Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

July 26, 2016
by Maha Bali

The Sympathetic Terrorist

Reading Time: 6 minutes

(note: the title of this post has been playing in my head for quite a while now, and I don’t want to let it go; it relates to the post but may seem misleading to some. I want to keep it, though, so I hope you don’t mind).

I’m in a mall, and I see a security guard talking to a guy who is dressed nicely, but acting in a strange way. It’s like he’s jittery, his eyes are darting back and forth. He’s trying to avoid talking to the security guard. I’m standing nearby and I haven’t moved. The mall is pretty empty, but there are people scattered around. A while later (it could be minutes or hours, I don’t know), the guy with the suspicious behavior returns, just as I’m about to enter this large hall, and I overhear him telling the security guard, “You’d better move away from here because I’m about to detonate a bomb!”

I don’t think. My legs take me quickly into the large hall and I tell everyone there to move to the very end of the hall – to run and to duck. I do this calmly, though my heart is bursting in my ribcage. And then it’s over. We hear the sound of an explosion and the earth shakes, but we are all fine. Those of us inside this hall. There was no way out, so this was the safest thing we could have done. 

Sometime later, a man walks in. I don’t know how I know this, but I know that he’s the accomplice of the suicide bomber. He walks around and picks certain people from the crowd and asks them to line up. I try to avoid his gaze, hoping he won’t notice me, but I feel his hand on my head and I know I’ve been “chosen”. I go line up. We start walking outside into the sun. And I see that all the people in front of me are picking up young children and carrying their little lunchboxes. How could I have forgotten where my daughter was, in all of this? And then suddenly, the moment I hold my daughter in my arms, I realize what’s going on: this guy picked all the parents from the crowd and helped them go pick up their children. And then he let us all go free.

And then I wake up from my nightmare. I wake up shaken and it affects me for the rest of the day. It was really difficult to get back to sleep after this nightmare, though I can sort of understand why I’m having the nightmare. I wonder how many people get nightmares like this one, people who haven’t experienced terror firsthand, but who watch the news and learn of loved ones who barely survived (or even worse, who didn’t). I’m a regular dreamer. I dream several times a night, I remember most of my dreams, I sometimes have lucid dreams where inside the dream I realize I’m dreaming and I control my dream. This was not one of them. I do work through a lot of my stress through dreams, and sometimes work through problems, so this was definitely one of those dreams.

But I’ve been thinking of something about my dream. A common thread between the first guy and the second guy. The first guy tells the security guard to move away because he’s going to detonate a bomb. He’s warning the security guard, and I’m not sure if he’s doing it to save the security guard himself, or to give him an opportunity to warn others or do some emergency measures. And then the second guy (who wasn’t necessarily a terrorist, but in my dream I knew he was), who decided to let the parents go free and find their kids (not that it’s fair to the other people, but it would have been terrifying for the kids if they had to wait for their parents).

And I realize that the thing about my dream, is that I made the terrorist “human”. I made both of these men people with feelings, people with sympathy. People who cared about people even while they killed them.

And you know what? That is actually NOT how I think of terrorists when I am awake. Not in my consciousness. But my subconscious thinking has made me think a little bit more. Not so much that terrorists are humans (well of course they are) or that they can be humane/sympathetic… but rather, about what happened to these people in their lives to make them unsympathetic? How on earth do they think and how did they become this way? A way that I can’t even begin to understand or empathize with (empathizing with a cause does not mean you empathize with someone’s method of dealing with it).

And it brings to the surface a thought I have had for a long long time: that criminals, especially serial killers or murderers (in cold blood) and terrorists probably need psychotherapy more than they need imprisonment and torture. What person in their right mind can kill another human being who has not done them any harm, for no obvious reason that a rational human being would use to justify killing another? Unless they weren’t right in the head? Unless they actually have a mental illness that requires treatment? What happens to young people that makes them vulnerable to brainwashing such that they feel they are doing something good by killing innocent people? This cannot be a fully rational human being doing this. And I know some people will have mental illness because of genetic reasons and that it’s no one’s fault, really, but I also know that some of these conditions are triggered by life events and trauma… and what can we do to prevent or at least reduce the probability that someone will become that way.

