As Published today in Forum magazine: “Education in Transition: English based learning in Bangladesh today”

I wrote this for Forum magazine, part of the Daily Star. It was published just today. It is pasted below. It is basically a piece written about the English education and its usage in the Bangladeshi society and the differences that it has brought to the sector, academically and socially. Read for more:

Education in Transition:
English based learning in Bangladesh today

By Olinda Hassan

OLINDA HASSAN examines the social divide between Bangla and English-medium students.

The growing availability of English medium education in Bangladesh attests to the increasing demand for the global language, both domestically and internationally. Even traditional, national-curriculum following Bangla medium schools, such as Viqarunnisa Noon School or St. Josephs have established “English medium” sections. These sections teach the basic national curriculum as translated in English, and usually have only one Bangla class, for at most 45 minutes per day. In the O’level exams in English medium schools, the Bangla section is easily passable, as discussed by several alums of such schools for this article. “Since Bangla is taught as a second language, the section is fairly easy, and almost everyone will score an A,” explained a graduate from Sunbeams. This trend, along with the rise in British-curriculum English medium schools in the country, attests to the language’s continued prestige in the region.

The rise in the usage of English, beyond schools and corporations, testifies to the effect of globalisation in Bangladesh. As the country promotes foreign investors, for example, the importance of having proficient English becomes crucial, for everyone. Since the mid-20th century, or when independent nations started forming from colonialism, English-based educational institutions started to flourish in order to speed up the process of development; in Bangladesh, the rise in such schools was concurrent with the liberalisation of the market and flowing international aid. In Bangladesh and around the world today, governments are increasingly making English classes compulsory at younger ages, though often without providing the necessary funding for training teachers and for teaching material.

The rise in English has also created a cultural change, especially in urban areas; complete fluency of the language has become a new medium for defining social hierarchies at a very early age. English has become the tool to eliminate people from inner circles; at schools, the work place, to neighborhoods, etc. The extensive trust in the power of English is causing many to hold a negative image of their own language. It has also raised another interesting question — what will happen to the Bangla language itself as more parents and children are picking English as the mode for life instruction? From being under British to Pakistani rule, Bangladesh has gone through a vastly emotional language movement, fighting for its right to use Bangla. Today, such a history is compounded with English becoming the preferred language of elitism, intellect, as well as the venue for the nation’s development.

Understanding perceptions: English medium and Bangla medium students
“We don’t really talk to them in the Bangla medium section, they are not like us,” said one student in Class 8 who studies at the English medium section at Rajuk Uttara Model College (RUMC). He is wearing green, the colour that distinguishes him from the Bangla medium students who wear blue at RUMC. While he is sharing the same school grounds as the hundreds of others in Bangla medium, it is notable that the two sections often do not mix socially. If one looks out at the playing field, the greens and blues can often be seen in dividing clusters during breaks. Yet the two sections have combined to make RUMC stand at the first place in rankings yet again, scoring at the top in the recent national SSC exams.

The national-curriculum following schools also have vastly differing tuition fees within the institution; the Bangla medium section is usually cheaper. Since this information is widely known, in addition to the differences in uniform, location of classrooms, teachers, etc., it is easy to separate and discriminate. English medium schooling has always been a privilege for the wealthy minority, engrained in the country’s sociological history. The demand for English medium school for the children of wealthy families and nouveau riche led to the speedy creation of these schools in the private sector.

Furthermore, it can be observed that those who have studied under English medium education have higher chances of applying to and attending universities abroad. This does not indicate that the Bangla medium students are any less interested, however, their chances decrease and they are also often discouraged from going abroad, due to their education’s primary mode of language. In a society where a foreign degree (often no matter what type of university, known or not, vocational or unranked) gives an individual and their family a powerful social advantage, one can understand why the preference for English medium education has increased.

In addition, the expanding private universities in the country that sometimes replace going abroad for higher studies are also like an extension of English-medium education, and therefore, “very elitist in their admission”, with their language entrance exams ten folds more expensive than public institutions, as discussed by Rahel Banu and Roland Sussex in “English in Bangladesh after Independence: Dynamics of Policy and Practice”. They further explained how elitism in education is expressed “not only in terms of the fees paid, but also in terms of the overall exclusiveness of the environment, not the least of which is the use of English in the classroom and whenever possible, outside the classroom” (Banu and Sussex, 131).

“The Bangla medium girls…they are just not like us, they can’t speak English well, so there is not much to talk about,” said Nishat in Bangla, one recent graduate of Viqarunnisa Noon School when asked if she had friends from the “other section”, as they termed it. When asked to explain what differences she saw, she shrugged and said, “They are just different, we don’t share the same culture, you know?”

However, it is not that the two sections may differ significantly in their lifestyle. They may be neighbours, their parents could be colleagues. The students from the two mediums will often listen to the same music, watch the same movies and television shows, recognise the same fashion, enjoy alike local hangouts, and may even come from analogous economic and family backgrounds. They will often identify with similar religious beliefs, cultural norms and political viewpoints. However, receiving an English-based education can crush these existing similarities between students of the same school, the same neighbourhood and the same city.

