Monday, June 4, 2007

First thoughts on my last day in Yemen

On June 2nd I was set to fly out of Yemen at 6:55 p.m. and I had a day packed with 4 meetings: The US Embassy, the USAID staff, UNICEF, and with the President of the Arab Sisters Forum. My last 2 meetings in Sana'a, Yemen were some of my most productive. The women from the UNICEF office challenged us to first ask the teachers' unions if they have committed to equalizing access to education for girls. I think that is entirely reasonable and I think we should make that a condition of our work with any trade union here. Improving the learning climate for girls needs to be our priority. As it stands, unless your family has money and a bit of a liberal attitude, there is absolutely no future for you except to be one of a man's possibly 4 wives having children until your uterus gives out, which can happen on your wedding day because of the genital mutilation you may have been subject to as an infant.

Conditions for Yemeni women were better before the 1st Gulf war when over 800,000 Yemeni expatriates came back with extremely conservative views, largely returning from Saudi Arabia. Now women are blatantly subjected to second-class citizenship, internalizing their own oppression, and the men we met with meanwhile are asking for time/decades/ centuries to correct it. Given what I know now, that is absolutely unacceptable. As an embassy official said this morning when I debriefed with her, "then let's fund their programs at 1885 figures, and see how much time they want to take for us to increase it." Needless to say, I LOVED her. Sadly, she is moving on to Tel Aviv in a few months.

The women at UNICEF went on to say that classroom management wouldn't be helpful unless there was some gender parity training to go with it. If boys are still the only ones called on, if secondary female students still get pushed out of school because of a lack of female teachers instead of letting them attend classes with a male teacher, if women are forced to leave the profession when they get married and have a family, when girls have to sit in the back of the room and are taught not to raise their hands, then we have much bigger problems than spitballs and talking back.

These women from UNICEF (one Dutch, one Yemeni) were amazing with their gentle but assured prodding. I was so inspired by their amazing focus on the state of women and girls. I felt like they were the first group all week to keep me totally honest about getting what I came for in Yemen.

My next meeting with Amal al Basha, the president of the Arab Sisters Forum will easily go down as a seminal moment in my life. I really felt like I was sitting at the feet of a master. Listening to her, I realized that I had merely been safely dabbling around the edges of social change. I was firmly tucked in my cocoon of half privilege safe enough to believe that there was just enough urgency for change that I merely had to offer bribes to my conscience to believe that I was doing good work for the world when in fact I am too comfortable. Her struggle will only become my struggle when I am in it as deeply as she is. Their struggle will become the world's struggle when we can successfully cause good people to lose enough sleep over the condition of women world-wide that we all do something about it. She showed me pictures of her in the paper that have her caricatured as the devil. She has been threatened with an immorality arrest for "denouncing Islam," which she never did. She is one of only 31 women in all of Yemen who do not cover their heads when they go out. Yet, she makes time in her amazingly busy schedule, and makes room in her home for this American woman she has never met. She listens to me, at this immature stage in my learning curve of the Middle East/Yemen, and offers encouragement and seems so sure of herself. She should be. She is on the side of what is right in everything she does. Is it any wonder that my meetings today were primarily with women and I felt that they were the most productive?! In all three, they essentially put the question directly to me, "How is this country going to be better for girls when you leave?" I will be honest, after talking with them, I realize now that is exactly the work I have cut out for me, for all of us.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Arabic spoken here

I just returned from one of two trips I have now had the opportunity to take to the "sook," or market, in Sana'a where I am staying. This open-air market with its shoe-box sized stalls is where Yemenis go to get their spices, their clothing, shoes, kitchen utensils and to maybe grab a bite to eat. In both visits, we were eventually accompanied by a young man who was extremely helpful in guiding us around. Also, both times each of the young men had very strong English skills. They did not expect to get paid, they were not asking for "baksheesh" (money) , and although we were told that they more than likely got some sort of kick back from the owners of the stalls that they took us to, it seemed to me, with their interesting questions and polite conversation, that they were merely looking for an opportunity to practice their English.