And then I think about people who see (and even sometimes cause) death as part of their every day jobs. Police. Army. Doctors. Yes, even doctors. In theory, these people, when they cause death, either do it unintentionally, or they do it to save more lives, right? As in, a policeman will kill a terrorist to prevent that person from killing tens or hundreds of others. People in military situations are (supposedly) killing an enemy that would otherwise kill them and their people (and thus should have the proper training to make that decision wisely in a split-second – which apparently American police officers did not absorb very well). Doctors (when they’re mentally stable and not in a situation of euthanasia) don’t ever really intend to kill someone, but sometimes do so while trying to save them… or just witness death that is not of their own doing simply because of some factors outside their control. What happens to these people when they witness so much death on a regular basis? These people whom we NEED to be mentally stable because we entrust them with so much power over life. And death. We know that some soldiers get PTSD. I don’t hear of it happening to police officers as much but I assume it happens after seriously big cases with mass killings or such, and I assume they get treated. But what about doctors, and how they sometimes need to become numb, become less empathetic (especially surgeons), so they can perform their jobs competently? And what about the people who witness things like this who aren’t police or army or doctors, who takes care of their psychological wellbeing? The children of drug-abusing mothers who lives in poor neighborhoods and grow up witnessing crime and violence every day? The non-medical staff of hospitals who aren’t really trained to be around death but live through it all the time? And honestly, to a lesser extent, all of us at home who are far enough away from actual events, but feeling them as they happen around us.

For a long time, I was really careful not to show my child too much TV unless it was cooking shows or non-violent cartoons. As in I rarely switch on any channel that might even have violent ADS (when she was a baby, and I heard disturbing new on TV, if I was feeding her, my milk would stop suddenly and she would cry). But in the past few months with all the events going on, my husband and I find ourselves glued to the TV and we sometimes forget that our young child who is playing nearby listens and notices things. We need to stop. She doesn’t see violence, thankfully, because most news channels don’t show graphic detail, but she learns about it nevertheless. And she’s too young for us to explain all that is bad in the world, I think. It’s too early and too complex to explain. And it might be affecting her without us knowing. How do you explain terrorism to a child? How do you explain racism to a child? I should probably check if there are resources on this for 5 year olds. Maybe it’s time.

July 22, 2016
by Maha Bali

More Reflections on Uselessness

Reading Time: 6 minutes

So I started this morning responding to Luca Morini’s article on Uselessness (annotated link) and now I want to dig deeper by thinking through a few examples and seeing which of my 4 approaches to uselessness (absolute, temporal, contextual or intrinsic value) they fall under. As I said earlier, I don’t know if I can get behind absolute uselessness and I think it’s unfair to completely eschew Usefulness of the kind that comes from marketability because, economically, people need jobs to survive before they need to nurture their souls and such…but I do believe the purpose of higher education should go waaaay beyond what markets need (which is not to say skip over those market needs altogether). While productivity and efficiency should not be our highest goals, they aren’t intrinsically bad, either. As Remi Holden says in an annotation on the article, “there are… many moments throughout my given day when I must embrace productivity and efficiency – often so that I can later be playful”. Luca agrees in response, saying “renouncing [productivity/efficiency] could bring on catastrophic consequences which would probably hit first and foremost already disadvantaged segments of society”. But also that the discourse often is used against them also. It is a complex issue.

Back to some examples. I am  not a fan of doing schoolwork at home. But I like doing usefully useless fun things with my girl. I recently used these magnet toys (Bornimago) in a workshop where people who didn’t know each other did a sort of team-building activity as they tried to create a stable and tall structure. I had 3 packs of slightly different functionality and took one home to my child and two to work (for use in my own classes and workshops). As my daughter and I play with these we get lost in them and can play for hours. I also sometimes take them out at work and just start playing while talking to colleagues and some of us get into it. You could argue that with an almost-5-year-old this is a playing to learn thing. She learns about magnetism (she discovered the magnets stick to other metals at home and she gets frustrated when poles refuse to connect so she kind of understands north/south in magnets and how to get around it to get what she wants). She learns about construction and counting and she gets pretty creative with what she does with them. But really, none of that is why we play with it. It’s just FUN. We both enjoy it and I don’t honestly remember enough about magnetism or know enough about construction to actually teach her anything directly. She’s just discovering what her curiosity leads her to. I want to think this lies in the useless category but it doesn’t really. It’s temporally useless but in future when she learns about magnetism and construction this will have given her some background (just like driving games help kids prepare a little for actually driving). It’s also contextually useful in that it helps both me and her get our eyes off a screen and play together in harmony. It’s also intrinsically useful because it’s fun in and of itself. 

