Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Critical Pedagogy – Historic Building & #moocmooc chat

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Some days are like this one. Bursting with ideas, inspiration and passiimageon…

Well, with a little personal stuff that didn’t go so well in between, but the rest of the day made it worth it πŸ™‚

It was obvious today after another energetic and inspiring #moocmooc chat (storified by Rusul here) that limitations of 140 chars and one hour with something like 20-40 people is amazing for bouncing ideas but not enough for nuance and deeper reflection (though to be honest, it was still quite a reflective twitter chat!) – and I’ve always found that while I love twitter chats, some of us (myself included) tend to talk platitudes and stuff more than nuance, context, etc.

And that’s really interesting because one of the topics we talked about a lot during the twitter chat was about bringing vulnerability into the classroom and nurturing discomfort (see also prechat storified by Jane here), encouraging students to embrace it as a good thing, as part of good learning, that disequilibrium. There was a lot of what we talked about in the Twitter chat that resonated with what I’d been doing this morning. Partly because, you know, the questions were ones Jesse and I had developed over the past week, so they’re the kinds of things that had been on my mind…

So this morning, I was invited to give the opening session for Namaa School for Sustainable Development, part of Nahdet el Mahrousa NGO that I used to be really involved in. By “session” I think they wanted me to help the participants think about how to set their goals and achieve them during the Namaa school (it’s a couple of intensive weeks I think) – but I go about this in a weird way (will describe in a second).

There was something in today’s Twitter chat that reminded me of a question one of the attendees asked me privately at the end, “I find myself asking questions, asking why, asking about the meaning of life… and I mean, when will I stop asking questions? When will I find answers?”

And I was like, “Why would you ever want to stop?”

But also this talk of discomfort. It’s difficult to talk about the importance of vulnerability and discomfort in a Twitter chat – but today, I actually experienced this firsthand. Here’s the story.

The session took place in this amazingly beautiful historic building called Beit el Sennary (house of sennary) which apparently is being used for cultural activities and such. It’s in an area of Cairo I’d never been before, very old, very poor, like slums. But this building is awesome (see above).

I walk in, and they’re sitting in a circle, someone’s giving them an idea about the plan of the day, and I arrive 5 mins before my time exactly, so we start pretty much right away. I find the place for me near the front of the room on a slightly elevated stage (couple of steps) and I make a split-second decision not to sit in a chair – I sit cross-legged on the floor (my favorite position, but not very common for an Egyptian woman of my age who wears a hijab).

I have a few ideas of activities planned and questions to ask, and I usually just have “an idea” not a full plan (as Jesse often says, being slightly underprepared is good; in my opinion it leaves more room to be responsive and to give control to others). This wasn’t technically a teaching situation, but more clearly a facilitation.

Now, I find a lot of difficulty talking to people without knowing anything about them. This was the second day these people meet (around 30 participants and maybe 6 or 7 facilitators in the room whom I had met a year or so ago).

So since they don’t all know each other that well, I asked them to do a round of “Name+something no one here knows about you” – and I thought, that’s a pretty low-risk thing for ppl who barely know each other. It just so happens that the first person on my left who I asked to start introductions (and I’m left-handed; most Egyptians would ask the person on their right; I’m not too careful about it, but it’s just that the two on my right were facilitators and I didn’t think to start with them… maybe I should have)… sorry, so the person on my left, he felt really uncomfortable sharing something about himself. He said his name. I said, “and something about yourself?” and he was like “no”. I was like, OK. The next person said his name, and was about to share something, then the third person said his name… and so I had to stop. I had to talk to them about vulnerability and openness. I told them about how if they were going to build community and learn together over the next couple of weeks, they needed to be willing to open up and share. You can pick your level of vulnerability and openness; you’re free to share something small like where you are from, that you have a sister, or what you’re studying. It’s all gonna be new to most of us. I told them I know it can be hard and it needs trust and might need time. That it’s OK that not all of us have something deep we’re willing to share… but that we still need to try, so we can get somewhere. (for the record, the first guy never spoke up again throughout the session; the 3rd guy came and talked to me afterwards about his discomfort speaking in large groups and I asked him if small groups would be more helpful and when he said yes, I asked the facilitator to add some small group activities; the 2nd guy spoke a few times because he had been already willing anyway). Now my plan was to do a “Humility Walk” activity (description coming up in a minute). So when one participant said he was an athletic walker, one of the facilitators started making jokes about it and got up and made fun of the way people do the “Walking” thing in the olympics and everyone laughed. I sensed that these two got along enough that the facilitator felt he could make fun of the guy publicly. The guy seemed totally OK with it. Everyone laughed. I felt relieved. This could work πŸ™‚ I asked these two to be my volunteers for then next activity. When someone shared about having grown up in Saudi, I shared that I grew up in Kuwait and made a joke about how there was an expression at the entry way to the building that I did not understand (written in Egyptian Arabic, it is probably a well-known saying but I had never heard it before) and so I said, does that mean “whoever doesn’t know their history is daye3” (daye3 means “goner” – I literally translated the saying into English and used the slang word “goner”). This made everyone laugh. I told them something to help them make fun of me. I was loving this.

