Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dostyk American International School, Atyrau, Kazakhstan


“What were you doing in Kazakhstan?’ asks the customs agent in Newark.

“How much time do you have?” I want to answer, but these folks get paid to not know how to take a joke, so I just say, “Visiting.”

He stares me down. 

“Visiting a school.”

“Do you speak Russian?”

“No.” Neither do all Kazakhs, I’m thinking.  They have their own language.  But I don’t say that part.  It was a long trip; I don’t want to add any interrogation rooms to the legs of my journey.  “English language,” I say.

“What are you bringing back?”

The true answer involves memories, smiles, stunning lines of poetry, new friendships, hugs from old friends, new vistas, tacos, home made beer, a muddy market, laughter, and a slight head cold.  But this guy doesn’t want all that, so I just say, “a hat and some alpaca socks from Frankfurt.”

Thump.  Thump.  He stamps my passport and hands it across the counter.

“Welcome back.”

How do you sum up a weeklong trip to the other side of the planet in a single sentence?  Memories are crammed into the data bank like an over stuffed suitcase, hard to contain even if you sit on it.



My best attempt would be, “Spots of brilliance against an otherwise grey landscape.”  Favorite line came out of Cheryl Fullerton's pre-school class where one student said that "snow is water than looks like sugar."  Most laughable line came from the K-1 class where one writer was searching a word and pointed to my eye for me to help her.  "She's not being rude," explained her writing partner, "she just doesn't know the word."  The word was wrinkled.  


Salinger and I spent a week working with the 81 students at all grade levels at Doystk American International School in Atryau.  The skies may have been grey most days, but the kids were brilliant.  Writing poetry can be risky business, but the kids just jumped right in.  This tells me that they are in an atmosphere where they feel safe.



The kids had illustrated some of our poems before we arrived and are active writers, so were open to trying new approaches as they wrote and revised their way to a culminating performance for classmates and parents.

The first couple of days, I taught in borrowed clothes as our bags got hung up in Moscow and flights to Atyau only happen every two-three days.  

Luckily, they arrived before the evening reading we did for parents.  Lots of good snacks and warmth with the ever gusty winds whipping outside.  Once in a while it's good to share poems just for the sake of the words.  Not teaching, just sharing.  

This was the first time we could leave behind a copy of our new book with projectable lessons, High Impact Writing Clinics, with teachers for follow-up, which was exciting.  We never go into a school thinking we know the needs of the students better than their teachers.  What we hope is that we can add a few more lessons for teachers to draw upon as they help kids find their voices through writing.  Sometimes it just helps to have someone back up what the teachers have been saying all year -- draft, revise, be specific, use comparisons.  The normal stuff made more than normal if kids hear it from more than one place.

Atyrau, Kazakhstan is not a well known tourist destination.  But we had fun touring, one day taking a 5 mile walk.  This picture was taking on the bridge where you can cross from Asia to Europe and back again.  The hat is on loan from Konna, the face mask a souvenir of Vietnam.  



Thanks to Principal Raul Hinojosa and his favorite librarian, wife Patsy for the invitation.  Thanks to Konna and Peter Parker and their therapy husky Toshe for opening their home to us.  Special thanks to the parents who made us feel welcome with spectacular meals and conversation. 

To Brent, Cheryl, Lauren and Maxim Fullerton, how great to see you again! Thank you so much for recommending us.



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