Saturday, December 14, 2013

A night out in Kuwait

It all started with a genuine Kuwaiti dinner.

The Mister and our friends went out to a local restaurant for a sampling to the national dish of Kuwait: Machbouse. It's very similar to the Saudi national dish (Kebsa) in that it is a meat-and-rice dish.

One difference is the little stack of lentils, raisins, and cardamom you can see next to the chicken. Our Kuwaiti friend taught us the authentic way of eating machbouse. You gotta dig in there and eat it with your hands.

I don't think I quite mastered the technique, but it was a really good time getting my hands messy and watching as the Mister tried to keep the rice out of his beard.

After dinner we went to a local school to watch a British Christmas theater tradition: the Pantomime.

No, it's wasn't a full-length feature show done entirely silently (though that would have been interesting to see attempted). No, a pantomime is a British theater term for a holiday comedy show that features a woman playing the lead boy and a man playing the lead female with lots of topical humor and innuendo in between.

It was a very cultural experience. British theater with a middle-eastern audience. We spent a few of the scenes looking at the back of fellow audience members' heads and watched in horror as children ran across the stage and played with the keyboard during intermission.

Theater audiences in this region have a ways to go, but I'm glad we get performance opportunities like this!

Then I came home to get a little FaceTime with my sweet niece on her one-month birthday.

Vicariously yours,

So...this is a thing...

This Mister and I have had fresh-from-the-camel camel milk before. It was pretty gross. So you can understand why my initial reaction to seeing bottled camel milk in our local grocery store. It's probably not a fair reaction. Afterall, the camel milk we drank was totally un-homogenized, was probably a miracle that we didn't get some sort of virus or pathogen from the milk.

Fresh milk. That's no strange, right? Camelicious. Creative name. Fresh is generally a good thing when you're referring to dairy products...

But if you look reeeally closely at the date flavored camel milk, you see that THIS variety is pasteurized. Which begs the question: does that mean the fresh milk is not pasteurized?!


Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It rained a little bit.

The kids have been all abuzz about this storm all week long. They were already stoked because we were surprised with a day off today (Tuesday) because the government wanted to relieve traffic for the Arab-African Summit that is in town.

"Miss! We're not coming to school tomorrow, either!" they said on Sunday.

", just Tuesday is off. Tomorrow is Monday, so we have school."

"But it is going to rain! So we won't come to school."

Anywhere else in the world, that logic would make no sense. But here, the hard ground of the desert doesn't absorb the rain as quickly as less arid places. And the people have zero clue as to how to drive in the rain. So it's not unheard of for school to be called on account of rain. The school where the Mister and I used to teach once called it on account of forecasted rain (and according to my facebook feed, they did it again this week!).

So yesterday was CRAZY because...well, I assumed the barometric pressure was working some kind of voo doo on my kids. Plus they were so excited any time a single drop feel from the sky.

At almost exactly dismissal time, the skies opened up. Just in time for the afternoon traffic.

To say the local population responded to the event safely and maturely isn't exactly accurate. Here is a link to video of Kuwaitis being dragged behind an SUV riding an inner tube. There are also photos of the flash flooding that popped up all over the country. The drainage system in this country just can't handle a downpour like the one we had yesterday, even though it only lasted about 45 minutes.

One cool thing I noticed about thunderstorms here is how different the lightening looks. It's going to sound stupid, but the lightening looks more electrical here. Like the white-blue spark you get when you blow up your adaptor/converter after it's had too much voltage (maybe that's too expat-specific of an illustration, but it's the best I've got). Also, the lightening seems shorter lived. You know how at home you'll see a solid white line of lightening that will flash a few times? It's quick, but you can definitely discern it from the surrounding clouds. Here, it's more like a camera flash. Really really fast and maybe just a teeny part of an electrical arc, but no long spindly bolt that connects the ground to the clouds. I'm sure there's a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, but that's reserved for another kind of blog.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I've got good news and bad news...

I knew this school year was going to be a rough one emotionally when we boarded the plane to come back to Kuwait in August. My sister was due to deliver her first baby in November and I was going to be missing all the fun and bonding that comes with such a huge family event. I was not prepared to be handed the emotional roller coaster we've been dealt since we got back, including the crazy day we had yesterday.

Within 24 hours, the hubs and I lost a grandfather and gained a niece. 

