Sunday, January 30, 2011

Assume Nothing

Another lesson my college professors let me find out the hard way was to never --ever--assume that students know something. I learned this, like most teachers, during my first year of teaching in an urban middle school in the States. One would think that by the time they've been in school for 7 years, kids would know that spouting off expletives at an inappropriate volume would be grounds for detention. One would be mistaken.

You might think that kids would know not to just get up and wander around the room in the middle of a lesson, test, or general presentation. Nope. They have to be directly instructed not to do so. Manners are very subjective, and you have to teach kids what is and isn't appropriate in your classroom.

I've forgotten this lesson. You would think with this being my fifth year of teaching I'd have things like this committed to memory. Nope. I didn't realize how badly I've regressed until this morning when I was proctoring an exam.

Here's how a test has generally gone this year, and it's baffled me ever since I arrived:
  • Student has a question, so she blurts it out, despite being told to raise her hand and wait to be acknowledged.
  • Student finishes her test before classmates and proceeds to pass notes--in full view of the teacher-- to students nearby that are still working on their tests.
  • Two students finish their tests before classmates and commence a conversation in normal vocal tones--not even trying to whisper. I'm usually standing directly next to the students when they start their conversation.
  • One student miraculously raises her hand, waits to be acknowledged and even whispers her question so ask to avoid being a distraction. But her classmate one desk away hears the answer, misinterprets it and begins to freak out thinking she's done something wrong. "Eysh? Eysh?" (what?! What?!) she asks her classmate--not me--in Arabic.

Because until I arrived, it has been acceptable. The concept of respecting the testing atmosphere is completely foreign to my students and, apparently, my colleagues.

It's school policy that the exams be proctored by one Arabic teacher and one English teacher. This made for an awkward couple hours because the girls weren't sure to whom to direct their questions--the exam was in Arabic, so I was obviously no help, but they didn't want to be rude and just ignore me all together. The Arabic teacher took over at the beginning of the exam period and gave all the instructions in Arabic and the exam period started--before all the girls had arrived.

As a result, girls trickled in and had to be given the directions bit by bit.

I had closed the door at the beginning of the testing period, but the Arabic teacher reopened it so she could stand in the doorway and talk to any of the other Adults that passed by. Phones were ringing, doors were slamming, and laughter trickled into the room as the girls desperately tried to focus on the task at hand.

Then about a quarter through the testing period, the girls' Math teacher came in (at least I'm assuming it was their Math teacher) to clarify instructions and answer questions...I think. All of this was in Arabic, so I was pretty much a lame duck who stood in the corner and nodded her head at random times.

After she interrupted the testing mojo, the girls' floodgates opened. They would randomly call out, "Abla," (teacher) and spew out a question, even though the Abla was across the room. And the Abla would answer....FROM ACROSS THE ROOM!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what culture shock in an international classroom looks like. I had no idea that behavior like this is totally acceptable, but as I stood there pondering this during the exam, I realized this really is a cultural thing.

These girls are so used to noise and distraction that what I consider to be interruptions during a test are not interruptions at all. A one-child Arabic home is extremely extremely rare, so these girls deal with 2, 3, 4, 5 or more siblings running around all the time. The students and Arabic teachers are constantly surrounded by noise, and it appears they have learned to tune it all out.

I assumed that when I told the girls that they needed to stay quiet after finishing their test that "quiet" meant the same thing to everyone in the room. To my girls, quiet starts at 150 decibels, so they assumed they were following directions.

Vicariously yours,

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