There are many attitudes associated with defining the power of language. Using a specific language, such as English in Bangladesh can determine what one thinks the language can provide for him or her, and likewise, what others can think of the individual when the language is used. English, the language that has been associated with power and prestige (due to its legacy from colonialism) has become the suitable vocabulary in society. Whereas in India English has become the primary language of communication and politics and thus, people have become comfortable with its usage, this has now become the case concentrated only among Bangladeshi elites. Observing how school and college children interact with each other based on the language of education proves the capacity and influence of English in Bangladeshi society.

Today’s generation and the emergence of “Banglish” 
English has diffused deeply in the country, resulting in the use of several varieties of the language in Bangladesh. “Banglish”, as popularly termed today, is the use of English diction inserted randomly in the Bangla dialogue. This can make a conversation as much as 30% to 40% in English. The use of Banglish is especially popular in media today, such as in television and private radio stations such as Radio Foorti. Hosts of public events and concerts are often specifically asked to speak Banglish. The development of Banglish is connected with historical and social factors, having its own function, context and usage. Banglish’s popularity has likewise raised questions concerning identity and its realistic usage in a non-native English surrounding.

Rifaiyat Mahbub, an alum of Sunbeams in Uttara explained how learning both Bangla and English is reducing the authenticity of each of those languages today. Further, the improper development of English education itself has complicated this problem. “Our English isn’t good, but then we are focusing on learning English and so, our Bangla is not so great either. So, we talk in a mix where we use both English and Bangla words together, like Spanglish,” she explained. “Many don’t like this in our society, causing a disconnect, especially because of the politics of Bangladesh that is engrained in our everyday lives,” Mahbub added.

The prevalence of Banglish is important because language is deeply rooted in culture, and any cultural movements tend to bring broad changes to a community. There is an openly known notion that Banglish is creating a type of modernisation (or, Westernisation as is popularly paralleled in Bangladesh) that can be seen as threatening. Gerry Abbott from the University of Manchester in “Development, education, and English language teaching” (1990) explains how the need to develop through teaching a non-native language such as English “overshadows an arguably more basic need to transmit indigenous inherited cultures” and thus, because “development has been interpreted as ‘becoming more like the West’, western aid donors and cultural agencies [that work to promote English] have been accused of cultural imperialism” (Abbott, 174). The wide usage of Banglish or the purposeful usage of American or British-accented English by today’s generation (who may have never even lived abroad) can often be seen by others as limiting and threatening. However, today’s generation can argue that such usage is their homage to trying to get the country to develop and modernise. Languages, native and Western, can even have the capability of excavating generation gaps.

Conclusion
In 2010, the General Administration of Press and Publication in China banned the use of English in Chinese media such as books, papers and on the web, explaining that the ever increasing usage of English and half-English phrases are damaging the “purity “of the Chinese language and upsetting the nation’s “harmonious and healthy cultural environment”. It must be noted that the Chinese government also lowered the age for compulsory English from 11 to nine in 2001 and English teaching has emerged as a booming private business. Even in Bangladesh, the demand for English correlated with personal advancement and job placement has created a profitable market for coaching centres that exist in every turn.

In Asia, the use of English is astounding; India houses one of the largest English-using populations in the world. English literature is increasingly becoming recognised as part of education, as well as policy making in many nations in the region. The escalating use of English, as well as the purposeful build up of educational institutions promising English, along with the language’s firm grip on defining social elites in Bangladesh certainly asserts the language’s overwhelming power.

The authority of language goes beyond its linguistics; its place in history, sociology of the population, politics and economics must be considered. In Bangladesh, English is also connected with social hierarchies and power, going beyond just a linguistic divide. The language can be used to persuade entities, used as a code to get things and suppress and or elevate groups. It entitles some to things that others can never have. English has come to represent modernisation and development, whether that is right or wrong in Bangladesh, and native children learn this as soon as their first day in school.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh, teaching English at RUMC.

Rajuk tops in HSC Results: Ranked first in Bangladesh

Rajuk Uttara Model College (RUMC) just placed first in the national HSC results! They scored 94.64 points in Dhaka Board, and 891 students scored GPA of 5 in their exams (e.g. perfect score). Last year, they were ranked at 4th position.

The news comes just a few months after scoring 1st place in SSC results.

Like last time, the courtyard was packed with students and news vans, even though results were not given out yet. Confident students surrounded the are and parents filled up too, waiting for the celebration. It was a great scene to see when I was done with the day and having an air of excitement once again. It was refreshing to also see the months of the stress on the students’ faces slowly disappear. It would be an understatement to say that RUMC’s students are really some of the most hardworking group of youth I have seen in a long time.

My students, Part I

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking a moment: it’s raining in Bangladesh.

Its been raining randomly during the day for a couple of weeks now. Sometimes it rains in the morning when you wake up to see your room still in the dark. You step out to get a rickshaw, having to tip toe your way as you circulate mud puddles. You have to carefully place the blue plastic blankets the rickshawalla will give you to cover yourself, if you choose though really they do nothing to prevent the vengeful rain. You forget to not wear white today and there goes the just ironed, perfectly tailored tunic of yours.

Sometimes it’s late at night when simultaneously electricity would go out and you would be forced to stand in the veranda overlooking the view of the city from the third floor. From that view you will see random pockets in empty, half built apartment buildings in Baridhara where temporary tenants rush to use their scraps of tin to hold the water from gushing into their makeshift beds. They do this while managing their already wet lungi wrapped haphazardly across their thin hips and a half burnt, 2 taka cigarette.