Tyler's Grandaddy had just been admitted to the hospital two days before and we were warned that it didn't look good. We hadn't been given any prognosis on how long it would be before Grandaddy passed, so it was very sad to get The Call at 1am on Thursday morning. 

Grandaddy was our family's All American Hero. He and his twin brother flew missions in World War II and Grandaddy went back for more when his country called during the Korean War. He loved his wife with a devotion that has always brought tears to my eyes. He aged with a grace that most men could only wish for. His sweet smile and simple pleasure to just be in the company of the people he loved was what I loved most about joining Ty's family for their annual reunions in Alabama each year. He would find himself a comfy chair in the corner and watch with delight as a scene of organized chaos unfolded in front of him. He always put his family first and took delight in watching the people he loved have a great time. He stayed as active as possible, restoring vintage cars as long as he possibly could. I am so happy I got to join his family and hear his sweet stories for as long as I did and I will miss his gentle smile every summer.

Once I was awake at 1am, I texted my sister as I waited for my eyes to get heavy again. Imagine my surprise when she responded and said she was on her way to the hospital! We were called again at 4:30am by Tyler's family and when we told his dad that my sister was in labor he kind of chuckled and said, "Ah, the circle of life."

It was a struggle to drag myself out of bed an hour later to get ready for work. This marks the third family funeral that the Mister and I will miss this year. To say 2013 has been a rough one is an understatement. To add to the guilt I already feel for not being there to comfort my family, I had to deal with the guilt of feeling so delighted with my impending premiere as an Aunt when I should be focusing on letting my husband grieve. I was exhausted, I was sad, I was ecstatic. I was a mess.

So I went in to my principal's office as soon as I got to school. I basically told him sorry-not-sorry for being wildly unprofessional when my sister called on FaceTime to let me be the first to "meet" her baby. I had selfishly requested that my sister call me first so I could see her and the baby before the onslaught of grandparents and well-wishers came into the room. I told my principal that as expats we get very few of these kinds of privileges to be involved in big family events and, dangit, I was going to take advantage.

After I finished my rant he simply said, "Of course! You'll have no argument from me!" I'm so glad to work with such supportive administration. Our principals' understanding in all of our hard times this year has made it such a blessing to work here.

I wavered between highs of joy and lows of sadness all day. Thankfully I didn't have many classes to teach that particular day, so the kids didn't have to watch me break down in front of the class like I did after my aunt Jackie died. During a grade level team meeting, my FaceTime fired up and I was greeted by the face of my very exhausted sister. 

I'm an aunt, y'all! After 9 hours of labor, including 4 hours of pushing, with no pain medicines AT ALL, my badass sister delivered a healthy, beautiful, baby girl. Even though she and her husband were both completely drained, my sister made sure to call me before she went to sleep so I could have a much needed ray of sunshine.

It was blurry and dark, but I was instantly in love. 
Tyler and I are so excited to spoil the crap out of this little angel. She doesn't realize how badly her aunt and uncle needed her arrival that day. She may have been born ahead of her due date, but she was right on time as far as I'm concerned.

Vicariously yours,

...And just because I'm a new aunt and everyone should have the opportunity to oooh and awww at my niece, here are more screen shots of her precious little face. This is how expats meet new family members.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What do a bunch of teachers do with a day off from work?

We get on a boat!

The Ministry of Education declared that we had to take November 5th off in observance of the Islamic New Year, so a group of us decided to rent a yacht to celebrate! A lot of other people must have had the same idea, so we had to drive about an hour south of the city to a marina in Al Khiran so we could meet up with our boat. We sailed out to an island called Om al Namal (the mother of the ant) and tooled around on the lovely waters of the Arabian Gulf.

Here are a few photographic highlights.

We towed our little boat behind us. There wasn't a dock or anything at the island, so one of the boat pilots had to give us a ride to shore.

We commented on how crazy it is that early settlers headed out in hand-powered boats with nothing but this view in front of them with no knowledge that there were islands out there.


We took a little time for a dip.

...and of course had to take a few high dives off the roof of the boat.

Hi, Mister! The water was so nice and blue!

If you didn't know better, you'd think we were in the Caribbean! 

Our vessel for the day.

The Arabian sunset brought the day to a lovely end.

Vicariously yours,

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lessons I learned from my trip to Greece.

