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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Black Sheep in the Classroom

A whole different world is in store, for those who leave their countries for higher studies to be in The United States of America. Everything here might look like tupsy- turby, in the beginning, especially to those, who are from the developing countries in Asia and Africa. Change is a long shot, depends how prone one is to change, but it is going to take a while, even for the smartest. The first fundamental difference an international student experiences is certainly the changing image of a classroom. The failure to comprehend it might leave him hanging between the two worlds without any control over it.

Tips for International students distributed in the orientation session by the University would be a good start getting a feel of the American classrooms. The first paragraph on the Brochure about active participation highlights the importance of valuable discussions in the classroom. And this is where the biggest difficulty lies. The teacher opens a floor for discussion and everybody has an opinion, and an international student might feel he is the only one without any. The truth is, openly expressing what is understood takes a little effort. Feeling of awkwardness would probably vanish but it definitely takes time to overcome habits formed on different cultural values. Let’s not forget, the class participation in some parts of the world would mean listen, shut your mouth, and jot down whenever prompted to do so.

Another different practice an international student notices is the liberty of enjoying food during the class. This definitely looks easier to deal with but not really if you have a rich history emphasizing something else. A friend of mine at grade seven had to return home with a red right cheek, with fingerprints of our English teacher’s right hand. He defied the rules of the classroom, by chewing a gum and swallowing it without a trace to outsmart a teacher. Gum was in vogue then, but denying that it existed in his mouth, and giving an opinion about it, was his personal invention.

Calling teachers by their names and even by the first names is another challenge, if not a shock. Coming from a culture where ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ are the only words that are used for face to face interaction with teachers, and nothing more, makes change so difficult, sometimes beyond the imagination. Even now, when teachers demand to be called by their names, the names simply get stuck in my mouth, and I end up producing a faint sound of ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ because it is so engraved in me. Old habits die hard, it is true in this case too.

The individualistic American approach contradicts with the collectivist mode of thinking most international students share. For most of the international students, going to school is a learning process. Making a lot of friends and understand the world they have seen in the movies or read in the books is another priority. Compared to the local students they are hardly competing. Friendship is developed in its truest sense and the relation means standing for each other in need. If your international classmate holds your hands while walking out in the open, do not be surprised, this is how friends should walk in their understanding. You might feel very uncomfortable; put it in a right word so that it would be understood. Life is too much goal orientated and there is not a minute to spare, has been a part of an American culture. A new student from Asia or Africa might not be aware of it.

Richard Yam, International student advisor of UMASS Amherst writes, ‘A simple “how are you?” is only a greeting, which does not lead to a conversation to find out how somebody is feeling. It can be surprising to see international students actually stop and prepare to respond how they feel, only to find that the greeter is already 10 feet away.” I could not agree more with him but for most of the international students, “How are you? Or even “What’s up?” carry a deeper meaning than it really does. It might be so close to caring concern, which might be viewed as an outlet to spill the emotion in a real sense. I personally, might have chased some of those greeters down the hallway just to inform them how exactly I was doing.

The technological advancement and its application in the classroom, is another exceptional achievement the American classrooms share with the students. This is comparatively easy to adjust with, because it demands no unlearning of the established notions, just learning it with admiration is enough. But the laptops, with Internet connection, that is so common in the classrooms here, often force me to look back into the past that some of us might share. I believe juxtaposing the two extremes might create a clear understanding.

Imagine a small village in the far eastern Nepal, where children clad in their school attire, would start their school with a national anthem. Struggling to find a rhythm, they would shout till the lush green valley would sing back to them. They would enter an empty room with a blackboard hanging on the unfinished wall facing the floor with a Gundri, a traditional carpet made out of straw, to sit. The sunrays entering through the cracks of the wooden windows and the holes on the thatched roof would craft stairs in the dusty classroom lighting the setup. The students with little personal blackboards, eager to write, just to wipe it out with their sleeves to create more space for more writing, were aware of the existence of notebooks, but that was what the school provided. The whole day of learning, generally with one teacher, was buried within the tiny blackboards, without any record of what was really learnt. It’s already been twenty years, but this picture of the classroom has remained intact. Every day, I stand cherishing the billion-dollar water view in UMASS and still crave for those days.

Wait, the students straight from the private schools would have a different narrative. Their morning would start with a school song in English swallowed by the drum beats. Studying in furnished classrooms with bags full of books and notebooks, to write and relish the records of what is learnt is certainly amazing, which everybody can’t afford. Classes would go on and on, one after another, and the noise of the plying vehicles on the side road would add the flavor. Books and notebooks would keep on changing with the entrance of a new figure, generally with a chalk box on one hand and a stick on another. The sticks would make sure the strict discipline was maintained and the lectures were properly understood. The fear of a stick or a spank would only end with a School Leaving Certificate. Shall I consider myself lucky to experience both of the educational systems? Just imagine what kind of values and principles you would have if those were your classrooms for twelve long years and more.

The intention of this writing is not to pull you into appreciating the rustic and the eccentric, but just to understand the difference. Recognition of these facts might help bridging the gap between the East and the West, and the initiation might bring both sides, real close, to understand each other’s culture. This might end the one-way approach and prepare both sides to act together, at least in the school. You might be interested on listening to the variety of long answers the ‘how are you?’ question has to offer.