Inkshed Conference XVI
Samia Costandi's Presentation
May 8/1999

Cultural bridges and student testimonies

Teaching in the environment of war, bombardment, and the threat of being kidnapped in Beirut, the insanity and chaos that breaks the psyche and soul, is an experience that has molded me into the kind of teacher I am. Through narrative, I can share with you mental images and glimpses of what it was like, an opportunity I cherish.

Personal and collective experience of hardship, including standing at the gates of Hades more than once, raised our consciousness; "our" since my experience was not isolated. The heroic efforts students made to arrive safely in classes could not but be matched by teachers' complete dedication.

Carol Gilligan's description of the difference between female and male consciousness and ways of engaging the world morally [in her book In a Different Voice] suggests an adequate comment. One of her interviewees, an adolescent female, said the following:

I have a very strong sense of being responsible to the world, that I can't just live for my enjoyment, but just the fact of being in the world gives me an obligation to do what I can to make the world a better place to live in, no matter how small a scale that may be on. (Gilligan, p. 21)

The ESL program, ingeniously devised by the linguist and educator Dr. Raja Nasr to fit the needs of students at different levels of proficiency and from different backgrounds, employed forty female teachers. All of us worried about what Gilligan's subject calls "'the possibility of omission, of [one's] not helping others when [one] could help them.'" What Gilligan calls 'the complexity and multifaceted character of real people and real situations" (p. 21) changes the pedagogic act from an information transmitting act to an act of rebirth, regeneration, deep engagement in the lives of students on many levels, an endeavor that requires what Edward Said calls the ethical commitment of the intellectual.

When taking attendance, absenteeism may have meant the fear that one of our students could have been killed or kidnapped. We were teaching students who sometimes arrived in classes to do their exams after having spent the whole night in a shelter! Partnerships woven with love, care, and responsibility involved friendship, mentoring, mothering, advising, role-modeling, that is presence in every way. Most of us teachers did not miss a day of teaching during our five years in the program from 83-88.

The ESL program was created specifically to help students from lower status incomes who sometimes came from villages or poor areas to study at the university. We knew very well that the parents of those kids were putting everything they owned into the education of their young, hoping that their sons and daughters would procure a scholarship enabling them either to enter university, or perhaps leave the country to create new lives for themselves. Remember, education was not, and is not, free in Lebanon.

The educational milieu was fraught with complexity: here we were alumni who were educated in the Western tradition, mostly in English and American schools, had traveled widely earlier in our lives, spoke with a British or American accent, trying to teach kids whose communities were bombarded daily by Israel and other implicated local parties with American-made bombs and shells. These kids were mostly Moslem Lebanese living in what was called Western Beirut. It was a welter of contradictions; all teachers in the program, no matter Christian or Moslem, considered the Israeli and American assault on Lebanon despicable; however, here we were teaching English literature, English language to traumatized students who were yearning for an opportunity to enter American Universities!

The moral texture of our endeavor stemmed from three basic implicit beliefs: First, cultural boundaries must be crossed in order for dialogue to ensue, in order for bridges of understanding to be created. Second, despite the West's antagonism towards our communities, our students had to learn to appreciate what Western societies thrive on internally: democratic rights and privileges . Third, and on the other hand, knowing the "enemy" was crucial in order to fight it in different, non-violent alternative ways, ways that had to do with success, travel, the media, empowerment through knowledge, and gaining access to the West through its own ideals. More importantly, it was about appropriating the text of the colonizer.

None of us teachers had diplomas in teaching ESL, but theory was matched with practice since we were required to procure our diplomas while we were teaching. These were exciting times since we would always meet and exchange views on what was working best. When our students passed the TOFFEL exams, this was our reward. Each passing grade was a victory on the social, psychological, ethical, and linguistic levels.

I believe strongly that the fact that we were all women made the program successful. I am saying this simply because it is difficult to find many men adhering to feminist ideology in Beirut. As Helen Buss says in her book Mapping Ourselves, we had to contend with cultural myths that were not useful and create new myths, new fictions to make truth, we constructed new frameworks, named priorities, assumed particular readings - and I would add interpreted readings in a new way - in order to give our students new visions. We carved our own identities as teachers in that complex culture, in language, despite all odds, with difficulty, but probably successfully. We helped our students construct their own truths, new truths that were framed in new contexts which were not in harmony with the prevailing patriarchal and political hegemony (Buss, p. 29).

