BOZEMAN, Mont. — Fourth-graders in Bozeman’s Irving School sang the alphabet song on a recent Friday afternoon — from alef and baa to zay and sheen — as they learned to speak some Arabic.

Mahmoud Dahroug, 28, a private school teacher from Egypt, repeated each letter’s sound and patiently demonstrated how to draw the letters on the blackboard, writing from right to left.

“Guys, look at this beautiful handwriting,” said Mahmoud, as everyone at Irving calls him. He held up one student’s sheet of paper. “This girl is an artist.”

It was a lively class. The students especially liked Mahmoud’s flyswatter game, in which two kids hold flyswatters and compete to see who is faster in swatting the correct Arabic letter on a screen as he calls out its name.

Looking dapper in a tie, Mahmoud remained polite and patient amid the kids’ late-Friday high spirits, repeating “Shokran,” often during the lesson. Thank you.

Mahmoud is one of 10 Arabic and 16 Chinese teachers paid by the U.S. State Department this year to teach children languages that the government considers critical.

Mahmoud is engaging and passionate, said Irving Principal Adrian Advincula. “He loves teaching Arabic to kids. . It’s part of our mission to develop global citizens.”

Mahmoud points out that Arabic is spoken by people in 22 countries. He said he applied for the State Department program because he wanted to see the world, improve his English skills, and strengthen his resume as a teacher.

He said he especially likes learning American sayings, like “elephant in the room” and “ride shotgun.”

His main focus this school year has been teaching Irving’s fifth-graders one hour a day. In addition, he teaches fourth-graders during their weekly hour of enrichment, visits younger kids on Thursdays, holds a weekly evening class on language and culture, and has visited with students at Bozeman High and Montana State University.

His mentor, Irving fifth-grade teacher Peter Strand, flew to Washington, D.C., last summer to meet Mahmoud, get some training and bring him back to Bozeman. Irving families greeted them at the airport. Because of MSU, Irving School has had Arabic-speaking families from Libya, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Montana was been full of surprises for the young man from Port Said, a city of more than half a million people.

“I’ve never seen snow in my life,” Mahmoud said.

As an eighth-grade English teacher back home, Mahmoud hones his skills by watching TV, especially CNN and talk shows.

“I love watching Stephen Colbert,” he said.

But the picture of the U.S. that gave him was of New York City — lots of tall buildings and noisy city life. Strand said when he first walked Mahmoud through downtown Bozeman’s Music on Main up toward Peets Hill, the young visitor was in shock, wondering, “Where are all the people?”

“It was scary,” Mahmoud recalled. “Now I appreciate quietness. The good air, the amount of trees, nature – it’s really beautiful, less crowded.”

Yellowstone Park and its geysers also didn’t fit his image of America.

“We don’t know you have this wonderful nature,” he said. “Trees, mountains – it is a wonderland.”

If his image of America was one-dimensional, Mahmoud feels Americans often have a similarly distorted picture of the Arab world. He’s surprised at how little kids here know about Arab countries and cultures.

“What Americans know is terrorism, poverty,” Mahmoud said. The thing he’d like Americans to know is that it’s better to be open-minded, he said, and “don’t have stereotypes — (like) Arabs are violent, Arabs are terrorists, they treat women badly.

“When we know somebody else’s language and culture,” Mahmoud said, “we treat them as human.”

Strand said Irving has received only one negative comment from someone who didn’t think the school should bring in an Arabic teacher. The rest of the community has been welcoming.

Elizabeth Williamson, an Irving parent and former School Board trustee, said parents passionate about teaching kids foreign languages started after-school language lessons four years ago. The fee-based program has grown to all eight elementary schools, with several languages (French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin and sign) taught by 22 coaches. The Montana World Language Initiative now has nonprofit status, and she’s executive director.

“Research shows 30 minutes a week makes kids more likely to become fluent” in another language, Williamson said.

The group hopes to start language camps with the city recreation department this summer.


Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com