Teaching Arabic Songs

One of my favorite classroom practices is playing songs on Youtube while students arrive to class. It exposes learners to the target language from the moment they enter the classroom, it wakes them up, and it helps them decompress if coming from another (stressful) class or meeting. Videoclips can even break stereotypes.

I’ve been doing this for many years now, and I’ve often seen it mentioned in my end-of-semester evaluations, which used to surprise me. Over the years, I’ve came to discover that very few Arabic teachers use songs on a regular basis; especially contemporary artists.

The presence or absence of songs in the Arabic classroom is directly related to teaching styles, curricular priorities, personal preferences, and the fact that most songs are in dialect. In any case, the use of songs shouldn’t be limited to a warm-up or pre-class time, but rather constitute part of the Arabic curriculum, especially if exposure to contemporary culture is one of your goals.

You might think this is an easy task, but it has its tricks. If you’re planning to use songs intentionally and purposefully this semester, here are some factors to consider if you want to make successful choices:

  1. Take into account students’ proficiency level (specially their vocabulary knowledge; you want students to connect easily with the lyrics)
  2. Pick an artist with good diction (it helps students with their listening & later with pronunciation)
  3. Select a song that has an adequate rhythm (if it’s too fast, sing along becomes challenging)
  4. Make time in class to rehearse line by line (students gain confidence & they improve their pronunciation)
  5. What about the dialect? Given the huge amount of shared lexicon among all Arabic registers, it doesn’t really matter. Just follow the previous suggestions.

Now.. you can be the one who decides which song to teach, but if you let students pick from a selection, their engagement will increase. (I’ve had students in my class pull out their phones, record our singing, and post it on Snapchat. That’s a peak moment!)

The following list includes some favorite songs that work well in the Arabic classroom. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the full length of the song for students to learn and enjoy.

KHALIJI SONGS

Omima Taleb (Saudi Arabia)
Hussein Al-Jassmi (UAE)
Talal Maddah (Saudi Arabia) – Starting minute 4:16

MAGHREBI SONGS

Saad Lamjarred – LM3ALLEM (Morocco)
Souad Massi – Ghir Enta (Algeria)
Zakaria Ghafouli – Hobino (Morocco)

EGYPTIAN SONGS

Cairokee – Ghammad Einak 
Dalida – Helwa Ya Baladi (performed by Lina Sleibi)
Amr Diab – Tamalli Ma3ak

SHAMI SONGS

Akher Zafeer – Akherto Lahen Hazeen (Jordan)
Ramy Ayach – Albi Mal (Lebanon)
Julia Boutros – Ala Shou (Lebanon)

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What song would you like to learn or teach next?

Me, I’d like to fully understand the lyrics and cultural connotations of this upbeat song that gives me an adrenaline rush every time I sing:

 

Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?

In a recent interview, ESL expert Scott Thornbury, explained that teaching (and learning) grammar ideally happens through speaking activities that require students to produce specific structures of the language. The ‘invisible’ design of these opportunities, would be a natural way for learners to produce an output that aids in learning and solidifying grammar.

Does that mean that approaching grammar explicitly is counterproductive? Not necessarily. There are multiple factors that should be taken into account when deciding how and when to teach grammar. 

According to psychological theory, ‘active learning’ is an essential component in the process of learning. When students are active participants in the construction of knowledge, we place them in a position of proactiveness. Discussion, for example, is a suitable way for generating new information and knowledge.

Consequently, when learners come across new grammatical concepts, it is more beneficial to discuss this new information than to just read it in the book or hear it from the teacher. In a flipped classroom setting, students would read the theory at home, and later they would re-construct this knowledge through classroom discussion and generation of examples.

Let me give an example pertaining to Arabic: When introducing the concept of Nominal Sentence (الجملة الاسمية) and Verbal Sentence (الجملة الفعلية), students typically read the explanation and examples in the book, or it’s the teacher who explains it on the board and provides the examples. Neither of these methods involve, in principle, ‘active learning’. One can claim, of course, that it’s in consequent activities that students ‘actively’ produce these structures. But wouldn’t it be better if students got involved actively in the learning process, from the outset? And how can we do this?

The answer might come from a Vygotskian approach to learning, where the co-construction of (grammatical) knowledge happens collaboratively and in partnership among learners.

So when introducing الجملة الاسمية and الجملة الفعلية , this is what I do:

STEP 1: Assign the reading before coming to class

My Arabic classes follow a flipped classroom design for two main reasons: 1) it allows students to study and reflect on the content at their own pace, and 2) it transforms the classroom into a more productive space, as you’ll see.

