May: Saudi Arabia and the Pedagogues

This post is in response to Lee Leonard’s “A Typical Day Teaching English in Saudi Arabia.”


Like the darling buds of May, Saudi Arabia is a perennial favourite of discussion for English teachers. Every year a new crop of teachers brave the unknown to come and experience the Magic Kingdom. But rough winds do shake, and many teachers don’t last long.

So when I saw a new article about teaching in Saudi Arabia I didn’t think much of it. I bookmarked it to read later. I come across these articles all the time: new teacher to Saudi Arabia (or his wife) trying to make sense of the mess he’s thrown himself in to. Even for the most experienced traveller, the culture shock one experiences here is very much like no other. But for me, it’s “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, and then came back again.” So it wasn’t until a colleague of mine in the UK sent me the same link and asked me what I thought about it, did I actually stop to read it. What I read was not surprising in the least, but no less disappointing. Read the article for yourself here.

When I first started reading I felt an immediate sense of empathy. His experiences echoed my own and that of other colleagues and bloggers– everything was true. The students were chronically late, had a penchant for fatty foods, and a general disdain for exertion both academic and physical. What I took issue with was the tone of the article and more importantly, his classroom management style.

The writer sounds a lot like myself when I first arrived in the Magic Kingdom back in 2013. I was naïve but ambitious. I felt that I had a mandate to bring my fresh and innovative Cantabrigian approaches to whip the next generation of Saudi learners into shape. I mean, that’s why they hired me, right? Lol. Without going into much detail, it was a challenge to say the least and I felt like everything, from the students to the administration to my own colleagues, was against me at times. CELTA and Delta don’t prepare you for a place like this. They assume your students (and higher ups) have already gone through a ‘western’ education and are disciplined and motivated enough to appreciate your efforts. It comes as a shock, then, when there is so much resistance to your approach. I felt I understood the author’s frustration.

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It starts when he asks a student that has come in late, “Would you like some tea?” I thought they were doing a functions lesson on eating out at a restaurant. “Would you like some cake?” he continued. But as this went on it started to take on a more degenerate tone culminating with “this… is a classroom not a coffee shop.” It doesn’t stop there however, but it should have. He continues to berate the student with another line of sarcastic questioning and asking pedantic and abstract grammar rules. A less experienced me would have cheered this behaviour on. “You show him!” I probably would have said to myself, silently nodding approval in his direction. But this kind of heavy handedness, this kind of rule-stickling, causes more stress than its supposed worth.  And no “rule-stickling is not a real word, but it should be. We as teachers here are indeed in the business of teaching English, and also academic/study skills, professionalism, etc. because they do, for the most part, lack these skills. But we are not here to humiliate and degrade students. This teacher ate up 5-7 minutes (maybe even more) of precious class time to make an example of this student rather than reward the students who did show up on time with his full attention. Aside from suffering this indignity, this student will have to write “I will not be late” 15 times on a piece of paper which he’ll have to turn into said teacher. How dare this student forget “one of the 23 class rules, he signed a pledge to uphold”! Mind you, these are not children. They are college age 18-21.

Also, what does the student’s weight or health have to do with anything?

He admits “It may seem that I am being an overbearing asshole, but my class works, and the kids love it.” This may be true in the short term, but being a pedant or having a reputation for pettiness will not serve well in the long run. If a typical day involves going over the “23 rules” and chastising students publicly for relatively minor indiscretions, you’re doing it wrong. You would be surprised how far a stern look and polite gesturing will go. In my experience, sarcasm rarely achieved more than a few cheap laughs and a small boost to my ego for the day. This, at the cost of mutual trust and respect. Taking a step back, I know I wouldn’t appreciate being in this student’s position, especially as an adult. I’m not really sure what the point of this article was besides to make a caricature out of the country and this poor student.

I used to employ tactics similar to his. Not as extreme, but I was known as the “hard” teacher. Some students respected me, but the vast majority resented me. I blamed their resentment on a lack of understanding the intent of my methods. Which for the most part was true, but I never fully accepted that if I expected them to change I, too, would need to change my methods to reach them. That’s my job. That’s not to say it’s always the teachers fault but I think our belief in what we do and how we do what do often interferes with the reality in the classroom. Sometimes we need to take a step back and critically re-evaluate our roles and our methods to make sure we’re as effective as we can be. This is especially true in a new country and with new students.

