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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, 

Christina 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Google Workshop and Tamimi Market - Day 4 in Saudi Arabia

This morning I woke up at 5 (!) and swam in the pool for a half hour. It was really nice and I was proud of myself for getting up and moving that early. I was able to swim and get ready for school by 6:30, so if the rumor that the early bus leaves at 6:30 is true, I’ll be all set. If it’s actually at 6, well I’ll need to go to plan B - working out in the evening. That’s probably the most logical since there really isn’t much to do after school around here besides take a trip to the grocery store. I just don’t like working out in the afternoon/evening as much as the morning. I like starting my day with that - it’s the first accomplishment of many (hopefully). 

So at 6:30 I was up, dressed, and had no where to go since the bus wasn’t coming until 10. Haha. I puttered around on my computer, luckily internet was working great. Around 10 I went over to where the bus has been picking us up, but no one was there. A fellow teacher friend saw me so I hung out in her apartment for about 15 minutes and showed her a bit of Google Drive. A few other teacher friends came by also because none of us knew where the bus was. Finally we got the announcement that the bus had been parked by another house. :P So we were a bit late to school today, though it didn’t matter. 

The first order of business was to download a bunch of items to our new Airs - Firefox, Adobe Flash Player, VLC, Adobe Reader, and most importantly Google Chrome. The assistant principal had to leave us for a few minutes so I got to be the tech guru for my fellow teachers. I’m very glad I gotten used to my Mac and knew what I was doing so I could help them. When the assistant principal returned we launched into an overview of the Google applications the school encourages us to use. These included Mail, Calendar, and Drive. I’m quite familiar with all of them so it was just a refresher for me, though I did learn about “Labs” and added some new things to my Gmail. I don’t have my school login information yet so I followed along on my personal Gmail. It seems like Calendar will be very helpful in booking rooms, setting up meetings, and coordinating events. Also, Drive is great for saving files and I learned how to convert an uploaded file that you’d normally just be able to read/view into an editable format. Overall it was a great introduction/refresher workshop. I continue to be impressed by the awesomeness of Google. 

After that we were all itching for something to eat. The MS/HS counselor stopped by to meet us and she offered to come with us to lunch and then shopping at Tamimi. We tried to figure out if we’d be able to avoid prayer time but eventually chose to just hope we'd get to Tamimi before they close for prayer. (It changes everyday by a few minutes. You can get an app that keeps you updated on the prayer times.) We drove into the fancy new touristy area of Jubail (“New Jubail”) near where we’d gone to Chili’s. The restaurant let us in and immediately led us to a back room where we split our group between two tables. This was the family area and so there were curtains hanging at the sides of the booths that could be closed for privacy. We quickly decided that we felt claustrophobic with them closed, plus we couldn’t talk across to each other. I noticed that there was even a separate door at the back of the family room so that women could enter without going through the singles (aka “single men”) area at all. A few of us mentioned how it feels almost like we are being put in a corner out of sight, and I’ve noticed that the wait staff seem very slow when we are seated far away (or maybe that’s just the local places are slow and chains are fast - TBD). Perhaps they forget about us. 

Anyway, we ordered food that our new guide suggested. She told us about her time at our compound and a bit about her life. We talked about the school culture and general age of the teachers (FYI - older than me). I ordered chicken shawarma and it was pretty good chicken. The strange thing was it was just chicken in a tortilla-like flat bread. No sauce, cooked onions, tomato - just grilled chicken cut from the rotating tower. It was quite cheap though, which is always nice. I also got lemon mint as a drink, which was basically the same drink we’d ordered last night at the other restaurant, but with mint. It was very refreshing. 

