FIRST IMPRESSIONS: How does Middle Eastern Life present itself in my classroom?

Map courtesy of used with permission

“It’s like texting your grandmother on Eid instead of calling”  one student explains to the class. There is a unanimous hum of agreement as he continues, “you just wouldn’t do that. It’s wrong”. 

They are debating the plan for Facebook to introduce six new emojis in order to “rope in even more members” by providing users with more ways to interact with each other. These tech savvy youngsters are very critical of the insincere component of these new emojiis. While they have all had fb, Instagram, and snapchat accounts, many claim it isn’t worth their time. They agree that it gives users a false sense of security and well-being. They agree that the new emojis won’t entice them to use Facebook more as they perceive the use of these emojis to be fake engagement.

I must admit, I’m stunned by the fact that only a handful of students actively use social media and that most of them are very critical of it. So far, my experience in the U.S.A., China, and Europe has left me believing that teenagers are, indeed, the same all over the world. However, despite some universals, I am seeing differences in my arabic students as compared to their western counterparts.

It’s all about Getting someone else to do it

To get things done in this country, it’s easiest when one has connections. You want the Internet installed? It’s much faster if you have a friend that works for the company. To get a mobile phone account set up it will be much smoother if you take someone who knows someone who works at the phone store. You find someone to do it for you. Of course if something goes wrong, you find someone to blame.

In the robotics class when a robot doesn’t run the course properly, a student will insist on running the course over and over again claiming, “This stupid robot won’t do what I want.” It is much more logical to them to blame the robot rather than review for error in their own programming. Over and over again I encourage them to return to their program and make adjustments. Over and over again they finally realise that it IS the programming and NOT the robot!

Recently, a student came in to review an assignment on which he received a low grade. We examined the rubric together and as we discussed the first aspect of the rubric he put his finger up to indicate he’d be a minute as he dialed a number on his phone, “I’m with Miss Nina right now and she’s telling me we did something wrong.”

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for a maid, tutor, or parent to complete homework.

Different Educational Expectations

With disbelief a student stares at his poster lying in front of us on the table. A few days prior we had studied the rubric together and he took his project home to rework it for an improved grade. He can’t fathom that the grade has not changed despite his “improvements” to the poster, none of which reflect the expectations of the rubric.

“Then why did I do all that work? I should get some points for redoing it.” Of course secretly I want to ask him why he did all that work without consulting the rubric again! “Miss, can’t you at least give him some more points for making it better?” his pal queries while another pipes in, “Yes, Miss. He is a good kid. He should have an ‘A’.”

And they are serious.

On another occasion, a student points to her lab observations, “Miss, is this correct?” When informed that “there is no correct” as she is the scientist and her observations are real, her face scrunches up, she pouts, and jumps a bit. With near desperation and exasperation she pleads, “Please, Miss. Just tell me if it’s right”

The world of “right and wrong” and rote memorisation is very much a major component of the educational history of some of my new students.


On several occasions students or parents have approached me in a somewhat condescending tone, however, as soon as they realise I have a “Dr.” title, the tune changes dramatically.

In this part of the world, a simple title reduces reproof.

High School Sweethearts

Though I’ve been told that if I look carefully, I’ll see “pairing off”. However, there are no entwined couples. No back massages. No lap sitting. No hugging. Not even hand-holding.

The culture keeps men and women segregated to such an extreme that it permeates even the habits of teenagers attending our school offering a traditional American High School education.

Unique Life Experiences

The large printed words “Innocent kids during war in Syria” loom before us on the screen. As this young woman stands before the class her dark curls jostle gently as she turns from her slide and tells us that she chose this topic because her country, Syria, was “one of the safest countries in the world” but now 5 years of war has changed everything. She claims that most of the children in Syria have had their childhood taken away from them because they live in fear of being killed or bombed. She proceeds to share stunning and touching images of children at play in war-torn Syria and adds, “You can see that the kids are fighting for their childhood in these pictures, and they are much wiser than most of the children you’ll ever know…” The entire class, filled with students from Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and other countries in the region, is listening, respectful, and sympathetic. 

Most of these 14-17 year olds all have first hand experience with war, unrest, and/or revolution.

Universal but Different

My students laugh, joke, study, and learn. They try to persuade me to to tell them what’s on the test or to make the test easy for them. Hormonal changes affect them. The relentless heat tires them. An exam makes them nervous. Playing sports is important to them. They debate who the best players are in football (soccer). They watch T.V. shows and have favorite movies (even though there are no movie theatres in this country). 

So, they are similar to teenagers throughout the world but they also bring to the table new dimensions that will enrich our classroom experience together. As I look forward to this year, I’m eager for what they will teach me.