STEP 2: Have students re-construct the concepts & generate examples

My classes are also student centered. This means that students become the focus of the class when producing and sharing knowledge, whereas the teacher is a mere coach. As you can see in the picture below, the teacher is displaced from being the unique source of knowledge. In fact, students take charge of their own learning by reflecting out loud, negotiating meanings, and collaborating, to ultimately arrive at a shared understanding of الجملة الاسمية والجملة الفعلية. In student centered classes, the teacher remains the expert in the room, but space is made for different voices and opinions to be heard.

Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?

Students of Arabic in their 1st semester

 By using the whiteboard, I also encourage students visualize their ideas. Writing and drawing schemes often times help students clarifying concepts, in ways that verbal explanations may not do. See what students produced:

Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?

Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?

Example 1
Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?
Example 2

Last but not least, by asking students to work on the board, I break the daily routine and I use body movement as a way to keep students alert for longer periods of time.

STEP 3: Discuss outcomes under teacher’s guidance

Once students finish their group work, the teacher can answer questions, summarize, and maybe provide some direct instruction, as a way to clarify unclear concepts.

At the end of class, students spontaneously took a picture of the board for their own record. On the following day, we continued working on الجملة الاسمية والجملة الفعلية (through a guided activity) and I saw some students pulling out their phones to look at the picture they had taken the day before. For them, this was more relevant than resourcing back to the textbook, because they were the ‘authors’ of knowledge. The following scene captures a student using her own production:

Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?Is teaching Arabic grammar boring?

***** 

Teaching grammar doesn’t have to consist of a boring reading or explanation. On the contrary, we can transform the classroom into a productive space where we empower students to become independent learners. Collaborative learning is an effective way to do so, and it motivates students enormously.

I’d like to invite you to experiment with the technique that I just outlined, in case you haven’t tried it before. And if there’s something else that works in your classroom, please share!

6 books that I loved in 2018

If you get bored of reading work-related books and articles, and you equally struggle to find the time to explore other subjects, here are 6 reads you’ll enjoy and impact the way you teach:

1. Made to Stick (2007) is written by two brothers, Chip & Dan Heath. For me, it raised the question of whether universities teach Arabic divorced from a more academic-like knowledge. Often times, we focus on teaching the language and we hardly find (the right) time to introduce concepts that are intrinsic to Arabic: diglossia, language ideology, or cultural beliefs. The authors state that “curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge”; this seems like an opportunity to identify all those gaps that we aren’t taking advantage of to enrich the Arabic curriculum and our daily practice.  The book is not exclusively aimed at teachers, so if you only want a summary-like version, download Teaching That Sticks. You would be missing a great book, though.

2. Psychology in the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to What Works (2018). This is a state-of-the-art reference that dives into the intricacies of the human mind and behavior as they relate to learning and what makes teaching effective, or less effective. There’s a chapter on how to promote independent learning, which is central to language education. According to the authors, we should allow students to generate their own ideas as an efficient and memorable form of learning new concepts. In the teaching of Arabic, this has major implications in the way grammar is learned, for example, because often times we rely on the textbook and the teacher’s explanations as the primary source of input. But is this the most effective way? In my next post, I’ll share how I ‘explained’ grammatical concepts this semester, with pictures included. (Subscribe to my Newsletter if you haven’t yet!)

3. The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months (2013). If you procrastinate like I do, and you get distracted easily, this is THE organizational tool to put some scheduling order in your life and start accomplishing your goals. The book is designed on the premise that “if you are not in control of your time, you are not in control of your results”. The 12 Week Year won’t help you eliminate preparation, teaching and grading hours, but it will force you to intentionally block chunks of time, to periodically work on projects that matter to your personal life and your professional advancement. The method works, because I’m a recurrent sinner.

4. Ego is the Enemy (2016). I’m in love with this book. It helps neutralizing the ego, so we can keep listening and learning; two essential skills if we want to master our craft. For teachers, this implies moving away of our comfort zone to reflect on the way in which we teach. It means doubting ourselves to reconsider the alternatives, realistically. Neutralizing the ego also means staying true to yourself and what matters most to you; by not getting distracted with other people’s achievements (so pervasive in our field) and by knowing when to say no (does it ring a bell?). I also like this book because it pushes you to be in the learners’ shoes; especially if you continue developing yourself as a teacher. By becoming a student again, you empathize with your students more deeply and you become an equal to them in the learning process.

