You don’t have to explain your life

You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.

… I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English degree you’ll say: “Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire”; or maybe just: “Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”

–Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things



Education in the Headlines: India and Finland


Cross-posted at

International education issues do not always hit the headlines or trend on Twitter, but one day a couple of weeks ago, two such stories did.

A striking image from Bihar, India momentarily trended on social media. The photo in question depicted dozens of adult men desperately scaling, by hand, a multistory brick building. The accompanying story explained that inside the building, students were taking their Grade 10 year-end examinations. Outside, parents–mainly fathers, apparently–clambered up the walls to pass answers on to their children. As far I could tell, in the coverage, much ire was directed toward the “cheating” parents and their audacity to break the rules so blatantly in broad daylight. Embarrassed authorities made arrests and promised to crack down and prevent any further scandalous cheating incidents. In one article a father was quoted as saying that “the only way [to] get out of this poverty trap is through education.”

Meanwhile, that same week or shortly thereafter, educational authorities in Finland announced that the country would be replacing subject-based teaching with teaching by “phenomenon.” Instead of organizing schoolwork around traditional subject areas–literature, mathematics, science, etc.–classes would be organized around topics, like “cafeteria services” or the European Union, in order to encourage a cross-disciplinary approach. The Independent‘s coverage of the reforms included words like “small groups,” “collaborative learning,” “playful,” “prepare children for the future,” “safe, happy, relaxed, and inspired.” The redesign of curriculum was meant as an alternative to systems that “push kids through ‘exam factories.'”

The image of Bihar children, sitting inside exactly such an exam factory, placed next to the Finnish children “rushing around corridors” playfully and collaboratively, struck me as a cruel juxtaposition, and the ire toward Indian parents horribly misplaced. Maybe if the education on offer in Bihar’s schools were meaningful, it would not be so easy to scam. Perhaps, if formal schooling in India addressed children’s cultural backgrounds and changing economic realities–as it does in Finland–then parents would not feel the need or compulsion to cheat.

It reminds me of how, in the newer research and literature on educational development and domestic education reform, the term “drop-out” is increasingly being replaced with “push-out.” To say a student “dropped out” suggests that leaving school was an autonomous choice, and a wrongheaded one at that–a student who drops out is labeled “a dropout” and all but handed a dunce cap. To say that a student was “pushed out” poses a different idea and connotation–that the student put forth genuine effort to attend and remain in school, but that the inhospitable, or downright hostile, environment of the formal educational system forced him/her out of the school. The student is not at fault; the school is for undermining students’ learning through unfair, inequitable, or simply inept policies and practices.

In other words: if Black high schoolers in Philadelphia are disproportionately targeted for expulsion and other disciplinary action, and they leave school before graduating, can they be said to have dropped out–or has the school all but told them they are not wanted there? Likewise, if children in Bihar are forced to learn through the medium of Standard Hindi or English–both foreign languages to many learners in Bihar, who at home speak Urdu and other dialects of Hindi–can you blame them for cheating? Or are they resisting linguistic submersion and assimilation?

We could reframe Bihar parents’ cheating in a similar way. Are parents “cheaters”? Or are they engaged, concerned parents who care enough to miss out on a day of wages and risk a criminal record for the sake of their children’s futures–children who have already beaten the odds by attaining a secondary-level education? It may be that I am romanticizing and excusing corrupt behavior, or that what I am saying is a version of cliche “hate the crime, not the criminal”-type thinking. But I believe that in the context of education, this is not cliche but is the type of thinking we desperately need more of. We need less focus on students’ deficits in relation to school and more on their assets and resources; less focus on how students and families are failing to conform to the strictures of schools, more focus on how schools are failing to serve the needs and realities of students and families.

Finland already knows that this is what is important, and it has reformed its schooling in line with that idea; now India, and most of the rest of the world, including the U.S., needs to realize it as well.


Strategic Formation

“The media is right to go after [Brian] Williams like this. Imagine if you let lies slip into news stories, like a huge pile of them that was disseminated in say the New York Times, and meet the press, and sometimes in the New York Times just so that the administration could go on meet the press and say this… And the crazy thing is, the Bush administration are the ones who planted the fucking story in the New York Times in the first place!” —John Stewart

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Strategic formation is a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and a way in which groups, types, genres of texts acquire mass and referential power among themselves (Source). Edward Said introduced the idea of strategic formation in the introduction to Orientalism. Just as everyone who writes about the Orient, he wrote, must be either associated with the West or the East (strategic location), anyone who considers the Orient must create a basis for whatever argument or position they assume (strategic formation). The intellectual basis of their position is composed of referential knowledge that relates to other works (Source).

