We’re not alone

Trigger Warning: Relationship violence references.

I put my rubber bracelet on, the kind designed to stand for a cause. This one is purple, and was made for a classmate of mine whom I knew, but not very well. I remember her huge mass of beautiful curly blonde hair, bright red lipstick, and thickly applied mascara. I remember her laughing with her friends in the smoking lounge at our school. I bet she had no memories of me. We traveled in different circles, having nothing in common in the eyes of teenagers who are often too nervous to get to know each other, in case the feelings of friendship or admiration are not mutual.

I wear this bracelet this weekend because this woman – someone I knew – was murdered by her husband, before he turned the gun on himself.

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The site of the memorial service in Mountain Lakes, NJ. I missed it by one week.

I wear this bracelet because some – many – close friends have survived abusive relationships. I’m sure there are others I love who have experienced the same, but I don’t know about it. Will never know about it. They are all in my hearts.

This weekend I went on a writing retreat with a friend and colleague and decent headway on a manuscript about youth understanding of consent when there’s alcohol involved. The scenario we write about happens countless times every day: a young woman has something to drink, ends up with a guy, and there is sex – or is it rape? That is what the participants in the study are asked to untangle. The results show confusion. The findings scream a call to action: to better teach young people about not just their desires and limits, but of others’ desires and limits. To make sure that conversations about relationships, alcohol, and consent happen honestly and often. To let them know that it (consent, sex, desire, relationships) is a difficult topic, which is why we should dive in, not hold back.

I look at the paragraph above and wonder if I wrote something that was offending/victim blaming/wrong. Even I am not educated enough in the language to feel confident. I’ve been working in sexuality education for almost 20 years, and I am still afraid. For most of my career, I have purposely avoided talking about relationship violence in my classes; I would bring in guest speakers or just tell the students to review the chapter. I knew that in my class, there would be survivors and there would be perpetrators. To teach the topic in a detached way, I thought, would be more of a disservice than not addressing it at all. I’m not sure that was the right decision, but it was the one I made at the time with the skills that I had.

And now I am writing about the topic with the guidance of someone who has more practice and courage than I do. After a weekend I am still hesitant, still wondering how to put words on a page that are accurate but do not perpetuate the myths, the victim blaming, the silence. I hope to learn and gain confidence to at least address violence in relationships, because people I love have experienced violence. Because I no longer believe a sexuality education program can ignore this topic. Because, while I remain committed to teaching sexuality education through a positive lens of relationships and health, I understand that we still have to talk about what might happen no matter how much “prevention” we teach. Because I’m not going to go so far as to say “no more,” but I want the level of awareness to rise and the conversations to happen. So I apologize if I say something wrong – I’m trying and learning. I believe that trying is better than silence.

Today I am grateful for all the people who choose to share their stories of relationship violence. I also thank those who support them – whether they are aware of it or not.

This post is written in honor of Lauri Hove. I’ll never forget your beauty.

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.

Perspectives of Sexualization

This post will be brief for it will serve two purposes. One is just to share what it’s like here in Oman (that’s what I have been doing of course), but the primary reason is to provide some information and insight to my students in my  online Women’s Reproductive Health (WRH) course based out of Portland State University (hello there, and welcome!).

This week, our WRH topic is “Growing Up Female,” where we cover issues such as puberty, and access to reproductive health services when one is under 18. Yes, it’s a lot to cover, but what else can you do in a survey course? Note: I would LOVE to teach a whole course on adolescent sexuality some day. Not likely given my current career choices, but you never know…

The question that kicks off our online discussion is: “How does the phenomenon of early sexualization of girls in the US impact healthy pubertal development, and ultimately a woman’s reproductive health?” This question is inspired by a 2007 report on the Sexualization of Girls from the American Psychological Association; the report found “the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development.”

It’s easy to find examples of this early sexualization in girls throughout the US. Thong underwear being marketed to children, popular song lyrics that graphically reference oral sex, and dolls that look like this are all easily a part of a girl’s upbringing in the United States.

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Bratz dolls. These gals can NOT sit down without causing a stir. Image courtesy of fanpop.com.

So, what’s it like here, in a country where sexual conservatism runs high?

I attended a college event on consumer protection. The following items were featured in a display showing things that were considered inappropriate for young-adult women because of their overly sexual nature. I’ll have more to say about them later, I’m sure. But for now, just check them out and consider how different it is here. Better? Worse? You decide.

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Magazines in general are notably absent here in Oman. Probably because of their focus on sex.

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Gangnam style! These sexual poses are not OK, despite these depictions of women being pretty well-covered.