The afternoon is the best. Kids rush out  in my school in the middle of a lesson during fifth period into the long patios that circle every floor, facing an open courtyard. They face the wind they miss in their stuffy classrooms with fifty others, uniformed, hair tied, shoes neat, clean. Even the teachers, the masters of model behavior are temporarily distracted. I am asked to go to the roof with one of them even, where just before it gets to be a real storm I get to see the entire cityscape of Uttara about to be cleansed of its pollution for the day. In that roof there are rows and rows of vegetables planed carefully by the students- tomatoes, baby bitter-melons, okras, chilli peppers, as well as jars of pickled olives and green mangoes. Neat laminated rectangles are attached to these terracotta pots where neat handwritings pop up from the stark whiteness of the papers.

Many kids don’t remember to bring their umbrellas on purpose. There is a particular liking here in Bangladesh for getting wet in the rain. Commercials for local mobile networks on the television will always include the scene of a wet rice paddy or a busy side street in the city drenched in rain with people running gleefully. At the same time the aging aunty living in your building will tell you to be careful, don’t get wet, cover your head, you will get sick. But she too probably loved and still wishes to be young again and in the rain when it used to be appropriate, half listening to her mother say the same.

American Culture Lesson: Magazine photos and observations in an 8th grade Bangla Medium Class

For my weekly Class VIII Bangla Medium of 50 students, I decided to put their critical thinking and creative side to work by posing a particularly out -of- the- box activity for them. This involved cutting out random photos/ads/pictures from an American magazine (I used Cosmopolitan March 2011, for example) and passing them around to groups in class (ideally groups of 4-5 would work, though in my class they were larger due to the volume of students and the lack of space). The groups were asked to work together and analyze what the photos meant in terms of the American culture as we know it, and write their responses accordingly in limited words.

Organization of the Activity: Method, tools, and how it was conducted.

My collection of photos included: two cutouts of women in Vera Wang bridal gowns, a picture of a mixed-ethnic girl eating a vegiterian pizza from the health section of the magazine, a photo of fried chicken and salad served in colorful platters from the recipe section, a few fashion cutouts of women posed in different clothes, a photo of celebrities clumped together, a photo of a white female and a black male model, of several wo nklmen dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt from the “trends” section, an ice-cream sundae article that describes “America, Italian, and Turkish” toppings, etc. to name a few.

The questions I asked them to consider were: 1) What does the photo in front of you tell you about the American culture?, and 2) How does the topic of the photo differ from your culture and lifestyle in Bangladesh?. My helping questions were the typical that I alway use: Who, What, When, Where, How, Why. My students have gotten used to hearing these types of questions to first help identify what is actually happening in a given scenario (I have used the 5Ws/ 1H for readings and lectures before or whenever a chance is posed).
Before the groups started to do this, I showed them two enlarged photos from my collection to give a sample of what I am looking for. For example, I used a photo of an open market in Atlanta and talked about the difference in prices, what kinds of vegitables were being sold, what kind of people were selling and buying, and how the market looked compared to those in Dhaka.

Each student was given a pice of paper to write their responses. The space was limited however so that the students were forced to put their thoughts down in just a few sentences, forcing them to be direct (I did this by cutting a 8 x 11 white paper into four sections).

When there was about 7 minutes left in class, I switched photos between groups and asked them to do the same but just write me one sentence about what they found most interesting.

Responses from students while working in the classroom:

In an ideal situation I would have liked the groups to be mixed but in a classroom with barely any space to move and with only 40 minutes to work with and where genders were physically divided, this was almost impossible.
First, the students laughed at some of the photos. Then they became very serious and started to quickly talk about the pictures. I had to go around the class to each group and help them understand the activity and what I was looking for. I also had to emphasize that there was no right or wrong answer, which is always a bit shocking for the students. Some groups did not like their photo which they openly exclaimed, especially the male students.

The positive reaction was that everyone was amused and thus, interested. It was rare to find, if at all, any student in the group no engaged in trying to understand what the photo stated. The photos were from magazines and random on purpose- they demanded an explanation and they proved their “authenticity” by coming from an “American source”. And because there was no concrete answer to the activity, and it was not based on prior knowledge and such, they had to talk to each other in order to analyze.

Written responses: Sample

Photo: A black male model with a white model whose arms are around him, dressed in neon colors from the “fashion” section.

“In the picture there is a married couple. One of them is black in color and one of them is white in color. They are standing together. This picture says about America that, in America people of different races, tribes, and color marry each other. But in Bangladesh it is not so. In Bangladesh they make differences between the people who are white and who are black in color. Those who are white in color don’t want to marry those who are black in color.”

“…The boy is wearing a jacket and T-shirt, like the Bangladeshi boys wear. The girl is wearing a frock. But the Bangladeshi girls don’t wear that kind of dresses. It also indicates about American culture. The boys and girls can meet and talk to each other freely in front of everyone. But in Bangladesh it is not acceptable.

Other sample responses:

“The American fashion is more artificial than Bangladesh.”

“Bangladeshi ice cream is very good but not as costly. It is also not as good to look at. They are made of unhealthy things.”

“The famous Bangladeshi ice cream is kulfi. It’s only 2 taka. It’s made from milk. It’s very different from the picture of the ice cream in the picture because kulfi is very cheap and it’s not delicious at all.”

“In American almost everyone likes pets. Well, sometimes they take it in fashion. They carry pets in their bags. And like every schools and houses they keep pets. But in Bangladesh we usually don’t see that because they don’t really like pets. They are ignored.”

