Language and Culture in the Classroom: Transforming Teachers’ Perceptions of Arab Students

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By Zahrae Al-Zaim

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

Canada is a multicultural society in which most immigrants and refugees eventually integrate and share a set of Canadian cultural values. By the time the second generation of immigrants comes to the classroom, they will have undergone the Canadian educational system and will likely be able to participate and contribute in class as their teachers might expect them to do. However, that may not be the case for international students, including those from an Arab background. Often, they are here for a certain amount of time and are to leave after getting their degrees. They are typically not here to integrate. They bring different cultural baggage to the class which may surprise, astonish or even shock their teachers sometimes. The purpose of this article is to look at some of this cultural baggage from a new perspective. Arab students come from a world far removed from Canada, and without being able to understand their cultural and educational backgrounds; it becomes more challenging to assist them as educators.

First things first, before moving on to their educational backgrounds, let’s define an Arab, Arab culture, Arabic, Ramadan, and Eid.

Arab: An Arab is anyone whose parents are from the Arab world even if she or he was born outside an Arab country. In the Arab world, where a person’s parents are from determines nationality. For example, my parents were born in Syria, so I am considered Syrian and not Saudi Arabian although I was born in Saudi Arabia.

Arab Culture: Arab cultural practices are not limited to one set of cultural standards; they may differ from one city to another and not just from one country to another. There are some major trends that pervade the whole Arab world, and this article can only attempt to cover a few. There is a thin line between religion and culture, and for many people that line does not exist. In reality, although religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam have influenced some of the Arab cultural practices, many of the customs practiced today are not derived from religions.

Arabic: The Arabic language consists of 28 characters that are written in cursive form and from right to left. There are two kinds of Arabic: Standard Arabic (Fus-ha) which is used in all print forms, to write tests, and the news, and spoken Arabic which is used to text, chat online, and communicate verbally. Every country has its own variety, and each city has its own dialect. Not all Arab countries understand each other’s varieties. For example, A Jordanian may not understand a Moroccan’s variety but will probably understand the Egyptian one.

How important is religion?

Religion plays a big role in the lives of many Arab students. Since about 80% of Arabs are Muslims, knowing about Ramadan and Eid is important.

Ramadan: From a religious viewpoint, Ramadan is a time of spiritual rejuvenation; people focus on their spiritual needs rather than bodily ones by refraining from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk for one lunar month. Culturally speaking, Ramadan has become a social event. The more devout will spend the night in worship while the less pious will stay up all night socializing. In either case, one can imagine the big change students face when they spend Ramadan in Canada without the Ramadan spirit or family support. Although teachers cannot alter the local lifestyle, they can still support students in a different manner. Teachers can avoid asking students questions that may make them feel judged or unaccepted, such as: are you tired or hungry, do you like fasting, isn’t it hard to fast in the hot summer, and don’t you feel thirsty. Instead, it would be more supportive for teachers to actually experience fasting for a day and having iftar (break fasting) with the students in an attempt to try something new and help students feel a little less lonely.

Eid: Ramadan is followed by Eid Al-Fitir which is typically a three day celebration in most Arab countries. About 65 days after Eid Al-Fitir, Muslims celebrate another Eid – Eid Al-Adha. Giving the students a day off on each Eid will give them a chance to attend the congregational prayers and celebrate with their communities.

Working with Arab Students

Having covered where the students are coming from, this article will now focus on what occurs inside class. It might happen that while a teacher is having a conversation with a student, the student shuts down for some mysterious reason. It is quite common to have experienced this at least once in a teacher’s career. She or her may start asking themselves: what happened? What did I do wrong?

Here are a few issues to take into consideration when working with Arab students

For many students, their image is everything. Addressing any of their undesirable classroom behavior in the presence of others is considered humiliating. It is recommended to have a one-on-one talk with the student after class. In most cases, she or he will respond better to a teacher’s requests and rectify her or his actions after a private chit chat with the teacher.

Arab males can be very sensitive but proud as well. They may try to hide any feelings of vulnerability: depression, sadness, or hurt, and choose a passive aggressive mode to cover them up. Some words that may hurt their feelings are: grow up, you’re such a baby, stop acting so childish, and don’t be silly. Some may take these expressions as a joke and some will not. It all depends on how much trust the educators have established with their students and how they say them.

Arab women are sometimes seen as weak and/or dependent. When it comes to their academic performance, teachers may notice that some Arab women are better able to deal with their frustrations and will rise above their failures, while their male counterparts may not want to try again, fearing failure. The women feel empowered by their strong will, and it is the same will that they rely on with their male relatives when they feel like it. One thing that may frustrate them is having to prove over and over again that their perceived dependence is not a sign of weakness. Women and men have split the roles between them and in most cases a woman feels content that she can count on someone when she wants to.