The next few people shared things of varying levels of openness but I tried as much as I could to give in a comment (if they were medical doctors, I said “poor you” and explained how hard my surgeon husband worked and that I was the only non-medical doctor in my immediate family); several shared stories about animals and we had conversations about animal rights and uh, shared a potty training story when they complained of animals during potty training (or whatever they call it for animals); when people said something like “I am a different person every 6 months” in a both joking but also self-deprecating manner, I’d laugh and say that I’m the same but maybe every 2 years? When several talked about playing musical instruments, I joked about us having a band… things like that πŸ™‚ One of the participants was knitting while participating and I told her I admired multitaskers like myself… little things like that. When one person said he was color-blind but learning to paint, I stopped and talked about it a bit (I’m going thru an obsession with color-blindness all of a sudden – but I laid off after a while because he seemed uncomfortable by all the attention and the “what color is this?” By the time the circle was over, one of the facilitators told me to say something about myself and I was like, “haven’t I already shared so much?” and I was like, “I write everything on my blog anyway” which prompted them to ask about my blog… they asked a bit more, so I told them about #moocmooc and the hijab post. I also asked them to reflect on the usefulness of the exercise. Turns out they had not had time to introduce themselves the day before (don’t ask how!) so this was kinda of perfect πŸ˜‰ and they also mentioned the laughter, which was one of my main goals, so I was happy about that πŸ™‚

Right… so next move…

The Humility Walk Activity

This is the most versatile, most successful ice-breaker I have ever used, and it can “be” the session (as it became today). It works better with more mature participants (so not college freshmen but maybe seniors or fresh grads or older adults). The idea is to pick two volunteers. For Egyptian culture, they gotta be two men because someone could fall and the other needs to catch them and girls might be wearing skirts and men and women aren’t supposed to touch, you get the picture.

One of them gets blind-folded before I explain the “game”. Let’s call him “blind” for now. The other player, let’s call him “supporter” needs to get the blind guy from point A to point B but the blind guy’s feet should not touch the ground directly – he must only step on two sheets of A4 to get there. Now people will play this activity and get from point A to point B in various ways. They’ll ask for rules, “can we talk?” or “can we touch?” and people in the audience will call things out like, “you can’t do that” or “why don’t you make the steps smaller” or “slow down”, etc.

When we’re done we reflect. The blind person talks about how he felt, the supporter talks about how he felt, the audience talk about how they feel

Then we reflect on what this is a metaphor of, how it applies to teaching, issues of control, empowerment, hegemony… we get into feminism as well, and people share some really deep and moving stories of their struggles to find their way and resist the dominant views around them… we talk about the disappointment of 2011 revolution and what we can do co-construct a better future for Egypt… we talked about different forms of advocacy and Freire and praxis as action with reflection… we talked about writing as a form of advocacy.

I skipped all the other activities and just summarized in the end the key things they had said… and I left them with an exercise of thinking “why am I here, what are my goals, and what do I have to offer others here?”

It was awesomely rewarding to sit with such inspired youth and I’m blessed to have been invited to do this. I’m blessed every time ever invites me to join one of those things. I learn so much during the session and I learn so much from people talking to me afterwards (which many did; I should factor in time for that in future; today I had to go and only “gave” half an hour.

On the way home, I had one of the ex-facilitators with me and she thought the session went well; I agonized over a few things I could have done differently (I’m like that) and she told me something. She said the person after me also did critical pedagogy but from the “practice” perspective whereas I was the “theory”. She felt that might upset me and said, “not in a bad way”. I laughed. I totally got her and it made me think about myself. I am more on the “practice” side of “theory” and on the “theory” side of practice. IF that makes sense. I build my theory around my practice, but my practice is teaching university students or adults (univ faculty and school teachers) – at Egypt’s elite university. It’s a very limited view of empowerment. There’s so much more grassroots work I cannot do with a family and full-time job that I love (i.e. I don’t want to leave it).

And this blogpost seems to me like a mini-autoethnography πŸ™‚

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