Today concludes somewhat of an experiment in my pedagogy. In my AP World History class, I completely “outsourced” the unit on Islam to students and devoted a week and a half of class time to practicing skills, analyzing documents, and teaching essay writing.


AP World History class gets lesson on Islam from Pakistan

The unit culminated today with a live teleconference with Pakistan that led into a Harkness discussion. The student in Pakistan, a practicing Muslim named Abdullah, answered our questions about Islam based on our reading of the text.


Students ask questions that arose from their reading about Islam in the textbook.

Adbullah told us about his Haj to Mecca, cited the Koran in Arabic, and fielded our historical and theological questions about Islam. I was very pleased with my students’ intelligent questions,their politeness, and the level of gratitude they showed him at the conclusion.


Our guest talking about Islam and patriarchy, then telling us how he accompanied his mother on the Haj to Mecca

What I found most interesting was his description of the Shia Sunni split, which he described as a divide between democratic and dynastic politics providing the basis for today’s Islamic democracies. Incredible POV opportunity. Several students were able to synthesize what they learned from this experience with their textbook knowledge, and brought both to bear upon our Harkness discussion today.

Looking forward to speaking with China in two weeks.


My teaching about the fall of communism this week was supplemented by a live video conference with students living in the former Soviet Union.

Conference with Tajikistan on the Fall of the Soviet Union. We also compared American and Tajik education.

Conference with Tajikistan on the Fall of the Soviet Union. We also compared American and Tajik education.

Tajik students from Qurgonteppa collected oral histories from their parents who lived through this event, then talked to mine about what it was like from the inside. I have been incorporating skype into my classroom since 2008 and have found that students not only get excited about the novelty of the experience, but get perspectives on world events much different than their own. Some of my best “teachable” moments have come from the surprise my students have had during these international exchanges.

These students in Korea told us the US was hypocritical for bailing out corporations in 2008 because the US and IMF would not allow Korea to do the same thing after the Asian currency crisis of 1998.

Korean students in Seoul told us the US was hypocritical for bailing out corporations in 2008 because the US and IMF would not allow South Korea to do the same thing after the Asian currency crisis of 1998.

For example, today my students asked the Tajiks who they thought the best political leader of the Soviet Union was . From the American point of view, it was astonishing to hear the Tajiks  debate among themselves whether this honor should fall on Lenin or Stalin. It was even more surprising when they unanimously agreed that Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost, was the worst. But after the video exchange ended, this gave me the perfect opportunity to explain to my class the historical reasons for this different perspective. No textbook reading could have ever hooked them into content as these video conferences have.

Although the outcome of these video conferences is not always as serendipitous as it was today, they have injected my classroom with excitement and real world relevance more than anything I have ever done.

These students in China explained why the issue of Taiwan is so important to them.

Chinese students explained why the issue of Taiwan is so important to them.

From Chinese students we learned their perspectives on Taiwan and the Dali Lama; from Koreans, how US policies affect people’s lives there; and from Russians, their side of the story regarding the conflict with Georgia in 2008. (My classes have also had sustained connections with students in Germany, Turkey and Greece.) In some cases, these encounters have embarrassed my students about their ignorance of the world compared to their international peers, and motivated them to learn more. Most importantly, they give my students the curiosity to ask why opinions and beliefs can be so different outside of the United States. And as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To caste answers like stones at minds that have never asked the questions is the greatest pedagogical mistake.”

The following entries in my blog represent my State Department Fellowship to Tajikistan in the Spring of 2011. During this time I got to experience the most hospitable culture I have ever known, meet people I will never forget, and fill what was formerly an unfamiliar place on a map with living memories, faces, tastes and experiences. I am a better person because of this trip, and the American students who come through my classroom will know this place better because of this experience.

By the way, the government requires me to post the following proviso regarding my blog entries for the trip they funded:

This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the grantee’s own and do not represent the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program, the International Leaders in Education Program, IREX, or the U.S. Department of State.

Ok, now on to the experience . . .

One of my goals for this trip was to connect the Tajik school with my own via webcam. I had recently completed a graduate degree on the use of video conferencing for international collaboration, and Tojiddin and I saw this as a way give his English students practice with native speakers, and my students a chance to learn about another culture. I have done this with many other countries but this was the first time I had ever seen my own classroom via webcam from the other side of the world. 

