The barbecue that actually happened

April 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The only word to describe attendance at my speaking classes is ‘unpredictable.’  Hazirlik (preparatory) students are allowed an incredible 100+ absence hours for the year—I believe technically they can miss 20% of all their classes with no repercussions.  For American university students used to large lectures, this may seem normal.  But hazirlik is not a girl, not yet a woman, caught somewhere between high school and university.  The classes are small (about 25-30 students on the roster) and demand constant participation.   The curriculum also moves quickly.  Missing 20% of classes is pretty detrimental to language progress.  But since that’s what the official university system allows, the students take full advantage <we can talk about YOK (Turkey’s Higher Ed Commission) dysfunction another time.>

Since Speaking classes aren’t viewed on par with my Turkish colleagues’ in terms of gravity or seriousness (Speaking is only tested twice a year, and Speaking classes were never offered before Alex and I arrived), my students tend to skip my lessons more than others.  I would like to generalize that high attendance corresponds to higher ability level (for instance, 20 B4 students come while 8 C8 students come), but the fact that almost every C4 student comes despite not understanding most of what I say and appearing openly hostile to my presence confounds that theory.  Sometimes a random student who hasn’t shown his face the entire year will appear to say hello, then fade back into the shadows.  He’s done his duty for the year. Basically, every time I walk through a classroom door it’s a surprise.

About a month ago I walked into C5 to find six students just hanging out, waiting to see if I would come to class and, when I saw how few students there were, if I would cancel class.  Actually, I love it when those six students from C5 come—Ayse is sharp as a whip, Erdinc less so but he loves to talk, Latif is a good-natured aw-shucks type, and the rest get caught up in their enthusiasm.  I sat down on a desk and just chatted with them for about 15 minutes.  I told them about a recent date I had had where I learned to play backgammon (tavla, in Turkish, a constant presence at cafes and bars across the country).  But, I admitted, I hadn’t learned to play okey (a Rummikub-like game also popular in cafes and bars, played in groups of 4).  The enthusiastic Erdinc asked me if I liked mangal (barbecue).  Of course, I said.  Always the ringleader, he began planning a teacher-student mangal at his house, where we would eat, chat, and play okey.  We all checked our cell phone calendars and decided on a date.   I promised to bring some American food, then steered their attention to the day’s lesson.

Honestly, I never expected them to follow through.  It’s not that I doubted their enthusiasm or good intentions; it’s that the plans seemed like so many made with promise: yeah, we should definitely get together sometime!  So I was pleasantly surprised when Erdinc came by my office Monday to remind me of the mangal on Tuesday.  I made a mental note to cook Alex’s knock-em-dead Snickerdoodle recipe (you simply can’t not like them) that night and also invited Reyhan, my colleague who teaches C5’s main course lessons.

After lessons on Tuesday, Reyhan and I walked from the university down the main strip of cafes, bars and stray dogs in Tekirdag’s Degirmenalti neighborhood to meet Erdinc at Masal Cafe.  We waited and waited but he didn’t show.  Then, we caught sight of Omer Faruk running back from the local big-box store Migros with bread and he led us around the corner to the mangal site.

Degirmenalti is, like many Turkish neighborhoods, a combination of old drafty houses and new developments (though less of the faceless block variety) that leads right down to the Sea of Marmara.  Erdinc lives with a couple of Namik Kemal students in the ground floor apartment of an old drafty house.  A exterior spiral staircase leads to the top floor apartment and a group of women kept running up and down with various covered pots.  When we arrived at the house, Reyhan and I were given plastic seats of honor in the front yard where we waited for an hour while our student tried their damn hardest to start a fire from some tiny twigs, paper, and charcoal.  One of them joked about throwing their New English File books on it and I was so hungry at that point I almost agreed.

But finally the fire was started and grillers full of seasons chicken wings were somehow cooked all the way through (not a single victim of food poisoning!), a balcony table was set for the two teachers, and we were served all-we-could-eat wings, chopped salad, and a huge hunk of bread.