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(one of my lessons on nationalities…obviously the pre-teaching stage of the activity.)

 

Maybe we, as British or American (or Canadian, Irish, Australian, South African, etc.) teachers should stop looking at Saudi culture as a problem to be fixed. Who are we to think we can change a society  or the institutions it’s made of?  Regardless of our qualifications or years of experience, we are not messiahs. Yes, Saudization charges us with equipping our learners with the skills they need to take their country into the 21st century, but as long as we continue to infantalise the young people of this country, we can never expect them to realise their potential. Or maybe that’s been the point all along.

For more information about teaching in Saudi Arabia check out this powerpoint or leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch. Also check out my post 7 Taboos in the Saudi Classroom.

Next post: British versus American teacher-training styles

February: Language Learning in the Digital Age: Going Back to the Roots

February is an odd month. Not just because it’s the only month with less than 30 days or that most people find the first “R” highly problematic, but because of its origins. February, unlike many months of the year, isn’t named after a god, number, or person. Instead, it’s etymology lies in a Roman festival of purification. As with most Roman festivals, this involved copious amounts of food and sex under the auspices of divine favour. It should come as no surprise that the remnants of these festivals still survive in the Western world. Both Mardi Gras (which is Fat Tuesday in the US or Pancake day in some countries including the UK) and Valentine’s Day are a testament to how tradition endures through modernity even though original meaning is ignored or completely lost.

Wolf-Moon

The history of the month of February is pretty fascinating, and then things get really weird.

Contemporary trends in education are not unaffected by this theme and I would even go so far as to say that they embrace them. Case in point, we are in the middle of the largest shake-up in education in recent years. No, it’s not Dogme, or the Flipped Learning, or Demand High, or what have you—though I will concede that those are part of a larger trend of going back to the origins of language teaching. In fact, it’s something much more concrete, or should I say, digital. A big change is happening, and very few of us teachers are even aware of it. It’s coming from the other side of the teacher’s desk and outside of the language school altogether.

As long as the internet has been around there have been websites dedicated to explaining basic phrases, conjugations, and the finer points of English grammar. Some of the even better websites had (and still have) quizzes, flash cards, Pelmanisms, and other games to reinforce learning. Though the graphics got marginally better over the years with the advent of Flash and higher connection speeds to accommodate all those words moving around, it essentially remained an extension of the classroom. It was usually something on a professor’s university or school website to supplement the day’s lesson. Then in about 2011-2012 apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and MindSnacks appeared on our smartphones and began to revolutionise how people approached language learning. Now, in 2016, these apps are being used by millions around the world to learn languages, with Duolingo alone boasting 100 million users. This really isn’t surprising once you consider the increasing ubiquity of smartphones and the practical, commercial, and recreational benefits of language learning. But does this mean teachers and classrooms will be obsolete in 5 to 10 years? Is this really the best way to learn a language? What’s really different between these apps and the clunky websites of yesteryear?

 

The short answer to these questions is no, maybe, and not much.

 

OB-WF013_langap_DV_20130201133933-1 (source: Duolingo)

Despite their popularity and commercial success (Duolingo is valued at just under a billion dollars), most of these apps have very glaring shortcomings. I’ve only mentioned the most popular, but there are (depending on the language) hundreds of apps and they all essentially use the Grammar Translation Method with a dash of Behaviourism. The basic premise is the user is given a text and then has to translate that text idiomatically into or out of the target language. Simple stuff. If the answer is correct, you get a bright green check, a pleasant chime, and you move on. If it’s incorrect, you get a big red “X”, a jarring chime, and (if it’s a good app) an explanation on why it’s incorrect. You’ll normally have to come across that text again until you get it right. This method has fallen out of favour by most ELT practioners since it’s seen as “not communicative” and a bit old-school, though there has been a small resurgence of interest in this method, possibly aided by the popularity of language learning apps. However, it’s not hard to see why so many teachers shun this method. Take for example this sentence from Duolingo:

 

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When would you ever use this in real life conversation (or ever)? Just like our parents’ school books, we are all too often given a random assortment of sentences in the target language to translate with no real context or real-world application.

