Participant Reflection: Austin: the City of Art and Diversity….the City of Life!

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Reflections by NEA Teacher Exchange Participant Maaouia Haj Mabrouk, PhD, Tunisia.

Coming to Austin, the capital city of the state of Texas, USA, was like releasing an avid thirst for exploration. Flying over La Manche, then the Atlantic was not just passing over countries, borders, mountain chains and continents; it was a much deeper journey into the self and a much more emblematic endeavor with time and space. It was the first time in my life that I lived out of my suitcase for around 22 hours of flight.

Finally, we arrived to the Promised Land. It was around 11.30 p.m. local time when I put foot in Austin. The airport was vast but warm. Passengers were still strolling in its lanes and corridors, looking for its exit gates or streaming through its entrances. It was a day-like hustle though it was night.

At one of the doors, near the conveyor belt, a smiling man was awaiting us, my colleagues and me. “Hello. I’m Rod Edwards. I’ll be your driver to Dobie Center, your dormitory. I’m from the Texas International Education Consortium, “ he announced. “Thank you very much,” a voice in me answered, “We’re from Tunisia.” The conversation continued, fragmented on our part, fluent and easy-going on his.

We were not speaking the same English though we were uttering the same language: his was fast, spontaneous, and ornamented with native language-speaker features such as fillers, heads, tails… Mine was hesitant, stealthy and cautious. I admit the driver was so kind that he successfully broke the communication ice, whilst I was too distraught, too uncertain of the rectitude of my language to freely contribute to the smooth exchange. I confess I blundered many a time.

Anxiety and fear of mistakes are pure evils. They curb your endeavors with language and tie your words to your throat. My mind was analyzing and controlling every chunk of language I conveyed. “You can’t speak so slovenly,” it would say.  Inside my head, there was still that pressure of native speakerism. I was still struggling with that hidden, unspoken desire to speak like native speakers. Or maybe it was rather the fear of making mistakes which limited my expression to the minimum that might be said.

Then, all of a sudden, a bubble lightened in my head when a concept I have known for years jumped to the forefront of my memory. It was lathophobic aphasia, a term that the famous linguist and researcher Earl Stevick coined years ago to describe the fear he felt to speak German in Germany, after majoring in German language when in the U.S. Presumably, I remembered I was not alone in my fear of making mistakes in the presence of native speakers.

That is how gradually, and as the driver continued winding his way through the crowded roads of Austin, my anxiety diminished and words started to flow from my mind to my mouth in a much more smoothly. Then, from afar, Dobie loomed to us, distant yet glittering like a lighthouse; huge and high, though wrapped in the thick mist of the late evening. We sneaked in, nearly gatecrashing, cold and shuddering, like toddlers, in a place they had not trodden before. “This is your dormitory, Dobie 21,” I heard the driver say. “I’ll get you to your rooms.” “Thank you, Sir, so kind of you,” was my answer.

The night was long, and my sleep was troubled and discontinued. When morning finally came, I was still jetlagged. I reached out to my watch, then to my phone and checked the time. A new start was waiting for me, peeping through my window with the thin rays of a rising sun.

The day dawned warm, with a slight drizzle caressing the frame of the window. I dressed quickly and took the elevator to the cafeteria. There were other interns having breakfast. They came from many Arab countries: Bahrein, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt,… to attend the Texas Intensive English Program (TIEP) at the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC).  Cheerful encounters magically wiped out anxieties from faces, looks and hearts. We hit the road to TIEC, longing to see what was awaiting.

TIEC: The Fountain of Knowledge

At TIEC, a welcome ceremony was prepared for us. Cheerful faces met us. Robin Lerner, TIEC President, Dr. Ryan Buck, TIEC Vice President, Dr. Heather, the Senior Director of Global Learning, Angelique Pearson, the International Engagement Coordinator of TIEC Program, , Abbey, Ellen, Donna, Dr. C., Steven, Trevor, John and many other names stamped our stay in Austin and made every day we lived there different. We learned a great deal from them because every session we had was a mixture of fruitful exchange, laughter and enthusiasm.

Courses such as American history, American system of education, ethnic diversity and multi-lingual curricula, learning walks, assessment, learner motivation, strategic communication, ESL programs in Texas, conducting Professional Learning Community (PLC) projects are topics that will be engraved in our heads for long times, as they were all fused with much love and respect.

The internship program lasted three weeks, from February 9 through March 2, 2019. The first two weeks were spent in TIEC, and encompassed the aforementioned training subjects. The third week was rather practical: we as teachers and administrators had to visit schools, to shadow teachers, to acquire information about how schools in Austin work and to reflect upon ways of transferring what we have known and experienced to our countries.