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Our students hung out inside in the kitchen and living room, chowing down and having their own Turkish conversations.  Omer Faruk works as a waiter at the university hotel and he did his best to serve us but he often forgot a glass of water or napkins.  When the cooking was done Erdinc came out and resumed his enthusiastic chatting routine, also playing for us assorted English-language songs on his cell phone (favorite: one called ‘Turkish Delight”.)  Omer Faruk, whose English, well, is mostly Turkish, hovered over his shoulder, and a couple other students came to talk.   The food was delicious, but apparently nothing topped the Snickerdoodles.  The general reaction included a wide-eyed, lips-licking declaration of ‘nefis, hocam!” (delicious, my teacher!) from every student, even the ones who barely speak to me.  Finally we were invited inside to drink tea and watch an old Turkish television show about a group of men who are obviously past high school age but who inexplicably are still immature high school students.  Hmmm.  The students gradually trickled out until it was just Reyhan, me, Erdinc, and Omer Faruk.  Reyhan and I were a bit tired from teaching all day so when Erdinc suggested busting out the okey set, we politely declined with “baska bir zaman” (another time).

I really can’t imagine any other class arranging such an afternoon.  There’s unity and we have fun, but this went above and beyond in terms of organization and dedication to fire-starting.  Thanks for the love, C5!


The final countdown

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I glanced lovingly at my students this week and wished them good luck on their midterms, I realized we have only 8 weeks left together.  The horrified faces I greeted on the first day have become the rhythm and stability in my days.  Whether I’m the same for them I can’t say, but love ‘em or hate ‘em, my weeks just aren’t complete without ’em.

I’ve been reading some fellow Fulbrighters blogs lately and realized how little I ever write about my students.  I was so down on teaching the first semester I would do anything not to think about them outside of class time.  It’s so much more romantic, too, to write about weekend jaunts and social fun.  But I spend hours each day with the little buggers, much more time than I do traveling, and they’ve managed to worm their way into a special place in my heart.  Besides, there are so many ridiculous things that happen in class that deserve to be shared.  I’ve begun posting daily quotes on my Twitter, but really the quotes need surrounding anecdotes. I can’t promise to equal the greatness of Cass, but I’ll do my best to capture the confusion that characterizes my weekday hours.  It’ll also kick my butt and get me posting here more about life—8 precious weeks left!

So this weeks is midterms week, which means that Monday and Tuesday are regular lessons and that’s it (!)  The exam happens Wednesday night, we grade on Thursday, and otherwise kick up our heels as our students toss their books in the air hightail it to Istanbul for the long weekend.  Reading, Writing, Listening, and Grammar are tested on the exam.  Notably absent?  Speaking.  So the past week or so we’ve been playing speaking-based review games of grammar and vocabulary.

My hazirlik classes are tracked by ability: A1 is the highest and C8 is the lowest (C8 deserves a blog all its own but I have neither the time nor the psychological prowess to dissect them).  After A1, B4 is my highest class and because they’ve got a quicker pick-up for English as well as a greater motivation (I’m not beating around the bush here) I can do more sophisticated activities with them. But  I had spent the previous weekend in Bulgaria and then returned late from a wedding in Istanbul, so lesson planning didn’t quite happen this weekend.  Default plan?  GAME.

Whenever I mention a game, some student inevitably brings up a disturbing Saw reference.  My games haven’t gotten quite that violent yet, but we’re on our way.  Today’s game was called, “Correct the Teacher: Grammar Edition.”

Rundown: class in two teams.
One person from each team comes to a central desk, Family Feud-style.
I say a grammatically incorrect statement.
Students must correct me—first one to slap the desk and get it right gets a point for their team.

Since B4 is a pretty advanced class, I threw some curveballs at them: past continuous, passive voice, obligation. They nailed them.  So I turned to phrasal verbs.  “Throw the garbage up!” I said, waiting for a quick desk slap.  It came.  “Throw up the garbage!” cried Guven, “throw up the garbage!”  I shook my head and turned to the other team’s rep (one day I’ll learn her name—let’s call her Merve) “Garbage throw up, garbage throw up!” she yelled.  I stare at her, horrified.  Taha, sitting down, yells from Guven’s team, “Throw garbage up!”  Merve’s team tries, “ I throw up garbage!”  They traded various incarnations of garbage vomit for about another two minutes,  All I could think was that I’d successfully the classic “A sphincter says what?” scene from Wayne’s World.  I’d done it.  I’d unwittingly managed to get one of the better classes to emphatically repeat something they would otherwise find horrifying.  Fulbright mission achieved!  After I stopped laughing, I did my best miming version of what throwing up garbage would really look like.  I guarantee you none of them will ever deliberately or accidentally direct someone to regurgitate trash again.

Thanksgiving Resurrection

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m mixing two holidays here, but go with it for a minute.

