Exchanging ideas across a cultural divide - The Explorer: Import

Exchanging ideas across a cultural divide

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Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 12:00 am | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Had they been in Turkey, the students would have paid attention to their math teacher.

Hakki Mergenci would have demanded it. He would have picked out a desk in the front row, leaned on it, shook his finger in someone's face, and said, "Hey, stop. Listen to me."

They all would have listened.

But this was America - Seattle in 1993, to be exact.

He could not shout at students in America. He could not ruffle up like an irate rooster and expect to command respect.

If his whole class decided to tune him out 10 minutes into a lecture, he couldn't shame them into tuning him back in - even if he was a mighty popular teacher in Turkey.

No, instead he had to win them.

Had Mergenci failed to find a way, had he bumbled painfully through his whole year in Seattle, he might never have decided to land in Tucson for a second Fulbright exchange.

But he made a discovery a decade ago. In trying to feed math to his finicky American audience, he stumbled on a marvelous concept - an innovation for Turkey. He discovered that students learn best when they're active.

It left him wanting to explore American classrooms again.

Class Visitations

Mergenci walks in stride with Canyon del Oro High School's principal, Michael Gemma, across the school's dusty desert campus.

Cacti grow taller than people, here. The mountain rising above the cafeteria building is as barren as ones in American Old West movies broadcast across the world.

This is not Seattle.

Mergenci walks deferentially with his hands clasped behind his back. Gemma moves about confidently, rattling the change in his pocket and twirling his sunglasses.

For six weeks, the top administrator of one of Turkey's most prestigious K-11 schools will be a mere shadower.

As an exchange administrator in the Fulbright program, which Congress formed in 1946, he will have a chance to learn about the structure and educational philosophy of a foreign school.

The same fate awaits Gemma when he arrives at Mergenci's campus in March.

It's Wednesday, Nov. 12 - a day for visiting classrooms.

The administrators have just exited a free-form economics class, as it were, where desks and students were scattered about. Some students sat atop desks.

The class was charged with the weighty task of solving a national crisis. Divided into consultant teams for President Bush, they were busy solving

serious oil problems amid the chaos of unaligned desks when the two administrators walked in.

As Gemma and Mergenci make their way to a freshman English class, now, Gemma explains that desk chaos is made possible by the school's 100-minute-block class periods.

"When every period is 50 minutes long, it's very easy for a teacher to sit up in front of class and talk all period," he says. "When they're 100 minutes long, you have to do different things. That was the whole idea in the movement of the block schedule - it was to get people to try different things."

A sign on the freshman English door indicates that desk chaos is an issue in this classroom as well. It asks that chairs not be rearranged, as they are already situated for the day's activities.

"You'll see a difference in the attitudes of the students," Gemma says as he swings open the door. These students are younger.

This class is charged with devising board games based on their assigned fantastical reading, "The Odyssey."

The stakes seem somewhat low when compared with the seniors' task of quieting a national crisis. Nevertheless, these freshmen are serious about their games.

In Turkey, teachers lecture and students scribble notes. That's mostly how it works. It's tradition.

Mergenci has entreated his faculty to be non-traditional about class participation.

"Why don't you force the kids to speak?" he's urged. "Try to make them speak."

Mergenci discovered the benefits of talkative students during his one-year stay in Seattle. But he knows what they say about old habits.

Mergenci looks up from students' various rudimentary plans for Mythology Monopoly-type games, and sees a familiar image.

The Trojan Horse stares out from the classroom bulletin board, amid lists of Greek gods and admonitions about "hubris."

Mergenci is quite familiar with that horse. A large-scale model of the Trojans' sinister peace offering resides near present-day Troy, one of Turkey's many popular tourist spots.

Father of the Turks

The placement of Troy in Turkey just goes to show that while the Greeks might get credit for sowing seeds of Western civilization, they did much of their planting on Turkish soil.

