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Archive for the tag “teaching”

30×30: Lesson 22: Age of the heart

Loire Valley, France, 2014

Château de Chenonceau, France, 2014

A long time ago I vowed never to be someone who would wince when asked how old she was. When I was younger, I often asked people their age out of pure curiosity, and I found it troubling when I hit a nerve. Maybe because I didn’t like to feel guilty for a question that I had so innocently posed. Maybe because I didn’t like seeing people cringe about a detail that didn’t matter to me.

As I’ve grown older, I have lied about my age — once. I was barely 23 and teaching in Talange, France, for students with a range of ages that could have matched mine. On the first day of class, terrified, I told them in English that I was 54, which turned out to be a great lesson about numbers.

But in general, why be ashamed of what you’ve earned?

On some levels, it’s not that simple, but on other levels, it is.


“Quel âge avez-vous?” How old are you?

The question had sprung up as I plunged into an introduction dialogue with my French 2 students at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite my resolutions, I had to will myself not to hesitate.

“J’ai vingt-neuf ans,” I responded: I’m twenty-nine. I smiled, but the dialogue continued in my mind: I’m, like, a decade older than you. Please don’t reject me.

An advanced student named Haby (age 19) burst out laughing. “Ah bon?” she said. “You can’t at all tell.

I grinned nervously and gave her a high-five. “Merci?” I answered.

What it is that makes age a shaming tool in our culture? It’s got to be just more than fine lines and going gray. For the younger generation, is aging a negative process due to the belief that added years force you to no longer be interesting, creative, engaging, and fun? For the aging generation, is age painful when you look in the mirror and think about all the opportunities you have lost? Is my own hopefulness about turning 30 just blind optimism that all I still wish for will be able to happen?

I like to think of age as a muscle. As long as I am still willing to climb trees at sunset by the Susquehanna River when my siblings Andrea and Jordan kidnap me from my apartment in Harrisburg (true story), I will be able to climb trees (until my hips fall off). As long as I am still willing to listen to hear out my students about the joys and concerns that are unique to them, I will still be able to connect to them.

And equally — as long as I am still able to laugh with those both older and younger than me and to find common ground among us; as long as I refuse to take myself too seriously; as long as my life decisions are made sincerely enough that I don’t regret them; as long as I am still willing to take the risks to maybe gain the reward — I think I will be able to remain the best version of myself.

Or at least, I plan to try.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Learning Arabic in its cultural environment: All About… Morocco {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Jennifer Boum Make, a native of France and graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From May-June 2014, she studied Arabic in Rabat, Morocco, with Sprachcaffe Rabat; here, she shares a few words about her linguistic and cultural experience.

henna time at Sprachcaffe Rabat, Morocco, May 2014

Henna time at Sprachcaffe Rabat, Morocco. May 2014

Why are you studying Arabic if you are already fluent in French and English?

When it comes to learning a language, people take on the challenge with different goals, perspectives, and life needs. As a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m focusing on the literature of the Maghreb. Before I began learning Arabic, I had never questioned how knowing the language would boost my research, but I’ve been surprised at how much more I’ve learned since then! In Morocco, I was able to taste the language in one of its many cultural environments, and beginning to learn Arabic has greatly expanded my literary horizons. I’ve also discovered some of the numerous aspects of Moroccan quaintness.

Rabat, "Les Oudayas" 05/21/2014

Rabat, Morocco: “Les Oudayas.” May 21, 2014

Why did you choose Morocco for studying Arabic ?

Shortly after I started to look into study-abroad destinations to learn Arabic, I quickly got in touch with a local company in France that offered three destinations amongst Arabic countries (the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, or Morocco — all were so tempting!). I briefly investigated each study-abroad program but mostly relied on my intuition. Going to Morocco wasn’t an entirely random choice; when I was five, I had traveled to Marrakech, Morocco (I am now 23). It’s possible that I picked Morocco as my study-abroad destination for sentimental reasons, even though my original memories of the country are very scarce. Overall, it was the best choice for me in regards to total cost, traveling ease from France, and the length of stay.

I chose to learn Arabic by studying abroad because I am convinced that studying a language in a country where it is spoken is the best way to maximize learning. I wasn’t proved wrong! Being a teacher myself back in the States, I have always told my students that going to the country is the best way to make rapid progress in a foreign language because you get to be fully exposed to the language and its cultural reality. In the same way, I chose to go to Morocco and study with an organization called Sprachcaffe Rabat not only to have the chance to learn Arabic with native speakers but also to make sure I would hear Arabic everywhere I’d go. Classes aside, I most enjoyed staying with a host family in Rabat; living with a family really enhances your learning goals and challenges your linguistic and cultural capacities!

Choosing to live in a Moroccan home was delightfully surprising as my daily activities took a new turn. While expanding my flavor horizons, I also saw myself attempting to juggle between French (my mother tongue) and my broken Arabic, mumbling random words here and there. While I was far from having a full understanding of what was going on in every conversation I had with my host family, I was always able to appreciate these few happy moments that we all experience as beginners in a language when we first can recognize single words in foreign sentences that never seem to end! The same was true in the classroom with my wonderful teacher who would always take my nods and shyly mumbled نعم (“yes” in Arabic) as لَا (“no”) as signs of comprehension. My teacher was the first to appreciate and value the fast progress I had made.

Couscous time at Sprachcaffe Rabat language school 06/17/2014

Couscous time at Sprachcaffe Rabat language school. May 17, 2014

What are your feelings about your language trip experience?

