While people in Sun Valley were skiing and snowshoeing this past winter, Community School English teacher Elliot Jacobs and his family were riding camels and brushing up on their French in Tangier, Morocco—at least in between Jacobs’ time teaching English in Tangier classrooms, auditing university-level classes and immersing himself in the trilingual city’s culture as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program.
Jacobs, a Washington state native and English teacher in the Community School’s upper school for the past eight years, originally applied to the program in 2014 and found out he was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Award in early 2015.
For the award, Jacobs and his wife, Kate Ristow, and their now 8-month-old daughter, Cecily, traveled to Morocco, where Jacobs taught English to students at primary and secondary schools as part of the International Baccalaureate Program and worked on a capstone project that was the purpose of his trip—about how place influences art and literature. In this case, it was the city of Tangier, on the north coast of Africa near the Strait of Gibraltar, where a bevy of mid-20th-century artists lived and worked at various times. They included Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, playwright Tennessee Williams and artist Henri Mattisse.
“I knew I was interested in Morocco, and my project was centered around Tangier and its amazing literary culture,” he said. “I’d written about place and art before and it’s always interested me.”
Drawing from his experiences in Morocco, Jacobs is working on a paper about the subject, and he also has devised a curriculum for a class that he will teach at Community School in the fall, which will be open to other valley teachers as well.
In addition to his prior fascination with Morocco, Jacobs was inspired to pursue the program from his wife’s parents, who work as journalists in Uganda and whose work cultivating a global perspective he admired. He was also motivated by a French class that he took alongside students at the private, Sun Valley-based Community School to brush up his French skills, which had languished since he’d previously studied it. French is one of the three most-spoken languages in Morocco, in addition to Spanish and Darija, or Moroccan Arabic.
“I’m always trying to find ways to bring a global perspective back to the valley,” he said, “and especially figuring out how to develop a global perspective in the humanities. I think I came out with questions that my students could explore.”
While living in a trilingual, foreign city came with its own set of adjustments that Jacobs and his wife had to deal with, he said he was struck by how similar the education experience there is to what he’s accustomed to, despite cosmetic differences in classroom sizes and procedures, such as the many and often impromptu school closures for Islamic religious holidays.
“The kids there reminded me so much of my kids,” he said. “A lot of the experience of education is exactly the same.”
Jacobs said he appreciated the sense he got from his Moroccan students of how much they enjoyed learning, wanted to be in school and believed that their education was important for their future.
“Just being in the schools was so fun,” he said. “You could tell they really wanted to be in school.”
He added that he also helped judge an annual public speaking competition in Tangier.
Some of his favorite adventures in Morocco happened outside the classroom, when he, Kate and Cecily spent time familiarizing themselves with the city, learning the local languages and traveling to nearby Spain, where they rang in the New Year in Seville.
And while they were unsure of how well they would adapt to their temporary home, Jacobs said their Moroccan friends treated them like family—even strangers at the market would ask to hold Cecily, and the baby would make her way from one set of arms to another.
“We went to Morocco unsure of what to expect,” he said. “Cecily opened a lot of doors for us. It was so amazing to be in a place that was so accepting of family. We really couldn’t have felt more safe or comfortable.”
Jacobs and Ristow will speak at the Community Library in Ketchum on Tuesday, June 21, about their experiences in Morocco as a family, and they chronicled their journeys on a blog dedicated to the topic at www.intangier.blogspot.com.