ISERI loves company


            I called my counterpart to see if there was anything happening concerning our work on the next textbook. He was vague, telling me, “We are still waiting for the contract to be signed.” That leaves me my teaching, supposedly “secondary projects,” as my main work nowadays.


            While I was reading at home on Monday night, I got a text message on my phone from one of the students in my American Civilization class. It read: “EXCUSE ME YOU ARE SUPPOSED BY THE ADMINISTRATION TO DO A TEST ON THURSDAY WILL YOU DO IT OR NO?” (The student sending this message has a position as a delegate – one representative per class, chosen by his classmates, who is responsible for disseminating information to and from the instructors, when necessary. Since all the students have the same classes and schedule, each group needs only one delegate, and they see each other frequently.)

            I wrote back to him, If the administration wants me to do a test on Thursday, they would need to tell me. Nobody told me about a test and there will be no test. We will conclude the discussion we have begun so that we can move on to other material. (I found myself remembering what my mother used to tell her employers: unfortunately, her long list of talents did not include mind-reading: if they needed her to do something, they would have to tell her.)

            In any event, when Thursday’s class came we finished our discussion based on concepts brought up in Guns, Germs, and Steel. In the next-to-the-last class, we had talked about advantages and disadvantages of “Western Civilization.” Our last session brought us to the same enumeration of aspects of Mauritanian culture.

            I wrote their lists of advantages and disadvantages on the board so that everyone could see what each of the groups had come up with. I wanted to have this final discussion and get clarification for the items on the lists before I printed it for distribution to the entire class.

            One of the students saw that the disadvantages list included slavery. She objected to this, saying that slavery no longer exists in Mauritania. Her comment elicited a heated discussion, during which several students referred to slavery being in the past and that only “vestiges” or “remnants of slavery” continue, whereas other students asserted that it not only continues to exist, but they can bring in proof.

            Not surprisingly, the proponents of each side of the argument fell along racial lines, with the white Moors, historically the slave-holders, claiming that anyone who says he is still enslaved is enslaved “in his own mind.” By and large, the students belonging to the various black groups – from whose ranks the slaves had been taken – were the ones who insisted that slavery still exists.

            Mauritanians in conversation – both classroom and otherwise – do not have regard for the concept that only one person speaks at a time. Even in small social groups, it is very common to see several people talking simultaneously. Evidently, they can keep track of what is going on that way. In the classroom, the idea of raising one’s hand to wait for a turn to speak is as foreign as the Roman alphabet. Under those circumstances, it was difficult for me to guide such a “discussion” on a satisfactory course or towards any kind of resolution. Those students who wanted to speak had a chance to do so, but I had to remind them constantly that they should not speak while a classmate was talking. I am gathering some of my material about slavery and making some photocopies to disseminate during the next class. 

            Ah, yes, the next class. And when will that be, exactly? Toward the end of the session, I asked the students to fill me in on two upcoming events about which I thought they would know: the celebration of Tabaski and their stints of student teaching.

            Tabaski will be celebrated toward the end of this week. (See the post of 2.2.2004, “Glutton for mutton.”) It seemed to be a logical question for me to ask if we would be having our class session the following week, or if classes would be cancelled because of the holiday.

            There was no consensus on the issue, though. Nobody was sure when the holiday will begin. If it begins Friday, as some people say, then the students will have Thursday, the day before, as a holiday, too. But if it begins on Saturday, Friday will be a holiday, but not Thursday.

            Then how am I supposed to know if there will be class or not? I asked. “Somebody will call you,” they said.

            Similarly, I told the students that I remembered last year, at the end of January, all classes stopped during the time when the students did their practice teaching. This would be a pretty big deal, logistically speaking, as it involves placing all of them in local schools. I asked them when student teaching would begin. Once again, even this close to the event, they are not sure exactly when it will happen. “The end of January or the beginning of February,” was as precise as they could be.

            With that in mind, I left the campus with the knowledge that there may or may not be class on Thursday, and that it may or may not be the last time I see these students until April, after their student teaching is over.


            I taught my first classes at ISERI on Wednesday. A few days before that, I received a call from my liaison at the embassy, to tell me that there had been a “small change” in the number of classes that they want me to teach. Instead of two classes of two hours each, they want me to fit four one-hour classes into the same time period!

            You call that a “small change”? I immediately had some misgivings about this, as I remembered the fatigue of three back-to-back classes when I was teaching junior high school.  But, I thought, there’s no need to make a fuss over this; I’m sure I can get through it!

            Bedine, whom I am guessing to be an ISERI employee, is in charge of the American Corner (computer lab). He speaks decent English and knows how to operate the computers. It’s a good thing he’s there with me, too, because all the students’ names are written in Arabic on the class lists. There is no way that I would be able to take attendance or greet students by name if it weren’t for Bedine’s presence alongside me.

