Sunday, October 24, 2010

Teaching English

For those of you who know me as a teacher, I am a constant editor. Secretly I edit menus and signs and notices. I correct my sons' speech and their friends' speech and, most avidly, my students' speech. Yesterday while in the library after school, ostensibly there to assist students with homework needs, several of my students started intentionally speaking incorrectly so that their names would go on the daily and somewhat humorous list of students who repeatedly make simple grammatical or spelling errors on topics already discussed and practiced. It went like this...

R: I did really good in science today, Ms. Evans.
M.E. You did what??
V: I had a good math test. Wait, that sounds correct...
M.E. That's because it is correct. You can have a good test, but you cannot do good on something.
V: I did a well job.
R: Hey, look I wrote 'alot' as one word.
M.E. I guess your name will go up three times.
R: Good.
V: Me too! Is my map badder than his map?
M.E. Clearly, I will have to create a bunch of boring worksheets for you all to practice your English.
R: Well, I won't do them.
M.E. I bet your dad would be interested in know about that.
R: I already speak good. (Smiling!)

These two boys were simultaneously teasing with me, doing science homework, and playing a game of chess. Another boy was working on his world map for humanities class which I thought was due today, but I was immediately corrected. It's due on Tuesday. Whew. I love middle school kids, and I know that they can speak correctly if they can intentionally speak incorrectly just to bug me!

Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Logan's life perspective

This is Logan's perspective on life in nutshell ...

Mom asks, "Logan, what is your favorite country that you've been to?"

Logan answers, "Probably whichever one I'm in [at that moment]."

He's a live in the moment kind of guy!

Thanks for reading,

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Passage to India

Many of you have followed the tangled tale of the Commonwealth Games, held in India these past 15 days, ending Oct. 15. For some who know India, the games' "too little, too late" attempt at holding a well-organized and safe series of athletic competitions for thousands of athletes from the former British colonies only confirms the paralyzing administrivia which serves as a debilitating anchor to so much that happens in a country with such promise. Here's our family's version of the story.

A few months back we were debating where to travel on the November Hajj break. We know that we are blessed while at KAUST to be able to travel to so many places and share so much of the world with our boys, but we won't be here forever, and so each vacation choice becomes more important as time passes. Our September trip to Istanbul was quickly approaching and, from what we were hearing and what we certainly discovered, Istanbul is a tough act to follow when looking for a great family vacation.
India is almost equally close, and my family spent nearly a decade in Asia's subcontinent while I was a baby in Pakistan and later a young boy in India. I very much wanted to share with my own family a bit of the amazing country that is the world's largest democracy and one of its fastest growing economies. In part, I was curious to see what I remembered from those halcyon years of late elementary school in Delhi, but I was also very curious to see how India had changed. We'd even flown over India a few times getting to Thailand, each time musing; in the end, her appeal was too much to resist.
Finding flights and a top-notch, Delhi-based trip planning group was easy, but then came the process of actually getting the visas required to enter the country. Mind you, Americans rarely have to acquire visas to visit countries or, if they do, the visas are usually the token kind, acquired at little price during transit through the airport upon arrival in the country. Not so, India. The world's second most populated country requires visas for all, and there's no "Get out of jail free card" for anyone who may claim to have lived there and loved the experience.
KAUST is blessed with a government affairs office, and it was the folks there that we soon turned to since, as many of our friends attested, they could do wonders in helping us get visas and sort out all sorts of details related to travel. Except, as it turns out, in the case of India. Apparently, India won't allow a "handler" to process visa applications, potentially saving us the oft-dreaded trip into Jeddah. Instead, the visa applicants for India are kindly requested to appear in person at the Indian consulate in Jeddah. On a workday. Only between the hours of 9 - 12. Which really means 9:30 - 11:30, or so we were told. And get there early, we were also told, the line can be epic. We were also told to bring the following:
  1. Our passports
  2. Copies of our passports
  3. Our iqamas (work permits for the Kingdom)
  4. Copies of our iqamas
  5. Completed two-page visa applications for each traveler
  6. Two passport-size photos for each traveler
  7. Letter of employment and good standing at work for Jennifer and me
  8. Three months of bank statements
  9. Our itinerary - including hotels booked during stay, flights
  10. 298 SR per person traveling (about $80 each)
Last Monday, I deftly combined two medical appointments in Jeddah with this increasingly convoluted search for the holy grail, I mean Indian visas. The medical offices, as only Indian karma would have it, were conveniently located only blocks away from the hospital I had my doctor appointments in, so, as soon as my first medical stop was done, I raced out the back of the hospital, flagged a taxi (driven by a Pakistani, mind you) and was dropped off next to India's Jeddah consulate. Only I was inconveniently on the wrong side of the road, and the traffic was a continuous stream of honking, speeding, swerving vehicles, which is to say it was vintage Jeddah. Finally, after minutes of waiting and a quick mental review of my KAUST injury and dismemberment insurance, a miracle in the form of another man wanting to also cross appeared and in an instant - during which time I held my breath and my heart stopped - we'd made it across. I strode now confidently into the main entrance of the consulate, only to be kindly told by the officer on duty that, yes, the consulate's visa application office is directly across the street where I had just been. More heart palpitations ensued, soon followed by another "blocker" (my way of vicariously enjoying American football season while in KSA), and within seconds I was once again confidently striding up the stairs to the offices I'd been directed to.
The tip-off should have been the lack of a line and the plethora of civil servants with few apparent tasks in each of the offices I walked by, including the one I was directed to enter. In true Indian style, the civil servant I addressed said they could process visas, just not American visas since "our software is for some reason currently rejecting all American visa applications." Trying to smile back, I joked that I was from Seattle, home of Microsoft, and that if there was anything I could tell Bill Gates I'd be deeply honored, to which he replied that, alas, it was Indian software, not American. He then had me come over to a window and, pointing down the street, identified a business that "should" be able to help me with the visa applications. Of course, it was across the dreaded street.
A minute later, having now become rather brazen in my street-crossing techniques, I entered the business that would be the putative solution to our visa application problems. A man looked up from a counter and, in an offhand manner, took a look at me and said, "I hope you're Canadian because if you're American our office for that is down the road." I gave a quick "thanks" and sped off down the road, grateful that at least I didn't have to cross the gauntlet behind me, but increasingly suspicious of the wild goose chase I seemed to be on. I was also getting more and more nervous about making my second doctor's appointment with a bus trip home now looming.
Fortunately, the third time was a charm. A very pleasant Indian man showed me to a seat by his desk, asked me for about 20% of the documents Jennifer had prepared from the above list, but then informed me that the visas could be picked up after 5:30 the next day. I tried to plead, saying that we lived 100 km away, and that taking time off from work was next to impossible. I even casually mentioned that I'd lived in India as a boy and that our family had deep respect for his country. No matter. I then asked if another person could pick up the passports the next day and, like music to my tired ears, he replied, "But of course, sir." This is where the folks at government affairs could come to the rescue, or so I thought.

