more for the native speakers. Although, I am a native speaker for my target language but witnessing these issues gave me the chance to reconsider two very important elements within my career:
I have to stay updated with recent changes in the linguistics and cultural traditions. Everything is changing nowadays within the Arab world. Even the written & spoken Arabic in the media. There are new metaphors that become part of the everyday spoken Arabic that would be a key element to my students when they encounter any authentic conversation with native speakers of Arabic.
I am a true believer in collaboration. Arabic teachers as a community should always work together to provide a pool of resources, updates and creative tools to one another. Teachers who are native speaker for their target language should provide the appropriate help to their colleagues who are non native speaker.
The second category of how the EM impacted my teaching career is related to work experience. The benefits that I gained went beyond my expectations. Here is some of it:
I gained work experience that cannot be acquired other than inside a real classroom setting. I greatly benefited from being hands on and inside an Arabic classroom. My lesson plans always had room for improvement based on my reflections and my student’s feedback. Classroom management skills have different dimensions when I am inside a classroom and need to meet the challenge instantly. It’s very hard to get these experiences from reading a textbook.
My EM certainly opened a door for potential job opportunity. I have been asked to substitute for their Arabic teacher whenever needed. I was also asked if I can participate in any upcoming events for the world language departments as an Arabic teacher and lastly I was asked if I can be a guest speaker to the Arabic classrooms and run discussions. Currently, the school has a small number of the Arabic language students and I am looking forward to help them grow and broaden their success.
After communicating with the world language department and the Arabic teacher, now I have a better understanding of the demand for Arabic teachers. Students’ low enrolment is a key challenge. However, there are many tools to market this program to expand it and raise awareness. I believe that marketing for language classes, specially the less commonly taught ones, are an essential part of the teachers’ job. It does add more tasks but certainly is rewarding.
If I can conclude my reflection on my EM experience: I would have to say that it 1) raised my confidence in my current studies and how it helped me greatly to participate in this module. 2) I am sure I would be more assertive in my future job interviews since I’ll be able to add a real experience and examples from inside a classroom.