Split in Jordan's Student Attitudes

Classroom reactions to English language depend on social class and religious views

DRESSED in black denim jeans and a checkered shirt, Mai Goussous is not very different, in her carefree attitude and sporty attire, from the pupils who were teasing her in the bustling corridors of the National Orthodox School.

It was break time, and Ms. Goussous was jovial and relaxed with her students. She is equally relaxed, though more serious, in the classroom, where she teaches English language and literature.

"This is my style. I like the pupils to feel comfortable and at ease with me," says the dark-eyed Goussous.

She may be one of the few teachers in Jordan who does not mind if a student leans on the window sill or the radiator while she is teaching. "As long as they are able to concentrate, I really do not mind. If a girl or boy looks bored or is seeking trouble, I just point out calmly that they may leave. More often than not, they do not," she says.

Goussous has been teaching English since she graduated in 1976 from the American University of Beirut, which has produced some of the most prominent professionals and political leaders in the Arab world.

When she started teaching English at a leading state-run school in Amman 13 years ago, she found that the challenge was far greater than simply teaching a foreign language. "There was a feeling of resentment and hostility to the language," she recalls.

In the minds of many pupils in state schools, mostly children from the middle and lower class, English is associated with Western domination.

"Some girls at the schools would hide their surprise when I would display nationalist feelings or awareness of our political problems," she explains. "They associated knowledge of the English language with support for Western governments' policies in the region." English is also linked with Jordan's upper classes and privileged private schools.

Jordan's state schools start teaching English in seventh grade, and by the 12th grade the pupils are expected to compete with their private-school peers when they sit for a General Certificate Exam - the equivalent to the Scholastic Achievement Test in the United States and a major prerequisite for university admission here. English for elites

Later, when Goussous moved to a private school where English is taught alongside Arabic from the first day of school, pupils showed a very different attitude. "They are more relaxed and confident," observes Goussous, who graduated from the prestigious National Orthodox School (NOS), the same school where she now teaches.

At the private schools in Jordan, English is associated with the educational and cultural sophistication sought by the professional and social elite for their children.

While in the state schools Goussous tried to help students overcome their resentment of English, at this private school she feels the challenge is how to expand the awareness of her pupils beyond the narrow scope of their privileged social circle.

"They are almost insulated. They lack awareness of the social problems," she says.

Principal Rima Zananiri, who taught Arabic, history, and social studies at NOS for more than 16 years, notes that the level of political and social awareness has dropped remarkably over the years. She attributes this not only to the fact that most students come from affluent families, but also to the political changes in the region and the shortcomings of the educational system.

She has watched pupils' interest in broader, serious issues drop over the years as the Arab world experienced political and military defeats - the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and finally the Gulf war. The invasion of "consumerist" values in the late 1970s also contributed to the decline, she says.

"Generation after generation, I could see a sense of growing resignation and apathy taking over," says Ms. Zananiri, who believes it seriously hampered the development of creativity and analytical thinking among pupils.

"The main flaw is in an educational system which relies on dictating information ... rather than on promoting analytical skills," she argues.

Goussous remarks that the girls at the all-female state school where she taught were more questioning of the ideas taught than the pupils at the private school. For example, more often than not, girls at Sokaina state school would argue against the anticommunist message of George Orwell's renowned fable, "Animal Farm." Orwell a disappointment

"They were usually disappointed," says Goussous. "They felt that Orwell's conclusion were not to their advantage." The book has been a required part of the government's curriculum for all 12th-graders in state and private high schools for 14 years.

Goussous says that most of all she enjoys teaching English literature, particularly in the 10th and 11th grades, where the private schools are not bound by the government curricula.

At NOS, they mainly teach modern American novels and poems. Hemingway has replaced Shakespeare, who was a must in all private schools in Jordan for 20 years, in yet another indication of how US cultural influence has replaced British influence in Jordan.

Jordan's teenagers "end up adopting the appearances of Western culture and not the constructive values, while at the same time they are not aware of their own culture," says Zananiri.

In contrast to the "superficial" fascination with the West in private schools, Goussous observed a growing resentment of the West in state schools, where the influence of the surge of Islamic fundamentalism is more pronounced.

She says that the number of girls who wore scarves and long dresses, in observance of the code of behavior preached by strict Islam, were increasing daily at the state school.

"Sometimes half of the girls in the class would be wearing at least scarves, if not long dresses," she says.

In contrast, teenagers at NOS do not look any different from high-school kids in the US, except for the uniforms they wear. (Zananiri sternly reprimanded two young teenagers wearing heavy makeup in school.)

Although the influence of Islamic fundamentalism is barely visible at the modern school, Christian and other coeducational schools have become very careful ever since the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates a third of the Jordanian parliament, campaigned to impose sex segregation in schools.

The Brotherhood's initiative was defeated by strong resistance from Muslim and Christian parents alike. But since then, coed schools have made sure that the Brotherhood, which has strong influence in the ministry of education, could not accuse them of "corrupting the morals of the society."

Zananiri says that even though their clothes have not changed, the children are becoming more defensive of their respective religions. The school is careful not to employ religion teachers who could provoke sectarianism.

Consequently, Zananiri and Goussous see an additional task that they take very seriously.

"The challenge is how to keep the balance between promoting awareness of one culture and upholding universal values," Goussous says.

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