I considered a million different things  can do with my students with these and one of them is to ask them to develop a game from the magnets. Another is to ask them to create as many shapes as possible from a limited number of magnets. Another is to brainstorm learning value of playing with the magnets. And more. I am hoping they will come up with even more. But it’s such an open-ended thing with so few restrictions to it that I think there is plenty of room for imagination and that in itself is intrinsically useful imho. So emm not useless. Also very relaxing to do btw as it keeps your hands busy and your mind sort of drifts off…
Back to the article. Luca says “We can’t claim legitimation using the same criteria of our opponents” (which aligns with my contextual uselessness category) . This statement applies to a lot of areas where there is an ideological shift or paradigmatic difference. But he confuses me later because he then suggests that the only way is to take the opponents’ argument to the end and go through it. The story that follows of dinosaurs and feathers and evolution points to a temporal Uselessness that he clarifies when he says:

What is now useless can open up whole new worlds tomorrow. And even if it never does, it is beautiful, in that it has the markings of the play of possibility that is life and mind.

I love Kris Shaffer’s response to that: “Education should open up the possible, not constrain to the already known”. And that is the crux of it. We never know what may come and scientific research is sometimes guided by curiosity rather than a particular goal. Is it ok to take away funds that could be used to research a cure for cancer and put it into research about planet Mars, when we don’t know if any good will come of it? It’s a major ethical question and makes my head spin because what if we discover the cure for cancer on Mars, you know? But this is an argument for Usefulness. Just a temporal one. One that doesn’t know for sure that something will be useful in future but does it in the hope or imagination that eventually something useful will come of it. In my response I call it “futuristic utility”.

Later on, Luca mentions the buzz around games/gamification in edu – the need ofr them to be serious or not at all:  and Remi responds about his concern about “explosion of game-based learning to the detriment of play”. I share the same concern. I make a point of NOT teaching students the details of game mechanics and dynamics but rather focusing on learning and fun. I would rather stop talking about educational games and instead focus on playful learning. I loathe gamification because it often takes a behaviorist approach to people. Yes making things fun is cool. Now can we do it in mindful loving ways and not manipulative ones? I am wondering if this is what Remi and Luca are calling “gameful” practices. I always like to bring in ethical issues into my classes. I have used gender and Feminist Frequency videos. I plan to discuss ethics of Pokemon Go. I wonder if gameful practices are worth discussing also.

I was recently asked by some folks doing an adaptive learning platfrom (they have a good idea,that’s different from what you expect from adaptive learning things and they seem ethical at heart…but…adaptive; and I told em I  no fan) to give feedback and most of my feedback was “let the teacher decide how to give feedback to each student”. Because having a standard response to each type of mistake a learner makes, believe me, is NOT personalized learning. At all.

I plan to check out the list of special people Luca mentions as those who create games from limited resources (discovered I had come across one of em before).
I  reminded of a game I discovered recently called Liyla that’s about a man in Palestine trying to reach his family and it’s got little mechanical tricks and apparently little puzzles later (i only played it a few times and haven’t gotten far yet)..apparently Apple didn’t want to list it as a game (shame on you, Apple). But you know what you really learn in this game? It’s heartbreaking and emotional because every few steps this guy walks, a bomb hits and he runs to avoid it but sometimes he can’t. It says the game is based on true events…and if so, I literally killed the guy 10 times as I tried to discover how to jump and duck properly. I learned something. My heart learned something even though my mind already knew it.

And two more thoughts on useless things. Ok three.

On food – sometimes the most beautiful addition to a meal or food is the least useful nutritionally or otherwise. Like a spice or an even harmless thing like sugar! Or salt! Or worse!

On TV for kids. Apparently useless but actually useful for learning language and so much more. It’s just about how to use what kids learn from TV  by discussing it with them – as you would discuss it if they watched people around them in real life doing something u agree or disagree with or is worth probing. 

And finally. As an academic. It may seem useless for me to write poetry. To publish it. My “I’m not angry at you” poem is something I am more proud of than anything i published this year and it took less than 15 minutes to write. I have no idea where it will “count” on my annual faculty report. But people’s response to it has been priceless. So it’s useless in context. But extremely valuable in others.

So maybe my distinction is between what’s useful and what is VALUABLE. Because value need not be connected to utility. How’s that?

July 22, 2016
by Maha Bali

Perspectives on Uselessness 

Reading Time: 1 minutes

I read yesterday this article by Luca Morini on Hybrid Pedagogy, which argues for the importance of uselessness in higher education. I am sharing here the annotated link because there are already so many great annotations there. 