Other apps like Memrise, rely on mnemonic devices and visual stimuli to help you memorise language. Ed Cooke, one of the founders of Memrise had this to say about the app: “Learning should always be emotional; you should always be delighted and proud of what you’ve learned.” The problem here is the focus on memory. I feel that, while the intent and research methods that underpin the app are well-founded and well-meaning but there’s still this element of rote memorisation which we as teachers have tried steer our students away from and instead find more authentic ways to make the language stick. You can find a full list of criticism and debate here.

 

 

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 (source: Memrise)

The best app that I’ve found for language learning is sadly one of the least popular. At 5 million downloads, Mindsnacks pales in comparison to Dulingo. It was only created for iPhone/iPad and they have since re-branded and moved into brain training apps . If you have an iPhone, it’s still available for download on the App Store. What I liked about it was that it wasn’t a one-trick pony. It practiced and tested not only your memory and spelling, but it also added word and sentence transformations, image recognition, and error recognition. I felt it was coherent, methodologically robust, and polished which is something I haven’t come across in any other app.

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 (source: MindSnacks)

So why then, if this was such a superior product, wasn’t it more successful? The answer to that, and why so many other apps have failed to breakthrough to mainstream success is that they failed to capitalise on the social element of language learning. Even though all of the elements for learning are there (spaced repetition, audio and visual reinforcement, measurable progress, etc.) Duolingo and Memrise are built on the premise that they are driven by their community of users and that includes: students and teachers, linguists, wannabe grammarians, hardcore polyglots, and the casual learner. The vast majority of the content is created, vetted, and scrutinsed by that community and the discourse around that process reifies this online community– which is something other apps and even schools have failed to do. In a way, those stupid sentences I showed as an example above, become the talking points on the Duolingo and Memrise forums and Facebook groups and they take on their own meaning within those communities.

 

It’s a very democratic and organic experience but it’s not for everyone. While people do arrange social events via these apps, the majority of the interaction remains in cyberspace and virtual forums. Many still (thankfully) prefer a more visceral language learning experience. This keeps us employed but places a unique onus on teaching professionals to remain not only responsive to our students needs, but also relevant as the lines between teacher and student, online and offline continue to blur.

 

Next month… beware the Ides of March.. or should I say Nones? In the spirit of Mars, I talk more about gamification as well as being competitive in the ELT market.

January: Doors, Deltas, Dilemmas

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In conventional wisdom, January is named for the Roman god Janus, the god of open doors and transitions. He is depicted as having two faces representing the past and present. As I  enter my 9th year in teaching next month, I look back on the wisdom of my mentors, tutors, and teacher-trainers, starting with my CELTA and what that has meant for me for the Delta and beyond.

I remember when I started my CELTA at IH Newcastle in August 2008, my course tutor told us, “DELTA opens doors.” It was the ultimate qualification of the ELT teacher bar, perhaps, an MA TESOL. Since then I had my eyes set on getting one, becoming a senior teacher, CELTA trainer, and eventually a Delta trainer/course assessor. Fast forward to January 2014. I felt like my career was stuck in the doldrums–an unfulfilling routine of present perfect and communicative activities. Remembering the words of my tutor,  I started preparing for the Module 1 exam and the extended essay for Module 3. The Delta would open the door to new positions, new challenges, and more money. By December of 2015, after receiving my results for Modules 1 & 2, I felt that that door was shut.

Just as it was true in 2008, the Delta still opens doors for many. But getting through that door is the challenge in and of itself. Despite my best effort, I didn’t quite make it. That, coupled with being the victim of racist attack, and subsequently losing my position at IH Bydgoszcz due to the severity of my injuries, spiraled me into a deep depression. I began to question whether I was cut out for teaching. As professionals (especially in the teaching profession) we take great pride in our credentials. They give us credibility and authority in an increasingly crowded and competitive industry. So what happens to the ‘failed’ candidate? Telling potential employers I’ve done the course seems misleading at best but at worst dishonest. It’s not that I had learned nothing–quite the opposite in fact (though  I still have a few misgivings about the course). The experience it seems, has left me straddling the doorway, one foot towards my goal, and one foot back where I was before.