It was a great success. The moment the connection was made was magic, as I saw my students in America appear before me. You could hear excitment on both sides of the world. 

When the conversations began, there was a little shyness on both sides.  It can be intimidating getting in front of the webcam. But students began to talk. I think one of the most positive things for the Tajik students was having their English understood by native speakers. Tojiddin and I have discussed setting this up again when I return home for more of the conferences.

These pictures pretty much speak for themselves.

Tojiddin, me, and Madina


Desert, not too far from Afghanistan


An oasis of 44 springs in the desert


Mr. Nurali shows some of the delicious bread his wife made for us

I had a remarkable day. After morning classes, we went out of the city and I shared in a veritable feast with the men of the village. There must have been 20 of us, siting Tajik style on the floor, with more food spread out in front of us that I have seen in a long time. It was expained to me that I was participating in a Mulsim tradition for a deseased member of the village. This feast takes place in intervals of one week, 21 days, one month, 6 months, and then one year after the death of a loved one. It was a rich feast of Osh, meats, fruits, vegetables and sweets.


Bread baking in a communal oven

After this meal we went to the home of Mr. Nurali, and English teacher from my school. Here again was another feast. The family showed me how Tajik bread was baked by pressing the dough on the inside of a wood-fired oven. Like everthing there, it was delicious.


As the meal went on, leaders and educators of the community came and joined us. We ate and shared some vodka as the men cited Tajik poetry about friendship and hospitality. With Tojiddin acting as our translator, I had a remarkable conversation with these men. We shared information about our countries, culture, and history. What surprised me the most was their negative attitude toward former Soviet leader Gorbachev. Gorbachev,  theylamented, was responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, an even they considered a major calamity. As stated earlier, the Soviet Union provided Tajiks with stability and an social infrastructure. After its demise, inequality

Food, spirits, poety, and great conversation with leaders of the community

and crime increased (although crime was declined since the 1990s). I saw abandoned factories in ruin and the roads were in need of repair. I was told that during the Soviet Union water, electricity, gas, and even air-conditioning were stable. It’s amazing how travel can open us up to view events from more than just the perspective we are accustomed to.


Most Americans will never have the privilege of visiting Tajikistan, and for my time in this country I am so grateful. I really didn’t know what to expect here in terms of how things looked, topography, landscapes, etc. I can say now that there is no way to generalize its charms (but isn’t that what reality is always like?). It is a land of contrasts, of mountains, fresh sparkling springs and rivers, trees and deserts. For me the deserts were the most inspiring because they were nothing like I had ever seen. Driving to the southern part of the country, I had to ask my driver and host to pull over to let me take some pictures. As hospitable Tajik hosts, of course the obliged me.

Here is a small sample of the beauty and charm of Tajkistian . . .

From the city center, you can see the mountains in the background


Tamerlane, the man who restored the Mongol empire, was defeated on the rolling hills of Central Asia in Tajikistan


Here is the river on which the city depends. To the left of me is Mr. Nurali, English teacher in whose home I shared an excellent meal.


These women and children agreed to pose with me in this picture.

Tojiddin (my hosting teacher) took me to visit a Lyceum, or private school, across town today. These schools charge tution and generally have more resources than the public or comprehensive schools.

Students standing to greet me in an English class. They are grouped according to level, not grade. The teacher is in the back.

Here again, I was given a royal welcome by the teachers, staff, and students. Students here, as in school #9 where I co-teach, are enthusiastic and most are eager to practice their English. I occurred to me how my native language is seen by so many in the world as a key to a better future, a way to become more integrated in the global system. I remembered in the Istanbul airport when the staff wanted to make an annoucement to everyone waiting to board the plane that they instinctively used English to address as many people as possible. This observation is usually lost to Americans who simply take English for granted and expect it to have preceeded them everywhere they go in the world. Learning English has great significance for these students and it was my pleasure to be a small part of it.