After our late lunch, during which prayer happened, we went to Tamimi Market. I learned that it is actually Safeway, just called Tamimi here. We arrived just as they were reopening after prayer - yay! That is actually a good time to come because the store is empty so you don’t have to zip around people. I’d made a master shopping list yesterday so this was my big stock-up shopping trip. I actually got almost everything on my list, and nothing I’m missing is essential right now. I’m still getting used to converting the prices in my head and just have to remember a few benchmarks to help me decide if something costs too much. Also, two items I picked up didn’t have prices. I was surprised when I added up my prices before checking out: 322 SAR = $82. Of course that was without the prices of those two unknowns. My final cost was 398 SAR = $106. Once again, I’m quite pleased with the amount of stuff I brought for that price. I shouldn’t have to go food shopping again for about 2 weeks, and many of the items I bought are permanent/semi-permanent household things (spatula, welcome mat, face wash, aluminum foil). Tamimi has a good selection, and I found a lot of familiar brands. For example - Peter Pan, Nutella, Chex, Heinz, Gillette, Babybel, Marie Callender’s, and Goldfish. Oh and Weet-bix. (Yuck!)

One thing I’m looking forward to is shopping for abayas. The one I have now is a spare from the school and basically the issue is that I’m petite and it’s long. Especially when I’m driving a shopping cart, it sometimes gets stuck under the wheels. I hope I can buy one off that rack that fits better and maybe even has some beading on the wrists and/or hem (purple, of course). Getting a custom-made abaya would be awesome, but that might have to be a birthday present to myself. 

This evening I tried to help a fellow teacher friend with her internet connection, but it still didn’t work. We gave up and went to the gym for a bit of extra exercise (we’d both swam earlier). The gym is still subpar but at least it has a TV. The treadmill is quite old and I could feel the pieces rotating under my feet. Apparently they are for “walking only”; probably too old to handle running. 

I have so much flat bread and hummus in my fridge that I need to eat it up in the near future. Maybe for lunch tomorrow… Teacher work week starts Tuesday! :)

Happy teaching and traveling, 

Christina

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Settling into a Routine and Authentic Food - Day 3 in Saudi Arabia

This morning was our day off, but I decided I wanted to try out the pool in the morning so I woke up at 5:30 and took a morning swim with the sunrise. It was surprisingly light out when I went outside at that time, and the water was very nice, I had the whole pool to myself. I hope I’ll be able to get into a routine of swimming or working out regularly. The gym on the compound is pretty sparse. It does have equipment, and a TV, but no elliptical and the stuff it does have seems pretty old. We’ll see. 

After my morning swim I finished unpacking. I finally put away all the clothes that had been in my 65 lb. suitcase and discovered that the plastic around one of the wheels was broken. I didn’t notice it until now so I have no clue when or how it happened, but it just kind of sucks because that was a brand new suitcase. Oh well, guess that’s what $50 on Amazon gets you. My next major move won’t be for a few years so I’ll just get a new suitcase before then. New trip, new suitcase it seems. Also, I still need hangers! You can only buy packs of about 5 hangers, but they are cheap. Guess I’ll stop by Panda sometime this coming week.

About our drivers: Since women aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi our school has contracted bus drivers to take us around wherever we need to go. The drivers are really nice and know the area very well; it’s great having them help us. Also, they do at least two runs to the school in the morning and I’d guess two in the afternoon to transport us female teachers. The school is a 10-15 min drive away so we definitely need that transport. I’m glad they make an early run because I think I’d like to be at the school early to get organized and be sure I have all my materials. 

Since we had the morning off the bus didn’t come until noon. Then we piled in, checking that we all had our abayas in hand, and went to school. First order of business was to configure our MacBook Airs with the tech team. I got mine set up for use in the school and I have to say, I’m becoming a fan of Mac. I like how my Pro and Air can talk to each other. :) Now I just need my iPhone unlocked…

I had some time while the tech team helped my colleagues, so I visited my room and put out the things I’d brought across the ocean to use in my classroom (books I love too dearly, cool science stuff, tangram pieces, etc.). My principal came in to hang out and he was happy to find that the AC was now working (it had been a bit toasty yesterday). He said we were going to have a group meeting around 2 so I had some time before I needed to return to the conference room. I decided to wander around the interior of the school, just to get more familiar with where different grades were and important rooms (restrooms, gym, library, etc.). We met in the conference room and the principal and assistant principal gave us a general introduction to the district, school goals and vision, and other basic information. We’ll be diving into more during work week. 