It’s a really provocative argument against neoliberalism and it’s beautifully written – go read it and come back. 

I just wanted to unpack one major point in his article. The uselessness. I think there are about 3 ways to take his argument on Uselessness:

  1. Uselessness as absolute – it’s ok for Higher Education and learning to be about completely useless things. That is a really hard argument to agree with 
  2. Uselessness as temporal – what may seem useless today may become useful tomorrow. That’s hinted at in his dinosaur/evolution example. We don’t know what will be useful tomorrow so we can play and experiment today – it might become useful someday. Much of science is built on this 
  3. Uselessness as contextual – we value different things. So while something may not be useful in context of marketability or employability it may be useful in terms of promoting open mindedness or nurturing the soul
  4. (also a 4th one) Usefulness as intrinsic – something need not be useful beyond itself. E.g. Music for sake of music 

I wish I could give an assignment prompt exactly like what Luca wrote:

Anything goes, as long as it eludes the hegemonic criteria of market and productivity, and preserves the voluntary, joyful character of play.

July 14, 2016
by Maha Bali

Whole-class Augmented Reality Game a la Pokémon Go?

Reading Time: 1 minutes

I have been following articles about Pokemon Go and thought it might be interesting to have my students next semester read up on Augmented  reality games and find positive and critical articles (some are so critical I am scared of trying it myself) about Pokemon GO specifically (by October there will probably be too many!)

Something Ana Salter wrote on Prof Hacker about doing it for new students in college had me imagining a game like this at freshman orientation as a treasure/scavenger hunt! Or one for new international students that would entail doing things at Egyptian landmarks and monuments.

I can ask my students as a whole class to develop it! Different groups working on different sections of campus/Cairo or something. I am just thinking how to make the tech work safely…hmm… I don’t want them to get into trouble or make themselves or others vulnerable. I guess something can be done via Twitter rather than GPS… But it wouldn’t be the same?

I could make them just do a prototype but it would be so much cooler if they could implement it, right?

Any ideas or thoughts?

Some articles besides Ana’s linked above:

There was another that was too dismissive of the critiques that it pissed me off. Am sure my students can find more articles come October. Thank you Rebecca for an interesting Egyptian reference on it – discussing the (non)fatwa can be great for class discussions. 

July 9, 2016
by Maha Bali

An Honest Look at Fear

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I came across a tweet today with a photo of a poem by Nikki Giovanni (whom I will follow from now on)

It tells the story of a spider…and how it has harmed no one and we don’t have the right to kill it just because we are scared of it. Full poem also uploaded here.

I don’t know which year this poem was written but it has clear resonance for #Blacklivesmatter

I am thinking. The message is clear: no one has the right to kill another because they are scared of them. Obviously. Right? But wait

  1. What about self-defense? Isn’t that the most universal allowable reason to kill someone? If your life or life of a loved one is threatened? But what counts as a threat? I remembered the movie Crash, where a white cop kills a black guy because he thinks he is reaching for a gun. Does self defense begin when the gun is pointing at you, when you physically see the gun, or when you just sense a gun is somewhere nearby? Obviously those who use the self-defense “excuse” before they see a gun have an irrational fear of the person in front of them (clearly this fear unfortunately is directed at African Americans – I bet you anything a white woman reaching into her pocket will be totally unthreatening to anyone). The poem reminds us that the spider is NOT harmful. It has not done anything to threaten us. It does not deserve to be killed by us.(note: I remember in England once telling hotel reception i had a spider in my room and they said “so?”. It’s also cultural, you know?) 
  2. Police are not normal citizens. They are trained professionals whose job it is to protect us. Whose job it is to know when is an appropriate time to use a weapon. Who know how to use a taser before a gun. Who know how to point a gun at an arm or a leg instead of a chest or a head. (they are not Oscar Pistorius and cannot claim they were feeling vulnerable. They have POWER). Who should have regular psychological screening to ensure they don’t have mental illness or have racist or other discrimination tendencies to irrationally accuse a particular group of people unfairly
  3. We do fear insects and arachnids and even some mammals and reptiles. And we are insect racists. I would not kill a ladybird or a butterfly but I would not bat a lash at killing a cockroach, ant, mosquito, fly, spider… I am a bit more squeamish at killing geckos/lizards/mice but i don’t tell people not to kill them when they enter their house. Pests we call them. Thet don’t threaten us yet they make our lives uncomfortable and we prefer not to have them around or share our space or resources/food with them (gosh, I’m thinking Brexit, aren’t you?).

