Arabic in Chicago Public Schools

CMES congratulates Fadi Abughoush for ten years of service to Arabic language and Arab cultural education

Fadi Abughoush and fellow Arabic teacher Brittany Kam (center) with four of their students at the 36th International Arab Youth Congress in Amman, Jordan, July 5-11, 2017.

November 13, 2017

Lindblom Math & Science Academy, located in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, is consistently rated as one of Chicago’s top high schools. Part of what makes Lindblom special is its innovative approach to language learning. All students are required to study a foreign language and they must choose either Arabic or Mandarin, both critical languages that are not frequently taught at the high school level.

In fact, Lindblom has one of the largest Arabic world language programs for non-heritage learners in the United States. Three hundred eighty students are spread across five levels of Arabic classes, which are taught by three teachers.

One of these teachers is Fadi Abughoush, who has taught Arabic at Lindblom since he moved to the United States ten years ago. Fadi was born in Amman, Jordan. His family is Palestinian, and Arabic is his native language.

Fadi earned his BA at Jordan University in special education and taught Arabic as a second language at Al-Ma’aref School in Amman. Twice he lived in Saudi Arabia, working in special education, and he tutored a prince’s son. In 2011, Fadi completed his Master’s degree in special education at Governors State University in Illinois.

Fadi was introduced to Lindblom at a job fair and applied to be a special education teacher. While being interviewed, he was asked if he spoke Arabic and if he would be willing to teach the language instead. Fadi accepted and started working at Lindblom in 2008.

Fadi’s strategies for teaching Arabic

Fadi is now extremely active in service to the field of Arabic language education. When he started teaching Arabic and came into contact with other world language educaotrs, he noticed that the languages they taught benefitted from superior curriculum design and better teaching materials. Fadi describes the current approach to teaching Arabic as very traditional with a lot of grammar, and he thinks some instructors are too attached to these out-dated methods. In an attempt to change this, Fadi uses social media to communicate with other language teachers across the country and to exchange techniques and strategies for overcoming common challenges.

Fadi modifies his curriculum every year to incorporate recent breakthroughs and theories of language instruction. Seven years ago, Fadi went to a language workshop led by Blaine Ray, an educator who invented the Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) system.  In TPRS, teachers create stories with the students and uses these stories, along with repetition of the most commonly used words, to teach the language. After implementing this approach seven years ago, Fadi noticed that students were more quickly progressing from the novice to the intermediate level.

TPRS synchronizes with Lindblom’s recent adoption of a proficiency based learning and assessment. Proficiency based learning and assessment means that students are graded according to the progression of their language abilities. Fadi says the students take formative assessments and are assigned a lot of homework, which is intended to help them learn the language, but their grades are ultimately based on how much their language skills improve during the semester. Lindblom uses four performance indicators: reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Each of these is rated according to the standards of ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages). Fadi says that the teaching of Spanish as a second language has employed this method for a while, but it is newer to Arabic instruction.

Starting four years ago, Qatar Foundation International (QFI) created a test for Arabic students to measure their skill levels and place them in a summer Arabic course in Doha, Qatar. Out of the 400 American students who took the test, only ten were accepted, and three of them were from Fadi’s class. Amazed at the effectiveness of one teacher’s methodology, a representative from QFI came to Lindblom to observe Fadi’s teaching in action, which relies heavily on the TPRS system and proficiency based methods.

Even outside of the classroom, Fadi goes the extra mile to ensure his students are receiving the best possible Arabic instruction. Using WhatsApp, Twitter, and Google Drive, Fadi communicates with teachers across the country to learn about their strategies for teaching foreign languages. Under the hashtag #Arabiclangchat, Fadi will pose questions like: “How can students use authentic reading sources to build their vocabulary?” or “What strategies train students to be more proficient readers in Arabic?” Other language instructors and institutions will provide their responses, which are then quoted on the Twitter page.

But not all of Lindblom’s Arabic program is homework and language evaluations. Fadi also takes his students on field trips to Middle Eastern restaurants, like Al Bawadi in Bridgeview. The Lindblom Arabic program also hosts an Arab culture day, where students from other schools come to Lindblom to practice Arabic calligraphy, listen to Middle Eastern music, learn debka (a traditional Levantine folk dance), and have decorative henna painted on their hands. 

Study abroad opportunities at Lindblom

A number of Lindblom’s Arabic students have the chance to study the language abroad. Six students went to Morocco last year and four went to Jordan to participate in the International Arab Youth Congress. In 2018, several students will have the opportunity to visit Qatar. Fadi’s goal is to have as many of his students travel to Arab countries as possible. In Arabic level five, there are ten students total, and six of them have travelled to the Middle East. His goal is that half of level four students will travel abroad.

Some of Fadi's students who studied abroad and completed the Arabic curriculum at Lindblom have gone on to take Arabic courses at the University of Chicago before graduating from high school. This experience, administered through the UChicago College Bridge Program, advances their Arabic skills and  gives them a head-start on Arabic language study at the university level.

Fadi says that all of the students that travel to the region want to go back, and that some of his previous students now live in Abu Dhabi, teaching English. Many of Fadi’s students continue to study Arabic after high school. “If you want to know a people,” Fadi says, “you have to know their language.”

Furthermore, students return from study abroad and share their experiences with one another, comparing notes about differences between cultures and various local dialects.

The changing landscape of Arabic instruction

Almost all of Fadi’s students at Lindblom are non-Arabs and the first activity he does with them is ask them “what do you know about Jordan, Palestine, the Arab world?” and they write all they know. Then at the end of the semester, he has them do the same activity in order to see what they’ve learned and how their perspectives have changed. He says every year he is amazed by how much their ideas change, and he is both impressed and encouraged by his students’ willingness to travel to Morocco, Jordan, and Qatar.

When asked about the value of studying Arabic, Fadi explains that, although Arabic is considered a critical language, it is also a beautiful language that should be studied just for the sake of learning. Arabic songs, poetry, and sayings are fun to learn, and Fadi believes his students enjoy Arabic because there is such great depth to its literature, film, and visual arts. Fadi also believes that a large number of students learning Arabic will lead to a better understanding of the Arab world, especially at a time when the Middle East is so frequently portrayed in a negative light.

Last year, Fadi attended a demonstration in downtown Chicago that was in support of Syrian refugees. While there, he ran into eight of his former students, and he believes it was his Arabic class that sparked their interest in the region and its cultures. Impressed and inspired by his students civic-mindedness, Fadi says that this is the reason he teaches Arabic. He hopes that in the future we will see more schools following Lindblom's example and more students studying the language.

Hannah Porter and Alexander Barna

Support for Fadi and other Arabic language educators in the Chicago area is made possible through CMES' Title VI National Resource Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education.