In other words, by amassing an authoritative body of literature on a subject (such as the Orient) and referencing those works, you can create a self-referential web with the trappings of academic rigor and scientific rationality, but no accountability to acknowledge other viewpoints outside of that textual discourse or to accurately describe reality.

We can see strategic formation majorly at work in the American political landscape, as John Stewart noted in his show last night. We also see it in my field, educational development. A couple months ago I signed up for an online course called “Educate Girls,” sponsored by Teachers Without Borders and now offered as a “free public course” at Johns Hopkins. I was immediately turned off when I saw that every item on the reading list was either authored by the founder of the organization Teachers Without Borders or by one of the major Western international development NGOs. “Educate Girls” was not a course on the educational situation of girls and what’s best to be done–that was a course on what a narrow segment of the world, analyzing the issue through a particular ideological frame and solipsistically turning inward to each other for authority, thought of that issue.

Of course, one could say the same for all of academia.

For more on girls’ education and strategic formation in development, see Frances Vavrus’s Desire and Declinequoted above. For more John Stewart quotes, see the Daily Show.


Social Justice Arguments for Working at a Rich School


Two years ago, I accepted a position as a curriculum developer at one of the most prestigious and affluent K-12 schools in Istanbul. It was a departure for me because up to that point (apart from a stint at a well-to-do preschool) I had only worked in under-resourced schools or at educational centers serving at-risk, minority, or poor populations. Even when I worked at a huge public university in central Turkey, many of my students came from lower-middle-class families, had a hard time meeting the costs of living, or could barely afford the IELTS or TOEFL fees.

My choice of where to work was by design–like many of my idealistic young peers of our generation, my self-proclaimed mission has been to increase educational and life opportunity for marginalized individuals and communities, no matter how problematic or quixotic that endeavor may be in our prevailing world order. Such a mission means making the intentional choice to work in poor schools in some sense of the term: schools in poor neighborhoods, schools with many poor students, or educational centers lacking in financial and material resources to serve their students.

The school I worked at in Istanbul was decidedly not poor in any meaningful operationalization of that descriptor. The school did offer several need-based scholarships each year to a few students with academic merit, but scholarships were not a central aspect of their mission. Most students came from elite or well-to-do families and spent their summer breaks in England or Switzerland or the Gulf. Yearly tuition was over the moon, and my starting salary put me in the top 11% of earners in Turkey at that time.

For the educator whose self-proclaimed mission is to serve the most at-need students, is there any way to rationalize or justify working at an affluent school? After my experience, I could come up with two arguments for working at a rich school. The first one is weaker and more problematic, while the second one is potentially more robust.

1. Impart values of social justice and service to future leaders of society. The assumption is that children from affluent backgrounds who attend elite institutions will eventually end up in positions of power in society, whatever those may be in the given society, so we should try to influence their ethical mindset while they are still young and malleable. In fact, this is how I ended up in education, nonprofits, and development. I attended elite secondary and post-secondary institutions where I was made aware of the various injustices of the world and implanted with the urge, and the skills and connections, to address those injustices. The value-driven nature of my Jesuit university education influenced me to pursue education as a career.

But the effect wasn’t consistent–not all of my classmates who were subjected to that same education went into jobs or careers focused on social justice. And in any case, it’s a problematic notion that the way to achieve change is by means of the prevailing power hierarchies and elite networks–this is not really a transformational approach to the realization of a just and equitable society. And ultimately, if the educational institution as a whole does not happen to be aligned with the mission of social justice, and is not receptive to it, then there’s very little a single instructor can do.

Still, there’s always the central tenet of faith at the heart of teaching: you never know what a kid will take away from a lesson, and what can happen by getting through to one child.

