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Sunday, November 9, 2014

My vacation to Abu Dhabi and Oman - Part 1

About a month ago I took a week-long vacation to the city of Abu Dhabi and the country of Oman. In this blog post I will try to focus on the best elements of that trip instead of every moment because I'd be writing all day. It should be noted that I traveled in a group of 5 ex-pat teachers (including myself), and none of us had been to these countries before.

We spent Friday in Bahrain, exploring the area of Adliya. Overall this was a decent area of town, quiet and containing several nice restaurants. We unfortunately couldn't visit the Grand Mosque of Bahrain because of Friday prayer but we got some great photos of it.
Grand Mosque Bahrain

We had an evening flight so I spent the afternoon reading outside of a Starbucks in a mall. I've found that on flight days, I really like to just sit and read, assured that I'm ahead of time and have a plan for getting to the airport.

Check-in at the Bahrain International Airport was smooth and quick. I was surprised to see prize cars parked alongside travel goods! Our flight was also quick and easy, setting us down in Abu Dhabi (which is an hour different) in the middle of the night. We'd decided to rent a car from Abu Dhabi and drive around Oman. I won't call it a road-trip because we definitely did not sleep in the car or in tents beside the car, but in nice hotels.
Prize cars in the Bahrain airport

Speaking of the car, while everything did work out and we had enough drivers, it was quite frustrating to find out that while women are allowed to drive in the U.A.E. and Oman, I'm not allowed to drive a rental car because I am still too young (under 25). I therefore took the post of navigator for the majority of the trip, and my first task was directing us to our Abu Dhabi hotel.

Our hotel was very nice, I'd recommend it: Aloft Hotel Abu Dhabi, though they have many sites worldwide. It was definitely a young, party-happy hotel, which was evident by the swarms of party-goers existing a pool party as we checked in.

On Saturday we went to visit the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque, renowned as being one of the largest mosques in the world. The shimmering white domes were beautiful against the blue sky. Again, we weren't able to go in, but we we enjoyed wandering around the outside taking photos.
Me at the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

One thing I should note, the weather was hot during this whole trip. There wasn't a day I didn't sweat through what I was wearing. Just know that October in the Gulf is like July in the US (east coast). Luckily it was also fairly windy, but still, if you don't like heat, don't come to this part of the world until at least November.

After the Grand Mosque we drove down the corniche and went to Marina Mall. I was quite impressed with the scale of Abu Dhabi, and it was very clean. We wandered around the marina area and got some photos of the skyline.
A building in Abu Dhabi

We spend the evening relaxing by the hotel pool and went out for dinner by the corniche. Afterwards we walked around a fountain on the corniche and took a (almost everyone included) group photo. It always surprises me how empty the corniche is during the day but at night it is swarming with people. The temperature is certainly nicer in the evenings.
Almost all of our group at a fountain on Abu Dhabi's corniche

We left Abu Dhabi in our rental SUV the next morning and drove toward Oman. The roads were pretty clear and it was fairly easy to cross the borders, though it cost more than we'd expected. Arrival visas in hand, we approached the mountains of Oman, vastly different from the flat lands of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi. This was our view as we began our trip around Oman.
Driving into Oman from Abu Dhabi

Our goal was to get to Muscat before dark, so we decided not to stop in Sohar, but instead pulled off at a small town just south of it for food at the grocery store. I have a theory that you really get to know a place if you spend enough time in its grocery stores. In this one I had the fun experience of having a very nice Omani clerk help me find peanut butter. (Success!) We then took our goods and, reasoning that if we drove left we'd hit the ocean, drove through the small town until the road opened up to an empty beach. We ate lunch overlooking the waves before venturing down to explore the shoreline. Here's my video from the beach. Just before we left our beach spot, a car pulled up behind ours and an Omani man stepped out, introduced himself (seemed to welcome us - as we were obviously tourists) and asked if his wife (in the passenger seat) could take a photo of him with some of us. I avoided this interaction but some of my teacher friends got in the photo with him and even had him pose in a photo with them. It seemed very random but he was nice and seemed to only want the photo. Something similar had happened at the fountain in Abu Dhabi but a polite decline was all I'd had to say and they'd moved on. Perhaps it's just the appeal of foreign-ness and photos are the best way to capture that.
An empty beach south of Sohar, Oman

We drove into Muscat while it was still light and arrived at our hotel after a few navigational issues. Muscat is a fascinating city because it is build into the valleys of the mountains on the coast. In this way the buildings sit at the base and mountains carve up the city into different areas.

Cultural observation: Starting with when we crossed the border into Oman, there were a few instances where assumptions were made about our little group. The border guard asked if we were family, as did a police officer at a checkpoint, saying "Family, yes?" This would have been a family of 1 man and 4 grown women. At the Muscat hotel, though the reservation was under one of our female member's names, the man at reception asked for our male member's passport as well as accepting her passport. I won't pretend to explain these interactions but it was something we all noticed and joked about for the rest of the trip.
The view from our hotel apartment in Muscat
Overlooking Ruwi area of Muscat, Oman
In my research I'd found out about a local beach in Yiti, about an hour south of Muscat. Monday morning we drove out to spend the day at this remote beach. As we left the city, we climbed up into the mountains (luckily we had 4WD) and got this great view of our area - Ruwi. Jumping photos followed, of course. On the road to Yiti our driver stopped the car excitedly exclaiming "Burros!" Three donkeys were standing on a bluff over the road.  


Yiti was well worth the drive. The water felt great, the sand was soft (and hot), and the rocky cliffs gave it a secret feeling. It was a local beach so we were careful to dress modestly. We spend several hours on the beach - swimming, picnicking, a people-watching. A friend and I swam/walked (it was very shallow) out around the main cliff and found a private beach. Crabs had dug holes in the sand, inadvertently creating mounds of sand beside the holes. Another friend had been out there earlier and said that she'd swam with turtles! We weren't as lucky but the adventure around the cliff was wonderful.

Yiti beach, Oman
On our way back to Muscat we stopped at the Shangri-La resort just to see it. Really, if you have the funds, this is the place to stay. We snapped some photos and headed to the Sultan's Palace next. Oman is a Sultanate and the palace was very impressive. We wandered around the main area for a while, passing other tourists. We didn't go in but it was beautiful area.

Some of our group near the Shangri-La
Sultan's Palace, Muscat, Oman
Sultan's Palace, Muscat, Oman

After the Sultan's Palace we drove along the corniche and decided to climb an old fort tower. The view from the tower was amazing in the late afternoon light.

Next we explored the Muscat Souq and I bought a few things. The vendors were willing to make deals, which is always nice.

As my friend and I walked through the souq, vendors asked us to come and see their goods, touch the soft llama-fur scarves, try on the perfumes, and select your trinkets. One vendor even lit the scarf's edge so that we could see that it wasn't synthetic. I felt pretty safe there though being with a friend (another woman) was probably better than walking alone. The souq was crowded since it was early evening.

