Third Graders, 7 Months Later…

Rewind to my second week teaching here in Palestine. I am in front of a group of raucous, rowdy, grabbing, yelling, complaining, playing, sometimes kicking, third-graders. I don’t know what to do. I yell. I clap. I cry. I even leave the room to get help from another adult, fighting back tears. I know the tears aren’t just about feeling out of control in the classroom. They span across the city, through my home, within my heart, back to the U.S., the yoga teacher training, the jet lag, the culture shock.

It seems like just yesterday that I wrote about how intense my third graders were. They  have definitely continued to be one of the most challenging groups I’ve taught this year. Yet, I just wrapped up a weekly class with them — the hardest group, the ones I cried to seven months ago — and it was a tremendous experience. They knew the routine and they were excited about their collage project. The ones who finished early knew exactly where to go to find something to do. Today I received at least ten “I love yous” from this class, and when I walked them back to their regular classroom, I got a huge hug.

Challenges reap rewards, and the reward of seeing students behave autonomously, and receiving words and pictures of love from them, has been well worth the journey. Through anger, sadness, happiness, and joy, I am learning to accept the heart expansion that comes with every experience, and it is beautiful. Onward.

Release and Breathe.

At a nonviolent communication workshop a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a session about how to deal with anger. The instructor told us to envision our bodies as fishing nets, and to let the anger pass through the way that water would. This is my practice. It seems to be working.

I know that my anger — and I call it my anger knowing fully how much I am identifying with it, clinging to it, examining it, holding it — is not a simple thing borne of my experiences. I’ve begun to internalize the conflict.

Living under occupation is not an easy matter to understand. I’ve only been here for 7 months, with limited language abilities, and gotten a small taste of the situation. Here is what I know:

  • People here are incredible. I’ve experienced nothing but kindness, hospitality, love, and support from the friends I have made in Palestine.
  • The occupation isn’t always visible, but it is insidious and pervasive. You might think that life feels normal, then suddenly a man gets shot point-blank in the streets by a soldier, or an Israeli warplane flies so low over the city that the buildings shake.
  • I haven’t met anyone who is anti-Semitic. Every person who I have spoken with about the occupation wants to live in peace.
  • Every single man I have met over the age of 17 has been arrested at least once, the majority without charges. They have been arrested by either the Israeli Occupation Forces and/or the Palestinian Authority.
  • It’s easier for Palestinians to travel abroad than to go into Israel.
  • The U.S. gives over $3 billion annually to support Israel’s military.

Peace and light to all. May we find calm and compassion for the wars that rage within and without us.

 

Explaining A Long Silence

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Notes from a Nonviolent Communication workshop, Jericho, Palestine, March 2016
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Sunset near Jericho, Palestine, March 2016

Rage simmers beneath the surface, ready to boil at the slightest provocation:

grown men shout, honk, remark, slur, grab, point, gesture, ask,

wild dogs threaten with growls and barks,

men fight,

soldiers aim their guns,

anger is explained away, ignoring its roots:

words like gang, criminal, dangerous, are tossed around like a ball between friends, or

throwing a dog a bone.

Words like refugees, soldiers, and raids are carefully omitted.

A nation is under occupation.

My body is under occupation.

I lose track of my breath,

catch energy from the men on the street, men in their cars, like a broken fishing net with all caught suffocating silently, desperately,

suck it in from soldiers at checkpoints, police on the road, settlers ripping ancient olive trees from the land.

The quality of being livid builds with each interaction,

a survival response mechanism, an unmet need.

I can’t reconcile my outrages, but they are beginning to blur:

a woman living under occupation,

a Jew in Palestine.

In the end it’s all one,

cause for becoming a warrior.

Celebrating the Sweetness.

Recently, a friend of mine welcomed his second son into the world here in Nablus. Last night, I had a chance to catch up with him for the first time since the baby was born, and as we strolled downtown, he suggested that we go into a bakery. Naturally, I agreed without a moment’s hesitation.

Sweets were piled high all around us, and a man behind the counter gave us a box to fill up and a plastic glove to wear while making our selections. My friend helped me choose, especially praising a cookie covered with black sesame seeds, which he said would boost my immune system. “Great!” I concurred. “So these are basically healthy, right?”

