Notes from the Errachidia International English Conference

Errachidia, in the south below the Atlas Mountains.

In March, we were honored to be asked to present at the 2016 Errachidia International English Conference, a gathering of Moroccan English teachers in the Errachidia region.

At the opening speeches, I saw a sea of faces nodding eagerly as the conference coordinator began referencing linguistics and morphology. I laughed and thought, oh man, these are MY PEOPLE. It was wonderful to spend a few days with a group of educators and language nerds.

 

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I presented on strategies to integrate real-world stakes in the classroom, which was basically just an excuse to advertise for journalism programming and the Write On Creative Writing Competition. The best part wasn’t my presentation, but being able to share resources for how to get students published in real literary magazines and media sources.

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While I am super passionate about education and language learning, I’m a slightly-less-than-mediocre public speaker. I don’t have stage fright, but I don’t have stage presence either. Robert, on the other hands, rocks at this stuff!

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He gave a fiery presentation on Girls Education, which ignited an intense discussion in the room. People were actually slamming their fists on their desks and shouting by the end of it! Gender equality in the classroom is relevant everywhere in the world, but it has a particular context in the Morocco, where girls’ literacy rates are significantly lower than boys’.

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And while there is pushback (evidenced by some reactions to Robert’s presentation), there is also hope and progress. There’s still a long way to go, but just in the past decade, gender equality in the Moroccan classroom has improved significantly—because of government reform, but also in huge part because of amazing individual teachers. There were many amazing moments during the presentation, but one of my favorites was when one of the teachers shared a funny story about a time when he used the term “househusband” in an English lesson. His students all started waving their hands in the air, shouting, “Teacher! Teacher! You wrote that sentence wrong on the board! It’s houseWIFE!” And he replied, “Hey, I’m the English teacher here, and I didn’t write anything wrong! Who here can say that househusbands don’t exist? Of course they exist!” In a country where only about 10% of women work for pay, this kind of story is revolutionary.

Even after the presentation, many of the teachers wanted to continue the conversation with Robert and with each other.

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Besides working as presenters and discussion facilitators, we were also the waitstaff! The American PCVs at the conference all took on the job of serving and busing during meals and breaks. When you organize a conference, the hardest part will inevitably be the food and drink. The main Moroccan teacher counterpart who coordinated the conference said, “It doesn’t matter how great the actual conference is. If the food is bad, people will think the conference is bad.” Hahahaha… but true.

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We almost had a riot on our hands when we didn’t have enough teapots and had to serve tea from coffee carafes instead. Tea is serious business. 

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For most of the meals, we scavenged the leftovers in between serving the teachers. Although we didn’t mind at all, a few of the teachers insisted that we sit down with them to eat during the last meal, which was lovely!

Errachidia was our second Southern city, and although our sample size is low, our conclusion so far is that Southern cities are wonderful! Life at the edge of the Sahara seems so much slower and sweeter. We love our Northern city, but there is just something really special about the Moroccan South. As we wandered around Errachidia, buying date syrup from co-op stands and looking for avocado milkshakes, we felt a lovely sense of calm.

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Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Opening the Door to the Sahara

The top three reasons I love my job: adventure, passion, and people. Our trip to Ouarzazate was comprised of all three. In January, we journeyed south to this beautiful city on the edge of the world’s vastest desert.

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With  a crew of four humans (Robert and Julie, and our friends Bochra and Souad) and two birds (nameless), we traveled through the Tichka, a gorgeous but nauseatingly winding mountain pass. We stopped for a quick meal of sandwiches and bissara (chickpea soup) at a little Amazigh town in the Atlas Mountains. It was such a relief when we finally got to Ouarzazate!

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The next day, while Bochra and Souad were in Darija Tutor trainings, Robert and I explored Ouarzazate. Despite it being the largest city in its region and the site of a major Hollywood studio, Ouarzazate felt like a small town. (Fun fact: Game of Thrones was filmed in Ouarzazate!) There wasn’t any bustling about. People were so friendly and low-key. (Another fun fact: Ouarzazate means “noiselessly,” and it’s also known as The City Without Sound. We could definitely see why!)

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The next day, after wandering around the date palms, we got coffee and coke and wifi at an outdoor cafe, where we got some work done.

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We also explored some shops where we bought some cool jackets. The shopkeepers laughed at our terrible Darija, and then forced us to wear these Saharan outfits.

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In the afternoon, we finally got to the reason for our Ouarzazate trip! Bochra and I are launching a storytelling project together, with the support of PC Morocco’s Language and Cultural Coordinator. We sat down to meet with Said, the LCC, and talk about our project. Souad, Bochra’s sister, also wanted in—which I’m super happy about. It was awesome! I can’t wait to share more details about this project with you all after this month (Bochra and I are attending a Project Development and Management Training at the end of April, where we’ll flesh out more details!)

Bochra is literally one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and I feel so lucky that I became friends with her! We are so much alike. We have all of the same passions: storytelling, culture, feminism, literature. When someone randomly sends me a Dropbox full of gender studies e-books for my Kindle, I know that we’re soul sisters! 😉 This is her blog.

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Khuti (my sister) Bochra and I on the Tichka

On the trip, we also met a group of wonderful Belgian tourists. We ended up hanging out with them quite a bit.

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The day we had to leave Ouarzazate, all the bus tickets in the entire city were sold out. Seriously. It was horrible. But luckily, our new Belgian friends suggested that we travel with them. And because Souad was leaving our group to go even more south to their hometown, we had the perfect number for a grand taxi! So that’s how three Belgians, two Americans, and one Moroccan squished themselves into the passenger seats of a beat up old Mercedes.

Travel tip! If you’re going through the Tichka and you can afford it, choose a grand taxi over a bus! We hated the bus with a burning passion, but the taxi was super fun. Plus, if you know Darija, you can ask the taxi driver to stop for a break along a gorgeous abandoned cliffside. We got a breather and several selfies, haha.

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It took us a year into living in Morocco for us to finally venture down into the Sahara, but we loved our trip and we will definitely be back.

It was a grand adventure trip to attend a work meeting about something I’m super passionate about with the best project partners I could ever imagine. So a complete success all around, and a beautiful reminder of why we’re here!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie