Making the foreign familiar: Fulbright scholar uses international experience to transform her classroom

A UAB School of Education instructor was awarded a Fulbright grant and traveled to Morocco to study local classrooms.

Becker3Becker extended her stay in Morocco a few days to experience more of the culture. For two weeks, Abby Becker was submerged into a culture that she had never experienced before and was able to live, eat and work as the locals did. Being surrounded by strangers who spoke a different language, Becker was able to recognize the struggle that most of her students in Homewood, Alabama, face every day.

Becker, an English language learner teacher at Hall-Kent Elementary, was awarded a Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms grant in February 2018. The grant is a yearlong professional development opportunity for elementary, middle and high school teachers in the United States to grow skills to prepare students for a competitive global economy. Since 2011, fewer than 500 teachers have received this honor, which provided Becker an opportunity to take online courses on global education, visit Washington, D.C., and travel to Morocco.

“I feel that one of the greatest benefits of international travel is the empathy it builds for others,” Becker said. “In fact, it was international travel that led me to my current profession of working with English language learners. My brief experience of attempting to navigate life in a different country made me want to help those who were migrating on a more permanent and vital basis. This trip to Morocco certainly renewed that passion.”

Becker, who is also an adjunct instructor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction, hopes this global awareness can also impact her students at UAB and they can use her experiences to shape their future classrooms. 

From the United States to Morocco

To prepare for the 4,500-mile trip, Becker met with a Moroccan native who lives in Washington, D.C., and learned about the country’s culture. In addition to preparing herself, she had to inform her kindergarten and first- and second-grade students of her upcoming journey.

Using a slideshow, she showed her students where she would be traveling and explained that, during her absence, she would be teaching other students. Excited for their teacher, the students wanted to help Becker get ready for her time in Morocco.

“My class wrote letters, made books and created flip grid videos to tell my Moroccan students about our school in America,” Becker said. “My students, along with other colleagues, also helped me create the materials I distributed.

Becker5Becker and another scholar in front of one of the host schools in Morocco. “My space was very limited; but I was able to take posters, printable books. The UAB Department of Curriculum and Instruction also provided some fun items such as flashlights, earbuds and lip balm for my Moroccan students.”

With a knowledge of the culture, her UAB goody bags and the support of her students, Becker was ready for Morocco. 

Diving into the culture

The first week was spent in the capital city of Rabat, meeting with education officials.

“Our country liaison led us in workshops about Moroccan culture, education and life,” Becker said. “It was amazing to learn about the culture in class and then go out and experience it firsthand.”

Her second week was spent in host communities, where she visited schools and shadowed teachers. Becker worked directly with students, an experience that allowed her to incorporate global perspectives that she could apply to her own classroom. 

“In traveling to another country and exploring their daily life, you move past ideas of ‘otherness’ and recognize the similarities in people,” Becker said. “The opportunity to travel with the particular purpose of exploring their educational system allowed me to connect with other educators through the commonalities of honoring students, valuing the teaching profession and desiring to improve in our craft.”

Becker extended her stay to see more sights of the country. Some of her favorite memories include vising Chefchaouen (also known as the blue city), trying escargot in a local market and hiking in the Atlas Mountains. All of these experiences, while fun, became another learning moment for Becker.

“Walking around the city, I was able to get a little glimpse into the life of a new immigrant, trying to navigate an unfamiliar environment where you do not speak the language,” Becker said. “It was a great empathy-building experience since many of my students and their families are new to the U.S.”

Bringing Moroccan culture back to Alabama

Back in Alabama, Becker could not wait to share her international experience with students. She incorporated online quizzes into her classroom — inspiration from a host teacher — and found a new appreciation for all of the resources that the Alabama school system provides. Becker hopes that the result from her travel abroad will go beyond her classroom door and spread throughout the school. 

“A phrase I like to use to summarize the purpose of the trip is ‘making the foreign familiar,’” Becker said. “Several teachers at my school have now formed a global community that is exploring how to become a more global school. Through relationships I built in Morocco, I will continue to connect our students with Moroccan students so that our school can engage in global awareness.”