For Eid break this year, the Mister, a group of our friends, and I traveled to Skiathos, a teeny island in Greece. It was an amazing trip, and one filled with lots of life lessons along the way. So here, dear readers, is the list of the 4 things I learned on my trip to Greece.

1. Book early and book often. The Mister and I were spoiled with our payscale in Saudi. We lived very comfortably and were able to save a lot of money in our time there. Then we came to Kuwait and took about very large pay cut. As a result, we didn't have as much money to play with this past summer, which left us with very VERY little money to pay for our travel and lodging in Greece.


So we've learned to book all of our Eid travel stuff before we leave for the summer when our wallet is still gorged on our lump-sum summer paycheck and just scrape by for the few weeks we are back in the Land of Sand until Eid break.

2. The Doha airport is racist. Ok, that's not fair. Is the retinal scanning machines in the Doha airport that are racist. It was comical, really. We had a ridiculously long layover in Doha, Qatar because we waited so long to book our flights and all the good routes were full (see lesson #1). So we got ourselves a hotel room for the night. Americans have to get a visa upon landing and part of that process is to undergo a retinal scan. NO problem for me, our friend Charles, and our other friend Austin...but when it was time for the Mister to get scanned, the machine couldn't read his narrow eyes.

Austin and Tyler later in the trip. See? Those peepers just aren't very wide!

He has always been teased about the frequency with which he is mistaken for an Asian American. So even when he was opening his eyes as wide as he could get them, the machine still couldn't pick up a clean scan! It was hilarious! Eventually he just moved to a different visa station and it worked, but the whole ordeal took about 25 minutes and 4 immigration officers to complete!

I hope they get this issue sorted out before the world (including the Asian countries) shows up for the World Cup in 2022.

3. Don't believe everything tells you. Being who we are, we booked the cheapest hotel room we could for our 13 hour layover. The hotel wasn't far from the airport and it had a free airport shuttle, according to Great!

Not great. We finally get through Doha immigration and find a shuttle desk for just about every hotel imaginable except for the one we'd booked. In fact, no one had even heard of the hotel, and they definitely didn't have a shuttle.

So armed with a screen shot of a Google map and the address of the hotel, we set out to find a taxi that could take us there. That proved to be harder than you would expect.

Anybody? Nobody knows where I'm sleeping tonight?

At one point I was surrounded by ALL of the taxi drivers on duty arguing back and forth in their various languages as to where they thought the hotel could possibly be. Eventually one of them had the genius idea to CALL THE HOTEL AND ASK FOR DIRECTIONS!

4. A week is not nearly enough time to see Greece. Granted, a lot of this week was spent in transit, so we weren't able to make the most of our time, but even if we'd been able to squeeze as much as possible into our trip, it still wouldn't have been enough.

We just barely got to see the Acropolis, and we didn't see all sides of the hill. We didn't go into the Acropolis Museum, and countless other sites in Athens. Then there was Skiathos.

The town was so tiny and cute, the beaches were beautiful, the people were so nice! I could have spent a week on just that island and still needed more time for exploring.

All-in-all, Greece was great! We'll book our next Eid vacation (Oktoberfest 2014, y'all!!) nice and early so we can make sure to not repeat the same lessons next year.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Home Sweet Home: an Update

I was looking through old posts the other day and I realized I never updated y'all on how we settled in to our apartment! So here are a few shots of the current state of our place.

This is the entry way with the Mr. Pig and Mr. Otter prints that were two of the first things we hung in our new home. We've since added a fantastic entry table that affords us so much storage! You can't see it very well, but just to the right of the door is the print of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, which is a gift from my aunt Becky. It's a tradition the women in my family (my mom, my aunt Becky, her daughter Sarah, my sister, and me) to have a print of Sunflowers hanging somewhere in our homes. I've had this print hanging in all my homes since my first college dorm.

Here are the dining room tables. The apartment comes with one table, but our weekly family dinners have grown to up to 16 people, so I got us a second table and 4 more chairs. It's like Thanksgiving every week (but with slightly less food) and I love it.

Storage is at a premium over here, so I have tried to find furniture that serves a dual purpose when possible. Those benches on either side of the white loveseat used to be the only storage in this corner. They roll out and hold all our holiday stuff and my scrapbooking materials. The white love seat is a life saver for the times the Mister wants to play video games and I want to stretch out and stream my TV shows.