Me at the Muscat Souq
When we returned to the car, another friend had stopped to ask for a photo with some Omani men because she really liked their traditional outfits. They obliged and conversely took a photo with her. The atmosphere in Muscat was very polite and I definitely didn't feel unsafe.

We left the corniche area and had dinner back at our hotel apartment. Our male group member had bought a traditional Omani outfit and promised to show us at a later date.

More in the next post - Part 2!

Muscat harbor in the early evening
Me jumping, overlooking Ruwi area of Muscat, Oman

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My day-to-day life in Saudi Arabia

Hello blogosphere, I know it's been a while. Last week I had a cold and was definitely not feeling up to typing up a clever-and-always-too-long blog post. So now I'm going to write about what's been going on since mid-September and provide some insight into my daily life.

Since my last blog post nothing of great significance has happened. This past Tuesday was Saudi National Day so there was no school. That was a nice break in the middle of the week but I did notice that having two days of school, a break, then two days of school meant that my students were more excitable than usual.

On Monday after school our little group of new teachers went over to another compound that a lot of the school's staff lives on. We were invited over by some colleagues and spent the evening by the beach - my first adventure to the beach here. The water was a nice lukewarm but very salty. A few of my teacher friends decided to swim and they said it was really nice, but they definitely wanted to shower off the sticky saltiness when they came out. The sand was soft and as I stood by the water's edge, the waves slowly caused my feet to sink into the sand. It was quite humid but we put up with it because it was a weekend evening on a Monday! We sat around in plastic chairs, watched darkness descend very quickly (as I've noticed is pretty normal around here), chatted, and then enjoyed a feast prepared by our hosts. The evening ended at a host's house with tasty desserts and a search for speakers for the stereo.

I spent my day off as I spend any day off - planning lessons and house chores. School went well the rest of the week, as it has been going. On Thursday I did feel like Sunday was ages ago because the holiday had broken up the week. I'm still really happy with my class, team, and school overall. I definitely think I'm spending more time on planning lessons than I could be if I typed less, but until I trust myself I'm going to keep planning the way I have been. It is working, it's just a full weekend experience. I enjoy planning, don't get me wrong, but I'm putting a lot of time into it. There's also a repetitive quality to planning because you can't reuse plans. You might be able to tweak them in later years, but once they are used, they are used. It's like spending several hours making a delicious, homemade chocolate cake and then in 5 minutes it's devoured by your cake-loving family. You now have to go make a new cake. I did look back at my Grade 1 plans from when I was student teaching and noticed that I wrote much less in those than I write today. But I think that's because the stakes are higher with my own classroom and I've gotten used to writing in a certain format over the past month. Perhaps I'll pare the writing in my plans down as my schedule picks up in October.

So in October I will start coaching an after-school activity - Kindergarten and Grade 1 soccer. Honestly it will be magnet ball, but I'm hoping that because the weather will be cooler we can get outside and run around, a lot. Plus I love this age group and some of my students might sign up, which would be fun because I'd get to work with them in a different environment.

Speaking of weather, it's late September. If I was back in Virginia I would probably be starting to wear jackets, leggings (under dresses because they are not pants), boots, and scarves. All the cute fall clothes. I'd also be seeing all the fall foliage, smelling pumpkin spice lattes every time I'd walk into a university library, and enjoying the last warm remnants of summer. But I'm not in Virginia. I had that weather realization when I left my classroom one afternoon to go pick my students up from a special. I walked outside and a blast of hot air meet me square in the face. Honestly, it is still summer-hot here in Saudi. So it's going to be a while before I trade my sandals for boots, if at all.

I do miss parts of fall. This Wednesday one of the teachers had a couple of us over to hang out and her house smelt of gingerbread and nutmeg. It was delightful. There are trees here but they don't seem to be adhering to the norms of the autumn equinox. Alas, I might have to wait to wear my cute cold weather clothes over winter break.

We do have a break coming up, next week actually. Eid Al-Adha is the first full week of October and we don't have school. I've already got travel plans and I'm really excited. You'll hear more about them after the fact.

Oh yes, so my day-to-day life here in Saudi Arabia. Well since I teach Sunday-Thursday that takes up the majority of my time. I'm usually up at 5, which actually works because it gets light here really early so by 5 it's light enough to fool me into thinking it's like 9am. After teaching I usually just come home and either plan lessons (depending on how much I accomplished over the weekend), grade, or relax and watch educational shows on YouTube - shoutout to Crash Course. (Yes I am so in love with learning that I relax by learning.) There usually comes a point in the evening that I realize I should eat food, at which point I make food, consume it, and resume whatever task I had been doing. I'm usually in bed by 9:30/10 which I established last year during student teaching as the key time to consistently hit the hay lest I want to be sleep deprived forever. Occasionally after school I'll go with teacher friends to run errands such as going to the bank (we went too many times this past week) or grocery shopping. I have to plan these excursions ahead of time because 1) I'll need to remember to bring my abaya with me if we are leaving from school, 2) we need to book a driver. The booking a driver part isn't just because I'm a woman living in Saudi Arabia, it's also because none of our little group have cars yet. The men just purchased cars but, as I understand it, they are coming from Jeddah so it will be a few weeks until they arrive. Additionally, the school and compound have buses to take us to do these errands so it only makes sense to use them.

Overall my living habits haven't changed since I moved here. I still only go grocery shopping maybe once a week but usually try to make it two weeks before a trip. I also spend about the same as I would in the States on those groceries. (Though it is kind of fun handing over 220 SAR at the supermarket since it sounds like a lot to my USD-brain though it's just $60.) Though I certainly have the space I haven't bought much for my house besides some basic necessities (door mat, shower mat, paper towels, spatula, oven sheet, etc.). I did FINALLY start putting up my collection of travel photographs. (If you've ever seen my previous bedrooms you know what I'm talking about.) So far I've only got high school/college and Australia photos up, but I'm hoping to finish the rest this week. Pictures when it's finished.

So it may be a combination of the feminist YouTube videos I was watching last night, the 6 seasons of How I Met Your Mother I managed to consume in a month, and the non-existent dating scene in my current location, but anyway I've determined that I'm more than okay with not checking off anything on the relationship to-do list for a good while. I'm truly focused on my career and I don't feel pressure to get into a romantic relationship anytime soon. I've determined that my 20s are about me, my career, and my ambitions. I applaud friends who have found their soulmate and are going to be spending their 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. together, but I'm sure that that permanency is not for me yet. I know I want a Ph.D. before I want a family and I think that knowing that now will help me focus over the next decade. I'm writing this for me, but I thought I'd share it in the event that some random reader is following me and expecting to hear about potential dating adventures. Can't count it out, but I'm not looking.

To wrap up this picture-less and as always, lengthy post I'll say this: This Thursday I celebrated being a real teacher for a whole month (Woohoo! I'm not failing miserably!) and that is a big milestone right now. My first year of teaching has only just begun and I've got years to go before I sleep (citation: Frost). I'm fully invested in learning everything I can this year about how to actually be a teacher and I'm shutting out distractions because this is really important to me. Of course, travel adventures are necessary to my sanity and happiness so those don't count as distractions, haha. Expect a blog about my travel adventures over Eid to be posted around mid-October. Until then...