Over the last 5 days my resolve to introduce Arabic language study to St. Paul has grown more and more. I have always been extremely proud of the work St. Paul schools has done to make world languages accessible to students. In fact, both of my children study Spanish and I hope they go on to study Chinese, French, German, Japanese or another language as secondary students. The world language teachers I have met in St. Paul are entirely dedicated to their work and quite cognizant of the importance of their work as our world grows together and communication gets easier. While I think St. Paul Public Schools should continue to invest in the languages it has, we should be working to expand the languages we offer and expand the opportunities for our students to access that learning.

Each time I log on to this computer I am convinced more and more that we should be just as serious about Arabic language study as every other language. Consistently, no matter what site I go to:,,,; at least 3 out of 6 headlines are reporting news originating in or happening in Arabic speaking countries. Strategically, the United States is going to have a strong interest in this region for a long time to come. There are as many opportunities here as their are situations to resolve or problems to solve and although I am honored to be here studying what the American Federation of Teachers can do, I know that our work here is going to need to be continued by another generation. In fact, with an investment in language education, our current work could only be improved upon, and the world's relationship with the countries of the Middle East could actually evolve.

Right now we are playing catch up with Chinese languages. Let us use that as a lesson and not let it happen again with another one of the world's strategic languages.

Uncommon experiences travelling

Most of my group left this morning for the 15 hour flight back to their various corners of the United States so I have had a bit of time before gearing up for my work in Yemen today. I have remained behind in order to determine how the AFT can help teachers over here with their work in the classroom as well as their work in building a successful, democratic trade union. In this time, I have had the opportunity to list all of the little things that I did not prepare for but came up anyway on this trip.

First of all, I am typing on an Arabic keyboard that has keys in slightly different places than my English keyboard at home. That and the fact that this website consistently comes up in German (I can't read German) has made for some entertaining work in managing this blog, spell-checking, and trying to make the best use of my limited Internet time. While I have had the some of the usual translation stories that accompany my limited language acquisition and my hosts limited English, I have been impressed over and over with how hard everyone works to understand each other when we don't share a language, how patient the Yemenis are with me, and how polite everyone has been. My perceptions of Islam and experiencing a Muslim country have been enlightened along the way.

In thinking about all of these opportunities to problem solve, I realize that this is exactly the sort of navigation we need to be teaching our students everyday. This world is theirs and we need to equip them with every skill possible so that when they find themselves in these situations in the future, whether that future is a business trip to Yemen or navigating a new social studies class and the culture, language/lexicon, expectations, and norms that follow, they are able to see the experience as an opportunity to problem solve as well at stretch, grow, and learn about themselves.

I went into teaching because I loved my subject and I loved the idea of a career in teaching, so it was work for me to remember that loving English/language arts (and being okay with 7th grade) wasn't native to every student. I had to bring them there. It seems common that our first reaction to change or to something new is to retreat. Travelling has certainly brought that instinct out in me from time to time, but I know in teaching it took time to reflect on my classroom to remember that sometimes all it took to retreat for my students was the time it took to travel down the hall to my room to feel foreign, to retreat, or to become defensive. Balancing the ambitious work of teaching with setting a classroom climate where it would be safe to take risks and use their time with me as an opportunity to stretch, to grow, to learn about themselves was always a challenge. The real issue became the time I had to reflect to improve myself, or rather, the lack of time.

Just as I have a break in my schedule this morning, those moments I had the opportunity to reflect amidst the break-neck pace of teaching helped me better meet the needs of my students. Too often I only found that time when I couldn't sleep at the end of the day because I was still too wound up from my day of teaching, reviewing my rotating list of things to do during my prep the next day and trying to figure out how I was going to get my children dropped off early enough before school (but after my day care opened) in order to do those things that could not wait until prep time.

Like travelling, all of us need down time to think and to reflect on our work. We need opportunities to remember that we may have made our classrooms native for us, but we are inviting all travellers who have only a short time to learn from us before we send them off to the care of our colleagues in the next grade, the next room, or the next step in their education. I believe that the St. Paul Federation of Teachers should make it our priority to carve out that time to reflect. Each of us as individual professionals will then make it our priority to use that time to welcome the world to learn with us.