Monday, September 7, 2009

Un Día Normal (it’s not always an adventure, you know)

Un día Normal (it’s not always an adventure, you know)

I arise at 5:28 just as the sky is starting to lighten. It’s already 86 degrees (and 100% humidity 100% of the time) in my bedroom, and the fan has been on all night. I make my coffee, shower, eat breakfast, make lunch, go downstairs to await my carpool, which is supposed to get there at 6:30, but arrives at 6:45.

We get to school at 7:04 and students are to be in class at 7:05. I get to my classroom as the bell rings. The kids, in the 4th week of school, have been on a temporary schedule since the beginning of the year. I received the real “draft” schedule 15 minutes after the students left on Friday. They noisily enter my echo-ey room and mess around at their lockers, as I am writing about 'what makes a responsible citizen' on the board for our homeroom activity. I am interrupted many times with, “Meess, Meess,” and a random assortment of questions. About 7 minutes later we are ready to start the day. We discuss the new schedule, and about being a responsible citizen by having your materials ready to go for the day. It’s not the students’ fault that their school is disorganized, but they still need to be responsible.

At 7:25 Language Arts starts with me as their teacher, but we have a letter from the director saying to vote for student council representatives at 7:30. We line up and go downstairs to vote. We are then told to come back at the beginning of second period, in Spanish of course. Because the schedule had just changed, I needed to know, “¿A qué hora empieza la hora segunda?” since I did not know. We were to return at 8:15 to vote.

We go back upstairs and actually get a bit of work done, but the majority of students are moving as slow as molasses getting the lesson of ‘elements of fiction’ in their journals. We have an actual book discussion because they were able to check out an English book from the library finally on Friday. The library has a very limited selection of about 150 old looking, Goodwill type books that would make a rather paltry classroom library, let alone a pre-K – 12 school library. We are making headway in the lesson, but then it is time to vote. They vote for personero/a. This went remarkably smoothly.

After voting, it’s back to a bit of fiction, prediction, and ‘what good readers do’. Many interruptions of questions peppered the lesson, because they don’t really know what good readers DO do. My lesson was cut short with elections, but we did accomplish a fair bit.

9:05-9:25 is recess duty for me. It is amazing to watch kids run through the center of school, while others are eating. Apparently it’s not allowed to make a student miss an entire recess because s/he needs to eat. Amazingly, I have seen very few accidents or tears and have not been asked for a band-aid once. They probably know not to ask, because, of course, I don’t have any anyway. This non-collision collision course I see at school daily, I’m certain, prepares the students for driving in the future. This particular recess was markedly quieter than others. Maybe in Colombia I will like Mondays at school.

9:25 is my break for the next 45 minutes. I go to the bathroom and wash my filthy, white board marker dust-ridden hands. I check our school e-mail, relieved to find nothing. I then look at my new ‘draft’ schedule for the week and do some planning. My students stay in my classroom for everything but PE, art, lunch, and recess. The teachers are the ones who move. My fantastic teaching partner Sandra is giving her math lesson on fractions, ratios, and the greatest common factor. My mother would never believe I would say this, but I kind of miss teaching math. I am thankful to teach only 2 subjects though.

I look at my schedule and it’s kind of kooky. I teach homeroom 25 minutes everyday. I have recess duty 20 minutes everyday. Today is a light day – only 4 periods, tomorrow is 5 + my extracurricular/re-teaching (I’ll get back to that) for 2 more periods, Wednesday I have 5 periods, Thursday is the goofiest of all - after homeroom I will teach the extracurricular class and then nothing again until Social Studies from 2:15 until 3:45. I guess we know when I’ll be planning. Friday is fairly heavy to make up for light Thursday with 6 periods. Whew!

After I figure out the schedule and do some grading, it’s time for me to teach my second class of Language Arts. This is usually the better behaved class, but they’re all fussy because they checked library books out on Friday and were to read 30 pages over the weekend. Since my other class had gone to the library first, many of the suitable books had been picked over. Some of the picked books were most definitely NOT “just-right” books. I realize this, and swiftly change my lesson to take a step back and teach the “How to pick a just-right book” lesson, so this doesn’t happen again.

They were to bring books for the classroom library (it was one of the many supplies on their huge list), but there is not one classroom library book to be seen (remember, this is not my homeroom). A few students produce books they have, which, I kid you not, range from Archie comics, to Captain Underpants, to an abridged version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by none other than William Shakespeare. Yeah, I think they need the ‘how to pick a just-right book’ lesson IMMEDIATELY. To be fair, two students had chosen perfectly-leveled biographies to read on Walt Disney and Amelia Earhart, but this trimester we are focusing on fiction. These were the only books brought in, for a classroom library total of 5 books with only 2 ‘just-right’ books. Teaching math is looking better all the time. Doh!

I expected Barranquilla, a city of 1.1 million, to have some selection of English language novels. Nope. I also expected a bilingual school that’s been in existence for 17 years to have a better book selection. And…no. I really wish I had sent more of my awesome classroom library books, I did send about 12, but my box that I shipped August 4th hasn’t arrived yet. Some are in my storage shed, and some at my former school Highland. I think I might have to ask the teachers there to send me some of my books.

I asked my students if they had a public library here in Barranquilla. They told me no. They are probably right, but I will ask around. This made me feel sad. Most of the students have not read more than 2 novels in English in their whole lives. This means, hmmm, 6th grade? Let’s take a big step back. My students are generally bright and, don’t forget that they are all reading English as a Second Language. Wow, I’ve got a lot of ground to cover with these students, but they need to be reading more in English.

Next, it’s lunch. Usually the staff room is so loud it is often worse than the classroom. Seriously, it is impossible to carry on a conversation at a reasonable volume level, with the person sitting 6 inches from you, and be heard. It reminds me a lot of the dinner scene from Annie Hall. Of course they are talking, no wait, I mean, shouting in Spanish here and they're not Jewish or from New York, but you get the idea.

