Sketchbooks and Rubber Duckies

I was not flying in for a traditional academic conference. I did not bring a paper to present or intend to leave a few days later with a new line on my resume. Instead, my suitcase was filled with a sketchpad, drawing pencils, a glue stick, an object from my childhood and ten close-up photos of natural objects. It was going to be an interesting week indeed.

My trip was a bit unconventional before I even got to the airport. Two days before my flight took off I had no idea where I was staying. A friend in Barcelona was helping me with accommodations but in addition to the difficulty of asking friends to host a total stranger for a week, things in Spain happen on their own schedule, one not so concerned with my imminent arrival. Luckily, I ended up staying with Montse, a sweet Catalunya native who worked as an educator helping people recover from drug addiction.

Once I arrived in Spain and met Montse the morning before my first session, I found out that we had opposite schedules. My workshop started in the morning and ended at 1:30pm, right at the time she left for work, only to get home after ten. The first morning we went together and made a copy of the house keys, but when I returned from the workshop ready to take a much-needed siesta, one of the keys didn’t work! As I had no cell phone and no idea where Montse worked, I decided to wander the city until she got back. Luckily, in Barcelona, that is a great plan B.

And this is a normal building...

The city is built along the coast and a cool breeze off the ocean makes the temperature just perfect for a stroll or spending the afternoon eating tapas at one of the many street-side cafes. Barcelona is also filled with public art and was the home of the famous artist Antoni Gaudi, whose incredible mosaics and flowing nature-inspired style can be seen on buildings and parks throughout the city. But even those buildings not designed by an artist seem to be works of art in themselves, coming from a time when buildings were dignified structure made to last. Every building has its own personality, with different windows, ancient doors and stylized metal railings on the small balconies. It was easy to see why this was chosen as the location for a workshop on creativity!

Our hosts/teachers for the workshop were Shelley Berc, an accomplished playwright and author and Alejandro Fogel, a talented visual artist. Both have spent a lifetime working in the arts and reflecting about creativity and its inspiration. Throughout the five days, they guided us through a host of different writing and drawing activities meant to free us from our minds and help us let go from any mental obstacles that would keep us from tapping into the creative side of our nature.

We recounted childhood stories, drew maps of our heart and mind, interviewed another participant and presented ourselves to the group as them, did visualizations and lots of automatic writing and drawing, letting our hand outpace our mind. One of my favorite activities was trying to make a story using ten random objects chosen by another of the participants. I ended up being given a rubber ducky and a bunch of small necklace pendants and fashioned an epic tale of friendship, loss and triumph!

In a sense, it was to help us be more like children, getting in touch with the fun, energetic side of ourselves, one that is not stifled by shame, self-consciousness or an overly-critical mind. When a child sees a performer on stage doing an amazing dance or song, they immediately want to join, and might even have to be stopped from climbing up on stage themselves! Most adults on the other hand, see the performance and say to themselves, “I could never do that. I would make such a fool out of myself if I even tried.”

One of my realizations throughout the workshop concerned the importance of creativity in our education. Before coming to Barcelona, I thought of creativity as something mainly useful for artists, whether visual or performing. It became clear however, that creativity is less a skill and more a way of thought, of opening ourselves to inspiration and learning not to listen to the more critical side of our nature.

This is important because creativity is a significant part of who we are as people and how we understand the world. In the US, we are told that the primary part of our identity is that of a consumer; that we take in what others create. If our purpose is to consume however, we do not create, losing that wonderful force that makes life so interesting and ultimately drives our society forward. This reflection made me think differently about the fact that when a school has budget problems, it is the art department that gets cut first. This is not just a loss to those students who are artistically inclined but to all students, who are being deprived of the chance to develop a new way of thinking about the world. Schools should not kill creativity but foster it.

It would be nice to say that having finished the workshop, I am now creative. Unfortunately it does not seem to work that way. :) Shelley and Alejandro gave us a number of different seeds, but it is now up to us to plant and nurture them and see what grows.

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More than just fun and games…

After reading about my trips and excursions throughout Egypt and across the Middle East, perhaps some of you are wondering if I actually have to do anything here, or if I have just been given a license to freely wonder around the Middle East for a year. So I thought that it was about time to let you know that there actually is a purpose to my extended presence in Egypt—being a Fulbright grantee is not completely just fun and games, there is a little work involved. :)

Fulbright has been around for quite sometime now. In fact, it was established in the mid-1940s by J. William Fulbright to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” Over the years it has developed into a massive program that sends US citizens all over the world and then invites a greater number of our foreign counterparts to come to the US, usually as part of a college or graduate education.

