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June 27, 2010 / Ben Chun

The Context

I remember the third principal I worked for telling me (during my second year of teaching, if that gives any sense of how things at that school were going)

Ben, this business we’re in is a person-to-person business. There’s no way around that.

While I’m glad the situation at that school changed and I’m glad I moved on, his comment has stuck with me. The amount of information that a person can intake from another person is far beyond what we can articulate in words, let alone begin to approximate in automated systems. And in helping someone learn, all of that information isn’t just useful, it’s necessary.

So it is with this perspective that I have arrived here in Jerusalem, ready to help a class of high school students continue with their computer science education in an intense summer program where they attend (and we teach) 8 hours a day. For many of my colleagues this will be among their first teaching experiences, and I am impressed both with the technical knowledge and the amount of energy being poured into our preparations. Lots of code is being written, and lectures, labs, and lessons are being prepared in greater detail than I usually do for my own high school classes. If continuous learning and engagement with the subject are what you want to measure, we are model teachers.

The nonprofit NGO, MEET, of which we’re now part is no less impressive in the amount of care they’ve taken to help us rapidly come to grips with (or at least get a rudimentary orientation of) the sociopolitical situation here in the Mideast. It would be a vast understatement to say that things are complex, multifaceted, and confusing. We got a backgrounder from Dr. Hillel Cohen that helped us understand that there are multiple narratives around the same facts. This past weekend — which is Friday and Saturday in Israel — we went on a tour of East Jerusalem with Ir Amim and on a guided tour of the Old City.

While I saw far too much to recount accurately, those two days left me with a few general impressions:

  • People can use armies and bombs to fight, but they can also use houses and trees. Populating a given area is one way to make a claim on that land. And that kind of war is being fought here by both sides.
  • The plight of the Arab people living in East Jerusalem is particularly visible, with a 9-meter security wall rippling through the city and following its own line in many places. Even where there isn’t a wall, you can easily tell who lives in a given neighborhood by looking at how municipal resources are allocated: where are there sidewalks and parks and schools… and where are there not?
  • Life goes on day by day, even though ancient conflicts remain unresolved in a dynamic equilibrium. People go to the market, go to school, fall in love, make decisions, get dressed in the morning, have their ups and downs, knowing all of this could be flipped on its head at any moment. I guess that’s true everywhere, and it’s interesting to have it be extremely salient.
  • Religions drive people to do a bunch of things that, from the outside, don’t make any sense: Not just all the fighting but also the devotion of scarce resources to pilgrimage and support of institutions that aren’t working to solve (and in many cases exacerbate) the systemic problems of life in this world. It’s one thing to say that different belief structures cause people to interpret the world in different ways. It’s another thing to be fully immersed in it, and that’s where I am.

With all of these new awarenesses — and a much-improved sense of the history of the region — I’m thinking about the person-to-person business of teaching. I’ve only ever had American students! I’m looking forward, and keeping my eyes open, to the depth of the differences in how two people understand the same places or events or ideas, and to the opportunities to know each student in order to help them learn. I know I’ll be doing just as much learning as they will.

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