Situation in Afghanistan and program information
Imagine a society where the right to an education is under constant threat and where the lack of facilities can be a hindrance to greater job opportunities. You could call it Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan for women has somewhat improved since the fall of the Taliban, i.e., greater participation in the fields of health, business, politics, and education. Still, the female literacy rate at approximately 13% is one of the lowest in the world. As a result, the desire and need for an education has never been stronger among many girls and women. Despite humiliations, attacks, pressure from their families, and death threats, they are willing to risk their lives for a chance to learn. In recent years, programs in Afghanistan have been implemented to put girls’ education on the map. One center located in Kandahar, the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, offers courses to its 1,500 predominantly female students in Business Management, Information Technology, and English. KIMS’s goal is to enable students to acquire the necessary skills to contribute to Afghanistan’s development and to improve their job prospects. Its English program is run in collaboration with AIWR (Alliance for International Women’s Rights), a non-profit organization that seeks to empower mainly Afghan women through Mentor and English programs, and consists of English classes taught online via Skype by female volunteer English teachers. Each volunteer is matched with a student at KIMS. They are then assigned two consecutive days during which they meet for a one-hour lesson every week. Before their first lesson, volunteers are provided a detailed Teacher’s Guide which includes information related to procedures, appropriate topics, and cultural guidelines. Owing to a slow internet connection, lessons are conducted without the use of the webcam, thus forcing both the student and the English teacher to communicate information either orally or in the chatbox. Emphasis is placed mostly on strengthening speaking and listening skills as well as grammar and vocabulary. Teachers tend to send articles or exercises from online resources before the start of class for use during the lesson. At the end of each month, teachers are expected to complete a report about their lessons. Every three months a more thorough evaluation of the student’s language skills is conducted so as to assess the student’s overall progress.
My experience teaching through AIWR
When I first joined the program in December of 2011, I had never before taught English online. I was nervous about what to expect and how I would handle teaching someone whose culture was vastly different from mine and whom I would not even be able to see. Moreover, my knowledge of Afghanistan was limited to news reports and to photography exhibits. It turned out that I had no reason to worry as my first student was absolutely delightful and shared myriad information about the way of life, traditions, customs, and languages spoken in Afghanistan. The student I am currently teaching is equally wonderful and has helped me to become a more culturally sensitive and effective teacher. My aim through this program has been to build students’ confidence and to work towards achieving their goals, be they studying abroad, contributing to Afghanistan’s development or studying at a university. I have also introduced them to a more learner-centered approach in that I design the lessons based on their needs and segue into topics that are culturally relevant and are of interest to them. In addition, I try to integrate discussion topics so as to enable them to reflect on the various ideas and to gradually develop their critical thinking skills. Expressing their opinion and having classroom discussions is definitely not something that my students are accustomed to, which is why they need constant positive reinforcement and support when giving their opinion. Furthermore, I have been recently guiding my students towards becoming more autonomous so that they can be in charge of their own learning and can follow their progress.
Issues and solutions
While volunteering through this English program can be an extremely enriching experience, both volunteers and students are faced with challenges, chief among them being the internet connection. Indeed, often the connection is either too slow or does not work, thus interrupting the flow of the conversation and reducing the amount of class time. Another common issue is that without the use of the webcam, it can be sometimes quite daunting to communicate ideas effectively, especially when trying to mime an action or a feeling. However, relying on one’s voice and the chat box can be perceived as an opportunity for teachers to resort to more creative ways of imparting information to their students and more importantly, teaches teachers how to be flexible and patient. Finally, English teachers are restricted to certain topics that are deemed culturally appropriate, such as food, family, holidays. Politically-charged themes are strongly discouraged, along with those that focus on romantic relationships. In spite of this, teachers are provided an insight into the lives of those young women and establish a strong bond with the student based on mutual trust and respect. For those of you who want to make a difference in the field of teaching ESL, I cannot recommend this program enough. It is a wonderful opportunity to empower young women while at the same time, to learn about a different culture. If you are interested in volunteering online as an English teacher through AIWR, please contact Lisa Herb (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further information.