This is my favorite part of the house! The couch has taken quite a beating since we purchased it last year, but I still love it! The photos over the couch make it feel so much like home. But the best part of this living room, by far, is the fantastic comfy chair we got from our friend Sharon! The Mister is in it right now playing his video games and it is famous for its afternoon-nap-inducing powers. You'll notice that the entertainment center is a vast improvement over the rustic xbox-sitting-on-a-chair set up we had last year.

A close up on my attempt to be all interior design-ish. The Ganesh was our latest smuggle from Sri Lanka. We also were able to re-purchase the Sri Lankan man and woman and nativities that were confiscated by the Saudi government in April 2012.

The guest room (aka the cat room for the time being) actually looks like a guest room! We bought the bed last semester because a friend of ours was coming to visit from Saudi. Notice the storage under the bed. It currently holds...well...everything I couldn't find a place for previously.

This is the room where I spend a lot of my time (keep your jokes to yourself, fellas). It's not much, but it's mine. The green cabinets drive me a little crazy. The guy who lived in this apartment before us had leftover paint from the living room, so he decided to paint the cabinets. Alas, he only had enough for the uppers. It feels like a kitschy 1950s kitchen and I kind of hate it.  But oh well. At least it doesn't clash with the tiles.

Here's the bedroom. I know, Mom, I know: the bed's not made. Some things never change.

Hope you enjoyed your tour of our crib! The guest bed has a VERY dreamy memory foam mattress topper, so feel free to come visit any time!

Vicariously yours,

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Struggle to Drive Legally in Kuwait (the long story)

For the two years we were in Saudi Arabia, it was illegal for me to drive. This was a fact I was well aware of before we moved and it turned out to be only a minor inconvenience. My Arabic got better (from non-existent to slightly-less-than-non-existent) because I had so much practice with taxi drivers. But moving to Kuwait definitely had one nice selling point: I could finally drive myself to the grocery store!

We bought a car in Kuwait from exiting teachers before we even left Saudi Arabia. When we moved to Kuwait permanently, we just had to wait for our residence visas to come through and we could get our drivers licenses. Well...through a series of events that I won't bore you with now, it took an extraordinarily long time for my civil ID to come through and the hubs didn't get his until MARCH of this year! In the meantime we just tempted the fates and drove during non-peak hours without a license. Life got busy and by the time we were both fully legal residents in the country, we were stressed out with school and all the new curriculum we were learning and getting a license became the last item on our to-do list.

"But Amber, what if you got pulled over?!"

The police don't really pull people over in the Middle East, it seems. They are usually driving around with their lights flashing, but it appears they only do that so you know they're there...maybe? There seems to be no real regulation of the speed limits as I have witnessed shabab (young men) blaze past police cars on patrol and parked on the side of the road and the cops haven't blinked an eye. Police don't enforce seat belt or texting-while-driving laws (if there are such laws on the books), so it seems the only reason a police officer would have reason to speak to me is if I were involved in an accident (which is why we drove during non-peak hours) or at a check point.

Flash forward to May 2013. Rumors of a ramped-up effort to nationalize Kuwait and discourage expats from remaining in the country start to circulate. The number of road checkpoints are greatly increased, and a new law for drivers licenses is announced. It appears that the law is mainly aimed at ridding the country of Subcontinental expats (Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, etc) who were driving with a forged license or with no license at all. The previous law for drivers had required the applicant earn at least 400KD (~$1400) a month, and that is a small fortune to many of the cleaning ladies, street cleaners, and delivery men that needed a license to get to work. Everything the Western expats were finding indicated that as long as you looked American/Canadian/European, you were waved through the checkpoints without being bothered.


But just to be safe, the Mister and I decided to start the process of getting our license this summer while we were home. The new laws are ever changing and completely illogical to a driver like me who has a relatively clean record in her home country and has held a valid license in the States with no suspensions or issue for more than 14 years. But we are guests in this country, so we had no issue following the local laws, if we could decipher what exactly it was the Kuwait government wanted from us.