Austin Schools: The Image of Austin diversity

Austin schools are also called campuses. In each school, you will find a principal and an administration staff that collaborate with them on issues relating to student affairs and administrative management. For instance, the academic dean works hand-in-hand with the principal in all matters that relate to student assessment, state exams, teaching approaches, teacher-student relationships and so forth. For each grade, there is an assistant whose job consists of chaperoning students, facilitating contact among staff members, and ensuring the fluidity of relations among all the members of the school community.

There is also a pedagogical assistant who is there any time the teacher needs them. These assistants enter classrooms and work concomitantly with the class teacher when some class members are low-achievers or are learners of special needs (LSN).  In case the student is a LSN, one of the child’s parents is even allowed to shepherd their children to their classrooms. As far as testing is concerned, students generally sit for two types of tests: the classroom-based assessments, which are rather progress-monitoring tests, and the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. The former tests take place at completion of every unit.  

They are quiz tests of no more than 20 questions generally; whilst the latter are devised on the state level and are meant to gauge students’ readiness to pass to another, more advanced level. As a matter of fact, students may be retained in their classes if they do not meet the standards that are required for success. And in order to ensure students’ good academic performance, teachers of each department meet twice a week. In collaboration with the head of that department, they discuss all issues relating to pedagogy, teaching methodology, and student results.

 Burnet Middle School, or “My Kids” School

To begin with, the first characteristic that would amaze you as soon as you enter an Austin school is the diversity of its population. Students of all backgrounds make up the mosaic of all Austin schools. As part of my internship program, I was assigned to shadow teachers and administrators in Burnet Middle School. It is a school with a wide range of ethnic groups.

“We have more than 27 languages in our school,” said Miss Perez, the academic dean of the school who warmly welcomed me, showed me around the school, and did some walk-throughs with me on her side. 

The school has around 1,000 students; most of them speak Spanish as a mother tongue. The overwhelming majority of these students get free breakfasts and lunches because they come from low-income households.  That is one of the reasons why I called Burnet a “My Kids” school. Caring for those young children, giving them the attention they needed, calling them “my kids” whenever they speak to them or about them really made the sound basis on which both teachers and administrators stand in Burnet Middle School.

This is, to my mind, the heart of every Professional Learning Community (PLC) project: putting the learner at the core of the learning and teaching process. Walking through the corridors of Burnet school, you will certainly meet the following sign on some of its walls, an appeal for students to share their feelings with specialists who are there just to listen to them and help alleviate their anxieties.

Arts in Burnett School: a Balm for the Pangs of Anguish and Low Achievement

Among the classes I shadowed and greatly appreciated was Miss. P.’s lesson. Miss. P. is putting forward a new approach to teaching arts which has so far proven to be indisputably efficient with both ordinary students and LSN. It is the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) method. This method of teaching uses arts such as drawing, origami, sculpture, music, and many others to teach core subjects such as languages, math and science. Miss. P.’s class greatly enjoyed her lessons. The following pictures are taken from Miss. P’s class.

The pencil and paper picture on the right is mine. That was my assignment when I attended Miss. P.’s lesson and was truly fascinated with her students’ talent and their enthusiasm to help me with the geometric lines I had to draw on my paper. My participation in Miss. P.’s art class has proven to me that arts, as a catharsis, have the ability to sooth tension, simplify what is complex in learning, and install a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.

The Artistic Face of Austin

If you do not embrace diversity, do not come to Austin. Similarly, if you are not art crazy, you will not bear living in this city which breathes art as it breathes air. Austinites are genuine artists. Museums, cinemas, art galleries and art shows are everywhere in Austin. Country music, dance lessons, visits to museums … are commonplace. They are among the best events you may taste when in Austin. Austinites adore visual art and grafitti as well. They draw pictures everywhere: on the walls of buildings, on the pavements, and on the roads. They write in different fonts and sizes. I saw around ten different types of writings displayed everywhere in Austin. Austin people use colors, as if each picture reflected the brightness of the present and the enchantment of the future. Picture number 4 below shows a cow: a symbol of Texas’ fertility and generous farms.

In museums such as the Blanton Museum in Austin and San Antonio Institute of Texan Cultures (SAITC), one can easily notice that both art and history have harmoniously merged, giving visitors that unique mixture of tasting art while still staying attentive to historical happenings. In fact, our trip to San Antonio was not merely an excursion to a place that we had not known before.

