A charismatic man with long, dark hair held an audience captivated in a Lincoln High School hallway this week — by vowel sounds.
"Seeeeeeee!" (or something that sounded like that) Hicham Jennane enunciated theatrically, drawing out the intonation.
"Seeeeeee!" (or something to that effect) echoed the students and teachers sitting or standing against walls.
"Saaaaaaah!" Jennane continued, gesticulating as if conducting. He looked the part, too, in black pants, a white button-down shirt and a tie.
"Saaaaaah!" the crowd repeated in unison.
Whatever it meant, Jennane's enthusiasm clearly had the Arabic class engaged. "This is fun," a little voice could be heard saying.
A Moroccan native and university instructor, Jennane is one of seven Arabic-language teachers in Lincoln's unusual three-week summer program. Now in its third summer, it's the only school Arabic language program in the state to be funded by the U.S. Department of Defense – to the tune of $100,000. Taught by native speakers, it draws high-schoolers from five metro school districts.
The program also serves as a cultural bridge, introducing students to the geography, history, art, food and customs of the Arab world. Many Americans only encounter that region through war.
Mary Stimmel, Lincoln's language department chairwoman and the program's director, applied for the funding, part of a National Security Language Initiative introduced in 2006. It aims to expand knowledge of "strategically important" languages not widely taught in the U.S.
The program uses nontraditional teaching approaches. Instead of sitting at desks, students move about from station to station, doing hands-on projects, including calligraphy and mosaic tile-making, puzzles, games and storytelling. They make trips to the zoo to ride a camel and to a restaurant to eat Middle Eastern food. Working in collaboration with physical education, computer technology and other teachers, they incorporate Arabic themes into whatever they do.
Arabic is the world's fourth most-spoken language, with 50 million to 100 million native speakers. Because of programs like this, instead of having to look for language interpreters, the U.S. government will soon have fluent employees, observes Samuel Nhial, originally from South Sudan, who teaches in Lincoln's summer Arabic program.
Most of the 57 students taking the course for credit are not from Arabic-speaking backgrounds. Some have Hispanic surnames. A good many are of lower income, and part of their incentive is getting to eat in school during the summer, Stimmel said. Seventy percent of Lincoln students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Some students come in wearing ankle trackers because they have been in trouble with the law, she says, noting the program helped one turn his life around in a year.
The students don't necessarily look upon Arabic as pathways to careers as spies or diplomats. Some take it to earn the half credit they are short on. It allows some who are struggling academically to have a unique edge in something, and gives them a sense of mastery, Stimmel says. Knowing Arabic — which is also taught during Lincoln's school year — has helped students get full scholarships to universities, she says.
Whatever their reasons, the program seems to open horizons, giving students a more visceral understanding of world issues and an ability to move easily among other cultures.
"This culture is amazing and wonderful and there are so many things we don't know about it," says Devante Zanders, who will be a Lincoln senior and is in his second year of Arabic. He loves the food, dance and music and what he has learned of Middle Eastern hospitality. He longs to visit Morocco.
Abdikafi Jama, entering ninth grade at Roosevelt High School, grew up speaking Arabic, but he lost most of it after his mother moved him here from Egypt in pursuit of a better life. Through the program, he's getting it back. Yamil Castro, a Lincoln senior, began learning Arabic last summer and likes the challenge. Sam Buckton, entering 10th grade at Hoover High School, says some of his friends assume it's difficult, but he finds Arabic easy. Now he's interested in Arabic cultures.
Arabic even breaks down cliques at school, Stimmel says. She says students of diverse backgrounds become friends and can be seen speaking Arabic in the hallways during the school year. "You start looking at the world in a different way and you start solving problems instead of bullying each other," she said.
Between economic globalization and our political engagements abroad, there is far too little foreign-language teaching going on in Iowa schools. This little jewel of a program shows that when taught creatively, students — and not just those pegged as brainy or cosmopolitan — can thrive at it. That is good for their futures, good for society and good for the nation's foreign relations. Now it just needs to start at a younger age.