When we left in June, the laws--as far as we were told-- stated that drivers license applicants had to meet all the previous requirements (valid visa, salary minimum, etc) as well as the following:

  • All college/university diplomas had to be notarized, authenticated by the state of residence (even if it wasn't the state in which the diploma was issued), then authenticated by the US Department of State in Washington DC.
  • From the Department of State, the authenticated documents had to then be authenticated by the embassy of Kuwait in the United States, also in DC.
  • Upon returning to Kuwait, all these documents had to be translated to Arabic and submitted to the government. 
  • Also upon returning to Kuwait, your US drivers license had to be authenticated by the Embassy of the United States in Kuwait and THAT had to get translated. 
So we spend way too much time this summer stressing about getting our documents authenticated properly. First of all, you can't notarize a diploma unless you witnessed the diploma get conferred, so we got a photocopy of the diploma notarized as a true copy of a real piece of paper that says we graduated from college and hoped the Kuwait embassy accept it.

Then we had to notarize that the notary's signature as in fact a true signature of a real notary.

After getting all of that authenticated by the State Department in Tennessee, we sent everything off to a courier in DC and our headaches increased a million fold.

First of all, the courier we hired in DC made it seem like we would pay about $200 for their services, which is what we had budgeted. Then I get the estimate of their cost and find out that it would be about $200 for the authentications...AND AN ADDITIONAL $300 FOR THE CONVENIENCE OF SOME SCHMOE WALKING OUR DOCUMENTS INTO A COUPLE GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS! That's almost five hundred dollars for something I could have done myself for less than $300, INCLUDING AIRFARE!

The anxiety was compounded by the fact that we waited too long and sent our documents during Ramadan, which meant the courier had a smaller window of opportunity to visit the Kuwait Embassy. 

In the middle of visiting family (including my last visit with my aunt Jackie), I get an email from the courier stating that the Embassy of Kuwait wanted paper--not electronic-- copies of our university transcripts and a degree verification from the Student Clearinghouse. Both of these items were easily retrieved though online requests, but I had no internet at my grandparents' house. I found out from colleagues that their couriers in DC simply made these requests on their behalves and added the fees to the final total owed the company. That would have been perfect! But that was not part of the $300 service I was getting from my courier. 

So it took forever to get all that stuff delivered to DC and then our courier didn't get to the Kuwait Embassy before it closed for Eid. It took them more than a month to get our documents authenticated and we had to get them shipped to a colleague who was returning to Kuwait after us so she could hand deliver everything to us.

AND THEN THE COURIER DIDN'T SEND OUR ORIGINAL DIPLOMAS BACK WITH ALL THE AUTHENTICATIONS! I called them from Kuwait and the assistant manager literally said, "Oops! I just found them at the bottom of my desk drawer!" 

Anyway. I now have all the documents they asked for so I take my stuff to our mandoub (the Guy who helps with all things documentation for our school) and he says I need to get an appointment at the US embassy to have my Tennessee drivers license authenticated--dangit. I forgot that step.

...THREE weeks later, I go for my appointment only to find out that the US Embassy in Kuwait doesn't have the capability to authenticate documents issued in the States, and never has. They tell me they could notarize my license, but everyone who has done that in the past 3 weeks has been refused by the Kuwait government. I should try again next month after they have hopefully negotiated an agreement with the Kuwait government to accept the notarizations or change their expectations.

ALL of that for a stinking drivers license?! I don't have to take a driving test to prove that I can actually DRIVE?! What does my college diploma have to do with any of this!? Why can't the Kuwait government reciprocate? Or allow us to drive on an International Drivers License?! Why all the bureaucracy for something that Kuwait citizens can get with no trouble at all?! And why aren't the unsafe shabab drivers being cracked down on just as strictly as the expats?!

These are the types of questions expats can't dwell on here, or else we will go crazy. Meanwhile, the police are actually stopping Americans now and threatening them with prison time, so we've stopped driving all together.

Hopefully we'll be legal before Christmas! It's all just a part of the adventure.

Vicariously yours,

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Close-to-Finished-Classroom Reveal

I read a lot of teacher blogs and this time of year is filled with posts as teachers a heck of a lot more organized than me show off their freshly prepared classrooms and highlight all the nooks and crannies where they have hidden away teachable moments to be found later in the school year. Many are the types who have adopted the new teacher fad of going without a teacher desk (it robs the room of valuable instructional space), and Pinterest is filled with their free printable owl-themed filing cabinet labels or bulletin board characters.

Yeah. I'm not one of those ladies. I tried to do that whole no-teacher-desk thing one year. I just ended up commandeering a section of student desks instead. I teach middle school. We don't do bulletin boards and we definitely don't have room themes.

