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Iki dil, bir bavul

September 19, 2011

When I was in Turkey this past summer, I picked up a documentary on schooling in the Eastern provinces of Turkey. I just got around to watching it this weekend. The title translates to “Two languages, one suitcase” (English version: “On the Way to School”), and it deals with some interesting political/linguistic/cultural questions of schooling. Currently, Kurdish-speaking kids in the southwest regions of Turkey are often being taught by Turkish-speaking teachers shipped in from across the country to do a stint in rural schools early on in their teaching careers. From what I’ve heard, it’s become kind of a controversial arrangement for promoting rural schools, Turkish language, and national unity, and the film had a lot to say about it.

And yet, to reduce it to a time- and place-bound quasi-political documentary would be doing the film a great injustice. The thing that amazed me most was how well it got at the context of learning. There is this accepted educational truism that “learning occurs in context”, and that students are a product of all these diverse forces–home, relatives, peers, geography, and, ultimately, school. The astounding thing to me, though, is that the task of these filmmakers was to display that visually, and they pulled it off! Imagine how much nuanced understanding of students’ educational context it requires to actually catch it on film, and string together significant fragments on the editing board.

My favorite example:
A first-grade student comes up to his teacher and starts trying to explain in Kurdish that his pencil is broken. The teacher is busy trying to juggle a room of thirty or so 1st- through 5th graders, so he gets frustrated and admonishes the kid to speak Turkish in the classroom. The teacher then shoves a cheap little plastic pencil sharpener at the kid, telling him to just keep it and finish up his work.
When the student gets home, he runs up to his mom, shouting “Guess what? The teacher gave me a little green pencil sharpener today!” The mom, as expected, is pretty nonplussed, but the kid is delighted and starts lording it over his little sister that he’s got a pencil sharpener and she doesn’t. He heads to the living room, plops down on the floor and starts conspicuously sharpening pencils so he can practice writing his letters.

It may sound a little mundane, but it’s amazing to me to think about what had to go on behind the scenes to be able to string together that and a hundred other little educational triumphs on film. The filmmakers must have perched cameras on sofas, in doorways, on fences and desks and just surveyed the landscape. Education happens in so many of these small moments of joy and frustration, and I love how a filmmaker’s eye can help us see.

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