Working in Turkey was one of the best teaching experiences I have been a part of. For this edition of the Know My World Global Nomad blog, I would like to share about my experience in Istanbul and interview Naomi, a tenured teacher and previous colleague from Utopya Primary and Secondary School.
For one year, I took an early and primary education teaching job at Utopya Primary and Secondary School in Istanbul, Turkey. My time there revealed one of the most magical cities in the world. Full of culture and history, I found the people to be friendly and hospitable, with comforting food, amazing Mosques, and beautiful vistas. I recall watching the ferry boats crossing the Bosporus and how these warm memories contributed to the connections and curriculum I established in the classroom.
Utopya School was slightly alternative compared to other schools in the region. The curriculum put great emphasis on outside play, feeding the imagination, and focusing on the creativity of the student, more so than following a overly structured path for learning. My role was to teach several sessions in pre-kindergarten and Grades 1-3. At the primary school, my boss became very interested in my travels and asked me to write a specialized curriculum we titled Culture Class. We designed a passport to the students and learned about many countries around the world. Each time we completed unit, we placed a stamp on the passports. For each country we learned about items like their flags, capital city, and made an art piece related to the country. Sometimes we played the national sport or cooked a national dish. It was an amazing experience for these students to practice English Language Arts skills through learning about the world.
With the preschool class, I did weekly mindfulness activities. We learned about mindfulness, about being in the moment, connecting to nature, breathing exercises to relieve anxiety, and kindness towards ourselves and others. I was very fortunate to have this school allow me to teach these things which I am very passionate about. I felt quite lucky that this school was welcoming to my ideas, and that the parents of the students received these teachings with an open mind. Other teachers at the academy were also welcomed to bring their talents and new ideas, third languages were taught to students such as French, Spanish or German. They also had a Japanese teacher who taught soroban, origami, and traditional Japanese instruments. The openness and inclusion of the learning communities ideas and skills made this not only a rewarding experience for me and other teachers, but for the students as well. It was a pleasure to work at this school in Istanbul. I built many friendships and learned various teaching strategies and methods from my colleagues. I decided to reconnect with my previous colleague and friend, Naomi, a teacher from the primary school.
Where are you from and where do you live?
I’m from Blackburn, England and I currently live in Istanbul, Turkey for the past 6 years.
Where and what do you teach in Istanbul?
I teach English to grades 1st, 3rd and 6th at a school called Utopya Primary and Secondary School.
How long have you taught at Utopya Primary and Secondary School?
For 5 years now.
What curriculum does Utopya use?
We follow the MEB, Ministry of Education Board. We follow an English and Turkish curriculum.
We are very free in our curriculums but there are also set level indicators. These indicators tell us what the students need to know by the end of year by CEFR Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, levels of english A1 to C2.
For example in first grade students need to understand basic punctuation, basic grammar, and how to write their own names. Certain math skills as well are needed to be completed before their first year is over. This is English as a second language, but they are also taught in Turkish in all other subjects. We also do global studies and arts in English.
I remember parents really being involved at this school, can you elaborate on that.
It’s important that parents are involved at school, we like to build a relationship with the school and parents. For the younger preschool students, we have a link book communication system to talk daily to parents. Parents are encouraged to be active at all developmental stages of a child from preschool to grade 8. We have family style lunches at school, and we have a saying at our schools that parent have to be on the school boat with us.
We also have special parent days such as Coffee Mornings, where parents come and do an activity together with their children and teachers. Another example is the Lantern Festival, where we light up lanterns and take a walk to the nearest forest and we sing songs together, drink hot drinks and tell stories by the fire. Prior to that each classroom makes jam or soaps or an art piece and we sell them at the festival.We host a family sports day where different sporting activities are set up around the school and the kids with their parents go play and of course teachers play with them too.
Lastly, we have shows, holiday show and the end of year show. Also some shows for Turkish holidays such as commemoration of Ataturk, children’s day, and Okuma Bayram which is reading day for first grade.
We also have parent – teacher meetings at least twice per semester, where we discuss “all about me” forms for preschoolers and assessment reports for primary. Here we discuss child development like oral communication, reading and writing skills, effort and motivation, and areas for development.
What makes your school unique?
I think the fact that the teachers can be creative and are not tied down to a specific book or lesson plan. We are allowed to expand on many topics based on our experiences. We take the topic and make it our own. We also think about what the children like and incorporate that too. We try to teach them life skills, nothing is off limits in what we wish to bring to our classrooms. We teachers at Utopya focus on teaching respect and responsibility, to be prepared for the world, etc.