All I am saying is that while the poem is really powerful and touched me deeply, the analogy actually breaks down. We kill living things ALL the time. Innocent living things. To eat them (plants are living things too). Because they are pests, in our judgment (it’s relative not necessary to see them as pests). Because we are conditioned to be scared of them (itsy bitsy spider and Mickey Mouse notwithstanding). And therefore conditioned not to feel guilty killing them. And while I love animals, I can sort of understand the killing of some of them. I cannot understand the unnecessary killing of human beings…

  • Because we are scared of them because of the color of their skin (Black lives matter. They matter dammit) 
  • Because we disagree with their lifestyle (think Orlando)
  • To make a political point by killing civilians (all terrorism)
  • To take revenge on a group based on the actions of a few (Dallas police killed for actions of a minority of incompetent and racist brutal police officers)

But wait. That last point. “based on the actions of a few”. That’s exactly what police are doing to black people. A few police are stereotyping black people based on the actions of a few – up to the point of killing them. And someone(s) killed a bunch of black people to avenge the actions of those few.

Killing breeds killing. At some point something needs to change in humanity because what it means to be human is no longer something to be proud of. I still think empathy is the way forward. In person or online. Because that innocent death could be you next time. Or your partner or child or neighbor or friend.

It stopped being anyone’s local issue when every week (sometimes every day) it’s near someone’s heart. It could be near yours next time. It could BE yours. And while we may have different ways of responding we need to continue to stand on the side of social justice and support each other through this. There’s nothing left but hope. And our role as parents and educators to raise citizens who know and can do better.

July 7, 2016
by Maha Bali

The Colonization of Propriety

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I have been wearing a headscarf for 16 years now and I never bought a “hijabi” swimsuit until yday.

My cousin (also wears a headscarf) had told me having kids would shift my mindset about this, and she was right. I didn’t care for 15 years if I never swam in a pool or sea again. But for my child, experiencing it, I would do anything to make it something she can do with both parents and not her dad alone. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way it’s been.  But if both of us can do it, she can spend more time doing it. And she deserves that. 

So let me get back to the Colonization of Propriety.

First of all, I am at a 5-star hotel and I was shocked to see many headscarfed women wearing these full-body suits at both the beach and the swimming pool. This is shocking for two reasons:

  1. Hotels of this kind have a Western/elitist flavor which usually has restrictions about dresscode in pools etc
  2. I have never seen this happen except in open beaches where there are no rules. Never seen it in a pool

Now this is a colonization of my sense of propriety because in my culture, it should make more sense to have rules about how much skin people reveal rather than how much they hide! I realized suddenly that in my culture, allowing this should be the norm and should actually not be shocking at all.
But there’s another layer of course. An elitist one. Because growing up, the kind of women who got into the sea fully dressed were lower social classes and they weren’t wearing special clothes and it bore no dignity. I realize now that I despised that, judged them for their desire to have fun. Bit more… I wanted to distance myself from them. Which is hilarious because one time when I was 16 and on a high school beach trip I jumped into the sea with my shorts and t-shirt because even though I hadn’t planned to swim, I couldn’t help myself. And given that I haven’t been inside water except twice in the past 16 years, this was surprising for me (even back then I could survive without swimming in water; I loved it but could totally resist the temptation…. Usually). 

Which brings me to the next point. Dignity. Even though in more recent years many headscarfed young and older women of my socioeconomic class have started wearing these full-body swimsuits, I still found them not to be too dignified and it felt like they didn’t fit the modesty of the headscarf. 

But today I saw all these women doing it up close and I watched my girl in the water with her dad. And her looking at me with a yearning in her eyes. And I thought, “I could have that. Give her that”. And I saw no loss of dignity in that.

So we went out of our way today to go and buy one. We even found a (ridiculously expensive) Speedo of real good quality which hopefully (or at least according to the salespeople) dries so fast it wouldn’t cling. Preserving dignity.

I think of myself earlier,  chasing my daughter around the hotel lobby, carefree and totally focused on the fun we were having. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered if that was inappropriate. But I pushed it back. Dignity, what dignity? Propriety is to have fun with my child. I can’t think of a reason to worry about anything else!

