Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Classes Meet

When I headed off to Morocco, one of goals that I shared with many teachers (including teachers in morocco) was to find a way to build relationships, not only with other teachers but also between my classes and students in Morocco.  My host teacher, Brahim, shared this goal and we worked out a plan to introduce our classes via video.  I recorded messages from students at my school to his classes in Goulmima and edited them into a short introduction video.  Then, while I was in Goulmima, we showed the video to his students and I recorded similar messages from them to my students.  I am posting the two videos here, as they demonstrate the early efforts at getting our students to collaborate.  Both sets of students have been anxious to see these films and to begin to communicate together.  Our goal (Brahim and I) is to continue filming video messages back and forth until we can build an online platform that our students can use to communicate directly - sharing ideas and learning about each other.

AOC Students Messages to Morocco

Students From Goulmima Messages to America

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Conundrum of Language

When I found that I would be heading off to Morocco as part of the TGC program, I tried to learn what I could about the country and its people (refreshingly, it is a country that I knew very little about prior to this experience, which made my trip SO much more exciting).  When it came to language, I learned from Wikipedia and a few other sites that Arabic was the primary language in the country and that French was often spoken on the streets.  Thus I brushed up on my French and hoped that I would be able to pick up some Arabic along the way while I was in Rabat or Goulmima.  Looking back now I can only laugh at my ignorance.

It turns out that language is a complex and central issue to understanding the identity of Modern Morocco (and its educational system).  This one issue, more than any other, would come to dominate the lens through which I understood my experience in Morocco and define new perimeters for my quest to promote global competency education.

First, to understand the role of language in Morocco it must be understood that there are two groups which dominate the cultural landscape of Morocco and define its languages: the Arab and the Tamazight (or Berber).  The majority of the population is of Arab descent and grows up speaking Darija (or Moroccan Arabic), while the Tamazight minority speak Amazigh, the Tamazight language. Thus almost all children will grow up, initially, learning one of these languages in their home.  In some places, such as Goulmima, where both languages are readily spoken it would not be uncommon to find people who speak both languages, even from an early age.

All children, regardless of their background, however, will begin learning Standard Arabic when they enter Primary School.  While it is similar to Darijia, Standard Arabic IS different.  (It goes without saying that Amazigh is very different from Arabic).  Thus it is safe to say that by the time they are finished with Primary School (AKA Elementary School, in the US) most students are proficient in two languages.  

However, while primary school is entirely taught in Arabic, all students are aware of the fact that university level courses are entirely in French; a legacy of Frances imperialism.  (The French tended to place a heavy emphasis on spreading French culture in locations they colonized.  Thus, they tended to establish rigid educational systems that emphasized French language and culture).  Therefore, starting in middle school (which they call college), most Moroccan students begin some education in French language, which many continue through high school.

Finally, owing to the centrality of English as an international language, Morocco has begun to encourage students to take English language classes in high school.  Thus many students in Morocco can expect to complete high school having learned at least three, and many times four, and sometimes FIVE languages, to some degree.  

Compared to America, where the average student learns one additional language to only a small degree, the Moroccan system seems pretty amazing.  However, seeing the system at work it is also clear that the emphasis placed on language education is highly problematic.  Few Moroccan students, in high school, learn French or English at a level that allows them to fully access information at the college level (which is especially problematic when all instruction is in French!).  Additionally, the amount of time spent on language learning reduces instructional time in other areas.  Finally, the number of languages being learned facilitates a trend known as "code switching," in which Moroccan's may tend to switch languages during speech, injecting French or English (or Arabic) in place of words in Darijia and/or Amazigh, creating a complicated language pattern that can actually hinder language fluency.  In other words, where it could be said that Americans suffer from a lack of exposure and education in second languages, Moroccans suffer from too much second language education!  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tea and Moroccan Hospitality

Moroccan hospitality is outstanding.  Over the two weeks that we were there I never once encountered anyone who did not go out of there way to treat us with respect and to make us feel welcomed.  From insisting that we eat more, to offers of lunch called out while walking down the street (and no, they are not just being nice - they would sincerely share their meal no matter how meager it was), to stepping in to offer translation help during a bargaining session at the Medina, Moroccans will go out of their way to ensure that visitors are respected and satisfied.  In fact, it is probably safe to say that hospitality, to Moroccan's, has an almost ritual significance.  

One aspect of the ritual of hospitality in Morocco revolves around tea.  Every meal will either begin or end with tea, and this will change depending upon where in Morocco you are.  In Rabat, we quickly learned, tea is served at the end of the meal to help aid in digestion.  In Goulmima, tea was often served at the beginning of the meal to freshen the pallet.  (And at other times it is served at the beginning and end of the meal - perhaps to ensure that the meal is satisfying from beginning to end).  