Somewhere between the black sesame and the chocolate croissants, he mentioned that he wanted to buy me the cookies to celebrate his new son. I was baffled, and tried to insist that I should be paying for the cookies since he was the one who just had a baby. “No,” he explained patiently. “This is halawan, a special kind of gift that we give when we have a new baby. It is tradition; I’ve been giving sweets all week. I’ve given out over 60 chocolates at work…This is how we celebrate here!”

After he gave me the cookies, I was floored. “In that case…you should have more babies!” I exclaimed gleefully. We both laughed, and continued on our way into the Nabulsi night.

Eat. Then Eat Some More.

Well, it finally happened. I got invited to a student’s home for supper.

The house was beautiful. The food was incredible. And I ate more than I could possibly have imagined.

I arrived with the other three invited teachers quite hungry after a full day of teaching art, plus teaching my new after-school yoga class (it’s in its second week. So far so good).

We were invited to sit down and eat almost immediately. My colleague told the mother that I was a vegetarian, to which she replied, no problem, we have plenty of chicken (it’s common here to refer to meat as red meat, whereas chicken and fish fall into a different category. Also, if meat is given to me as a guest in someone’s home, especially in a foreign country, I tend to eat it). The older sister piled a huge amount of diwalie (stuffed grape leaves, served hot) onto my plate, and passed it to the mom, who added two large spoonfuls of rice with chicken, a bunch of tabouli, a big piece of pita bread, and a large blob of baba ganoush.

A few minutes later, one of the sons brought out yogurt and I thought why not, and added a couple of tablespoons to my plate.

The first mistake I made was finishing nearly all of the food on my plate; apparently this signaled that I wanted more. Thus, round two ensued. I did my best to finish, and just about at my limit, I resisted the last few bites. The food was incredible, and I was stuffed. Whew. I made it.

Not so fast. We cleared the table and congregated in the living room. Mom brought out fresh cake and hot tea with mint leaves floating inside. I managed to find some more room in my already-full stomach. Ok. Definitely through now.

Just kidding. Mom brought out a huge plate of fresh fruit and insisted–insisted!–that I eat a strawberry. Fine.

I knew we must be finished now. Mom offered us coffee, and I said yes because the food coma consuming my mind and body was threatening to put me to sleep then and there.

Coffee was served. I was feeling more awake, but still so full. Uh-oh. Mom forgot to serve the huge platter of fresh baked bread with cheese inside. Just one, she begged. Just one. Ok. Ok.

The food adventure reached its conclusion, and I’m home now. If you need anything, I’ll be here, quietly digesting this meal for the next three days.

What are they learning?

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Did they learn anything?  A 5th grade project studying value with paint, plus a cityscape collage made with newspaper and oil pastels.

What are my students learning? In the extremely short time that I have with them each week, is anything getting through, or is it like a chaotic daycare where they get to have fun with materials?

As I find my feet on the ground in Nablus, I am turning my attention more fully toward my role as a White, North American female educator. In any cultural context, it is critical to be aware of how this might slant my curriculum, the language I choose to use, the artists I present in class, and even the way I manage my class and discipline students. Coming from a position of academic and social power can be scary to navigate, especially as a person who seeks to dismantle and equalize the culture of power.

I am incredibly fortunate to be able to essentially create my own curriculum, and although our time together is extremely limited, I want to make the most of it. I wish I had begun sooner, but instead of dwelling on that, I’m looking forward to making some changes in my classroom.

Students sit in groups of four. Typically, if someone has a question or wants validation for their work, they get up out of their chair and come talk to me, which can end up being quite disruptive. I have begun to address this by telling students that there is always at least one “expert” at every table, and often more than one. This is someone who might be able to answer their questions and help them out. I’m hoping that this encourages them to interact more and appreciate one another. I also want to be careful that it doesn’t create a divide between students.

Also new this week, I am developing a series of art criticism cards that we can examine and discuss in class together. The cards will feature work by Palestinian artists, and we’ll have a chance to relate them to our current projects. By discussing art in a variety of ways, I hope that my students will gain some powerful communication and critical thinking skills. I also hope that by seeing their own people and culture reflected in the art, they will be able to better identify with the content, and thus learn more deeply.

Other ideas: having older students work with younger ones on a project; critiques with partners, small groups, and the whole class; having students present a new skill or technique to their classmates.

I am excited to try out these new ideas, but still I must ask: as equalizing as they feel, do they not still come from me, the White female North American teacher? Does that make them inherently a part of the culture of power which I so desperately wish to absolve?

