Michael Popelka

Roxhill Elementary, Seattle WA

Explore areas of cultural and artistic importance in urban and rural areas of Tunisia and in central Istanbul, Turkey to gain first-hand experience with the history and cultural norms of different Islamic nations and improve asset-focused instruction by forming a deeper understanding of how Islamic culture shapes the way students interact with the world.

Where I've Been

  • Djerba, Tunisia
  • El Jem, Tunisia
  • Kairouan, Tunisia
  • Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia
  • Sfax, Tunisia
  • Sousse, Tunisia
  • Tunis, Tunisia
  • Istanbul, Turkey

My Fellowship in Images

Chris and I had the opportunity to explore many mosques all over Tunisia, including the Great Mosque of Uqba in Kairouan (a UNESCO site). We learned how integral mosques are to local culture in the towns and cities we visited.
Stuck on a stopped train, 114 degree heat, no A/C. We struck up a conversation with a curious, intelligent, and friendly young Tunisian. We told stories, asked and answered many questions, and shared a meal as friends near his home at day's end.
On a tour of the interior regions of Tunisia we stopped at the edge of the Sahara Desert. The expanse of the desert felt magnificent and unending; learning how the nomadic Berber people have lived there for centuries was inspiring.
The interiors of the Turkish mosques we visited were breathtaking. Although the interior of the Blue Mosque was supposedly "inferior" to that of the Aya Sofia, Chris and I were surprised to find it to be so intricate and beautiful.
We visited the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Museum of Islamic & Turkish Arts while in Istanbul. We learned so much about how important tile mosaic, calligraphy, illustration, and even carpet weaving are for relaying cultural traditions.
On the final night of our fellowship we sat on the roof deck of our apartment in Sariyer, Turkey. We reflected on our experiences and our friendship while the beautiful call to prayer echoed across the hills on the banks of the Bosphorous Strait.

Igniting Your Personal and Professional Growth

Describe one or two, specific learning experiences from your fellowship. In words, show us this experience and explain why it was powerful.

I learned that openness to opportunity and acceptance of setbacks ensures profound experiences. Out of necessity, we somewhat reluctantly rode in a shared taxi for over two hours between Gabes and Djerba. It was busy, crowded, and we weren't sure what we were getting into. While stopped for a coffee break near the Libyan border we began talking with a fellow rider who was an art teacher. He answered many of our questions and shared about his life as a teacher, woodworker, and father in Djerba.

What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn professionally?

I learned that I'm resilient and competent, even in unfamiliar situations. I also found that having a thoughtful, reliable, intelligent partner to lean on can make experiences even more powerful. Chris has been a colleague and friend for many years; our trust in each other was strengthened during the fellowship. Professionally, I learned about how Islamic culture is expressed in different settings. I now have a better understanding of the ways my students' families navigate life in the USA.

What were some unplanned or unexpected experiences or outcomes of your fellowship? Or, how did the fellowship you crafted differ from the actual learning experience?

I don't think that we realized the amount of positivity and goodwill that we would experience during our travels. Every time something went wrong it seems like it was followed by an unexpected act of kindness. An unpleasant, scary interaction with a stranger on the streets of Sousse ended up allowing us to form a positive bond with the caretakers of our lodging house. A sweaty, awful train delay gave us the chance to meet Abdelhak, who helped us continue our journey when we hit a dead end.

Impacting Your Classroom, School and Community

Outline specific plans you have to implement your fellowship and reach your student goals.

Many students feel there are no adults who can help them learn about their own culture; they also felt a decreased sense of belonging. By highlighting aspects of Islamic culture and things I learned on my fellowship, I hope to demonstrate to my students that I am a curious learner and that I can help them learn whatever it is that they want to know. I will be reading books purchased overseas, helping students build block models with Islamic design elements, and making patterned/tiled mosaics.

What is one way you can leverage your fellowship to create one authentic learning experience for students? (e.g. hands-on learning, projects, community engagement)

Our school usually hosts family connection nights to highlight the experiences of families from different cultural backgrounds at our school. Chris and I hope to organize a community event to focus on our Muslim families next April, sometime near the Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan. Our fellowship experience touring mosques and learning cultural norms in two different countries will hopefully demonstrate to families that their stories and histories are important to the teachers at school.

How, specifically, will your fellowship extend beyond your classroom? (e.g. families, school-at-large, afterschool groups, surrounding community, colleagues, etc.)

Our principal and the PTSA have asked us to give presentations on our fellowship. There are several teachers within and outside of my school who have asked me about the FFT process; "mentoring" other educators with FFT applications will be fun. From the family side, I've already connected with the father of one of my students due to the fellowship. During a parent meeting he said, "Oh, Turkey...good food there. But Afghani food is better! I will make some for you. Then you will taste and know!"