After the meeting we were all starting to get hungry, so our principal suggested a place downtown. We hopped on the bus (I almost forgot my abaya at school, :P) and went to India Gate restaurant. Unfortunately it wasn’t open until 6 (it was 4:40pm). We drove through downtown, which seemed to be where a lot of immigrant workers live, and got a good view of authentic Jubail - all kinds of shops with apartments above them. It was like any other city center other than the fact that I didn’t see many, if any, women. Probably because of multiple factors - weekend, evening, immigrant area. (Many immigrant workers are here alone and send money home to their families.) Our principal has said that Saudi is very safe, supposedly because crime is so bad for your reputation, so it isn’t actually an unsafe area. As with traveling anywhere, it’s just better to be in a group or with a friend. Anyway, we tried to go to another restaurant but they didn’t have a family area, which we needed because we were a co-ed group. (We also realized that’s probably a major reason why we’ve been taken to eat at chain restaurants - they are guaranteed to have family areas.) Our driver walked up and down the block and ended up finding us a place that had a family area we could eat in. (Our driver is awesome!) The waiter took us upstairs and into a back corner room.  We had the whole area to ourselves. 



Two of my fellow teachers had taught in Bahrain years ago so they suggested dishes we should try. We ordered family style - ordering items for the group to share. It was authentic Middle Eastern food. Everything was quite good though I wasn’t as big a fan of these dolmades (the stuffed grape leaves), they were a bit too sour. We also got lemon waters which were almost like sugarless lemon slushies. They were excellent. We chatted about travel and how we each got our ISG jobs - going to job fairs, having a connection, etc. Most of our group is very well traveled. The average country count was about 30. I’m on the low end with 11! It was a very relaxed meal and I really liked the sharing aspect. We’ll have to try ordering delivery from a place and try sharing at home. 

We returned to the compound in the early evening. Tonight I’ve been working on moving some student teaching files into my Dropbox and fighting with my spotty internet connection. To put it simply, the internet doogle the school provided for use on our personal computers is temperamental. It works great sometimes, and for some people, but it often goes out for me or doesn’t work at all. Each time that I post I just hope that the internet loads enough for me to log in and publish what I’ve written in Pages. I can do most stuff on my Air at school in the next couple of days so it’s not really a big issue, just an annoyance (and everyone knows it’s sucky, but once we have the Iqamas we can get wifi routers and internet will work fine). 

Happy teaching and traveling, 
Christina 


Friday, August 15, 2014

My Classroom and Shopping at IKEA - Day 2 in Saudi Arabia

Today was a pretty relaxed day. We started by going to school and getting to see our (newly unlocked) classrooms. Mine is really in nice shape. 

In my classroom I currently have:
  • a large whiteboard
  • a large rug that has the alphabet on it, in front of the whiteboard
  • several short tables where students will sit in groups, and chairs
  • a half-circle table near the windows, and chairs
  • my teacher desk with a desktop computer (soon to be replaced by my MacBook Air), and swivel chair
  • a Promethean board (different than a Smart Board but similar idea)
  • a projector for the Promethean board hanging from the ceiling
  • a globe (sitting behind my desk for now)
  • shelves upon shelves of BOOKS!!!!!!! (Seriously, I probably actually have 1,000 as that is the school’s aim)
  • a walk-in storage closet (which currently houses many books, games, and textbooks)
  • Math MANIPULATIVES!!!! Including cuisenaire rods, ones/tens/hundreds blocks, two-faced counter chips, polygon blocks, etc.
  • at least 3 trapezoid-shaped tables (they will probably not stay where they are now)
  • a door to the patio area (It opens to the inner courtyard of the school. There is a picnic table and it is also our emergency exit. I’ll likely use the patio if we are doing a messy better-to-do-it-outside science experiment.)
  • pre-made “Social Studies”, “Math Corner”, and “Birthdays” bulletin boards (Thank you, thank you, thank you previous teacher!!!)
  • shelving unit that has a drawer for each student (will likely become “returned work” mailboxes)
  • cubbies in the hallway along the classroom wall (for backpacks and lunch boxes)
  • and more that I have yet to explore! :D

