Students wiggle out of their desks, grasp hands and lace their feet over one another, dancing in a circle around the classroom. According to the clock above the door, it is not yet 8 a.m., but the nine Colchester High Schoolers (CHS) continue to dance as dreamy middle-eastern music streams from a stereo.
In the middle of the line, holding hands with her students and smiling, is CHS foreign language teacher, Yara Hanna—the first Arabic-certified teacher in Vermont. Her Arabic class, which began its pilot semester this fall, is the first of its kind in the state. “Dabke,” a traditional Lebanese folk dance, is just one of many things students have learned so far.
“The initial reaction for students when they think of learning Arabic is that it’s intimidating,” Hanna said. The Arabic alphabet has 28 consonants; text is written from right to left; and the script resembles beautiful, fluid cursive with seemingly no end or beginning. But according to Hanna, the language is easier to understand than one might think. “It looks so foreign and so different but when it’s broken down into pieces it’s simpler than they think,” said Hanna. “What makes it simple is that it’s phonetic: the way it sounds is the way you write it. No exceptions.” Consistent, she called it.
For Hanna, one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is when her students “are able to simplify something that looks so daunting or challenging.”
Before beginning her CHS career in 2017, Hanna worked as a translator and interpreter for French and Arabic. “I enjoy manipulating language, working with it any way that I can,” she said. “Being involved with the language kept it fresh in my mind.” She still works as a translator for AALV, the largest translator organization in Vermont, but much of her time is taken up by teaching. In addition to her new Arabic class this year, Hanna teaches French 1 and French 4 at CHS.
Her desire to offer an Arabic language class blossomed out of a couple guest lectures she gave at Essex High School (EHS) last year, which focused on the Arabic language and Lebanese culture. The outpouring of positive feedback encouraged her, Hanna said. She approached CHS Principal Heather Baron last year with her proposal and promoted the class so well that 52 students initially signed up. In its first year, the Arabic class is only one semester long but Hanna hopes to make it a year-long class in the future.
So far in the semester, her students have learned the Arabic alphabet, vocabulary, numbers, and introductory phrases. Since Arabic uses its own separate alphabet, students learn the transliteration form—the translation of Arabic letters to English letters phonetically—as isolated letters before moving on to Arabic connected script.
In addition to grammar and vocabulary, Hanna tells stories about her own background, her family, and her children who grew up exposed to both Arabic and English languages and cultures. Earlier this year, she invited Colchester police officer Marc Jacobs—who also works at CHS as a school resource officer—to talk to students about his personal relationship with the Middle East and the story of his Syrian grandparents’ immigration to the United States. He brought travel documents from the late 1800s and told stories of how he used to dance the Dabke with his relatives, holding hands and weaving between buildings back in his grandparents’ hometown.
Hanna also discusses middle-eastern current events, culture and food. So far, the class has prepared tabbouleh salad and qahwa, Lebanese coffee, together. “It’s what I grew up drinking as a teenager,” said Hanna. She’s also brought in dishes to share including homemade hummus, pita chips and baba ghanoush.
“You cannot separate the language from the culture it comes from,” she said.
Hanna has also included music and dance in her classroom, as part of this holistic style of teaching. “Whatever keeps their attention, keeps them motivated,” Hanna said laughing, but the repetition and camaraderie amongst her students also help kids to memorize—“more fun ways to practice the language,” she said.
At the beginning of the school year, the CHS language teachers and their students prepared a flash mob at a pep rally. “Students danced to a song that had both French and Spanish,” Hanna recalled, and her Arabic class joined in as well, dancing the Dabke around the school stadium.