Arabic Teacher Spotlight – Susan Hanna-Wicht

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In this Arabic Teacher Spotlight, we spoke with Susan Hanna-Wicht. Susan comes from a diverse Arabic teaching background and her career has spanned translation, interpretation, marketing, and competitive intelligence. In 2005, she completed the Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA). In 2012, her family relocated to New York and in 2015 Susan earned an M.A. in Bilingual Bicultural Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has worked with the Research Center at City University New York (CUNY) on the Arabic curriculum content for Students with Interrupted Education (SIFE), has served on non-profit boards, including Career Transition for Dancers, St. Christopher’s Inn, and currently teaches Arabic at a Jewish school in New York City.

How essential is it for Arabic instructors to instill a cultural connection with their curriculum, both for beginners and for upper-level Arabic learners?

I prefer to use the plural ‘cultures’ to refer to the multifaceted, dynamic, and inter-related identities that shape the Arabic-speaking world. In this context, I quote Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture in the School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who posits, “[c]ulture cannot be reduced to holidays, foods, or dances”.  Above and beyond the culinary and festive, the Arabic-speaking world offers a wealth of culture that teachers can bring to learners of Arabic, be it FusHa or ‘Aamiya or Darija. Culture can be a lens into the pathways a society negotiates its values and realities. Whether teaching novice or advanced learners, culture is a cornerstone to language acquisition – it lends relevance to the learning experience. With regard to Arabic, the idea that there exists one sweeping culture that represents 422 million individuals is, at best, reductive of the diversity that exists in 22 countries spanning North Africa and parts of the Middle East. Historically, the Arabic-speaking region possesses a wealth of scientists (al-Khawarizmi, ibn Hayyan, ibn al-Haytham), philosophers (ibn al-Rushd), explorers (ibn Battoota), to name but a handful. Teachers can include such figures, alongside modern ones, to enrich language and expand the dimension of classes. On a social level, the Arabic-speaking region was the ancestral home to people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, alongside their Muslim brethren: Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, Druze, and Yazidis, as well as Amazigh and Kurds (and this list is far from exhaustive), who, until fairly recently, co-existed and thrived peacefully. These aspects can be included in language lessons to study the many cultures the region and its peoples have embraced. Lastly, it is vital to incorporate as much of the students’ cultures in instruction, so that they may make connections between their own and those they are studying through the medium of language.

As someone who has been involved in Arabic-language instruction and curriculum design, what are the most common pitfalls that you see Arabic instructors fall into?

I have the greatest respect and admiration for teachers of Arabic. Curricular materials have generally been designed with university students in mind. This requires fundamental re-purposing by instructors who may be teaching younger learners. Teachers are finding creative ways to foster students’ interest and sustain their engagement. A great majority of Arabic teachers invest in creating instructional materials, activities, games, and assessments for their classes. In my experience, the teachers I have met are open to learning and applying new approaches to classroom management and unit design. In some instances, there is a greater focus on form (grammar) rather than function (communication), a phenomenon not limited to Arabic instruction. As a teacher of French, I am aware of how limiting such an approach can be to language acquisition. That’s why I encourage teachers to refer to the guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) in designing their instruction, and particularly to think about how the language is used for communication purposes. Lastly, an enduring challenge, in my experience, is getting teachers to feel sufficiently confident to share their resources with fellow instructors. Rome was not built in a day!

On the opposite side of the coin, how has Arabic instruction changed for the positive compared to when you first began teaching?

Today, teachers have a greater awareness and application of student-centered instruction and checking for understanding. Teaching Arabic has become less about getting it right all the time (teaching for accuracy) and more about fostering communication (teaching for fluency). The guidelines for language instruction, such as those elaborated by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL), and the formulation of ‘can-do’ statements in the three modes of communication (interpretive, presentational and inter-personal), has become a standard in planning Arabic language instruction. Teachers are branching out in their creativity and teaching through songs, stories, and other media. This is an exciting time to be teaching Arabic creatively in the United States.

How have you seen the Arabic language act as a bridge between students that come from different cultural and religious backgrounds?

In this respect, I would go back to my response to the first question. The Arabic-speaking world is richly diverse and any student in the United States can experience a mirror of their values or religion when acquiring the language, as well as a window to a new culture. I teach Arabic at a Jewish school in Manhattan. As a bilingual educator, I try to foster connections between Hebrew and Arabic. My students love drawing linguistic parallels such as the triliteral root system in both Semitic languages. Furthermore, on a cultural level, in a unit on Ramadan, my students were excited to learn about the five pillars of Islam. They drew parallels between Muslims fasting during the Holy month and Jews fasting before Purim, on Tisha B’Av, on Yom Kippur, and between the centrality of Zakat (giving alms) in Islam and the role Tzedekeh in Jewish life.

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