The shelves and bookcases in my classroom are covered by butcher paper (keeps the dust off during the summer), so when I was peeking underneath it was like unwrapping presents! Interestingly I learned that the school doesn’t serve lunch so students all pack. Teachers and staff either pack or order delivery. Also lunch is combined with recess, so while one class eats, another plays and then they switch. My grade also has a mid-morning recess. My grade’s schedule is very similar to what I had at my 1st grade student teaching placement. The core subjects (math, science, language arts, social studies) are taught throughout the morning and the students go to their special (music, PE, Arabic, art, etc.) in the afternoon. The school day starts early but also finishes early. Finally, the elementary, middle, and high schools are all attached, though elementary is on its own side of the building.

Our school laptops were still having connectivity issues so we left school and drove down the highway to Dhahran, which is about an hour drive. We intended to go to lunch at Applebee’s then shop at IKEA but because it was Friday almost everything was closed, at least until later in the day. (Friday is the holy day in Saudi Arabia and the daily prayers take much longer than on other days.) Dhahran, Khobar, and Damman are all very close together to we drove into Khobar to make a quick visit to a store called Tamimi Market just to have a look around. I bought hummus, as suggested by our principal. In looking for the accompanying pita bread, I followed the Saudi men who were picking up several packages of flat pita breads. Must be good if it’s what the locals are buying. :) A fellow teacher and I bought mangos and she let me try the little dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) she’d also purchased. They were very good and I think I’ll buy some next time. Overall Tamimi Market was comparable to Whole Foods in the US - very well-stocked in the produce area. I’ll probably shop for fresh items there since Panda’s selection was so-so. We ended up having lunch at Friday’s. Bit of advice we got, and followed: Don’t leave perishable items in the car. Instead bring them into the air-conditioned building with you. Otherwise you will have cooked or toasted items when you return. Again, Friday’s wasn’t much different than Friday’s in the US expect that drinks are alcohol-free and there are a lot of abayas. We sat on the family side of the restaurant since we were a co-ed group. One interesting thing was that the booths had dressing screens set against the open side. Waiters would open the screen briefly to pass in food, but otherwise they stayed closed and the cloaked figures inside ate without external distraction. 

After lunch it was time to try shopping again, but unfortunately the fabric store, the appliance store (Saco), and IKEA were still closed (it was about 2:45pm). We decided to just wait for IKEA to open at 3 and skip the others. When the doors opened we shuffled in and quickly became the western group who couldn’t find the elevator or the way to the showroom floor. The security guards were helpful and we eventually found our way into the maze that is IKEA. After being inside for about 20 minutes an announcement told shoppers that it was time for the call to prayer and that we could visit the mosque on the ground floor, or we could keep shopping no problem. A few minutes later the call to prayer was projected over the loudspeaker. It is quite interesting to be shopping in IKEA in Saudi Arabia while the call to afternoon prayer is playing around you. :) The soothing sounds stopped after about 5 minutes.   

Browsing the selections of household goodies, I quickly noticed that many items did not have price tags (don’t think, just buy!) and those that did displayed the price in Arabic numbers. You might already know that the standard numerals come from Arabic roots, and knowing that is helpful, for some numbers. 1 and 9 look the same so something that was 19 was 19 SAR. What looks like a backwards 3 is a 4, and 3 is a line with a "3" facing upwards. 5 is an oval, 0 is a dot, 7 is a V, 8 is a tent, 2 is a cane with the top line pointed right, and 6 is a cane with the top line pointed left. How do I know this? Well after becoming unsure of the prices of items I was looking at, I noticed that some items had two price tags - one in Arabic and one in English. Comparing the prices, I made notes about each number’s equivalent. Our group meandered slowly through the store (which I conclude is the only way to do IKEA and not feel totally overwhelmed) and I found several of the items on my master shopping list. Total cost of my IKEA trip = 117 SAR or 31 USD. Pretty nice for what I got. 