When most people are having difficulties or major life changes, they write to describe, analyze, and organize their thoughts and emotions. Me? I turn inward.

It’s been a combination of looking inward, being beyond busy, and lack of Internet that’s kept me away from this blog. But fear not, devoted readers! As long as the wireless connection in my office works for at least 15 minutes a day, there will be updates. Oh yes, there will be updates—hopefully with photos.

Many of you think I must lead an extremely exciting life here in Turkey. Well, you’re right and you’re wrong, to varying degrees. Working abroad is, well, working. Here’s my schedule:
Monday: 6 classes between 8:45 and 4
Tuesday: 5 classes between 9:40 and 5
Wednesday: 4 classes between 11:30 and 5
Thursday: 6 classes between 8:45 and 5
Early mornings, long hours on my feet, and alternately chatty/disengaged students mean that my days are pretty draining. Lesson planning and, well, life (cooking, shopping, trying to keep in touch) fill my weekday nights. Add in a Wednesday night Turkish folk dance class and gym sessions(on hiatus due to a bad back), occasional nighttime Turkish lessons, and attempting to jack Internet while standing on one leg with a finger on my nose (our home connection can be pretty temperamental/nonexistent), and there you have it: everyday life, albeit in another country.

Here are some Namik Kemal photos

Sunset over the campus

We're pretty well-protected here

The Hazirlik classroom building

The student and faculty cafeteria and gym. I need to go the latter more often than the former.

But Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are mine, all mine! Weekly funds and travel opportunities dictate where I go; some weekends I stay in Tekirdag, drinking tea by the Sea of Marmara and wandering the streets. But more often I’m affected by the travel bug; I’ve graced Istanbul with my presence every other weekend and I’ve made additional trips to Karabuk, Safranbolu, and Thessaloniki. I usually travel on a whim—coach service is so plentiful and relatively inexpensive that I can hop a bus to the ‘bul and head anywhere in the country without much advance notice. My dream come true! I do have all the bus travel to blame for my achy-breaky back right now (sleeping horizontally is so underrated) so this upcoming weekend I’m Tekirdag-focused.

As you may remember (and as I’ve mentioned in most places in my life and this blog), the main reason I chose to come to Turkey was my interest in Ladino. To that end, I’ve hopefully worked out a weekly internship at the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center in Istanbul. I’ve offered myself for whatever projects may need assistance—as is usual for research centers, they’re short-staffed and welcome volunteers. Just call me His Gal Viernes.

Thanksgiving is this Thursday, and Alex and I are hosting and cooking a dinner for our Tekirdag friends on Saturday night. Get past all your “Turkey in Turkey” jokes now—provided we do actually find a turkey, it’ll be gracing our table along with cranberry sauce, matzah ball soup, mashed potatoes, and whatever else looks good at the Thursday bazaar. We’re inviting our NKU colleagues and anyone we’ve ever met in Tekirdag—dolmus drivers, water delivery men, guitarists, Internet café proprietors. We’re looking forward to expressing our gratitude to our new friends. Their support and generosity get us through each day and we want—nay, need—to express our love through food. L’chaim!

First week updates

October 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Pat myself on the back, I successfully finished my first week of teaching at NKU.  21 hours of “What is your name?”, “What is an adjective?” and excessive finger wagging.  I’m sitting back this weekend, popping the lid of a nice cool ayran and trying to organize my new life.

I arrived in Tekirdag on Saturday after a 9 hour bus from Ankara.  I was told the ride was only 7 hours, but that estimate didn’t take into account an engine problem that stopped us twice, various loud driver/passenger/toll both collector arguments, and dead-stop traffic  around Istanbul.

I was met at the Tekirdag bus station by Hakan, co-director of the English department.  He packed my luggage in his minivan, started the engine, and asked pretty incredulously, “So you’re really here for a year?”  Way to make me feel confident in my decision, Hakan!  We drove to the NKU campus hotel (my home for the next 2-3 weeks) and Hakan helped me check in—good thing, because the staff (actually NKU students) doesn’t speak English.  I was joined at the hotel by Alex, a fellow Fulbrighter, fellow Tekirdagli for the year, and future super best friend 4 life xoxo.  We spent the night eating burnt kofte, drinking campus-produced white wine in the hotel restaurant, and wondering just how we ended up in this city.

