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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,

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