There was something for everyone. Educators could pick up tricks and tools to improve their teaching. Staff members could learn how to improve their health and communication skills. And students of education could experience how the theory unfolds into practice.
The annual Mini-NESA conference took place on Friday, November 13, 2015, on the ACS campus, offering educators and staff alike professional development opportunities, through which they could learn about and share research-based practices in education, by attending and/or presenting workshops. NESA, which stands for Near East and South Asia, is a group of international American schools in this part of the globe that was created unofficially in the 1960s to be later formally established in the 1970s. NESA has since become a world-class organization that serves thousands of educators working in more than 100 American/international schools. With a mission to maximize student learning, NESA serves member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement based on the best practices of American and international education.
Teachers and education students from 58 different schools and the top universities in Lebanon attended the mini-NESA conference, in addition to dozens from the ACS community. Despite the instability in the country, the opening ceremony gathered about 300 participants, which organizers considered an impressive success. A minute of silence was observed out of respect for the victims of the terrorist attacks on a southern suburb of Beirut, which had taken place a day earlier.
Topics covered by the all-day event ranged from tricks for enhancing learning, such as the buddy system for improving vocabulary, and using games and technology in the classroom to make Arabic classes, (or any class, for that matter) more attractive to a young generation that is not so interested in its native language; to devising fair evaluation standards; to inspiring curiosity among kids and many more. Other sessions trained participants on enhancing their communication skills and building rapport, detoxifying their bodies, or even conducting self-breast exams for early cancer detection.
“When teachers teach other teachers it is much more effective than when consultants offer the same training, because teachers connect better with their peers,” said Hanadi Dayyeh, ACS Curriculum Coordinator, and a leading member of the mini-NESA organizing committee.
Keynote speaker David Chojnacki, NESA’s executive director, shared a series of inspirational quotes and ideas with participants.“Learning is uncomfortable. It takes you at the edge of your comfort zone, so you can be challenged,” said Chojnacki. “Education is a transactional business. You cannot say you taught something, if the person did not learn it.”
Reinforcing this message was ACS Artist-in-Residence Jesse Schlabach’s session on curiosity, in which she argued -- based on research-- that while exposing students to conflict and uncertainty may be uncomfortable for both students and teachers, it brings out the curiosity in students, allowing them to innovate and challenge convention. “We remember [things] better when we are curious,” Schlabach added, noting that curiosity allows everyone to overcome fear, which is a major obstacle for learning and innovating.
Schlabach also reminded everyone that people learn better if they are allowed to make mistakes. “Research has shown that even robots learn faster when they make mistakes and learn from them,” she said.
Meanwhile, teaching Arabic received much attention in this year’s mini-NESA, with at least three sessions offering tips on how to make Arabic attractive to students.
Middle School Arabic teacher Ruwaida Khalid Kaed Beyh shared some exciting technological tools that she had adapted from English into Arabic. These included websites such as spiderscribe.net, tagxedo.com, todaysmeet.com, eduplace.com, and myhrw.com, all of which could be used for a variety of subjects. “Many of these tools help turn a lesson into a fun, interactive game, which motivates students to give more in class, and learn better,” said Kaed Beyh, who said she noticed tangible and substantial improvements among her students, since adopting these tools a couple of years ago. “These tools help us develop students’ writing, comprehension, and analytical skills without them even noticing, because they feel as though they are playing,” she said. “An added plus is that they get to learn to type in Arabic, as well, since they need to use their computers to join in the class discussions.”
For participants who were less interested in pedagogy, a series of self-improvement workshops were on offer. They covered behavioral and health practices, or trained participants on how to create a website on Google, among others.
Alan and Marcelle Kairouz led workshops on communication and building rapport. Reminding everyone that successful ads are based on building rapport with the viewer and then making a sale, the Kairouzes underscored the importance of making a connection with one’s interlocutor in order to enhance one’s chances of persuading them of one’s ideas. One way to build rapport is to mimic a person’s demeanor, tone and pace of speech, and draw up a positive feeling deep within you by thinking of someone you love, so that this is reflected in your facial expressions, Alan Kairouz said. “You cannot fake it, though; you have to believe it,” he warned.
On the subject of diversity – one of NESA’s goals – Chojnacki acknowledged that people in Lebanon know more about diversity than most. To encourage more diversity, Chojnacki quoted his own son who grew up studying at international American schools all over the globe: “I always knew there were differences, but they did not make a difference,” his son had once told him. “This is how we build a culture of diversity, trust, and tolerance,” added Chojnacki.