Answers forthcoming, hopefully.

21 Classes. 364 Students. 5 Days.

A panoramic photo of my beautiful art classroom in Nablus, Palestine, November 2015.
A panoramic photo of my beautiful art classroom in Nablus, Palestine, November 2015.

These days, although the teaching is getting easier, and in spite of my yoga and meditation practices outside of school, it still feels like I am running amok. I teach every class in the school in grades 3-11, for one 45-minute period each week (except for 10th grade;  I have them twice per week, and it feels like a luxury). On top of it all, I have to pick up and drop off each class when the bell rings, and there is no official “passing period,” which means that when one class is ending at 10:30, the next class is beginning at 10:30.

I am ostensibly doing the job of at least two people, maybe three. In class, by the time I have picked students up from downstairs, reminded them of behavior expectations (because they don’t always remember after a week), shown them what to do, and they are settled with their materials and work, they have about 15 minutes, sometimes only 10, until it is time to clean up.

I remind my classes each day that even though they might do it differently with other teachers, I expect them to remain in their seats and raise their hands quietly when they have a question. Typically, when I am talking to a student in a rare moment of helping one-on-one, other students will push in front and interrupt me, or grab my shirt incessantly and say “Ms! Ms!” over and over. Who am I to say that this is right or wrong? Just because I am used to different behavior in my culture, is it fair to impose it on my students here? Most of the time, I am too distracted during class — helping kids and replenishing materials and re-explaining directions — to remind them to sit down and raise their hands anyways.

I desperately want to be a more efficient art teacher. With this schedule, one can afford to be nothing but proficient, almost clipped. I hate that I haven’t been able to get to know each and every one of my students. It pains me that I don’t know all of their names, and that I feel rushed when teaching.

I do have something that is not always common at home in the U.S.: my classes are never larger than 21 students, and most of them are really great kids. I also have my own classroom with a beautiful view and lots of light. On the other hand, in spite of their small size, some of my classes feel larger than I can handle. They are rowdy and they think art is a joke. I give them incentives to speak English which they flagrantly ignore. I see them as a reflection of my teaching and planning, and am constantly trying to improve the lessons to keep them engaged.

As a first-year art teacher (not including the year I taught high school photography and web design part-time), I knew there would be inherent challenges. Toss in the fact that I am at a private school, and shift the whole mix to Palestine, with 100% English Language Learners who I only see once per week, and voila. I am sitting here at my desk, feeling exhausted, tense, frayed, and a little bit crazy.

Unfortunately, as the devaluation of the importance of art education has taken precedence throughout schools both at home and abroad, our responsibilities as art educators have become greater and greater. We are expected to teach an absurd number of students across grade levels, and some teachers don’t even have their own classrooms. On top of this, we now must be advocates for the arts, to counter the aforementioned paradigm that art is a joke. The arts are tremendously important in activating the oft-ignored right side of the brain, and they offer tools for problem-solving and self-expression. Additionally, when students learn how to talk about art–both their own and that of others–, they are acquiring vital communication skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

After I was specifically invited to NOT attend parent-teacher conferences because “parents don’t care about how their kids are doing in art,” I have decided to organize an arts appreciation event.  It will be an opportunity to celebrate the arts with families and community as student work displayed, and students will perform poetry and music. I am also motivated to include a unit on careers in the arts. I created two posters about this for my classroom, and will soon teach a few lessons about it so the students understand that it is possible.

There are good moments. Like when a ninth grader came bursting into the art classroom during her break and proclaimed that her self-portrait was the first time she’s been excited about art in a long time. Or when a fifth grader decided to start a project again because he  had a clear vision, and came in every day for a week during his break to work on it, and who I later found out can be quite troublesome in other classes. Or when I hang student work on the school walls and see it altogether, and both students and teachers appreciate it. Or when I teach a lesson that is on point, efficient, and the kids are excited about the project.

If only there were two of me. Then the good moments could expand. In the meantime, it’s all about constant reflection, revision, and newfound methods of efficiency.

Although I have so many classes, it really is a privilege to teach and know nearly every student in the school (except for first and second grade). I do not wish to take this for granted, nor complain. But on some days, I just need to write it all out, and take a moment for compassion and reflection. I am thriving on the challenge, and I hope I can re-read this someday and rest assured that I have it all figured out.

Fat chance.