Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Be Oriented

Pictures below post

Thursday and Sunday were orientation days, with a weekend in between. Overall, I found the time informative, thought provoking and rarely boring.

In so many ways, this school has it together. They seem to be aware of both the limits and possibilities of their building, teachers and students. There are high expectations without unnecessary pressure and firm leadership without condescension. There is something comforting about being told what to do, with the understanding that the reason they hired me was that they knew I could do it.

So much of what the secondary principal had to say was “obvious,” a term he himself used to describe the information. But then again, sometimes the most obvious, simple concepts are forgotten in an otherwise complex job. We took one step back from the fads and the “new ideas,” another back from the cynicism and doubt, and one more back from poorly utilized test scores, homework time and busy work. We were left with some very simple thoughts:
  • Students will fulfill our expectations, good or bad, so why not expect more?
  • A “learner-centered” school (rather than a “student centered school) focuses on all who learn: administrators, teachers, support staff, parents and students.
  • A lack of English should not be mistaken for a lack of intelligence.

There were plenty of other items with which I disagreed, mostly because the applicability in the arts or in elementary education was unclear. I was happy, though, to hear new information and start forming opinions. It was exciting to feel these “obvious” ideas slipping into my mindset before I begin teaching here.

Some facts about the school:
  • 780(ish) students in grades Pre-K through 11
  • Pre-K starts at age 3, then Kindergarten 1, Kindergarten 2 and First Grade
  • The school has a huge teaching staff and an even larger support staff—just at this location there are bus-drivers (and busses), a business office, carpenters, many maintenance workers, security, bus matrons (to ride with the students), teacher assistants, secretaries, custodians, IT personnel, supply store attendants, etc. Everything and everyone is on-site.
  • The school is open 24/7 (including the pool). Security will let teachers in at any time to work or exercise.
  • It is about a .8 mile walk to school, so I estimate with other errands, I’m walking at least 2 miles per day.
Whereas Friday was invigorating, Sunday was overwhelming. The music rooms (and all classrooms) are pretty much empty, with all instruments stored high on shelves (including the electric pianos). There is no curriculum, save some high-school level sheet music and a box of recorder books. The instrumental and technological resources are plenty, but no written text to organize the activities. That realization mixed with ongoing apartment and Internet issues caused me a minor breakdown right before lunch.

Trying to explain the difficulty of having no textbook or curriculum is difficult, because there is a common assumption that music is easy. Don’t we just have thousands of songs memorized? Can’t we just play piano without sheet music and sings songs without written lyrics? I tried to compare music to other standards-based learning. You would not hand a math teacher a set of state standards and no resources. Imagine teaching history to 450 students. You have eight different grade levels and several separate classes in each grade. Any reading you assign, you either have to find on the internet (and purchase the copyright) or write yourself. Any worksheets, pictures, video clips, and information must be produced from hours of research or your own memory. Think of doing this with math, or biology, or any subject.

I know that if I am to be the teacher I want to be, this is going to take hours of work. I will not go into a classroom unprepared or unorganized. But I am starting to see this as my opportunity rather than my downfall. My interest is in curriculum development and my Ph.D. work (so far) is in curriculum integration. Part of me has always wanted to write a curriculum, and here is my chance to write eight of them. And if and when I move onto the next job, I will not just have my resume, education and experience. This music teacher has a curriculum included at no extra charge!

There is still a chance I will find and or purchase some sort of alternative, but right now, I need to fill my empty classrooms, figure out my schedule and work with my teaching partner and the grade level teachers to see how I can be a positive member of the school community. I have the support of my wonderful principal and the advice of a staff full of experts.

People expect me to do this, and as Robert said, that means that I can.

As always, your questions and comments are welcome. Still to come: a video blog tour of our compound!


Orientation on Thursday. I love the set-up. They provided both breakfast and lunch.
The football (soccer) field, track and tennis courts.
The new auditorium (just finished last fall). 
We estimated (an art teacher and a music teacher), seating for 600 or so.
The HUGE gymnasium.
Great view of the pool and the football field and tennis courts beyond.
The courtyard where the elementary children have recess. They are working on adding a softer ground.
The black-box theater that is the classroom of the drama teacher, who is also the head of Performing Arts.
Me before walking 1.5 miles to have dinner at Arkan. The lack of sidewalks made the dress a bit sandy, but that's okay.
These rolling animals are all the rage. When the children bounce, they roll. It's adorable.
They DO have sushi here. Marcia said it was delicious so I shall get it next time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

More like Al Azhawesome Park!

Today has been a great day. I have a feeling I will be saying that a lot here.

We met Katharine, a second-year AIS-West teacher, at the gate of the compound. She walked us to school where we received a short, self-guided tour. I wanted to know the way to the school so that I can walk tomorrow morning.

I will take more pictures of the school later. For now:

We are allowed to use the pool in the evenings and on the weekends.
After venturing to the school (a whole 10-15 minutes away from the compound), Katharine showed us where to find the pharmacy, spa, cleaners and gym, all located within the compound. We made pedicure appointments ($8) for tomorrow and Peggy and I toured the gym. Though nice, it costs two trips to Europe to join (I’ve decided to start measuring cost in “trips to Europe” which are only $200-$350 from Egypt), so I will not be joining. Instead, I am going to continue to walk to and from school and all stores, and I hope to start using the pool once we are allowed.