“There is a funny thing in USA that they carry pets in their bags.”

“In this picture we can see some models of different countries wearing dresses of American style.” (The photo showed American models of different races featuring a skirt trend)

“This photo is about the wedding ceremony of America. In this picture we can see a bride wearing white wedding gown. She is looking happy and holding some flowers. There are some differences between Bangladesh and American wedding dresses. In Bangladesh, usually the bride wears colorful sharis. They wear heavy ornaments but in America, the bride wears a simple dress without heavy ornaments or makeup.”

“Bangladeshi celebrities don’t care about their health but the celebrities of USA care about teir health. They have a balances diet.”

“There is a girl who s eating pizza. She is wearing a red-white T-shirt. he looks so good. But her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin color is also common in Bangladesh. What she eats, this is a pizza. It also common in Bangladesh. But American people eat this food much more. Her nail polish is looking good.”

About the same photo another girl writes: “The girl is looking horrible. Her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin is rough (the model had freckles). The pizza is not looking tastey (the pizza had broccoli and mushrooms). Her t-shir tis found in the foot path in Bangladesh. Her nail polish is not so bad. But I don’t know how can this type of pizza be good for me? I don’t think this is a good picture.”

“In order to decorate this meat some green vegitables are used.”- referring to the salad on the plate.

Conclusion:
* Encourages dialouge and group work, especially since it is an unknown topic so they are forced to talk. Everyone is in an even field of exepreince.
*Encourages studetns to write directly and concisely instead of writing too much and not getting to the point.
*Students are made to share and develop and opinion, especially since there are no right and wrong answer (this must be emphasized).
* They learn to look at magazine photos and ads in a different, critical way.
*They are forced to think about my past lectures about the United States and put that to use instead of getting information from a book or other written sources.
* Some groups had the same answer among all its members; some are still uncomfortable to have differing opinions.
* Single-sex groups are forced rather than mixing them up which could be a disadvantage for critical thinking in the classroom.
* Time management is always an issue with 50 students with 40 minutes.

Rajuk Uttara Model School Tops Again in SSC Exam Scores.

I am proud to say that Rajuk Uttara Model School has topped the list again in having the highest number of students passing and scoring high in the SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exam this year. As a result, Rajuk has been ranked the best school by the Dhaka Education Board.

RUMS on Thursday, May 12 2011 after 12 pm was a sea of students and parents in the courtyard, cheering and showing the victory signs. There were reporters and press vans from various channels in the city present to record the scene. Among the crowd can be seen teachers who eagerly entered the crowd. Given how rigorous the exams can be, and the time commitment issued to the students (those who took the exams were given days off from school to prepare), this news indeed was one for celebration. About 1.3 million students in Bangladesh took the exam this year that began in February.

I remember right before the students went on vacation to study for the exams, they held a pre-celebration in the auditorium with music, prize giving to teachers, cake cutting, and food (from their local favorite, Best Fried Chicken). I had just started at Rajuk and many of these students did not know me. While most Rajuk students greet me with great enthusiasm and curiosity, these 10th graders’ reaction was a bit more somber- they were clearly distracted about the examination and the hours of rigorous study that was about to fall upon them.

Not that many were surprised at the passing rate and Rajuk placing at the top again. The celebration on Thursday was already in the air well before results were to be announced. Two of my students who were about to take the exam next year came to my room and told me all about how crazy the scene would be yesterday at noon, despite knowing if everyone had passed or not. The supreme confidence exerted my students at Rajuk is perhaps one to admire.

More students pass the SSC exam this year. 

Exam Time at Rajuk Uttara Model School

There are about four hundred students seated to the take the HSC exam, one of the national exams for 12th grades in the central hall on the bottom floor of the school. The hall, usually home to cultural events for students has been transformed into a room of intimidation: rows of wooden chairs and tables, and desks in intervals for proctors and board members to sit and observe late teenagers sweat their way through a live or die exam. None them look up when I enter the room to speak to one of the teachers, their faces showing the strains of studying for months being finally poured out.

The HSC result will determine the students’ ability to succeed in the sense that if they do not do well, their hopes of getting into a national university are slim to none. Getting entrance into the prestigious public institutions such as Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, or Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will all be essentially determined by the HSC exam. Likewise, the fate of the school rests on its students’ scores as well. The more perfect scores, the better the school will be ranked among all. In a country there hierarchy is engrained in the everyday social construct, this becomes particularly important. Rajuk has been ranked at the top as an educational institution based on these results. When I tell someone from Bangladesh that I work at RUMS, they usually respond with raised eyes and by telling me that I work at the best schools in the country.

The exam culture of schools that follow the national curriculum consists of intense memorization, attention to detail, and unorthodox organization. Not only do they have to memorize information (often word for word), but they must be presented clearly and neatly. I have seen some of the best English handwritings at Rajuk, ever. When I write on the board in class I am sometimes embarrassed as my writing (which I have always considered to be pretty good) looks illegible compared to kids ten yours younger than me. In fact in some classes I have to warn before hand that my handwriting may not be clear (to which I get amused smirks and laughs).

