Our December member of the Month is Najoua Hotard, born in Tunisia and currently a U.S. teacher and President of the nonprofit Institute of Critical Languages and Cultural Exchange. Najoua also administers the STARTALK Summer Institute at Louisiana State University, funded by the U.S Department of State’s National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). Najoua joined ExchangesConnect in January, 2009 so has been a member for almost one year.
Michelle: Could you tell me about your youth and where you first developed the passion for international exchange?
Najoua: I was born and raised in Tunisia. I spent most of my life in the sleepy city of Kairouan. I memorized the Quran by the age of 13 in the courtyard of the Aghlabids’ Great Mosque of Qairawan.
My family was very close to a Jewish couple who shared with me their wonderful traditions and who considered me as a daughter. As I grew up and pursued my studies of English and French literature, I have never understood the hate articles about Jewish people.
I have always thought that Saleh Addin Al-Ayyoubi was able to unite people of different social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds to live in harmony and that could be done. I took it upon myself to become a constant learner about cultures and history and learning and teaching about the ways in which every human being can add a beautiful golden thread to the tapestry of humanity. After spending two years studying English at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Le Bardo in Tunisia, I applied for a cultural exchange program called CODOFIL (Conseil du Development du Français en Louisiane) in 1977 and got accepted.
Michelle: What was it like living with the famous Connick family in New Orleans, Louisiana?
Najoua: It was the most enriching experience in my life. The Connicks had lived in Turkey, and Anita and Harry Senior met in Turkey. They shared with me their experience and were always eager to learn about the culture.
Susannah, my host sister, practiced French and was learning Arabic expressions and small dialogues with me. The family took me everywhere with them. The Connicks were always gracious to answer my questions. I will always remember how they brought me a map and explained how years ago our neighborhood was a swamp. I understood why the streets Rampart and Canal were called that way.
Mrs. Anita ensured that my culture was celebrated at her home. She brought me a gift after Ramadan, because she knew I celebrated Aid Assaghir. We joked a lot during Aid Al-kabir because we could not slaughter a sheep to reenact Abraham’s biblical story as we do in Kairouan.
The Connicks taught me the value of inter-culturality. They allowed me to negotiate my own cultural identity as I internalized and learned the characteristics of my host culture and leaned its language. They taught me how to appreciate the differences and how my readings about the “Melting Pot” are not the true example of a harmonious society. It is the diversity and difference that makes the richness and uniqueness of humanity. The Connicks taught me the meaning of agreeing to disagree and to always elaborate on statements objectively. Asking questions and inquiring about aspects I did not understand was the best way to learn.
Living with the Connicks taught me that knowledge is always the ray of light that dissipates misunderstandings. I learned from them that it is not enough to take one’s word or explanation and that the person should always research and acquire additional knowledge from many sources. A multitude of point of views enhances the synthesis that a person concluded with at the end of an inquiry.
Michelle: You are an educator right now in Louisiana (USA), right? Please tell me who you teach and what you do during your day-to-day job.
Najoua: I taught French language and literature as well as Arabic at a local high school. I have also taught at Tulane (Arabic) and Loyola (French and Arabic). I am a reader for the College Board Advanced Placement French and a certified Diversity Trainer. I also serve as an examiner for several colleges to determine their Arabic language proficiency levels. I am currently working on grants that will allow me to develop instructional materials for critical language instruction and teacher training. I am hoping to open a Charter school that emphasizes critical language instruction and teacher training. I am hoping to open a Charter school that emphasizes critical languages, conflict resolutions, diplomacy and global citizenship. ExchangesConnect is allowing me to share ideas and get feedback on the best curricula and instructional strategies.
Since 1993, I have taken many high school students on educational tours throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. During these trips, I have always made an effort to connect my students with people and encouraged them to avoid the touristic usual attractions and to focus on exploring the unique aspects of the visited countries through daily exchanges with people they meet. I have helped many students apply for Department of State programs, which opened the door of many opportunities for them to become true global citizens.