2. Learn how the rich kids are educated so that you can bring that high-quality education to poor kids, or empower them to counter it. At this rich school in Istanbul, I worked alongside some of the most talented and experienced language educators residing in the city at that time, worked under some very effective leaders, and worked on ambitious projects that stretched my skills and my technical abilities. Now I can take all that cumulative experience and share it with students and educators in more vulnerable and marginalized communities who can’t afford to buy that kind of talent and expertise. (This is based on the assumption that elite schools make use of high-quality, progressive pedagogical practices–not necessarily true. Some elite North American private secondary schools are known to be held together based on stringent traditionalist discipline and the ability to expel troublesome students at whim. However, assuming that you’re working at an institution as I did that offers high salaries to attract quality candidates, and which makes an attempt to follow educational research and trends, you’ll probably learn something useful.)

I also, at this school, potentially witnessed or heard of some ethically murky practices such as padding numbers so that a parent wouldn’t complain about a student’s low grades. Such phenomena are of course related to contextual or social factors that an individual teacher or school, even a rich one, has no power over (high-stakes tests, nationwide ubiquity of cheating)–but basically, if that’s how some rich kids are getting ahead, then it’s worth being aware of it and considering the implications for the children and communities we are trying to serve and empower.

These are the two arguments that stuck out to me and, in the end, I was motivated by both of them. When I had the chance to write lesson plans at my old school, I would integrate or emphasize topics related to urgent world issues or pressing human needs. And I am currently using the curriculum development skills that I honed at that job, to write curriculum for a school serving refugees in Cairo.

Of course even children who happen to be born into well-off families deserve a great education, and there are many ways to “serve” in our local and world communities besides teaching or direct service. But thinking specifically about myself and fellow social-justice-oriented teachers who have interests in teaching abroad, the international schools and elite private schools are often the only viable option, given the high degree of visa bureaucracy support required just to be employed abroad and the American-sized debts and needs we bring with us when we immigrate (very much out of proportion to the average teacher salaries in the places we immigrate to). For educators with social missions, it’s worth reflecting on how this might put us into the position of enforcing power structures abroad that we might not stomach at home, what that means, and how we can counteract or transform it.

Note: Terms like “poor” and “rich,” “affluent” and “needy” are problematic and need to be problematized, and certainly mainly of the communities we consider “at-need” are only so in relation to our prevailing ideologies, and in fact have deep funds of knowledge. I only used such crude terms to get my point across more quickly–and to speak frankly about frankly stark divides.

Above: Detail of a school mural. Photo by me.

Anecdotes from a YouTube ban

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“Yesterday was April Fools Day,” I told my sixth-grade English class earlier this week. “Did you play any tricks on your friends?” One student, a tech-savvy kid in the Lego Robot Club, raised his hand. “I told my friend Facebook was going to be blocked. He believed me!”

His friend believed him because a few days earlier the Turkish government had played its own trick: instituting a nationwide ban first on Twitter, then subsequently on YouTube, and later threatening to shut down Facebook as well.

Why were they banned? One second-grade boy had a theory: “They banned Youtube because of Erdogan’s voice!” he asserted confidently. As children can be, he was both far from and humorously close to the truth. It was true that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s voice gave out, reducing his voice to a hilarious squeak at a couple of party rallies. But the real reason for the ban on social media was a series of incriminating leaks, disseminated via Twitter and YouTube, implicating the Prime Minister and other high-ranking party members in scandals and corruption.

The YouTube block in particular was a nuisance. After the ban went into effect in the evening of March 27, I wrote angry rants to my friends about how I had planned to use videos in my lesson the next day, and how upset I was about all the teachers who would have to re-plan their lessons and all the students whose educational experiences would be affected.

This complaint might seem extravagant considering the indulgent nature of most YouTube content, but YouTube is more than cat videos, and videos of all kinds are crucial in today’s ELT pedagogy. Videos are engaging “lead-ins” to introduce a new topic or grammar point. Videos show language in context with properly contextualized facial expression and body language. Videos show different cultures and cultural norms. They also give a means to transcend limitations of the classroom. One teacher cannot have a discussion with herself, but she can show a video of a group of people conversing and use that to demonstrate conversational strategies. One teacher cannot reliably reproduce a wide range of accents, but a video can show different accents. Videos are a life-line for teachers who want to reward their students with a fun activity or who have a few minutes to fill after the lesson material is completed. For these reasons and more, there are several popular ELT blogs dedicated solely to designing lesson plans around videos: Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals and Film English to name a couple.

