Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Observations and Reflections on Teaching Saudi Arabian Students

Context: 
I teach at an English for Academic Purposes private school here in Seattle. It is a small school with about 95 students in total. Generally I am one of their substitute teachers but over my last winter break I took on 3 regular hours a day.

These were 3 private tutoring classes with 1 Saudi Arabian student in each. The classes last for 50 minutes each. The session I taught lasted about 4.5 weeks, but with a lot of holiday breaks thrown in. Also note that the Saudi students get to leave school from 10:30 to 2pm for mosque every Friday. So some Friday's I only saw 1 student.

Class 1: Male student, intermediate level English and what was taught was set by the school. Using the book "Pathways" I was told to teach two units. This book focuses on reading and writing skills such as understanding the main idea, supporting details and looking for context clues.

Class 2: At first I had a female Saudi student who was very focused and knew what she wanted to learn, even though we were given the book and set units. I enjoyed teaching her for the first few days but there was an issue with her schedule and I had to exchange her with a different student.

The second student was another male Saudi student who's level was low. We weren't given a textbook and instead the previous teacher told me to work on vocabulary and sentence making. I did this by using a picture dictionary and also supplemental material. I also made it a point to practice phonetics, especially vowel sounds.

Class 3: Another male Saudi student who was at mixed levels. He could read and write very well but his speaking still needed fine tuning. Again another class where I was given the Pathways book and to do a few units (actually was the same curriculum for Class 1).

Initial Reflection:
To be honest, I don't have much experience with Saudi Arabia, it's culture and it's people. I would say I'm your average American who knows about this part of the world from what she reads and hears via media.

What has been great about teaching multi-cultural classes at this school is that I have been opened up to new worlds and ways of thinking. I'm also seeing how vital it is to be open minded and also receptive to the student's needs based upon their cultural background. In addition to this I'm also trying hard to not lay down stereotypes and box my student's into a set standard based upon their country of origin.

Indeed, all three of my students exemplified differences on varying degrees of language, knowledge and identity. I have so far concluded that I can't bunch all the Saudi students into one category and teach them based on those assumptions. However, I can say that I myself have a lot to learn about their culture and that when compared to East Asian cultures, that I have mostly taught, I can definitely feel distinct differences.

Observations:
My observations will be based upon the interactions I had teaching these students privately. I am looking for how they used the language, their ability to talk about certain social and cultural topics brought up and anything else that was particularly noteworthy.

Language use:
Overall I found that students displayed a general range of language abilities, from being able to speak clearly to not yet grasping writing.

Since the arabic language has distinct differences from English I found somethings that stood out in relation to this. For one the way some of the students wrote was interesting, by starting letters from a sort of backwards formation. It's probably hard for me to describe this but I'll just say that the stroke order of making the letters definitely came out differently from what I naturally do. Unfortunately, I never really bothered to pay attention to this in other students until now, so can't really say if Korean or Chinese students do the same thing.

The same thing would often happen with sentences during essay writing. My Class 3 student would often put the subject at the end of his sentences and I would have to go in and let him know this error. It happened often enough that I can say it must have something to do with his first language.

Across the board it would often occur that these students didn't capitalise their sentences, only realising later and fixing it (or when I corrected them). Since Arabic doesn't do capitalisation it makes sense they would have trouble remembering this. The following site reiterates what is distinct about Arabic:
Texts are read from right to left and written in a cursive script. No distinction is made between upper and lower case, and the rules for punctuation are much looser than in English.
So as you can see I discovered issues of L1 to L2 coming into their writing, as I taught these students.

As for speaking I couldn't really grasp whether they had any issues related to their cultural background, since all three of them spoke at different levels. However, I think their abilities to speak fluidly and form ideas and not be shy to speak them is definitely prominent.

Yet in the low level student (class 2) he definitely struggled with certain consonant clusters and vowel combinations. Seeing this initial stage I could tell he must still be in the process of identifying and using certain English sounds.

All together those make for the language use observations that were most prominent.

Cultural and Social knowledge:
What I mean by this topic is student's ability to respond to questions and content that asks students to think about and give their opinion on social and cultural matters. The book used did exactly this by having students read texts then answer questions and comprehend vocabulary as well. The material in these books aren't the usual "cookie cutter" chapters such as "How are you today?" "Let's go to a party!" Instead the topics in the book are academic ones meant to prepare these students for critical thought and language use as they advance into University life.

So for Class 1 and Class 3 the unit we worked on was about "The Problems of Trash" such as the large Pacific garbage patch, artists using trash to make art and so on. Unfortunately, climate change and the environment is a repeated topic in EAP classes. However, I found this book took care of the issue quite well with up to date information and questions relevant to one's daily life.

Both student's were able to talk about and discuss the topic of trash, and I really enjoyed talking about how artists can turn trash into art (since I have an artistic background).

Yet, I really tried to make sure students elicited their own knowledge about the subject and expressed their own opinions. Also my goal wasn't just to teach content but to make sure students understood the reason behind the language choices in the book, how it was organised and to be able to reuse these concepts on their own.

Overall I was impressed by their ability to identify, talk about and discuss the topics at hand. They also provided cultural insight and reflection of what they saw in the new culture they have been living in.

Other Noteworthy Observations:
For this part I'm going to say that I think these student's come from a country and culture that is at odds and at difference with American culture. So at times they were surprised to hear certain topics and explanations come up about culture here, meanwhile I was also surprised to hear what they expunged about their home country.

A Lot to Learn:
This whole experience I had within the last few weeks reminds me that I have a lot to learn about Saudi Arabia. So I've taken on the challenge and started slowly to educate myself about their culture and language.

Again, I don't want to hold these students to a stereotype of, "Oh, since they come from a desert nation they must like to...XYZ..." etc. But I can't help but want to be able to talk about their culture without saying, "Oh, I didn't know that!" In other words, I want to be less ignorant.

Yes, initially we all will think about the glaring differences between their country and ours. Such as women's rights, religious extremism and a historical past that hasn't always been kind. To be honest, I think to understand these huge differences it is better to see what the place looks like from the inside. For one I could say South Korea has a lot of audacious differences when compared to America, but since I have lived there I understand the reasoning behind such things.

Now I can't really jump on a plane and go to Saudi Arabia, but I can travel virtually. So far I have enjoyed watching the following video of a food traveler to the country. If you have some time take a look.


If anything I'm now eager to try some Saudi Arabian food (not camel though). 

Finally, the whole thing reminds me to kick the habit of putting America as my center of the world. The rest of the world functions in such different ways and while I teach I want to be able to show that I am not just open minded but aware that America doesn't need to be the starting point for my comparisons. I hope that makes sense.

Well these are all very initial observations and reflections on teaching Saudi Arabian students and I'm sure it will all evolve and change as I continue on.

For a good site to answer questions you might have about Saudi Arabia I found the following one very useful: Centre for Intercultural Learning

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