First Day of School

April 8, 2013
Isaac Friesen and Wanda Wall-Bergen |

This post first appeared on Isaac and Wanda's blog Life in Egypt

Winter has breathed its last breath in Egypt, as recent weather has been unusually warm. While we welcome the extended stretch of heat, it makes us nervous about what extreme temperatures might lay ahead.

Life goes on, and we are busy with teaching. Our work at the language school is a most central aspect of our lives here. Yet it does not always find its way on to our blog. The following is a small window in to our teaching at the English Connection.

A couple of weeks ago we began a new set of English classes. This most recent course has brought a record number of students. The program now hosts 19 full classes of adult learners, with Wanda and I each teaching 10 of them (Egyptian instructors lead the remaining classes).

An average classroom at the English Connection.

While we have many return students, each course always brings a wave of new smiling faces. Standing in front of 25 curious young adults, the first day is always imperative for developing positive first impressions and comfortable classroom atmosphere. So how do we first engage our students, many of whom have never spoken to a foreigner before?

We begin with a simple welcome and introduction to the course. The English Connection was first established in the 1980s by the beloved Bishop Athanasius, who wanted to bring Christian and Muslim Egyptians together. He desired an English program with a high quality of education at an affordable price (currently 100 Egyptian pounds/$15 for a two-month course). The Bishop's vision has truly come to life, and the program brings in a demographic of students reflective of Egypt's religious composition (85% Muslim, 15% Christian).

The English classes are very much a social outlet for our students, so personal introductions are a must. This entails going around the room sharing personal information and hobbies. For my introduction I always elaborate a little. Students usually know very little about Canada, so I draw them a map of North America, where our more famous neighbor to the South can act as a reference point. And while the name Kitchener-Waterloo rarely rings a bell, claims to being the home of the BlackBerry and Justin Bieber (Stratford, I know- but close enough) always brings a smile to students' faces.

Bieber- who has no shortage of young fans in Egypt.

Most Egyptians are genuinely perplexed as to why we came to volunteer in Beni Suef for three years. To explain our decision, I usually simplify our motivations down to three major factors:

1. Adventure 2. Learning 3. Service…
all of which overlap in a wonderful cultural exchange.

I always affirm that the experience has been everything we hoped it would be and more, repeatedly expressing my love and respect for Beni Suef and Egypt in general. References to my favourite falafel restaurant, and other insider Beni Suef information is my usual tact of gaining instant credibility and relatability to the students.

Finally it is time for classroom rules. Most Egyptian government schools are notoriously bad, famed for careless non-teaching, rote memorization and a narrow focus on exams. In my classes I always tell them that I do not care about tests or their final mark. They are there to learn, and have to study with general language acquisition in mind. I always right three rules on the board:

1. Ask Questions
2. No Arabic
3. Make Mistakes

This approach differs considerably with any previous experience they had 'learning' English in school, as evidenced by the students' wide-eyed smiles as they listen.

At the end of the day we want to create a relaxed atmosphere for learning and conversation. We try to facilitate discussions about any topic, and encourage students to feel comfortable voicing their opinion (as long as it is in English!). Already by the second day we usually feel like we have become friends with our students. It is these types of connections which make our work, and indeed the entire exchange, worthwhile.

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