And of course, YouTube is the most comprehensive and most-user friendly repository of videos. My colleagues at school offered workarounds. Change the DNS. Use a VPN, download the video using a YouTube downloader on your computer, put the video on a flash disk, then show the video on the school computer. Paste the YouTube video link into Google Translate, “translate” the link, and then it will play–a handy “Easter egg” he had learned from a student. But it doesn’t change the essential infuriating issue–that it is no longer as easy to utilize a useful educational tool.

The Twitter ban was lifted on Wednesday of this week but the YouTube block continues. It makes me wonder how teachers in other countries that ban it–China, Iran, Pakistan, and a few others–make do, and how unfortunate it is for Turkey be (once again) included in that list.

Photo: Screenshot of a video demonstrating the speaking portion of the Cambridge Flyers exam, which I had planned to show to my students who are preparing for that exam.

Boys, girls, and curricula


Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers

Cross-posted at

A few weeks ago, the time came to select textbooks, workbooks, and readers for the upcoming year. My working group had already held several meetings to discuss books for the students in our grade level. It’s a torturous process complicated by the need to identify books that are at the same time thematically and linguistically appropriate for our students’ age and their English level. It’s also complicated by the fact that many wonderful English young adult books, which would be appropriate for our purposes, are simply not available for distribution in Turkey.

On each occasion, I have made an observation and a request: Most of our books this year had boy protagonists and male themes. For the upcoming year, can we include some books with girls as the main characters? And I suggested a few possibilities. Each time I got the same answer: That’s a nice idea, but imagine how the boys would take it! If we did that, we would need to provide another choice for the boys, and that would be unwieldy.

In this situation, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, girls are measurably more successful in school while boys are less engaged and more at-risk for low achievement, low attendance, behavioral problems, and dropping out. Christina Hoff Summers wrote that this is because the “scales are tipped…against boys” in schools in terms of institutional social pressure and that school policies are “hostile” to boys. Schools, as Summers insists and as my colleagues intuit from years of experience, are  challenging places for boys because they “punish the distinctive, assertive sociability of boys” such as competition and heroic play. Boys’ alienation leads to misbehavior in the classroom, in turn degrading the teaching and learning experience for everyone, both boy and girls. Catering to them, my colleagues presume, reduces classroom conflicts–improving the educational experience for boys and girls alike–and raises their achievement, while the girls will still do well.

On the other hand, we don’t want our curricula to perpetuate biases and social injustices. Why should it be acceptable for girls to tolerate boys’ themes, and boys’ perspectives, and boys’ experiences, but boys cannot do the same those of girls? We criticize society for privileging male narratives, and male characters, and assigning men the status of “default” human while women are considered supporting actors in the drama of men’s lives. We criticize this, but how can we change it if that’s how children even experience it in school? And anyway, what kind of standard are we setting for boys–that we believe they are not capable of empathizing with perspectives different than their own?

Part of the problem is systemic: most English-language young-adult books available for distribution in Turkey are about boys, and the ones I indicated with prominent female leads are not available. Thus the market gives society what it wants, society takes it, and two create a mutually reinforcing cycle of privilege. And it is privilege–as author Walter Dean Myers wrote recently, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Of course, this is not an either-or–either use boyish books or girlish ones, either have a girl-friendly school environment or a boy-friendly one–and some of the most progressive schools in the world such as those in Sweden even downplay and reject the terms “boy” and “girl.”  In the near future many other factors will play in, such as the expansion of e-reading platforms which will extensively expand the readers a school has access to and obviate the challenges of hard-copy book distribution. But the debate in my mind showed me the current challenges of sustaining a gender-balanced curriculum and the many factors. How do you maintain “balance” on the scale when the weights you are working with are irregular and misshapen, or when you can’t even agree on the relative weight of one thing to another? The scale will tilt to one side or another according to someone.

In the end, my working group submitted almost exactly the same book list, still dominated by books about boys, soccer, and fighting.

Photo: Readers and books in the English Department in the Primary School.


Block center in one of our preschool’s classrooms.

