The Sultan has returned!

On March 23rd, Sultan Qaboos returned from Germany, having spent the last eight and a half months (258 days, to be exact) receiving “successful treatment” for an undisclosed illness.  To celebrate his arrival in Oman that night,  people went out to their cars to drive around, honking horns, waving flags, and sitting on the window ledges pumping their fists.

raise the roof

Raise the roof! His Majesty has returned.

The next day, my students said they watched the news video of him getting off the plane over and over again, He descended the steep, red-carpeted steps under his own power, not even using the railing for support. There was dancing and celebrating in their homes and on the streets. One of my students cried when she told me how happy she was.

Overall, though, celebrations were mild. The Sultan is home, but no public holiday has been declared. The school honored the event with a prayer. Then, things just seemed to go back to normal.

 

After class

Today the female students linger, instead of rushing out the door as soon as class is dismissed like they usually do (the men never stay longer than necessary). Then only one remains. She is smaller and quieter than many others, rarely speaking with her friends even after the boys have left. During independent work times, she has tried to teach me Chinese – words and phrases I can no longer remember; I am horrible with learning new languages, making my love for travel somewhat at odds with my talents. I let her know how impressed I am that she is mastering not only three languages, but three different alphabets.

Now she writes a message in Arabic on the board I have just erased. The blue marker she uses has seen better days.

“What does it say?” I ask.

“It is poetry. I write poetry sometimes. I like it.”

“So what is this poem?”

“I am not sure how to say properly.” She struggles to translate the symbols she has written into something I can understand, tracing the writing as she goes.

“I see the sad color in your eyes. I wish it will go away.”

My student looks back at me, seeking approval of her translation. Or her writing. Or something.

“Beautiful. Thank you for sharing what you wrote.”

She smiled, looked down, and left to find her friends.

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Teaching woes

Grades are in. My students did horribly and I am taking it personally. This is despite the fact that fellow teachers and my supervisor are telling me not to. This is despite the fact that I graded other exams that showed other classes did not fare much better. Yet, overall, those classes DID fare better. I am left feeling a little discouraged and doubting my abilities to teach English.

Mind you, I know I am a good teacher; I just don’t think I am a good English teacher. I have no idea how to teach listening skills, get students to review vocabulary, get them to read and understand articles in a language completely foreign to them. I talk to a teacher who I admire and tell her things I want to try next semester. She looks at me with a combination of concern and pity and says she’s tried all of those things before and they just don’t work (yet I know her students did better than mine, so she’s doing something right). We get them when it’s too late, she continues: they are taking their last or second to last course in English out of three years in college in addition to what they got in high school. These students simply can’t learn, she tells me in an effort to make me feel better.

In a way, her words do make me feel better. They also go against everything I believe about teaching: To me, you need to believe that every student is reachable in order to teach. Giving up on someone is not an option. Every student deserves a chance. Thing is, I have already seen firstand that many students here abuse this mentality; cheating is rampant. Dishonesty is often prioritized over trying. Case in point: the exams here are standardized across the seven-college system where I work. Apparently, a student in one of the other campuses leaked “information” about the topic of the exam essay – all it takes is a cousin from one college to text to another and the rumor mill spreads. Thing is, this information proved to be false – the essay was about a different, but related, topic. Nevertheless, half of my class wrote about this incorrect topic. So did large percentages of other classes, but mine was the highest at this location. All the campuses were impacted and a flurry of emails among those in charge debated on what to do. In the end it was decided: Those students that wrote about the incorrect topic failed the essay portion of the exam.

So I can dismiss the abysmal essay scores on something other than my incompetence. However, my students also tanked the other portions of the exam, scoring, for example, three out of twenty on the listening portion; five out of twenty in language knowledge – and that was a score from a student who I know studied. These scores were pretty typical from the performance of the class as a whole; sure most did a little better and some even did a lot better. But for the most part, the scores out of twenty for each section were in the single digits. Did I steer my students wrong? Were they doomed to fail? Would a different teacher have gotten better results from them?