During breaks in the day it is common to gather for a cup of tea while discussing important or personal events with those around you.  If you are waiting for a friend, most likely you will meet at a cafe for a quick tea (though coffee is also regularly consumed, especially if you are in need of a quick caffeine induced pick-me-up).  And tea will almost certainly be part of any large gathering, whether a meal is planned or not.

While there are a variety of teas throughout Morocco, the most famous (and seemingly most common) is a mint tea that is heavenly.  Sweetened both naturally and with a little sugar, it is refreshing without being overbearing (as many American sweet teas are).  

It was be unlikely that anyone would fail to notice the prominence of tea in Morocco (though I will acknowledge that some people might be so enamored with the architecture and friendly people that you might initially overlook the shear quantity of tea that you were drinking).  It would be all but impossible, however, that you would fail to notice the ceremony that accompanies the pouring of the tea.  Here is an example of what I mean:

You will notice that the tea is being poured from a tremendous height.  Several Moroccan friends told me (independently of one another) that this spectacle is a necessity that enhances the taste of the tea.  I will also point out that while it is true that most of the time your Moroccan host will not be pouring tea from over their head (as they do in this video), I never saw tea being poured less than a foot above the glasses that the tea would be served in.  The careful observer will also note that the tea is usually poured into a glass, and then dumped back into the tea pot to be re-poured; a process that will be repeated at least once or twice before the tea would be served to a guest.  Again, I was told that this was part of the process of enhancing the taste of the tea.

While it seems elaborate (and sometimes it really IS elaborate) the symbolic effect of the tea ceremony is profound.  As tea is a basic commodity that is accessible to everyone, its place in Moroccan hospitality has the democratic effect of bringing everyone to an equal place before, during or after a meal.  It is one of the great equalizers in Morocco, drunk by the impoverished and the wealthy alike, who celebrate the same ritual ceremony before consuming the drink.  thus, for a brief moment, is everyone in Morocco on the same footing as everyone else, equally welcomed to the meal or fellowship they will (or just have) shared.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Journey Continues

It is 5AM Saturday in Rabat.  I can hear other people in our group moving around, gathering those last few belongings (getting coffee!) and preparing for our journey home.  It was great to have time to talk as a group yesterday during our debrief; to hear the stories other people had and to begin to process our experience and what it means for us as educators.  We have grown together over the past few weeks in ways that few expected (even our coordinator from IREX said that she was impressed how close we have all become and said that this is unusual for a cohort abroad to do) and while we are sad to part company I think we also know that this is just the beginning of our work together.  We will build our own exchanges and adventures in the coming months and years.

Leaving Morocco means leaving friends, and that is very hard to do.  In particular, saying goodbye to Brahim yesterday, and Miriam this morning, was difficult.  They have become friends as well as colleagues, and my students will get to know them well in the coming years as we prepare joint lessons to help our students cross the Atlantic and challenge borders.  At the same time, returning to America means being with my wife, my children, and my school - all of which I very much look forward to.  Listening outside my door, I think I can safely say that we are all struggling with our emotions right now.

It is hard for me to say what, at this moment: but something definitely has changed.  Whether it is something in me (my way of thinking about my profession, my sense of myself, my attitude toward others) or something around me (building new friends, understanding a new country and its view of education, etc.) is something I will ponder on my travels home.  One thing for sure is that my experience has not ended.  I will continue to blog about my experiences for the next few weeks, adding new insights that I could not fit in while I was here (about the languages, food, history, etc) and adding photos and videos to make this blog fuller.  I hope this will not only enrich the experience of those of you who have been following the blog, but also my own understanding of Morocco and global education.

Of Mountains and Men

Thursday was another terrific journey, this time back across the Atlas Mountains.  Where our first journey had been made in the afternoon and evening (which meant that we only got to see about 3/4 of the actual trip), this time we had the pleasure to leave early (7AM) and take our time to experience every aspect of the road trip.  We altered our path slightly on this trip, leaving Goulmima via a southern rather than going north through Errachiddia.  This allowed us to see many of the small rural communities around Goulmima, and to learn about them and the issue that are impacting them.  Many of these small communities are disappearing as water supplies shrink and more and more people head to the cities for a better life.  It was interesting to note that most of these communities had primary and middle schools, but none of them had high schools - they send their children to Goulmima or Errachiddia for high school, where the students live in the boarding facilities that we saw at the Lycée.

