Friday, September 7, 2012

No Touching

My Classroom
Teaching in a foreign school comes with lots of learning experiences. I have to adjust my expectations, suddenly enforcing the rule “Speak only English” becomes #1, I have to change my curriculum, in B’s case all his anatomy drawings must have clothing drawn on top of the nude bodies, and I have to change my cultural norms, this is becoming a little more difficult for me than I expected.

At schools the world over the first week is a week to get know your students, introduce them to who you are and what you expect and help them feel comfortable at school, with each other and with you.  Both B and I have been attempting to do that all week.

I began by telling them about myself and asking them about themselves. I attempted to learn their names, although many of the Arabic names are still quite difficult for me to pronounce, and I had them present skits and posters to share who they are. I also took polaroids of all 120 students to hang on the wall and help me learn their faces. We looked at the textbook, covered the syllabus, and took a diagnostic quiz (favorite answer to the question “Name 5 states in the US” – “California, Mexico, Canada, Washington DC and New York”. 2 out of 5 isn’t terrible, I guess).

All of this was meant to fill the week. However, in one class, the activities took less time and I ended up with 15 extra minutes. Being the teacher that I am, I decided to fill the time with a team building activity. I quickly decided on the game “This Game is Really Fun”, knowing it is a crowd pleaser at any age.

I asked all the students to stand up, grab hands and form a circle. I saw a few students pull a face and wander around trying only to grab their friends’ hands and not other peoples. This is normal Grade 8 student behaviour. What wasn’t normal, was the open fear I saw on other students’ faces. I looked around trying to figure out what was going on. Then it hit me. It was NOT at all appropriate to ask my Muslim students to grab hands with students of the opposite gender. This class had 17 boys and 3 girls, 4 including me. No matter what, at least 2 boys were going to have to hold girls hands, again NOT okay.

The majority of the class were foreign students from Europe and the Americas.  Most of them had already grabbed hands, it was the few students remaining that were looking at me, waiting to see if I would force them to touch. I backpedaled in my head, trying to figure out how to save the game and obey the cultural norm. A circle was practically formed so I awkwardly shouted, “Okkkaaayyyy….. this is a great circle, perfect in fact, wow, you all don’t need to hold hands to form a circle, this is great. Drop hands. Drop hands. No need to hold hands. Everyone drop hands.”

The students dropped hands and looked at me expectantly. Now, here was the real problem. The game is played by holding hands and swinging them while chanting a phrase. The only rules: Always hold hands and No smiling. I couldn’t play the game though because I couldn’t have them touch. I ran through other team building activities in my head. They all involved touching or something else that would not be okay in a co-ed Muslim class. So I improvised. I instructed them to swing their arms and play without touching. It kind of worked. Not as well as normal, but they had fun and laughed a lot. The class ended minutes later and my day was over.

I breathed a sigh of relief and noted the major lesson I had just learned. I was not in Honduras anymore. In Honduras, touching was encouraged and adored. Hugs, friendly pushing, holding hands happened often between same sex and opposite sex students. It was a cultural of showing love and respect through touch. I mean you kissed cheeks as a greeting. I adored that. However, now I am in a new country with new norms. One of the strictest being students of opposite sex do not touch, nor should B and I while on campus. I can do this. It is just going to take practice and really thinking before I act.

Bring it on.

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