June 19, 2016
by Maha Bali

Feminist Mom’s Critique of Children’s Cartoons

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When you’re a mom who is also an educator, feminist and critical pedagogue, it’s extremely difficult to enjoy watching cartoons with your child without looking at them critically (and yeah I am not a hero that limits screentime; some days we get more, some days we get less, but overall I try to stay nearby and make sure the content isn’t violent or otherwise inappropriate).

So here are my views on some cartoons (starting with one I can’t stand)

Shimmer and Shine (Nick Jr)
The only thing I like about this cartoon is the colorfulness of everything in it. I don’t like that the main character Leah solves all her problems by calling on her two genie “friends” (also: they’re not “friends” any more than Uber drivers are our “friends” – they are doing a service). I have no idea why she never tries to solve problems in more normal ways or where the adults are in this cartoon. Moreover, clearly the genies are from another culture and continually misunderstand her and grant the wishes wrong (this seems typical of genies) – why doesn’t she eventually learn to articulate herself more clearly? I get the song where they celebrate failure (it’s something many educators like to do, including me) but “when we make a big mistake, don’t fret let’s celebrate…[ignore middle part]… Oopsie save the day” it’s a little weird. Whatever.

What bugs me most is Leah’s friend Zack and how she constantly uses magic and her genies to help him while he just..uh.. Goes to his place or whatever. One episode they win tickets together at an arcade and the machine eats them up. Instead of asking an adult to help or winning tickets back together, Leah gets help from her genies while Zack goes and gets some pizza. Yeah. And she goes through a heck of a lot because the genies aren’t really all that helpful (every episode is full of frustrating stupidity which i think is meant to teach Cross-cultural communication but really fails at this and just makes the genies look stupid). And Zack just celebrates the reward. There are at least 3 episodes kinda like this, where she helps him with his magic show, to find his toy dinosaur and find a particular seashell. Really, why does she do this? And the one time she needed help baking cupcakes he left her alone and just came back to taste. He is useless. The solutions are illogical, and i don’t get why she’s such a doormat. And aaarghhh my kid loves watching them coz of the pretty colors.

Miles from Tomorrow (Disney Jr)
This is one I like a lot. Although the main character (Miles) is a boy from the future who basically is the hero of most episodes, there’s a lot of feminism going on here. His sister who seems slightly older also has a role and they have different personalities and often work against or with each other in interesting ways. More importantly their mom is the captain of the ship ; the dad a pilot/engineer. It’s interesting they gave the dad a leading but subordinate role to the mom (it’s one thing to have more career success/leadership than the husband and another to be his direct boss). The family live on a starjetter with their robo-ostrich Merc where it seems like the kids are homeschooled (or er starjetter-schooled) in this cool way where they participate fully in the missions their parents undertake and they have a real role to play and come up with creative solutions to problems. There’s also a lot of real science one can learn from watching this (tho my kid is too young yet).

Peppa Pig (British series)
This one is just full of the daddy doing typical male things like getting lost while refusing to admit it. There are quite a few episodes where women do things men expect them not to be able to do and one memorable moment where Mummy Sheep helps Daddy Pig find the engine in a rental car (while admitting she knows little about cars and engines). The episodes make fun of daddy Pig slightly more than is strictly necessary but not all the time. The most active citizen in the stories is Miss Rabbit who works all the jobs around town all the time (it’s a little crazy). There’s an episode where Peppa says her mom is lucky she doesn’t work and can play on the computer all day…and her mom explains that she doesn’t play, she does work on her computer.

Paw Patrol (Nick Jr)
I love this cartoon but they’ve got Ryder and a team of pups who are all male but ONE. There are maybe 6 or 7 of them. Why couldn’t they have two girls or something? Also the mayor who is usually in trouble (mayor Goodway or Goodwin) is always flustered and stuff. Most of Ryder’s adult friends are men and there are only occasional strong female presences.

Doc McStuffins (Disney Jr)
Definitely feminist. The little girl who’s a toy doctor, her mom is a real doctor, and her toys are mixed gender

My Little Pony (Hasbro)
Definitely feminist with mostly female characters who manage all kinds of things. They are very girly in terms of aesthetics but balanced as character and sometimes unnecessarily violent and men appear so occasionally that it’s not realistic.

