Instructor Adly Mirza calls on his students by their Arabic names in a lively "Jeopardy!"-style game that gets the unfamiliar language rolling off their tongues in this portable classroom at Campbell High.
"Fi beiti sita ghurf," one girl ventures, after a momentary huddle with her team. Mirza promptly shoots her down with a loud, verbal buzzing sound, and the students burst out laughing. She was close: She should have said "saba" (seven), not "sita" (six), as in, "My house has seven rooms."
After just four months in the first Arabic-language class offered in a Hawaii high school, the teenagers are speaking, singing and even writing the swirling script of the Arab world, learning from each mistake along the way. With news from Egypt taking center stage, the students are able to make out some Arabic words on signs appearing in television reports.
"It's like an 'Aha!' moment, when you see it in the media and you can read it," said senior Chale Turner. "You're less likely to assume things and be judgmental."
Added sophomore Kayla Smallwood: "It's super-difficult in the beginning but it's like a hill. Once you get over it, you get so many rewards."
Students earn social studies elective credit for the course, Arabic Language and Global Leadership, held after school on the Ewa Beach campus with support from three nonprofits. The curriculum was created by OneWorld Now! of Seattle, which promotes strategic languages and leadership for underserved youth. The Pacific and Asian Affairs Council administers the program in Hawaii, and it is funded by the Qatar Foundation International. The class meets three times a week, twice for Arabic lessons and once for leadership training provided by PAAC.
"This world is so complex and we're so connected now," said Kristin Hayden, executive director of OneWorld Now! "We can no longer afford to be in our bubbles. To be effective leaders, we're going to need to know these languages and navigate in different worlds."
Arabic is the fastest-growing foreign language at U.S. colleges and universities, with enrollment soaring 46 percent from 2006 to 2009, according to a survey of 2,500 institutions released in December by the Modern Language Association. Roughly 35,000 students took Arabic in 2009, making it the eighth most studied foreign language on college campuses. But few high school students have a chance to try it.
The Qatar Foundation International, a grant-making nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., launched a pilot program in the fall of 2009 to teach Arabic language and culture at two public high schools in Boston and Washington, D.C. It recently expanded westward by partnering with OneWorld Now! and chose Hawaii because students here had no access to the language.
"I think it's a phenomenal opportunity for our kids," said Julie Do, director of the Academy of International Studies at Campbell High. "I was pleasantly surprised by how interested our kids were in it. This tells me our kids are very aware and they are very open-minded."
Students say they chose the class, which started after the October break, because it is unique and relevant to today's world. "It's changed the views of my parents," said Codi Kelii, 17. "They always thought that the Arab world was bad, and thought about terrorism and stuff. I talk about the class and it's changing their perception."
Mirza introduces the kids to the modern music and ancient civilizations of the Middle East. A portrait artist, he whips out sketches, Pictionary style, as they vie to come up with the right Arabic word. At the end of Ramadan, the Muslim period of fasting, he cooked up a feast for his students.
"Sometimes it doesn't feel like a class, it's so fun," said Precious Fernandez, a sophomore. "It's just awesome."
All 12 students in the course will attend a "Get Global" conference in April in Seattle, and two Hawaii students, Nick Troup and Nazeehah Khan, were chosen to travel farther afterward, all the way to Qatar, a wealthy emirate bordering Saudi Arabia.
Mirza, who has a Ph.D. in agriculture from Oregon State University, fell into teaching Arabic when he was asked to help with a language class at Hawaii Pacific University after Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, demand for his services has taken off. He teaches Arabic to students at HPU and the University of Hawaii as well as to members of Hawaii's military. He was reluctant to take on high school students as well but soon changed his mind.
"I truly fell in love with these students," said Mirza, who was born in Aden, Yemen, and has three grown children who are part-Hawaiian. "I honestly feel like they are just like my own kids. They came in with no clue what the Middle East is and what Arabic is, and now you see them knowing the culture, and they can even sing in Arabic."
"I think they're sticking to my class," Mirza added with a smile, "because of my baklava."