Sunday, January 31, 2010

The American Community School, Abu Dhabi

“She is the light which draws all the butterflies,” says a teenaged boy of his mother in the book Mother without a Mask by Patricia Holton. I read this line in the opening pages of the book and think how the description is also the perfect way to describe a school library – the light of the school, warm and beckoning. It reminds me of an old poem:

THERE was never a Queen like Balkis,
From here to the wide world's end;
But Balkis tailed to a butterfly
As you would talk to a friend.
There was never a King like Solomon,
Not since the world began;
But Solomon talked to a butterfly
As a man would talk to a man.
She was Queen of Sabaea—
And he was Asia's Lord—
But they both of 'em talked to butterflies
When they took their walks abroad!

from The Butterfly that Stamped by
Rudyard Kipling

Michael and I spent the last week walking abroad and talking to butterflies at American Community School, Abu Dhabi, he in the middle school and I at the elementary. We certainly are not kings and queens, but you can bet we enjoyed being treated like royalty, which we were. During the week, we camped out in the hubbub that is the ACS library, the penultimate goal for all literacy lessons as what we want is for students to become life long readers. The ACS library seems to be doing a booming business attracting students.

Years ago, I was gardening one afternoon and Kelly (no more than three) toddled over and exclaimed, pointing, “butterfly.” I told her, “I always talk to butterflies,” and she toddled off, jabbering to the breeze, an early lesson for me as a mother and a teacher in the power of suggestion and modeling.

In the ACS classrooms, the elementary butterflies had writer’s notebooks at all grade levels and were deeply into writing thesis statements. I went to each class and made my case that writing poetry, how learning about its patterns, precise language, descriptive words and images and a poem’s ability to summarize an experience concisely would help them with writing all text types. As usual, the kids were all over the poetry like butterflies to a lavender patch.

Many of the classes sent me thank you notes (just a couple pictured here) and letters. The coolest part is that these were NOT the poems I wrote with the classes, but instead examples of the teachers taking our workshop and adapting it to their own classrooms -- as did fourth grade teacher Mr. Kraus and his class who used our model of making a list and turning it into summary quatrains, cranking it into warp speed and writing about the solar system. This is the best result of a writing residency, when students and teachers continue with the writing we started in class. Many thanks. Also thanks to master teacher Megan Sloan (Seattle) whose lesson I adapted to use with the K-1st graders.

I received kind gifts from a couple of students and library/curriculum aide Young Le who wanted to make sure we were well-prepared for our upcoming trip to Korea and gave us maps and tour guides. Thank you to all the teachers and students who embraced the lessons, infusing them with their thoughtful words and sharing their poetry.

Following our week at school, hosts Dianne and John took us to Dubai (see next blog for touring photos and anecdotes). Dubai rises like an illuminated fountain out of the desert where Abu Dhabi seems to blossom. In Dubai we visited the museum, saw the world’s tallest building, looked down the throats of sharks at the aquarium, took a ride across “the creek,” and strolled through a shopping mall roughly the size of Delaware. Elementary librarian Dianne Ritz Salminen spent a good chunk of time at the bookstore collecting new butterfly food for her garden.

Thanks to Steve and Janet, Mark and Mary, and all the administrative folks who stopped by during the week. Dinner at The Club was elegant and dinner on the floor the first night was excellent. Special thanks to Dianne and John for hosting us and taking great care to teach us about the area and make us feel welcome.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rabat American School

ESOL is for amateurs at Rabat American School. Here the norm is ETOL or EFOL -- English as a third or fourth language -- or more, I am reminded as we come together to find our poetic voices how students in the USA (me included) suffer from not having access to more than one language. Here the students and teachers flow easily from Arabic to French (two languages most common in Morocco) and then to English. Many students have even another native tongue -- Russian, Korean, German, whatever from wherever. The music of their speech is magical to me as they confidently confer like well-seasoned chefs with one another in their native tongues and then serve up similes in English. I wait like Oliver, spoon in hand, thinking, "more, please."

Last November at NCTE we heard Dr. Nancy Johnson observe that second language learners naturally speak in poetry -- reaching for images to explain concepts for which they have no words. If I don't know that thing on the door is called a knob, I might describe it as a door hand or a button for turning. Pure poetry. Voila! I think this is what makes primary kids naturals, also. Could it be that sophistication in language, spending all our lives mastering English, is really a handicap to writers? As I write with the students of RAS, I become more convinced that it is. I've decided to adopt a new phrase when I go home to talk to young writers in the States: if you were from another country and you didn't know the word for that skateboard, how would you describe it? What would you call it?