In my classroom, I believe that language acquisition has to be proficiency-based and that assessment should be a mirror image of the materials taught. Language is the vehicle of the culture; I use thematic units based on the authentic materials that I have collected throughout the years. I believe in student-centered instruction that capitalizes on the unique gifts of every learner. I believe that every human being can acquire linguistic and cultural proficiency in other languages if they are immersed in it. That is why it is crucial to have the context and authentic materials. Effective lesson planning has to be based on the hands-on approach; it is living the language and not thinking or memorizing it. Language teaching has a crucial role to make the leaner a multilingual and multicultural communicator in our world community.
Michelle: Tell me about the non-profit you founded, ICLCE.
Najoua: ICLCE is the acronym for the Institute of Critical Languages and Cultural Exchange. It is a nonprofit company that I started in 2007. The mission is to teach critical languages and engage our youth in cultural exchange programs.
Michelle: How have you best been able to use ExchangesConnect for networking? What sorts of people have you connected with?
Najoua: ExchangesConnect has been the most empowering social network. It has helped me develop friendships with people from all over the world. The engaging discussions and exchanges of ideas have stimulated my thinking and allowed me to enhance my learning.
Throughout my communication with the ExchangesConnect family, I discovered how much I did not know and how much I need to learn about wonderful cultures that I thought I had knowledge about. Most importantly, ExchangesConnect taught me the beauty of the human spirit that drives people to work and cooperate to solve the plethora of problems that challenge our daily life.
Thanks to ExchangesConnect, I connected with American Councils and the New Orleans Citizen Diplomacy Council. I had the honor this past week to host our guests from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The first thing I shared with them is the great knowledge I learned about India through ExchangesConnect friends and we are planning to continue communicating though this wonderful network.
I was the examiner for UNO Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Program Arabic students this past Friday and I shared with them the great opportunities they can learn about through ExchangesConnect.
I have recently served as Arabic language examiner for UNO students who are eager to continue their language and cultural acquisition. I recommend they become members of ExchangesConnect to continue their journey.
One of the most rewarding moments of being part of the ExchangesConnect family was an e-mail I got from [ExchangesConnect member] Dr. Ikram- ul-Islam who used the picture I posted from my trip to the Colorado Mountain in his class in Pakistan. Dr. ul-Islam plans on working with me to offer Urdu Language programs in the future.
Michelle: Your “What is culture” discussion is one of our most popular discussions so far. Considering all the responses around the world that you got, what would you say that your most complete definition of culture is?
Najoua: From the great contributions of all the members of ExchangesConnect family, I learned the problematic nature of finding a precise definition of culture. There is no agreement on a specific set of guidelines that determine what culture is.
The most powerful reflection that came out of the forum is that every participant contributed a characteristic of culture and what it means to them. All the descriptions had a uniting thought that sees culture as the vehicle that encompasses patterns of meaning, reality, values, actions, and decision-making which are shared by a group of people within a community. It is the shared way of life, behaviors, and meaning that tie the people in a particular group together.
Culture influences our actions and work unconsciously on the day-to-day level. It works on human beings by osmosis. The unconscious and hidden aspects of culture are as significant as the overt manifestations. For the most part, culture is learned; it is social and not biological, not genetically inherited. Culture is transmitted.
Aspects of a culture, such as food, are learned. For instance, some cultures eat dogs, alligators, snakes, and others do not eat cheese. I will always remember how one of my visiting friends in Tunisia was admiring the aroma of what my mother was preparing for supper. My mom and I did not get a chance to explain the ingredients. Janice devoured the food with a large piece of homemade bread. She did not want to eat the baked fresh fish my mom cooled for her specially. After the meal, Janice asked what the amazing dish she just had was and why I never prepared it for her in the U.S. When I told her it was cow brain, she ran to the bathroom and threw up. This shows that some cultural aspects related to cuisine and diet fall into a different category.
Culture is dynamic and constantly changing. All people have a culture. Culture is the definition of being human. The 19th century term “culturally deprived” is an oxymoron. No society or group is culturally deprived. We are all culturally different, but we all share the common trait of having a culture.