Sunday, October 18, 2009

Week 3

Week 3 of school went by faster than any school week ever has for me. I could hardly believe it when Thursday came around and it was our last day of the week already. I think most of this is due to the fact that I kept myself and my students more busy this week, and I was also busier outside of school as well.

Sunday and Monday were definitely a step backward for both my 1st and 2nd graders. By the end of the 2nd week, things felt very under control and we were able to be productive and get things done. I expected to be able to build off that success during this 3rd week, but was unpleasantly surprised by the fact that students were a little bit more wild and weren't staying as focused as I had hoped. I did my very best to not take this personally and remember that there are a lot of factors that affect children's behavior that I have no control over, so that as long as I am consistent in doing my job things should be fine in the long run. Instead of trying to overhaul my classroom management strategies because of a less-than-desirable few days (a mistake I made quite a few times last year), I stuck to what I had been doing and the rest of the week was smooth sailing.

As a whole, my 2nd graders are beginning to understand me a lot better. Not only have we established some routines, but also I have been trying to use the same body language and visual aids each time I say something. I really don't know whether they're understanding my words or my actions, but they're doing what I want them to do and acting how I want them to act and I think as long as I keep doing this, they'll keep learning the spoken communication piece of the puzzle in due time. One thing that has been a bit of a frustration for me is that in teaching math, so much depends on the students recognizing the numbers and their names. Since Arabic language users use a different set of number symbols and of course number names, we have spent a majority of time just learning the English numbers 1-20 these past few weeks. If these students had never had an English class before, I would totally understand and be okay with this. However, since they supposedly had English instruction last year and were supposed to know their numbers to 100, this has been a bit disappointing. I think the students have been getting a little frustrated by this as well, since I know they are capable of learning 2nd grade math concepts. I guess that's the name of the game in this business though.

As for my 1st graders, we made huge behavioral strides in week 3. On Wednesday and Thursday, they were just as good as my 2nd graders (something I though I wouldn't see until at least November or December to be honest), and even some of the Arabic teachers were surprised to see how under control and calm everything was going in there when they walked by. We didn't make a ton of progress academically this week--we're still hashing away at color names, numbers 1-10, and learning our ABCs--but I figure not a lot of learning can happen until things get settled down anyway.

Outside of school, I have been in full swing with my running. I ran at least 4 miles every day, even despite my football injury (keep reading), and I did it all with pain-free ankles and knees (which hasn't happened since before I left college). I was even able to run 17 miles on Friday morning, and if it weren't for the heat bearing down on me (it was 90 degrees by the time my run was over with), I feel like I could've run farther! I am excited to build off that great week and do a lot of good running in this upcoming week.

Also this past week, my flag football team had our first game on Wednesday night. I wasn't really sure what to expect as far as the pace or physicality of the games, but it turned out to be much faster and physical than I would've guessed with the team we played first. Many of them were American from what I gathered, and they were a pretty rough bunch. Though we weren't supposed to do any real blocking or tackling (because it's flag football), I was blocked from behind/pushed down twice while running my route our first time up on offense. Since we only had 1 ref, they got away with it. On defense, I figured I would take the higher road and try to make plays on the ball instead of tackle their players. At the end of their 1st possession, they had a 4th-and-goal situation. It turned out to be a pass to the guy I was covering, and I ended up diving into the air to tip the ball away from him (even though it was tempting and would've been a lot easier to just drill him as the ball was hitting his hands). I ended up breaking up the pass, but also ended up landing on the ground ribs-first, then somebody else from their team landed on top of me. I couldn't catch my breath for the rest of the game because it hurt to take in deep breaths, not to mention we only had enough players so that only 1 person didn't have to play both offense and defense to whole game. I went home and iced my ribs for a while, which helped, but I couldn't really sleep that night due to the pain. The next day, I went on a run (don't ask me why) and got a sharp pain in my ribs every time I took a step (don't ask me why I didn't stop). During that whole ordeal, I got the feeling that maybe I had a broken rib or something so I went to the hospital for an x-ray. Upon examining the images, we determined that I had no broken ribs, but probably had a few bruised ones and that most of the muscles in between the ribs were probably bruised as well. The doctor told me to take it easy for a while, at which point I laughed at her (on the inside).

Finally, there was an Middle Eastern film festival in town this past week and I was able to go see a few documentaries that I rather enjoyed. The first was called Shock Doctrine (based on a book by the same name), which was basically about how America has exploited different disasters of all kinds all around the globe over the past 50 years to implement free-market ventures that earned lots of money for American companies while completely neglecting (and sometimes even ruining) the lives of the people there. It was a little dry, but very interesting. The 2nd movie I saw was Michael Moore's new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, which provided a pretty humorous summary from the blue collar perspective on how our economy found itself in the state it is currently in and what it has done to the lower and working classes. I would highly recommend this film.

