Tag Archives: Student

Fragile Phrases

I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.

My students would write “inspirational quotations.”  After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas.  They would read and explain them in front of the class.

Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations.  Those were powerful times, charged with energy.  We would taste that here… I thought.

My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational.  Same, familiar words.  The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty.  But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.

…I thought.

Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:

  • a smattering of dialects
  • a few different textbooks
  • a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
  • and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.

One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories.  My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly.  I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.

When I succeed… I start the story.  I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men.  In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna.  To me, this word tastes like mercy.  It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.

Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language.  I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English.  I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.

Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively.  I let every word sink deep.  And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are.  They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.

I’m learning to be like them.  The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends.  The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing.  I savor it well when I share it.  My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.

Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first.  We are both still searching for words.  But that search itself helps to give us something to say.

 

 

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Testing Our Courage

Exam grading at the University:

My friend has a tall hair, and a green eye. 

Talking with my students about why this sentence is incorrect led me to a deeper understanding of how difficult English can be.  Last week, we went over the most frequent wrong answers, to this and other questions on their midterm.

The students want so badly to be perfect. I try to affirm them for taking risks with the language, for trying different things when still unsure of their use of words.  (Like the student who, when asked about her interests during the spoken exam, grinned and said, “I love evil.”  I broke in at that point: “Excuse me– could you repeat that?”  She replied, still grinning: “Oh yes.  I love eevviil. Eeevviiil Tower– Paris– right?”)

But my students are still gripped more by what they missed than by what they accomplished.

As is our practice each time we meet, we reviewed quotations.  The students have learned a new quote every week, and have practiced explaining the thought behind each of them, quotes like:

  • Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first and the lesson afterward. –Vernon Law
  • It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. –Mother Teresa
  • Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. — Helen Keller

Last week I found out, minutes before my class was to begin, that there would be a university-wide seminar on “violence against women.”  I reminded my students that some of our conversations about speaking up– or our quotes– might relate.  We went to the auditorium together.

Injustice and inequality were portrayed in the stories of four women, in a well-made film by Half the Sky; the power of educational opportunities for women was emphasized.  When mediator opened the floor for comments, a young man stood.  His words prompted the student on my right to murmur disagreement, shaking her head.

“What did he say?” I asked.  Among other things, she translated, he said that women could avoid being hurt by simply staying at home.

Fire in my stomach.  The mediator responded; another student, one on my left, reached for the microphone.  She trembled, but barely.  “If a man and a woman make the same mistake,” she said, “the woman is treated differently.  This is not fair.  I have had this happen to me.”

By the end of the discussion, the young man had gently backpedaled on his statement.  Several female students had told their experiences, perspectives, and passion for change to be made.  They had not waited to make their every word perfect.  They had no knowledge of how he would respond.  But they spoke anyway– and the world spins a little more justly today, because of their words.

May we have their courage in the small things, not just the seemingly big moments.  And may our tastes of justice create hunger to know the One who made us, to live in shalom with with Him, the self, the creation, and each other.

 

 

 

The Great Stone Face

Sixty teenage girls, a handful of Arab teachers, and one American (with very limited language ability) piled into three buses this past Saturday, headed to the beach.

Another car with a family from the U.S. followed, bringing our group total 2014-02-08 15.20.28close to 70. These young women, along with sixty young men who will hit the beach next week, are part of a program that offers leadership development, English study, and cultural experiences to students from limited-income backgrounds.

Sixty teenage girls collected sea glass, so that other women can make their living by turning it into jewelery.

Sixty teenage girls played team-building games with sand, saltwater, and a couple of hula hoops as the main props.

Sixty teenaged girls laughed in the sunshine and ate shawarma.

Educators, anthropologists, and politicians have discovered that small things like these can influence a person’s perspective.  They challenge us to think outside our own needs, to work as a team, to be a community of life– that laughs much.

IMG_0286From my neighborhood I can see these barren, rocky mountains.  While they lack the chaotic fun of sixty Arab teens on a beach day, the mountains serve as a testimony in my mind to one of my very favorite stories.  They remind me that as I seek to help others gain perspective– to be an influencer– I am also being influenced by whatever I hold closest.

The story tells of a boy from another time and place, who loved to study the mountain from his valley home.  A formation of rocks on the mountain looked like a face, full of wisdom, grace, and strength.  The people of the valley had a prophecy: one day a person from their valley would emerge who would both resemble that Great Stone Face, and embody its nobility and virtue.

The boy spent each day gazing at the Stone Face in the mountain, contemplating the goodness he saw there, eager for the day that the prophecy would be fulfilled.  As he grew up, he would still slip away to study the Face, drawing strength from its depths.

Different citizens of the valley emerged who were thought to be fulfillments of the prophecy: a wealthy business owner, a war hero, a politician.  Each one promised something but could not match the virtue of the Great Stone Face, and fell short of the prophecy.  Finally, the boy who had grown up studying the Great Stone Face– now an old man, and still meditating on that Face each day– met one last candidate.

He was a poet, born in the valley but absent for a long time.  After meeting with the old man, the poet acknowledged quickly that despite his gifted pen, he lacked the depth fulfill the prophecy…  The old man had begun a custom of going into a field at sunset, where the people of the valley gathered to hear him speak simple words of truth and encouragement, and the poet followed.

As the poet listened, and saw behind the old man’s shoulder the mountainside with the Great Stone Face, he called out something that everyone in the valley– except the old man himself– could see plainly: the old man was the fulfillment to the prophecy.  He had gazed so hard at the Great Stone Face that he had become like it.

(read the full story, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, here: http://www.classicreader.com/book/726/1/ )

So what are you looking at?

Taken over… and over…

There were twenty minutes of class time left, and one of my students stood up.  “Professor,” she said.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we all have something to say.”

I’ve been teaching this college class for four years– a freshman-level course that aims to develop students’ academic, study, and personal skills.  We get quite personal in this class, talking about vision for the future, struggles, disappointments, and inspiration.  Each student even chooses a song that pushes them to keep going when things get tough, and presents these “inspirational lyrics” to their classmates (This year’s selection included everything from Bob Marley to worship songs to “Hakuna Matata“.)  That day each of them told how being in our class impacted them, and by doing so, wrote words on my heart that will long resonate.

Several days after my students “took over” class, I was at a Christmas party with the music team for my local Sunday fellowship.  We had all gathered in one room.  I thought it was time for the “white elephant” gift exchange, but again, someone stood up.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we have something to say.”

They didn’t just say kind things.  My fellow team members gave insights and observations to help me see what had worked well, what I should keep doing, and what strengths God has given me, that I can take into a new context.    Their words were blessings to continue what God was doing here, in my Middle Eastern community.

Take over normal conversations with words of encouragement.  Take over normal events with conversations that build up each others’ souls.  Those conversations will lead to laughter, risky feedback, deeper understanding, and occasionally tears.  And those conversations help us give each other perspective, “second-story” views on life.  Thanks to the students, friends, and family who do this in my world.