Like Janus, I look back to where I was before and look forward to the future of my career with a new sense of purpose. This year I’ll be looking at where things fell apart on the course, as mentioned in my last post, but with special attention to specific Cambridge Delta criteria. I’ll also be looking into the future of teacher training, digital media in ELT, and old methods that have recently been given new life. So here is to opening new doors in 2016.

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5 Do’s and Dont’s of Delta Module 2 (Weeks 3-8)

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In my naïveté I thought it would be possible to update weekly on my progress through the Delta course. How wrong was I! Work started to pile up by Week 3 and I had more or less lost steam by Week 5. It’s all done and dusted now and we won’t get results until December, but to be honest I’m not expecting a pass. In any case, I’ve come up with a list of Do’s and Dont’s of what you can and should do if you want to be more successful on Module 2. These are based not only on my experience and those of the other candidates at my centre here in Poland, but also conversations from other Deltoids at centres in Greece, the UK, and Thailand.

  1. DON’T do the the pre-course tasks. This sounds counter-intuitive but they in no way prepare you for your assessed coursework. This may be nominal requirement from Cambridge. These are usually a series of language awareness/analysis tasks. While well-intentioned, your tutors were probably not involved in crafting the pre-course tasks, they probably don’t know what they entailed, and the material will most likely be covered in an input session anyway (which you are not assessed for). The best way to prepare for your course is to have a look online for previous LSAs (Language Systems/Skills Assignments) to get a sense for the style that Cambridge want and also what will be required of you (Check out Academia.edu they have a large database of essays you can access for free). Depending on how much time you have, you could try writing a few drafts to get a feel for how to get your point across effectively given the word count.  The other thing is start writing lesson plans. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a Senior Teacher, DoS, or teacher-friend who can go through it with you. At the Delta level, it’s not enough to just do something that kind of makes sense for 60 minutes. You’ll need to show a critical awareness of why you’re doing what you’re doing (think Lesson Aims and Stage Aims) and also the students will need to leave having learned something worthwhile. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a battery of “go-to” lessons that just “work.” You’ll probably not have a lesson plan for this though. Make one. Do a post-hoc write-up of what you’ve done and try to fill in those aims.
  2. DON’T compare yourself to others. This is a trap quite a few candidates on my course fell into. To get onto a Delta course you have to prove that you belong there. As such, there will be some very strong candidates in your cohort. They just get it. They know how to write good aims, they know how to manage a class, they’re always on top of things. Just remember, it’s not a competition. You aren’t being ranked by Cambridge and your tutors (if they are as professional as mine were) won’t compare you to the other candidates either. You’ll see ways of doing things you never thought of before and if you’re like me, it can make you feel wholly inadequate. The best thing to do is to learn from and support everyone on your cohort. Have lesson jams, share ideas over lunch, read and critique each others lesson(s) (plans). But remember, you got onto the course for a reason. Observe others, learn from them, but be yourself.
  3. DON’T be afraid to ask for help. Even “experienced” teachers could stand to be knocked down a few pegs. There are a lot of things we didn’t know we didn’t know about. As a matter of pride, asking questions or for help might be seen as a sign of weakness. It’s not. At the end of the day this course is down to your own development. Take full advantage of the resources at your centre. This isn’t just the school library, it includes your tutors, the other candidates, your learners, and possibly other Delta-qualified teachers at your centre. This is a unique opportunity to “Ask all of the questions you were too afraid to ask” and experiment before you go back to wherever it is or whatever job you came from. Your tutors may be cold and stand-offish, the other candidates may be unfriendly, but you’re paying for this experience, make the most of it. As the Geordies say, “Shy bairns get nowt!”
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  4. DON’T fall behind. Good time management is absolutely essential. Again, good time management is absolutely essential. You will most likely have to attend the input sessions on your course, and these will sadly eat up the better part of the day which you could be using to do your planning or writing your LSA. Between all of the assignments flying around and the accompanying (excessive!) paperwork, you’ll need to account for just about every waking hour of the day (and sometimes sleeping hours as well). On the intensive course, the workload can be downright unreasonable–especially given that there are no allowances for slips in quality. If you’re the old-fashioned pen and paper type, get a planner. If you’re more MacBook than workbook, use applications like iCal to manage your workload. It’s easy to spend too much time on lesson planning– 15-30 page lesson plans in addition to your LSA is normal, at the expense of just about anything else really. So, whatever you use, staying on top of things is first and foremost.
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  5. DO take care of yourself. If you’re doing the intensive 8-week course, it will probably be the most stressful 2 months you’ve done in your entire career. At least once a week, make a point to do something you enjoy, or explore the city where you’re doing your course, or just nothing. You’d be surprised by how many candidates forget to breathe after Week 3. But again, not comparing yourself to others and managing your time well, will keep stress levels in check. Stress leads to errors in judgement, oversights in planning, and bad rapport with the other candidates and your learners. All of these you can’t afford to let happen. If you ever feel yourself being overwhelmed, remember why you’re doing the course in the first place and breathe.

