Collaborative Learning at Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture course

This has been a busy week for a group of educators at the Albert M. Greenfield Intercultural Center at UPenn. From 9:00am until well past dusk, Arabic language and music teachers have joined together to participate in Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture course. Although I am neither a teacher nor a musician, I, too, have spent the week learning Fairouz lyrics and Arab rhythm in my capacity as researcher/volunteer with Al-Bustan. And what an amazing week it has been!

Al-Bustan’s course is designed to facilitate collaboration and cross-disciplinary approaches to education, both topically and methodologically. Guided by the shared theme of Arab music, the course teaches participants several ways to incorporate Arab music and cultural content into their curricula–and their classrooms. It is also a crash course in Arab music history, with a focus on the Egyptian and Lebanese cultural contexts and the careers of iconic singers Um Kulthum and Fairuz. And who better to teach than Hanna Khoury, Kinan Abou-afach, Hafez Kotain, and Hicham Chami, members of Al-Bustan’s Resident Takht Ensemble? 

Hanna Khoury leads the music teachers and members of the takht ensemble. 

In the mornings, Abou-afach, a professional musician and educator, guides the Arabic language educators in the rhythms of Arabic poetry, which he learned from his father in Syria, himself a poet. Specifically, the teachers are learning to recognizing patterns and meters (al-bahar/buhur) in poetry so that they will be able to compose short songs using poetry in their classes. In the afternoons, Chami, a graduate student of ethnomusicology and Islamic Studies, leads discussions on how to integrate music into Arabic curricula. Discussions have ranged from the challenge of selecting appropriate, or culturally representative, music for different audiences to the usefulness of music as an instrument of language learning. As a culminating exercise, the educators split into groups to design a lesson plan, which they will present on Friday. Finally, the Arabic language teachers work with Khoury on a number of Arabic songs, which they will perform as a choir at the end of the week with the accompaniment of the music teachers and the takht ensemble. Khoury also teaches music educators the theory of Arab music, from the tetrachords and scales to its unique rhythms and maqamat. The teachers, many of whom are multi-instrumentalists, are also learning several pieces of music, which they hope to use with their students. And, finally, Ali Kotain instructs both music and Arabic language teachers in the basics of Arab percussion.

Kinan Abou-afach shows the Arabic teachers the rhythms of Arabic poetry.

Hicham Chami listens as the Arabic teachers design a lesson plan. 

In spite of their separate coursework, there is still much space for collaboration and conversation between the two groups, who start and finish each day together. In the mornings, the educators gather for lectures on Arab culture from scholars such as Marwan Kraidy, Alon Tam, and the instructors Hanna Khoury and Hicham Chami. In the afternoons, the choir and instrumentalists rehearse together before dinner, which provides another opportunity to unwind, network and learn. Students have also connected over Hazami’s homemade breakfasts, lunches on the patio, and catered dinners, not to mention during the evening’s extracurricular activities, which have included a dabke lesson, a film, and more. 


What strikes me as particularly unique and special about this course is just such opportunities: For educators — with different approaches, focuses, even disciplines – to join together and learn practical skills relevant to their classrooms but also to gain critical skills and knowledges from each other. One music teacher in a local school told me that she is here not only to learn about Arabic music but also to help better understand her students, many of whom are Arab immigrants. An Arabic teacher told me that she is here to learn music, which she did not have an opportunity to explore as a youth. For these two women, and hopefully many others, this week provides a unique chance to learn from others with differing, but complementary, skills and objectives. Personally, I am thrilled to have made so many new connections to people from whom to learn and grow. What’s more exciting than spending a week with people with shared interests and differing experiences? I certainly can’t think of much.

The course culminates in a performance this Friday, June 27th at 7pm at the Iron Gate Theatre on UPenn’s campus. We hope you will join us to celebrate the accomplishments of these educators, the hard work and dedication of our great faculty, and the end of what has been an extremely successful and intense week!

– Jane Lief Abell

PhD student in Anthropology, UPenn 
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One thought on “Collaborative Learning at Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture course

  1. Excellent job Jane! It was such an incredible and unique learning experience and I truly appreciate all of the wonderful things that Al-Bustan does. Yesterday as the concert was ending I became very emotional. It felt as if I was about to wake up from a very beautiful dream and I did not want it to end…I hope to come back to Al-Bustan again soon!

    – Arabic teacher from New York 🙂

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