Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Schooling the school

The job of being a parent comes will all sorts of responsibilities which if ignored have far more damaging consequences than missing your weekly meeting at the office or ditching that monthly report. They have the potential of literally turning a person around. Not always in the right direction. 

Shaping minds; critical, intelligent, compassionate minds that is, is a 24/7 job. Understanding right from wrong, justice, legitimacy, bigotry, tolerance, hatred and acquiring the knowledge to make the deliberate and thought-out decision of choosing one and not the other does not come over night. It is a continuous effort on both the child and parents parts.

Building one's identity can be quite confusing and cruel at a young age. Let's face it, it is hard enough for adults, let alone for our littles ones.

That is why we need to be actively involved in every aspect of their lives, carefully looking, listening, and most importantly leading. 

This can get particularly tricky for expat families living abroad, sometimes in completely different environments than that they call home. It is hard enough to deal with what is happening in schools at home so how can parents reconcile between their own values and the ones their children must learn and abide by in a foreign school? 

Dubai is the kind of city where one has the opportunity to widen one's experiences just getting out and interacting with people. It is truly the melting-pot of the Middle East with expats coming from all around the globe, bringing with them their culture, food, music, art, and also their values and knowledge. It can be so enriching and amazing. But it can also be confusing and even distressing at times, when comparisons are made, judgements are passed and even violence arise. Bullying for instance feeds on those differences and intolerances. 

Image Credit: R. Abouzeid

I was in a car with a Lebanese friend a few years back, and her five year old son told her "I want to change my name". We asked why and he replied "I don't like it, I want to be called Anthony". This boy goes to a British school in Dubai where his classmates are mostly from Europe. His typically Arabic name must have been a topic for debate with his friends and with eagerness to identify and a desire to conform, he decided to swap his name for one he thought would be more suitable to his peers. I immediately reminded him that he was named after his grand-father and to be fair, he quickly remembered on his own that his name is special because he shares it with one of the people he loves the most. That does not mean, when faced with his friends at school, it is not a struggle (and maybe a burden even) every day to carry that name. 

So how can we make sure we are raising well-rounded human beings who know who they are, where they come from and who can be proud of that identity without at the same time falling into fanaticism?

Because when we decide to live in a foreign country, we understand that we are making the inherent choice of becoming part of that society. That of course does not imply forsaking our heritage, culture, values and believes. Far from it. It should be an additional reason to appreciate where we come from and each of the qualities that makes us who we are.

Raising awareness within our own community, at work and most importantly at home is essential. Equip our children with the knowledge to recognize injustice is substantial in raising intelligent, humane generations of fair, just and responsible citizens. 

That is exactly what Noha Zayed, a mother of two with her own business in fashion and design from Egypt did.

Having recently moved back to their homeland with their two children, ages five and seven, she and her husband faced some challenges when searching for the right school for their kids:
"Selim attends one of the top American international Schools in Egypt. He had been in British schools but when we moved back to Egypt, we only found space for him in the American school. I was reluctant at first because I grew up in the US and didn’t think much of the American system. But we had no choice, this was one of the top schools academically speaking. I was concerned as these sort of schools tend to be very elitist and I did not want my children to grow up in a bubble. We decided to go ahead because we do a lot of work on the kids at home: we have traveled with them around the world and specifically to poor countries so that they may see what the real world is like, to appreciate what they have and to become compassionate and fair individuals. Since they were very young, the were taught to be independent and only ask for help when they cannot physically perform a task, other than that they have to always try. So the school was going to help in the academic part and we were going to handle the rest."

Many parents opt for private schools just like Noha simply because they favor an internationally recognized and accredited curriculum that would allow their children to pursue higher education at any institution worldwide. That implies of course, that her second grader son Selim is to learn from the American books and materials the school adopts. 

Last thursday, he came back home with homework, nothing unusual there. Selim ordinarily studies alone at home but this time, he asked his mother for assistance as he felt there was something suspicious with the new material he was expected to assimilate:

Second Grade Assignment at the AIS
Photo Credit: Noha Zayed
Photo and comments on Facebook

Noha posted that photo on Saturday, May 19 and contacted the school to raise her concerns and complaints.

Indeed, Selim was not mistaken, and Noha quickly confirmed his suspicions: there is something extremely wrong with that assignment and the gravity of it all cannot be dismissed. So Noha did what any responsible parent would, and showed her son by example that one must not turn a blind eye when faced with what one knows to be wrong, unjust and unlawful. She writes on Facebook:
'The homework was part of a social studies and vocabulary lesson. It included 2 maps and a vocabulary sheet. 1 map showing the Middle East without Palestine but Israel in its place and another detailed map of the Palestinian territories portrayed solely as Israel. The Vocabulary sheet included 3 definitions of Israel. I was surprised and shocked I contacted the school by email on Saturday, Sunday morning I received a reply from the teacher apologizing for the "mistake" and saying that the children did not have to do the homework and will not be quizzed on this part and that there will be a class discussion on the subject. I also met with the Director of the school who assured me that extreme care would be exercised in the future to avoid these kinds of situations. I have to admit that the School's reaction was positive and they seemed genuinely regretful that this had occurred.'

To non-Arabs and even maybe some Arabs, this whole issue might sound ridiculous. Why not just talk to your child and explain your views on the matter? What is the big deal, right?