Understanding Arab students’ cultural backgrounds and how that impacts their performance in class will give educators an idea of how to work in order to help them achieve their educational goals. Teachers may all be aware that the educational system Arab students underwent in their home countries differs from the Canadian one, but to what extent is the question. It is worth mentioning that the educational approach is changing in some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates. That being said, most of the students that teachers encounter in their classes today have undergone the traditional educational approach.

There are five things teachers need to know about the educational system in most Arab countries:

  1. Students are expected to memorize everything in order to pass classes and eventually move on to the next grade.
  2. Students are expected to sit with their backs straight, in rows and look towards the front, trying to absorb as much they can of what the teacher is saying. They are not allowed to take any initiative. They have to wait for the teacher to tell them exactly what to do and when to do it.
  3. Students’ grades get deducted for making mistakes. Questions are not greatly encouraged. If they ask any, either their classmates make fun of them or some teachers do not know enough about the topic or do not care to answer.
  4. Participation means raising your hand whenever you know the answer. There is no place for guessing. Outstanding students are the ones that shoot up their hands the most and answer all the questions correctly.
  5. Their final grades are split into 20-30% for homework and participation and the rest for quizzes and tests. There is no project, pair, or group work. Some disciplines, but not all, introduce presentations in the first year of university.

Most Arab students have had a tough time at school. Unless they have excellent memorization skills, they probably feel like failures in education, and that puts them one step behind other students. Lack of confidence is one of the roots of their demotivation. Teachers’ encouragement and support is crucial to help build their confidence.

Not being allowed to show any kind of initiative in class explains why they seem laid back and need a reminder to take their pen and paper out (if they have any) and start taking notes (if they know how). Instructors need to teach them how to take the initiative. It will take them time to start knowing when and how to take the initiative.

Since they are used to an educational system that does not encourage mistakes or guessing, that explains why some may think twice before speaking in class. They will not offer any answers unless they are 100% sure that what they know the right answer. If they make a mistake, they will feel very conscious about it and apologize.

Now that their idea of participation is understood, Canadian teachers can understand why Arab students sometimes love shouting out answers that they are sure of and keep silent when they are not.

Some teachers may believe that Arab students do not do their best in class, thinking that they seem to be lazy or passive at best. Since Arab students were likely never graded for classwork, the concept of classwork grades is foreign to them. It would be helpful if teachers invested more time into explaining exactly how assessments happen in their class and what pair work, group work, or presentations entail. Teachers sometimes assume that all students comprehend what these mean. Teachers may forget that they have come to college or university classes with 12 years of practice while Arab students have probably not had any until the day they arrive in the Canadian EAL classroom.

After having become more familiarized with the educational system backgrounds of Arab students, one question may come to mind…

How can educators give them extra support?

Like with all other students, it is important to set the boundaries early on in the relationship. Teachers can tell them what is expected of them early on in the course and reintroduce the topics throughout the course. Teacher can also remember that Arab students probably do not mind having strict teachers as long as they are engaging and dynamic.

Teachers can also introduce time management and study skills tips into the curriculum. The life style of Arab students was probably very relaxed, so they do not know how to manage time or prioritize. Since they are used to memorization, they may not know how to study, or what preparing for a test in a Canadian class entails. Teachers can teach them something of learning styles, share their personal experiences on how they used to prepare for tests, get the whole class to share with others, bring in former students who were successful in school, and get those successful students to share their personal experiences.

Last but not least, I could not stress the effectiveness of using positive reinforcement with this group of students enough. Teachers should praise them for all their stronger skills and encourage them to work on their weaker ones. Arab students usually work harder when they get praised. It helps them believe in themselves and gives them a push forward. Teachers should try not to forget to follow up to see how they have progressed.

As educators working with students who come to Canada from all over the world, it is fundamental to understand the cultural background and educational system that made them the students they are today. I believe it is incumbent on teachers to transform their perception of Arab students in order to be better able to assist and support them on their educational journey in Canada.

Biographical Information

From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Zahrae Al-Zaim has taught at Global Village Vancouver and has worked as an IELTS instructor in the Medical English for Healthcare Program at Sprott Shaw College. She has over seven years of ELT experience overseas and in Vancouver. She has also worked as a student counselor with Global Village and a casual settlement worker at Diversecity.

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This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Al-Zaim, Z. (2016, Winter). Transforming Teachers’ Perceptions of Arab Students. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf

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