Our group loaded back into our bus and began the drive back north to Jubail. We briefly discussed the possibility of taking a road-trip across Saudi Arabia to Jeddah during the October holiday. (Eid al-Adha is a week-long holiday in early October and school is off.) The thing is that until our Iqama (residency cards) processes, we can’t leave Saudi internationally, so our travel options for that week are limited to our new hot and sandy home. Plus, why not see the rest of the country since we’ve got the chance? Apparently it is about a 14 hour drive from Damman to Jeddah, Riyadh being 5 hours in. We’ll see, so far we’ve just got ideas and no actually plans. If the Iqamas come sooner than expected we might all jet off to other spots. 

Back in Jubail we swung by Panda to return a faulty scale one of my fellow teachers bought. Finally we returned to the compound and I started dinner and put away my new purchases. I’m currently making chilled sweet tea and enjoying the delicious hummus. Another good day by the Gulf. :)

Happy teaching and traveling, 

Christina 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Travel, Apartment, & First Impressions - Day 1 in Saudi Arabia

Travel Thoughts & Arrival
There is something so strange about flying. You are up in the air, moving very fast, and when you land you are somewhere else. Unless you had a window seat and watched the ground most of the flight, it can feel like you just popped up in a new place. I love flying and I'm a veteran of long transit. When I went to Australia my total travel time was about 32 hours. This round it was just over 24 hours, if you don't count the immigration line and driving time. I have the issue that I can't sleep while in a moving vehicle - car, bus, boat, or plane. So I didn't sleep on my overnight flight to Amsterdam. When I arrived it was around noon local time, but my body said it was 6am and I'd just pulled an all-nighter. At least for me, when I'm that sleep deprived everything becomes very difficult to place in regards to when it happened. For instance, it felt like I'd left my house in Richmond several days ago instead of several hours. I made my connection and watched movies on the last flight, again unable to actually sleep. I've found it's actually better that I stay awake at that point because I can be a grouch if I've had unrestful half sleep. By the time I arrived in Saudi the memory of my overnight flight felt ancient, like it was a different trip. I had entered the strangely surreal world that happens when my brain has been awake too long. It almost feels like (I imagine) time travel. New place and no recent memory of how you got there though you were conscious the whole time. Luckily that surreal state is also usually when I get a second wind. To my body it was almost 3 in the afternoon (11pm locally) and I'd been awake for about 30 hours.

A guide from ISG met us before immigration and our little group of new teachers passed the time by talking to each other. After an extended period of time we cleared immigration, retrieved our baggage, and entered the fray that is International Arrivals. The airport was very nice, it almost felt like a hotel because there was marble tiling and columns. We met members of the ISG staff who'd come to greet us including our principals, assistant principals, superintendent, and drivers, and received our packets of important information. When we left the airport to load the luggage the Saudi Arabian night air greeted us, warmly. This was my first surprise because it was more humid last night than I anticipated - not sauna heat, but warmer and stickier than I imagined. Really it just felt like Richmond so I was used to it. Those of us driving up to Jubail piled in and talked as we rolled along the dark desert highway north. I got to my new apartment around 12:30am. That was my second surprise - I got the 3-bedroom with an extension*! After a quick look around, I washed the fatigued travel off me and crashed into my new bed around 2am.

Overview of My New Apartment
First, it is huge. I like having space, especially in my kitchen, but this apartment was clearly designed for a family not a single. I have no idea what I'm going to do with all the space.

My apartment is two stories. On the ground level there is:
- a large sitting room (total of 7 seats available on 2 couches and 2 cushy chairs)
- an open dining room / traffic area (full-size wooden table and chairs)
- a large kitchen (wrap-around countertops and cabinets, oven, dishwasher, fridge/freezer)
- a top-loading washer and front-loading dryer (across from fridge/freezer in an alcove, ironing board included)    
- an extension* room (This room was added by previous tenants who decided to have more space off the kitchen. It is a step lower than the kitchen and has a couch and a cushy chair. It is special to this apartment and is even more space than I know what to do with. It has a wood floor, so maybe it'll be a private dance studio?)
- a half bath
- a secret tunnel in the wall that wraps under the stairs (I didn't find a boy wizard living there unfortunately.)

