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Interview with May Hourani

Hourani, May
Bae, Juyoung
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with people and places; Cultural idenitification
May Hourani talks about education in Kuwait and language assessment.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Juyoung Bae interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
JB (Juyoung Bae): My name is Juyoung Bae. It's January 28, 2003. Here's my interviewee. Her name is May S. Hourani. She is from Kuwait. Currently, she is a graduate student in University of North Carolina at Charlotte. May, I'm going to ask you about some questions, about language education and assessment in your country, OK? And where did you live in Kuwait?
MH (May S. Hourani): I lived in a town called Ahmadi. Um, although I lived in Kuwait, I'm really Jordanian.
MH: Jordanian citizenship.
JB: Uh-huh, um, what is your native language?
MH: Arabic.
JB: OK, and are there any languages spoken in Kuwait?
MH: The uh, first language, of course, is Arabic but the second language is English.
JB: OK. Hmm, I like to know about your language education and what kinds of schools did you go to, in your country?
MH: I went to a private British school, uh, both in the elementary, in my elementary education as well as the junior and high school education. It was a private school. And it was, it followed the British system.
JB: OK. And what kinds of language classes did you, did you have at the time?
MH: All the languages that were offered, uh, uh, the sciences, the math and the English, of course, which was the main language, were in English. And the, uh, a second language, of course then that followed closely with um, at the curriculum, the Arabic language curriculum that was set by the Ministry of Education in that country. And the third language would've been French.
JB: Uh-huh. And let me ask you about English classes you had. And when did you take your first English class in school?
MH: We started the English class, in kindergarten. Uh, that was, the, the, main language, of course, the first language that that we learnt was English.
JB: OK, so you have been learning English since you were six?
MH: Um, actually, probably earlier. \\ Maybe three, four. \\
JB: \\ OK, three, four \\ [pause] years old? In a school setting?
MH: Yeah, before the kindergarten system there was a, like a nursery class or \\ a playgroup. \\ And that 's when they started teaching your language.
JB: \\ I see. \\ So were the classes, English classes, mandatory or did you choose the classes on your own?
MH: Since it was a British school, of course, it was mandatory. All, all language classes were mandatory, uh, but the English, the Arabic, were mandatory. And also French, up to a certain level.
JB: I see.
MH: Up to a certain high school level.
JB: Uh-huh. And [pause] how many students were there in the English classes?
MH: It's from, we can, if you want, we can break it up into the junior, \\ junior school and then high school. \\
JB: \\ Sure. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. \\
MH: But in on average, our junior class consisted of about 30 students per class.
JB: Uh-huh.
MH: 25 to 30 students.
JB: Uh-huh.
MH: And in high school, about the same also. They average of 30, 30 students in a class.
JB: OK. How often did the class [pause] meet a week?
MH: Uh, English classes, and that was true from junior to high school, we had English everyday. However, the English literature, we might have had it once a week. [Pause] And it would last, each class would last about a half a hour to 40 minutes. 30 to 40 minutes.
JB: OK, who taught the classes? Were teachers from Kuwait or English-speaking \\ countries? \\
MH: \\ Actually,\\ yeah. The, since it was a British school, they brought in teachers from the UK. So they could've been uh, uh, British or Scottish, Welsh, Irish. Some of them were Australian. But they were teachers that were referred to as expats, or expatriates. And they worked abroad in British schools around the world.
JB: Um, um, you said that your classes last 30 to 45 minutes everyday, everyday.
MH: Uh-huh.
JB: And, how long did teacher spend teaching English during that time? I mean the [pause] how long they spent giving the student instructions and?
MH: It would depend whether we were doing English composition or English comprehension or grammar or poetry and then, of course, dur-, dur-, during the junior, elementary years, the teacher would do most of the, uh talking, ah, most of the teaching. However, when we got into the high school years, especially the last few years, they required participation. And, they would do about, hmm, during that period, I'd say about, 60 percent instruction and then 40 percent participation.
JB: Uh-huh. Um, um, among listening and speaking and writing and [pause] reading skills, and what [pause] area did your teachers emphasize on during the classes?