I had never heard of Sprachcaffe schools before, but I really believe in the personalized lessons that I received there, as well as the attention that was given by the staff. Having a couscous party at school was a first! Studying abroad with Sprachcaffe included solid classroom instruction but also so much more; it taught me to find comfort in what became my second home.

Now that my study abroad experience is over, I wish not only to keep up with my learning of Arabic, but I also hope to live in total cultural and linguistic immersion again. I’ve not at all explored half of the possibilities in Rabat, and I sincerely hope that I’ll have the chance to come back sometime soon with Sprachcaffe Rabat! Learning a language is a lifetime commitment, and I wish to commit. Besides that, it only takes a minute to pack your suitcase and go!

Sprachcaffe Schools :

Sprachcaffe-Rabat :

Friday Photo: Choir directing and cultural translation

Graduation choir 2012

When I tell my students that I’m resigning, they often ask what I am doing next.  Higher education of any kind is not necessarily easy for them to imagine, and I’ve gotten a few vague questions about what I’m really going to be doing. Am I going to be reading stuff in another language?  Am I going to be translating?  The answer is yes, in part.  However, I can answer to them that I already have been translating and reading languages as I’ve taught in my mother tongue.  This kind of translation has not been from French into English but from life into life, comprehension into comprehension. Translation is my definition of teaching.

The first step to literary translation is to become very familiar with the source text that you are working from so that you can decipher the meaning of not just individual words but also of complex thoughts.  I took one translation class at Susquehanna University in 2007 and learned that translating is a very slow and tedious process, one that requires much more patience with the nuances of both languages than I’d thought.

Teaching is the same way.  When I was given the “bad kid” as a partner in math class to tutor in fifth grade, my mother gave me great advice: Teaching is going from the known to the unknown. With teaching, you also have to figure out where a person is, understand the source, before you can move him further.

Part of my duties as a high school teacher included working with the graduation choir to explain music to students who did not read notes, a task which required the use of words such as “faster” and “slower” or “higher” and “lower” to explain the complex language of pitch, rhythm, and meter.  We rehearsed for an hour twice a week and performed selections from 9 songs from complete memory by the end of May.  The choir can only sing in melody, and some of the boys could barely sing at all, but after the performance when the students rushed up to ask, “How did we do?” with shining eyes, my answer was always honest and positive — that they’d amazed me, because they had.  We had translated music, which is not easy, and they had translated the music to a live audience — even harder.

I’d like to think that working as a teacher, working with a choir, and translating are all one in the same — taking the time with person, an idea, a concept, a text, and simply moving it to something where the meaning is the same but broader. Bolder. New.

Friday Photo: What’s in a Name?

Crayola Factory, 2012

2012 Elementary school trip, Crayola Factory, Easton, PA

I have been Miss Grove for three years now — well, officially.  I suppose I have technically been Miss Grove since the date of my birth, but the first time a student entered my classroom in 2009 and said, “Good morning, Miss Grove.  My name’s Amber; I’m a junior.  It’s nice to meet you,” I found it so charming that I emailed my mom. (“A student called me MISS. GROVE. Isn’t that cute?”)

I have been many names in my life, each with a different flavor.  Sylly G was my name in middle school, coined by my friend Marie when I was trying to have some kind of an attitude. Seel-via, silk-laden and elegant, was my host mom’s pronunciation of my name in 2005 when I spent a semester in Avignon, France.  My students in Talange, France, in 2007 called me Madame (or l’américaine” because they could never remember my first name) which made me sound snobby, or so I thought, but it was also a distinct gesture of respect.  So Miss Grove has been.

A name can be a reason for camaraderie, and a title can be a mark of distinction, but I also noticed that a name can also make or break intimacy.  During my first years of teaching, I used to hesitate to call myself by my first name whenever I was telling a story because saying “Sylvia” out loud in a room of people who call me “Miss Grove” required the merging of my worlds, my perceptions of myself.  Sylvia does cartwheels while jogging by the Susquehanna River, but Miss Grove, in high heels and a serious skirt, would not.

However, it seems that the first step to being a good teacher is showing your humanity, your normalness. One difficulty with being a teacher was realizing that there is a distinct line between the students’ perceptions of my life and theirs, and I wanted to show them that the difference was very small. (I too know what Rock Band is, have favorite rides at Hersheypark, have opinions on pizza toppings, and have read The Hunger Games.) The best advice I ever received about teaching was that it is a reciprocal experience — I learn from the students as much as they learn from me — and that education never ends.  Therefore, I became Sylvia in the classroom whenever I was telling a story about my first interviews for The Patriot-News or when explaining my musical background; I was Sylvia as I talked about tutoring at the Central PA Literacy Council or learning to talk to the homeless woman named Denise at my laundromat on Calder Street.  I am Sylvia because I want to prove that education is not just isolated to Miss Grove and the classroom.

Today, I announced that I am resigning from high school teaching to pursue higher education in the fall, and I realized that Miss Grove, as I know her, will be gone.  But what I learned from her during these three years of sharing her existence—how to expose myself to students, to laugh, to be vulnerable, to think creativity, to be challenged even by those younger than me, and to listen—shall carry me through for the rest of my life.

After I stepped down from the lunchroom stage at the high school, clutching a Kleenex and trying to tell the students they had made a difference in my life, a junior named Derrick approached me and said, “Thanks for the stories.”  What I hope he meant was, “Thank you for being Sylvia.”

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