Then there are stairs wrapping up to the second floor, where I found:
- a master bedroom (king-sized bed, dressers, side tables, lamps)
- a master bathroom (accessible only through the bedroom by passing through the closet)
- a pass-through closet (both sides of the wall are full-length mirrors that pull back to reveal a lot of closet space)
- a traffic area at the top of the stairs (doors open to this area, end table against the far wall)
- a full bath
- spare bedroom #1 (twin bed, closet, dressers)
- spare bedroom #2 (twin bed, closet, dressers)
- linen closet

I also have an outdoor patio that wraps around the kitchen from the sliding doors in the extension room. It is large enough to host a sizable garden of potted plants. The decorations and furniture in the apartment are a deep red or deep red and gold floral pattern. It feels very royal to me so I like it. The main apartment is all carpeted and the kitchen is tile. So in conclusion, I have space, more than I feel I can possibly find use for. But it does feel like home. I really like it and I'm glad to be writing that I have a lot of space rather than too little.
Note: If you are interested in seeing my place we can Facetime or Skype. :)

Day 1 in Saudi Arabia
Today I woke up in Saudi Arabia. That was really cool. ISG makes sure the apartments are stocked with some foods when we arrive so I had a breakfast of yogurt, peanut butter on bread, and banana. One great thing about living on the compound is that it's like I'm back in the dorms at La Trobe (Australian university where I spent a semester). My fellow teacher friends are just a few doors away and we are all learning each other's apartment numbers and often stop by to say hi. One of the other teachers who lives across from me came over while I was having breakfast and we chatted about the landline phone and determined we'd figure out how it works. Later today he figured it out and now we can call the others very easily. :) It also feels somewhat like orientation at La Trobe because we all piled into a bus this morning, clutching our important paperwork, and let our very helpful principal, assistant principal, guide, and driver shepherd us around. First stop was the medical clinic to get the blood work and chest X-ray that are required for the processing of our Iqama, the residency card. Before leaving the bus, us ladies donned black abayas (spares that were brought for us by the ISG staff). The clinic was a bit crowded so I was glad our guide told us where to sit, where to go, and chatted with us through the quick and almost painless process (ouch, needle in my arm). There were women working as nurses and they wore full-length pants and jackets, with their hair covered or uncovered by a traditional scarf. Just like nurses everywhere they were kind, quick, and helpful. Our group of 6 left about an hour later and headed to lunch. We drove through the new area by the beach where several western restaurants are springing up and there is a nice touristy boardwalk.

Lunch at Chili's in Saudi Arabia wasn't much different than lunch at Chili's in the US, other than the specialty cocktails don't have alcohol and there were women sitting at other tables also wearing abayas. The menu was almost exactly the same and the food was very good - I had chicken tenders (satisfied the 5-year-old me). My specialty drink came in a colorful martini glass with fruit on the side and was delicious - all the mixers none of the alcohol. Our little group chatted about travel, conferences, other food spots in Jubail, etc. One new surprise was that we could watch the kitchen preparing our food on the flat-screen TVs in the dining area. The kitchen looked very clean and all of the staff we spoke with were kind and had no problem packaging several of our meals to take home.

After lunch we went to visit our school! The school looks like it does in pictures, but also doesn't. A lot of work is being done right now to make it more amazing and the walk-through gave me a good idea of what updates I'll probably be here to see. Right now the library and gymnasium are under construction but they are going to be huge and great when finished. My classroom was locked, but I peeked inside and it looks nice. I also really like my room number (message me to find out why). I can't wait to be in there teaching my first graders! :D I also found out that all primary teachers have a full-time aide in their room. That is going to be so wonderful and I look forward to meeting my aide. Returning from our tour of campus, we got our new MacBook Airs that are for school use. Unfortunately there were some setup issues so after about an hour of fiddling we called it a day. Better tech luck tomorrow.

