Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saudi, American, and Kuwaiti students: Similarities and Differences

One phrase you hear teachers say all the time: "Kids are the same everywhere." And to some extent, that phrase is true. I've found many similarities in the way my students learn. Certain teacher tricks have worked in all of my classrooms. Others are only suitable for a more Western-centered culture. Sorry, researchers. Your theories are not always applicable everywhere.

One common question I get from my teacher friends is what the main differences are between the cultures. It's hard to answer that question concisely. So here's how I'll explain my long answer: I'm going to give you a common school scenario and break it down for you. Please keep in mind that: 1. I've given a bit of a humorous twist to all of these descriptions, 2. I worked at a private, all Saudi, all-girls school in Saudi Arabia, and from what I've heard many things have changed at that school since I've left, and 3. my current school is a mix of Kuwaitis, other Arabs, and students of European descent (American or otherwise). I can only report what I've experienced, so these descriptions probably don't apply to ALL schools in these various cultures.

A school-wide assembly, American style
Step 1: A few days, possibly even a week before, the assembly schedule is emailed out or posted in a common area. This details the altered lengths of the class periods and reminds teachers that the assembly that was announced a month ago is coming up.
Step 2: On the day of the assembly, the kids will start first period with "When is the assembly?," even though the assembly schedule is always the same and you have it clearly posted on the class board. "When is the assembly" questions generally taper off by the middle of first period.
Step 3: Students generally walk in an orderly fashion to the gym or auditorium. Conversation between the students is kept to a dull roar. You're able to maintain a normal volume to be heard in conversation with your colleagues as you walk your classes down the hall.
Step 4: The gym/auditorium is relatively loud, but not unbearably so, as the entire school files into the room. You seat your class in the first available rows in the section of the bleachers assigned to your grade level. You allow your class to talk because...what else are they going to do? Might as well get it out of their systems now.
Step 5: Once the principal/guest speaker steps up, a hush comes over the crowd. It takes approximately 10 seconds (30 seconds on a bad day) for the entire auditorium to get quiet so the presenter can be heard.
Step 6: During the presentation you just have to scan your class every 30 seconds or so and give one or two knuckleheads The Look for whispering a conversation. Should technical difficulties arise, students generally snicker and say a few comments, but the attention of the audience never strays too far.
Step 7: When the assembly is over, students applaud for the appropriate length of time and generally wait their turns to file out of the bleachers/auditorium seats. The biggest concern you have is watching for the errant few who will walk ON the bleachers instead of in the aisles.

A school-wide assembly, Saudi style:
Step 1: The morning of, possibly even the afternoon before, the assembly is announced. There is no assembly schedule posted yet, administration is still figuring that out. You're not sure which classes you will or will not see, but be ready to stop everything and head to the auditorium at a moment's notice.
Step 2: At the beginning of every single class period, all 25 of your students will individually ask, "When are we going to the assembly?" Another popular one is, "We're supposed to go to the assembly now. Abla So-and-so said." The questions never stop, even as you are walking to the assembly.
Step 3: Students have two speed settings when going to the assembly: turtle or The Flash. Students also have two volumes: silent or Banshee. You have to check sometimes to make sure your ears aren't bleeding, the volume in the hall is so loud. You have to hold you head less than a centimeter away from your colleague's in order to hear some of what she said as you herd your (and everyone else's) students down the hall.
Step 4: The auditorium is deafeningly loud. Most of the school is filing into the room, but a few strays take advantage of the chaos and "get lost" on their way to the auditorium. Conversation between students are held by shouting across the room (in English and Arabic), by BBM, and by yelling at the person sitting in the adjacent seat/rows. Your students have scattered throughout the room, so you select a section of the auditorium and adopt them as your own. You try in vain to get them to bring their volume down to a human level and put away the handheld devices in preparation for the presentation.
Step 5: Once the principal steps up, conversation continues as it has been for the past 10 minutes (it takes a while to get everyone in. Not all the teachers got the memo that the assembly was starting, so their classes had to be rounded up individually. Others had a behavior situation on their hands and decided their classes weren't going to the assembly as a consequence and it took the students 8 minutes to wear them down and finally let them go). Eventually the audience gives the principal 10 seconds of silence to start her introduction before the whispered conversations begin again. Within 25 seconds the conversations in the audience have reached full volume and by the time the principal is done with her introduction she is having to yell to ask the audience to quiet back down. Silence is never really fully regained.
Step 6: During the presentation you are the only teacher scanning the crowd (sometimes you realize you are the only teacher IN THE ROOM) and trying in vain to get the students--any students--to follow your instructions. Eventually you take advantage of a luxury Sisyphus never had: give up and just let the boulder roll down the hill.
Step 7: Approximately 10 minutes before the 30 minute assembly is over, a flood of "emergency" bathroom requests are made. Once one teacher allows one girl to go, all bladders in the room are instantaneously filled and it's hard to contain the crowd. By the time the assembly is actually over, only 75% of the audience remains and they exit any way they like, scattering to all parts of campus except for the classrooms where they are supposed to go.

A school-wide assembly, Kuwaiti style:
Step 1: The assembly is announced at least 1 week in advance and the assembly schedule is emailed out and posted in a common area.
Step 2: You post the assembly schedule on your board and mention it during the bellringer at the beginning of first period. Students are still surprised when the class period is over early and you get the barrage of "When is the assembly?" questions as students are filing out your classroom door.
Step 3: Students generally walk to the auditorium. A few break off from your class to find their friends, but they return back to you once you get to the auditorium door. You don't get the chance to have much of a conversation with your colleagues because there's very little bottleneck until you reach the auditorium door.
Step 4: The volume in the auditorium is not loud at all. You're able to maintain a normal volume level as you round your students up and direct them to your assigned rows. All your strays find you and you don't have to hunt anyone down.
Step 5: Even before the principal/guest speaker steps up, most of your class has stopped talking. One or two of the boys are playing a game on their iPhone5, but they put it away as soon as you give them The Look. It takes approximately 10 seconds for the entire auditorium to get quiet so the presenter can begin.
Step 6: During the presentation you just have to listen for wayward whispers and quietly say the name of the offender for the conversations to stop. You only have to do this 3 or 4 times throughout the entire hour long assembly. You're sure the iPhones find their ways back out of pockets throughout the assembly, but the students are stealthy and you never actually catch any of them in the act.
Step 7: When the assembly is finished, your biggest concern is whether or not your colleagues will follow any sort of pattern when escorting their students out of the auditorium. No one runs, no chairs are stepped on, and all students find the appropriate classrooms within 2-3 minutes after the assembly.

I make it sound like my school in Saudi Arabia was a total circus, and on some days I definitely felt like a ringmaster (ok, a clown), but there are definitely aspects of that school that I miss. All of the schools where I've worked have their redeeming qualities that I will remember fondly.

Vicariously yours,

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