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     Volume 2 Issue 110 | March 15, 2009|


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Dr. John Bean, Professor of English, and his wife Rosalie (Kit) Bean, composition instructor at South Seattle Community College, have returned to USA from Dhaka, Bangladesh, where they conducted six two-day workshops on writing and critical thinking for Bangladeshi college professors and English language trainers. What follows is Dr. Bean's reflection on their experiences.

Teaching Critical Thinking in Bangladesh

Dr. John Bean

WHAT could you, would you, and should you do if your car hits a rickshaw and injures the rickshaw-wallah?

This question raises complex ethical issues in a city where angry crowds might smash your car and where there is no dependable infrastructure of lawyers and insurance companies or of police responding to traffic accidents, or of hospitals caring for impoverished rickshaw pullers.

The question also provoked heated debate among workshop participants unfamiliar with the American classroom style of active learning and argument. Unlike the traditional Bangladesh classroom, which relies on lecture and rote-learning, our critical thinking workshops showed how language learning might address issues of culture and power.

We were invited to Bangladesh by the Centre for Languages at BRAC University in Dhaka. The faculty had read my book ‘Engaging Ideas: The professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom’ and wanted to infuse critical thinking into the Bangladesh education system. BRAC, which stands for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, is one of the world's largest NGO's and has been credited with lifting millions of people out of poverty through micro-lending, healthcare, and education.

My wife Rosalie (Kit) Bean and I were honored by the opportunity to contribute, in our small way, to this social justice mission. We made a balanced co-teaching team because my background in pedagogical research was combined with Kit's multicultural experience teaching at South Seattle Community College, where her classrooms are filled with immigrants and refugees, many of whom are from Muslim countries in Africa.

We created six different workshops for four different audiences: College professors at English medium universities in Bangladesh; university - level English language instructors; educational trainers working with English language instruction in rural grade schools and high schools; and

English language trainers in Islamic Madrassa schools. Our expenses were partly paid by the U.S. State Department under their ‘English Language Specialist’ program in developing countries. For Kit and me, it is hard to describe the complex, transformative, almost overwhelming effect of these sixteen days in Dhaka on our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives.

The warmth, graciousness, and friendliness of our Bangladeshi hosts, who took us sightseeing, invited us to their homes, and shared the stories of their lives. We traveled through Dhaka in an air-conditioned Toyota SUV and had dinner at the home of Mr. Abed, the founder of BRAC, and his wife Sarwat, who directs the Centre for Languages at BRAC University. Mr. Abed told us stories of the early days of BRAC, when they visited every household in rural Bangladesh to teach women how to make a formula to combat infant diarrhea, and of later days when relief efforts were ramped up to include education and micro-finance. We also saw wonderful photos of Mr. Abed with Bill and Melinda Gates sitting on a shanty floor in a Dhaka slum, and of Mr. Abed with political figures around the world, including Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.

We visited BRAC primary school in a Dhaka slum where bright-eyed children showed us their slate drawings, danced for us, and let us listen to them read aloud while outside their one-room tin schoolroom lay a teeming third-world slum.

We also visited an orphanage and medical clinic run by Holy Cross fathers at the College of Notre Dame in Dhaka where we were invited to a meal and evening prayer service. On this night we were able to reunite with our former Seattle University colleague Bill Engels (lecturer in English) whose own sense of social outreach has led him to become the principal of an English medium primary school in Dhaka. The call to prayers at dawn (during Ramadan), and the way the city would shut down at sunset for Iftar, when fasting Muslims would have their first drink of liquid since dawn and eat a meal together, often from an ‘Iftar box’ that they brought to work. Traffic comes to a complete halt; workers in stores sit on the floor; the whole country eats a meal at the same time.

Sharing in a community of teachers committed to education for justice and empowerment. BRAC is a gathering place for people all over the world committed to social entrepreneurship and the alleviation of poverty.

Our hosts often sang together in ways that we might associate with summer camps. At one workshop, participants took turns singing solos hauntingly beautiful Bangla songs that everyone knew except us. We felt community there, solidarity, a way of being in the world very different from life in America.

In short, we fell in love with Bangladesh and returned to our own country with new eyes.

(The article was initially published in the Seattle University's Alumni Newsletter, College of Arts and Sciences, Fall-Winter 2008, Volume 2/ Issue 2 and, the modified version with the author's permission.)

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