An engaging and enjoyable learning experience
Egypt’s education system has for years infamously sat towards the bottom of the world’s rankings, which comes as quite a surprise considering the nation’s long history of exceptional literary, cinematic, and intellectual productivity. Even after its recent uprisings, students face a seemingly limitless string of obstacles when it comes to receiving proper education that will grant them access to a stable future, including overcrowded classrooms, underpaid and under qualified instructors, the necessity for costly private lessons, and the burden of a pivotal graduation exam.
Considering all of this, proper education in Egypt is a luxury—and receiving it takes an unreasonable amount of effort for something so essential to human and societal progress and development. I kept these ideas in mind as I walked into my first class teaching at the Empower Women English Conversation for Development workshops at Teens Club in Cairo. With everything I had heard and read about the Egyptian education system, I expected these students to feel worn-out and defeated in relation to education and their futures. However, I was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by a group of bright young students gleaming of ambition, eagerness, and curiosity.
The Teens Club is Egypt’s premier non-profit youth informal initiative providing the young generation with opportunities to enhance their professional and academic skills with workshops in programming, languages, business and marketing skills, among others. With over 20,000 likes on Facebook, it wasn’t surprising that we received over 1,100 applications for a single English Conversation course that would have to be capped at 30 students. Not only is it astounding how blatant the gap is between the supply and demand for quality education and extra-curriculars for youth, but it’s inspiring how eager they are to spend their free time acquiring more skills after spending hours studying and memorizing for the exam.
For many of my 30 students, this was one of their first times speaking with a native English speaker, despite having studied English since their early education. Nonetheless, my students do not see it as an occasion to be nervous about speaking neither to a native speaker nor in front of 30 other students. Actually it is quite the contrary—each and every one of them is incredibly eager to voice his or her opinion about any topic. And they certainly do not hesitate to shower me with questions about my experience living as a foreigner in Egypt, or about cultural differences between Egypt and my native US. For them it is not just an opportunity to improve their English, which could help them in their professional fields later on, but it is an opportunity for productive cultural dialogue that seems to be more and more lacking in Egypt, as vacationers and expats still steer clear of Egypt after the revolution and as it is increasingly more difficult and more expensive for Egyptians to travel abroad.
It is clear that most of these students feel a certain itching desire to get out—whether to get of the country or to get out of the limitations and restrictions of a society governed by fewer freedoms than they were hoping to obtain from the recent political upheavals. Our weekly 2-hour long class provides the space for students step out of these boundaries and express and discuss these desires in the form of non-judgmental cross-cultural dialogue, which can be difficult to reproduce elsewhere—especially for women. Since women in Egypt face a range of social challenges in their everyday lives, they certainly have fewer opportunities to practice their English with just anyone, and especially in an environment where they will feel comfortable. The women were definitely a bit more hesitant to voice their opinions at the beginning of the workshop, but they quickly became very active members of the conversation, particularly when discussing gender equality or youth related issues.
We try to focus our conversation on various social issues while using learning English as a professional skill as our objective, though our conversations usually end up on the topic of emigration, gender equality and education. And while we do occasionally end up in a tense corner of debate, leaving some of the students feeling uncomfortable or shy, it is these moments that I find are often most productive; they cause the students to rethink their understandings of certain issues through the lens of English whether they choose to voice their opinion or not. In the end, we all walk out of the classroom refreshed. I personally find the experience extremely rewarding and feel as though I am contributing to something of value to them; and through the students’ smiles and thank you’s after class, it is clear that they enjoy the class as a rare opportunity for an engaging and enjoyable learning experience.