Classroom Discussions with My Students

Apologies for the late blog post. I was busy last week administering midterm assessments and then grading all of them in order to enter marks before the beginning of the spring break and the last day to withdraw from a course. As I was thinking about what to write for this week, the lesson materials that I was using prompted some interesting discussions with my students, and I thought it would be fun to share the gist of these conversations. Please enjoy.

So, this week my English for Communication class is working from a unit entitled Trade. First, the textbook is fine —lots of creative language activities and a variety of interesting visuals—but even with the best English language textbook, you are lucky if you are able to use 40% of the book. Also, depending on the cultural makeup of the students in your course, some of the content doesn’t always register with the students.

For example, please note the picture at the start of my blog post which is from the beginning of the Trade unit. The opening activity for this unit asks students to do the following: “Work in pairs. Look at the photo and the caption. Compare the Venus Fort mall with places you go shopping.” Last semester, when I first tried this activity, I was a bit surprised by the reaction of my female Qatari students. They were basically ho-hum about the question. But why?

At the time, I hadn’t been in Qatar very long and didn’t have the chance to explore many of the malls. I did not visit the Villagio Mall which has an indoor canal and a special wing for purchasing luxury fashion brands, such as Gucci, Versace, or Louis Vuitton.

I had not visited the biggest mall in Doha, the Mall of Qatar, which has a Vegas style soundstage in the middle of the mall for live performances on the weekends.

And, Al Hazm had not partially opened yet. The mall is modeled after French palatial architecture and has a nice open structure with plenty of high-end restaurants and shops.

Additionally, there are plenty of malls in Dubai, which many of my students visited prior to the blockade, that offer spectacles more impressive than an artificial sunset every 30 minutes. Lastly, some of my students have been to Paris, Milan, or London and have shopped at stores or boutiques with the old world charm the shopping mall in Tokyo was trying to approximate.  For the Venus Fort discussion activity to really work, there needs to be a little bit of awe to the spectacle of a medieval decor mall that has an artificial sunset every 30 minutes. If the everyday shopping opportunities of the students are as good or better than Venus Fort, then there really is no excitement to the discussion prompt. What was probably of more interest to my students was how the Venus Fort mall compared with places that I shopped at back in the US.

This semester, I was prepared for the students to be underwhelmed by the Venus Fort mall activity, so I had a more challenging prompt for them to discuss: “If you had to build a new mall in Qatar, what features would it have?” The students responded to this hypothetical scenario in interesting ways, and I was happier with this discussion as opposed to the straight Venus Fort comparison.

After the initial warm-up activity, the first chapter of the Trade unit deals with spending habits and uses the above activity to introduce vocabulary to the students. However, since my class is largely composed of affluent Qatari women, there isn’t a lot of variation in the answers that are either true or not true for them. What this vocabulary activity does a better job of doing is sussing out the difference in how Qataris (my students) control their money in comparisons to how Americans (me) control ours.

For example, most students just use their debit cards because its easier, and I don’t believe that this is a cultural difference necessarily; it is a generational difference: most young people prefer paying with cards, older people are maybe more accustomed to paying with cash. In regards to checking bank statements every week, my students were wondering why you need to do this? Every time you make a purchase with your Qatari bank card, your bank sends you a txt message notifying you of the transaction and your bank balance. In America, not so much. Our banks prefer to keep us in the dark as much as legally possible. In regards to keeping receipts, most of my students do this, in case something doesn’t fit. And, in regards to banking online, again, this is a generational preference. Young people feel that it’s safe and more convenient to do most financial transactions online. The statement about electricity bills stumped most of my students because their parents often take care of the utilities. Lastly, most of my students don’t drive, so they didn’t buy a new car last year, and if they were to buy a car, the custom here is to pay for the vehicle outright, instead of with a loan with a repayment scheme over 3-5 years.

Again, this activity was teaching me more about the cultural difference between me and my students, and one of the most interesting points to come up was the difference between interest rates in Qatar versus those in the US. In Qatar, because of Islamic laws and traditions, banks charge you around 1% interest for carrying a credit card balance. When my bank told me what my interest would be, I remember laughing out loud. For, as many of you know, in the US, credit card balances can be more than 20%, which seemed normal when I was stateside but, now that I am on the other side of the pond, seems predacious and immoral. Go figure. A vocabulary activity would raise my economic ire.

The last classroom topics that provided me with interesting cultural insights into the lives of my students related to an activity for the course’s second speaking exam. During the exam, students have to have a conversation with a partner after watching a movie trailer. They are supposed to talk about what they like and don’t like about the trailer. So, the first step to introducing this assessment is to make sure they have the jargon to talk about film; thus, I had to introduce the name of genres to students—which most of the students already possessed.

Me: “What is the genre of movie #2?”
Student: “Teacher, it’s High School Musical 2. We’ve all seen it.”
Me: “Really?”
Student: “Yes, it was really popular when we were growing up. So was Hannah Montana.”

Me: “Can you name the genre of movie #5?”
Student: “Yes, it is action.”
Me: “Do you like action movies?”
Student: “Yes.”
Me: “What is your favorite action movie?”
Student: “Anything with the Rock.”
Me: “You like the Rock?”
Student: “Yes, too much!”

Me: “What is the genre for movie #9?”
Student: “Comedy. That’s Jim Carey.”
Me: “You know who Jim Carey is? What movies of his have you seen?”
Student: “Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, Ace Ventura.”
Me: “Those are old movies.”
Student: “Yes, I know. I don’t think he is making movies now. I read he is depressed.”

Even though I teach a class of female students who are all wearing abiyas, with some wearing niqabs, they are all familiar with a variety of American films, which prompted me to ask them if there are films from other countries that they watched. They them told me about this Turkish series Noor that was very popular when they were growing up. The series was dubbed in Arabic, and the names of the romantic leads were changed from Gumus and Mehmet to Noor and Muhannad, thus making the series more accessible to a Gulf audience.

Just like the class discussion about malls and spending habits, the class discussion about films provided me with some insights into the lives of my students. Part of the fun of teaching in a foreign context is that I often learn as much from a classroom activity as my students. When I imagined coming to Qatar, I thought that I would learn more about Arabic culture, instead I learn that students here harbor crushes on Dwayne Johnson and are versed in the oeuvre of Jim Carey.

Alrighty then!

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