O Little Town of Bethlehem… teaching English across the globe! – PALESTINE

Alejandro González Cerna FSC
Dean of Education
Bethlehem University

March 2020. The first cases of Covid-19 are detected in Palestine. It’s no surprise that it is precisely in Bethlehem, probably the most famous little town in the World and a global tourism and pilgrimage attractor. A group of tourists and the locals working with them are quarantined at the Angel Hotel. The Palestinian authority quickly activates emergency measures, among them the immediate closure of Schools and Universities and a citywide lockdown. Being no strangers to curfews and lockdowns, Palestinians complied and Bethlehem streets became deserted.

At Bethlehem University, the only Catholic University in the Holy Land, we figured out ways to complete the semester as best we could. But as the summer progressed it became clearer and clearer that the emergency wasn’t going to end soon and that measures had to be taken to be able to hold the next semester in distance-learning modalities. This was particularly challenging for the practicum courses at BU’s Faculty of Education. With schools closed, our students couldn’t attend their classroom observations and practice-teaching experiences. Being in charge of those courses for our English Teacher-training program, I started wondering whether we could make of the crisis an opportunity and design a worthwhile educational experience, one that served our students to complete their courses and gain the necessary training in their professional skills, but also helped others somehow, and enriched both parties with an international collaboration that would open their minds and hearts.

Taking advantage of our network (Bethlehem University is a Lasallian institution, part of the De La Salle Educational Network that exists in over 80 countries around the world), I started to contact many institutions in different parts of the world trying to find places where my students could observe and practice teaching. Finally, three positive responses came.

At Colegio Regis, in Hermosillo, Mexico; face-to-face classes were suspended as well, and all classes were being held online. They generously accepted our Bethlehem students as observers and teacher aids in their online classes. At Centro de Formación Integral La Salle in Tijuana, México, they had adult students taking non-formal English courses; some of them were paired with our students to have weekly conversational encounters that would help the students in Tijuana develop and practice their English and the students in Bethlehem do the same as they also practised their teaching and tutoring skills. The third and most challenging was Centre Saint Jean-Baptiste De La Salle in Kirenge, Rwanda.

When the teachers there responded to my email they told me they were a non-formal educational and community center where students came after classes and on weekends to do their homework and participate in other educational and community activities; “they are very interested and motivated to learn English”, the director told me, “But here’s the problem: they don’t speak Arabic (like our students in Bethlehem do), nor do they speak any European language, they only speak Kiñarwanda”.

I arranged an online meeting with my students here and told them about the three projects. Each of them signed up for the one they wanted and could best participate in. Those who had to do class observations were put in contact with the teachers at Regis, and those who had to do teaching practicum signed up for one or both of the other two projects (some of them also signed up for the Regis experience as they wanted to observe EFL classes in another country).

With those who were going to participate teaching in Rwanda we had a special meeting, they had already taken with me two Teaching Methods courses so I challenged them to go back to the materials and presentations of those courses and find which of the Methods we had learned about would best be suited for teaching English in a context where no Language in common exists between teachers and students. And so they did. It was a wonderful challenge and a beautiful experience, it required a lot of work in elaborating materials and planning each session! But each session was so rewarding!

The English Lessons in Rwanda and the conversation pairs with Tiiuana were often on Saturdays, which is the weekend for our students, but they were willing and happy to sacrifice that in order to continue this experience and serve their now students to the best of their possibilities. For Rwanda we had the support of local teachers in the classroom for any emergency translation, but the classes were completely in English, supported by mimic, visual aids and all we could think of, and our student-teachers could see how the students in Rwanda evolved from being very quiet to become eager to participate. We had games and videos, cards and other materials, we often sent worksheets over email for them to print them in Rwanda and distribute them in class or as homework.

By the time the semester ended, our Bethlehemite students were so happy that they asked for permission to continue the project for another semester, until the school year ended. There was no longer a course here to comply with or do practicum hours for, but still they continued, out of their heart’s desire!

In Palestine, we live in a tough situation. The military occupation and all it entails is not easy at all. We are often on the weaker side of things, being the ones in need of help from international organizations and foreign countries; but this experience showed us beyond any doubt that regardless of the difficulties here, we always have something to give, something to contribute with, a service to do that creates humane links and connects us to others.

Our situation is very different from that of rural Rwanda, very different still from the one of migrants trying to go to the US or having been deported back to Mexico in Tijuana, very different from that of an upper-middle class school in Hermosillo… but our human condition is one and the same, our ability to care for one another, to help one another, to share with one another is one and the same.

Service-Learning at Bethlehem University is relatively new under that name, we have been doing a lot in terms of service over the years but we are now in the effort of linking all that and even new initiatives to the academic work and strengthen our service-learning orientation. We do it from the bottom of our hearts, because we find that service-learning is a perfect expression of our identity as a Christian, Catholic and Lasallian University but also as a University that is built on fraternity, where Muslims and Christians share their studies and build friendships and a mutual understanding that will ground future chances for justice and peace.

I believe this emergency project I shared with you is a good sample of what we do, and what can be done… what we all can do.

I was young when I first came across this phrase: “No one is so rich that needs for nothing, no one is so poor that has nothing to give”… as I grow older I find deep truths in it and I think Service-Learning has the unique quality to bring together our wealth and our need, to show us how much we have to give as it also shows us how much we need to learn and we need of others. Let us keep growing richer in learning and in willingness to give, to help, to serve and to receive what others generously bring to us too.

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