Although Arabs represent only one percent of my city’s population, and a tenth of a percent nationally, it is important that my students in Boston learn Arabic, both for our collective national security and for them as future leaders.
As a nation, we are unprepared to meet the sudden and pressing need for citizens familiar with Arabic. Our education system also lacks the infrastructure to produce a generation of culturally and linguistically literate graduates of Arabic. The field of high school Arabic is still so new that we have had to create our own curriculum and develop our own resources to train new teachers. At a time when students are eager to make sense of global events, we as teachers find ourselves pressed to develop a framework for our students to become responsible global citizens.
Just as the launch of Sputnik marked a sea change in our country’s education system, the recent and on-going events in the Middle East have influenced the support for less commonly taught languages like Arabic, with a substantial increase in funding for both public schools and private programs.
Charlestown High School has benefited from this assistance, though it often surprises people to learn who has been studying Arabic at our school for the past six years. Few of our students are Muslim, and fewer still come from Arabic-speaking homes. Our students are inner-city kids and come from some of our nation’s most challenging neighborhoods.
The core ethic behind our program is that students will rise to the level of expectation set for them, and even students who struggle to pass our state assessment test can succeed in demanding classes. As a society we believe that students can and should join the global economy, and at our school we are training them to be leaders.
I am excited by the Secretary’s recent participation in the CIA Foreign Language Summit. Foreign language study is a critical part of education in the 21st century, and the Secretary’s participation in an inter-agency conference signals the current administration’s focus on cooperation and collaboration in this area, as does President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform.
When schools adopt programs in Arabic, Chinese, Urdu, or another critically needed language, they are affirming the role of languages in a well-rounded education as well as the importance of including students in international dialogue. I am proud to be part of this effort, and I look forward to continuing innovations in teaching, curriculum, and professional support.
Steven Berbeco, New England Regional Teacher Leadership Initiative
Steven Berbeco teaches Arabic at Charlestown High School in Boston, Massachusetts. He is 2008-2009 Classroom Teaching Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.