5. The Power of Moments (2017), also by the Heath brothers. A beautiful book that will enrich your life at the personal and professional levels, if you only apply a few tips. When it comes to teaching, the authors believe that classes are “mostly forgettable and occasionally remarkable”. Is this how Arabic classes look like? Creating memorable moments, or ‘peak moments’ as the authors say, isn’t easy; it requires deliberate planning and, definitely, time and creativity on the part of teachers. But the impact is long-lasting. In the Arabic classroom, we can engage students in scavenger hunts (inside a library or a museum), take them for breakfast on a Friday morning, or put together a fashion show to explore clothing in different Arab regions. These are definitely fun and pertinent learning experiences, but the real challenge is building mini-peak moments for every single class.

6. The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning (2010). It looks like a coffee table book with attractive visuals. But it’s a book full of powerful ideas that can either energize you or break your heart; depending on the state of your current workplace. The authors are experts in furniture design and architecture, and so they layout how classrooms and buildings should look like in an optimal educational system that is in harmony with the environment. The book is also full of interviews with experts in various disciplines that relate in one way or another to education. What’s most inspiring: The authors invited students to share their perspective through questions like “If you could design your ideal learning environment, what would it look like? How would it feel? What does the school of the future look like?”. Which automatically makes me think: How often we consult with our students before designing our Arabic textbooks?

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I’d really love to know what was your favorite book in 2018. 

Happy Holidays!

Don’t become an obsolete Arabic teacher

Successful teachers invest in their personal growth. Sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.

Whether you received pre-service training or not, mastering the art of teaching takes more than a few semesters in the classroom. First of all, it requires an unconditional love for your profession. But love that isn’t nurtured… fades away. So how do we keep our inner teacher ignited?

Ideally, you’d want to work in a place where administrators encourage and support their faculty to develop themselves on a regular basis. If this isn’t the case, though, you’ll have to be proactive in finding learning opportunities that keep you informed and up-to-date in regards to what’s happening in language education and in TAFL.

As a teacher of Arabic, you can refine your teaching skills and keep in touch with pedagogical innovation in many different ways. It requires some investment but, on the long run, it pays off. Here are 6 things you can start doing today:

Check out new TAFL publications

I mentioned this in my previous post. Familiarizing yourself with the latest publications and resources is an opportunity to revise your curriculum and incorporate new materials into your syllabi. This enriches your courses and it helps you escape the routine of teaching the same textbook over and over.

Sometimes, access to certain publications requires financial investment (depending on where you live/work). In these cases, I recommend that you first reach out to your library or supervisor to help you purchase or subscribe to those resources that are relevant to your courses. For example, the specialized journal Al-cArabiyya: The Journal of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic is a good place for reviews on published textbooks and materials related to TAFL, but access to it isn’t cheap.

Remember that TAFL publications aren’t always in print format. We have some free websites dedicated to the teaching of Arabic. My favorites are MumkinKhallina and Aswaat Arabiyya, all of which include audiovisuals and ready-made activities.

Read second language research

This is, by far, one of the best strategies to keep engaged with the profession. There are hundreds of journal articles, books and blogs that are incredibly inspiring. Even if you don’t do research yourself, reading about second language education helps you revisit your values and discover if you are applying them on a regular basis.

If you are not research oriented, there are still very powerful publications for language teachers than can help you improve your practice. My favorite series, for this purpose, is probably the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers. Browse it, and you’ll find amazing titles that will make your Arabic classroom a more interesting place.

Attend workshops & conferences

There are plenty of conferences in second language education, and many include pre-conference workshops. In the US, ACTFL and NCLTCL are well known among Arabic teachers. In Europe and the Arab World, there are also some conferences and symposiums dedicated to TAFL, and the best place to learn about them is Arabic-L (see next section).

While attending a conference requires some financial investment, it might be worth traveling to these events, to learn new pedagogies related to the Arabic classroom, and also to network and make meaningful connections. This is, for example, how I got my first job in the US: MESA was being held in Montreal (2007) and I decided to travel right before finishing my MA. I ended up having 3 unplanned job interviews and working at UT.

Subscribe to TAFL newsletters

The most well known mailing list in our field is Arabic-L. If you aren’t subscribed yet, now is the time! You can’t afford otherwise. (To access their archives click here, and use the search box to look for specific topics.)

Teachers of Arabic can benefit from this mailing list in multiple forms: You get to know about international TAFL conferences and workshops, new publications, job openings, questions of concern to instructors and linguists, and you can even use it to announce that you are on the job market 🙂

Interact on Social Media

Interacting with your colleagues on social media is very effective for sharing materials, activities, and to ask for advice and receive quick tips and tricks. My two favorite places are a Facebook group called جيل جديد من أساتذة العربية and Twitter.

