Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Homework Issue - In Egypt

What a wonderful morning - checking one of my favorite news blogs, Steve Gilliard's News Blog, and finding this article about homework in the US. The mother is really upset that her 7 year old has an hour of homework a night - and that it is homework in which parents are supposed to "help" (she listed a project in which you could tell the parent was going to do everything).

I laughed at the thought of 1 hour of homework being considered a bad thing for a 7 year old, because in Egypt a kid is VERY lucky at that age if he/she does not have a lot more than that. But I agree that homework should be designed so that the kid can do it with a minimum of parental supervision and difficult projects should probably wait until kids are old enough to handle them without the parents basically doing the work for them.

In Egypt, the system is very heavy on rote learning, so that young kids are routinely given dictation tests (and therefore have to do dictation exercises with their parents every night). The system also teaches math a lot faster than the system I was raised in and gives a lot of homework. Most parents who can afford it (and actually, many parents that really can't) get private tutors to help kids in math and often in Arabic language, English as a second language, and any other subjects kids may have trouble in.

The system is also heavily based on regular testing, meaning that if kids are not doing actual homework (assignments that are written down and handed in) they are studying for a test. My two kids, who are now in the final year of middle school and the first year of secondary school, put away their novels, their computer games, their chess sets, and their sports equipment for the school year, and buckle down to studying until bedtime every night. They have a math tutor and an Arabic tutor (and this is after I spent years fighting this trend - and they are the only kids in the extended family who only have tutors in 2 subjects), who come twice a week each (meaning that there are lessons 4 nights out of 5). Their only studying-free time is their weekly visit to their grandmother's house, to which they do not take any school books. There, they are able to read their novels, watch TV, play soccer in the street, or go to an Internet cafe and play games.

I wish that the structure would allow kids more time to devote to out of school activities. I also wish that there were not so many tests and that there was less pressure on the kids to get high grades and more encouragement for them to learn interesting and useful things even if they weren't in the curriculum. Yet, given that some of their teachers are all too eager to introduce things I don't want them to learn (see my past post on the Arabic teacher's religious enthusiasm), I see that incremental changes in this system would simply not work.

It is sad to see that systems in the US, a country with infinitely more resources than Egypt to devote to education, are not all that much better than what kids face here. I wonder if the next generation will be able to confront the challenges past generations have created for them, given the abysmal, rote-based education foisted upon them.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Yom Kippur/10 Ramadan Commemoration

This year, I notice that the 10th of Ramadan (today) is also Yom Kippur (according to an announcement from Michael Lerner that I received yesterday).

This apparently happens every 32 years or so. The last time it happened was at the very beginning of the 1973 war in the Middle East. The war of 1973 is still known to Israelis as the Yom Kippur war, while to Arabs it is remembered by the date of 10 Ramadan, as well as the date of 6 October. (In Egypt, many places are named after these two dates in commemoration of a war against Israel in which the Arabs fought well and won some battles. I live in one of these places: 6 October City in the Giza desert.)

In spite of the instability, violence, war, occupation, economic problems, and overall pain and suffering that continue to affect the Middle East today, herein lies something to be grateful for: at least this time, the confluence of the 10th of Ramadan and the Yom Kippur is not marked by the opening of a full-scale war between Arabs and Jews.

Happy Yom Kippur and continuing wishes for a happy Ramadan, to all.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Teacher and his Captive Audience

I am a firm believer in the separation of religion and state and in secular education. However, I live in a country (Egypt) with a national religion (Islam, with Christianity recognized as the religion of some citizens), which does not have such a separation as a core value. Therefore, religion is a subject taught officially in all schools here. Muslim kids are taught Islam and Christian kids are taught Christianity.

My son is in the first year of high school and came home two days ago telling me that the religion books had not been issued (the textbooks are government-written and are very noncontroversial and innocuous - I check them every year and monitor what they teach). The teacher has picked up the slack by preaching very extreme ideas to the kids that are in no way part of the official curriculum:

* A kid with longish curly hair who was wearing athletic wrist bands was told that his "long hair" was "haraam" (forbidden) because it made him look like a girl and the wrist bands were also forbidden because they were like girls' bracelets.
* The 5 girls in the class, 4 of whom do not wear a head scarf (they are 14 year olds) were told that if women don't wear the headscarf throughout the month of Ramadan their prayers will not be accepted even though they put the scarf on to pray.
* A kid who told this teacher that the scarf idea was wrong was told to stand outside the class for the entire period as a punishment for saying the teacher was wrong. When he came in and asked for water and my son asked the teacher if he could give him a drink from his water bottle the teacher said no.
* The teacher did not back any of his weird ideas up with any "Islamic proofs" (verses of the Quran or sayings of the Pprophet Muhammad, upon him be peace) but just stated them as facts.

I called the school the next morning and talked to the principal, telling her what had happened in the classroom and making the following points:
* The religion class should be completely restricted to what is in the government approved curriculum.
* The teacher is an Arabic language teacher and has absolutely no credentials to teach religion other than to cover the material in the book.
* The school's job is not to take over from parents and students on personal issues like dress/hairstyle.

The principal was horrified at what I told her and promised that the issue would be dealt with. Yesterday when my son came home I asked him what had happened in Arabic class. He said the girls in the class had tried to raise the discussion of the scarf issue again and the teacher had refused to discuss it. I hope he was warned sufficiently strongly to mind his own business and keep his extreme and weird attitudes to himself.

Happy Happy Ramadan

It's Ramadan 1426! Blessings and easy fasting to all who observe it. Here in Egypt - as usual - everyone is happy about starting Ramadan observances and many are not only fasting but doing extra prayers and visiting the mosque more often and other "extra" religious observances.

As for me, I'm just trying to maintain the religious observances that are required, and to not be grumpy while going without food or drink - I hope this is OK with the man upstairs.