Since we had time, we made the decision to stop at the grocery store Panda for some house supplies and food. One interesting thing was that the call to prayer for muslims happened during our shopping trip. This was not a problem for us because you can shop during those 25 minutes, you just can't check out. No transactions allowed. So we wandered the store looking at all the new brands and interesting foods. Panda reminded me of Walmart in size and Coles (Australian grocery) in selection. There was a large produce area, aisles of toiletries, canned and packaged products, a deli, and frozen aisles. We found towels, dish trays, paper products, and there were even men's ties and shirts. I sampled dates at the well-stocked nuts, seeds, and dried fruit counter. (I like dates, they are sweet.) Converting prices was a fun little math exercise because you feel like you are saving a lot knowing that 46 SAR is just 12 USD. Plus the conversion is fixed so you don't have to check the exchange rate daily. Once the checkouts reopened we passed through, though my friend and I made the rookie mistake of not getting weight labels for our produce. (The US has weight scales at the register but in most countries you weigh it yourself and get a printed label - like when you make a salad at Martin's.) The cashier somehow saved our transactions, and continued ringing other folks through while we waited for another staff member to return with our newly labeled fruits. I like that the cashier continued moving traffic. I've waited behind people in Walmart before and it is much better to push customers aside than to halt the line. We left and our driver cleverly organized our 6 different hauls in the back of the bus then returned us to our compound.

At this point it was hot and we were done with work for the day (minus unpacking groceries and any other unpacking we decided to jumped into) so a few of us decided to check out the pool on our compound and relax. I met up with the two other single female teachers and we enjoyed a few laps in the warm water as the sun dipped low against the horizon. (It was decided that we try the water some morning to see if it is cooler.) We chatted and swam and it was a perfect way to end the first day. At one point I was floating in the water, looking up at the sky, and just thinking, "I'm in a pool, in Saudi Arabia. I live here now." It was a happy thought.

Happy teaching and traveling!
Christina

P.S. I wrote a lot. Oops. Haha.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

At Richmond International Airport: Here We Go!

I'm at Richmond International Airport, ready to start my adventure... in 2 hours when my plane boards. I'm always early. Said goodbye to my family after checking in my bags, luckily no tears just good hugs and pictures! The man at the check-in desk saw my baggage and asked, "Are you moving?" Yes sir, I am. To a different continent. Here we go!



I mentioned in my last post that I determined I needed a second checked bag and that my first checked bag was overweight. Luckily both issues were taken care of with a swipe of my debit card - $150. Oh well. I am not a minimalist, and while I hope to one day be able to live out of a 40L backpack, today is not that day. I'm actually impressed that I was able to fit all the stuff I wanted to take into just 4 pieces.
(Left - two checked bags - 65 lbs and 33 lbs / Right - carry-on and accessory purse - 26 lbs total)





It really hasn't hit me that I'm moving out of the USA today. I mean, I've done the living abroad thing before when I spent a semester in Australia. But this is different. This is permanent, or as permanent as the future can be. I don't intend to live in the US again so this really is the end of an era.

I'm much calmer than I expected I'd be. I slept well - which never happens before a big event, and I haven't felt stressed, which is a big deal as those of you who know me will agree. I feel ready, prepared, excited. If I'm nervous it's only about the elements out of my control, such as flight delays. But I don't think I'm even nervous. I'm calm. This feels right, this is what I want to do with my life, and it's happening, right now.

I still have about an hour and a half before my flight boards, but I'm signing off. Safe travels everyone.

Happy teaching and traveling, :)
Christina

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Moving to a Different Country: The Final Countdown

I have only a few days left in the USA and things are finally wrapping up. Today I bought my shiny new MacBook Pro and am loving it. I'm all packed for my flights, although yesterday I weighed my bags and they were WAY overweight. I'm allowed 1 checked bag (50 lbs, 23 kgs), 1 carry-on, & an accessory piece (combined weight of 26 lbs, 12 kgs). I had 1 checked bag weighing 75 lbs, 34 kgs and the carry-on weighing 32 lbs, 14 kgs. So I did some rearranging. It will cost $150 in extra baggage and extra weight, but I now have 2 checked bags, 1 carry-on, and my oversized shoulder purse. Pictures will come later. I'm just glad it all worked out, even if it costs a bit.

It still doesn't feel real. In less than a week I'll be on the other side of the world! Until then I'll enjoy the American bacon and get as much done for my teaching career from this side as possible. I'm currently finishing up my class website.

Next post from the airport!

Happy teaching and traveling,
Christina