Happy teaching and traveling,

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Back to School night, Abaya Shopping, and Pedicures in Khobar

This week's post has a lot of photos, please enjoy.
Overall my teaching week went well. There were a lot of meetings this week after/before school. Monday I taught a pretty informal PD session on Class Dojo to prepare our primary team for Back to School night. Tuesday morning we had a scoring meeting to discuss the writing prompts we'd given to the whole elementary school last week and how to use the rubrics/ find exemplars. Wednesday night was Back to School night so I just decided to stay at school, 7am-8pm. It was a long day but successful and I didn't have any issues with parents, presentation, or anything. I always find that on those days that I stay late I think that I'll be able to get so much done, but in reality I find I'm actually just doing nit-picky things like relabeling student cubbies and book boxes, or calling in tech help to fuss with my computers and Promethean board. I need to remember that I'm much more productive at home after school or when I come into school on a weekend for a whole day. After-school brain at school is just too unfocused.

Thursday was a good school day. I had a student who was on my roster but hadn't come yet show up and the class was excited that this student was here. After school we got free drinks at the coffee shop in the school - basically a treat for being awesome at Back to School night. The plan for Thursday evening was to stay until around 4 then go abaya shopping, food shopping, and out to dinner in Old Jubail town with some teacher friends. Our first major stop was Ladies Street in Old Jubail, which has a lot of clothing shops, perfume stores, and general random item stores (like Kmart). It also has abaya shops.

We stopped at one abaya shop but the abaya I tried on, which while nicely blue and purple, had a high collar that was just a bit too much for me. It was also still long on me. We ducked into a store, Big World, that sold the most random collection of things you could imagine. There was jewelry, stickers, camel trinkets, colored feathers, water pumps, baby food, and more. It was a worth seeing but I only bought a water pump for when I get one of those big blue jugs of water. (The tap here at my compound is probably fine, but the pipes are old and our principal said he didn't drink it. A teaching couple recommended the water jug because that's what they do so I figured I'd try it too since bottled water is pricey and I have soooo many empty plastic bottles and so far have no where to recycle them.)

It was already getting darker around 5:30 when prayer started so we decided to just go straight to dinner. We went to this nice Indian/Chinese restaurant and the food was pretty good. I liked the garlic naan bread best. I also think the Indian plates were better than the Chinese plates, but we all shared the dishes so I got to try a little of everything. Family style is definitely the way to go around here since the appetizers are just awesome. Here's our group at the restaurant after the meal:

Since it was dark by the time we left and two of us still needed abayas, we stopped at another abaya store that was tucked into a hallway off the main Ladies Street. Here I found my new abaya for only 130 SAR (about $35). I'm very happy with it. It's not purple, but the red/maroon and gold works and it actually fits me! I wore it today in Khobar and it was so nice to not have to kick it out of the way to walk. Here it is!

Satisfied and newly abaya-ed, we decided to cancel food shopping plans and just head home. At this point it was probably only 7pm, but it felt much later because it gets dark here very early. (Granted, it gets light at around 4:30am. I'd rather have it be nice and light when I got to school than dark so I'm okay with the odd daylight times.)      

Friday morning I woke up all ready to do a full day's work of planning for the coming week, but I quickly realized I made a dumb mistake: I'd left my planning books at school. I guess that on Thursday I wasn't thinking about bringing things home so I only grabbed some papers to grade, not my planning books. After running through my list of options in my head I decided to just plan for Sunday and take this mistake as the universe telling me to cut myself a break and just enjoy a weekend. I found my math textbook online and laid out my Sunday plans to the point that I was happy with them by early afternoon. Then I relaxed and actually had a weekend day off. It was actually pretty boring.

My Friday afternoon: I moved a large piece of furniture in my house, I thought about putting up my travel photos but then realized my scotch tape was also at school, I ate leftover Indian/Chinese food, and I watched a lot of HIMYM and YouTube. Not surprisingly, by about 5pm I was tried of not being busy so I went for a walk. The temperature has finally become pretty nice, I mean it's still 100-something F, but the humidity is gone and early evening feels perfect by my standards. I wandered to a teacher friend's house and we decided that since we were both bored we should just get the gang together and have a night together. We tracked down one teacher friend on the way to the pool and another at the pool. Later they both came over and the four of us played some games then watched a movie. (We played that game where you write a sentence, pass it, the next person draws a picture to match the sentence, then pass end up with a hilarious, very strange story.) The movie was "Wadjda" and it was filmed here in Saudi Arabia. We watched it through Amazon Prime and it was pretty good.

Today, Saturday, I went down to Khobar on the bus. We (those at my compound) really have the best driver ever. He is so incredibly nice and he's always smiling. Especially after watching "Wadjda", I feel very appreciative of him. It is hard not being able to go out whenever you want, and not only because women aren't allowed to drive in Saudi. Friday is the holy day so almost everything is closed so there isn't much point to leaving the compound. I mean, I was used to taking a bus shopping and budgeting three hours roundtrip, but there's a convenience to being able to walk certain places that is lacking in compound life. For instance when I lived downtown in Harrisonburg I could walk to the bank, post office, various restaurants, and my university campus. Here I need to take a bus everywhere, minus the grocery store on the compound and the not-so-great compound restaurant. It's not impossible to get out and do shopping/banking/etc., but I didn't fully understand that I wouldn't be able to get outside of the compound without booking a bus until I started living it.

Anyway, our driver is awesome and he took us down to Khobar today. Here are some pictures I took from the bus as we were driving in:

I picked up my name necklace and chatted with two expat guys from Texas who were looking at jewelry for their wives and daughters. I really like my necklace, though a guy my friend met at IKEA said they slightly miswrote my name (not enough loops in the "s") but he could still read it so I'm fine with it. I'd really only care if it said "Christine". Here it is: (BTW, I'm on our bus.)

We went to Extra next. Extra is basically Best Buy and it has printers, laptops, cell phones, stereo equipment, appliances, and headphones. Sadly we did not find a CD player for my friend, but my other friend did find a printer. Pics of Extra:

We'd sent our driver to transport another one of our shopping group who was going to the hospital next for an appointment, so we called a cab. This cab driver was one my MS/HS counselor friend uses regularly when she comes down here and he apparently speaks good English. The cab wasn't really a cab, since it was just his white Toyota, but he graciously took us to IKEA and charged us fairly. I still have a thing against cabs anywhere but it wasn't bad. Here is IKEA:

At IKEA we shopped and grabbed lunch. Sadly they don't have Swedish meatballs, only beef or chicken kebabs or hotdogs. I opted for beef kebabs which were decent but not something I'd want to have regularly. Imagine a McDonald's burger patty wrapped in a piece of thin flat bread with some thick-cut onions. My friends shopped a bit but then it was prayer time. Once again I got to hear the call to prayer inside IKEA. The store was packed today - sale or something - so the line to check out was huge. During prayer all transactions stop and it was cool to see everyone in line just waiting patiently for the cashiers to start up again, 20 minutes later. Like I mentioned before, my friend chatted with a guy in line near her and he liked my necklace. He had studied at LSU and was now a drilling engineer. We also ran into several friends of the MS/HS counselor including a guy she hadn't seen for many years. He invited us to come visit next time we are in town and offered to drive us back to Jubail if we ever wanted, saying he goes there a lot for business. Overall super nice and hospitable.