But I worked my butt off on my classroom this summer, so I'm gonna do a classroom reveal, dangit!

It's not quite finished yet. I'm waiting for payday so I can buy a few more organizational tools and possibly spring for some more laminating. But I figure my teacher friends back home would enjoy seeing my current classroom. If you found this post from a middle school classroom management google search, I've bolded the tricks I use that I think work best for middle school minds.

This is the view while standing at the door. I took these shots right before the parents arrived for Open House, so I had my introductory powerpoint up on the screen already.

This is the view while standing on the other side of the room at the student workstation. I use the workstation as a student hub of craft supplies and such.

 In my first year of teaching, students were constantly taking things from my desk because it was the only place in the room to store things like tape dispensers and staplers. It was harmless pilfering at first, but then all my writing utensils went missing, even the ones that were buried under the ubiquitous piles of papers on every middle school teacher's desk. So I have dedicated a corner of my classroom to the student workstation every year since. It has multiple staplers, tape dispensers, 3-hole punches, scissors, and all the other supplies students could need. That way they have no reason to go to my desk.

I always try to have a mirror somewhere in my classroom. It's a trick I learned in college. Ninety percent* of middle school bathroom visits are because the students want to check their hair or reapply lip gloss. So I put a mirror in my room and it really does reduce the amount of bathroom requests. Thanks to our school's strict policy on phones during the school day, the amount of checking-my-whatsapp bathroom visits has also diminished this school year.

*I just made up that percentage. It's probably closer to 95%, but the studies haven't concluded yet.

Also on the workstation are the WYWOs. These are an organizational tool I came up with while I was in Saudi Arabia. Student absence was a really big problem, and I was constantly being swamped by returning students at the beginning of class wanting to know what they had missed the day before. I was proud of them for being responsible and finding out about their make up work, but their timing was horrible. A middle school teacher has about a bajillion things to do in the first 5 minutes of each class period, and mentally replaying what we did yesterday in third period (which is usually different from what we did in first and fourth period thanks to the ever changing needs of middle school students) is not one of them.

So I created the WYWO (while you were out) form and I assigned the job of filling out that form to a different student each week whom I call The Go-to Guy/Gal. That way absent students don't come talk to me at the beginning of the day, and if they have any questions about the WYWO, they ask the go-to guy and I'm left to input attendance as well as put out the 50 other fires that start during hectic transition times.

These are the student desks. They're in groups of 6 kids (though they are rarely completely full) and I call them "pods." Each pod has a pod pack, a gold star board, 2 trash cans, and a parking lot. See my ugly permanent bulletin board display on the right? I told you. Middle School teachers don't do bulletin boards.

I don't have a close up of the pod packs (they're the soup cans attached to the wall in the picture above), but they along with the trashcans are LIFE SAVERS!! Another problem I had in my first year of teaching was the vagabonds. The kids who found every possible reason to wander even though I tried my hardest to work physical movement into all my lesson plans. They needed a pencil sharpener, they needed to borrow a pencil from a friend directly across the room, they needed to get a tissue, they needed to throw away their snotty tissue. So I eliminated the wandering by putting all those things at their desks. The pod packs have pencils. I use tiny golf pencils with crappy erasers; the kids HATE them, but beggars can't be choosers. The pod packs have sharpeners, a ruler (a new addition in the straight-line obsessed Middle East), erasers, and a pack of tissues. There are two of these ikea trash cans attached to each pod so the water-cooler-meeting style rendez-vous at the trashcan is a thing of the past.

Throughout high school and college I had jobs that were centered around customer service. I was expected to go out of my way to make sure my customers didn't lift a finger unless they had to. My most used phrase was "I can do that for you."

When I started teaching, it was hard to turn that impulse off and I spent my first year running around like a mad woman! "Don't get up! I'll hand out ALL of these graded homework assignments while ALL of you watch me." My instinct was to be a servant and my students were bored and antsy as a result. There was no sense of community in my room, just panic as I tried to spin all the plates.

So ever since my second year I've had classroom jobs whenever possible. Back in Nashville I had about 8 different jobs and my students LOVED chipping in! I don't know why I didn't realize that students like to feel useful and needed, especially when in a high poverty population. I was finally able to have some one-on-one time with students because my Operator could answer the classroom phone for me. My Manager knew where to locate the day's handouts and could distribute them quickly while I had a disciplinary conference with a student in the hall. It was GREAT!