We caught the school bus at 2:30 p.m. to Al Azhar Park, near Islamic Cairo. A recent grant allowed for this beautiful park to be built near Al Azhar University, the oldest university in the world. We walked on our own around the park for an hour and then sat on the grass in the shade.


The Citadel Restaurant, where we later ate dinner.
Al Azhar Park and The Citadel.
Seeing us as part circus animal, part exotic fruit, the locals, especially children, started to come up and ask for pictures. Their kindness and excitement was contagious, as they asked us our name and willingly tested their English skills. One young teenage boy asked Serissa, “What do you think of Israel?” And she skirted that question with extraordinary class, to which the boy replied, “It’s just, they are our enemy.” It was breathtaking to experience both the modern beauty of Cairo proper and have a glimpse of the historic religious feud.


Tomoko won the popularity contest and was extraordinarily gracious to all the children.
Johnnie, my principal, and Tomoko look as if they are leading a classroom.
All of the locals wanted to take pictures with us.
A panoramic view of the park.
Finally, we ate dinner at the Citadel View restaurant, which has a lovely view of the park (and the Citadel). I felt like an idiot last night when I exclaimed to Susan, “How is it that I didn’t know the Citadel was in Cairo?” But discovering that reality was a wonderful, unexpected surprise.

The Citadel (surprise!)
The sun setting over Cairo before dinner.
Tomorrow is our first day of school, but will mostly consist of orientation. I packed a backpack with my school items I brought from home, and plan to walk in the morning. I am excited to get back to work as I haven't taught since the third week in May. The children today made me want to teach.

Video blog tomorrow!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Knock, knock. It's your introvert.


“Knock, knock.”

Who’s there?

“It’s your introvert.”

I don’t have one of those. Go away, I want to be alone.

“Precisely.”

I am an extrovert. No one will argue with that. I frolic in a dramatic, social environment. Whereas an introvert might feel the energy sucked out of them by a crowd, I gain vigor from it. I say to myself, “I feel lonely” more often than” I want to be alone.”

There have been times, albeit limited and short-lived, that I have wanted to be solitary. I enjoy a good cry now and then and I prefer to write when I am by myself. But I have never felt the coziness of self tugging at me until now.

I love it here in Egypt. I love the friendly, kind nature of perfect strangers and the energetic, inspiring presence of my colleagues. My yearning for some me-time is not directly associated with wanting to be away from others. Instead, I want a balance between taking in everything and everyone around me, and sitting solo with my thoughts and reflecting.

These are newish feelings for me, so as I am learning to otherwise set boundaries, I am also figuring out how to shut myself away for a couple hours without being a total brat. “I want to be alone,” sounds so conceited, but shutting my door without explanation also appears rude.

I think I am slowly becoming a new person, a person I like a whole bunch and want to nurture. I am eating healthier, exercising more, rarely drinking, and feeling more content overall. I know it is early, but I want to steadily keep this stream of positivity going rather than rising to the occasion and then plummeting into my past behavior. I actually spoke this thought aloud to my great roommate today: “I think I’d like to get a chair for my balcony and sit out there and read.” Can you believe it? Darkness-prone, cold-loving, inside-girl wants to sit outside in the warmth of Egypt?

I miss being around my family and friends, I like being around my new coworkers, and I’m also starting to enjoy being around myself. Not bad for one week, eh?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Video Blog- Saqqara 8/18/12

This is my first attempt at a video blog entry, with some clips from my trip to Saqqara. Press play and enjoy!



Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saqqara--5000 Years of Awesome

Standing in front of a wall with carved pictures (hieroglyphics?), I said to Chris, "I can't wrap my mind around it. It's like I'm in a movie or something."

It was hot. Really hot. Hotter than I've ever been. The kind of hot you can’t cool down from until a cold shower and clothes directly into the washer. Even though the temperature was under 100, the desert sand, dry air, no breeze, sun beating down like it was trying to push us backwards. We were all drenched, my hair was completely wet (even though it was in braids) and my sunscreen melted away almost as soon as we got off the bus. My hat was the only thing that prevented me from frying.

Though my tennis shoes provided more walking support, they filled with sand and were heavy enough to sink with every step. I am not sure how far we walked (several miles) or how much my body will ache tomorrow. I was dizzy and dehydrated and my asthma was not being kind. There were times when I just kept thinking, “You have to do this. You can’t miss this.” And I did make it.

It might have been one of the hardest days, physically, of my life, but I trekked through 5000 years of history because it was AWESOME!