As a senior in college, I have been in the throes of applying for all the jobs, fellowships, and scholarships I can get my hands on. All of those fellowships, etc., are teaching-related, because I know that I want to teach for at least a year after graduating. Copied below is an excerpt that I have been using in my applications. The story attempts to explain why I like teaching and why I think teaching is meaningful in general.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to have an observable positive impact on people besides teaching, but it was through a teaching role that I first experienced the feeling of helping to change a person’s life for the better and realized that my efforts could truly change a person–even if it was just one little person who loved Dora the Explorer and Hannah Montana.

“¿Qué, um—cuál libro quieres leer?” I managed to blurt out after Circle Time. It was my first day with my partner child, Estephany. She was a four-year-old attending class for the first time, at a public HeadStart preschool center in Washington, D.C. I was also there, working for Jumpstart, an Americorps program for preschoolers from low-income families. I was one of the only members of my team who had taken Spanish classes, so I had agreed to partner with Estephany, an English language learner. This was the start of a rocky, but ultimately fruitful, one-year relationship during which Estephany learned to be a student, and I began to learn how to be a teacher.

Over one year later, I was working for DC Schools Project, a literacy program for the DC immigrant community, at another public school. It was a Saturday morning; Spanish-speaking adults were taking free English classes in the classrooms upstairs while I offered enriching learning games to their children downstairs in the gymnasium. I had set out books, pencils, crayons, worksheets, and long strips of butcher paper. A dozen children of all ages trickled in, and to my surprise, Estephany was among them.

Seeing her again was profound. By this time, I had assisted and tutored in two more schools with other English language learners. But this was Estephany, my very first student. And no longer was this the fickle, bossy, anti-social Estephany pouting in a corner and crying when she heard English. Instead, she was beaming, skipping, laughing, and nonchalantly chatting with her cousins in English. She was drawing a picture on the butcher paper and writing her whole name next to it. She was even writing down numbers and adding them together!

It made me dizzy with pride for her and for myself, because I remembered being there, coaching and coaxing her along, when she wrote her very first E, then S, then T, then, finally, the rest. I remembered racking my brains to discover ways to make writing those numbers novel and interesting for her. I remembered scouring public libraries for Spanish-language books that would appeal to her capricious interests. I remembered consoling her in Spanish when she cried because she was intimidated by hearing English—and feeling like crying myself because I, too, was learning to communicate conversationally in a second language, and it really is hard.

Seeing Estephany again was when I genuinely committed myself to teaching. It was clear she was doing well and that I had a part in her positive development. In all the other organized endeavors I have given my energy to—printing newspapers, creating artwork, working in offices, building websites—I had never been so sure of my positive impact on the world as this one little girl made me.

PS: Other things that make teaching worthwhile include witnessing a three-year-old write down the names of Transformers characters in almost perfectly-formed letters. Learning can be powerful and magical and awe-inspiring.

Living the questions: cosmopolitanism

Jamila at the Church of St. Simeon the Stylite

During our site visit to the Church of St. Simeon (about 60 km away from Aleppo), I noticed my friend MR sitting with a young Syrian student, helping her practice English in her copybook. So obviously I went and sat next to the two of them. Immediately the girl’s younger sister, Fatima, came and joined me. MR and I and the two girls sat on the two-thousand-year-old stone wall chatting and practicing writing while their parents picked olives from a tree nearby. Soon two middle-aged tourists approached where MR and Jamila were sitting. “Do you mind moving to the side?” they said jovially through British accents. “If we could just get in that spot, we would get a perfect shot of the peasants harvesting.” So MR—the university student sacrificing her enjoyment of a historical site to mentor a Syrian girl—and Fatima—the seven-year-old learning literacy in a difficult and repressive society—moved over.

Surely these women were “cosmopolitan” in one sense of the word. They daringly chose to come to Syria and probably had lots of other passport stamps from previous travels (Syria isn’t exactly the first stop on most peoples’ world tour). They had fancy cameras and an enlightened sense of photograph composition. They were dressed in practical shoes and headgear and addressed us courteously.

So what is cosmopolitanism? Is it having a lot of stamps in your passport, a fancy camera, and an enlightened sense of photograph composition? Or is it more about recognizing universal values that we all share–such as the values of nurturing children and encouraging education?

This of course is my roundabout, holier-than-thou way of saying that those tourists really pissed me off. But the two girls were precious. I absolutely recommend making friends with children  wherever you go.