Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Typical School Day

It’s almost May! I can’t believe how quickly April flashed by. We are seriously counting down the days until our return home for the summer. As of right now, we haven’t booked tickets because we were hoping the school calendar would be shortened. The word is, most students will stop attending school after mid-June. However, our work year officially ends July 13. So, a month with no kids? How much planning and preparation can you do? On asking for clarification, teachers have been told July 13 remains the last work day for us. I guess it’s time to stop hoping and just buy the tickets.
I realized I’ve blogged about vacations a lot recently, and some people might be interested in just how a kindergarten in the UAE runs. I have to say up front that there are major differences at every school. I will try to give a picture of my typical school day, but it will not necessarily apply to any other school here!
I wake up at 5:00 AM these days because I’m getting a ride to school with my head of faculty, who lives down the street. For a while there, I was riding the city bus, which left my block at 5:50 and arrived in Al Rahba at 7:00, dropping me a mile from the school. I would then start walking towards the school and was usually picked up by a co-worker with a car about halfway. Thank goodness I have a ride now! I leave Abu Dhabi Plaza at 6:20, catch the #7 Tourist Club bus by 6:26, and get to Al Manzel Apartments by 6:35. Then Angela meets me in the lobby and we head out for the 30 minute drive to Al Ebtehal Kindergarten.
After signing in and grabbing my props for my KG1 lesson, I go to the gym, which is the central room at my school. The students have arrived by car and buses, and are lining up in the gym by class with their teachers for what is called taboor, which means “line” but is a morning assembly. They recite from the Quran, sing a song, say the UAE pledge, sing the national anthem, and then do some exercises, all led by the gym teacher. Some days, a class will do a special presentation about whatever they have been learning, but most days, we are dismissed by 8:00 to start class.
The KG2 teachers teach Arabic language and Islamic Studies from 8:00 to about 9:00, so the English staff visit KG1 classrooms during that time for an English lesson. KG1 students are three years old turning four during the year, so the teaching is really basic. We are working right now on colors, counting to 20, recognizing numbers, recognizing their names in English, and shapes, just to name a few objectives. I start off with circle time songs and greeting each child. Then I usually have a book or learning focus, then some kind of response time for the kids. It only goes well when the Arabic teacher sits with us for the lesson. The kids just don’t behave without “their” teacher forcing the issue, no matter how fun my lesson might be. So every time she has other things she feels she must do during the English lesson, the kids learn “sit down, please” and “No, no hitting!” instead of whatever lesson I had planned! Next year, we will have English teachers assigned to the KG1 classes, so they will not be mere visitors. I think that will work much better.
KG2 students are four turning five during the year, which is Pre-K in the US. I have to keep that in mind when planning and assessing, especially. The 24 kids I share with my Arabic co-teacher are adorable most of the time. There are a few more boys than girls, and they are really active, but they love learning and games just like kids anywhere. I teach a very short literacy lesson, then have the kids practice writing before snack time. After snack, they usually go to a rotation class: art, music, sports, or library. We have a short time for literacy small groups, and then the kids have a 15 minute recess. They can buy snacks in the gym during recess, but there’s not much else for them to do. It’s a bit more physical than I’ve ever been used to. Maybe because the kids are in an enclosed space, instead of on a playground. It’s too hot here, and our school doesn’t even have a playground! After recess, we come back to class for a short numeracy lesson and small groups/centers. It’s time to clean up at 12:00, and we’re out to buses at 12:15. Some days we go to the computer lab for part of the center time, and the kids absolutely love It’s pretty cute to hear them try to sing along with the dancing bear doing “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” on the computer. The day goes by fast no matter what we’re doing.
The only time the day ever slows down (and time just seems to telescope out) is when my co-teacher leaves the room for an extended period. We are supposed to work together, even during the English lesson, but she is often called away to translate, as she is quite fluent in English. Also, on occasion, “tea time” just somehow overlaps the English lesson, and I manage the kids on my own. I can do it, but I find I have to use plenty of Arabic to keep control. When that happens, I don’t feel bad about it, because my co-teacher would be using Arabic if she were in class. I just make sure to say everything twice, using both languages.
The English staff do most of the planning because we are responsible for teaching and assessing English and math. We have lots of the same resources you’d find in the US, with notable exceptions. Such as a well-stocked library and unifix cubes. The government is said to be in the process of providing better resources, and we have seen some trickle in this year. We have a computer lab with 12 computer stations and two computers in each classroom, but all of the teachers would like to have smartboards as well. Maybe next year!
We have planning time or professional development meetings after school, and are free to go at 1:45. The drive home takes about 40 minutes, so I’m often home by 2:30. What a luxury! I do enjoy my job, every day. That’s the typical school day. I’m sure I’ve left out important information that others would like to know. Please ask me and I’ll try to fill in the blanks.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Rainy Days in Thailand

Not that I'm complaining. After seven months of no rain here in the desert (okay, it drizzled for a few hours one day in January), we were happy to see rain. For every single day of our stay in Thailand. During what was supposed to be the hot, dry season, of course. It was the wettest March in 140 years, according to our guide, in fact. But at least we were safe, and didn't deal with flooding the way some of the people in other areas of Thailand did. And, hey, we spent our spring break in Asia. That's pretty cool!

