By Peggy McInerny
The day Paulette Donald finally said “Good morning” in Arabic to Abdul, the bus driver assigned to her group of U.S. teachers in Morocco, was a watershed moment. “All of a sudden,” she said, “he flew out of his seat and hugged me, saying, ‘You learned! You learned! You learned!’ The whole thing changed for me in that moment,” she said, ”I felt I had made a real connection.”
A native of Jamaica who did her higher education in Canada, Donald is a highly motivated teacher working in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In addition to regularly attending continuing education workshops for teachers, including several offered by various centers of the UCLA International Institute, she’s an adventurous traveler who shares her love of travel and foreign languages with her students.
Ambitious program combines language and area studies
The five-week program, “Multicultural Morocco: Lessons from Africa,” included four hours of instruction in Arabic each day (the equivalent of one quarter of collegiate instruction), lectures on the culture and history of Morocco, and visits to schools and historical and cultural sites. U.S. teachers are paired with a Moroccan mentor, also a teacher, and have the chance to observe teachers and students interact in summer school sessions. (For information about the 2014 summer program, click here
While in Morocco, Paulette Donald fell in love with Arabic. “I keep telling my husband,” she says, “I will be able to at least read the first line of the Koran before I die.” But the first night, she confesses, “I said to myself, ‘Gosh, what did I get myself into?’” In the end she approached her study of the difficult language guided by two of her heroes: former South African president Nelson Mandela and American musician Quincy Jones.
From Mandela, she took to heart the phrase: if you talk to a man, you will get to his head, but if you speak to him in his own language, you will get to his heart. And from Quincy Jones she took the advice: no matter where you go, learn at least 40 words in that language.
One of her favorite memories from the program was a visit to a family at their country home. Deciding to stay behind with the women rather than go on a local sightseeing tour, Donald was soon enveloped in a special women’s atmosphere.
As soon as the men were gone, she relates, they removed their headscarves and encouraged her to make herself more comfortable. The women cooked together and communicated without language she said, putting themselves back together (literally) when they got a call from their “lookout” that the group was returning. “It was such a beautiful thing,” she reflects, “and I felt I needed to honor them by learning their language.”
Translating in-country experience into teaching
The goal of the GPA program is to equip U.S. teachers with the knowledge and methodologies to guide students in understanding Africa, Arabic and Moroccan culture. The African Studies Center (ASC) thus provides participants extensive support in preparing lesson plans on Africa and Morocco that use multimedia and primary materials gathered in-country. Altogether, preparatory workshops, in-country study, and follow-up lesson plan preparation and presentation make for an almost eight-month learning experience. Participants are encouraged to keep up their language skills by using the online Arabic Without Walls
program upon their return.
The original lesson plan that Donald created for the program had to be revised to address kindergarten and first-grade students. “When I got home,” she said, “I looked at all my pictures and noticed how many pictures I had of tile mosaics. So I decided to focus on mosaics.” Ultimately, she taught her students about mosaics by comparing them to quilts in a lesson entitled “We’re More Alike than We Think.” As part of the lesson, the students designed mosaics using squares of paper in different colors.
Donald is the very kind of graduate that ASC hopes will emerge from the program. Not only does she continue to draw on her knowledge of Morocco and Arabic in her teaching, she has not abandoned her Arabic studies. To date, she has taken two semesters of Arabic at West Los Angeles City College and hopes to continue her language studies in the future. She has also attended events organized by the UCLA African Studies Center and remains in contact with her Moroccan mentor via Facebook.
Her love of Arabic has carried over to her classroom, where she teaches her young charges basic Arabic phrases, such as “Hello,” “Good morning,” Sit down” and “Be quiet” (useful for a kindergarten teacher!), and “Thank You.” She posts both English and Spanish translations of the phrases so that English-language learners can follow along. “A number of the parents tell me, all we’re hearing around the house is Arabic: “Shokran,” “Shokran” (thank you). It’s been a wonderful experience,” she narrates.
Language transforms teacher and students
“The trip itself transformed me,” shares Donald. “But taking Arabic classes deepened the transformation because it opened my eyes to the challenges of English-language learners in my classroom. Intellectually, you know that they are learning English and the strategies you are supposed to use when you are teaching. But having the experience of learning a language,” she continues, “I have a better emotional understanding of how hard it is — I get it.”
Now when she has her students do country reports — in first grade! — they must inform the class if people in that country speak a language other than English. If they do, they write on the board the words for “hello” and “thank you” in that language (with some help from their parents beforehand). “And it’s all because of that one trip,” she comments.
Ultimately, Donald’s students were able to forge their own unforgettable connection in Arabic. When her first Arabic-speaking student arrived in her kindergarten class in 2011 at Crescent Heights Elementary, Donald first showed him the Arabic alphabet and numerals displayed in her classroom. “His eyes popped,” she notes, and she was rewarded with a big grin.
But the real fun was seeing her students greet him with the phrase “Sabah el kheer” (good morning). When he responded, “Sabah el noor,” she said, the children exploded in excitement — the interchange went exactly as they had been practicing it! It was a real language! When your teacher travels and shares her knowledge with you, speaking Arabic and knowing about Morocco and Africa are the kind of things you learn at school. The UCLA African Studies Center could not be happier.