Actually almost all locals I'm had contact with have been incredibly hospitable and nice. I regularly hear "no problem" when I ask for something and I've had cashiers, salesmen, staff members, and driver go out of their way to help me find something, fix something, or carry something. They have also been clearly more patient than American counterparts with the regular stupidity of their customers. For instance, today I pulled my debit card out of the card reader before the transaction had gone through causing it to be declined. After giving me a quizzical look the salesman just asked for my card again and reran the transaction. Another example - a few weeks ago my teacher friends and I didn't know that we had to weigh our fruit and get a sticker on it before coming to the register. The cashier just asked the bagger to go do this for us, which he did quickly and without fuss.

Anyway prayer ended, the line opened and by the time my friend had checked out we were late for our next event. We hopped on the bus and rushed over to our nail appointment at this beauty salon, Prima Dona. It was nice to be pampered and I'd never had a pedicure before so it was an adventure. I choose a super bright purple color which is actually not terribly bright now that it's on my toenails and not in the bottle. My friends got more conservative colors, haha. Here are my newly pampered feet/toes:

After that we stopped for a quick small cone at Baskin Robins (7 SAR, about $2), picked up the rest of the shopping group, and drove on back to Jubail. All I've done since getting home around 4 is watch HIMYM, check over my Sunday plans, and make dinner - spaghetti with tomato sauce.

One more note about abayas: Yes black holds heat, but the material of the abaya is (I think) a thin polyester so they aren't that hot, even in 100F. Also they are loose so air moves them easily, and there is usually a decent breeze here. Finally, they are generally very comfortable and you don't have to worry about how your clothes look/are positioned because you have a large black gown overtop of them. I wouldn't say I'm a fan of abayas, but at least now that I have one that I like and that fits me, I'm not opposed to wearing it when I go out in public.

That's all for now. Tomorrow is the start of a new work week so I better get to bed. Enjoy the photos!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The First Two Weeks of School, Dhahran Mall, and a Travel Update - September 5th, 2014

Hi blogosphere, I’m back. I know it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve written but it’s been the first two weeks of school so that took priority. I’m going to try to give an overview of what’s been going on in my life in this post.

School started last week and I met my students. They are wonderful. Really I can’t say enough how wonderful they are. They are well-behaved, polite, energetic when it’s time for fun brain breaks and focused when it’s time to listen/work hard. They have picked up my classroom signals, learned the hallway song, and pretty much know not to move to do the instructions until I have finished giving the instructions and said “Go”. Overall I love my students, I couldn’t have wished for a better class to start my teaching career with. Really, I haven’t had major behavior issues. The most serious offenses have been running, an alleged pushing, and wanting to put their hands on each other - but not violently, just hugs and picking each other up.

So far this year I think we’ve earned three compliments from other teachers/staff. The first day we had a welcome back assembly and the guidance counselor noticed how calmly our class was waiting so she said something like, “Look at these first graders being good role models.” Another day a teacher complimented our class for walking so quietly and calmly in the hallway, and the P.E. teacher said something like, “Wow, nice class you have there.” My teaching assistant takes them to lunch and recess everyday and she’s noted that our class is clearly one of the most well-behaved and responsible. Now, I feel really proud hearing all that from other professionals but having just known my students for two weeks I cannot take much of the credit. I think a lot of it has to do with their families and their previous teachers. I just hope that I can help them keep it up all year! So far they seem to respond well to the praise, though it doesn’t seem like a shock to them, which is another reason I think their behavior isn’t a reflection of me but of them and their experiences. Either way, I am very thankful to have such a wonderfully well-behaved class.
The first week my students were certainly a bit shy and timid to speak in front of each other, work together as a table group, and were clearly still trying to figure me out (as you do with any new teacher/professor/boss). We did the “Crazy Name Game” during Morning Meeting the first week as a way to build community and learn everyone’s names. It was really fun and I’m certainly going to use that again next year. I had been using Spotify to play fun music throughout the day and for brain breaks, but this past week Spotify seemed to realize I wasn’t in the USA so it’s now asking for money. Womp womp. I’ll probably feed it later this weekend. I've also been using classical music (shoutout to Beethoven and The Castle Trio) during reading time and station time which is both nice to have in the background and we are using it to monitor noise level. We started using Class Dojo week 1 (I think I introduced it the second day) and so far our percentages are great, and I’m not even forgetting to mark the negatives, they really are that positive of a class! Our weekly average last week was 94% positive and this week 90%. Now, I’d only used Class Dojo with one class before, but to compare - their weekly goal for an average had been 70%. As a goal. Anyway, the students are responding well to it (that phrase sounds like they lab test subjects, haha) and I sent home parent information this week.

So yeah, my students are great. Working as a real teacher is going well though I do feel like there is a lot I still need to get a handle on. The first week it felt really strange being the one in charge of a classroom. I definitely kept expecting a cooperating teacher to walk in and take over. I also expected my principals to be hovering over me - being a new teacher and all - but they haven't. They've checked in a few times but I overall I've felt an incredible amount of trust from them. That's good because it's helping me feel settled in my classroom and teaching rather than having to check-in with them constantly. The second week I started to feel more like a real teacher and that phantom cooperating teacher disappeared. Having a teaching assistant rocks by the way! Not only is it super helpful that she and I can do the paperwork in half the time but I can also trust her to watch the students while I test one individually out in the hall. She's also really jumped on the technology wave and has been using Class Dojo on her iPad. We JUST got Nexus 7 tablets Thursday afternoon so I'm sure she'll have fun using Class Dojo on that this coming week.

I'm not feeling as stressed as I could be, but I have been very busy since school started. No really since Work Week started. I like being busy and my stress level hovered just above healthy, but I think I’ve been a steam-engine running on full power for the last three weeks instead of a car cruising down a highway. (Transportation and energy consumption analogy, whatup.) I think that once we get into a routine everything will smooth significantly. It’s just that the first few weeks of school are full of assessments so you know where your students are in each subject (math, writing, and reading are the big three) and those are neither overly enjoyable nor quick. It somewhat irks me that in the first two weeks of school I’ve done a beginning-of-the-year math assessment test, spelling stage test, writing prompt, whole class reading test, and have been working my way through individual reading tests (shoutout to the DRA2 - you are so helpful but you take forever). I know the benefits and the urgency of getting this data - so we can meet students where they are as soon as possible and track progress or lack of to determine intervention - but to me it feels like “Welcome to school! Here’s a test.” I keep reminding my students that I’m the only one who sees these assessments and I already love them so it’s okay to not know the answers, but I think if the roles were reversed I’d been pretty tired of tests entering the third week of school and may even start to equate tests to school. I think the reason it also bugs me is because my students are overall so tolerant of the tests, yet I can see the ones that are feeling stressed by it. Having been that perfectionist student I don’t want them to value the score of a test over the learning and experiences that happen around it. I especially don’t want them to think that not knowing something means they are a failure. I just think it’s a slippery slope to be so front-heavy with assessments.

