Sunday, 31 October 2010

Déjà Vu

‘Tis upon us once again, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and pre-intermediate students from Saudi Arabia. The other day I was walking down the street and saw coming towards me one of my Saudi students from last year. It’s amazing how good you can get at recognising individuals from a distance, despite their shapeless swaddling and muffled face. We drew close and Manal emitted a sudden, blurted, over-loud ‘hi!’ as she passed, which made me think that she had been nerving herself up to greeting me ever since she had become aware of my approach. Twelve months into her stay in England, it still goes very much against the cultural grain for her to greet a man in the street. The recent arrivals are still at the stage where the ladies are uncomfortable in a classroom with men and slightly resentful of the arrangement, and so they occupy a table of their own and spend most of the lesson chatting in Arabic.

After a frustrating few weeks of the same situation last year, I decided to force the issue and get the class to do a ‘Find Someone Who’. This is a bewhiskered bit of EFL teacherly schtick, aimed at getting the whole class talking. You give everyone a questionnaire something like this:


1. Has been to the USA
2. Has eaten Chinese food
3. Has studied a language other than English

…and so on, up to fifteen or so categories. Then you get everyone to stand up, circulate, and see if they can find a class member who has had each experience. If they find someone, they can request further details. This usually produces a most gratifying buzz, and if the teacher joins in, the students can ask him questions and learn that he has a life as well and doesn’t simply turn to dust, vampire-like, at three o’ clock each winter afternoon. During the lunch break I explained to Khalid and Nawaf what I had in mind, and asked if they thought we could make it fly. This is a tried and trusted activity for maximising student talking time, I said, and should not be interpreted as an incitement to carnal impropriety. They iffed and butted for a while and then decided it would probably work, so long as the ultra-devout Faisal was not present. This is because everyone must defer to the scruples of the most pious member of any group, and Faisal did not really approve of females being allowed out of their kitchens, far less occupying the same classroom as him. Later, much to my satisfaction, he was put in a class that had three female teachers.

Well, I suppose Faisal must have been absent that day, because the Find Someone Who, that oldie but goldie, worked a treat. I might even have put on a CD for a little background music, a classroom habit of mine that has incurred the displeasure of the pious on occasion. I was crowing inwardly, and couldn’t wait to report to my colleagues who shared the group with me that I had finally overcome all resistance and integrated the sexes. I crowed too soon, though. The activity was like the Christmas Truce. The following day the women had reverted to type and resumed their self-protective huddle on the left side of the room.

History is repeating itself in the classroom this year. The women behave as if the lesson were not aimed at them, but rather as if it were some blokish discussion of cars or football that they cannot reasonably be expected to enter into. The lessons are no such thing, obviously, but we cannot expect these ladies to put aside years of conditioning and enter whole-heartedly into our way of doing things within a month of their arrival, or indeed within a year. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that if the university bowed to the Saudi women’s frequent requests for single-sex classes, the ladies would make faster progress. The class would have to be for Saudi women only, though, as women of other nationalities are hardly likely to take to the idea and, pace Faisal, most Saudi men love to have around a few (relatively) scantily clad young ladies they can chat up. If anyone reading this has any suggestions as to how to integrate Saudi women into mixed-sex classes, do please let me know.


Sarah said...

Really, good luck! But what amazing progress to have them in mixed classes at all.
The only Saudi women I have taught in the UK were under strict rules - classroom at the back of the building, start and finish times 15 minutess out of sync with the other classes so as to prevent mingling, female teacher (me), female taxi driver to drop them and pick them up...!

Vilges Suola said...

Bloody hell, and here's me complaining!


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