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ASU student teaches English in Iraq

Closeup of a globe focusing on the Middle East

Photo by Erika Wittlieb/Pixabay

November 04, 2021

Arizona State University junior John Keane visited Iraq earlier this semester as part of a group teaching English as a second language, an experience that helped him develop skills he intends to use in his future career.

Keane, who is majoring in English with a concentration in linguistics and also pursuing a certificate in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), said the trip was relevant to his classes at ASU and confirmed his passion for helping others learn English. 

“Teaching English is exactly in line with what I’m studying,” he said. “I’ve been studying Arabic through the School of International Letters and Cultures (where Keane is also a student worker) and want to teach English overseas if I can after graduation, so this trip was also a great networking opportunity.” 

Keane was invited on the trip by Bob Blincoe, a retired Christian minister who lived in northern Iraq in the 1990s. Keane and Blincoe along with three other native English speakers were hosted by the Global English Institute in Baghdad, where they were able to provide instruction on English vocabulary. 

“John and I and the other teachers found the students eager and friendly. They want to rebuild their lives after suffering through many years of war. They want to learn English to improve their lives. We found it quite natural to make friends with Iraqis. We recognized in each other a common humanity that brings us together,” Blincoe said. 

When Keane returned to ASU, he was able to present on his experiences abroad in some of his classes, including his Studies in Second Language Acquisition course taught by Faculty Associate Ann Buckley. She said he was worried about missing class time to go on the trip. 

“However, I assured him that this is precisely the opportunity that this class should be preparing students for!” Buckley said.  

Buckley’s class this semester is focused on strategies for reaching diverse English language learners, including teaching English as a foreign language in countries where English is not among the “official” languages.  

“In addition to sharing the experience in general, John spent a lot of time talking about the kinds of students he had. Although they were all citizens of Iraq, there was a huge disparity in the age range and the educational backgrounds of his students. They were all attending his class for different reasons,” Buckley said. 

Alongside the instructional time in Baghdad, Keane and his traveling group were able to visit other modern Arab cities as well as the ruins of Babylon, which Blincoe said are buried under meters of dirt and river mud. 

“We were also there during the Shia holy month of Muharram and visited Karbala to see the festival of Ashura, where we saw people marching through a city half in ruins from the bombings of Saddam Hussein and Sunni extremist groups,” Keane said. “We saw remnants of a history dating back to the Bronze Era, and signs of the youth reconnecting with that history to break from the identity imposed by Saddam.” 

Keane said he learned a lot from his travels in Iraq and from the individuals he was teaching. He returned to ASU with a better understanding of how to effectively teach English to speakers of other languages, but he also discovered how English instruction can provide new opportunities for individuals in Iraq and other countries. 

“We were able to witness firsthand, both in the classroom and out, a country finally at an uneasy peace after decades of constant war,” he said. “We talked to many people who said there was no hope in their country, then visited a memorial for those who had had enough hope to give their lives fighting ISIS.”

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