Expectations Exceeded!

By Julie Fouhy, 2019 Fulbright DA alumna 

The Fulbright program exceeded my expectations. On a personal level, it was extremely successful. I anticipated bureaucratic challenges gaining access to public school, but, thanks to my wonderful mentor and advisor Imane Nejjar, the process of obtaining that all-important official permission became a valuable part of the learning process. Through her heroic efforts, combined with the generous hospitality of Moroccan Fulbright alumni like Madiha Ouakkach, Youssef Sahyouf and Abdelkrim Benqdad, I was welcomed into a wide variety of schools in Rabat, Salé and Kenitra – public and private. Monsieur Abdelkrim Boukir, the principal of the Ecole 6 Novembre in Rabat, took the time to explain the elementary French curriculum to me and invited me back to meet staff and students on several memorable visits. Although I teach elementary students, it was in meeting and talking to high school and university students that I gained the most insight into the experience of academic language acquisition in such a uniquely multilingual country. If the average American learns to speak one single foreign language at a high intermediate level, it is considered a bit of an intellectual feat. The standards in Morocco are SO much higher. I still marvel at the fluency with which the public high students I met speak accent-less English (a fourth or fifth language for many), after a few years of study. I am grateful to every student, school director and teacher who took an interest in my project (there were so many of them!), welcomed me into their classrooms and in some cases their homes, shared materials and offered incredibly helpful suggestions and ideas.

With the vast amount of material I curated (age-appropriate and otherwise) in electronic files and the many children’s books and educational materials shipped home, the immediately teachable unit boiled down to the idea that many Moroccan children speak one language at home (Darija) and encounter three alphabets in the course of their school day, two of which all learn as academic languages. I’m currently building collaborative multidisciplinary materials to share with my fellow teachers of art, music, science, math and social studies. Today’s virtual settings are the ideal staging ground literally eliminating the walls that separate our areas of study. In my emerging materials for young learners, a basic introduction to Islamic traditions and culture is folded into the context and background of the commanding presence and cultural stature of Arabic in Morocco. Wrapping my head around teaching elements of Islam directly in a French language class in the States turned out to be far more complex than I first thought, as material about Islamic traditions written for students in France (by French educators)doesn’t factor in certain subtleties that make Morocco so unique. Just ask me about why a Moroccan minaret had three balls instead of a crescent on top! The focus of the first Morocco-themed unit is about the school day and languages learned, supported with visual elements all as context – familiar to some of my students, intriguingly different and new for others – the minaret of the mosque being the central and visible in neighborhoods, the calendar of jours fériés, the presence of women and girls in hijab, or simple head scarves, the beautiful architecture and art work. The more time I spent in Morocco, the omnipresent visual of the indigenous Neo-Tinifagh script became too powerful to ignore. I had to include it in what I was teaching and thus put all three writing systems into the context of an historical timeline and some workshops to attempt the different writing styles.

The Institut de la Culture Amazigh in Rabat was very generous with books, posters and other classroom materials in support of this effort. As I write this, it is what has been historically called Columbus Day weekend in the US. The historical erasure of the indigenous languages of the Americas is one of the major storylines in the profound cultural upheaval we are experiencing right now in the US. Looking at the example of Morocco, where an indigenous language has been granted official status, gives children big ideas to ponder. And why stop at Morocco? If successful, a curriculum like this offers more than greater knowledge about language in a single country. It promises that layers of understanding are waiting to be discovered all over the world.