Twenty Middle-Eastern and North-African educators visited Athens this summer to attend a six-week Summer Institute program hosted by Ohio University.
In interviews earlier this week, some of the students praised American hospitality, while urging Americans to gain a clearer understanding of different cultures in the Middle East.
The Civic Education and English Language Teacher & Trainer Training (CELTT) program, held by the Ohio Program of Intensive English (OPIE) and sponsored by the U.S. State Department, aimed at developing new methods of English language instruction and at fostering greater intercultural understanding among both the American and Middle-Eastern participants.
Teachers, educational supervisors and administrators from Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) attended classes and workshops, presented projects, and participated in home-stays in Cleveland.
The close interaction fractured the stereotypes held by Middle-Eastern educators and their American peers.
""Americans aren't the Americans of the movies,"" said Lounis Tamrabet of Algeria. ""I did not have a moment of homesickness here.""
Jamal Yousef, an English language instructor from Jordan, found his American hosts ""very frank, sincere and friendly."" The percentage of the population holding an advanced degree in Jordan is one of the highest in the world.
The sentiment was reciprocated by American participants Patty Shively and Lauren Dailey. ""The experience has enlightened me a lot,"" said Shively, an art education major at Ohio University.
The importance of English language education in their native communities was stressed by several of the participants. ""People familiar with English possess a means to look into other cultures,"" said Ibrahim Ghanem, an English language training supervisor from Syria.
""Education in Palestine is a means of survival,"" Fazea Darashwa added. ""Education is the passport to access overseas culture.""
Tamrabet spoke of the need to ""harmoniously integrate in the world without falling into the pitfall of 'aculturization,'"" while implementing educational reform in Algeria.
Miriam Hadjali, also of Algeria, said, ""The program tackled topics we wouldn't have tackled in our countries."" Hadjali, who belongs to a neighborhood association that helps women victims of the civil war in her country, pointed out that civic education in Algeria is based on religion rather than on community.
Common misunderstandings involving the Middle East provoked a variety of responses. While commending the Americans they met for their eagerness to learn about the Middle East, several of the participants expressed surprise at the lack of knowledge about the region.
The perception of the Middle East as one homogeneous region was contested by Tamrabet, who pointed out that Algeria is a North African country with a distinct culture and history, and by Yasser Atwi, an English teacher from Lebanon, who described his country as a ""multicultural society.""
Yousef, on the other hand, said emphatically, ""We are a family... We are all Arabs, all Muslims.""
Atwi commented to Americans in general, ""In the teaching of foreign languages -- no offense -- you seem to be lagging in comparison to other countries."" Atwi noted the importance of learning foreign languages in understanding foreign cultures, an understanding that cannot be obtained in translation. ""That's why [Lebanese poet] Kahlil Gibran refused to translate his poems,"" he said.
Eli Ghazel, head of the English Department at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, Lebanon, said he intends to establish a web-based ""Center for Civic Literacy in the Middle East and North Africa"" for participants of the CELTT program, ""to continue sharing experiences, tips and advice"" after returning to their home countries.
In addition to the academic coursework, participants experienced a taste of Native-American culture when they attended the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheater production of ""Tecumseh!,"" an outdoor drama based on the life of the legendary Shawnee leader, in Chillicothe.
Phase One of the CELTT program culminates in a week-long tour of Washington, D.C.; program coordinators hope to arrange for Phase Two, a five-day overseas workshop, next January or February.
Traditional instruction of English usually involves lessons on grammar, syntax, parts of speech and so on. Participants in the CELTT program focused on methods of teaching English as a foreign language through content-based instruction (CBI). This relatively new technique involves teaching a course such as biology or chemistry in English, in a classroom of non-native speakers of English. The CELTT program employs civic education as the medium of English language instruction.
For more information on the CELTT program, contact Gerard Krzic, associate director of the Ohio Program of Intensive English.