Turkey's history covers the Greek and Persian empires, and extends past the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Or, if you take a narrower view, it began 80 years ago.

That's when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk proclaimed the birth of a new nation - the Republic of Turkey.

"Atatürk" means "father of the Turks." In Mergenci's version of history, everything starts with Atatürk.

The man was an innovator. Had he not been such a heavy drinker, had he lived past his 57th birthday, he probably would have agreed with Mergenci's non-traditional entreaty to his faculty: Force those kids to speak.

Atatürk was as non-traditional as it gets.

That's why his portrait hangs in every classroom at Middle East Technical University Development Foundation, the K-11 school Mergenci oversees.

It's why, on special occasions, the man's portrait hangs on the front of the school building on a banner.

It's why there's Atatürk Boulevard, Atatürk Street, Atatürk Cultural Center, Atatürk International Airport, and scads of Atatürk statues in village squares. It's why foghorns and car horns blow each time the anniversary of the man's death arrives.

It's why, as Mergenci perused his students' online schedules from a computer in Tucson, he noticed his fourth graders were giving an Atatürk presentation.

After claiming presidency in 1923, Atatürk had established a brand-new alphabet made of Latin letters rather than Arabic ones. He'd nixed Islam as the state religion and had legalized alcohol. He'd instituted street numbering, made Sunday (rather than Friday) a day of rest, and abolished that distinctive Turkish tassled hat - the fez.

He'd westernized the Turks with abandon. He'd even decreed that all citizens must adopt last names.

"Mergenci." It was the nonsense name a government officer assigned to Mergenci's orphaned father. As far as Mergenci knows, no one outside his immediate family shares it.

In 80 golden years, Turkey's school enrollment shot up from 360,000 to 15 million - a 44-fold increase.

Mergenci was one of the enrolled.

He went to elementary school, middle school and high school, and then he set off for Middle East Technical University - a cutting-edge school in the clean, modern capitol city of Ankara.

Mergenci graduated and became a physics teacher at one of Turkey's best private high schools, where he stayed 31 years.

He loved teaching.

When he discovered the Fulbright teacher exchange program in 1993, he applied right away to teach math in America.

When you step outside of your world, you notice things that you never noticed before, he knew. You become innovative.

Innovation is good.

Each new Turkish elementary student learns, after all, to revere Atatürk, the relentless tradition breaker who yanked Turkey into the 20th century.

Without Atatürk, would Turkey have been the first country to elect a woman to the Supreme Court? Would it now have a shot at joining the European Union?

No, Mergenci had said. Without Atatürk, the little country linking Europe and Asia would be just like Iran and Iraq.

Cultural Differences

Two bombs have just exploded in Turkey.

It's Tuesday, Nov. 20.

One bomb has brought devastation to a British bank in Istanbul, the other one has hit the city's British Embassy. At least 25 are dead, and another 400 are wounded. Al-Queda terrorists are suspected.

Mergenci calls home.

His stepdaughter has had a rough day. She was planning to vacation in Jordan, and walked out of the Egyptian Embassy in Istanbul only 10 minutes before a bomb exploded in the British one nearby.

Mergenci contacts his faculty by e-mail.

They are shaken, but the fear will pass. The Middle East is an unstable region. You get used to seeing unspeakable horrors, and then seeing that life goes on. Five days before, suicide bombers caused 25 deaths at two Istanbul

synagogues.

As the citizens of Turkey reach out to each other in fear and grief, Mergenci sits alone in a bizarrely decorated office in a foreign land.

Anti-drug messages overpower all other messages on the walls.

"Say no to alcohol and drugs abuse."

"What direction will drugs take you?"

"You belong in school, drugs don't."

"Softball: My anti-drug."

In Turkey, you don't encounter such a glut of slogans discouraging illegal substances. At Mergenci's school, you don't even encounter a sign that says "Smoking is forbidden." It's assumed everybody knows that.