RUMS students from all grade levels have also had exams over the last four weeks. These exams included midterms, papers, and lesson exams. I eagerly took about fifty of these English exams with me home to grade. My most important conclusion: I have a new appreciation for all the teachers I have ever had for what they had to go through. I finally understand why it took them so long to turn back midterms and finals. Grading takes a type of effort that I have decided that I do not enjoy- attention to detail, reading sometimes excruciatingly boring paragraphs, trying not cringe at grammar mistakes, and checking final scores, making sure there are no rooms for students to appeal decisions.

Further, there is an indirect grading deflation policy at RUMS- no one is allowed to have full marks. This unwritten policy can be observed in many Bangladeshi schools, especially the competitive selections. For example, in the essay section of the exam, while it says that it is out of ten points, the highest they can get is a seven (which is when it is exceptional). The student may or may not know this. Thus, getting a score in the range of 70s is considered to be good- a score that translates to a ‘C’ in most schools in the United States. You do not ever give full marks- an important rule with ethical bindings for me. So no matter how much these students study and write amazing answers to questions (which were several in this sample case), they will never be rewarded what they probably deserve.

It is hard to compare these systems with those in the West as the implications of results are so varied. Whereas in the United Stats many factors count towards college entrance, in Bangladesh the exam results are exclusive in that category. And yet Bangladeshi students from these national schools who pursue their undergraduates in the United States have an unusually high rate of success in their SATs. Usually, financial considerations are the reasons for declining entrance to American colleges rather than not getting an acceptance. Their SAT scores tend to make up for the lack of sufficient extra curricular activities, for example, which is still an up and coming component in Bangladeshi schools.

Nostalgia…Being Taught to Draw: Classroom Art

 These sample art work from students at Rajuk Uttara Model School (RUMS) illustrate that a common theme to showcase in classroom art work are scenes of the Bangladeshi village. Huts, rice patties, hills, rivers, boats, and figures in traditonal clothing are some of the most common subjects present in art by students from all grade levels. They are usually drawn with crayons or water colors, and are usually very bright and vibrant on paper. The second most popular theme is the revolutionary war of 1971. Abstract art was not included in any of the samples I had a chance to see.


The village theme’s popularity in children’s art is interesting because almost all of the students at RUMS were born and raised in the city. Additionally, increasinly it can be observed that the parents of 1990s children were also raised in Dhaka. Thus one must wonder why villages become a repeated topic in art since the village scene is so different from that of Dhaka city.

One student told me that they are asked to draw “something beautiful” in their art class and that usually resonates the village scene. He explained that the village is more calm, quiet, and shows “natural beauty” that is present in most of Bangladesh but not in the city. Thus, being told to draw something beautiful meant drawing something outside the city.

Another student told me that often art class means drawing what the teacher tells you to, and what the teacher wants to see. These teachers will often assign the drawing of village scenes, and this initial teaching sticks to the children afterwards. In order to get the grade, you have to please the instructor, who has made his or her desire for such themes apparent. These teachers are also more likely to be more connected to the village than their students in Dhaka. This logic follows for art competitions as well where to win, drawing the most splendid scenaries does the trick.

Village scenes represents a certain nostalgia for what is missing in the city- cleaner air, people not in hurry, landscapes void of clumped together buildings, trees without the residue of pollution, and such. These scenes as represented by children of the city in school art classes showcase a divide of the urban and rural. It also works in an interesting way to connectgenerations widely different in history, lifestyle, and mobility.

Talking about Religion in the United States in Class X

In teaching in Class X, I decided to revisit the concept of religion in the United States. I wanted to talk about religion because many interesting notions and misconceptions exist in Bangladesh about what is religious freedom in the U.S., especially for Muslims. Before I began the class, I handed everyone a piece of paper and asked the students to write down their thoughts, opinions, or questions as lectured. I gave them the option of writing anonymously if they so desired. I required everyone’s participating in writing as it was a way not only for them to practice writing and expressing opinions, but to also force them to think about topic on their own.

First I started to talk about the “separation of church and state”- one of the most important pillars in the first amendment of the American constitution. I discussed how religious freedom has always been an essential part of the American society. I discussed the fact that there was no official state religion, no religious holidays, and how religion in particular was not welcome in public institutions. I used public schools as my main example to convey how religious could not be placed in public institutions.  I used the example of Rajuk where religious comments and customs related to Islam are often expressed whereas that would not be the case or accepted in American public schools.

Further, I wrote down the pledge of allegiance on the board and asked the students to respond to its words. They were immediate to see that the sentence “one nation under God” could be potentially contradictory to the ideals of “separation of church and state”.  Some students argued that it did not matter if God was mentioned or not because the pledge was a long standing cultural component. Others thought that the contradiction should be taken care of and changed. One student wrote in response, “Everyone believes in God, but in a different way. So there is no problem in saying God. If you think it gets mixed with your government or state, then be it. Take that as a culture. If you don’t, forget it”.

I also talked about Islam in the United States, using 9/11, as well as the mosque building controversy last summer in Ground Zero. Mentioning how Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in the country, especially among women raised some eyebrows. I talked about my personal experience of not ever getting discriminated as a Muslim woman in America, about my parents who have indeed faced discrimination, to other anecdotes. Students listened with much attention at this moment but many were still not convinced that various opinions exist in the United States.