Although there are different types of Fulbrighters (for doctoral research, teaching English, etc) I am here as a Fulbright student and spend the year first studying Arabic and then implementing a nine-month individual research project.

The Arabic portion of my grant was intense, with classes 4-5 hours a day, five days a week but the reward was well worth it. Studying in Egypt gave me my first significant chance to learn a local Arabic dialect. It was a liberating experience after having spent years in the shackles of the complex grammar and precise voweling of standard Arabic (for a better perspective on this, ready Caity’s blog post here). Now I can actually speak with people on the street, in shops and in taxis, hearing their thoughts about politics, religion and their families.

After three months, I finished my Arabic studies (for the time being anyway, Arabic is a language you study forever…) and started work on my project. After months of brainstorming and discussion the previous year, I had decided to focus on the publications of al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and perhaps the most respected voice on Islamic learning in the Sunni world. However, as Islam has no central religious hierarchy (no Pope equivalent), when Muslims are looking for religious guidance they have many learned sheikhs at many different institutions to choose from—with even greater variety now due to increased internet access growing popularity of Islamic televangelists. I was interested to research what role al-Azhar played in the lives of Egyptians in Cairo, given the rise of these other actors and the institution’s close and at times controversial relationship with the state.

I spent the first month doing background research, reading the history of the institution and looking into a number of issues that have a strong resonance in Egyptian’s religious lives so that I could speak with them about topics that were important to them, and not just to me. I had just scheduled my first interview when the revolution began and I remember getting a phone call from Maha after the police had disappeared throughout Egypt saying that it might be a good idea to postpone the interview for the time being. She was right and I was evacuated four days later.

While in Nairobi (our chosen evacuation point), I found out that I was admitted into an MA program in Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School, starting in the fall. With a clear idea of my future plans and greatly influenced by an incredible education program I visited in Uganda, I came back to Egypt two months later with a new project idea in mind. Fulbright, perhaps realizing that the Revolution and our two months off had most of us returning with a new direction, accepted my proposed change.

Not a student...

More in-line with my future plans, I am now studying Islamic Education in Egypt, specifically looking at moral education. I was inspired by the incredible way that the PSA program in Uganda approached the education of our whole being, not just providing the participants with information to be digested and regurgitated on a test. The program seamlessly wove in questions and discussion about human nature, prejudice and self-reflection into lessons on math, science, agriculture and history.  This is in contrast to my experience in the US education system, which, with few exceptions, has a fragmented approach to education where none of the subjects relate to each other and students are seen as empty vessels to be filled up with information that often does not relate to their lives, aspirations or the world around them.

The belief in the US that state and religion should be kept separate has also led to the removal of any classes relating to morals/ethics/values, at times replacing them instead with civics, which is more interested in teaching the functions of the government and our place in the system than developing our ability to understand how our actions, beliefs and decisions can positively or negatively affect our lives and our communities.

With these ideas in mind I chose to study Islamic education, which in theory, has a more developed sense of educating the entire person, helping them to develop character as well as knowledge, even with specific words in Arabic for each type of teaching. But as everything sounds good in theory, I want to see whether or not these ideas are being implemented in Egyptian schools today and I will spend the next few months reading text books and talking with students and teachers to find out. In the end, I hope to learn something that I can bring back to the States, something that will inform my future study and teaching so that I can help my students develop as people and not just good date-memorizers and test-takers.

And that is ultimately the purpose of Fulbright, the cultural exchange.  If I had any doubts of its importance, Mahmoud cleared them up. He is the son of a very sweet plumber I met a few months ago and I have since been adopted into his family. As Mahmoud is currently unemployed (like an unfortunately large portion of Egyptian youth) he asked me if I could teach him English to help him get a good job here. During one of our classes, we were talking about differences between Egypt and the US and he said to me, “I think that it is very good that people from America come here and Egyptians go there, we learn a lot from each other.”

Thank you Mahmoud, Mr. Fulbright would be proud. :)

A New Model of Education

“You have been a student for many years. You have read hundreds of pages and have spent hours carrying out exercises of various kinds. It would be good at this point to reflect on the significance of your education. What purpose does it serve? To what extent should it prepare you to promote the sound progress of your community? How much should it contribute to your growth as an individual? Can one aim be met without the other?”

I came across the this passage reading through the course materials of the “Preparation for Social Action” (PSA) program and it struck a cord in me. How is it that I have gone through twelve years of public school and four years of college and never been asked these questions? We spend so much time and money worrying about standardizing test scores, decreasing class size and bringing technology into the classroom but we rarely hear any discussion about the purpose of our education system. As someone aspiring to be a teacher, this is a particularly important question.