Michael and I had opportunities to write with all the middle school students, many of the high schoolers, coach performance skills, and I even got to have library chats with several of the elementary grade classes. After I went directly from a high school assembly to talk to kindergartners, the principal asked me if that gave me whiplash. We both laughed. But the truth is, all the kids were so steeped in thinking in images at every grade level that the age-diverse audiences had more similarities than differences.

Many many thanks to upper school librarian Lora Wagner and assistant librarian Rhonda for all their work in preparation, toting us around and making our stay in their library a joy. Thanks to ALL of the teachers for their enthusiastic participation. Thanks to Paul and Patty for the lovely dinner and reception at their home. Warm thanks to Janane (sp?) who took us on a small tour of Rabat on Wednesday afternoon while the teachers were in professional development (which didn't seem fair at all, but sure was fun). And special thanks to Cynthia Ruptik and her husband Woody for housing and feeding us, offering candlelit laughter and a nurturing exchange of ideas while hosting us at their cottage by the sea. And thanks to all the kids who wrote and then shared their poetry in class and at our grand finale poetry night. Great respect and admiration to you all.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Along for the ride

It’s nobody’s job to shut the doors on the train speeding from Marakech to Fez in Morocco.
Cars do-si-do, in a rhythmic two-step, doors wide open to the rush.

It’s someone’s job to punch the tickets, and another’s job sell the snacks, while four people claim jobs teachers, they are really touts, stepping quickly between moving platforms that never quite meet, so casually offering to become illegal guides. Each has a fictional cousin in the States and probably non-fiction realities they are trying to feed.

It’s someone’s job to pick the olives, make the morning crepes, kill the chickens for dinner and another’s to daily roll a cart full of tangerines into the crowded, climbing medieval streets of the medina to be sold one or two at a time.

It’s our real guide’s job to explain the complex designs of the tiles on the wall of the mosque and show us streets “too narrow for a fat American woman.” He carries in him a poet’s heart and he makes it his job to drop lines of poetry into every story. Write this poet’s name down, write this history down. It is his job to pass out wisdom like the butchers throw trimmings to the wild cats, hoping to bring some peace and harmony to the marketplace.

It’s Suad’s job to give the cooking lessons to the tourists, make the harira soup, thick with peeled tomatoes, toss the couscous in olive oil and roast the eggplant right on the burner, to mix the salads and the macaroons with her bare hands all the time expressing distain for machines.

Though not an official part of her job description, she tells stories of her heart seasoned with generous laughter.

Would you believe that it’s someone’s job to collect pigeon poop to cure the goat and cow hides for Moroccan bags, coats and briefcases? Another’s job to jump into the tubs of lye barefoot. Another’s to hang the skins to dry. Someone picks the saffron for the dyes, someone bends over a low table cutting pieces by hand, and another sits on a low stool stitching with black fingers. The man who sells the products does not have dirty hands.

It is someone’s job to guard the villas of the wealthy and someone’s job to put corrugated steel roofs on the slum shacks that flip by the train windows in dizzying succession. No one chases down the black and white dog dragging its broken rope through the brown field beside the tracks.

Cooking the tagines before lunch is someone’s job and collecting the uneaten bread for resale is another’s. For some children it is their job to go to school in white lab coats, for others to try and sell tissue packs for pennies to tourists. Like the blind old man calling as he walks in the medina and the ancient women creased with decades of worry who crouch quietly with their hands out, some people would switch jobs if they had the choice.

It’s someone’s job to sell the spices, to stitch the shoes, and another’s job to make the bread and take it to a community oven where another does the baking, a chainlinked support system old as the seventh century medina walls.

Haunting voices sing the call to prayer at two-hour, predicable intervals. Darting motorcycles call prayers to the lips of the shoppers in the medina without warning. Someone slaughters the animals, shears the wool, sells the hoofs, pickles the meat and tans the hide so that no part goes wasted.

The train makes short stops beside open markets, standing groups of unemployed young men whose job it is to look and shepherds who watch over sheep grazing close enough to the tracks.