I asked the students if they thought that the government had some responsibility in bettering the image of Muslims in the United States, or do American Muslims have the responsibility? One student said that it had to be both, or none. Many said that the government did have a responsibility as there would never be an understanding otherwise, and the government existed to serve the people which included Muslims. One student wrote, “I mean, if the Muslims are downtrodden and discriminated only because they are Muslim, the government should do something; even if the “separation of church and state” is followed. I mean, every individual has the right to religion, and these rights cannot be violated. If these rights are violates, shouldn’t the U/S/ government do something?”

I asked the students then to discuss if this idea of “separation of church and state” would be possible in Bangladesh? Is separating religion from the government important? One student wrote in their response that there was no use of separating church and state when “there is hardly any fighting among the people of different religions staying in Bangladesh”. Another student wrote, “Bangladesh is better off being a Muslim state. People of all religions are welcome here and nobody is offending them. Nobody is putting a stop to anyone in observing their religious rituals”. Some students vocalized that it would be ideal to have religion separated from the government but that would only be possible in a democratic country.

As the class was winding down, I could sense that there was some tension in the class. The word “controversy” and “taboo” were used often in the responses to talk about the class in general. Many students were uncomfortable with the idea of religious freedom in America as they were convinced that all Muslims are treated unfairly in the country. I tried to emphasize that making generalizations about a diverse country like America is dangerous.

In turn, I also faced many questions. One student asked if I actually knew anything about Islam, which I was taken aback by as a fellow Muslim. One student asked, “If someone kills another because of religious reasons, would the American law not be able to say anything because it was done on religious bounds and there is religious freedom?” I thought that this was a fascinating question in looking at the separation of church and state. I responded that no matter what, murder took precedence in this case as a punishable crime. I asked if he had agreed and how he would feel if the same scenario took place in Bangladesh and he agreed with my answer.

Another student asked, “if let’s say Afghani refugees went to America and for jihad they started killing people. Would that again be not punishable because it is for religious purposes?” I responded by asking what he meant by Jihad in his question, and he responded that it meant defending the religion. I then asked, if I was defending Islam in front of the class, am I not performing jihad according to his definition? He responded that supposedly, and I told him that such things do not need to be violent, and any violence should be taken note of in a civil society.

As the class winded down, many students were reacting to the different ideas of religion as raised. Few students told me that it was not right that people did not believe in God. One student said that people in Bangladesh sincerely believed in God and so it was not possible to separate Islam from governance. Many also could not separate the political from the religious for Bangladesh. One student wrote that it is “impossible” to separate religion from the state in Bangladesh “because the opposition party would protest, and take all measures against the decision or even they would bring up the no-confidence vote and the whole country will be in support”. Students seem to be very aware that the state is too connected to Islam in their country that imposing different ideas could potentially be precarious.

Some students stayed after the class to talk to me. They came to apologize of they had offended me which was a bit surprising as the thought never occurred to me. As they walked with me outside of the class they said that religion is a taboo topic to discuss in school but were glad that I had brought it up because they have never had a venue to discuss such issues. I continued to receive apologies for some of the tension. I was not sure how to react to everything that had happened but I think that I may have gained some success if the forty minutes talking about religion in America instigated conversations outside of the classroom.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking my first Study Tour with Class 11 English Medium Section

The ride to Mymensingh in a rented tour bus with almost thirty other teenagers for four hours was an experience to remember, to say the least. The field trip began early in the morning where by 8 am students in the English Medium section in the 11th grade stood sleepily in the courtyard of Rajuk Uttara Model School, waiting for teachers and the principal to share some words of wisdom and warnings. We were to visit the Bangladeshi Agricultural University in Mymensingh where we were given a tour of their 400 acre campus and various museums relating to environmental studies and preservations. What should have been a three hour bus ride took almost five (naturally, as most rides in Bangladesh) given the traffic from Ijtema (a religious pilgrimage taking place in northern Dhaka).

The students were most excited about the journey rather than the field trip to BAU itself, as it was a chance to be out of the classroom and openly mingle, sing, flirt, take photos, and gossip. The energy and hormones from otherwise restricted group of 17 to 20 year olds was very much expected. The girls took the rare chance to style their hair, put on some makeup, and color their nails black while still adoring the green and white uniform. The boys came prepared with music and practices pick up lines. At some point I was asked to join in them in the middle of the bus where they simultaneously danced to popular Bollywood songs and sang Bangla songs unknown to me. No one wanted to sit down despite having to hold onto the seats as the bus bumped around the countryside. I was told of the various gossip- who dated who, who broke up with who, who liked who, and everything else that made me almost nostalgic for my high school days in Tucson. We stopped at one point for gas where despite my objections students bought me local snacks- roasted peas and spiced nuts, and salted pickled fruit. In just a few hours, I became instantly close to the students in this particular group from Class 11, Business Studies.

The relationship between teachers and students in Bangladeshi schools is one that I have been particularly keen to observe lately. The candid respect and care that many show to their teachers is uncanny. For example, students took the initiative in the bus to distribute snacks and made sure that we the teachers had it first. Some would come up to the front of the bus to check in on me and Farhana, the other teacher and my mentor for my tenure at Rajuk. They took the time to engage us in polite conversation, even though it was not necessary. Students let each other become natural leaders of the trip and make sure that everyone was in place.