MH: A lot of times, it depended on the teacher. And what they placed more emphasis on. Uh, some teachers, some teachers, for example, found, uh, English composition more important and expression and expressing your views. Uh, other teachers, for example, focus on poetry and analyzing poems. And, and, and uh, forcing us to think about certain meaning. In general, though, grammar was probably, uh, they stressed that the most especially during the first a few years of our education. I think the grammar was the main focus.
JB: Uh-huh, OK. And give me the examples of classroom activities you participated in during the classes.
MH: Whenever, for example, in English literature, uh, students would be picked on to read an excerpt, uh, from the literature books that we covered. Especially in high school were Macbeth, uh, Pride and Prejudice, Animal Farm and the, [pause] those were the main ones. Hamlet, maybe, is another typical one. Uh, but the, but in terms of a, a participation I think was the question?
JB: For example \\ discussion and? \\
MH: \\ Discussion, definitely \\ trying to analyze literature pieces or characters. That was in the literature. And poetry of course, it's the whole meaning of the poem and certain, what phrases meant. Uh, in composition, it was basic, there was no participation, it was mainly you read it and did the assignment and tried to answer the questions. Uh, essays, I would say, we hardly read our essays out aloud. I think it was more our personal expression. And uh, uh, I'd, I'd say literature, poetry, and if there was a, for example, um, reading comprehension then we, we just read it out aloud. You'll have certain students or he would have certain students read out passages.
JB: Uh-huh. And did your teachers bring some special material, for instance visual aids and other supplements to help the students understand English better?
MH: The uh, I, and I'm talking more the high school years now. Um, most of the visual aids would be for example, if you reading, after we read a literature book or after we read a novel, then we watched the movie. Uh, Pride and Prejudice or Macbeth. Uh, another visual, it wasn't really a visual aid brought to class, but there was a, a tour group, um, a theater group that was touring, um, schools and countries and I think they were based out of the England. They were, uh, they were, uh, acting Macbeth out. So we were encouraged to watch that. It wasn't mandatory but it was encouraged.
JB: Uh-huh, and how did you feel about the English classes you had?
MH: I think a lot of times it depended on who was teaching it. Um, the language isn't general wasn't a favorite [laugh] subject and again it depended on who was teaching it. English comprehension, uh, was difficult. Grammar was, was quite difficult because it weren't set rules on, on how things follow, how grammar followed. Um, but, uh, English literature was, personally English literature was, um, it wasn't very interesting, because the novel wasn't my choice. It was a chosen novel and poetry, until it was explained, what the true meaning behind it was, it was appreciated, but otherwise if I was just to read it then it made no sense at all.
JB: OK. OK. So [long pause] you feel kind of pos-, negative attitude toward your English classes.
MH: Yeah, I think the reason was I was more geared towards the math classes, the science classes. They interested me more. But English was, English and Arabic, actually the languages were compulsory except for French. French was during the first few years. Um, but um, because it was re-, a requirement, it's a, and we had it everyday, and it was stressed so heavily, um, I think it was, it put us under more pressure to perform better.
JB: Um, now let me ask you about language assessment you had. And what kinds of assessment did you have for your English classes?
MH: It would be split into two, in general. And that, that applies to when we were young. I'll start with junior years versus the senior years. Uh, I think it would ( ) in junior years it was split into two parts, grammar and a lot of times it was fill in the blanks with the correct tense or the correct, um, grammatical, uh, uh, with the right format, but it, it is mostly filling in the gaps and also [pause] probably a reading comprehension, if I remember correctly, there was always reading comprehension, answering questions. And that was it during the junior years. Uh, as we got into the senior years, then it was split into, of course, English literature was a whole different, I mean, it was, uh, it wasn't, it was part of the English curriculum, uh, but that had a whole different exam on its own, which was essay writing, analyzing characters. But the English itself, it was split into grammar also, and, the format of that was also mainly filling in blank with the correct, um, verbs or the, the correct tense of verb. And uh, it was also comp-, reading comprehension and answering questions and a composition section. [Pause] Dictation was never, unlike French, for example, where we had dictation for French, English was, uh, we never had English dictation because whenever we brought our essays, for example, they can tell from, from our spelling, how, how good it was or how strong.
JB: OK, um, so you said you, you had to fill out the blank on your test and [pause] um, did mean that the tests were multiple choice tests or essay-based tests?