Sofia the First (Disney Jr)
Definitely feminist especially the episodes around sports where Sofia becomes a flying horse derby competitor and the reverse happening with Prince Hugo who learns to ice skate (it’s called something else in the episode coz they have magic flying skates). I love Sofia and all the ways characters are never fully evil but have a good side as well. But Sofia needs to occasionally not always win. She isn’t always doing what’s “right” and she learns. But she wins too often 🙂

Dora, Blaze, Bubble Guppies, Umizoomi and other interactive episodes (Nick Jr)
These are generally fun because my kid gets into the interaction and seems to be learning. Most of them have an even mix of male/female characters (except Dora and Friends into the City which is female-heavy with just the one guy, Pablo, not Diego from the little Dora, for some odd reason) and usually roles are cool. E.g. In Blaze, although the main characters are male, the car mechanic is a girl.

Oh man. I watch a lot of cartoons 😉

June 16, 2016
by Maha Bali
1 Comment

Parenting Like Moses’ Mother

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I read the story of Moses in the Quran, and how his mother placed him in a basket (in Arabic it says tabout which implies something more closed like a tomb) and into the Nile, instead of allowing the pharoahs to kill him (apparently they would kill male Hebrew children at the time). (story on Wikipedia, similar in Judeo-Christian tradition).

I used to read that story and think it’s a miracle that she had that intuition, or that divine revelation, that her child would be ok, that she was placing him in the hands of God, and God would protect him. And God did. He was raised with the pharoahs (in Islam it was pharoah’s wife, it may be different in other stories) but his mother was reunited with him as his wet nurse (the story in the Quran is how Moses’ sister followed him and was able to help make that connection).

Anyway. It occurred to me yesterday that this story isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In the sense that, in reality, parents throw their kids into God’s hands on a regular basis.

Obviously, for people who believe, every breath a human being takes is a gift from God. Anything can happen to a loved one while we are next to them or even holding them in our arms.

But every time we leave our child – at daycare, at school, with a family member or babysitter, we are trusting in God to protect them when we can’t (even though when they’re right there with us, they are still in the hands of God, and we can’t protect them without Him anyway).

So…yeah. I wouldn’t throw my child into the river like Moses’ mother, but I understand that feeling of putting your child in God’s hands and just letting go…trusting in God to protect them and return them to us, safe… Because, really, what else can you do?

June 12, 2016
by Maha Bali

Homeschooling for a Day

Reading Time: 4 minutes


I have mixed feelings about homeschooling. On one hand I critique much of what formal schooling is about and don’t get me started about how bad schooling is in Egypt. But I also feel it’s beneficial for kids to be exposed to something other than the home environment and to experience different approaches to pedagogy (and having bad experiences just helps them question authority i think). I say this and of course it pisses me the hell off when teachers do stupid things to kids in school. I also know that much homeschooling is communal and kids get exposed to other kids and parents.

But anyway. My kid isn’t homeschooled and I love my work, so…

During Ramadan I am off work and while I wanted to enroll my kid in some camp or daycare for summer, that hasn’t started yet…so I thought I would try my hand at homeschooling for a bit. Obviously I am an educator anyway and much of what I do with my kid is intentional. We have educational toys and books and I take advantage of cooking time and play time and even watching cartoons time as much as I can to stimulate learning. But trying to do if for a day was interesting.

It was pretty spontaneous. Last night while asking about something on Facebook, the wonderful Miranda Beshara shared an article she wrote about colloquial (3ameya) Arabic resources she recommends, one of which is the Egyptian dialect Sesame street. I have known for some time that my kid can’t read the numbers in Arabic (don’t get this confused – the numbers 1,2,3 are called Arabic numerals but for some crazy reason when we write in Arabic we have a different set of numerals. See Wikipedia). She can also barely count in Arabic and I remember asking her Arabic teacher if they learn the numbers in school along with the letters and she looked at me weird and said, “would you like me to teach that?” and I was like “dude, it’s not in the curriculum? How’s she gonna learn them? From calendars?” (I said that coz her first exposure was thru calendars with English/Arabic text.

Anyway. So we had breakfast while watching the entertaining Sesame Street numbers video. It was better than I expected and she seemed animated and seemed to enjoy it after 5 mins of resistance (she resists watching Arabic shows for some reason I need to rectify). After that we ate some grapes and counted as we ate and she made up her own game mimicking one of the skits from the show where things disappear as someone eats them.

There were some colorful umbrellas on the show she liked, made of tissue paper. I was too tired to go out and buy tissue paper, so I took some kitchen paper, cut some into circles and got out the glitter paints and we started painting them and some empty toilet rolls. Then we left those to dry.