It was rather a voyage in the present and the past life of Texas and Texans, a deep insight in history gathered via the remnants of generations and generations of peoples (Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Welsh, Lebanese and so on) who chose Texas as their place of residence. Significantly enough, the last sentence in the video that we watched at SAITC was “Whenever you think of Texas, Think big.” History and art do prove it. The following pictures have been taken at SAITC.

Austin Transport System: The Visitor’s Guide to Austin’s Charm

My experience with Austin transportation is limited to its buses, for as a visitor and a foreigner, I could not find a means of transport that is more appropriate nor more user-friendly than the bus. In fact, like blood in veins, Austin buses circulate all day and night long, joining homes, people and jobs, and irrigating the city with people of all backgrounds: civil servants, students, tourists, and so forth.

Established as early as 1985, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or the Cap Metro, as it is commonly referred to, has ever since crossed lanes and lanes, facilitating people’s lives and their daily motion. In fact, the Capital Metro website (https://capmetro.org/facts/ ) releases the following facts about its buses:

The bus was our favorite means of transport and our guide to numerous places. We took it nearly daily, and we never got lost. Each time we took it was a new experience. Each time we got on it, we were more and more convinced of its being the emblematic miniature of the Austin society with all its diversity and richness. The Cap Metro does not only hold people, but it also overflows with references to culture and social codes of conduct. On all buses, and everywhere you look, signs such as “Priority seating for seniors and persons with disabilities,” “Watch your step,” “Stay safe. Do not cross in front of the bus,” “For your safety, please remain behind the white line. The bus is in motion,” “Don’t go in front of the bus” are constant reminders of the need to respect others and oneself. In fact, I read “Courtesy matters. It is the Law” in almost all buses, and the following sign is a reminder of the importance of sharing when living in a community.

Hence, if a person with disabilities needed to take the bus, it is the driver themselves who would rush to the door and usher them onto the bus, making sure they are safely seated in the place that is reserved to them. As foreigners seeking safe and sure ways of reaching our destinations, we frequently took the two buses shown in the picture below. They both pass by Dobie, the building where we were accommodated, and they also allow a large range of connections to numerous places in and around the city.

I am sure no one of us would forget the 801 and 803 Cap Metros and the kindness of the drivers every time we got on one of them.

Scooters in Austin: The Flavor of Austin’ Youth Life

The second distinctive feature of transport in Austin is the excessive use of the scooters. Some even claim that Austinites are the number 1 scooter users in the U.S.A. The number of scooters is increasing at a very rapid rate, reaching around 11,001 in 2018, according to the https://austin.curbed.com/.../austin-scooters-dockless-bikes website. And despite the criticism that scooter users repeatedly receive, due to accidents and traffic disruptions caused by scooters, the popularity of this means of transport is constantly on the rise, particularly among young Austinites. They are available on the pavements of almost all Austin roads. They are accessible at any time of the day. They are rapid and very easy to use. You just need one foot to squeeze through cars and buses towards your destination.        

The Cap Metro and the scooter are at the reach of any user. They are affordable, too. So if you love freedom and adventure, the scooter would be your choice, and if you are a fan of culture and diversity, take a bus, get cocooned on one of its seats and enjoy looking at people and places. You may hear announcements made in English then translated to Spanish. You may also hear people say: “Yeh, ven, ven, …the bus!” or “Gracias, Sir,” or “Aqui esta el autobus.” Do not be surprised or bewildered. That is simply Spanglish: a combination of Spanish and English language, another face of Austin’s diversity.

Conclusion

My article has got a twofold purpose: on the one hand, it tells about my educational experience in TIEC. On the other hand, it reveals my appreciation of Austin culture and way of life. Some may find my article biased and void of objectivity.

That is utterly true: I am biased because I loved the place and its people. My sincerity is my objectivity. Jane Austen once said: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” (Emma, 1815). But I loved Austin and Austinites, and I can but write positively about both. Those people opened their arms and hearts to us, visitors from overseas, before they opened any other gates.

We learned a great deal from them. We met an experienced staff in TIEC. They escorted us on myriad paths of discovery, learning and exploration. They allowed us visits to campuses, and we made the acquaintance of teachers and administrators.

I would only like to whisper to all those school administrators and educators we met: “You have all the possibilities to bring about the best students in the world. All you need is to strike that very balance between friendliness and efficiency, delicacy and soundness. You also have to remodel training and to think wiser about it. Allot greater importance to classroom communication, to student-student collaboration. Bear in mind that technology does not make man. It is man who makes it.” Diversity is Austin’s strength. Art and culture are its venue to the future. The city amazed me, and I wrote with that amazement.

Liz Holliday