Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pearl S. Buck and Marlinton Middle School in Morocco

An interesting comment came through our Facebook page today from Rachid Aadnani who teaches Arabic at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. 
I read Pearl S. Buck's novel The Good Earth, translated into Arabic as الأرض الطيبة when I was in high school in Morocco. Great to see a page devoted to her. It was one of the first texts I read that were set in Asia. Absolutely loved that novel. It actually made me want to read more and more. So, thank you Ms. Buck!!!
Included with the message was the cover of the Arabic translation you see to the right.  Literature can be a really important tool for self-discovery, and understanding, but equally importantly, it can help us understand people who different from us.  It shows us the characteristics and emotions we share, and helps us understand how differences may not necessarily be all the strange after all.  Pearl Buck was a master of that.  She did not hide the exotic nature of the cultures she wrote about, be it her ancestral, the one she was born into but has little experience of until she returned to the United States as an adult, or her adopted culture.  Rather she treated them as matter of fact, and cut straight to the essence of the story.  Maybe this is why Pearl Buck is such a major figure of world literature, as appreciated abroad as she is here.

Spring buds at Marlinton MMS
It's in this spirit that I have been working with an 8th grade class at Marlinton Middle School on a cultural exchange program, originally intended to be with a class of students their age in China.  That has, in fact proceeded, but not entirely as planned, and the students are now corresponding with a class in Morocco, as well as a class in China.

I have been working with Jolie Lewis, Vice President of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, Jan Jonese, Language Arts Teacher at MMS, and selected students from both her class and that of Denise Sharp, Science Teacher, during the Curricular Enrichment Period in the mornings, usually one or two days a week. Students are creating digital objects and exchanging them with students abroad in an effort to enhance their understanding of the world, improve their communication skills, and strengthen their capacity to manipulate digital media

I'll have a lot more to say about our classroom activities, as well as some of the student's work to share in a later post.  For now I want to concentrate on how the project came about, and the Morocco connection.  A collaboration connecting Chinese and American students is an obvious fit for an institution seeking to carry on the work of Pearl S. Buck.  Indeed, the project I am implementing, Beyond Pen Pals, borrows very heavily from the excellent work done by Lucinda Tyler to arrange for a promising and significant cultural exchange called Between World that would have involved Pearl S. Buck Birthplace working with students in Pocahontas County and in the Zhenjiang Pearl S. Buck Museum, working with students in the Zhenjiang Province of China.  Last minute issues in the museum in China put an unexpected stop to that rather impressive project after a great deal of work had gone into it.

Having had success with more grassroots, classroom to classroom collaborations at the university level, I decided to pursue a less ambitious effort through less official channels, taking the overarching pedagogical vision and working educator to educator in a manner that minimized the possibility of administrative holdups.  We could build the project to a larger scale once small successes had been achieved.

This route has it's own frustrations, of course.  It can be a real challenge finding partners in a country where people are often uncomfortable proceeding without official sanction, and with very good reason to be.  I was not surprised sometimes be greeted with skepticism or even indifference, coming to them on behalf of one school in a small town, thousand miles away, across a 12 hour time difference, and seeking 12-13 year-olds who could communicate effectively in English.  But if any of the 8th graders at the Middle School speak Chinese, they haven't revealed themselves, yet, so that was what we needed.  With the assistance of Former PSB Board Member Eddy Pendarvis, Professor of Education, and QingQing Zhao, Director of China Programs, from Marshall University we were connected with students from Shanghai Changzheng Middle School in Shanghai, China.  It's exciting, but for various reasons, our Chinese partner school prefers to interact in writing  with our students as pen pals, so there is less of a media component to interactions with them.  

Because one of the goals of the project is to develop students' skills communication skills with new media as well as in writing, it was important they were able to interact using multimedia technologies.  That wasn't too hard to remedy, though.  Pearl S. Buck was an advocate of intercultural understanding among all people, not just America and China where she lived and worked for so long, we saw no reason not to expand the collaboration if it meant we could use media interaction. Some of our students were showing an affinity for it.  We settled on the Kingdom of Morocco.

Stamps issued in 1989.  This collection hangs in the entry to MMS
I had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco for four years and remained in country for two years after that, teaching for six years in their university system.  I had also assisted in the establishment of local English language resource centers in two cities on the Atlantic Coast and the Straits of Gibraltar, so have connections there, and knew I could connect the class quickly to counterparts at a school with appropriate technology. 
A stamp celebrating 200 years of Moroccan-American Relations

Interestingly enough, MMS has been displaying an indirect connection of Morocco on the walls of the school for years.  I'm not sure how many other people notice, but the first time I walked into the school my eyes immediately fixated on a framed stamp collection containing all the US stamps issued the year the current school building was built, 1989, in the entry hall of the school.  One of them, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship between the United States and Morocco, the oldest such treaty the US has still in effect. In fact, one of the libraries I established was in the very building in which the treaty was negotiated.

It's now a museum and cultural institute because in 1976, after years of using it for other things, the federal government planned to sell it off, and a group of private American citizens with a strong connection to the place, an interest in historic preservation, and a desire to see it continue as a place where culture still happens stepped up.  They didn't want to see it become a cheap hotel, fast food shop,  or worse, like all the other diplomatic properties of the time eventually did.  The American Legation was preserved and in so many ways it reminds me of the story of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace and how it became the museum it is today, because the community cared. 

The Old American Legation in the Medina or Tangier
When the official diplomatic presence moved out of the Old City of Tangier in the 60s, it hit the community hard.  When the museum was opened in 1976, some vitality was restored, but eventually the US economy took its toll on support for the Museum.  Lately we've found a new dynamism.  Today the Legation, now known as the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies, is at the heart of a revitalization of the Old City of Tangier.

Being new to Pocahontas County, I can't say to what extent this parallels the history of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace, a very different institution in a totally different context.  What is very similar is the level of energy and enthusiasm I see coming from the Board and volunteers at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace.  I don't dare say it exceeds that TALIM, as I serve on that board and it would not be politic.  I will say you give us a run for our money!  The Birthplace has an active and involved board that does so much, even with limited resources.  That's why I say that if a cultural institution and play a meaningful part in the revitalization of this town and region, one that has people like this involved is more likely to be the kind to do it. 

So that's how it came about.  More on the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace facilitated collaboration between students at Marlinton Middle School, Al Akhawayn School and Shanghai Changzheng Middle School in a future post.

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