On Twitter, I recommend following Rasha Soliman and أمريكية صعيدية. There are many other amazing people out there, but today these are my top choices 🙂

Ask for feedback

Whether it’s feedback related to our teaching techniques or other aspects of our job, receiving feedback on performance is crucial for our growth and professional maturity. Here are two things you can do:

  • Invite a colleague to visit your class, at least once a semester. If you do that, think of a particular aspect of your teaching that you’d like to improve and request specific feedback. It’s important that you had established a relationship of trust with this colleague, so that you receive honest feedback. Otherwise, s/he will give you generic feedback that won’t be very helpful.

  • Video-record yourself in class, and then analyze your performance and students’ reactions: the way you stand in class, how you speak to your students, or use the whiteboard, or explain grammar, your facial expressions, or your students’. While no one likes to see him/herself on camera, it’s super important that you watch yourself in action, from time to time. It can reassure you that you’re on the right track, and/or you’ll notice things you’ll probably want to change. Remember: learning is an ongoing project and there’s always room for improvement.

*****

Connecting with your profession on a regular basis is replenishing and nourishing at many levels, because you create for yourself learning opportunities through which you can grow and keep a healthy attitude towards your job and students. Otherwise, you risk becoming an obsolete teacher that doesn’t add value to the workplace.

What about you? How are you taking control of your professional development? Share with us!

Butterflies on the First Day of Class?

Dealing with anxiety on the first day of class is common among new teachers of Arabic and, also, when you start working at a new institution. This is so because the first encounter between teachers and students is full of expectations, on both sides.

On one hand, students want to know if they’ve made the right choice by taking Arabic, they wonder if they’re going to like the language, if they are capable of learning it, and they want to be liked by their professors. On the other hand, as teachers, we want to make a professional impression on our students, we seek their respect, and we also want to be liked.

Teachers who are not native speakers of Arabic might experience additional anxiety, depending on the nature of their students and the level of Arabic they teach. (But this post is not about psychology or the native vs. non-native teachers debate -just not yet-, so I’ll get back to my main topic.)

Here are some tips that can help mitigate your nervousness the day you start teaching, while laying the foundations for a smooth semester:

Arrive with a smile

Arrive early to class, and show your excitement. Smiling from the heart breaks barriers and puts everyone at ease. Research shows that people who tend to smile are more liked than those who don’t; because as humans we like being with people that visibly enjoy being with us. If you smile in class, you’ll discover that students will smile back at you:)

Arrange the seating

In most classrooms, seating arrangements follow a very traditional pattern: people sit in rows, as if they were “workstations” . But for teaching and learning a foreign language, this type of configuration doesn’t engage learners to communicate and collaborate. One thing you can do, before you start class, is to ask students to help you arrange the furniture in a U-shape or conference table(s). This will create a sense of community, it will contribute to feeling more relaxed when teaching, and students will know that this is the first thing they need to do when they enter the classroom for the rest of the semester.

Introduce yourself

It’s not really about listing your credentials, but about saying your name, how it’s pronounced, and maybe sharing something more personal (hobbies, what languages you speak, Arab countries you lived in, favorites places in town, or anything of this sort). This humanizes you in the eyes of students, and it helps building rapport.

Something else worth mentioning at this stage, is how you want students to call you: ustaaza, just by your first name, or Professor? This will save you a lot of uncomfortable moments and emails that can potentially be a source of anxiety.

Know your students

If you introduce yourself, it naturally follows to show interest in your students. Depending on their number, you can have students introduce themselves in front of everyone, one by one, or have them talk to their classmates and then report back. I like asking my students to share: their name, nationality, major, languages they speak, why they chose Arabic, and what they know about the language. This is a great opportunity to discuss a few aspects related to your course, and to spot heritage learners and make sure that no one has been misplaced due to her/his Arabic proficiency.

Learn their names

It’s not enough to ask students their name; you need to learn them by heart as soon as possible. Calling your students by their name, instead of pointing at them, makes them feel valued and respected, and it develops a sense of community in the classroom, which helps creating a relaxed environment. When I first meet my students, I like testing myself recalling their names out loud, to see if I memorized them. I do a few rounds on the first and second days of class, until I get an A:)

Discuss the Syllabus

If you sent the Syllabus in advance (see my previous post), Day 1 can provide valuable information about the nature of your students (for example, their organizational skills). But even if they’ve read it at home, you’ll need to discuss the document in class in detail to allow for questions and concerns. Make sure that everyone is on the same page and that there are no misunderstandings.