MH: There may have been, multiple choice was very, in English, it was not too common. But there may have been very, very few questions that were multiple choice or true/false answers, maybe. But other than that, filling in the blank uh, for example, they'll give us the, the verb and then depending on how it fell into a sentence you had to, uh, for example, let's say and this was not during the high school but the earlier years. You want to convert a, an active sentences into a passive sentence. They give you the active sentence and you had to change it around, um, to make it uh, uh, uh, if it's active you make it passive voice, the other way around. Or if, for example, you had two sentences, how would you join them together or, things like uh, uh, similes, metaphors, they ( ). OK, if you had to say, for example, the multiple choice might have been, which sentence is an onomatopoeia, for example, or, or a metaphor or a simile, that might have been how the multiple choice fell in.
JB: OK. So were the multiple choice tests used for English literature?
MH: No. English literature whenever they ask ( ) it was always essays, short essays.
JB: OK. And, how many questions did the tests usually include?
MH: It, it was, [pause] it was, depending on how it was split up because reading comprehension [pause] there might have been 10 to 15 questions. And that would last maybe a half hour. Uh, essays of course you have maybe a choice of to write an essay, on a choice of two or three topics one essay on, and I'll give you a couple of topics to choose from. Uh, grammar could've been up to [pause] 50 to 60 questions maybe.
JB: Uh, OK. So.
MH: So maybe the total length of the exam would be an hour and a half to two hours.
JB: OK. So did you have to get certain scores to pass the classes?
MH: The, the scoring system and the um, for example, the junior level [pause] a [pause] B an A would range, I believe, from 85 and over and the B 70 over and then it fell into 15 point increments. And to pass it, I think there was no set, I can't remember if there was a set score. I, I don't think they focused on what your score was but to make sure you improved if your score was low, they probably, end of the school year, they wanted to make sure you improved, I think they use that as a guide. That's in the junior year. But in the high school year or, or what they call senior class, classes, um secondary school, the, there was a letter grade. It was either A, B, C, D, E, or U. U would be D, D and under was a failing grade. U is unacceptable. That's the lowest possible grade and, um, during the high school, our last year in high school, the exams that we got from abroad from the, because it was the British school those exams came from England, a London board. Uh, it would also be a letter grade. And um, the, there was no pass or fail. You just knew from your grade how well you, you did.
JB: So your, in your senior year in high school, you took the test of your school and the test from England together or English classes?
MH: The, the way that worked was the last, it was, in, in high school, there's let's call the ordinary level, an O level, and then A level which is advanced level. At, at the time you reached at age 16, you would have finished the ordinary level, but if you continued high school and did another two years, which was the advanced level, then you finished at age eighteen, in those two years were equivalent to a semester of college. You could transfer some of that credit. But a lot of students stopped, unless they were going to continue in a British university, they stopped at the ordinary level, which is at age 16. And the way that worked, during the last school year, um, the midterm exams were offered by the school itself and the, uh, very similar in fashion. It was a sort of a Mark Exit, what they call the Mark O level exam, uh, which was very similar in format to the very basic exams or a set to be prepared in the UK. And then the um, the, uh, the end of the school year, those exams that come from England and they were similar, I believe, every school that followed that same system would have same exam. And they normally were offered in June and then were mailed back to England and by the time they had been graded, it was September before we got our result.
JB: So, then I'm going to ask you, how do you felt about your assessment?
MH: Um, I found English, uh, in particular, in fact that was uh, the class I struggled with the most, uh, the English exam that was offered is very, I found it very difficult. The reading comprehension was not a straight forward. You, you don't just read the, the excerpt or the passage and answer the ques-, you don't find the questions and it takes a lot of thinking, analyzing, to determine the answers. The, uh, the topics, and I can't remember exactly, but the essay topics were, but they weren't, topics that reflected on past experiences that you could write about so, the, uh, writing an essay did not come easily, it required a lot of thought. Uh, to go into writing the essay for, I believe it was an, an hour a half exam or two hour, I can't remember but for that amount of the time it was very difficult to come up with a strong essay. So uh, uh, the grammar, I think the grammar was relatively straightforward. But on average, the, the exam was, uh, difficult based on the comp-, uh the comprehension and composition topics.
