During the first week of March, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan to participate in English Language Week 2016. English Language Week is an event that was put on by the Baku American Center and the U.S. Embassy in Baku. I was invited to participate by leading a daily Reading Circle for a group of talented and motivated university students, facilitating professional development workshops for local English teachers, and participating in a variety of public events.
I had never traveled to Azerbaijan before this event, but I had been intrigued by the country ever since it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 (the commercials throughout the program featured gorgeous footage of the country). Azerbaijan did not disappoint. I quickly learned that it is a fascinating country full of warm and welcoming people, and after one week there, a place I hope to visit again.
On Sunday, February 28th, I flew from Tbilisi to Baku with Sara, the Fulbright ETA in Telavi (Georgia). We arrived in the afternoon and checked into our hotels before grabbing an early dinner. After dinner, we joined Amy, the Cultural Affairs Officer in Baku, her husband, and a few other Embassy staff to see a performance of the opera Leyli and Majnun at the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. Leyli and Majnun (often compared to Romeo and Juliet) is considered to be the first opera of the Muslim world; it is based on an epic poem and was first performed as an opera in 1908 in Baku. (If interested, you can learn more about it here).
I’m not very familiar with the opera genre, but before this performance, I thought it was simply one singer performing alone in the middle of the stage. Boy, was I wrong. This performance included singing, dancing, an amazing orchestra, and beautiful costumes and scenery. I absolutely loved it, and what a wonderful way to be introduced to Azeri culture!
The next day, work began. Though English Language Week officially ran from Tuesday, March 1st through Saturday, March 5th, on Monday we traveled to Qafqaz University, a private university just outside of Baku. Qafqaz (Caucasus) University is unique in that it has a five-year undergraduate program that includes a one-year intensive English language preparation program before students begin coursework in their major area of study. The university also offers courses in English and has a strong English language component. We went to the university to meet with university leaders to learn more about this program. While there, we also attended an English lesson taught by one of the Fulbright ETAs, and I conducted a workshop on communicative speaking activities for about 35 English teachers.
English Language Week’s official activities ran from Tuesday through Saturday. Each of these days, my day began with a one-hour Reading Circle with a group of fourth-year university students, all girls. Meeting with these girls was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Each day we read a story (or stories) by O. Henry and Edgar Allen Poe. I facilitated a variety of activities and discussion formats connected to each story, and we had a great time making predictions and discussing the surprise twist endings that many of these stories have.
Also, each morning the girls would teach me a little bit of Azerbaijani. By the end of the week, I could say hello (salam), how are you? (necəsən?), good (yaxşı), thank you (çox sağ ol), as well as a few other phrases that I’ve sadly already forgotten.
Each afternoon, I led a professional development workshop for pre-service or in-service English language teachers. Though I had prepared for an audience of 50-75 teachers, on the first day, over 200 came! Each day, the attendance ranged from 150-200. I was more than thankful to have Sara’s assistance in conducting each of these workshops, and it was great to see such excitement and enthusiasm for both English and for new teaching ideas.
Most of the workshops were very practical and mainly provided a variety of active and engaging communicative activities that teachers could use in class the very next day; the last one was more theoretical. The four workshops I gave during the week included:
- Focus on Speaking: Simple and Structured Activities to Get Students Talking
- Engaging Classroom Activities for Vocabulary Development
- Balancing Fluency and Accuracy: Communicative Grammar Practice Activities
- Recent Research in Error Correction and Feedback Techniques.
Public events were scheduled for every afternoon. These events served to provide fun and informal ways for locals to practice English or to learn about exchange opportunities to the U.S. I participated in four of these events: a pub-style trivia game (minus the pub component) about U.S. history, geography, and culture that Sara and I created; an “English Around the World Panel” that highlighted regional differences in English varieties (including American (Southern and New Yorker), Canadian, Irish, British, and Nigerian Englishes), a creative writing workshop, and a movie screening and discussion.
By the end of the week, more than 2000 people had participated in English Language Week events at the Baku American Center! It was a fun and exciting event to part of, and absolutely a success.
After the last event on Saturday, Sara and I celebrated and relaxed by… carpet shopping!
I fell in love with the beautiful carpets of Azerbaijan (and Iran, which were also common in the carpet shops of Baku), and learned a lot about Azerbaijani carpets at the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and in local carpet stores. In the end, I visited about seven different carpet shops to see my options (and try my hand at a little price negotiation) and then ultimately bought the very first carpet that had caught my eye (hanging in the shop window of a store I had walked by each day on my way to the Baku American Center).
My carpet is actually Persian style, not Azerbaijani, so I also got an Azeri carpet as a gift for Ben.
On Sunday, our last full day in Azerbaijan, Sara and I went on a tour outside of Baku. Our first stop was to Ateshgah, the Fire Temple of Baku. Historically, the temple was used as a place of worship for both Hindus and Zoroastrians and centers around naturally burning flames. It’s an interesting place because it’s one of the few places in the world where members of two different religions have worshipped peacefully side-by-side.
After Ateshgah, we continued on to the Qala Ethnographic Museum where we saw relics of Azerbaijani life of the past.
My favorite part was watching a carpet in the process of being woven, of course:
The next day, Monday March 7th, it was time to head back to Georgia. Though it wasn’t much time in Baku, I truly enjoyed English Language Week 2016 and my introduction to Azeri culture; I hope to get back to Azerbaijan soon!
*NOTE: Thank you to the Baku American Center’s staff for the pictures of English Language Week in this post.