Good afternoon from Abu Dhabi,


Sunday, October 11, 2009

2nd Week of School + Desert Safari

So my 2nd week of school was vastly different than my 1st. I think the biggest difference was that I had the weekend to sit down and plan better for 2 reasons: (1) I had a much better understanding of where the kids were at academically so I could provide them with activities that were right at their level, and (2) I was much more prepared for the behaviors I would see and was able to put some thought into how I would deal with individual cases as they arose.

Overall, I think I'm going to really love my 2nd grade class. Already, I felt in total control of things with them and we were able to get a lot of things accomplished. At times, I felt comfortable joking around with them and letting them see my lighter side without feeling like they would take advantage of it. In other words, I feel like we have begun to establish a mutual respect for one another.

First grade was a bit different. I had to be extremely firm with them 100% of the time just to make it through my time with them successfully. That took a lot of energy, and to be honest, there were times when I felt like letting up because I was so exhausted with it all, but I knew that would be taking a step backward with them. By the end of the week, I felt like I had made considerable progress but also feel like I have a long way to go with them. But to think positively, I am seeing that I am going to be able to teach these boys a lot this year.

As for planning, my colleagues and I have fallen into a bit more of a groove as well. Instead of each of us doing our own thing, we have decided to split our sessions into 3 parts (since there are 3 of us) and each of us specialize in certain subjects for a few weeks at a time. So I am concentrating on math planning for the next few weeks, and I can already see that that is going to be a time saver for all of us. Some might argue that we should each plan our own lessons since we each have different teaching styles, but I feel like with as difficult as resources are to come by here, it is a little different. With the few lessons that Andrew or Christopher have planned, they have come up with some great ideas actually, and I have just added my own twists or tweaked the plans to suit my style and my kids with pretty good results. We'll hope that continues.

After a hard week, some of us thought we should treat ourselves to something really fun this weekend. So I organized an overnight desert safari with a local company and 5 of us took part in that this Friday/Saturday. First, they picked us up and drove us out of the city about 45 minutes to a camel farm. The camels there were really friendly and would come up to us so that we would pet them. One of them seemed to be particularly fond of me and kept following me around! After that, we did some dune bashing. For those of you who do not know that that is, it basically just means we hopped into an SUV and a driver drove us up and down giant sand dunes through the desert like a crazy man. There were so many times when we thought our SUV was going to flip because we were pretty much sliding down the dunes sideways, but sure enough, our driver (who was really awesome) would always turn the wheel just in time so that we would fishtail our way out of it. This was probably my favorite part of the safari.

Once we got to our camp out in the middle of nowhere, we had lots of choices: 4-wheeling, camel riding, and sandboarding (like snowboarding down big sand dunes). Of course I wanted to do all of these things, but since we were staying the night and I knew I would have plenty of time to do it all, I just tried some sandboarding before dinner. Since the sandboards were all one-size-fits-all, none of them really fit me snug enough to be able to maneuver my board very well. Consequently, whenever I got going really fast I had no way of stopping myself. Eventually I started trying some dunes that were very steep even though I knew I was going to wipe out at some point along the way, and those were the most fun for sure. The only bad part about sandboarding is that they don't have lifts in the middle of the desert so if you wanted to try the biggest and best dunes, that also meant you had to find a way to climb up them first!

The BBQ dinner they served us was very delicious. They had all sorts of kabobs for us, some curry rice, and plenty of flatbread and hummus to go around. Too bad they didn't have s'mores though! (Just kidding.)

After dinner, some of us went 4-wheeling out in the desert in the dark. I got my first glimpse of how difficult it is to maneuver a vehicle in the sand, but all the fishtailing and bumps made the driving more exciting. When I was finished with that, we figured we'd go on a short camel ride under the stars to wind down our evening. That was pretty fun too! Since we weren't quite ready to go to bed yet when the camel trek was over, some of us climbed up one of the sand dunes and laid down under the stars to contemplate the meaning of life and other such things. I could've fallen asleep right there, but figured I'd better join the rest of the group in heading back down to our camp. We slept outside with a few blankets and pillow each, and it was nice to fall asleep under the stars for the second time in about a month. The only thing I didn't like better about this than the last time (in India) was that at about 4:00 am, a rooster nearby began to crow and didn't stop until after sunrise. I'm pretty sure that rooster would not have liked to cross paths with me Saturday morning!

All in all, my 2nd week of school was pretty great and I am now ready for a 3rd after such a great weekend!

Good afternoon from Abu Dhabi,


Saturday, October 3, 2009

First Week of School

First of all, I'd like to apologize to my avid readers for the lack of posts this week. Not only was I having some troubles with the website (it decided to show everything in Arabic instead of English), and the week was too crazy for me to really want to deal with it. But . . . I seem to have everything worked out so here we go again.