Since moving to the Middle East I've decreased the number of classroom jobs I use. My current students are used to being waited on by adults and are often opposed to being assigned a job in the classroom other than to sit and absorb their surroundings. They don't get to opt out of performing their duties, but I have eliminated jobs like the Trash Collector and Street Sweepers that I had in Nashville.

I have put job descriptions above the job assignments because terms like "manager" don't seem to be a part of my Middle Eastern students' regular vernacular. When I first introduced the job here I said, "What do you think a manager should do?" and I was met with total silence. "Ok...Bobby*, what does a restaurant manager do?" ....nothing. They had no idea!! They either didn't know that was a job in the real world or they were playing stupid!

So now I can just point to the job descriptions when a student asks "I'm this week's Gopher. What does that job do?"

*names have been changed to protect the naive.

This is the most unfinished part of my classroom. I snagged some of the old teacher mailboxes from the office when they were changed out last school year and they make an awesome storage space! I just need to get some plastic bins so all my craft supplies aren't just hanging out for all the world to see.

Those green and white beauties on top of the storage are student mailboxes that I MADE! I got an idea from Pinterest, but didn't have pizza boxes or USPS shipping boxes like the inspiration sites suggest. So I jimmy-rigged them using the tops of the cardboard boxes our reams of copy paper come in! They aren't all that pretty to look at but I pretty darn proud of them! I have the class mailman retrieve the graded work from the outboxes (the silver trays on top) and deliver the "mail" so I don't have to run around and waste class time passing back graded papers--a task that I put off so much in my first year of teaching that it often took a whole class period to purge all the stacks of graded work from my desk. Since I teach about 120 students this year, the "addresses" are the kids' seat assignments. Each seat has a pod letter (A pod, B pod, etc) and a number. They write their assignment in the top left corner of all their work and the mailman places it in the corresponding mailbox.

The messy box of tissue paper is a Next Activity option for the kids. Next Activities are short assignments the kids can work on if they finish classwork before we're ready to move on with the rest of the lesson and I need to assist other students. Instead of just talking and distracting their classmates, the kids have 4-5 rotating choices of activities they can do instead. The stained glass window that has gotten started behind the mailboxes is one of them. I modified an idea from (surprise) Pinterest and it's serving two purposes. The kids are LOVING that they get to glue paper to the window and not get in trouble, and the fly-by wavers and hand signalers that were constantly distracting my class last year are being blocked from view! I love all the natural light the windows let in, but they provided the perfect frame for kids "going to the bathroom" who wanted to flag their friends down to let them know it was time for their 11:25 appointment in the john.

Other next activities I use are coloring pages, reading a book (which my students this year actually do without my having to force it!), create a crossword puzzle using the unit's current vocabulary, play with (censored) magnetic poetry, test their trivia knowledge using Brain Quests, and puzzle packs with mazes and word searches.

One of the things I started new this year is my reward system. I've struggled with a reward system that I could maintain for years! I was raised in a household where you weren't rewarded for doing the things you were supposed to do, so it's not natural for me to shower my students with stickers or treats when they sit in their seats and do their work. But I modified found this idea found on Pinterest and it is working like magic on my sixth grade students.

Throughout the class period I divvy out "gold stars" to the pods. I tried to find a feasible way to use actual gold stars, but it just didn't work out. So I have attached a small dry erase board next to each pod and when a student or the whole pod is behaving exceptionally well, I make sure to call out the desired behavior as I add a tally to their gold star board (or I have a student do it if I'm across the room). The pod with the most gold stars at the end of the class period gets to choose a reward to add a letter to on our reward board. They're hard to see in the photo above but the kids have the choice of brownies, class snacks, gum in class, or a lunch party. We add one letter each day and the reward that gets filled up first is what the whole class gets.

I was afraid the kids would find the whole gold star thing cheesy and lame, but they have really latched on to it. I'm not sure if it would work as well in a 7th or 8th grade class, but as long as I'm teaching 6th grade, this will be the reward system for me.

There are lots of other areas in my classroom I would like to show you, but I think I've rambled on enough for one day. My apologies to non-teacher readers who find all of this mundane and elementary. Thank you for allowing me one post where I get to nerd out on all things teacher-y. If you're a teacher and you have questions about anything you see if the photos, please let a comment and I'll get back to you.

Vicariously yours,