A big chunk of my time recently has been spent learning the language arts routines and starting to establish them. It’s tricky in the first few weeks because until you have that assessment data, guided reading groups can’t start, word study is on pause, and even finding leveled books takes making a good estimate based on last year’s scores and how honest the student is to themselves about their abilities. ISG Jubail uses the Daily 5, which I’m realizing I had a very surface-level understanding of. (Note to JMU ELEM Literacy dept: Daily 5, it’s a thing.) There is a lot of training that goes into the Daily 5 routines, which I’m now working on teaching my class. That’s great because they’ll be gaining so much, but it’s tough because I’m learning the routines as I teach them. Which I know is unavoidable, and not ideal, and that we’ve all been there. I’m just noting that that’s what I think I’m spending the most time wrapping my brain around. I really am looking forward to seeing my students use Daily 5 independently and am sure that all the patient modeling and routine-building we are doing now will pay off. Independence is a major goal of mine and this seems like a surefire way to start getting there, at least in literacy.  

The navigating unknown waters (again, transportation analogy) part of being a new teacher (or in a new school teacher, or both) is again why I am so thankful my class is so wonderful. Had I been managing behavior issues AND figuring out curriculum bits AND just getting used to teaching, I think I’d have felt way over my head. I do not feel like that and I think being able to focus on the teaching instead of the behavior thanks to my wonderful class has made a huge difference in my first-year-teacher sanity level.

Few anecdotes from the classroom:  
1) We were learning how to Read to Self for Daily 5 and the guidebook lesson suggested having students model both the appropriate and inappropriate way to Read to Self. I had several students try to model inappropriate reading behavior and they had difficulty. They didn’t know or want to act inappropriately! Good problems to have right? :)

2) I had just finished a meeting and was returning to my classroom, feeling a bit like a whirling wind (gotta do this, and this, and then this, don’t forget this!) and I expected to get back before my students (they were coming straight across the hall from music, a 10 foot walk). I blew in and found them already there, not talking or all over the place, but in their seats, showing me the “give me 5” signal for attention. It definitely took me by surprise but I played along asking where my class was because they were so quiet they couldn’t be in here, and then pretending to find them when they giggled. They got Class Dojo points for teamwork because they’d orchestrated that by themselves, I’d never suggested the “be so quiet I think you are invisible” trick.

3) One of the first days I gave the students some “exploration” time with some of the math manipulatives. I wanted to watch how they interacted and what they choose to do. A few of the students asked if they could play with the dice and after setting the rule that they had to be responsible and not lose the dice, they started playing. I watched them and they were spinning the 10-sided dice and then blowing on it as it spun, changing it’s direction. As I moved closer to them, a few students said something like, “Ms. Kottmann! Ms. Kottmann look! It spins and when I blow on it like this (blows) it changes direction!” They also observed what would happen if a larger spinning die hit a smaller spinning die (smaller gets knocked away and larger usually keeps spinning). That curiosity and excitement about making observations and trying new things was a happy moment for me. :D

In other news… Last Saturday a bunch of us new teachers and our very nice guide, the MS/HS counselor, went down to Khobar to explore. We first went to a fabrics and crafts store Zamil and poked around the aisles a bit. They sadly didn’t have math flashcards and their fabric was, by my friend’s estimates, a bit pricey. One things that's been hard for me to get used to is not living in a craft-filled house. Both of my college apartments were chockablock with craft supplies - papers, glue, scissors, fabrics, paints, string, sewing tools, buttons, beads, etc. If I wanted to make something for my practicum students all I had to do was dig through a few bins. But now I don't have all of my crafty things. I didn't bring mountains of paper and I have yet to buy scissors to have at home. A couple of times I've thought "Oh I'll just make...wait" realizing my house here is, in comparison, barren. Point being, I'm adjusting to a craft-free home environment but it was an unexpected change. At Zamil's I did find my must-have: index cards. I'm planning to make addition and subtraction flashcards to use the rest of the month.  

Latif Bakery was our next stop and we bought cheese breads. These are oven-fired flatbreads and cheese and/or other goodies on top of them. A friend bought a yogurty-custard and honey topped one and it was like sweet cream cheese instead a flatbread. I just got plain cheese bread and cheese and zatar (a green seasoning) bread. Both were good and according to our guide, no one does it like Latif Bakery.

Next we went to the Silver Museum which is a silver shop in Old Khobar. Everyone in the store knew our guide and she helped us look at some of the best things at the store. I had seen both her and another staff member wearing necklaces that were their names written in Arabic and this was the place that sold them. I ordered one with my first name and I’ll pick it up next weekend. $50 USD but I think it’s worth it - wearable souvenir of my Saudi life. (Also, I didn't know that this was becoming a Hollywood thing until I just now Googled "Arabic name necklace". Either way, it's still cool.) One thing I’ve started to get used to in Saudi Arabia is the need to plan your outings around prayer time. Our guide hurried us through some other shops in Old Khobar before we hopped on the bus and ducked into Desert Designs just before the doors closed for prayer. Some stores will let you wander around inside during prayer, you just can’t check out or leave until they officially reopen. We were happy to be inside because the heat outside last Saturday was near 111F.

Factoid about Saudi Arabia: It’s not permitted to take photographs in public. This is for several reasons, the two I’ll paraphrase (and please correct me in the comments if I’m wrong) are, 1) You might accidentally photograph a woman and that’s a big no-no, 2) Industry. The Eastern Province (where I am) has major industry, especially oil/petrol. There is a lot of security around the industrial plants and ports but still, photographs provide information and if there were photographs of these hugely important plants and ports floating around they might land in the wrong hands.

Back to Desert Designs. So it’s basically the Pier One of Saudi Arabia, at least that’s what it really reminded me of. Overpriced home goods that are great if your house of full of them but look out-of-place if you have one or two. But if you are looking for antique-looking swords mounted on ornate pillows and framed, this is where you should go. After Desert Designs it was time for lunch so we went to the legendary “it-used-to-be-the-biggest-mall-in-the-Middle-East-but-now-it’s-just-one-of-the-huge-ones” Dhahran mall. This place is huge. It literally has gates every 500 ft or so and a walk from Gate 2 to 10 took 20 minutes. That whole walk I was just making a curve around the interior of the mall which is a massive food court and play area. Basically, the mall is the place to be not only because it’s pleasantly cool in temperature but it has a lot to keep you busy for many hours. We found a Starbucks, then a sushi place for lunch. The sushi was decent but a little overpriced so I probably won’t be back. Good to know it’s there though.