Noticing the little things

My teaching is still a little too fear-driven. One fear is that I do not have enough material to make the class last the full 90 minutes. I prepare, of course, but each class remains a complete surprise in terms of what takes a long time for them and what comes with ease – what seems to engage the students, and what makes them bored before time is up. If I do fall short on activities (which is rare), it is only by about 5-10 minutes. Nothing major, but enough that I can’t let them go early (completely verboten here, unlike, say, what I am used to in the US when we treated students more like adults and if we were finished with a lesson, we had no reason to hold them without cause ), but not enough to start something new.  And when they decide their brains are full and they are done working, little can be done to get them motivated to complete their assigned tasks (my students are sweet, though. See what they did for my birthday?).

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Students give me presents, like this chocolate.

I also am concerned that I am not teaching the right things – that my students aren’t really learning anything. I see tiny glimmers of success in some, but nothing that makes me feel proud of my accomplishments, that I am doing anything more than taking up their time. For example, I have painstakingly gone over the fact that “a lot” is two words, yet “alot” remains common (dare I say, universal) in writings. Yet when I ask my students in class how many words “a lot” is, they answer correctly. The disconnect between what they know and what they write is a challenge that I cannot overcome. The exact same thing happens when it comes to writing the proper verb form for the first-person singular. This writing sample is one of the stronger ones and comes from a student who has been at the college for at least three years (all typos in the student examples are “sic”):

“Aaisha is a student in Rustaq College. She has been their four years. The typical day for her as a student is The begining of the week because she starts learning many subject that is suitable for her major…She get more experienced and learn many things.”

Notice how the student gets the verb form correct at first, then slips into the incorrect form? It shows understanding yet something else … Carelessness? A lack of understanding of the importance of verb forms and consistency? I know Arabic is primarily an oral language; perhaps this is the cause of this common error. I scratch my head, and go over the mistake several times on the board. If I write an incorrect form for all to see, they are quick to fix it. Yet when they write, the same mistake is made over and over again. Nothing changes.

I believe it is this fear/concern/self-doubt that makes me dread every Sunday morning. That causes me to debate whether to call in sick (I have yet to do this). Then, I get to class and for the most part everything is OK. Sure, sometimes that last 5-10 minutes is a pain in the butt, when students beg to be let out early, but I do enjoy being with them in the classroom. I like trying to push them, whether it is doing any good or not. I like that a few seem to care, but sometimes the lack of progress is heart-breaking.

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Results of a spelling test. What am I supposed to do?

One time, I asked a fellow, more experienced, teacher about how they grade assignments. With so many errors in their writings, I don’t have time to correct them all, but I want them to learn. This particular teacher said that she tries to focus on the purpose of the lesson: if the point was to convey an idea and they accomplished that, then don’t worry so much about proper grammatical form. If the lesson is focusing on grammar, then fix that. Her advice made sense, so I tried to implement it the next day.

During class, a student finished her assignment before the rest of the class –to summarize a paragraph. She did this well, covering all the main points and even had a topic sentence; she had accomplished the goal of the task! I told her that her work was very good and did not make a single mark on the paper. She smiled and asked, “Teacher, grammar correct?” I deflated a little bit. Although comprehensible, the grammar was far from correct. I simply replied that I understood what she was saying and we would work on her grammar another time. Did I leave her with the false impression that her writing was flawless? What was I supposed to do? I am still baffled as to how to deal with this issue. It’s huge, and it’s not going anywhere. Yet in my classes, grammar is rarely a focus of my assigned lesson plans ( as teachers we are given course specifications of what chapters in which books to cover for the semester), and when it is, it is on higher grammar points such as adverbial clauses and the proper punctuation to use when writing quotations. How can I focus on those points when I still have students writing: “In this summester she studey 5 subjects. she studey diffirent projects in diffirent time.” Or, “when I made the intrview with my frind and ask him some quasions a bot the college.”?

I need to find something to hold onto. A goal, a focus, a hope that will allow me to believe that I can do more than just show up in a room for 90 minutes and then, when the time is done, get ready for the next time, the next group of students. I’m not entirely sure where to look for this.

Postscript: I taught a class right after I wrote this piece. One student, who is always hesitant to write anything (she tends to put her ideas down in flow charts rather than use complete sentences, words seemingly slowing down her thought processes), wrote two sentences that were grammatically correct except for one missing “the” (articles are a challenge here as they are in many EFL students from around the globe)! I was happy and she was ecstatic when I told her she only missed one word, that she has improved a lot this semester. She pumped her fists in the air and exclaimed, “YES!” – Omani women are usually quite reserved, at least in class, so this outburst is very out of the ordinary. Her smile was all I needed today.