How is your school system different from the education system in Turkey?
The education system in Turkey is very much forced on certain subjects but the students are not taught how to think freely and act independently and real life skills. No interaction in pair work and group work and critical thinking. Whereas in our school we do a lot of outside activities, the children are free to play and develop activities themselves. We give them the tools so they can complete the jobs themselves. We’re there to guide them. Student and teacher engagement is important and student to student engagement. We teach them to speak up and have their own voice. We teach them about empathy and humility. Also we have very small class groups 8-10 students per class, but in public schools of Istanbul you could have 30+ students in every class, and they are expected to just sit and listen. At Utopya we value students’ options, we value team building and social skills.
Share your story about a memorable classroom experience
We have topic based writing skills lessons which take about 6 weeks to complete, with each week getting deeper into the topic. With my third grade class we decided to write a fairytale. At first, I introduced what a fairytale was, we read a fairytale together so I could engage their interested before we started writing. Every week we focused on a different part such as a setting, keywords, characters, identifying a fairytale with “once upon a time” or “happily ever after”, and also discuss coming up with a problem in the story which then we find a solution for and conclusion at the end, also including an element of magic somewhere in the story. The students had to come up with ideas, then we started with graphic organizers, outline storyline, outline characters, etc. I also had to have some differentiation in these stories because in this class I had students that were at a different level of English than the rest of the class. So I had to modify the fairy tales based on their level, some of them had a 3 paragraph story, some 5 and some 6 and so on. So it is the same story but differentiated with each level of the students. They would write their drafts, we would correct them together and then the students continued with second draft.
When the holidays came, what they had for homework was to have their final draft ready to be published. Based on the work they had done in class, they then had to take it home and complete the fairy tale. When they came back after the holidays, I was quite shocked at the results. Many of them had made binding books, they all got very creative with the illustrations, and also included a table of contents page and so on. They looked like a real books with a cover, illustration, mentioning of written by and illustrated by. It was a proud moment for me to see these fairy tales, because I understand with English being a second language, and writing skills could be quite difficult for these students because they are learning Turkish grammar at the same time as English grammar, and that is so different from one another. But these 3rd graders had grasped the concepts and understood what they needed to do. It was a beautiful moment to see the 6 weeks of hard work had payed of to be this beautiful published scripted books that they wrote.
Share a personal cultural experience
Living in Istanbul you can feel the vast history of the place by going through its different neighbourhoods. Istanbul has a bit of everything. There is a division of east and west, east is more conservative and west more liberal and open minded. But living there for 6 years now I have learned so much from this culture, its history, their curiosity, and absolutely love their hospitality.
I have a good friend named Melek who is Turkish, and from her I have learned that nothing is ever too much for their culture to welcome people into their homes. When I go to their house they put out everything, as if the queen is coming to visit. They are so welcoming with lots of food and sweets. They welcome you into their families and family is a big part of their culture. I had cooking days with her mom and cooked some amazing Turkish dishes. Even though her mom doesn’t speak English and my Turkish isn’t so great, we always found a way to enjoy our time with each other. Even at school I feel this, it is like a big family because that’s how you are treated by Turkish people.
What’s your favorite place traveled?
I love traveling and have been to roughly 35+ countries. Would be difficult to pick one, but my top 3 would be Cuba, Philippines and italy.
Thank you Naomi for sharing your stories on this wonderful school.
As Naomi mentioned, this school allows the teachers to add to the curriculum based on what they have experience in and based on what drives the students most. Every classroom, and every child is very different, and I have always been a firm believer that a set curriculum cannot fit the needs of everyone. Of course learning the basic necessary subjects is very important, but teaching these subjects could look very different from what the ‘norm’ is. It was refreshing to see how much these children’s imagination and creativity was pushed in each lesson or subject. These children were given the right tools and then given freedom to take it and make it their own way. I believe this is the future of education. We are each ‘geniuses’ in our own way, drawn by specific things, and that makes us each unique. The real involvement and constant communication with parents, was another aspect of this school which I truly appreciated. To be in the same page as the family, to have this community together, really did make a greater impact on the development of each child. Consistency with school and home, and open communication between teachers and parents, is the key to effective education. Education around the world should move beyond the books, and grammar and math skills. Although those are important, I believe interpersonal skills, creativity and kindness is also important to incorporate to the education systems everywhere.