Tales from Morocco: School Days


Photo Courtesy of Wesley Lickus

By Elaina Zachos / staff writer

“Tales from Morocco” is a reoccurring column on reporter Elaina Zachos’ semester studying culture, tradition and daily life in the North African nation.

How did I spend my spring break? In class.

Late last month, we took a break from our urban lives in Rabat, Morocco, and traded them in for a few days at a rural village outside Ouazzane, Morocco. Cut off from Wi-Fi and Western toilets, we had to rely on good old-fashioned family values to distract us from our perpetually accumulating emails.

While living in the village, which is in the Beni Koulla commune, we tried to talk with the locals, herded cows and planted trees. Sometimes, I’m not quite sure how I’m getting college credits for this.

During the second day of our stay, we spent the morning teaching English to fifth and sixth graders at the local elementary school, which was a little over a 30-minute walk away.

We start out on the shoulder of the road, which is just wide enough for us to walk single file. On our left, a grass-dirt gradient meets the pavement. Metal roadside barriers run parallel to the street, cutting off where the ground slants down and spreads out into open fields and sloping hills. Farmers watch over their livestock in pastures while the ominous sky watches over them, ready to rain at any second.

To our right, the road stretches for miles in each direction. A solid white no-passing line runs down the middle, dividing the street into lanes. Regardless, cars and trucks pass each other on both sides, zooming around bends to beat oncoming traffic.

We only have to use this route twice today, walking to and from the school. But the students — generally between the ages of 5 and 12 — trek it several times a week. Every day, they have to trust that the careless, impatient motorists with whom they share the road don’t drive outside the lines.

Eventually, we reach the school — two one-story, single-room buildings with a tall flagpole shooting up from a dirt courtyard. A white stone wall decorated with murals from past volunteers hides the school from the road. At the entrance right before we can see the school, a painted student greets us, sitting at a desk with an open book in front of her.

We split up into two groups, one to teach each of the grades. My team starts with the fifth graders.

We file into the classroom on the right, which is the smaller of the two buildings. Rows of preteen students await us as we cluster near the blackboard at the front of the room. Scratched-up tables with remnants of bright paint sit two kids each. Most of the students are boys, but a handful of girls sit together in two corners of the room.

I see one of my host brothers in a middle row close to the back of the room. I wave to him and he returns the gesture.

We know we’re supposed to teach English to these kids, but we don’t know how we’re going to do that exactly. Badrdine, our Moroccan program assistant, introduces us to the class in Darija, while we scramble to come up with an impromptu lesson plan.

Dani, an optimist and adventurer from New York, is the first one to speak.

“Sallam allekoom. Isme Dani,” she says. “Ana taliba fee Rabat.”

Translation: “Hello. My name is Dani. I am a student from Rabat.”

That phrase just about exhausts our knowledge of the dialect. We each repeat it, substituting Dani’s name for our own.

“Nadross sahafa,” Savin adds — “We study journalism.”

After we’ve all introduced ourselves, Dani approaches one of the students. She asks for his name, using English. Confused, the student repeats, “What’s your name?”

Dani has to clarify what she’s saying a couple times before the student gets the hint. The rest of us follow suit, going up to the kids sitting at the desks, shaking their hands and asking their names. We chase each introduction with a “pleased to meet you” before transitioning to the next student.

After we’ve straightened out all the students’ names, we move on to games. We start with a classic: “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”

Mackenzie and Dani spearhead the game. They start singing and pointing, and the rest of the class repeats after them in a chorus of accented English.

After the final, “Knees and toes, knees and toes,” we repeat this cycle again, slowly. Then one of us has the smart idea to speed it up, double-time. We rush through the lyrics and the gestures, crouching down to touch our knees and toes before shooting back up for the following moves.

The students repeat after us, tripping over their words and stumbling over their bodies. They’re smiling and laughing at how ridiculous this all seems, speaking a language that is foreign to them.

By the time we finish up the game, we’re out of breath. Then we move on to Seven Up.

Again, Dani and Mack demo the game. Mack walks between rows of desks and sits in a chair next to one of the boys at the back of the room. She raises her right hand, thumb high in the air, and waves it around the room for everyone to see. Then she brings her hand back down and crosses her arms on the desk in front of her. She rests her forehead on the desk, head shielded from view.

Overdramatized, Dani tiptoes toward Mack from the front of the classroom. Dani raises her right hand high in the air before bringing it down and gently pushing down Mack’s thumb with a single finger. Just as dramatically, she creeps back to the front of the classroom and joins the rest of us in a line in front of the blackboard.

At the desk, Mack raises her head. She looks at her right hand, now a fist, and feigns surprise. Then she steps up to the front of the classroom.

She goes down the line, pointing at each of us. Was it Wes? “La.” Kelsey? “La.” Me? “La.”

Eventually, she makes it to Dani and pauses. Dramatic once again, she points at her and yells, “N’am!”

Defeated, Dani walks to the back of the classroom and takes Mack’s former seat.

Then we try the game with all the students. But instead of keeping their eyes closed, they peek through their arms to see the feet of the culprits. Then they come up to the front of the classroom and identify the students based on their shoes.

Next, we move on to colors.

Savin and I grab pieces of colored chalk from the ledge below the blackboard. In English, we start writing the names of colors in their corresponding hues in two columns on the board.

Wes points to the ceiling. “Blue,” he says. Then he repeats this word until the rest of the class is chanting it with him.

Dani points to the faded curtains draped over a window high up on the wall. Stationary sheep are caught mid-frolic across the textile. “Orange,” she says.

We continue pointing to different objects in the room and yelling out colors. That student’s shirt is white. The roses on a Valentine’s Day poster in the back of the room are red. Savin’s sweater is brown. We point at the colors written on the blackboard and repeat their names, for added emphasis.

Eventually, we move on to the Latin alphabet.

I grab a piece of chalk from the ledge below the blackboard and start erasing the colors. Mack starts singing the “A, B, Cs,” and I begin scrawling the letters on the board so fast my piece of chalk snaps.

After I’ve finished writing down the letters, we go through the song again, this time pointing to the corresponding letters on the board.

By now, we have writing and arithmetic out of the way. So we go back to playing games, namely the “Hokey Pokey.”

This one goes just about as successfully as “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” The students repeat the phrases after us, spinning around and confusing the words.

For the grand finale, we end with “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” we say, repeating the phrase. Then, we squeeze, “and you really want to show it,” in the middle of it. Mack’s voice rings through — as a native Texan, she says, “and you ain’t afraid to show it,” instead.

We start off with the chorus, adding different verses to it: “Clap your hands,” “Snap your fingers,” “Spin around.”

Some students try to repeat after us while others just rush through the movements, lagged as they read our motions. All of them are smiling and laughing, happy to get out of their seats and move around.

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