In Turkey, Mergenci's friends and family, along with the rest of the 90-percent-Muslim majority, are gearing up for the month-long Ramadan feast celebrating the revelations Muhammad received from God. In Tucson, the only big feast will consist of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie - it's Thanksgiving.

During the days, time passes quickly in Tucson.

During the nights, Mergenci misses home.

The Right Stuff

America is a casual country. After three weeks in Tucson, Mergenci has shed his spiffy suit coat in favor of a sweater.

He's standing in front of a class of journalism students, answering the interview questions that they have prepared.

The aspiring reporters want to know how their teen culture compares with teen culture in Turkey. They want to know whether kids in Turkey get along with their parents. They want to know whether the Turkish school administrator sees glaring problems with education in America.

"I don't see any problem," he says, addressing the last question. "This doesn't mean you don't have any problems. To see problems, you have to be here for a long time."

Mergenci sees differences, though.

He notices how students sometimes leave classrooms with hall passes and then pause at snack machines to grab candy bars before returning to their desks. He notices how students never rise to their feet respectfully and project their voices when answering teachers' questions.

He notices casual slouching and gum chewing, too.

"If I compare your class and one class from my school, the kids here have more freedom," he tells the students. "They move very freely. They don't have many constraints on them."

Mergenci notices slouching, yes, and he also notices active learning.

Take the aspiring reporters, for example. They're scribbling away in their notebooks, firing off their interview questions, and actually doing journalism rather than just hearing about it.

Class time is student-oriented.

"In Turkey it's teacher-oriented," Mergenci tells the students. "We are trying to change that."

Another Innovator

There's a well-known story people tell about Ataturk, the father of the Turks.

It's said that he once asked his scholars how long it would take to create a pure Turkish language, purged of all foreign influences. They told him it would take at least five years. He set a deadline based on their input:

"We shall do it within five months."

Arabic letters gave way to Latin ones. Atatürk traveled around the country, teaching the new alphabet in public squares. That's how he became known as "head teacher."

A famous photograph shows the head teacher in action in public squares - Turkey's master innovator.

Mergenci first saw the photograph in elementary school. Decades later, he stood in front of a roomful of bored American teen-agers in Seattle, trying to devise ways to pound math into their unreceptive heads.

He couldn't shout, he couldn't ruffle up, and he couldn't understand much of what the students were saying because they talked fast and used teen-ager lingo.

In Turkey, Mergenci was so popular that his students invited him to attend their high school reunions. In America, nobody listened to him.

"I have a problem," he finally confessed to a fellow math teacher. "They won't listen to me."

The teacher told him to visit other classrooms.

In them he found intriguing scenes. Teachers stood around and drank coffee as students tended themselves. Lectures lasted 10 minutes. Everyone looked so relaxed.

The next day, Mergenci showed up to class with a teacup in his hand. He put his teen-agers to work, and proceeded to stand around.

It was fun - so much fun that he took his strategy back to Turkey.

He booted up his new computer and created handouts that his students could use to discover physics for themselves. At first they didn't know what to do with the break from tradition, but they came around.

When Mergenci accepted his job as general director of the Development Foundation School in Turkey, he believed all students and teachers should discover activity-centered learning.

The school was a trendsetter, after all - one of the best private schools in the country.

But what did America's active-learning movement look like outside math classes? What did it look like in English, or art, or history?

After six weeks at Canyon del Oro High School, Mergenci has some ideas.

It looks like chatty freshmen inventing board games based on "The Odyssey." It looks like mock-consultant teams scooting their desks together to generate sound advice for the President. It looks like students scribbling the answers to prepared questions.

Mergenci will return to Turkey with much material about how one school in America is organized. He knows something about how its academic effectiveness is monitored, how its teachers are evaluated, and how its class schedule is drawn up.

It's quite possible that he'll also return home with an old proverb ringing in his head. During his six weeks in Tucson, he's mentioned it in conversation several times.

"If you tell me I forget," it says. "If you show me I remember, if you involve me, I learn."

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