As we left these communities we headed ever deeper into the Atlas Mountains, where we again saw a huge diversity of geography.  At some points it seemed that the scenery changed every fifteen minutes, and we struggled to process the beauty and take as many pictures as possible.

Here are some of the images we saw, in order, as we crossed over the mountain.

I have more images, and videos, but since the internet connections is limited I will do my best to put those videos up upon my return to California.

We are now back in Rabat and will spend Friday debriefing our experiences.  I cannot wait to hear about the equally amazing time that my colleagues spent in their host cities and to work together on ways that we can bring these experiences back to our schools.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Final Day in Goulmima

This was a day of successes and frustrations.  The morning included our presentation to local English teachers.   I presented strategies for creating student centered lessons, while my partner Tom did a session on media literacy.  The teachers were very attentive and engaged and it seemed to go very well.  After we finished our presentations we all sat down together (about 35 teachers total) and did a roundtable discussion on education in America and Morocco, sharing strategies and frustrations.  From this we got a deeper understanding of the issues facing both of our countries (many of which are the same) and new ideas for how to build analytical thinking into our lessons.

When the morning session concluded, Tom, Brahim and I headed to a classroom in order to get set up to Skype with our (Tom's and My) classes.  However, we could not get the Internet to work!  After over and hour (many conversations with the headmaster and other teachers) we found out that the contract between the school and a local telecommunications company (who provides internet service) expired several days ago and they shut off the internet service to the school.  The teacher whose classroom we were using knew about this but neglected to inform anyone else.  As one of the goals that we had all set for this trip was to get our classes to video conference, this was a big let down for everyone.  However, we all felt that this was a good learning experience that we could work to overcome after Tom and I returned to the US and could coordinate things for a future video conference.  We returned to the hotel where I was still able to Skype with my class, answering their questions about Morocco and sharing observations about Morocco's culture and educational system.

This evening we had a farewell dinner with Brahim, his family, and some local Peace Corps workers. While I am looking forward to the return to Rabat (and the chance to share my experiences with other TGC members in Morocco) and to coming home to California on Saturday, I am also a little sad to leave what has increasingly begun to feel like an extension of my family and school.  My Moroccan friends hold a special place in my heart and I cannot wait to bring my family back here one day.  I also feel strongly that these students in Goulmima are my students, just like those back in Santa Clarita.  I want to know how our team does in the regional Spelling Bee coming up in April (and I will be cheering them on from afar as they head to the national competition, which I fully expect them to do). Working here in Morocco, even for such a short time, has truly helped me to realize what an increasingly small world we live in and the important role that we can play as educators in this world.  These relationships will continue when I return to the USA, and I am excited to bring a new cultural understanding to my school and the teachers in my district.

Into The High Atlas

Yesterday was a a day full of teaching and learning.  It began in the morning co-teaching two classes with my friends Brahim and Tom, and then getting to teach one of Brahim's classes by myself while Tom and him went to check out a local primary (known in the US as elementary) school.  I got to show the students at Lycée Mohammad V the video I made from my students, got them to answer some of my student's questions and allowed them to ask their own questions, and got a chance to have these students challenge some of their assumptions and biases within the context of their culture.  It was an amazing moment and since we had been working together for the past week I did not even hesitate when Brahim asked if I would be willing to take on a class by myself (we worked through the language barrier - a process which really forces you to focus on those traits that we have in common and seemed to shrink our world even more!).

In the afternoon we picked up Brahim's son Adil and we headed south-west into the High Atlas to a place known as the Toughda Gorge (or Toughda Straights).  Along the way we stopped at a museum that Tom had found online when he originally looked into our trip to Goulmima.  This turned out to be a true find for all of us, Brahim included.  This location was originally a spring that had been neglected since the 1970's.  An artist from Casablanca fell in love with the site and got the government to permit him to begin a reclamation project.  He also began to collect artifacts from the Tamazight people and turned it all into a beautiful recreation of ancient Moroccan civilization, complete with real pieces from the time of the Paleolithic Revolution!  (And yes, I was very skeptical until I went through and saw what he has on display and the care that he takes to preserve everything).

After that trip back into time, we continued up into the Atlas Mountains to another stunning display of Morocco's geographic diversity.  This region has its extremes (from poverty to wealth, from dry desert to stunning rock cliffs).  It also showed us yet another face of Morocco's people - the immigrants.  Many of the people in this region have emigrated to France at some point and come back to build big lavish houses.  There are also the French and Spanish immigrants to have moved to this region for their retirement, bringing added wealth.  However, there are also signs of immigrants from Algeria (even though the border is closed, that has not stopped some people) and from countries south of Morocco, many of whom live in deep poverty.

I won't even try to describe the scenery here, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.