Monday, August 24, 2009

First Week of School

First Week of School
Warning: This may only be interesting to teachers.

The school where I teach is called Altamira International School. It is on the highway about 10 minutes outside of Barranquilla. This highway seems to be where the majority of International Schools are located as the German school is our neighbor.

This is what the school looks like from the air on Google Maps. It's easy to find because of the blue roofs.

The director, principal, and teachers are incredible. Our director sends us a weekly newsletter with quotes, word of the week, student skills of the month, academic goals with activities, and other business, that is really useful for homeroom. The school does seem to be very professional academically and everyone has been helpful. Of about 65 teachers only 4, including me, are North American and the rest are Colombian. This means that people speak Spanish almost all the time. It is a bilingual school where the core subjects - Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science – are taught in English. They also have Music (6th graders learn guitar, isn’t that cool?), Art, Spanish, Colombian Social Studies, Religion, and Character Education, which are all taught in Spanish. Besides the subjects I teach and writing this blog, my life here is almost entirely in Spanish, almost all the time.

The first day at 7:00 am the second I unlocked my door and all of my students poured in, I found my classroom had been rearranged. The room is concrete with tile floors – it echoes A LOT. The volume level of students talking only in Spanish was at about, on a scale of 1-10, an 11. I asked them to leave and come in when they wanted to talk, not shout, in English and to not enter until the bell rings. It rang about 10 seconds later.

I have 17 students in my class. There are18 other class, meaning 35 total in the 6th grade. I will be teaching 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies and my partner will be teaching Math and Science. I am extremely happy about my class size to say the least.

My Classroom before students arrived

My class is 100% ESL and their listening skills need work, especially in the echo-y classroom. Shouting over people seems to be acceptable practice with students and teachers in the staff room. The name I am supposed to be called at the school is Ms. Elizabeth. I’m not a huge fan of this and have a very hard time calling myself that. The thing is I’m not usually called Ms. Elizabeth or Ms. Binyon – my name has become “Meess”. From the classified staff (not teachers, but other staff members) and students it’s, “Hello Meess,”
“Excuse me Meess,” etc.
I think our first pronunciation lesson will be minimal pairs of ship versus sheep.

Students are students everywhere in the world, so I’m sure that will be roughly the same same but different (a little Thai reference); however, there are some major differences from other schools I’ve taught at. To start out, students bring ALL the supplies. Yes, the means white board markers, colored paper for bulletin boards, and even the hanging folders for student files. I started out the school year not having much of anything – no scissors, tape, no clock, no overhead projector or any technology except my personal computer (which, by the way IS my work computer too), no keys to the locked closet where I am supposed to store supplies, no file cabinet, and the bulletin boards are just corrugated cardboard slapped up on the wall that I covered with left over colored paper.

Since students bring ALL the supplies, I had to sort through a list in Spanish of about 50 items on a list to take inventory of who brought what. My Spanish is fairly decent, but I didn’t know what resma, estilo fuelle, pliegos cartulina carnaval, paquete de octavo cartulina, meant. Do you? First, I needed to get some kind of translation before I could even do the inventory. Here is a picture of the length of the list.

It took quite some time to able to read it before checking off each item that each student either brought or didn't bring.
Can you imagine giving parents a list like this?

Other differences are copies need to be ordered a few days in advance and given to a man in a little copy room – that’ll be tough. The Library moved the first week of school to a newer and bigger room and students actually check out their textbooks from the library. My textbooks have been ordered but will not be available until first week of September. I don’t have my beautiful classroom library from home either, which should make trying to teach reading interesting.

For a much more concise version of this see Kären's blog.

Things that are nice that I DO have: a bathroom nearby (people from Highland, know that this is a pleasant change for me), air conditioning - which isn’t a luxury, but essential here, natural light, and students who wear uniforms.

I’m still trying to figure out eating and drinking at school. I thought teachers got a discounted lunch there, but I’m not exactly sure how that works. I’ve been bringing food and water. Bottled water needs to be drunk here in Colombia and during our prep week there was no bottled water at school. I’m also still trying to navigate the vegetarian unfriendly food with limited success. I make my own food, but it’s like shopping at Safeway… in the Midwest… in the 1980s – no organic vegetables and no vegetarian protein options, like tofu, can found anywhere. There is no silverware or sink in the staff room. When I asked where I could wash my dishes, the answer was, “Anywhere.”
With no sinks except in the bathroom and kitchen, I opted for the kitchen.

School security

Because of the air conditioning being ubiquitous, and how surprisingly windy it is at my apartment, I got an ear infection. Because of the ear infection, I did not get a lot of sleep. Because of the ear infection and lack of sleep, the first week in the loud ESL classroom was colored by my being overtired, a little irritable, and not hearing very well.

I went to the infirmary and got some drops put in my ears. When I returned the next day, the school nurse called a doctor. The doctor arrived and wrote her prescription on a piece of paper, which she stamped and signed. I could get it filled at any droguería. I saw my director and she was going into town, so she got it filled for me – this would never happen in the US on so many levels.

We did have a fantastic liaison helping the North American teachers with things like our cell phone, internet, and the previously mentioned cedula. Sadly, she quit the first day students we had with students. I’m wondering how we will get the cedula and bank account now. Everyday there is a mountain of things I do not know.

By Friday I had finally gotten a decent sleep and my ear infection was better. I woke up feeling like my normal energetic self. Not long after we got to school on Friday morning was La Misa – the Mass. This was, in my opinion, doing Catholicism right. So right in fact, it gets its own post.

Friday, did go more smoothly than any of the previous days. Oh there is just something about sleep (not to mention being able to hear) that really can change your whole outlook on life. I even tasted a bite of food I liked called Maizorca desgranada, which I plan on ordering for lunch when I can figure that whole system out. I finally got my closet opened and supplies organized in it, to find out10 minutes before a meeting, that they are going to paint the closets and that I had to take everything out of it again.

I still don’t have a clock, or scissors. I still do have a ton of questions, but little by little things will work out.

My favorite quote that we had from the week was this:
“The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
- Rabindranath Tagore

It’s time for me to be the butterfly.

view from my classroom


  1. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE reading about your experience! It is amazing that 'kids are kids' regardless of location. As I have been making multiple trips to Target and Office Depot, I was intrigued with the fact your students bring EVERYTHING. Not having a student library would be an adjustment for sure.

    Please keep writing! It is fascinating to keep up with your adventure. Highland already misses you lots!
    Love~ Lisa

  2. Thanks Lisa,

    I just mentioned to a coworker how indebted I am to you for helping me with former difficult students.

    Say hi to everyone at Highland and have a wonderful first week of school.


  3. You are so sweet. You are an AMAZING teacher.

    And I now realize whenever I post on anyone's blog, it signs me as MOM since I originally signed in to post on Jeremiah's blog! Crazy. You will have fun reading their blog too about Taiwan adventures. It is

    ( I might have sent it to you already! )

    Will be in touch!