About an hour after arriving at the mall we left, taking the highway back to Jubail. It was a nice day out. Other than that my only other outside-of-school news is that my Saudi bank account is up and running! We got paid on Sunday so Monday we headed to the bank to set up accounts. (Prerequisite is having your Iqama which we got during Work Week, amazingly). Strangely, the bank is only open until 4:30pm and doesn’t open on Friday or Saturday, so we could only come to the bank right after school, which meant arriving at 3:45pm. The first day we were able to set up accounts but because the bank was closing, they told us we would have to come back to get our cards.

A bit bummed, and starving, our little new teachers and wonderful guide (MS/HS counselor) group went to a seafood restaurant near Fanateer Mall in new town Jubail. It was really good and we all ordered some version of hamoor, a white fish that was incredibly well-prepared. I’d go back there just to have that fish again, and I’m not a seafood lover. The next day we went back to the bank and got our cards. We also tried to set up phones, and some of our group were successful, but not me. Since my iPhone 4 is both older and from the USA it doesn’t have a SIM card slot on its exterior. Apparently the card is inside and no one seems to know how/ be willing to open it. It’s a bit humorous to watch the phone service guys turn my phone over several times then ask, “Where’s the SIM card?” like I’m hiding it from them. Hopefully I get it opened and reset in the next few weeks. My phone works fine but I can't make/receive calls, so I just have only been using it to play classical music and take photos, haha.

Funny update: My relaxation break used to be watching HIMYM episodes that I have copied to my laptop, but it’s recently changed to watching Crash Course episodes from YouTube. I’m not really sure where my sudden rediscovery of Crash Course came from (I’d seen it before, and its sister show SciShow) but I’ve become pretty much a regular viewer. Really, I’ve reviewed/learned a lot of World History and Psychology in the last 4 days. I guess if I’m going to take a break, it might as well be educational and enjoyable. Also, I like how fast John Green (yes, it is that John Green) talks. It makes me feel better about also talking fast.

Hmm, anything else?
Here are some photos I snuck out the window on the ride to Khobar (our guide said it was fine out the window of a bus, just don’t be obvious) and a selfie from inside Desert Designs (they show the merchandise on their website and no one was around me.) Notice my abaya. :) 

Oh and I have yet to go abaya shopping so I’m still tripping over my long abaya. Hopefully doing that next weekend. I went grocery shopping last night so I shouldn’t need to wear my abaya for the rest of the week.

Travel update! A few of us new teachers are looking at travel options for Eid Al-Adha, which is the second week of October (in a month!) We've pretty much determined that we want to go to Oman, staying in Muscat and traveling around that area for the week. We've applied for our multiple entry visas so we can leave Saudi and reenter, but until those come we are kind of on pause. If for some reason we don't get the visas in time, our backup plan is to travel over to Jeddah and do some fun things on the western side of Saudi. There is diving in the Red Sea and visiting some sites, we just hope they won't be closed for Eid. Oman is mostly open for Eid so traveling there is ideal, plus it's a new country to check out! A bunch of other teachers at our school have visited Oman and they all said it's gorgeous and we'll love it. Fingers crossed that in a month I'll be in Oman for a week-long vacation! :D

I think that’s it for now! I’m going to go take a break and watch another episode of Crash Course World History before I continue marking some assessments. Write more next week!
Happy teaching and traveling,

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Highlights of Work Week and Unique Features of My New Life - August 24, 2014

Today was the last day of Work Week and tomorrow the students come. A lot of preparation has been done over the last 6 days. I'm just going to write about the highlights because the days themselves were mostly composed of meetings, cleaning, organizing, and planning. 

I meet my teaching team and teaching assistant on Tuesday. I really like my teaching team and I think we get along great. I'm one of three Grade 1 teachers and because we are a primary grade, we each have a teaching assistant with us in the classroom. Everyone is very nice and helpful, and there is a positive vibe in the school. My goal for the first day of Work Week was to clean out and organize my storage closet. It is a long walk-in closet that goes behind my whiteboard and houses a lot of materials. I wanted to know what things I had and make sure that they were grouped in generally the same areas. The storage closet was very dusty and had a lot of junk in it (some of which I just moved instead of removing), but by the end of the day I was quite proud of my accomplishment. The storage closet felt significantly more spacious and I knew where to look to find most things. 

There were a lot of meetings all week. During one of our first full primary team meetings, our team leader introduced Class Dojo. I was able to give a more detailed picture of it because I've used it before and the primary teachers seemed to jump on the idea of it so we got rolling right away. One interesting thing I learned about teaching/working at an international school is that there tends to be some internal shifting, especially at the beginning of the year when positions are unfilled. At a school in the States for instance, there is usually a pool of applicants for positions - teachers, assistants, specialists, etc. but the problem is usually having the money to support hiring for those positions. Here it seems that there is the money, but the pool of candidates is more like a puddle (to paraphrase our principal). Therefore it's very important to not be absent because the list of substitutes is quite short and non-vital positions might be left open as the year starts, or filled very close to the first day. It's just a fact about international teaching that I find interesting and new.    

On Thursday we drove down to Dhahran for a district-wide assembly. ISG is unique because most international schools don't have more than one location so they aren't a "district". We have 7 schools in different cities in Saudi Arabia (not all major cities) yet are all under one district based in Dhahran. At the assembly we heard from our superintendent, technology coordinator, and a staff member who knows a lot about the local cultural norms. She made some good points about our communication with parents and community because our families come from all over the world. For example: we should know that child safety seats for cars are a fairly recent thing in some parts of the world, and parents might not see letting their child sit in the front seat as a safety issue. Also, reputation and family honor are highly important in certain cultures and parents may be resistant to outside help if they feel a problem is a "private issue". 

To "set the mood" we watched a video by Corning called "A Day Made of Glass". It is really cool, you should check it out. Basically ISG is really pushing for more technology usage over the next several years, which I am very excited about. After the assembly we stopped at the Government Relations office because our principal had heard that our Iqamas might be ready. Two of us newbies got theirs. Turned out mine had already been mailed up to Jubail so when I returned to school it was waiting for me! All the veteran teachers said that the 6-day turnaround was incredibly fast; unheard-of. We were just thankful to have them and now be able to set up all the things you need an Iqama for (including wireless router, bank account, exit/entry visa). On the ride back north we spotted some camels along the highway (past some Bedouin tents and far enough way that they were just dark camel-shaped silhouettes). 

This week I started thinking about some of the unique features of being in the international school environment in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia):

1) Living in same compound as other teachers, families with students, and other random westerners.
This state of living and working so closely together takes some getting used to. There is a higher probability that you might pass an administrator jogging as you go for a morning walk. Everyday I ride the bus with my fellow teachers to and from school; it reminds me of traveling into the Melbourne CBD with friends from uni. It's really convenient to be so close, and I like it, but it's something I didn't really comprehend before really living it.  

2) Since I am always traveling with other teachers, I heard a lot of different discussions and can develop a sense of those individuals outside of their school job titles. I think that typically you know someone "at school" and rarely get a “whole picture” of your colleagues unless you are already close friends outside of that environment. Here I have had conversations about school-related topics and then switch to an anecdote about riding camels on vacation with the same person. Perhaps it's just me getting used to engaging with colleagues as friends instead of just colleagues, but I think that it's interesting to get to know the whole person, not just them as a teacher, specialist, administrator, etc. 