All I have to say is, WOW. And I think it's worth repeating. WOW. For anybody and everybody who has ever told me I have the patience of a saint, that claim was put to the test BIG TIME this last week. Sunday was our first day of regular school, and things were definitely hectic when we got there that morning. The entire courtyard was filled with boys swinging their backpacks and throwing their sandals at each other, chasing each other around and tackling each other, and shouting at the top of their lungs. In a way, I wasn't surprised at all; what should one expect when you put 600 boys together in a small space with relatively no adult supervision? At the same time, however, those first few minutes put what I will be working with all year into perspective right away: my job this year will be to instill some structure into the lives of children who have never had any, to expect things from children that have never had anything expected of them, and to inspire children who have always had everything handed to them on a silver platter to put effort into their learning. (Upon re-reading that last sentence, I make it sound like every child at the school is like that, when in actuality there are some who seem to possess some self-control and eagerness to be there to learn.)

On Sunday, things didn't go to terribly bad. Most of the students (especially the 1st graders) seemed a bit uncomfortable and nervous around me, which in turn kept them in check for the most part. They were content to color some pictures, play some games with each other, and even learn a few of their colors and numbers. In the afternoon with my 2nd graders, the students seemed a little less focused since they weren't (and aren't still) used to being at school all day. However, I felt good about what we got accomplished together. My only real beef about the first day was that some of my kids walked in up to 2 hours late in the morning, and that we kept getting interrupted by various teachers and parents every 10 or 15 minutes.

The rest of the week seemed to get worse by the day. As the kids began to get more comfortable, they began to test me more and more. I nipped things right in the bud with my 2nd graders, establishing clear expectations and consequences right away. Some of them struggled with it all week, but some good progress was definitely made. The 1st graders, on the other hand, were something else. Since about 95% of them speak not a word of English and/or had no prior experience at school, things were a bit messy. I tried reward sheets, stickers, candy, and even getting to play soccer as a reward, but these things did not send the message of what my expectations are to everybody. What made matters worse is that there were several occasions during the week when I would be walking around during my afternoon break to find that my 1st graders had no teacher in their classroom, erasing all of the things I had been trying to teach them about staying in control and following rules at school. One Wednesday afternoon, I noticed several kids running around the courtyard when they should have been in class. After a second glance, I noticed that they were the 1st grade students I teach in the mornings. I a bout of frustration and annoyance, I quickly herded them back into the classroom, only to find that not only was there no teacher in there, but also that (1) two students had another two students on the floor kicking them, (2) at least three students were crying because they were scared or confused as to why they were being left alone, (3) a group of students were tearing the blinds off the windows (they are now completely ruined), and (4) another group of students were poking each other with pencils. There were maybe--maybe--2 students who were sitting down in their chair not doing something either hazardous themselves or others. I immediately called for help while I attempted to restore order to the room (not a peaceful or calm task on my part, to say the least), and found out that they had no teacher because the religion teacher hadn't come to school that day. The lack of concern the other teacher had for there not being another teacher covering the class or for what the boys were doing while unsupervised gave me some additional insight on what I'm dealing with this year. So, even though it was my plan period and only break of the day, I ended up staying with the students for the rest of the period to ensure that everybody in the room remained alive.

Later, I asked our English supervisor what sort of structures the school had in place for disciplining students who are acting that way, and his response was as follows: "You see, it is the nature of children--especially boys--to want to play and have fun and not do work. You will have to be patient and understand that teaching them how to behave will take some time." And that's where the advice ended. To me, that seems like half the problem right there: the other teachers expect that the students are going to act that way and accept it with a "that's just the way it is" attitude.

Still baffled by this response the following day, maybe thinking that he didn't fully understand my question, I returned to the supervisor and made it more clear that I wanted some advice for how to deal with children who are being obstinate and positive reinforcement just doesn't seem to be working for them. Without even saying a word, he pulled (I kid you not) a leather-wrapped baton-like object out of his bag and struck his desk with it. "So . . . you hit them?" I asked in disbelief.
"Yes, yes of course," he replied. "It is very common to do that. Some parents don't prefer it, but many others encourage it. Sometimes it is the only way." The matter-of-factness he spoke with was almost humorous to me, but at the same time quite disturbing.
"What if we don't want to hit our students?" I asked respectfully.
After a brief chuckle, he replied, "If you don't hit? You will go crazy!" Once again, WOW . . .

To wrap things up, my intention of this post wasn't to make it out that nothing good is happening at my school, but rather only to point out some of the cultural and structural differences I experienced over the week. Despite their lack of sense of community accountability at the school, the teachers have really warmed up to us Western newcomers, and I felt very welcomed by the few parents that I met. Also, despite the grave behavior concerns I have for my students, they are really very cute kids. And my 2nd graders have learned more English than I had hoped to teach them this first week, so I was encouraged by that.

I've just gotta keep telling myself, Great change doesn't happen over night. I've got to keep being firm and focused, but a little patience will go a long way too.

Good night from Abu Dhabi,