Entering the main Step Pyramid of Dsojer.
The step pyramid/tomb from a distance. I love the view of the Egyptian pulling the donkey in the front.
I can't believe I'm standing in front of a 5000-year-old structure!
Brandon, an ancient civilizations major, was the perfect guide/teacher.
Where they put the insides of the Pharaohs.
There are more than 118 pyramids (that we know of in Egypt).
I freaking love this camel. It was rolling in the sand like a dog, trying to cool off.
I'm like, "Dude, it's hot." And he's like, "I hear ya, dude." 
A man started drawing these pictures and never finished. Adds a lot of humanity to this experience. 
Statues of the ancient philosophers (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc.). When we stopped to look, Walther said, "Oh that's from 300 or 400 B.C. It's not that old." 
The pictures maintained their color so well. They all depicted stories. 
Just like in "The Prince of Egypt" only not animated. And real. And without the singing. 
Just kidding, I was singing!
The best picture, in terms of size and color that has been maintained over the years.
We ate at a great restaurant, outside, after visiting Saqqara. We  were so exhausted. I ate a banana and yogurt at 8:00 a.m. and had three bottles of water. We didn't eat lunch until 2. I need to get used to that schedule.
We visited a weaving art museum. A french architect moved there in 1952 and taught all the poor children in the village how to weave. It helped them stay in school and achieve something in life. Many of them are still creating art there. His philosophy on art is so brilliant--you let the child create and call it art, not matter what, and continue to give the resources necessary for the child to pursue that art.
And it was perfect, because there were so many sunflowers! 

Fancy Flat, Fancy Felucca


We are finally in our new apartment, which I have been told is called a "flat" by most of the world.
View from our main balcony.
It is beautiful in a weird, ancient, traditional way and I love it.

We are on the second floor, but because of the high ceilings, it is actually four flights of stairs (plus several steps up to the apartment building). We live down the ally from four of our friends and very close to the bus stop and a local grocery store. The neighborhood has private security everywhere and is called “Compound Hadayek El Mohandeseen”. We are about a 10-15 minute walk from school, so I plan to walk every day rather than take the bus.

The living room is huge with plenty of space for an air mattress when people come and visit.
Welcome baskets!
Living room.


The kitchen gives us some worry, only because the gas stovetop and oven are ancient. It is hard to light, especially the oven portion, and nothing has a temperature monitor. I am sure we will produce some interesting dishes.
Kitchen with scary stove.
Washer is in the kitchen. Dryer will be on a clothesline outside or in the bathroom.
The bathroom is large with minimal storage, so we will buy some hooks for the bathroom and a drying rack, as we do not have a dryer.
Huge bathroom.
I love the tub!
My room is wonderful. I’m not sure which is my favorite part, but I love the ornate antiquity of all the furniture.
Beautiful room.
Hard, but decent bed.
Perhaps my favorite, the wardrobe.
The private balcony off my room.
It took a long time to drop off everyone at the six different apartments in this neighborhood. I started unpacking right away and took a break to walk to the grocery store. It is not a long walk, but we had to be careful to only get as much as we could carry back.

After that, we unpacked some more and then headed to the bus stop for a school-planned trip on a felucca in the Nile. A felucca (also called a “dhow”) is a small sailboat that seats about 10-15 people. Our group hooked two boats together and had two “captains”. We drank and ate kushari, a traditional vegetarian dish with beans, rice, macaroni, onions and either garlic or spicy tomato sauce. It was delicious!
Our felucca.
Sun is setting on the Nile. 
Sun has set.
At some point, we decided to act out Titanic.
At some point, we decided to act out Pirates of the Caribbean and steal the drinks from the other boat. He is using a corkscrew as a sword, I think. 
Panoramic view of the Nile from our felucca. 
Kushari.
It was weird to have my principal and headmaster pouring drinks and so relaxed. I am very used to teachers and administrators being so separate, and more generally, bosses not being so relaxed with employees. It helps to feel like I can be myself and everyone appears to be more like a family. Since nearly everyone (including administrators) is an expat, there is a certain stick-together quality about the group. I can’t wait to meet the rest of the staff.

A side story: during Ramadan, everyone is fasting. Because of this, we waited to eat until after sunset. These are long, hot days and dress is even more conservative, making this a difficult but holy time for many Egyptian people. Our boat captains were no different. They had not eaten since 3 a.m. and had worked outside all day in long sleeves and long pants (high: 100 degrees). At 6:30, the call to prayer came and they retrieved a bottle of water and a cup of soup (to share between them). They waited patiently through the prayer and at the end, opened their items to “feast”. This was a very moving act of faith and sacrifice for me and has opened up thoughts of faith and religion in my own life.

We returned to the apartment around 9 p.m. (the Nile and downtown Cairo is about one hour away, depending on traffic). I finished unpacking, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to sleep with the clutter of suitcases. It was nice to settle-in and I am trying to keep a list of things we might need. We will return to the sensory overloaded Hyper 1 store on Sunday or Monday to get the rest of our house wares.

Tomorrow, we visit Saqqara, an ancient burial ground that dates back to 3100 B.C. I can’t imagine that I can see and feel something that is more than 5000 years old. And I thought the Civil War was history. Better get to bed! More pictures and blogging tomorrow, hopefully, and I want to put my “Bloggie” camera to good use and get some video blogging going!
I'm on a boat.