At first glance, Lina Samawi’s King’s Academy classroom looks like a nicely decorated space for first graders. Colorful illustrations and textiles animate the walls. Bulletin boards feature student hand-drawn self-portraits. Small baskets of brightly colored plastic fruit line a bookshelf.
While reminiscent of early childhood education, these items are actually the building blocks for teaching novice Arabic speakers in the Arabic Year (AY) program at King’s. On a recent class day in February, six American King’s Academy students drawn to Jordan for the opportunity to intensively study Arabic spent 90 minutes inching their way toward fluency.
“For the first part of the year, it was the hardest class I had,” said Abby Hungate, a student from Catlin Gables School near Portland, Oregon. “Now I feel like it’s one of my easiest.” Hungate is joined in her Arabic class by students from Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Rhode Island and London. Together with a group of students placed in a higher level Arabic class, they comprise the 2014-2015 cohort of the King’s Arabic Year program.
Hungate, who came to King’s for her junior year with no Arabic background, said learning the basics of Arabic – the alphabet and pronunciation – made the first part of the year stressful. But once she became comfortable with those elements of the language and figured out how to manage the program’s significant homework expectations, Hungate said learning Arabic became truly enjoyable. “Now everyone is really comfortable. Class is more like just a 90-minute conversation,” she explained.
Since AY was launched in 2011, Hungate and her classmates are the third group of students to participate in the unique program. Students from grade 10 through post-graduate can enroll in AY, and most stay at King’s for only a year before going back to their home schools.
Ever since King’s was founded, the school has attracted students who wanted a short-term high school experience in Jordan. In the early days of King’s, one or two students would enroll for a year or term in order to experience life in the Middle East or advance their Arabic language proficiency. In 2010, the school developed a formal program – Arabic Year – to shape and formalize the experience and attract students in greater numbers.
AY is unique among the myriad opportunities available to high school students for study-away experiences. Among the programs that offer a year in China or European cities, semesters in the woods of New England, policy study in Washington, D.C. or urban studies in New York, the King’s program is the only one that offers students a chance to advance Arabic language learning and experiential education in the Arab world.
Over three years, Arabic Year has attracted nearly 50 students from American public and private schools, with 15 to 20 more expected to enroll for the 2015-2016 school year. Many of these students have now graduated from high school, and most are using the AY experience as a foundation for further study in Arabic, Middle Eastern history or various strains of international relations. The program has helped students gain entry into many of the United States’ most selective universities and programs, including Yale, the US Military Academy at West Point, Georgetown and George Washington universities.
Samawi, a five-year teaching veteran at King’s, is the driving force of language acquisition for AY students. This year she is teaching all of the program’s entry-level Arabic students, leading them in their quest to go from zero to fluency in only one year. Although vibrant and easy-going by nature, Samawi leads her AY class like a kind-hearted taskmaster.
“I have very high expectations for my students,” Samawi explained. “Arabic is not an easy language, so they have to be committed and be willing to work hard.” Her students take a language pledge that requires them to speak to her only in Arabic, and by December the entire class is conducted in the target language. The class uses a textbook, but Samawi liberally supplements the material with instruction and practice on using Arabic in daily life.
At age 27 and with degrees in English language and literature, Samawi is becoming well-known throughout the world for her Arabic teaching skills and innovative practices. As part of her faculty role at King’s, she is the designated Arabic teacher for the Global Online Academy (GOA), teaching beginning Arabic to about 15 students each year from GOA schools in the United States and 10 other countries. Her YouTube videos, mandatory conversation groups pairing native and non-native speakers, and usage of local resources offer her students many ways to move toward Arabic fluency.
Hungate agrees that Samawi’s passion for Arabic and approachable style make for great teaching and easy access to the language. She noted that learning Arabic in the Middle East also provides a great opportunity to improve her skills. “I hear it everywhere – in the dorm, in class, from my friends – so even if I am hesitant to speak Arabic, just hearing it all day makes me understand it better.”