But it wasn't quite that simple. You see, there was this one little detail on my visa application, and brazenly printed on my passport, that the Indian consular folks took exception to, as I suspected they might. Later that night, my cell phone rang, which it rarely does, and as I approached it, trepidation crept into me, because I knew what it was probably about. It was the man processing my visa, and clearly in the background were a number of Indian men - perhaps a committee voting thumbs up or down on my application to visit their country? You see, if there is one thing that rankles most Indians it is a connection, however attenuated, to Pakistan, and I, as luck would have it, was born in Karachi, largest city in their archenemy's state. He assured me that he would do everything he could to explain my family's reason for living in Pakistan way back when, and I also asked him to remind the folks at the consulate that I'd lived in India, by the way, and after Pakistan, by the way, and that we'd loved India, by the way. And then I hung up the phone and worried myself sick that night, thinking how, in this amazing hurdle race that was trying to get visas to visit India, an event beyond one's control, from so long ago, and with no relation to the current problems between the two countries, was going to nullify my family's hopes of visiting the country.
But the fateful call that would have destroyed our plans to visit this amazing country never came through, a kind KAUST government affairs officer picked up our passports (now with Indian visas proudly displayed) and, now in less than four weeks, we are fortunate to be able to travel to India.
Thanks for reading, David

Friday, October 8, 2010

Teaching Middle School

As a middle school teacher, I often get comments from people about how brave I must be to teach these rather strange pubescent beings, but I am not. I just have fun in class! When I imagine teaching five year olds, I nearly cringe at the thought (though I do love the age as a parent), so I guess I can understand how we each must find our calling as teachers. I am not brave, just comfortable with them at this point in their lives of being between little kids and young adults. They are funny!

Last year, we as a school did not fully appreciate the incredible span of abilities we would have in terms of English language, so we grouped all students together in the secondary school for all subjects. Needless-to-say, it was not particularly successful for many. This year, we have split native English speakers (or those who are very proficient) from students for whom English is brand new or an early second language (duh!), and this has been remarkable, in my opinion, in our classes. I am really having fun teaching again and I can better help my students where they are.

I teach grade 7 English and humanities to students who are very proficient in English. They are a hilarious, dynamic, and interesting group. Coming from the Philippines, Malaysia, England, Canada, Egypt-America, India-America, they each bring their own experiences into our class. I teach them about writing and let them launch into their own writing experiences, having them share with each other daily, and I am lucky to get to know them well this way. I read their stories about moving to Saudi Arabia, about saying goodbye to friends, about childhoods, about mischief they caused, about their families, and about their trips. They are just at the point of developing their own voices as writers. We also talk a lot about books, recommending them to each other and reading some books together to learn how to discuss literature. Last year I taught this class too, but in the class I also had kids who had never spoken a word of English. It was so hard to serve the students well with such a vast spread in abilities. I guess this year is better because one boy said, "You are much more interesting this year." The students who are learning English as a second language are in another class where they are also thriving, learning at their pace.

In addition to grade 7 English and humanities, I teach grade 6 English as a second language and humanities to those same 6th graders. These students are nearly all Saudi, but I have also Palestinian, Egyptian-German, Ukrainian, French. They too are working so hard and we also have fun in class. They make so much progress in their learning from week-to-week, and it's encouraging for them. Most of the class came up from the elementary school where they had some excellent instruction in organization, language, homework-doing, and expected school behavior. They are also fun to teach, willing to participate and learn, and funny as well. They help each other and tell on each other, translate if possible for each other, and borrow more books from the library than any other group. Our librarian has ordered many many graphic novels, which are stories that combine mostly illustrations with some words, and my 6th grade students love them!

I think we are off to a good start this year! Thanks for reading, Jennifer