3) There is high security at all of our locations (compound, schools) because we are westerners. Saudi Arabia is safe. I'm in no more danger here than I would be in New York City. As I understand it, the Kingdom values it's relationship with "western" countries and after events in the early 2000s scared a lot of westerners away, the Saudi government mandated that westerners would live and work in very safe compounds. It was basically a promise to the westerners that the country will take care of them and protect them. The high security just takes getting used to. All entrances are nondescript and there is ample barbed wire. The only negative my group of newbies has discussed regarding the high security is that we are isolated for the local community. It isn't "difficult" to go out into the community, but we don't mingle with local Saudis often. Also most of the teachers I've asked have said that they don't speak Arabic. It's not necessary here because everyone speaks English. Actually I've heard more other languages than Arabic.     

4) Not only do we have a diverse student population, but our staff population is equally international. I've met teachers and staff from South Africa, the UK, France, Spain, the Philippines, Canada, Pakistan, Indian, most-recently-lived-in Ethiopia, Australia, and many others. That is exciting for me because there are so many different perspectives and models of best teaching practice all mingling in our school. Listening to the accents is also fun.  
5) If you move to an international school, hope that you are like me - lucky enough to enjoy support for your personal move-in as well as staff-training/school move-in. The first few days here the focus was an orientation to the country and culture, and them we eased into our orientation to the school and our teaching roles. I applaud our principal and assistant principal for managing the personal orientation for us as well as handling all the items that come with starting a school year. I think this is unique because I wouldn't have expected my principal to be so hands-on during my adjustment to the country, but I'm thankful he was. Like I noted above, the lines between colleague and friend (in this case, administrator and tour manager) feel a bit blurred but in a good way. I'd rather know someone all around than to box them into a role. 

On Thursday evening we had a staff dinner at a nearby compound. It was catered by the same place that had brought staff lunch on Wednesday, and it was again very good. I had a lot of time to chat with other teachers and got to know them better. Overall, everyone I've met is so interesting and nice. I love talking with them. After dinner I chatted with two fellow newbie teachers about the limitations of really discovering/immersing ourselves in the culture here. We continued to discuss our idea about traveling around more of Saudi Arabia, and (now that we have our Iqamas) possibly visiting some other countries in the Gulf. 

Friday was intended as our weekend, our day off, but I was feeling a bit stressed about the physical state of my classroom (a.k.a. it was still a mess). Since I'd cleaned the storage closet the first day, I hadn't really had a significant amount of time to tidy up the actual classroom. So on Friday morning, I took the bus to school and spent the day making my classroom look the way I wanted. I admit that it isn't practically perfect in every way (I'm not Mary Poppins after all) but I am happy with it. Anything not done yet isn't essential for this coming week. My fellow teacher friends noticed my stress and encouraged me to take the day off, but my stress would have only heightened unless I took care of my room that day. I'm glad I did because the rest of the weekend I felt much more relaxed knowing that my classroom was in good shape for Monday.  

On Saturday we had another primary meeting and I gave an overview of Class Dojo again, this time to the primary team and the specialists. I feel I'm pretty much established as the Class Dojo guru now, haha. I'm so excited that my primary team is using it, and even some other teachers around the school have made accounts. (I heard rumors that a 4th grade class, a 5th grade class, and a high school class might be using it.) Though I'm very much still learning about Class Dojo, I believe in it as a powerful behavior management tool and can't wait to see how other teachers respond to it once they get used to using it regularly. Helping other teachers and specialists with Class Dojo also helps me feel confident and connected to my colleagues because it's a program I know well and my help is appreciated and sought out. I like having the informal reputation of being tech savvy among my colleagues. Now I just need to apply my young, tech-y skills to my old, unusual Promethean board (similar to a Smart Board)...   

Saturday after school my group of newbies elected to go to the Mobily store to get our wireless routers so we can have reliable internet now that we have Iqamas. Those of us who bought plans got what seemed like the best deal - a year plan for 1300 SR or $28 USD/mo. So I have internet for a year, no more payments. I set it up last night and it is working great! I also stayed up until 11pm last night writing my teaching plans for the week, but it finished them and was able to go to bed without that stress still lingering. From now on I'm going to plan to write my plans on Fridays (that's what I did last year for student teaching). 

Today we had more meetings, though significantly less than the previous days. I had time to talk with my teaching assistant and we had a Grade 1 meeting with our assistants to clarify a few logistical things for the year. One big new thing is that the teachers now have duties, such as watching the lunch room and playground. I'm pretty used to that set up but I think it will be an adjustment for most teachers here. After lunch some students who are entering Kindergarten (here it is KG1 and KG2 - two years of Kindergarten) visited to meet and greet their teachers. It became like an Open House and I got to meet one set of parents and their student. I didn’t do much more in the afternoon, just confirmed my plans and printed some materials, like a welcome letter. We had a final meeting for all staff and then I took up my Class Dojo duties and went around helping the KG2 teachers “share” their Class Dojo class with the specialists (it's a big confusing). 

I left around 3:30 on the bus. As I’ve been telling everyone who asks, I feel pretty ready. I’ve got my room to a point that I’m happy with it, I feel pretty organized, and I have my plans set out though the later in the week ones will likely shift slightly as we progress. Honestly I feel good about starting my teaching career tomorrow. I certainly have moments of heart-clenching “OMG, it’s happening, tomorrow!” but that's more excitement than panic (at least that's what I'm telling myself). Overall I’m calm and relaxed. It will happen and it is the first day of many. I can't find the quote (and I'm not sure it is a quote) but the mantra I keep telling myself is that it's not about what is said, it's about how I make them feel. Sure I'll make mistakes, and stumble, but if they remember me as someone who made them feel welcome, accepted, valued, heard, and capable then I'm successful. 

Now I’m going to relax, watch some HIMYM, and eat the cheesesteak sandwich I made last night. My plan is to go to bed around 9:15pm since I'll be waking up at 5 and getting on the bus at 6:30. I need lots of sleep because TOMORROW IS THE BIG DAY!!!!!!!!!

In less than 24 hours I will be a real teacher. :D

Happy teaching and traveling!
Christina (Ms. Kottmann)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Skyward, Saco shopping, and Integrating the Arts - Day 5 in Saudi Arabia

I rolled out of bed this morning at 5, swam laps, and then went through the motions of getting ready for school. Yesterday I’d had difficulty finding regular oatmeal at Tamimi, so I’d purchased “gluten-free porridge oats” that come from the UK. I also don’t have a microwave (the apartment didn’t come with one and we hadn’t gone shopping at an appliance store yet) so I couldn’t do my usual cooking method. I’m glad I practiced making the porridge because I learned a few things. 