            With seven computers in the room, the ISERI administration has decided to maximize the number of students in the class by seating two at each computer. The main logistical problem that this creates is that there is only one headset per computer, making it necessary for students to share headsets in order to hear the lessons. Bedine’s solution to the problem was to unplug all the headsets in the room; that way, anyone sitting at a computer can hear the sound over its speaker.

            One of the useful features of the ELLIS program is that it keeps track of student progress. All the teacher has to do is enter the students’ names and identifying numbers. In fact, three different students can sign onto a computer at the same time, and the program can keep records of each one’s work.

            I arrived early and suggested to Bedine that we enter the names of the students on the first class list. He said that we wouldn’t be doing that because each student was going to sign in as “Guest.” I had read in the manual that if a student signs in as “Guest,” the computer would be unable to keep track of his progress. When I mentioned that to Bedine, he told me that we would not be keeping track of the students’ progress because they will be in these classes for only four weeks!

            Only four weeks? What do you mean by that? I wanted to know. Bedine explained that there are a thousand students enrolled at ISERI. The administration is meeting the huge demand for learning English by scheduling four classes of fourteen students each (total of 56) for a four-week period, after which another group of fifty-six students will enroll for the following month!

            Yes, ladies and gentlemen: You, too, can learn English in only four short weeks!

            Everyone eagerly entered the first class, with all fourteen of the registered men showing up. Most of them seemed to have had at least some familiarity with using a computer and mouse. All they have to do is point and click, as there is no typing involved, but this can be a challenge to first-time computer users.

            They took to the system very easily, and were able to make good use of the translation function, getting the necessary Arabic equivalents of phrases that they didn’t understand by context. It didn’t take us long, though, to realize that our solution of unplugging the headsets was not effective, for even with the volume turned to the maximum on each computer, the sixteen of us in the room were making enough noise so that it was difficult to hear what was coming out of the speakers. We had to plug in the headsets again and go back to the original plan of sharing them.

            Within the first few minutes, we found that one of the computers was not functioning properly, as it did not show any of the videos. Students at that computer had to triple up on other ones.

            After about fifteen minutes working on the first lesson, Bedine came to me and said, “We better get them to go to the second lesson.” I wanted to know why he was in such a hurry. Many of the students were sitting in front of the screens and copying the dialogue into their notebooks, which is a very familiar way that they have been taught – the copy-from-the-board technique.

            Bedine said he wanted to get them through the first four lessons, all part of the “Meeting People” section, during that first class session. I thought that this was breakneck speed for people who are learning entry-level English. At the same time, I realized that there was no need in tangling with Bedine over this. He announced to the class that they should move on to the next lesson, and everyone complied.

            By the end of the first hour, the students had made it through three lessons. I am not so sure that they were able to retain much of what they saw, however. I asked Bedine if they would be able to come into the room to use the computers during the upcoming week, so that they can review what they learned during these lessons. Wouldn’t that be a good idea, to have some time at their leisure to reinforce what they have already learned?

            Bedine said no, that the lab will be open only for these four hours on Wednesday because there is nobody to staff it during the rest of the week, and we can’t let people in to use the computers without supervision, or else things may get damaged.

            During the first class, Bedine asked me if I would be able to teach English at night as well. They would like to schedule an evening for a group of people he referred to as “high personalities,” which I take to mean government officials, rather than people on drugs. I let this possibility go unanswered for the time being.

            The second class of the day was all women. In fact, there were fifteen of them, rather than fourteen, as one of them works in the school administration and scheduled herself to come in when the other women were there. In the third and fourth classes, all male, there was only one absent in each class.

            By and large, everyone seemed to understand what he or she needed to do to follow the program on the computers. One of the advantages of having everyone working in such close proximity was that if one person didn’t know what to do, either his partner at the same computer did, or somebody right next to them was able to demonstrate what needed to be done.

            Throughout the day, students were uniformly friendly, welcoming, enthusiastic, eager to learn English, and, for those who already know a little English, practice it with me.

            At the same time, I have to wonder what can possibly be accomplished during a course that lasts for only four weeks, with instruction limited to one hour per week. How much English can anyone possibly learn in such a short time, before they will have to stop what they have only recently begun in order to let other students have their turn?

            If the embassy’s goal of this initiative is to Win Friends for America by furnishing the hardware, software, me, and other materials, then it already seems that this is and will continue to be a successful project. If there is any seriousness about people actually learning English, though, I doubt that much of that can possible happen, considering the circumstances.

            First, I think, This is certainly not the way I would do things.

            Then I stop, step back, take a look around me, and realize, There is virtually nothing in this country that is being done the way I would do things... so what’s the big deal?