Teachers join Lebanon and U.S. exchange program

Photo of Katrina Koerting

NEW MILFORD — While playing a game in a New Milford French class, Jana Bayoud taught a student how to say “congratulations” in Arabic.

That same day, she observed an English as a Second Language teacher move throughout the classroom, working with students from various grades.

“When she was in that class, I saw myself in Lebanon doing that same thing,” said Bayoud, one of three teachers from the International College in Beirut, Lebanon, visiting several area schools this week as part of a cultural exchange program.

The Lebanese teachers’ visit comes a few days after two Danbury teachers, Devin and Elise Samaha, and Mary Hajj, a music teacher in Monroe, returned from Lebanon. This is the biggest group to go and the first time the Monroe school district participated.

The program is a partnership between the International College and the school districts of Danbury, New Milford, Ridgefield, Monroe and North Salem, N.Y. It is supported by the Lebanon-American Club of Danbury, which covers the travel costs of the U.S. teachers, hosts a dinner during the Lebanese teachers’ visits for everyone involved and takes the Lebanese teachers to New York City.

Through the program, teachers experience different teaching styles and curriculum, as well as a bit of culture from the other country.

“It’s an exchange of ideas,” said Ghassan Najun, the club’s vice president.

The program allows teachers to develop professionally within their discipline, and exposes them to a new culture to share with their students.

“This is very, very important,” said Pedro Maalouf, a biology teacher visiting from Lebanon. “Teachers are constant learners. What better way to learn

than travel?”

Bayoud said the program fills the gaps for teachers which, in turn, fills students’ gaps.

A trip has been offered annually since the program began 12 years ago, though last year’s trip was canceled because of the unrest in Syria. It stemmed from a relationship Michael Hubbard, Ridgefield’s assistant superintendent at the time, created with the group. Danbury was the first school district to join Ridgefield.

The program expanded organically when Hubbard moved to the North Salem district and Joshua Smith left Ridgefield to join New Milford, where he is now the superintendent.

Smith, who participated in 2011 when he was in Ridgefield, said the trip was a great way to learn things about the Middle East that cannot be found in a book. He remembered sitting at a cafe against a backdrop of Roman ruins.

“When you go to a site where language was invented and the first writing was created, it’s a different experience than here,” Smith said.

Devin Samaha, a Danbury High School English teacher, said he was nervous about going at first, but felt safe during his visit.

“Instead of making friends, it felt like we had made family,” he said. “It was incredible how kind and open everyone was.”

He noticed how similar the students he met in Lebanon were to his own, and hoped to foster communication between the two groups.

The trip was the first time the Lebanese teachers had visited the U.S., though one of them — Layla Kateurji — has family in Boston.

While they enjoyed the countries they visited, the teachers from both countries said their experiences in the classroom are what they will take back to their students.

Focus on culture

Bayoud said she was impressed by the big emphasis on student culture within the schools and said it was something she wanted to teach in her Arabic classes the whole year. Focusing on culture allows students to understand they are unique but also generates acceptance.

“When you focus on culture, students will have the opportunities to make good actions,” she said. “Everything goes back to accepting culture.”

Kateurji, who teaches art, said she would like to bring some of the wire and sculpture projects back to help develop fine motor skills. Maalouf said he plans to take back an approach that has students teaching their peers.

”There are many interesting approaches,” he said.

The American teachers said they plan to incorporate different elements they saw into their teaching, and were impressed by the students’ ability to speak English, French and Arabic in all of their classes.

Hajj said she plans to add other disciplines into her music lessons, especially teaching about different cultures.

“We live in a big world, and our focus is often on the hometown,” she said. “It’s good to make children aware of what’s in the world.”