1) I like porridge, it’s like the UK version of grits. It doesn’t need additions (I usually add cinnamon and brown sugar to oatmeal) and it has a nice stickiness to it. 
2) What seems like a small portion of dry porridge oats goes a long way. I always tend to underestimate the amount of food I’m cooking and today was no exception. I barely covered the bottom of the pot with water and added what seemed like a very small scoop of oats. Well, when it was finished becoming porridge it filled my bowl and as I kept spooning it out I started wondering about what to do if I had leftover cooked porridge. Luckily it all somehow fit in the bowl and I ate it all. Yum.     
3) Porridge is hot. It holds its heat in a similar way to oatmeal, but (it seems) for longer. Usually I have to let a microwaved bowl of oatmeal sit for about 3 minutes before I can dig in. After I burned my tongue slightly, I decided that porridge needs significantly longer (probably 6 minutes). 
Overall breakfast was a success.

In other news, I’ve decided not gonna get microwave or TV. Both are readily available here in Saudi Arabia - good quality and reasonable prices, I just don’t think I really need either. I’m doing this as a challenge to myself and not having a TV will hopefully help me be more focused on other stuff around the house and compound. As nice as it is to just zap something in the microwave, I’ve been able to work around it the last few days and I think if I can make it a month without breaking down and purchasing one, I’ll be fine without it permanently. Plus the school has one so I can heat up lunches.

Today we went to school around 9am and had a workshop about the school system - Skyward. It works similarly to other systems you may be familiar with (i.e. PowerTeacher). Anyway, we learned how to access our gradebooks, take attendance, view the standards, and send messages to parents. Again, our school doesn’t have a lunch program so there is no need to enter how many students are buying lunch that day. The standards are basically Common Core (US) and I need to actually look at them a bit more closely to become more familiar. Common Core isn’t that different from the Virginia SOLs, it just focuses on math and language arts. Science and social studies are less present. I learned that elementary teachers will coordinate with the reading specialist to set up what we’ll be doing during our LLI time (essentially, guided language arts) and we’ll have lots of support getting used to Skyward because it’s not very user-friendly (especially compared to our new best friends, Google and Apple). 

After the workshop we had lunch, which the school had generously provided for us by ordering from a local Indian restaurant. More of the staff is here now (staff work week starts tomorrow) so it was a large group of us that dove into the delicious dishes in the staff room. Everything was saucy and yummy. It’s pretty clear here that when you have the option of local or chain, you go local as long as it’s known to be good. I meet the reading specialist and her husband during lunch, talked to a fellow teacher about the aboriginal and immigrant populations in Australia, and then started to collaborate with the same fellow teacher (she’s the secondary art teacher) about maybe doing some student-created art in my classroom during the first week (more on that later). 

Once we finished lunch our day at school was pretty much over. The choices became go home or go out shopping at 4 (once prayer ended). I opted to go out at 4 so I went to my classroom to muck around a bit. I made a list of all the things I need/want to accomplish during work week and hung a few things on the bulletin board by my desk - specifically notes and pictures from previous students (practicum and student teaching). My classroom is starting to feel like home and after the gradebook talk this morning, it’s definitely hitting me that I’m a real teacher with a real classroom. I’m sure it will be even more real tomorrow when I meet my Grade 1 team.         

The bus actually ended up taking us back to our compound, dropping us off, dropping others off, and returning 30 minutes later to take us out shopping. 4 of us went out shopping at Saco, the major appliance and home goods store around here. It was packed full of stuff. I mostly bought things for my classroom - several bottles of hand sanitizer, some Clorox wipes (for desks and sticky hands), and air freshener containers that will serve as calming items in my *fingers crossed* “Calming Zone” (more on that later too). Our group of 6 (5 houses among us) had decided that it would be silly to all buy vacuums separately, so we split the cost of a Hoover. Came out to $33 USD per person. We plan to share it as needed though it will live at the main purchaser’s apartment for now. 

I noticed an interesting thing as I was wandering through the exercise section of Saco. There were dumbbells, yoga mats, weight belts, and anything else you’d normally find. The unique bit was the models on the packages. There was a man and a woman (it was the same brand for everything so they were actually the same models on all the packages) and the man was usually in a tank top while the woman wore a fitted black long-shelve top and what looked like fitted black yoga pants with a bright blue sports bra and athletic shorts over of the black. So it seems that even while exercising, modesty is very important and covering wrist-to-neck-to-ankle in black is expected. The contrast to the male model was also interesting because he could have been selling a product anywhere in the world since his outfit was not overtly conservative.

Today there was a lot of humidity and also a lot of dust in the air (you can see the change in visibility). I wore my new glasses today because my eyes had been feeling dry with the contacts, but every time I walked from an air-conditioned space out into the moist air, my glasses immediately fogged up. It was as if I was walking into a sauna. They adjusted after a few minutes but I’d never experienced this level of humidity while wearing glasses (I don’t wear them that often) before. The humidity and heat should lessen over the next month and there are rumors that October and November have great weather. 

On the ride home we started asking our driver how to say different things in Arabic. We learned/refined how to say “Hello” and the response to that, ask “How are you?”, and reply “I am good.” I think our group might try to practice more and at least get several basics down over the coming weeks. At home I didn’t do much except go over to visit a that secondary art teacher. We had dinner (hummus, flat bread, and salad) and chatted more about using art in my classroom and collaborating on different ideas throughout the coming year. I’m really excited to know her and be able to incorporate more art. We are on a 6-day rotating specials schedule so my students will work with the elementary art teacher, but I just want to put more art and music into my homeroom - especially in ways that enhance topics we are already studying. (i.e.*not specific to Grade1* geometry in math — geometric designs in architecture and quilting; clay sculpture — animals and habitats; creating drama in writing — musical tension and tone) She gave me the website of an artist she’s worked with - Annie Painter and I might try some of the projects/ideas she has on there. I think creativity is a very important life skill because learning to think creatively is something anyone can do; you don't have to consider yourself talented as an “artist” or “musician”. It is about thinking in new, innovative ways, solving problems you may not anticipate, visualizing the final product, and investing time and energy into your work. Those are all qualities I want my students to develop and I hope I can start them on that path by using the arts in my classroom.

Note to readers/subscribers: Thank you all so much for reading and/or subscribing (see box in top left corner). I just want to let you know that my posts will likely start to get shorter and less frequent as I enter work week and then start the school year. I wanted to be sure to post a lot these first few days to document my first impressions of Saudi Arabia and my acclimation to the school, and I’m proud of myself for keeping up with this blog and posting so much everyday. (As my colleagues say, “You type really fast!” and that helps me write a lot every evening.) I won’t disappear, but my goal will be to post weekly about any major events or interesting things that happened instead of daily. I would appreciate friendly nudges to get back to it if I do let this blog fall by the wayside. I openly admit that I have a terrible track record with actually following through on journals/blogs that I start (i.e. I do great for a few days, then it's crickets). So keep me honest! I want to keep this up, I just might need some readers nicely bugging me to help me remember to make time for it each week. Thank you again, and I hope your Monday is as great as I expect mine will be. :)

Happy teaching and traveling,