Caity and I had come to Jinja, Uganda for a week to visit a friend doing a year of service and study a new model of education being used by the organization she works with. The PSA program is the fruit of over three decades of work by a Baha’i inspired organization in Colombia called FUNDEAC (Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Sciences) and is now being piloted and further developed in a few other countries, including Uganda. The purpose of the program is to make it possible for any individual – youth or adult – even in the most rural areas, to have access to a high quality secondary education that gives them the knowledge, skills and inspiration to contribute to their communities.

The program consists of three units that cover topics such as math, science, history, agriculture, health and language, but it is not the information in the courses that is unique; it is the way in which the knowledge is presented and applied. In very simple but brilliant ways, the PSA program solves many of the fundamental problems that plague our education system. This is perhaps a more appropriate topic for a dissertation, but maybe I can give you a glimpse of some of the aspects that amazed me.

Math is one of the subjects that is often a great source of frustration to students, many of whom ask at one point or another, “when am I ever going to use this?” I am sure this question rarely arises in PSA groups. First of all, all of the problems and examples are derived from real knowledge and situations relevant to the students’ lives. Whereas I spent years working with only numbers and the occasional word problem (which often had no significance to my life or no relation to reality at all), students who study addition and subtraction are quickly asked to calculate the growth of domestic animals, increases of farm production and costs for building materials, as well as learning basic accounting skills, all of which are directly applicable to their everyday lives. At higher levels, students in the fractions and percents course find themselves discussing infant mortality rates in their villages, vaccination percentages and the problem of species extinction, all topics that provide great material to practice their new skills but also lead to interesting and challenging discussions that relate to pressing issues going on around them.

The PSA program also engages students to use their practical skills outside the classroom and to the benefit of their community. After their first few courses, students study a book focused on “nurturing young minds” and are asked to start a children’s class in their neighborhood, teaching virtues as well as some of the basic concepts they learned in their previous courses. These classes are a wonderful way to contribute to the community and they also allow the students to beneficially apply their knowledge through service even before they have finished the program! This is certainly in clear contrast to most standard education systems where we study for years and years and only afterword are we able to engage in the world, and even then, very rarely in our own communities.

The PSA program also boldly introduces discussion on complex and deep-seated social problems, asking students to apply the knowledge and perspective they have just studied. For example, after learning about classification, dividing things into sets based on their characteristics, students are asked to turn their attention to the “subsets” of the human race. When speaking about men and women, students chose words from a list which “describe relations between the two sexes when they live according to the principle of equality, and…when this principle is disregarded.” The exercise ends by asking, “In a society governed by the principle of equality of the sexes, would women ever be treated as sex objects?”

Another example along the same lines is found in the book discussing the dawn of civilization and the beginning of agriculture. Students first learn that within early hunter-gather societies, 75% of the food was obtained from gathering, most of which was done by women. Women therefore had incredible knowledge, which they passed on to their children, giving them a great importance in those early societies. Then students are asked, “So then what has happened that led to the decrease in the status of women?” These are deep questions that cultivate critical thought and lead to personal development and reflection. After all, why not use our education as a forum for discussing issues of great societal importance?

In the end, knowledge about the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion and the irrationality of prejudice is also knowledge, equal to and if not of greater import than the factual knowledge many schools focus on today. After all, many of the world’s problems are not caused by the lack of factual knowledge but the absence of trust, justice and equality in so many of the systems and relationships that make up our society, at the global level as well as in the smallest villages.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of the PSA program. It does away with the false dichotomy of science vs. spirituality and blends the presentation of information and skills with discussion about the spiritual nature of human beings. One of the earliest courses provides a great example. The course deals with “properties” and begins by helping students to describe simple concepts such as shape, size and position, then moving onto different states of matter and the physical properties of cells but ultimately coming to a discussion on the “properties” of human beings. This is where it gets interesting. The section asks the students to identify the “true” qualities of human beings: honesty or dishonesty, truthfulness or deceit, coming to the conclusion that human beings have lower and higher natures. The students then end the section by discussing the quote, “we have been created noble, why abase ourselves?” This is certainly not a question I encountered in high school.

This brings us back to the beginning. So what is the purpose of education? Perhaps it is to help us develop our latent talents and capacities and positively contribute to the betterment of our communities – to be both inwardly and outwardly focused. It should give us the skills, perspective, experience and the inspiration to build a better world. If that is the case, then while the PSA program is still a work in progress, it is one hopeful step in the right direction.