After lunch I took out some play-doh and started making the numerals with play-doh and we played around w making little balls or flowers for each number (as on 3 things for number 3, 4 for 4). She commented on how 7 looks like a V and the 8 is an upside down 7. She commented on how the 4 looks like the English 3 and the 5 like English Zero. At this point i felt this could get really confusing and felt out of my depth. When she wanted to switch to making other stuff w play-doh we went ahead and did that.

A little later it’s snack time and I get an apple and get inspired to cut it up in numberal shapes. After a disheartening “again?” we ended up having lots of fun. Matching apple numbers with play-doh numbers and noticing how eating parts of a number makes u end up with a 1 quite often. She even independently made a 10 from apples. Then we pretended the rest of the apple pieces were French fries and she ate those, halfway thru changing them into bricks (there was a boat phase too). I totally forgot during her morning bath to do any counting, but breaks are good. During lunch we read some little English books with simple word/image combos; we tried to guess the words before seeing the pictures but she got bored quickly.

Soon after it was time to go out to a family iftar and back home from that was dinner and bedtime. If I had time, my plan would have been to show Arabic numbers in authentic contexts like building numbers and prices in supermarkets. But we can do it another day. For now, I plan on getting a book with those numbers and showing the episode of Sesame Street again inshallah

I remember the first time I panicked about the numbers I played ball with her counting aloud but I didn’t reinforce it over time. I feel like it would get pretty boring to focus on one thing for a full day, but I also felt we made progress today. Only time will tell

And no. I don’t know if I can sustain this.

So tomorrow inshallah we are going out and let’s see if I can make the trip worth it. Main goal is to buy some Arabic books for her and buy clothes for me. Then to get some arts/crafts materials. I think if we madw some permanent crafty stuff about numbers and hung it in her room and if I read a book with numbers in it, they would help a lot to reinforce over time.

June 10, 2016
by Maha Bali

The Wheelchair Question – Talking to Kids About Disabilities

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Wheelchair whizzes by
Kids are in art class, painting and drawing and moving around, occasionally getting in each others’ way. One of the kids is on a wheelchair and he looks a lot like this other kid who is dressed identically (school uniform?) but a bit shorter (brother?)

My daughter watches with fascination as wheelchair kid (I am now ashamed I never asked his name) presses buttons and his chair moves.

She asks, “What’s that?” and I say “It’s a wheelchair” (convo is in English; unsure how many ppl in the room understand English)

She says “I want one of those!”

And for some reason, my first reaction was “Yeah it’s kinda cool, isn’t it?”

At the same time I hear someone say “be3d el Shar 3aleiki” which literally translated means “may such evil be far from you” and is a common reaction to that kind of situation in Egypt but I found it deeply offensive.

Apparently the kid’s brother didn’t like my answer and told me knowingly, “he has it because he has a problem with-”

“Yes, I know” I say. I smile.

“Can I have one?” she asks. And I draw a total blank as to what I should do. And we leave quickly.

This scenario happened to my almost 5 yo the other day and I want a redo.

I have been thinking about it for a bit over a day now.

I should have asked the guy his name
I should have told him and my daughter that while I understand he is on a wheelchair because he can’t walk without it, I still think it’s a really cool thing and he is a special person.

Or something. I went to my mom and she was pretty blank, too, even though I seem to remember her doing a good job with me. But maybe when I was older?

Before writing this blogpost (which is btw meant to solicit tips on how to introduce kids to disabilities)  I Googled the question of how to introduce kids to disabilities. I got Baby Center. Which was my best friend when I was pregnant but I rarely checked since she turned one. Because “baby”. In the title. They had good tips for 5-8 year olds. Including being honest with your child (erm no “yeah, it’s cool” then?) but I don’t think they say how you should handle things when your kid is loud and the other kid is within hearing range.

My daughter has a pretty serious syndrome that isn’t immediately visible in a way that would make people point at her. Even though I know about that, it’s much easier to know and not have attention drawn about something outwardly obvious. E.g. My mom’s building has a kid with one eye that is clearly not normal. My kid constantly asks what’s up with it when she sees it. Loudly. The kid is her age. I ache for him. I tell her he has a wawa (Arabic for booboo) and she should not point at him. Hopefully soon she will be old enough to at least be less loud? Maybe I should be having these conversations more openly at home, using photos from the Internet or something.

I remember when I was young and first saw some kids with Down’s Syndrome. My mom (a physician) explained what it was and encouraged me to smile and wave to them. I still do that to this day. It’s automatic.

I should have asked the kid his name. If it had been a cool device that wasn’t a wheelchair I would have asked his name. I should have just asked


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