Egonne Roth



Surprising class

Posted by Egonne Roth on May 27, 2017 at 3:05 PM


A few weeks ago in my English class for software students, I asked a group of students to meet me at the end of the class as I had a problem to discuss with them. At the end of our discussion most of the students drifted away not very happy about the talk. However, one student, Hadi, with whom I have a good relationship, asked me, “Egonne, why did you only keep back the Arab students?” I gave him my reasons and he said he accepted them.

But late that night all the potentially negative repercussions hit me and I lay in bed in a sweat: what if my actions were seen as racist? What if the students lodged a complaint against me? Why had I singled out that group? What were the dynamics that had brought about the situation? For days the whole thing bothered me. At the next class the students were friendly and clearly there would be no negative repercussions, but still the incidence worried me and kept milling through my head.

Then this morning I suddenly knew what it was that troubled me and what had brought about the situation: the Arab students in this particular class and the Jewish students did not mix at all, so that when I asked “that group in the back” to stay to talk to me, it happened to be an all Arab group. Since that is not the norm at the college, I felt challenged to do something about it – to explore some of the dynamics and decided to adjust my lesson schedule accordingly. I was due to do a graded oral exercise with the students the following week but decided to move it forward. I carefully worked out my lesson plan to experiment in creating a change in the dynamics between the students and do a challenging spoken activity with them.

After the usual opening remarks about homework etc etc. I asked them why they had come to the college to study. Why did one need to attend college when nearly any qualification could be gotten online? What were the advantages of studying at a college or university? They gave me the usual career and income oriented reasons but as I kept my board marker poised to write more, they started looking beyond the obvious: “To be challenged,” said Mohamad. “To meet new people,” said Tamir. “To socialize” said Koral. “New experiences, new people” said another. The list grew till the board was nearly covered and I had my next exercise justified by the students themselves.


“Right,” I said, “you have now given me all the reasons why our oral exercise is going to be done in the following manner. Will all the Arab students please stand up.” Glancing around uncomfortably they stood, some reluctantly. I counted – they were nearly half the class. I asked the blonde Russian student also to stand – his expression asked why he was being included in the Arab group. As I saw the uncertainty on all their faces, I felt a definite sense of excitement and expectation.

“Will each of you please choose a Jewish partner, preferably someone you really do not know and once you are all in pairs, I will explain what we are going to do.” At first the Arab group just stood looking helpless, but then one Jewish girl called out to one of the Arab boys to choose her and the ice was broken. They moved about, found partners and those who were shy I helped.

“You are going to interview each other for the next 20 minutes and then, standing with your partner in front of the class, you will introduce your partner. You are going to ask them questions so that you can tell us something we could not have known before –any questions you like but respecting the other if they don’t want to answer them. You will have 2-3 minutes to tell us about your partner.”

At first they sat there stiffly asking each other’s names and where they came from, but soon the class was abuzz with animated conversations, student heads close together as they made notes and probed deeper.

There were bursts of laughter and clearly many of them were surprised and delighted by what they were hearing. One pair discovered they shared a love for sushi, another that they were both interested in music. As they got up to share their findings, they were clearly proud of being able to explain something new about the other that they had not known or even suspected. Some of the stories were funny, some were really serious: “The worst day in his life was when he was rushed to hospital after his appendix exploded. He could have died,” one student told us and we all looked at the tall young man seriously nodding his head and were glad he was with us to tell the tale. “The best day in his life was the day he was finished with the army,” an Arab student told us about his Jewish partner and many of the guys showed sympathy.

I sat there making notes, watching the group dynamics and thinking if we could repeat this exercise in every class in every college all over the country, our future would look so different.

“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?” said Hadi who was sitting next me.

“Yes, I am,” I said, “and it is all because you dared to ask me why I had singled out your group that day. It worried me and I kept thinking about it.” For a moment he looked perplexed and then slowly he remembered our conversation after the other students had left that day. He was pleased with the results of his question to me – we were both happy.

Before I dismissed the class after all the students had spoken, I challenged them to take the experiment further – to invite each other home, to listen to each other’s music and to ask the questions that were there, just below the surface because part of being a student was doing all the things they had told me at the beginning of our exercise - having new experiences, meeting new people, being challenged. I was proud of them and they had clearly had a good lesson.


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1 Comment

Reply elsa albertse
9:23 AM on May 28, 2017 
you are truly an academic with vision!