We opted to stay the first three nights in Patong Beach, on the island of Phuket. There is an international airport on the island, so we were able to fly straight there on Thursday night/ Friday morning with a short layover in Hong Kong. Patong Beach was just as I imagined Thailand would be, a tropical beach town with twisty, crowded streets full of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. It reminded me a bit of Key West, only a tad more naughty. There were Thai massage shops on every street, and all of the souvenirs we saw were really inexpensive. We had to stop ourselves from buying everything we liked, because we'd convert from Thai baht to dollars (30 to one) and say, "Wow, this is only three bucks!" It does tend to add up. Plus, we only brought three backpacks and one carry-on suitcase. We didn't have room for any extra stuff.

We stayed at a nice place called R Mar Resort. The first day we just explored the area around the hotel. On the second day, Mark and Abby went diving with South Siam Divers, and I had a pedicure on the beach.  It was really rainy, and I enjoyed sitting at a corner cafĂ© with my book, having lunch and watching the rain. I also met a couple from Australia who had once owned a dive shop. We had a great chat while waiting for the rain to let up. That night we went to Phuket Fantasea, a fictionalized history of the area that featured traditional dances, costumes, and elephants. It was so colorful, with combinations of colors I’d never choose- pink with orange, and yellow with turquoise. We enjoyed the show. On our third day, we were picked up early for a drive to Phang Nga, an area north of Phuket. There, we boarded a boat called SeaCanoe4U and headed out towards the islands in the bay.  We stopped at two islands for a guided canoe trip through small caves to interior lagoons. It was luxurious to let our guide, Woody, paddle us around while we took pictures of the untouched rainforests. After lunch back on the big boat, we went to James Bond Island, where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed in 1974. I loved hiking the steep trail over a ridge with gorgeous views. On the other side of the island there were shallow caves, and Abby explored them happily.  We had one last stop for a swim on a secluded beach, then we went back to the dock. What a fun trip!

The following day, we left Phuket and travelled to Khao Sok, a national park in the rainforest. On the drive, we passed by rivers that were reaching flood stage. Thankfully, our way was clear. Our first two nights in Khao Sok were at the Nature Resort, where we stayed in a treehouse. It was really built in a tree, and the massive trunk in the center of our room was dripping wet, and played host to a few centipedes. At least the beds came with mosquito nets, so I didn’t have to worry about centipedes in the bed! The bathroom was paved with river rocks and stepping stones, and the shower was made like a waterfall in the corner. It was quite nerve-wracking going up the wet, steep steps carrying all of our luggage and umbrellas.  Abby and Mark went tubing on the river the first afternoon, but I opted for a Thai massage because the rain made me too cold to get in the water. The Thai massage was different- much more joint manipulation and stretching than I expect from a massage. Still, it was quite relaxing. The best part of the day, however, was mealtime. The food was amazing: Thai dishes and rice with fresh ingredients. It was simply some of the best food I have ever eaten. The setting was wonderful, too. In the evening, frogs and geckoes were gathered on the patio dining area, and bats swooped over our heads while we ate. On the second day, we rode elephants in the rain. I loved being up so high while the elephant waded through a swollen river like it was nothing. And I was amazed at the small trails the elephants followed- maybe a foot wide. Apparently, they move their feet very close together, almost stepping in exactly the same space with each foot in turn. We happened to be on that tour with a family from Australia. Talking with them, I thought their accents sounded familiar. When I asked where they were from originally, they said Pearland, Texas! Small world.
    Our next stop was Chieow Laan Lake, which we reached by van and longtail boat the next morning. Our accommodation on the lake was a floating hotel. The rooms were all separate rafthouses, linked by floating walkways to the floating dining area. Abby loved the fact  that you could step out of the room and jump right into the water. The lake was man-made, and the area used to be mountainous. Now, the mountain tops protrude from the water, making hundreds of small forested islands.  We took a hike through the ainforest on one island, and our guide, Dang, poked in spider and scorpion holes so we could see some of the local residents. We took a bamboo raft to another island and explored Coral Cave, a short cave system in pristine condition.  We also motored around the lake in the longtail boat (which is an open boat with a car motor on the end attached to a long pole with a propeller) looking for wildlife. Because of the rain, we didn’t spot a whole lot. We saw macaques foraging and a few eagles, and we heard gibbons all around us. Their cry sounds like someone playing the saw. Unfortunately, we never got to see them.
We spent our last day in Thailand back in Phuket, where we did some serious souvenir shopping. The next morning, we headed to Hong Kong. Since we had a seven hour layover, we were able to leave the airport and look around. We opted to go to Kowloon, the shopping district, which we reached by train and ferry in about 45 minutes. It was crowded and brightly-lit. We had dinner at an Asian fast-food place that was excellent.  Abby had said she didn’t like Chinese food, but she didn’t count on the barbecued pork! After dinner, we enjoyed the view of downtown Hong Kong from a boardwalk, then retraced our steps to the airport. Our flight left at 12:30 AM, and we got back to Dubai at 6:00 AM. Then just a one and a half hour bus ride back to Abu Dhabi, and we were home.
I guess we are practiced international travelers now. I felt proud of us for packing lightly and exploring new places that were pretty adventurous. One of the first things Mark and I did on the day after our return was to start thinking about where we will go next. UK, here we come!