JB: OK. [long pause] So [pause] uh I'm going to back to the questions on the test. And, um, were the questions based on what you learned during the classes or [pause] did you have to study more for the test if you, uh, in or in or in order to get good scores?
MH: I think especially with the English you, you even knew it by the time after the, that many years of the preparedness, it wasn't an exam to study for unless the proba-, probably the only way you can study for was to have a list of vocabulary words and try to determine their meaning, but other that that to actually try to study for an English exam was pointless. Um, and the grammar, unless certain, unless, if you knew a lot of times in English grammar there's there were always exceptions to the rules so unless you knew those, then if you didn't know, if you had not learnt the correct grammar during the 12 years of education, 11 years of education then, then studying for the last year probably wouldn't have been very helpful.
JB: So, hmm, what do you think about the importance of language assessment in general?
MH: It's [pause] it's definitely important because you know, you know where your weaknesses are and if you need to improve them. For example, if on average, uh, it, it, it's a scale to see, compared to the rest the class. For example, where you fall, in term of maybe grammar may might be your weakness, or, or if you cannot express or write a, an essay that, that has good organizational skills then you can, you can pick out where the weakness are and then work on them. So I think it's always important to have, to be, to be assessed on, on any topic, on every topic.
JB: Uh, can you tell me why you feel that way, relating it to your assessment you had before?
RECORDING PAUSED THEN RESUMED MH: At the time of the um, the assessment, of course, after, or during, while taking the exam it's um, I didn't, I thought it was the, I thought it was draw a of luck whether you are lucky you got a easier exam or a more, an exam that had better topics to choose from or better composition, a comprehension passage. So at the time, after finishing that assessment immediately afterwards I did not have a good feeling because I didn't feel that the, the, the composition, the essay I wrote was of any significance. Um, so it, it was, at the time I didn't feel it was a fair, [laugh] a fair exam like that. I thought depending on when you took it, for example, you could take it twice, those exams you could take twice a year, and either you took it in the winter or you took it in summer. And, uh, sometimes it's just the matter of luck. [Laugh] If you get an easier, no, not so much and easier exam, but an exam where you could write more on it or a passage, a comprehension passage, which was easier to understand or to answer the questions, too.
JB: So, how long have you been in the States?
MH: It will be, um, 12 years. I've been here in 12 years.
JB: Have you gotten any English classes in the US?
MH: When uh, when I first started, um, after graduating from the ordinary levels, which was at age 16, I had enough grades to uh, uh, to send to the university to accept me. And most of my grades were, uh, relatively good and they were pretty strong grades, so, so I, I went to Iowa State University, they accepted me under, my, my O level grades. And, uh, on entering the university we had an entrance exam, a math and an English, a entrance exam and of course I had to take the TOEFL. And, uh, my grade was, was pretty good, it was pretty strong so from that plus the placement exam, we could, um, they realized I just needed to start with the rest of the people, with Freshman English.
RECORDING PAUSED THEN RESUMED JB: Can you tell me what courses you took in college?
MH: The English classes?
JB: Uh-huh.
MH: Uh, there were, there were three mandatory classes. The first two, after taking the placement exam, um, was the Freshman English, which was English 101 and English 102. And English, English 101 was mainly, um, maybe composition writing and just participation in classes. Just, uh, just writing little essays in class or writing longer papers outside of class. And English, uh, English Two or English 102 was a, uh, of course it depended on the professor, but mainly paper writing. And then the third, the third mandatory class was the class but for example, um, I can tell you what the engineering and the science people had to take was technical writing. And that was taken during the junior year or, or senior year you could take it. It was a three, a 300-level class so we took it in junior or senior year. And it was how to write reports, uh, resumes, uh, proposals.
JB: Uh, so what kinds of assessment do you, did you had during the college year?
MH: In, there weren't any, there weren't really any midterm exam, there were papers, you just write, wrote papers and submitted them. Uh, by a certain deadline and it had to be, of course, following a certain format. But, uh, there were no tests in class. And the same with the, uh, same with the technical writing class. You just had to present a paper or report, or proposal, whatever the professor assigned.
JB: Uh-huh. OK. I think, yeah, I ask you all the questions, yeah, I have. So, thank you for your participation in my project.
MH: It was my pleasure.
JB: Thank you.
MH: Thank you.