SCHENECTADY — "Sorirart Biro'aitak" said May Saffar to her seventh-grade class at Central Park Middle School.
That means "nice to meet you" in Arabic. Schenectady City School District sixth- and seventh-grade students at Central Park and sixth-graders at Paige, Woodlawn and King schools are learning Arabic letters, phrases and culture this year. Seventh-graders are receiving daily instruction for 43 minutes and sixth-graders are meeting two or three times a week.
This Arabic class is part of the district's expanded language offerings. The district is starting year-round Chinese instruction in the seventh and eighth grades at Mont Pleasant Middle School and plans further Chinese offerings later.
Both are listed as critical languages by state and government officials.
Saffar, a native of Baghdad, Iraq, is teaching them the fundamentals of the language. She proceeded to write what looked like a cursive script on the board.
"Who can tell me how many letters we have in the Arabic language?" she then asked.
"Twenty-nine or twenty-eight," answered one student. Some forms of the language combine two distinct letters into one.
Saffar explained that Arabic is written in cursive form only and read in the reverse from English. "We write from right to left," she said.
The students practiced various phrases in pairs in Arabic such as "goodbye" and "What's your name?"
They then practiced writing a letter that looked like the symbol — > — with a dot on top of it and is equivalent to the letter "L."
She instructed the children to practice at home. "You are going to be better writers than your teacher, mark my words. My script is more functional," she said.
She checked the student's work to make sure the letters were crisp and that they did not pick up any bad habits.
After the writing lesson, Saffar spent a few minutes talking about the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. "It's really not a month of celebration," she said.
Rather, Saffar said it is a month of fasting. Practicing Muslims cannot eat or drink daily until sundown. They also pray and read the Quran. She said Muslims fast to develop self control.
"It is not to starve. During that, you are self-reflecting on other things. You are to watch what you say. You are to watch your behavior," she said. "Discipline is the main philosophy behind fasting the month of Ramadan."
The classroom bell ended Saffar's lecture.
Saffar has taught Arabic classes for the past three years at Hudson Valley Community College and also last year at Union College. She said middle school is a different environment. Instead of seeing the students maybe twice a week like in college, she is seeing them daily, which requires different lesson plans. Also, adults are independent learners, but this puts more responsibility on her and she wants to make sure her young students learn.
"As a mother, my maternal instinct jumps out constantly," she said.
Arabic is rated a level four language to learn on a scale of one to four. One particularly difficult aspect is that the words can take on different meanings depending on accent marks.
She said in addition to learning the language, she wants to impart bits of culture and history, especially when there sometimes may be misconceptions of Muslims.
"I really sense a hunger for information on all campuses," she said.
Twelve-year-old Alex Hariraj said he is enjoying learning the language. "I like the foreign sounds you have to make when you talk," he said.
Another classmate, 11-year-old Ethan Peterson, said he was a little apprehensive when he first learned he was going to take Arabic.
"My thoughts were ‘Oh God, this is going to be really hard,'" he said.
Not quite two weeks into the class, he said the classwork is not as bad as he thought. "I enjoy the writing. It's not like other languages so it's supposed to be harder to learn," he said.