If you’d like further reviews of the Delta course, you can find some insightful reading herehere, and here.

Did you have a similar experience on the Delta? Is there anything else to add to this list? Comment below, it’s free!

11950835_10101888177045093_568277467_n From my LSA4 Writing lesson, students wrote an online review of a restaurant and “posted” them on Yelp. Afterwards they read each others and “liked” their favourite.

Delta Module 2 Week 2: The Going Gets Tougher

Dzień Dobry, Wrocław calling!

11695785_10101823046477273_5051946845036992849_n We’ve just finished week 2 here at IH Wrocław and things have definitely reached a more frenetic pace. I have been told and reassured however that after this week, things get more manageable. During this week we have completed or Professional Development Assignment (PDA) Stage 2, Finished all of our Developmental lessons, and been tasked with our first Language Systems Assignment. If it seems like a lot of work, that’s because it is. During the day there are input sessions from 12-3 and we’re observing our colleagues from 4-6 (or 6:15-8:15 for group 2). So there’s really not a lot of time to focus on incorporating the input sessions into your actual lessons just yet, I hope the idea is that we’ll have time before our first assessed lesson next week but we shall see.

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So far we’ve had input sessions on lesson shapes (TTT & PPP), clarifying and analysing target language, and phonology. Fridays are our 1-1 tutorials with our tutors to discuss our LSA’s and general feedback.

I have to say the workload is overwhelming. I haven’t had to write anything academic since I finished my MA 5 years ago, so switching gears is a bit of a shock to the system. Fortunately all of the candidates are supportive of each other, and we spend some of our (very) limited down time sharing lesson ideas, journal articles, and resources with each other. And of course there’s always the moral support over a glass of wine at the end of the day. It’s nice to be in a community of professionals who are passionate about learning and teaching!

I was asked last week by @anthonyash “What were you expecting?” To be honest, I thought it would be more experimental and lesson planning would be more hands on. I imagined lesson jamming and really pushing the boundaries of teaching. The lesson jamming hasn’t happened yet, but my boundaries have been pushed in other ways. The course is really more about making you a solid, proficient teacher. I was expecting to have to come up with lessons á la Thornbury or Judy Gilbert, but that’s simply not the case. Like I mentioned earlier, we spent a lot of time on the basic lesson shapes, so the idea is to have a good pedagogical grounding rather than collecting more bells and whistles (though sometimes there are bells and whistles!).

7 Innocuous Topics That Are Taboo in a Saudi ELT Classroom

There are some things that are quite known about living and working in Saudi Arabia. No drugs, no alcohol, no mixing of the sexes, everything shutting down for prayer 5 times a day. These things, with time, we get used to as a matter of routine. But there are a few things that I had never thought were up for negotiation. I’ve compiled a list of 7 surprising things I’ve encountered over the past 2 years of teaching in the Kingdom.


