CDO principal learns from trip to Turkey - Tucson Local Media: Import

CDO principal learns from trip to Turkey

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Posted: Tuesday, June 8, 2004 11:00 pm

A busload of Turkish eighth-graders stepped off their school bus, stunned.

Six hours on Turkey's bumpy roads had not delivered them to the comfy urban hotel they'd envisioned when they left their school in Ankara that morning on an overnight fieldtrip.

They weren't in a city, they were in the middle of nowhere. They weren't at a hotel, they were at a dorm-like building - a care facility for old folks.

When they put two and two together, out came the cell phones, and "snap" went their built-in cameras. "Mom, guess where they're making us spend the night?" the students conveyed in words and pictures.

Michael Gemma, a Tucson principal far from home, mused at the undeniably 21st century scene.

"This must be how it is in America, too," he thought, looking out across all the cell phones.

Within minutes, fieldtrip supervisors began fielding calls from parents irate about the unacceptable boarding arrangements.

That night the students slept in a comfy urban hotel, and a few weeks later, Gemma - who hadn't participated in a school fieldtrip in years - returned to Tucson with a deeper understanding of his world.

During his Fulbright exchange experience in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, he found that when you leave home to experience life in another culture, you return with greater insight about your own.

That's what the Fulbright program is all about. It was formed by Congress in 1946 to give educators a chance to learn about the structure and educational philosophy of a foreign school.

Gemma spent six weeks in April and May visiting the Middle East Technical University Develop-ment Foundation, the K-11 school under the direction of Hakki Mergenci, who spent six weeks at Canyon del Oro High School, where Gemma is principal, in November and December.

Fulbright paid for airfare and paid each a $3,000 stipend. In exchange, the administrators agreed to provide housing for each other.

During his visit in Turkey, Gemma gained a new perspective on schooling in America.

"I was trying to look at their system to see what seems to work best that we can emulate," he said.

What he found when he looked beyond Turkey's school uniforms, smaller classrooms and its students' habit of rising to speak - which Gemma joked about having not seen since he left Catholic school - was a well-integrated curriculum.

Students enrolled in biology, chemistry and physics classes all at the same time.

When students studied the human body, they could talk about muscle tissue (biology), the electrons in muscle tissue (chemistry), and arm strength (physics).

"The idea is that no science is learned in isolation," Gemma said.

When various sciences are combined, that leads to teaching in themes, Gemma said. To this end, he said he has given some thought to teaching every high school course under two themes important to Arizonans: land and water.

"Arizona is all about land and water," he said, noting water scarcity and land rights issues.

"The integrated studies is one thing I think America should be looking at to make education more relevant to students," he said.

While in Turkey, Gemma also saw what happens when standardized testing - a disputed topic in America education today - is taken to its extreme.

For Turkish students wanting to enter a university, all hopes and dreams hinge on one exam that lasts one and a half hours. Course grades and extracurricular activities mean nothing.

The result? High school students stop attending classes when testing time rolls around. They skip school to prepare with private tutors instead.

"When it gets close to the testing time, kids tune out of the normal curriculum," Gemma said. "It's all about testing - nothing else matters.

Gemma saw cafeteria lines get shorter, empty seats turned up at assemblies, and classrooms start looking like ghost towns.

One day, he talked with a teacher, who was in the teacher's lounge because not a soul had shown up to her class.

"It would be like on one of our infamous senior ditch days," he said, of the months-long student shortage.

Gemma said the Turkish teachers he talked to were not happy with their high-stakes testing system. It made students question the validity of taking arts classes, when they meant nothing toward the final goal of higher education.

"Turkey is saying 'we would like to move more toward your system, and we are going the other direction," he said.

Otherwise, he saw teachers educated in similar methodology as teachers in America, and even using some of the same textbooks.

Besides Turkish students' early proficiency in a second language and their superior grasp of geography - "No kid was saying, 'Where's Arizona," Gemma said - the students' schooling had much in common with schooling in America, Gemma said.

"It's reinforcement that what we are doing is not only useful and practical, but good basic strategy," he said.

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