The next day, Dudu and Elif (two other NKU English teachers) took us on a car tour of Tekirdag.  NKU is actually about a 20 minute drive from the center of the city, and the landscape change from brown hills, scattered apartment blocks, and American-style shopping centers to a dense, lively downtown area was much appreciated.  We wolfed down some famous Tekirdag kofte and piyar, drank some tea and walked along the seaside promenade.  Hakan, Dudu, and Elif, while surprised that we are here, are happy to practice their English with native speakers.  Surprisingly, none of them has visited the UK or the US.  Cultural ambassadors to the rescue!

Since we arrived in Turkey, we have been desperately trying to ask NKU what kind of classes we would teach this year.  After constantly being put off, we were told to stop by Monday morning at 8:30 am for our programs.  Classes start Monday at 8:45 am.  Yeah.  At 8:30 the programs still weren’t completely ready, but Dudu managed to eke out our sections and classrooms and off we went to shock and awe our students with our amazing native speaker abilities.

Alex and I are teaching Hazirlik students this year.  Hazirlik literally means something like “preparation”, and that’s what our students are doing: preparing for university-level English.  NKU tests entering students’ English with a pre-year exam.  Students who fail must spend an entire year studying English (and only English!) at Hazirlik.  At the end of the year, they take another exam.  If they pass, they’re allowed to being their university careers.  If they fail, they must repeat Hazirlik.  What lucky ducks!

Hazirlik feels like some combination of high school and university.  They’re grouped by ability level (A, B, and C) and each group sits in the same classroom all day–the English teachers come to them.  The maturity level of the students is also reminiscent of high school.  The girls are relatively calm and patient while the boys want to poke each other and chat incessantly in Turkish.  My goal=focus that energy to English.

It’s hard to get to know my students well because there are so many of them.  I have 10 class sections which meet for 1 hour twice a week and 1 class for 1 hour once a week, and each class has about 25 students.  Alex has the same schedule.  We’re trying to keep our classes on the same lesson plans to coordinate with their other English classes and facilitate co-planning.  In fact, that’s what I’m off to do now—a Sunday morning lesson planning session so we can show our visiting friend Dara around later.  More information to come about teaching, Tekirdag, a Turkish wedding, and more!

I’m here!

September 25, 2010 § 1 Comment

This blog has been a long time coming, and I’m not going to lie, it’s because I couldn’t think of a name.  How clever a pun could I make?  Should it reflect only my time in Turkey?  But what if I want to continue writing after I leave?  I considered various names–some funny, some boring, some too vulgar to be forever linked online to my name.   I can’t say I’m in love with this name, but I like it.

For those I haven’t told or who’ve forgotten, I’m spending the year in Turkey as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Namik Kemal University in Tekirdag (not nearly enough links).  I arrived yesterday in my host city after spending two weeks at an orientation in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, where we were bombarded with lectures, lessons, books, and materials stating our Fulbright association.  I many hours staring at J. William Fulbright’s shining face on my shiny new folder and reading his statement about the grant program: “…a modest program with an immodest aim…”  A bit of Googling reveals the quote’s origin: The Price of Empire, a collection of Fulbright’s reflective essays on American foreign policy.

Some more Googling reveals two definitions for ‘immodest’:
–shameless; offending against sexual mores; indecent
–not modest in assertion or pretension; forward

Draw your own conclusions about which definition Fulbright’s quote invokes.

But seriously: this is going to be a difficult year.  I’ve never taught English before, I don’t speak Turkish, and the country is extremely unfamiliar to me.  My entire existence here is immodest: I am forward, I assert myself, I push myself in new and often uncomfortable directions.  I take risks going to the supermarket and trying to buy bananas (‘risk’ meaning being yelled at 3 times for not knowing about the produce weighing procedure, but still).  I do all of those things in Philadelphia, of course (I hope), but being in Turkey turns even the smallest of actions and reactions into conscious, deliberative decisions.  I haven’t lived more “in the moment” in a while.  It’s a shame that it takes moving to a new country for me to act this way, but I’m looking forward to a more assertive, pretention-full, immodest year.

I’ve had a pretty spotty blogging history, but I have a hopeful feeling this one will be different.  I intend not only to catalog my experiences teaching and traveling, but also analyze my impressions of the classroom, university culture, and life in Tekirdag, and explain to you more about Turkey and the opportunities and challenges the nation faces.

I start teaching tomorrow morning–who and what I’m teaching remains to be seen, but I’ve got a lesson plan, a suit, and lots of butterflies in my stomach.  Wish me luck!

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