I recall that the first class I taught was actually the best one, the most enthusiastic and brilliant. Sixty students, all passed their English exams, forty of whom with an average matching a master's student average, over 600 in the Beirut locale. Many of them traveled abroad and unfortunately never came back. Total disgust with a life in the midst of a vicious war made them incurably disillusioned. Was that a success, the fact that they never came back? I wonder about that sometimes, but then personal autonomy and integrity were, for them, not possible at the time in the existing frameworks. Others succeeded and stayed in Beirut; many left to study abroad but did eventually come back. Some are employed in various ministries today.

I remember at the end of the semester I invited that very first class to my home, and they brought me a gift, a tree, with a card hanging on it saying, "From a very special class to a very special teacher." But this was not only my legacy, it was the legacy of every teacher in Beirut.

Whether it was in the first chapter of Pride & Prejudice - in the conversation between Mr. & Mrs. Bennett - or in the fascinating plot of a more accessible book, Jeffrey Archer's Kane & Able, I tried to make those literary pieces and situations accessible to my students through drawing comparisons with their own lives. For example, on Mrs. Bennett's enthusiasm to marry off her daughters, many identified with that since they came from homes where their families, particularly mothers, were interested in marrying off their daughters. The characters of Mr. & Mrs. Bennett were not strange to them. However, they needed to get over the intimidation of the language and the worry about grades before they could enjoy the literature and the readings.

The job of the teacher was to make the class interesting, entertaining, captivating, if you like, to take them on mental trips that opened their horizons and gave them alternative world views. It was very challenging, particularly since we were working against all odds. Aside from safety and security, many of our adult students had immense responsibilities to contend with at home since parents or siblings had been killed.

I would make students enact dramatically certain sections of our readings of novels, and they enjoyed doing that. It was a stark contrast to the monotony and sterility of the political rhetoric they were used to tuning into every day. Sometimes they volunteered to do the acting, and sometimes I pushed them, particularly those who were mischievous and needed to be engaged. Humor was one of the most salient features of the teaching-learning process that led to comprehension. As Parker Palmer says, "To teach is to create a space" 'a learning space that has three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality' (Palmer, 1983, pp. 69-72). Although our boundaries were violated daily by the war, we managed to thrive on openness and hospitality.

These class assignments became very enjoyable tasks, moments of fun, humor, and healthy interaction. The classroom was a hospitable place where everyone was encouraged not only to express themselves but to make suggestions about what to do next. I once made one of my most troublesome students dance with one of the girls as they played Darcy and Elizabeth at the ball in Pride & Prejudice!

For most, this was not simply English as a Second Language, it was really foreign language considering that language is embedded in culture and that language is much more than words. 'Different worlds had to meet.' After all, what would make a young Lebanese man or woman who had no background in Western education enjoy European or English literature?

We watched videos, like the adaptation to the screen of Hemingway's classic The Old Man & the Sea. I used that story, I recall, as a metaphor for the struggles they were going through as human beings. Even though one student challenged me and said that it represented nothing to him, I threw the question back at the class, and other students challenged him in turn and spoke about the courage of the old man, about unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, about determination, persistence and commitment.

Once, I brought a friend who played guitar into the classroom and I sang with him, the students also sang with us. No one taught us teachers to do that. You must understand that in a traditional setting this is unheard of. We had to be inventive and make the classroom a safe and inviting meeting place which anchored students, yet entertained them to arouse their interest.

As far as grades were concerned, I used to say at the outset of every course, "No one can fail this class unless they are determined to do so!" We tried to give them confidence in themselves and continuous encouragement.

Teaching in Montréal and at McGill was a great opportunity for me to enrich my research while I was doing my masters degree; I taught the Foundations course in Philosophy of Education for five years. I must tell you that I was quite nervous when I stood up for the first time to lecture in a classroom at the Faculty of Education at McGill.

I recall that I made a conscious decision to be clear about my identity, to make sure my students knew I was Palestinian, and that I had lived in Beirut throughout the whole civil war. Their eyes were riveted, they listened very intently. One of the students sitting in front was visibly affected. Later in the course she came into my office and told me she was Jewish, and that she had never met a Palestinian before. I welcomed her and said that was a great opportunity for both of us to learn about each other's cultures. At the end of my first course, one of the questions we gave our students was to evaluate the course in light of the different philosophies they had studied. She wrote me a beautiful essay question in which she partly, and at the end, said the following.