I know I didn’t get them to work hard enough. I was too busy settling in, getting used to the system here and getting used to teaching English, to push. Yet still, I can’t believe these results. As I grade the exams, I scribble down all sort of ideas for next semester; now that I know what the exam looks like, I come up with things I should do in class to prepare them for passing. Maybe some will work, or maybe none will. But I know it’s almost mathematically impossible for students to do worse.

Then again, these students know what’s on the exam. They have taken at least two or three exams with this exact same format before. There are no surprises here. Only disappointment and incredulousness from me. Add to that fading hope – it’s not gone, but it’s barely there. I know it will come back as the shock of today fades, but right now I am not feeling my best.

I turn to my notebook and look at some examples of answers I took from the exams I was grading. Students needed to be able to spell “poly unsaturated fatty acids” in response to a listening question. I admit, this is a very difficult phrase, especially when you consider that these students are writing in a new alphabet, and from left to right instead of right to left as they are accustomed. Nevertheless, they have been studying at the college level for two-three years already and also studied English in secondary school. Here are some answers:

  • Poly unifed facitat acents
  • Protocol universed falting assets
  • Holy ansuration vely assume

For real. This is what I am experiencing over here. Again, I am not sure if this makes me feel better or worse.

I am left with the question: What do I do now? I know part of the answer is to try to change my teaching methods a bit. I don’t want the other part of the answer to be lower my expectations, but I fear this might have to be the case. Any words of wisdom from teachers out there are welcome. Any words of moral support from anyone are also appreciated.

Invigilation

It’s 8:07. Eight minutes to exam time and the room is already uncomfortably warm. The two male students who are here so far try to hide in the front corner of the room, which makes them look suspicious. I realize that I assume that cheating will happen, or at least be attempted.

Stuart Scott’s death weighs on my mind and heart as the students continue to come into the classroom. It makes me miss the US. I want to listen to sports radio non-stop right now; instead I have two hours of nothing ahead of me (Note: I now am listening to ESPN Radio as I type this to soften the pain and share in the memories of his greatness as a sportscaster/host. R.I.P.). Two hours of watching students carefully, making them feel more self-conscious than is healthy. It’s not the intent of my close vigilance – or is it – but more the effect of an untrusting and suspect system and culture.

Three minutes until the math exam begins and six of the twenty students are still missing.

Eleven minutes into the exam and all but one are present; the last one strolled in four minutes later. As is typical, it’s the male students who come in late. One of them forgets his pen, and a classmate gives up his pencil to him, even though that particular writing implement is not permitted.

Finally, the whole group is assembled. At least I have no absences to contend with. The waiting and watching begin. I should have worn better shoes. At least I don’t make a sound, as I slowly pace up and down the aisles in my rubber soles. My counterpart and I are somewhat camouflaged in our roles; she roaming the female side in her abaya and me amongst the dishdashas in my white sweater.

One student holds his paper at a suspicious angle, visible to other students; then I realize he is left-handed. I can’t help but be wary of the student who constantly looks up and around while he’s thinking. I also eye the one who stares at his hands. Is he really using them to count, or is there something written on them? We make eye contact. Sometime later, I walk by; his palms are bare.

I consider how easy it would be for these young women to wear ear buds in their abayas, their head coverings easily hiding spoken formulae. A borrowed eraser alerts me for no reason. One student drops her pencil and asks me permission to retrieve it as I walk by. Most students don’t cheat, but enough do so I can’t relax and enjoy the quiet; I have heard the stories and the warnings. In their written assignments, I have personally caught three of my students using others’ papers, trying to pass them off as their own. I hate this mindset I have, searching for dishonesty. I take a deep breath and try to restore my faith in people.

The good feelings last until the student who keeps looking at his hands keeps looking at me. I wonder what he’s up to. My invigilation partner walks up to a male student, straightens out his paper with a stern face, and walks back to her station in the back of the room. She sits and stares at the male side of the room. I increase my alertness. I didn’t see his paper as being problematic, but perhaps I missed something. Or perhaps she is even less trusting than I am. I question whether that is possible.

