Wednesday, March 28, 2012

School is Cool

American Community School courtyard.

Here in Abu Dhabi, there are American, British, Arabic, Australian, Canadian, Philippine, French, German, Indian, Pakistani, and Iranian schools. And more.

I hadn’t taught in a classroom since June 2003, when I left my dream job teaching 5th grade in Walnut Creek, and Mark and I moved to Nevada. So I surprised myself recently by becoming interested in the school communities here in Abu Dhabi. What’s up with that? Don’t I have enough to do? I’m so busy having adventures and writing about them, I haven’t even had time to paint.

Maybe it has something to do with my granddaughter Kailyn, who is in kindergarten. On my recent trip back to California, I went with mom Kerri to pick Kailyn up from school. The school environment seemed familiar as I watched teachers herding kids looking like pack animals (camels?) with their giant backpacks.

Kailyn just loves school, and her mommy.

Kailyn’s class finally came out. I braced myself and when Kailyn saw me she said “Graaaammmmaaaaa!” and ran into my arms. Next I met her friends. Kailyn loves school; I don’t remember my own kids loving school the way she does. When we Skype, she tells me what she is learning. At the beginning of the year, it was letters of the alphabet and numbers. Now, she can read lots of words.

Suddenly school seems cool to me again. I started telling people that I was thinking of subbing.

So I registered online with the American Community School in Abu Dhabi and got a call: could I substitute for the music teacher for three days? Well . . . ah, sure. I mentioned that I am not a musician, knowing that it doesn’t matter. I’m a qualified teacher.

Over the next three days, I taught music to every student in the ACS elementary school; six groups per day, one of each grade level, K through 5. That’s some 380 kids, give or take a few absences. Each day I repeated the same lessons. It was like the movie “Groundhog Day,” with different kids.

I tried to learn their names, using a photo chart. They laughed at my mispronunciations. “Ah-med.” “Haha! It’s Acchh-med!” Oops. I knew that.

How many readers have
loved this book?
I watched a DVD on the families of the orchestra nine times. I watched the one on strings three times. I figured out how to boot up a music game on the classroom Apple computers. I made friends with the Indian IT guy, who hooked my PC up to the school internet and called my new Sony computer a “Mercedes” compared to what he is used to working with.

I learned to “Rumble in the Jungle.”

I had a great first day; I was fresh, and left feeling energized. Hey, I can do this. Mark was really jazzed as well. He likes the idea of me working part time.

The second day I felt stale. What am I doing here? It’s so nice outside.

These kids are noisy and not focused. If I let them sit on the floor during the video, they would lie down and roll all over each other. When I told the first graders their music teacher wasn’t sick but had hurt her back, they began to suffer from sore joints, hurt knees and hangnails. Then the kindergarteners came in at the end of the day, and an epidemic broke out: every last one had to go to the bathroom. Maybe this subbing isn’t the thing for me. That night I was exhausted.

Kids are basically the same everywhere. The third day, I remembered my old tricks for getting their attention and cooperation. First, don’t expect too much. I’m a sub. Second, tell them a little about yourself but not so much that you bore them. Third, be nice but firm. “I know you think I’m nice right now. But that can change, and . . . you don’t want to see that.” Then glower.

When I said I was from Michigan, California, and Nevada, some lit up. Their parents were born there, they had a relative there, they had been there, or Texas, or Virginia. But when I asked them where they themselves are from, they had trouble answering. Some knew where they were born, but where am I from? Shoulders shrugged. They don’t identify with one place. They have lived in too many.

When I told the first graders that I have a granddaughter in kindergarten one boy raised his hand and said “I have a question.” Yes? “How can you be a grandma when . . . you look so . . . young?

You have just earned a bonus behavior point for your entire class, my friend.

Now, I’m not gonna lie. By the end of Thursday I was happy, and even happier when I learned that the music teacher had the all-clear to return to work the next week. I’m not a music teacher. I told Waheeda, the sub caller, that I would work three days a week: Sunday Monday, and Tuesday. I can teach any elementary or middle school grade, and high school subjects like English and Social Studies. No math, chemistry, physics . . . I hate looking dumb.

These kids just might be my first graders.

Then I got another call: first grade. When I got to the classroom, there wasn’t enough time to read over the lesson plans, so I had to punt, reading them as I went. The best part of the day was Writer’s Workshop. I loved seeing them working on their stories and spelling lists, just like the kids did when I was teaching.

There were some very strong personalities in this group; lots of talking out and attention-getting. “He’s cutting!” “It’s not fair!” “They hurt my feelings!” Plus, if you exhibit even the slightest hesitation in knowing the procedure, they will tell you – all ten versions. And then argue among themselves about which one is correct.

Aaayyyy. Finally near the end of the day, I was retrieving them from Arabic class. We were lining up next to another first grade, which happened to have a tall, young, good-looking male teacher.

“J---,” I called to the biggest, noisiest and most precocious kid in the class, waving him forward with my hand. “I want you up here.”

“Dude,” the other teacher said. “The sub knows your name already. That’s not a good sign.”

“Well,” I admitted, “I was subbing for the music teacher last week.”

You were the music teacher?” J--- said.

“Yeah!” said the kids in line behind him.

You didn’t know that?” I was incredulous
“You look different,” J--- said.

Wait. He wasn’t the one who said I looked young . . . was he?

This week I got another call. Would I teach sixth grade Language Arts and Social Studies?
The kids were great. We had Writer’s Workshop, biographies, and Ancient Civilizations-- Egypt. They knew what to do, and went about their work independently. I facilitated. It reminded me so much of my old teaching days, and how I ran my classroom. Yes, they chatted to each other but it was mostly about the work. A classroom with some noise is a classroom where kids are engaged, as long as it’s at a tolerable level. I remembered and used my strategies to help them monitor their own noise level, and it worked!

I noticed when the kids came into the classroom that a few were very dressed up. One girl wore a floor-length bright blue sequined gown and another had on a gauzy and stylish flapper dress. Finally at the end of the day I asked a boy who was dressed in a suit and tie: “So, do you always dress so -- formally -- for school?” “No," he smiled. "Today is Oscars Day. Tomorrow is Pajama Day. Then it’s Crazy Hair Day.” They have theme days here, just like in the U.S.

ACS kids have lived all over the world.

I was beginning to think this was exactly like a school in the U.S. Then I remembered about next week. “So, you guys have spring break next week, right?” I asked a table of three. “I’m going to China,” a boy said. “I’m going to France,” a girl said. “I’m going to Italy,” said the third.

“Wow,” I said.

After school I asked the teacher next door about the middle school program where they study in another country for a week. “Yes,” she lit up. “It’s our ‘Week without Walls.’ We go to the Greek ruins in Turkey, and they are the tour guides. I’ve been to Turkey so many times I could be a tour guide there.” She’s been teaching at ACS for twelve years.

The 7th graders go to Turkey as well, and the 8th graders go to Thailand, where they work on conservation projects.

I didn’t think I wanted to go back to teaching full time. I once thought I would never teach middle school. Too crazy? Hormones gone wild?

ACS teachers travel with their students
during the Week without Walls.
 Under the right circumstances, I just might change my mind.

 If you’re interested in knowing more about the American Community School, watch their 16-minute recruiting video.

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