Although the staff is nice, Kären – the 5th grade teacher from Washington state who is my neighbor – and I don’t get invited into conversations very often. Mainly, it’s probably because they don’t think we understand Spanish. We do, but not when it sounds like a shouting competition. This is part of the Costeño culture – talking fast and loud. Also, we are new, and it always takes a while to break into the staff room conversations at school even when you speak the language fluently and are in your own country. I have a salad and a cheese-filled arepa for lunch that I brought from home. People not only seem amazed that I’m vegetarian, but also that I cook. Thankfully, they often say it looks good and/or tastes good. I then go upstairs to the kitchen to wash my Tupperware and fork, because there is no sink in the staffroom. I keep the fork at school, because there is also no silverware.

Lunch over. I’ve got some planning and grading time. I grade their Social Studies quizzes, which range from 10 – 100%, that’s a pretty wide range there kids. Looks like some people didn’t study. Fortunately, there is this fabulous thing they do at the school called re-teaching. It took place after school last year, but now will happen before school while other kids are doing their extracurricular activities. This sounds great in theory. It won’t start for a while, so we’ll see what it’s like in practice.

My wonderful director enters my room to ask me to have a meeting with her at 2:00. Of course I will. I look at my cell-phone clock, it’s 1:33 (actually 13:33), I’d better do some planning for tomorrow too. I go to the meeting at 2, which of course ends up being 2:18 and school ends at 2:30. I had sent her a bulleted e-mail asking questions practical concerns like: Why doesn’t my bank deposit amount match what I thought it should? That solved. When will I receive my box? She’s looking into it. How do I pay utilities? Answered, but I’m curious about the amount it will be. She had asked me if I wanted to teach an extracurricular class last week and I wanted to get the logistics of what, when, and where. Answered with, “Tomorrow morning.” Um, I’m not really prepared for that considering that I’m finding out now and I’m still not really sure what I will be teaching. She said she’d teach it tomorrow and I’ll observe. I said Thursday would work better with my kooky schedule and she said she’d switch it to then and I’ll start teaching on Thursdays. She really is a problem solver extraordinaire.

Then I’m off to get ready for tomorrow at 2:41. The Social Studies department head stops me to ask how I’m feeling about things and for me to be honest. This is a question I am asked a lot here: “How do you feel about things here?” and sometimes “¿Cómo sientes aquí?” I think people genuinely want to know, and then want to make it better for you if things are not going well.

I was in my room for all of 2 minutes, when Dave, the Canadian teacher, came in to see if the internet device I have would work in his computer. There was a whole conundrum with the internet device, and neither one of us has had our service for a week and a half. He gets a weak connection in his apt, and I do not. The aforementioned fabulous director let me borrow her internet device (modem?), which didn’t work until I downloaded some software. We are waiting for the arrival of the new modems.

Time to go home with my carpool at 3:04. This is probably the earliest I’ve arrived home from work, it’s just after 3:30 hot and sunny – the high is 95 degrees Fahrenheit and I think that it must have been that temperature right then. The pool is closed Mondays, so Kären and I headed up our steep hill to the gym. We worked out, headed to the store and were home before it got dark, which is 6:30 here.

I was excited to make gallo pinto, which is a Costa Rican dish for which I have all the ingredients: cooked rice, black beans, onion, red pepper, cilantro, and they have this great curry sauce here that is much like Lizano from Costa Rica – hooray! I enter the house and want to wash my sweaty hands and take a shower, to find there is no water. Yep, that happens from time to time. There is still no water as I write this. Remember, that means no flushing the toilet either.

I used the water that I have in my fridge to wash my hands. In case you’re wondering, you can’t drink tap water here. I was buying a 5-liter container of water every other day, until Dave said another Canadian who has lived here for years just boils his water. What a concept! Not to mention that I’d been boiling my water for coffee everyday sin problemas.

I sat down to eat dinner and wanted to check my e-mail and my friend Dan Skyped me. He said it sounds like things are going well. I said something like, “’Well’ is a bit of a superlative” and then basically launched into this story.

My reason for writing this is not to bore you with mundane details of my life, but rather to remind people that I am not on vacation. I am working here. Yes, it is exciting and adventurous to live in a foreign country. Parts of the experience are absolutely wonderful. Other parts are frustrating as hell. When you work in a foreign country other parts are also run-of-the-mill.

There was just a knock on my door and I was expecting it to be Kären telling me the water was back on, but it is Andrés. He had just finished his English class, lives nearby, and has no cell phone minutes so he stopped by. We are talking to each other in mostly Spanish as I type this. I have learned in the past 20 minutes that vigilante means the doorman – a handy thing to know (those pesky false cognates), and that adelgazando means to be getting thin. I may be able to go over to his apartment to take a shower. He offered…but just found out the whole neighborhood doesn’t have water. So even though I’ve had the generous offer of a shower, there is no water anywhere.

Suddenly I remember the gym. Maybe they have water and I know they have showers. It’s in my neighborhood, but you never know. This could turn out to be my lucky day. I go get Kären and Andrés gives us a lift to the gym.

¡Exito! Success! This is why we tell children to be creative problem solvers. There was water at the gym. I am clean and it’s time for bed at 10:52. Buenas Noches.


  1. fun story! i love how people think that we're on "vacation" over here because we're in another country. i mean, we are having the experience of a lifetime, but we're also working 40+ hours a week (well, allison works that much... i might be working a little less!). glad you're having fun! hope the water comes back on soon. we don't really need water... we just go outside in the humidity and it is like we took a shower.


  2. Ahhh... little did we know what would happen the next day...