It’s one Indian doctor’s job to explain to the Americans that America is not what it once was, no longer a leader in industry and technology, speaking like the past president of the chess club talking about the former star quarterback who has developed bad knees and a pot belly. Morocco is a land where sewing machines hum, baskets get woven, laden donkey carts are lead by men gripping their harnesses, lumbering under local products, weighing out the benefits of change as they used to weigh wives.

Everyone drinks mint tea prepared by someone at cafes beside the shops where men urge passers not to buy, just look. It’s free. The hierarchy of jobs in a carpet shop appears rigid as any bank’s, the shops’ wealth locked up by ancient knowledge, the derivative worth impossible to be valuated by the untrained.

Simultaneously speeding through 2010 and 1431, skating across a land of mountains, deserts and dusty villages, elegant palaces, ragged children, princes, donkey carts and Mercedes, the train gapes, sunshine or rain, and it’s nobody’s job to close the door.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You are Welcome in Marrakech

This is Morocco -- food and frenzy. Everywhere "we are welcome," which generally means, do you want to buy? We were met at the airport by our hosts in Rabat, and after a relaxing two hour lunch, wandered the medina where Cynthia helped to introduce us to the culture before we took off on our own to Marrakech. The next morning we took a 3 hour train ride to what has to be the shopping mecca of the world. Our rabat (bed and breakfast) met us at the train station. Good thing, because there isn't a chance in the world that we could have found this place on our own. Below are some pictures, but mostly I have just been directing Michael to "take a picture of that!" so more pix on his blog.

This is the breakfast room at our Riad Al Mamoune. Gotta love the internet. Part of what sold us on this Riad were the reports of the good breakfast and the crepes are indeed light and perfection. The staff is extremely helpful. The only drawback is the walk back at night down an unlit tunnel of an alleyway.

Marrakech is not just a place where things are sold (although everything including what is nailed down seems to be for sale) but also where thing are being made. Leather coats being sewn, weaving, metal work, old tires being turned into stools, stitching and beading -- all in process. Here men are making tiles in the morning light.

We spend an afternoon at the Palace Bahia -- home to a long gone king and his four wives and gaggle of concubines. No furniture, apparently they fled with all the goods before the guy turned cold. But they couldn't strip the place of it's intricate tile and wood working, which is beyond impressive. Here is Michael in what he calls his Bollywood movie poster pose.

In the ancient palace there was an exhibit of modern art -- one picture, true sentiment.

More later, time to eat again.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Outside of the box

All December we were boxed in -- by the weather and by deadlines. Three deadlines for me for books upcoming in 2010:


But now we are breaking out of the box! On our way to Morocco and then on to Abu Dhabi. So exciting. Waiting to be cleared at JFK for our flight directly to Casablanca. Exotic just to say. Happy to have passed the weather so far -- and now ready to face the long security lines. On our way.

Whenever we leave to take our walks abroad, anxiety over details and the unfamiliar seesaw with excitement in the anticipation of all the opportunities. Traveling outside of the comfort zone is what keeps us growing. Like Danny in this photo from the Smithsonian, we need to trust.

And then dive in like Sara in the sea of new colors.

It helps to try and see into the future like Thomas, even knowing that is not entirely possible.

We are making calculations about the unknown, reaching out for the fantastical like Scotty.

All of this is a heavy lift, as illustrated by Ben in a recent snowstorm in VA.

Those we love are what tie us to that comfort place called home. We see it in the faces of families at the airport saying goodbye, standing close right up to the metal detectors and conveyor belts.

People invariably ask: Are you scared to go to these places? And the quick answer is, of course not. Driving around deadman’s curve in a snowstorm in Cleveland, falling on icy steps, eating McDonald’s in a pinch: those things are scary. But traveling? No. But giving due respect to total honesty there is always one moment, slight as the gasp between sight and recognition that is shiverous. I’m not even sure that shiverous is a word, making it a perfect choice to describe a fear I’m not sure is even there.

Concerns swirl around being so far from all we love, but the call of adventure, new friends and new experiences is strong. It takes a loving ground crew to enable us to travel, Katie, Kelly, Claudia, George, Becky, Amy – all pitching in. And Max and Frank, of course. Not to mention all of our friends on the other side, who have offered advice, work, don’t forgets, and cautions. So, off we go on Air Morocco with excitement and gratitude. Now if the weather only holds . . .