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!

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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.

18th of March

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

In early March I began to see signs around Tekirdag advertising what looked like a military commemoration.  Most military remembrance days in Turkey have to do with the legendary WWI Gallipoli campaign, in which Ottoman forces defeated an attempted joint British/French/ANZAC invasion, but I knew that ANZAC Day wasn”t until April 25 (I’m planning a weekend trip to bake in the sun with some pasty Aussies).  Heading to dinner one night with my Turkish friend Emel (I met her on Couchsurfing, she’s used to explaining Turkey to others), I stopped her and asked her what the below ad in the center of town referred to:

Turns out March 18th is Canakkale Naval Victory Day, which I found a bit confusing because the dates of the Gallipoli campaign (from April 15, 1915 to January 9, 1916) don’t include March 18th.  Hmmm.  Actually, March 18th marks the aptly-named Battle of March 18 in 1915, in which Ottoman naval forces defeated the first major British/French campaign to take the Dardanelles.  The attack laid the groundwork for the subsequent mud-laden slog and trench warfare during freezing winters and agonizingly hot summers that characterize WWI and did so much to catapult Ataturk to national recognition and shape the growing ‘Turkish’ consciousness.

Back to the sign.  My beginning Turkish led me to believe that a group of hearty folks would be trekking from Tekirdag to Canakkale (a bus trip of at least 3 hours), and man, was I impressed.  But really, Tekirdag was sending a delegation on a bus to participate in a Canakkale-based commemoration walk.  And though I saw ads around my town and Istanbul for remembrance ceremonies, they all seemed to take place in Canakkale itself–disappointing, because I wanted to glimpse, if not participate, in the day’s events.

Namik Kemal University was ready, however, with its own ceremony, held yesterday (3/21) though not widely advertised through the campus (well, neither was the German ambassador to Turkey’s campus visit).  Luckily, one of my favorite students informed me of the event and made me promise I’d come so I could see him play the ney.  Although it meant missing my new favorite Pilates class, I booked it from English class and Spanish tutoring and bike riding at the gym to the campus Pyramid Salon (think NKU multipurpose fancypants salon–important speeches under the glowing mirrors of a disco ball).

Sponsored by the Ataturk Though Association, whose members I think start every day asking ‘What would Ataturk do’?, the ceremony was quite solemn.

This backdrop is pretty standard fare for university occasions–the Turkish flag and Ataturk image flanked by NKU banners.  But the low lighting, melodramatic recorded music, and emotional readings of the day’s history lent it an air of great importance.  I understand generally nothing of what was said (except that the British had a boat called the HMS Irresistible) but really enjoyed feeling the equal pulls of nationalist celebration and mourning.

Part of a hour-by-hour recapitulation of the battle

Performing "Cannakale Icinde Aynali Carsi." You can listen below

My student Taha soloing on the ney and accompanying a reading

After musical tributes and the intense reading (in Turkish translation) of a letter written by a former ANZAC soldier, all of the night’s performers lined up side-by-side and repeated some lines with such fervor I was a bit taken aback.  I really wish I knew what they said, but unfortunately the students I was sitting with weren’t able to translate them for me.  The repetition ended with “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene,” a refrain seen on statues of war imagery in every Turkish town.  It translates roughly to “How happy is he who can say ‘I am a Turk'”.

Second from the left is wearing an Ataturk tie featuring the Pasa in his Humphrey Bogart phase

Then the house lights came on full blast and the solemn air dissipated.  It’s no secret that Turks are a patriotic bunch–the school systems do one hell of a job perpetuating the sanctity of Ataturk’s memory and legacy.  A large part of Turkish national identity was born during World War I (wherein only Muslim Ottomans fought together on the front lines so as to cement the solidarity of that identity–Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other minorities were conscripted to labor battalions or worse fates), so any military commemoration or national holiday is celebrated in a way America’s Memorial or Veteran’s Day could only dream of.

In a country which recognizes the horror of war but glorifies its military past (and most do, don’t they?), its citizens are taking a pretty strong stance against NATO intervention in Libya.  Twice this week, when new Tekirdaglis have discovered I’m American, I’ve been asked why America’s bombing Libya.  Oh my Turkish is nowhere near good enough to explain this, but writers are having a great time breaking it down.  Despite Erdogan’s protests, the bombing has started, and we can now simply hope for a swift defeat of Ghaddafi, minimal civilian casualties, and a new democratic government that Libyans need.  “Baris…baris” (“peace…peace”) I say when I’m pressed.  Democracy cannot be implemented by invasion and top-down control; well, it can but it’s much better if it comes from within, and without the need for battle commemoration days.

I’ll leave you with a haunting Ladino melody commemorating the soldiers of Gallipoli and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  There’s something about the strength and youthful fire of military camaraderie I admire.  But I much prefer love songs.

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!

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