I suppose this was very different from my field trip experiences in the United States were the boundary between a teacher and the student is maintained in many degrees. All this time, I thought that it was more in the United States that a teacher was able to have an open, friendly relationship with their students, but I see that it is not necessarily the case. While students here are afraid of their teachers, they also almost look to them as a parent and a friend if the teacher happens to be kind. The idea of respecting your elders is very much engrained in the culture in Bangladesh in all levels. This of course happens in the United States too, but I believe that the boundaries are more concrete in the relationships. For example, I would never ask my teacher in high school about their relationship status and share personal love stories, or give them a ride back home in my car when needed (apparently, common here), purchase them snacks, and check in on how they are doing during non-class periods. Here in Bangladesh, it has never occurred to me as inappropriate. Rather, it is a sense of a new kind of respect I am just not used to yet. Also, it is a testament to Bangladesh’s culture of hospitality, informality, and respect for the elder.

I spoke about this dynamic with my mother on the phone the next day who told me that indeed in Bangladesh, hospitality is something ingrained in people’s upbringing. She told me how when she was growing up, extended family, friends, and neighbors showing up to your home was the most common and expected. Entertaining guests was something you learn naturally from a young age. She claimed that since moving to the United States she has become more formal in her behavior. Calling before going over to a close person’s home was absurd. She told me that in schools, while teachers were strict, if a teacher ever showed some ador- a beautiful Bangla word that somewhat means affection- the students will give all they can to respect you and become close to you. She laughed and told me that in a school setting, students are used to the environment of discipline and studying, so even a slight ador is met with overwhelming responses.

***

The fisheries museum at BAU was impressive, unexpectedly. Having seen many museums in Dhaka since coming here, I was shocked to see how well sea animals and fish were presented inside the two story building. It was artist meet scientist inside, where wooden rods and various traditional fishing tools were used along with representations of nature to present various creatures to the untrained eye. Many of the fish were preserved in clean jars around a room, where I also encountered a very grotesque preserved bat as well (random?). Another room included computer modules, projectors, as well as instruments used to research fisheries with neat labels. Seeing the museum gave me a hope for the push currently taking place in the country for environmental preservation.


We also visited other sites and museums around BAU. In a particular garden, I got to taste baukal- a small green fruit that tasted like a more airy, crispier, subtle version of an apple. The fruit itself is known as a kul, but here termed baukul because it was made in BAU. The principal who came along to the tour with his wife also personally introduces me to plants and fruits that I had never seen or tasted before in my life. This example of the extent of the country’s fertility and vegetation was beautiful.

After a lunch of rice, chicken roast, salad and eggs, a soccer match started outside among the boys. The girls played a game of pillow passing where prizes were given, and the members of the winning soccer team were also given prizes. There was a semi-formal formatted ceremony near the end in a dining hall where such prizes and gifts were given to participants, winners, as well as teachers for coming and helping.

I realized that study tours were literally designed as a way for students to bond with each other as well as the teachers. I liked this idea of it being not just an academic tour but a social one, and much needed as well. It was a break for the students in what is otherwise a life of studying and restrictive activities. I was really appreciative of the idea and the thought behind it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some snapshots from work at Rajuk

Some of the students from VIIB Day Shift at Rajuk who came to wish me a Happy Birthday last week. They are from one of the most energetic classes on campus.

My new pet bird named Twinkle that was given to me by one of my students from VIIB at Rajuk. He ran home after school to bring it for me while I was still on campus.

Some of the students at Rajuk English medium section from all grades that come to see me regularly. This was on the day before my birthday.

Starting to Talk about Globalization in a 10th grade class at Rajuk Uttara Model School.

Last Thursday, I was leading a tenth grade class where I spoke a bit about globalization. I presented the sentence, “The world is becoming more global”, and asked the students to discuss and talk about this statement and what it means in Bangladesh. First, the students decided that it also made sense to say that the world was becoming smaller, in additional to global. We listed several factors of America, for example, that are present in their country as a result of the world becoming globalized: KFC, Jeans, Burgers, Music (Eminem, Linkin Park, etc.), the microwave, etc. Following this, I asked them to think about what Bangladeshi influences may be seen in the West, which in general was agreed to be none. Rather, we saw how their neighboring country, India had more influences over the world than Bangladesh (they talked about Indian stars being part of Hollywood as an example). This was followed by talking about Bangladesh’s concerns and development. There was a lot of pessimism in the class about their country and how it “can’t go forward” and thus become part of this statement about the world becoming more global.

The discussion turned towards foreign policy and if Bangladesh should be concerned about the outside world, like the United States. I asked them to get into groups to discuss for two minutes and give me an answer. It was overwhelmingly agreed by the students that before Bangladesh can contribute their culture to the globe (as part of globalization), the country needs to develop. People need to be more concerned about their own country and its well being rather than what is going on outside because there are too many pressing issues that needed attention. Some of these issues were listed as corruption, the environment, poverty, children’s education, and the economy. Bangladesh simply could not participate in international relations unless it took care of such domestic issues. The students were very serious in discussing this matter. I was actually a bit surprised that they had such strong opinions about their country and why they are able to take in Western influences, but could not contribute back. One student said that before fuchka (a popular snack in Bangladesh, where flour and spiced shells are filled with chick pea beans, tomatoes, onions, and spicy sauces) can be seen in fast food chains in America, Bangladesh needs to eradiate corruption in general elections.

I also asked the students whether they thought that these Western influences were a good thing. Some hesitated but overall agreed that no, they would rather be Bangladeshi and hold onto their Bangladeshi roots. Everyone agreed that they wanted to go to the U.S. for higher education and come back to their country. This was really interesting since from my personal observations, it seemed like this new youth generation wants to be Western. They are adopting the American English accents, they prefer to eat French fries and burgers these days, and wearing American band t-shirts are cool. They are eager to associate being modern with being more American.

