Inside the four walls papered over with signs about "el futuro" and "respeto" and "noticias," a Hellgate High School languages teacher is drilling his students in how to say hello and goodbye in a foreign tongue.

Scarcely deviating from his rapid cadence, the teacher has the students stand and introduce themselves with words they just learned.

And after every correct greeting, the class of 25 claps.

"Mmtaz!" says Wael Salah Elkateeb enthusiastically. "Mmtaz! Mmtaz!" ("Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!")

In the morning, Spanish class is held in this room on Hellgate's third floor, where a teacher might laud a student's efforts with "excelente!"

But in the afternoons at Hellgate, when the room is reserved for Elkateeb and Fadi Ehlin, the school's new Arabic languages and culture teachers, the seal of approval is "mmtaz!"

More than 125 students at Sentinel and Hellgate have just begun their Arabic studies under the two. Ehlin's job with the district is permanent, but Elkateeb is on a one-year assignment from Egypt, a position funded by the U.S. State Department. He comes to Missoula via the Teachers of Critical Languages Program, which places Arabic and Chinese teachers in the U.S. for one-year assignments. The Missoula County Public Schools district was accepted into the program last year.

***

Elkateeb's usual role is reversed in his Missoula classes - English to Arabic, not Arabic to English - but if his teaching style here is the same as it is in Egypt, his students at home are required to be precise and fast.

"Listen!" says Elkateeb, his constant grin briefly disappearing as students follow his every move with their eyes, a few nervously twisting their hair. "Listen to the speaker as if you are listening to me."

On a computer, he clicks back to the beginning of the video, which is displayed on a pull-down screen of the room's south wall.

The video shows five Middle Eastern folks from various countries introducing themselves with one of the myriad ways of saying "hello" in Arabic and saying their names and the city and country they are from.

"Pay attention,"

says Elkateeb, "because she is saying this very fast."

The video stops after all five have spoken, and each of the room's five groups must answer: What was the greeting? What is the person's name? Where is he or she from?

"OK," says Elkateeb to a girl in the front row of desks circled up around him. "The greeting?"

"Sabah alkhair," the girl says.

"Mmtaz! And where is she from? What country?"

The girl pauses.

"Jordan?"

"No, that is not right," Elkateeb says kindly, understanding how tough it must be to pick the word out of a sea of foreign sounds. "She is not from Jordan."

A girl in the back row whispers to another beside her.

"He's demanding," she says.

He may be. But he's also encouraging, constantly praising the correct responses with the ever-present "mmtaz!" and gently correcting the answers that are just a tongue-click or vowel lilt away from perfect.

Each student in this Arabic I course - one of three at Hellgate - has adopted a Middle Eastern name.

"Sabrin" is asked to stand in front of the class.

"Don't be afraid," says Elkateeb, again flashing his big grin. "The person who makes mistakes is the person who succeeds best in language."

"Sabrin" does just fine, and is bombarded with more declarations of "mmtaz!"

The bell rings. The class is over. But Elkateeb wants everyone to say "goodbye."

In Arabic, of course.

"Sabah alkhair," a student says.

Not quite "mmtaz" enough for the teacher.

"Is sabah alkhair appropriate to say right now?" Elkateeb bellows to the dispersing class. "No. Because we only say that in the sabah - the morning!"

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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