School officially began on Monday for the elementary students. The normal school week here is Sunday through Thursday, so this first week was only four days. Overall it went very well, and while it was more chaotic than I would prefer (and MUCH more chaotic than back in Georgia!) I think it had calmed down enough by the end of the week that I am pretty sure it won’t be this crazy all year.
I have 21 students currently assigned to me, but two of them have not come to school at all yet and may or may not ever show up. Of the ones that were there, we made a list of our names and what country we were born in on the first day. I have 5 born in the USA, 4 from the UAE, 2 from Australia, 2 from India, 2 from South Africa, 1 from Chile, 1 from Sweden, 1 from Lebanon, and 1 from Egypt. Actually, all of them except the two South African boys (who are black; African-American does not really work here I guess!) pretty much look like they are of Middle Eastern or Indian descent, although the Swedish boy I am fairly certain is not (I have never met a Swedish person who wasn’t blond and blue-eyed but I guess they exist!) and the Chilean boy is in fact the son of a Canadian dad and a Chilean mom. In short, I guess you could say my class does not have a racially diverse appearance, but as far as nationality and cultural backgrounds, they really are quite heterogeneous.
I’m still a little confused about what is allowed here, privacy-wise, when it comes to posting information online like photos or names of kids. I mean, in the US I would never post pictures of individual students on Facebook or whatever and would never use their real names; a large group picture might be okay but I would probably avoid even doing that. Yet here I have already seen several of my colleagues from school posting photos of their students on Facebook, and class lists (including full names of teachers and students) are posted on the school’s website for the parents to know which class their students will be in. I am so used to thinking of things like this as “a lawsuit waiting to happen,” even though as far as I can tell there are no lawsuits here. It’s better to err on the side of caution though especially as a new teacher at a new school in a new country!
Currently it is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Since I am in a Muslim country (no separation of church and state here) this makes a big difference in the day-to-day life both at school and in general. During Ramadan many Muslims fast, which means no eating or drinking (even water) from sunrise to sunset each day. This is not the only special thing about Ramadan–which is at least as significant to Muslims as Christmas is to Christians–but it is the thing that has the most impact on the life of non-Muslims. Everyone is expected not to eat or drink in public/in sight of Muslims during daylight hours, which currently is about 4:30am to 6:30pm. Given that daytime temperatures at this time of year can easily reach 110 degrees here, you can imagine how problematic the “no drinking water” thing is for non-Muslims! Almost all restaurants and many other stores are closed during the day during Ramadan, but supermarkets and convenience stores generally remain open, so you can at least buy food and eat it at home. I have seriously gotten so thirsty that I have bought a bottle of water and then chugged it down in a bathroom stall because it is just SO HOT here! Ramadan is not always at the same time of year because it is based on the lunar calendar, so next year it will be a couple weeks earlier. Eventually it will be in winter, which will be a lot easier to deal with here, given the weather.
At school, Ramadan changes things around a little bit, but actually not as much as I expected. We have a shorter school day for Ramadan: instead of 7:45am to 2:45pm, the kids are there 8:30am to 1:45pm. This is kind of a nice way to “ease in” to the school year, I think! Most elementary-age students do not fast; I have been told that girls usually start fasting after they get their first period, and boys around that same age (10-12 or so) but I think it depends on the family. I have two boys in my class who are fasting and no girls who are. We eat lunch in the classrooms–not real clear on whether this is just for Ramadan or all the time–so when it is lunchtime all the 4th graders who are fasting go to the Arabic teacher’s classroom. Other than lunch no one may eat or drink in the classroom during Ramadan, so kids who want a drink of water just go out into the hallway. It works better than I thought it would, and the kids seem to mostly be used to it. They do bring water bottles to PE class and drink from them during class, because PE class is outside and it’s just way, way too hot to do otherwise. Children who are fasting are usually excused from PE I think.
Between the short days and the excessive sense of “Wait, where are we supposed to be and when?” (the main schedule for 4th grade was changed midway through the first day without warning!) the week went by pretty fast. We did a lot of typical first days of school stuff, getting to know each other and learning the rules and procedures of the school and classroom. We started the math curriculum on Wednesday, and i think it went quite well. It’s new this year and it’s called Investigations; there is a lot of hands-on activity, and the kids did exactly what they were supposed to be doing and seemed to think it was great fun. I’ve heard a lot of teachers didn’t like the 1st edition of Investigations, but the one we have is the 2nd edition, which apparently contains a lot of changes and improvements, and so far I like it a lot. It fits in well with the philosophy of the school, too. And I cannot even TELL you how wonderful it is not to be tied down by (and beaten over the head with) standardized testing and draconian instructional calendars. There is assessment which includes some testing, and there is data that we can use to measure progress, but multiple-choice tests are not the be-all and end-all of everyone’s lives, and that is incredibly refreshing.
My kids themselves are mostly very sweet and hardworking. I have a couple of boys that like to goof around and some interrupting/calling-out problems, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. The children here seem younger and more innocent than kids the same age back home (where I feel like many 4th-5th graders act like mini-teenagers and have edgy, too cool for school attitudes). They are pretty sheltered here I suppose, which is endearing but can be a problem as well, since most of them have few responsibilities at home. Virtually all of my students have full-time nannies, and many have actual “household staff” with maids, drivers, cooks, gardeners, and so forth. This actually has more to do with the price of the household help than with the relative wealth of the families; you can get a full-time nanny/housekeeper for a few hundred dollars a month here. I’m sure some of the families also are quite rich, but it’s not like at home where you’d pretty much have to be a zillionaire to have a maid, nanny, and driver all working for you full time!
Because my kids are from all over, they are almost all ELL’s (English Language Learners) in that they do not speak English at home as their first language. This is going to be challenging, but I am glad that last year in Gwinnett I took a pretty extensive Professional Development course in teaching academic content to English learners. I think the strategies I learned will be very useful here. From the basic assessments I’ve been able to do thus far, the kids do seem lower academically than my students in Georgia did at the end of 3rd grade. That is, with the exception of this one girl who could easily have gone straight to 5th grade in my opinion; she is very advanced.
My classroom: it looks a LOT better than it did a week ago! I rearranged things so that it feels a bit more spacious (although it is still tiny). I finally got a desk chair yesterday after 2 weeks of asking repeatedly. My SmartBoard is up and running, and I LOVE it. I also yesterday managed to get them to hang the regular whiteboard back on the wall, since it had previously just been sitting on the floor. I arranged the desks in tables instead of rows, and I feel like it’s much easier to walk around now. Getting even the most basic tasks done around school is very frustrating; e.g. it should NOT have been this hard to get them to hang the whiteboard on the wall, and really, there is no reason it couldn’t have been done over the summer. This appears to be a familiar, ongoing problem not just at my school but in this country, and it is very irritating.
On the whole, though, I am enjoying my time here, despite it not always sounding/looking that way. I really like the other 4th grade teachers I work with, I love my kids, my apartment is growing on me (it helps that I am gradually acquiring some things to make my room feel more like home), and I am told the weather will begin cooling down sometime soon-ish. We have a vacation coming up; Eid al Fitr, the week after Ramadan, we get the whole week off. I think that starts September 20th. I probably cannot afford to travel anywhere because we have not been paid yet and won’t be until the end of September, but it will be nice to have some downtime here and just relax.
I suppose I should go get dressed and everything since it’s already after noon here. I will try to add pictures to this entry sometime soon. Take care everybody! And please comment, I love getting comments! 🙂