And keep smiling:)

Practice Arabic

Regardless of the level of Arabic that you are teaching, students need to leave their first class feeling that they’ve learned something they can practice in the real world. If it’s Arabic 101, students should ideally know how to use a basic greeting and introduce themselves. If it’s a higher level, take this opportunity to do a speaking practice that helps students recall some of what they’ve learned in a previous semester. Shining the spotlight on students helps you focus your attention on them, rather than on your nervousness.

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The success of your Arabic course will depend a lot on the impression you give on the first day of class and the type of interactions you build with students. The best advice I can give you is: be honest and transparent, respect your students, and prepare well for every single class. As for the butterflies in the stomach: We all have them on the first day:)

Do you have any particular tip or habit that has helped you in the past? I would love to know!

Kick-start your semester like a Pro

Getting ready for a new academic semester is a stressful time for many teachers of Arabic, especially if they are new to the profession. There aren’t many training courses and most of the times programs don’t implement any type of instructional coaching.
If you are teaching Arabic, know that being well organized will have a huge impact on the success of your course. Being prepared can help reduce your anxiety at the beginning and throughout the semester and it contributes to having positive interactions with your students.

Here are a few things you can do before the first day of class:

Know well your Arabic textbook

If your language program has a compulsory textbook, obtain a copy ahead of time and familiarize yourself with it. Once the semester starts, many teachers’ frustrations arise from the fact that they didn’t take the time to understand the pedagogical rationale behind the textbook or because they didn’t examine the type of texts and activities included.

Explore other Arabic materials available in the market

While it’s true that we don’t have as many textbooks and materials as in some European languages, there’s a decent amount of published materials that work well in the classroom. If you are new to teaching Arabic to adolescents and adults, I recommend that you start by exploring the titles published by Georgetown University Press, Routledge, and Yale Press. You will find several textbook series, grammar manuals, dictionaries, literary readers, and other materials that can supplement beautifully and effectively your main textbook. Knowing what’s available and where to find it, will save you a lot of time once the semester is rolling.

Have the Syllabus ready

Don’t wait until last minute to draft your Syllabus, or you’ll end up doing edits until 2AM the night before class. Having the Syllabus finalized a few days before you send it to your students is crucial, because this document contains essential information on attendance policies and grading that you shouldn’t change once the semester starts. Otherwise, you risk losing the respect of your students and you open the door for resentment and conflict. If you work with other colleagues on teaching the same course (which is common in many institutions), it’s even more important that you discuss and agree on the Syllabus ahead of time.

Share the Syllabus with your students

This allows them to read it in detail before coming to class and it gives them the opportunity to think of and prepare questions related to your course. If you share the Syllabus on the first day of class, students won’t have the time to reflect on it’s content, and you could be even depriving them from the opportunity to enroll in a different course than yours. Put yourself in the student’s shoes: Wouldn’t you like to know as much as possible about a course before attending a class? I would.

Send a welcome email to your students

Tell your students that you are excited for a new Arabic semester and that you are looking forward to meeting and knowing each one of them. By introducing yourself and showing excitement before you meet students, you set the tone for the first day of class and, hopefully, the remaining of the course if you keep the same attitude. I recommend that you send this email a day or two before you meet your students. When you do this, ask them to read the Syllabus and any other materials you deem necessary for your Arabic course. But please: Do not assign any homework.

Prepare the Daily Schedule

If you’re new to teaching Arabic, I recommend that you start by planning your classes weekly or bi-weekly, until you feel comfortable with the materials and the pace of class. Knowing what’s going to be covered every day and the homework assigned, will help you figure out how much homework you’ll need to grade and what materials must be prepared for each class. As you’ll soon discover, developing time management skills is a survival strategy, especially if you teach several courses or you have a lot of students. With time, you’ll be able to prepare your daily schedule for the whole semester and share this road-map with your students from the very beginning.

Organize your virtual learning environment

Whatever course management system is used by your institution, try to set up your grade book and upload all course materials (syllabus, daily schedule, rubrics, external links and materials, etc.) for maximum transparency and efficiency.

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If you have everything ready 24 hours before you start the semester, your first week of class will go smoothly. You’ll be able to focus on class preparation and you’ll enjoy working with your students. Moreover, you’ll come across as a professional teacher in the eyes of your students.

What else do you recommend teachers do before starting their semester?