1. Names

Even a simple question like “What’s your name” may elicit a complicated response. For a native speaker, it comes out as a long string of syllables: “Abulsalamalotaibi.” Which led to a lot of instances of me saying “I’m sorry?” Students usually say their full name (first and tribal) when meeting for the first time, instead of just their first name, which is what we expect. With time, finding the junctures becomes easier and something like Abulsalamalotaibi becomes  Abdulsalam Al-Otaibi. In addition to their first name, most Saudis include their father’s name (patronymic) as well as their tribal or family name. This doesn’t follow the ‘traditional’ first name/last name framework. What complicates things further is that men with children may also be known as “father of [son’s name]” in Arabic. It’s important to know that most Saudis are fiercely proud of their tribal filiations and will most likely be able to tell you the history of their tribe and associated stereotypes.

On the topic of names, it’s also taboo to ask for the names of female relatives–particularly that of the student’s mother or sister. We’ve done several “Family Tree” type exercises and students will sometimes leave these blank. I always give them the option of using a pseudonym if they don’t feel comfortable sharing.


2. Addresses

This was interesting. In the books we use as part of our curriculum, one of the assignments asks students to write a business card with their name, job title, address, etc. I noticed after some time, the students would leave the address section blank. At first, I was curious. Everyone has an address. I would ask “where do you live?” and time after time I would get the same vague responses. We would get to the district level of the city but their knowledge would taper off somewhere near the main streets or “cross streets” (intersections). Eventually I stopped asking. It wasn’t until about a year in, a friend told me: the houses and families came first, and then came the roads. It would seem that the region developed so quickly, roads and through-fares were more of an afterthought, a means rather than an end in themselves as is often the case in the Anglophone world. I think for me (and most materials & coursebook writers), the roads always come first then the houses, so it would be unthinkable for a building or house to not occupy a specific space and number on a road.


3. Birthdays

Birthdays are a tricky subject as well. Many times, “how old are you?” takes longer than it really should. In Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam, celebrating birthdays is frowned upon. Therefore, many students go by the year they were born for their age, but they struggle to recall the exact date (mind you they use the Hijiri as well as the Gregorian Calender). Things are changing, however, and more students are aware of their birthdays, but you won’t find any birthday parties at school. Not in public at least.


4. Holidays (in general)

On top of birthdays, celebrating, well, anything, is generally frowned upon as well for religious reasons. That means most British and American holidays are off-limits. I remember last year, I wanted to celebrate my favourite holiday, Thanksgiving. Even though it’s secular and mainly focused on generally universal themes of family, friendship, and mindfulness, we weren’t allowed to do anything about it. At the last minute, we were given permission to put on a programme for it, but we had to change the name to “Day of Giving Thanks” and play down the whole “holiday” part of it. The same goes for New Years, Valentine’s Day, and of course anything Christian, like Easter and Christmas.


5. Music

Also frowned upon is music. This includes background jingles. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all students. You can find music on the radio, TV, or the internet and it’s not uncommon to see students plugged into their iphones, bobbing along to some tunes. However, there have been several instances where students complain or walk out if they hear music during a video or audio recording. It’s not usually the singing, but the accompaniment that causes the most offence. In any case, I’ve been advised not to include any music in my lessons.


6. Faces

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Showing faces (particularly of women) whether in pictures or on video is also controversial. Outside of the classroom, women are encouraged to cover their faces while in public. Things are a bit more liberal on the East (Khobar) and West (Jeddah) coasts and you’ll find women only wearing a hijab (or no covering if they aren’t Saudi). Take a look at the pictures. One is from the book we use as part of our curriculum. The other is from a shopping mall. When using pictures with people, it’s good to use some discretion.


7. Academic Integrity

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Not really a taboo but cheating is a widespread and generally tolerated (if not expected) practice in many Saudi schools. It’s been a challenge in my current job to instill a sense of integrity and get my students to stop copying answers from the back of the book. There have been many times when a student has written “Student answers”  or “model answer” during topic writing exercises. At the very least, I try to tell them if they’re going to cheat, at least do it well and don’t get caught doing it!

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That being said, attitudes are changing rapidly, especially as the younger generation gains more exposure to the rest of the world via social media. Many students are quite relaxed about most of the taboos and are gaining an awareness of outside practices. Still, I’ve been caught off guard by some of my more liberal students who listen to hip-hop, but will quickly turn the page of their book if there’s a picture of an uncovered girl there.