When I attended the first session in the course philosophy of ed., I thought that I had been doubly cursed: I had to study philosophy of education, and the teacher told us she was Palestinian! Being Jewish, I did not know what to expect. As it turned out, this was the one class among most classes I had taken in recent memory in which I felt respected, appreciated, and invited to express my opinions freely. The class was enjoyable, motivating and welcoming to all students no matter their background. The teacher had the ability to listen very well to everyone and to make connections; she was a great facilitator.

Another wrote:

To 'challenge', 'criticize', 'ask', 'think', 'explain' are key words in your lessons. By now, I know this is the way to study philosophy (or even other subjects). 'Interactive', 'communicative,' 'emotional', 'human', 'stimulating', are words that come up to my mind when describing your lessons. I am very happy when I find that some of my feelings and thoughts are identical to some philosophers

Helen Buss speaks, as Gerda Lerner does, of how the history of women is different from the history of men:

when not using the 'lens of men's records and observations' women have not necessarily seen the time periods considered significant by men as significant of their own development. In fact in this familial and personal world, history is always interwoven with a woman's own development so that the memoir writer is also an autobiographer. (Buss, p. 63)

I am referring to this because my emphasis on narrative and autobiography, what Sam Keen calls the construction of a personal mythology, is crucial to my teaching. I have always encouraged my students to write autobiographies, diaries, personal reflections; as a matter of fact the one assignment that I always gave as an optional assignment in all classes of philosophy of education at McGill was 'writing their personal myth,' and everyone chose to do it!

Papers poured, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty pages each! Due to the constraints in time, I am distributing to you copies of some of the comments I received on how helpful this exercise was for them. One example is:

I loved writing my personal myth! It was so different being able (and encouraged) to spend a substantial amount of time thinking about myself. But it wasn't an egotistical type of thinkingit was more critical and questioning in nature. I had to think about my values, understanding and beliefs. This is a wonderful exercise for any student - and individual- at any age.

Charles Taylor in his classic work The Malaise of Modernity addresses the question whether there is a 'loss of the heroic dimension of life' in Western society? I believe and feel that there is, and that one of the ways educators can bridge that gap is by using narrative - the personal myth - to create for students venues to foster an enrichment of personal identity, to invite the convergence of multi-dimensional points of focus in a life, creating various thresholds; it involves seeing through a cinematic lens the evolvement of one's heroic life journey. The message Joseph Campbell tried to convey all through his life and publications, and which my master's thesis dealt with at length, is that each one of us is the hero or heroine of our own lives; that mythology, despite its cultural inflections, denotes through its archetypes a commonality of human experience that must be tapped into.

The West continues to be predominated by instrumental reason, which if not complemented by wisdom, as I found out through my life experience, and as many Western writers have affirmed, can create grave consequences - as we can all see through the kidnapping of young minds by technology. Due to constraints in time I cannot go into this paradigm adequately. However, the abandonment of myth and ritual, the dismantling of religious institutions and language (as Gabriel Moran points out so well), the dismemberment of communities, and the competitive ruthless greed of consumerist societies have left our children with a big vacuum in our respective North American communities. The young cannot find their own niches in this world anymore. Taylor describes it as, 'a manifold disengagement and withdrawal from participation' since the 'atomism of the self-absorbed individual' predominates. Taylor quotes Alex de Tocqueville: "A society of people 'enclosed in their own hearts' preferring the government provide comforts and satisfactions." Thus, what ensues is a loss of meaning and, as Taylor puts it, a fading of moral horizons. (Taylor, pp. 1-12)

I believe that, as Helen Buss clarifies in drawing on the book Women's Ways of Knowing, "the most successful pattern for women [& I would add men] is to become connected rather than separate knowers." (Buss, p. 114) I know through my experience that one of the most effective ways my students were encouraged to become connected knowers is through writing their personal myths as well as through my use of narrative in the classroom to explain, of all things, philosophy. A bigger testimony than my own humble work is the fascinating book Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder which became one of the New York Times best sellers. It is a remarkable book in which a Danish high-school teacher creates a "whimsical and ingenious mystery novel that also happens to be a history of philosophy" (Gaarder, 1996, Jacket).

In this presentation, I have tried to construct a text that, in Buss's words "allows for difference, allows for a variety of ways of embracing it, both intellectual and emotional, yet puts no border between the reader, writer, and textual activity, a text which is its writer, which is its reader, which contains itself in its otherness" (Buss, p. 199).

I have invited you into my life and the lives of my students through the language of listeners, artists, shamans, seers, mystics, and above all creative educators.

Copyright@ 1999, Samia Costandi