My general introduction to English classes here was to tell some things

Tojiddin, the Lyceum English teacher and I with students.

about myself, where I am from, about my family and what my hobbies are. When the students returned this information to be about themselves I learn much about their lives and culture. Family is very important to Tajiks and they greatly respect the order and patriarchy of traditional family structures. In terms of music, they seemed to like both their Tajik artists as well as well some well known American pop music and movies. Globalization has not diminished their love of their own country, and they proudly talked about their national heritage, foods, musicians and poets. Naturally the boys all loved soccer (football) but what surprised me was how many children loved to play volleyball. Basketball was also very popular. From one side of the world to the other, no matter our cultural or historical differences, there are enough similarities bewteen us to unite us in the common lot of humanity. Cultural exchanges always bring out the idealist in me.

The English teacher I co-taught with

I experienced many aspects of the Tajik educational system within the first two days of my stay here. I co-taught classes from the moment I got into Qurghonteppa and met the Minister of Methology on my first day. Moreover, I had the opportunity to visit a university and address an English class on the topic of American English and educational systems. Although there were some differences, I found their system generally to be much closer to the American system than the Asian schools I have visited on previous grants.

Answering questions about American Education at the university

The Tajik classrooms are teacher-centered and students show a great deal of respect to teachers. When I walked in to any classroom, the students all stood up and greated me with an welcoming “salom.” Yet there is a relaxed and informal feel as well. Like in my classes, students sometimes forget their books, and went to get them at the beginning of class and students like to text during class, but not nearly to the extent that we have in America. Additionally, the students liked getting involved in hands-on learning. To teach them about American holidays, I walked outside the classroom and had students knock and shout “Trick or Treat!” after which I gave them candy with small American flags. They really seemed to love that. I was envious at how small some of their classes were, and thought about how my substitute teacher was dealing with my 30+ classes back in America.

One major difference is the centralization of curriculum. Every subject had a detailed plan which included lesson objectives, methodology and even homework assignments.

Tajik elementary students presented me with their pictures

I was very happy after meeting and talking to the Minister of Methodology with Tojiddin. He informed me of the help their school district had received from the US embassy. I was pleased to know that my country was involved in helping Tajikistan with resources to improve their education. I felt like it was, although indirectly, some way to return some of the kindess I had received from them.

Tajik gas station. There are modern ones, but they can't be used when the electricity is off.

During my first day in Tajikistan two different impressions began to form that became increasingly powerful for the duration of my stay: the lack of material culture juxaposed with the rich sociability of its people, both of which I regard in sharp contrast to American culture.

I read before I got here that Tajikistan is one of the poorest of the Soviet Republics. The country was ravished by a civil war after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it hasn’t regained some of the stability and infrastructure it had in Soviet times. We had electricty on average about 2-3 hours each day, and this included the school where I was working. There were some places where garbage was thrown out into the streets. But on the other hand, the culture possessed a sense of social and communal health that American society lacks.

Enjoying a feast and Tajik hospitality at the home of Tojiddin's parents

For example, in the USA we often tell someone to “make yourself at home,” by which we mean, to act as if they were a part of the household. Nice, but to be a part of the household is, by definition, not to be a guest. Rather than granting permission for visitors to serve themselves at will, the Tajik people endow them with a highly elevated status. They serve their guests, wait on them, observe carefully to see if there is any need or comfort that can be addressed; they make their guests feel like royalty. I had the privilege to be the beneficiary of that kindness today at the parents of Tojiddin, my hosting teacher. I was introduced to Osh, a delicious meal of rice, herbs, some vegetables, oil and meat.

This sociability exists in spite of–perhaps in part because of–the lack of creature comforts. The scareness of electricity keeps the children outside, playing games together until darkness comes. I can hear the laughter and shouting of children playing games together, a welcomed alternative to the soliptic world of the American child, eating microwaved food in front of a video game or TV. The shouts I hear right now in the dusk remind me of my childhood.

Osh, the Tajik national dish. Simply delicious.

I can honestly say, that the Tajik people seem to be the most hospitable and sociable of any place I have ever been. Their help and concern in getting my luggage to me, their attentiveness to every need and comfort of guests, and their warm conversation and social interaction: in this lies their treasure. I’ll take this over our creature comforts any day.

June 2018
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