Well the big deal is simple: a people and their identity are being annihilated in its entirety. Putting aside the crimes against humanity and mass murders happening every day on occupied Palestinian land or that this very land has been unlawfully and unjustly stolen from those who have owned it since the beginning of times; Palestine is being erased from the map literally. Tanks are erasing it on the ground. Books are erasing it on paper. And educators are erasing it from the new generation's memory. That is the most dangerous kind of annihilation. As long as younger people understand there is a nation called Palestine, no one can deny it. Once future generations accept that Palestine is no longer on the map, there is no need to defend it on the ground. And an entire people can be dismissed.

The definition of the word "Israel" is even more criminal. Especially the part that says "Israel and its neighbors are in conflict over land taken from Arab people when the country was formed". How outrageously inaccurate! It makes it sound like Israel is fighting with unidentified Arabs in neighboring countries! Israel is fighting with the Palestinians over Palestinian land within Palestinian territories. It bluntly says Israel was created after WWII following the killings of millions of jews but nowhere does it say that for Israel to be created, millions of Palestinians were killed, pushed out of their homes to live below poverty line in camps set up in other countries while Israelis are settling down in those same Palestinians' stolen homes and land. Nowhere does it say that this "safe homeland" was inhabited by people before WWII and these people are still being murdered today for Israel to steal more land. Nowhere does it say that Israel built a wall of shame, ridiculously higher than the Berlin Wall to keep Palestinians imprisoned in poverty and humiliation.

This assignment might look innocent but in fact it is effectively spreading incorrect propaganda as fact and knowledge to a mind that is trusting the information's source. And it is without a doubt falsifying reality and by extension, distorting history.

It is one thing to teach such criminal propaganda to American students in American schools in the USA. It is an entirely different story to teach that garbage to Arab students, no matter what schools they attend or curriculum they follow.

Arab are not passive goldfish with Alzheimer. They know their history. And they will not accept to have their children learn a distorted version of the truth. Especially when this truth promotes injustice and crimes against humanity.

So we had a little chat with Noha to learn more about the story and how the school proceeded to rectify what had happened:

What were the red flags that led Selim to come to you with his homework? 
My boys are very independent so Selim usually does his homework on his own without any help from me. I usually discuss what he’s been learning at school with him on our ride back home from school. I was surprised when he came and said “I think you should take a look at my homework, its about Israel” I had talked to the children about the story of Palestine before and we always discuss it whenever it is in the news, we talk to the boys about the revolution, injustice, the police and all sorts of things and he found it strange that he was learning about Israel and that there was no mention of Palestine at all. To his mind, the whole story is not complete and doesn’t make sense that way. I was vey proud because I realized that the boys were actually listening and could in their own way understand these issues. People were always surprised that I speak to them about these things and to me that was confirmation that I was doing the right thing.

Have other parents voiced concerns about the same issue or similar issues in the past or is this an isolated incident?  
As far as I know this was an isolated incident, this is our first year at the school so I have no previous experiences. Concerning this issue, I spoke to several mothers and some voiced concern and were very upset but I think they chose to handle it in a more subtle manner unlike myself. But to my surprise and shock, many did not seem to mind at all and seem to give in to the idea that its only natural as we put the kids in an American school, so we should therefore accept whatever they teach our children. I find that logic astounding and unacceptable. I was surprised by people’s reaction to the matter, a lot of them thought that this was unacceptable but a lot of other people thought that this was ok and I actually got a lot of calls and criticism about my raising of the issue. They thought I was exaggerating my concern and that its not such a big deal and many just wanted me to shut up.

How did you approach the school and tackled the issue?  
I sent the school a very aggressive email and went and spoke to the director immediately.

Snapshot of Noha's email to the school
Image Credit: Noha Zayed

What was the school's response? 
They said that they would remove that part of the lesson, the children did not have to do the homework and that they would not be quizzed on it. They also said that they would have a class discussion about it and they would be more careful in the future.

So how did the class discussion go and were you satisfied with the way the teacher handled it? 
Selim said that the teacher asked them what they thought about the issue and what they thought the country was called: Israel or Palestine. I personally was not satisfied with this although I know the teacher very well and she is a very good teacher and I am sure this was a misjudgment on her part. I think negligence was the main problem. From what I understood the homework sheets were printed from a website by another teacher and given to all grade 2 students. But it is beyond me how a responsible educator could look at those sheets and decide they were ok and continue to print and distribute them to the students without thinking that something was suspect.
Though it is important to maximize public coverage, for awareness reasons, when such incidents occur; the majority of the public will unfortunately exaggerate the context, add untruthful details, dismiss or ignore the schools reaction, especially if positive and in a way generally not help. Still, the awareness aspect is supremely important since we are talking about our children's identity as fair and honest human beings. Never neglect to explain to and teach your children the complexities of this world and those ideas and ideals that form our human identity: killing is wrong, occupation is wrong, propaganda exists, television just wants you to buy things, the police should help you, the police shouldn't hurt you and should treat you with respect, being rich doesn't make you better than anyone else, etc.

As parents, when faced with such issue and with all these dangers in mind, we have two options: either ignore the matter and carelessly act as if it is no big deal excusing ourselves with a negligent (and criminal) "what is the use, my fighting this won't change anything anyway" attitude, or be a responsible citizen and speak up to defend our values and justice.

I truly wish more parents would get as involved as Noha and actually follow through with actions and face the educators when the latter fail to provide the adequate learning we trust them to offer.

So well done Noha!

Well done on bringing up an intelligent and bright young mind.

Well done for leading by example and showing how honorable, responsible and moral human beings should always stand up for what they know to be right.

And with a little luck, these efforts can generate some positive change at best, and a good lesson at the very least.

Mamma Mia

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