The classes are only forty minutes long so I could not press them more on the subject, but after class, two of the students came into my office to talk about what had happened. They wanted to talk to me in private and seemed to be nervous. They told me that the class sentiment was false- they do want to become Western and love to participate in wearing Western clothes and eat fast food. They want to go to American not just to study but to get out of Bangladesh and experience “freedom”. It is very much part of their culture. One of them said that she was afraid that in a few generations, Bangaldeshi youth will no longer be, “Bangladeshi”, but being Bangladeshi will mean being more “American”.

The class was fascinating because these students- aged around 15 to 16- never get a chance to talk about these topics in school. They are highly intelligent kids that are engrained in a memorization culture where they are following a national curriculum and studying various subjects in a factual format. But they still had strong opinions despite spending so many hours of their daily lives in school studying and putting on a serious face about scoring well on national exams. Critical thinking- a popular sentiment and highlight of the American education system- was something that I thought that I would struggle in installing. It seems like students are eager however to be challenged in this way, while at the same time nervous about being right and not wrong with responses.

Leading the class itself required some special attention. It really is hard to get them to start talking, or get more than just the few energetic ones to talk. I have to remind myself that they are young, but not too young and do have the ability to express opinions. I think a new challenge is trying to convince them that it is okay to have differing thoughts and it is appropriate to debate, disagree, and just talk about what you think openly.

 

Third Day at Rajuk Uttara Model School

Today, it only took 45 minutes to drive over to Rajuk, most of which was spent me listening to my ipod while my driver blasted his favorite Bangla songs on the sound system. After arriving here, one of the teachers asked me what I had for breakfast and my answer of instant coffee was not good enough. I was told by her (or rather, demanded), that me not eating properly in the morning will result in having a talk with my mother. She also asked me why I was missing my sweater. This is one of the things I immediately lover about working at Rajuk- the open friendliness shown by my colleagues, some of whom have taken on the role of taking care of me. The campus is enormous- there are around 4,000 students combined. There are two shifts because of the large number of students- the morning shift and day shift. I was already lost in my second day when I was unsure of near which one of the four sets of stairs the office was close to.

The last two days were spent going to a few classes and doing a general introduction of myself to the students. I was insistent on this because I know that there is already some curiosity stimulated on campus by my presence amongst the uniformed students and teachers. I usually entered a class, and explained where I was from and what I would be doing, and asked them to ask me any questions that they may have. This process would sometimes be followed by silence because there is the initial hesitation but ultimately it proved to be a fruitful experience where I was able to get some laughs out of the students. In the 12th grade class yesterday, I made the boys in the back move up front to the empty seats and made each and every one go around and introduce themselves I made one male student sing two songs in the class, which was amazing because he exemplified a talent often unable to show off because of the culture of studying. I was also invited by some of the students to play basketball with them, which sounded like a challenge. The female students in the classes I visited so far showed me some of the best smiles I have seen so far. In one 10th grade class I bonded with the students over Movenpick ice cream. It was refreshing to see these reactions because I know that students at Rajuk are some of the most serious in the country, having scored the most percentage of highest marks on the national exams consistently over the years.

Rajuk has both English medium as well as Bangla medium sections, differentiated by the color of their uniforms. The Bangla medium students wear blue, and the English medium students wear green, and everyone wears maroon shoulder patches which represent the school and which year they are in depending on the number of stripes. The boys wear slacks and button down t-shirts followed by matching sweaters given that it is winter here, and the girls wear the common salwar-kameez that you see uniformed around the city. They are not like the ones I wear in that these dresses are perfectly fitted and attached, crisp, and monotone. I am fascinated by the uniforms because they are supposed to show discipline. At the same time some of the students have complained that they are not able to show off their style and individuality. Interestingly the boys complained more about this than the girls. However, one shy student told me how it was a relief to have the uniform because she does not have to worry about what to wear to school and not “having enough”. It allows students to take each other on face value, I suppose. In fact I wish I had worn uniforms when I was in high school.

The way that the students personalize their uniforms is fascinating, especially with the boys. The winter time allows for more opportunities as they are able to wear sweaters and scarves which again I see the boys taking advantage of more than the girls. I have seen a boy with his shirt collar popped, some with brightly colored scarves, and of course, the gelled, half spiked hair that is appropriate enough for school but different enough to get noticed. The two genders do not generally mix, whether in the classroom and sometimes, during the tea break. I wonder if this is because of the school setting which tends to be on the conservative side, or because they are not used to it.

Today I led conversations in one of the 7th grade class where there were almost fifty students. I asked everyone to go around and tell me their name, where they are from in Bangladesh, and something interesting about them. Many of the responses included loving food, being funny, math (!) and their favorite soccer team, to other interests. One of them has already promised to give me a parrot for my birthday from his collection of twenty two at home, many of which he apparently keeps in his bathroom. After class and the end of the morning shift, two of the girls from that class came into the office shyly and asked if I would become their new substitute teacher. It was adorable.

I am excited to meet more of the students and see what I can uncover about this generation of Dhaka. It seems like there are many layers that need to be broken into before this could happen, and I really have to think about how to do so this week.

 

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