Sunday, November 9, 2014

My vacation to Abu Dhabi and Oman

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.

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,

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Streamlining Your Classroom - Hand Signals

I'm going to tell you about one of the most useful management tools I use.

Hand signals. 

Silent, effective, and simple.

Most elementary classrooms have about 20 students. The raised hand is ambiguous. Restroom, water fountain, a question? As a the teacher, anything that simplifies is golden.

If you may feel that you are answering a student's request to the leave the room every time you turn around, try this hand signal system. Using it I've cut down on wasted time and retained most of my students' attention while also answering the one student who's hand is up. It also helps me not have to walk across the room just to approve a trip to the restroom.

This system of hand signals has been used in my classroom for the last 3 years (in Grade 1). The students use it easily and after a few weeks, they even try using it in other classes. Originally I wanted to use American Sign Language, but certain words such as "restroom" require a constant motion with the hand or are difficult to see across a room, so I've adapted some ASL signals and created some of my own.

Ms. Kottmann's Hand Signals

Two crossed fingers = Restroom

W with three fingers = Water

Both hands on top of head = Finished**
**The "Finished" signal is so useful when you are giving a spelling quiz or whole class Turn-Pair-Share. Visually you see when students are done working and the motion of putting their hands on their head usually means that the aren't holding or using their pencil.

Raised hand = Help, usually on a task OR if the request is unique to the individual. (Ex: "I accidentally have my brother's lunch box, may I take it to him?")

L with pointer and thumb = Library

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I often have whole group discussions with my class and have found that there are some hand signals that avoid the chaos of asking for opinions by "a show of hands" several times. Instead, ask once and see all results.

Thumb up = Agree

Thumb down = Disagree

Thumb to the side = Neutral OR Unconvinced

Tips of fingers touch side of forehead, hand is flat (looks like a salute) (ASL) = I Know
Used to show that the student has an answer to the current question.

Thumb and pinky extended, move signal from chest forward (ASL) = Me Too, Same

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One of my favorite games is Rock-Paper-Scissors. I use those hand signals to do a "check for understanding" after I've given directions. For instance, I'll have explained what students will be doing at a set of stations and before I let them start I say, "Okay, show me if you understand - Rock, Paper, Scissors, shoot!"

Rock = "I've got it! Solid understanding!"
Scissors = "I understand bits and pieces. If I struggle I'll let you know."
Paper = "My understanding is flat, I don't understand, I'm lost."
If I see an significant number of Paper I'll take questions as a whole group; if just a few I'll provide personal clarifications once everyone gets started. It's a simple (fun) habit that helps me remember to check that my students actually understood my directions.

Using signals takes some getting used to, but the benefits are worth it. You will streamline your classroom and find that you aren't answering a question every 10 seconds.

I love using these signals for simple requests because I can be presenting the beginning of a lesson, see a set of crossed fingers raised in the air, make eye contact, shake my head No, and simultaneous continue talking. I can be working with a student, glance up to check the room, see an "W" and nod Yes without leaving my current student.

I strongly suggest having a class meeting to discuss the use of hand signals in your classroom, see what your students need as acknowledgment of their request from you. (Is a nod enough, or should you gesture with an open palm to the door?) It can also be a time to come up with some new hand signals unique to the needs of your classroom - a good lesson on figuring out a need and solving it. Also, other teachers might start using them too! Haha!

Find out what works for you and your students, and let me know in the comments!

Happy teaching and traveling,