The guy with the borrowed pencil had his wallet out – was it always in his lap? He puts it away as I watch him; he doesn’t notice me. I think it was all above-board, but I can’t be sure.

Two young men scribble math problems on their desks. It bothers me, but at first I don’t say anything. Is this a sign of their disrespect for the college or is it to set up the next round of students? I finally walk over and make them stop. I sit back down with soft shoulders and a proud back, though this time is hardly meditative.

Thirty minutes to go. One young man is finished, hands his exam over to me, and walks out of the room. I peek at his answers and see correct and incorrect responses. One tries to leave his exam on the desk – I make him go back and get it.

More students turn in their exams. As has been the case throughout this first semester, I’m dumbfounded by the fact that spelling doesn’t seem to matter very much to the students. This casual attitude even carries over to their names. I compare their English to Arabic interpretations to those on the official roster: Shadha writes her name as “Shata;” Tariq becomes “Toreg;” Mariam is “Maryan,” and; Najlaa is written “Nagla.” I have no idea which version is correct. As someone who has continually fought the incorrect displays of my name, I don’t think this is something I will get used to. I try to tell students the importance of having a consistent spelling for their names, but they just don’t get it. Arabic is based on oral tradition and the written forms carry very little weight.

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With school supplies like these, I have no idea why students surprise me.

 

Ten minutes left and six remain: one male from seven, and five females from thirteen. Four minutes left and only four women are using all the time they have left. Two are checking over their work, and the other two are scribbling desperately. There’s eraser dust everywhere.

Time’s up. Papers are organized and turned over to those in charge. Forms are signed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened; in fact, the process went pretty smoothly this morning.

At times, I was able to enjoy the silence, even though I hate this form of assessment. Everyone seems so miserable.  I question whether these results will reflect any knowledge gained – yet exams like this are used globally; they are easily standardized, easily marked, a part of the tradition of education.

One day down, five to go.

National Day and Omani Pride

Tomorrow is National Day, which is deemed as such because it’s the Sultan’s birthday. So even though November 18th is the official big day of the year, last week was a larger cause for celebration. Sultan Qaboos, who has been ill for some time now and is seeking treatment in Germany, made his first public appearance in five months. It was broadcast on television and pretty much made this whole country erupt in happiness and relief. There were honking horns, camels parading in town over the weekend, and decorations everywhere.

decorated campus

The campus was decorated in Oman’s colors to honor the Sultan’s health.

 

 

At school, there was a celebration that resulted in cancelled classes and a welcome disruption of the day.

students gathering

Students gather to listen to speeches. Note the gender segregation of the crowd.

 

As an assignment, I had students write about the day’s events on campus and what they meant to them. I will let one group of students share what this all means to Oman — their passion tells the real story. All errors are “sic,” though I did edit to make it more readable:

On Wednesday when my Sir Sultan Qaboos spoke on TV, all Omani people in this moment feel very happy because they didn’t see him for a long time – roughly 4 months out of Oman. When my Sir speak to the Omani people, they went out  and some people cry when see Qaboos on TV and he is fine. In different regions of Oman, make festival for my Sir Qaboos. Also, my college make a beautiful festival and beautiful party. First, students do dirge (national ode). After that, the Dean speak about what do the Qaboos in Oman and the development in Oman. He speaks about the event (Qaboos fine). He is very happy. Next, some students speak and do some skill term on Qaboos. Then the Dean and some teachers go and see some activity. Finally, they go to party and eat some sweets. This is the beautiful day because I see my Sir on TV. He speak fluently. I hope my Sir returns to Oman quickly because all Omani people miss you and need him and Oman also need him. I hope my Sir be fine in every time and every year. I hope be in Oman every time. When Sir returns Omani people will do big festival in different region in Oman. Same in this time but a lot more. I hope be in quickly time.

sultan sign

More campus decor.