Day One…

Originally published Oct. 6, 2008

is all but done… thank goodness. Jet lag is knocking the stuffing out of me and Steve.

Early this morning, Associate Dean Dennis Leavens (he is also an English Literature professor with roots in Missouri) met us at the hotel and drove us (followed by Dr. Jim Mirrione  — or Dr. Jim, as we’ve learned to call him —  in his lovely rented Lancer) to the University. We encountered some “every one is going to school at the same time” traffic and LOTS of roundabouts. I’ve got to say, they’re going to take some getting used to, these roundabouts. Not for the nerve-wracking mad dash in and out of them – hey, I’ve driven in Boston. I don’t scare easy — but for the roller coaster ride of round-and-round in-and-dash-out-ness of the whole experience. Physically, it feels like we’re pulling some serious “Gs.” Imagine, if you will, being in those big teacups they have in amusement parks and you’ll get a sense of what is going on…

About 22 students joined us in the multi purpose room — a huge space. The challenge is that the sessions clash with other classes,  so many of the women have negotiated with their other teachers to be released. That so many were able to attend speaks to the generosity of Dr. Jim’s colleagues. He also noted that 2 or 3 students who were NOT his students showed up. I can only imagine that they came because of the encouragement of their fellow students and/or were intrigued by the flyers that have been posted about our workshops. Or they’re just plain brave and inquisitive.

Most of the students have had Dr. Jim as a teacher for three years, so they’re somewhat “broken in” to goofy, active and irreverent teachers – which, I’m guessing Dr. Jim would say, suits Helen and Steve to a “T.” Jim introduced us and, taking our “you learn by doing” credo to heart, we launched into the day’s work. We started out with a name game as an icebreaker (introduce yourself to as many people in the room as you can in one minute and share something you feel about education).

Steve then ran “name three times,” another name game where one person stands in the middle of the circle and tries to say the name of someone IN the circle three times before that person says THEIR name once. (It’s a lot less confusing and a lot more fun than the description reads). The students were great at the game and enjoyed tricking each other, quickly identifying winning strategies.

After a quick explanation of CAT in general, we moved into the “full-out” drama work. We knew that Dr. Jim’s students had a strong background in “traditional” theater, so we asked them to wear two hats as they engaged in our work – one as (good) 5 year olds. That is, when we led our drama, we wanted them to respond as a five-year-old might. The second hat was that of a theater student – look at our work and identify the elements of theater we were using. When we led Pt 2 of the drama, we asked the students to look at what the “children” learning and how are we were making it an interactive, student-centered, experience.

Steve and I led a truncated version of “Coyote’s Surprise,” a drama that deals with sibling (or in this case, best friend) jealousy. Bear and Coyote are best friends, until a new baby bear comes in to the family. Bear won’t play with Coyote ’cause he and the children (students as little bears) are too busy taking care of the baby bear. Coyote resists having anything to do with the baby bear.

The story reaches its climax when Coyote shares her puppet show, “Bear Says NO!” The show shows the good times Bear and Coyote had until the baby arrives – “and then things changed.” Bear finally realizes the problem — asks the little bears if there’s some way they can take care of the baby AND have a good time. The little bears problem solve and Coyote “practices” their suggestions with the puppets.

The students really enjoyed being in the drama. They especially appreciated it when Dr. Jim came out as Grandpa bear (our early childhood dramas always have a role for the classroom teacher). I don’t know if there’s an Arabic equivalent for the word “ham,” but it’s the only word that can truly capture his “performance.”

It was delightful to watch the student’s participate. As the drama unfolded, they did exactly what 5-year-olds do — side with Coyote about how annoying babies are and then swing right over to side with Bear when he talks about how much fun babies are…. When Coyote tried to “buzz” the baby as a “welcome to the family” trick, they scolded her, but could also explain to Bear that she was jealous. They also didn’t think Bear had done anything “wrong” when he yelled at Coyote that he was disappointed in her behavior.

Students were enthralled by the puppets themselves (thank you Spica) and Coyote’s puppet show. They got a little stumped when Bear asked “how can we take care of the baby and have fun at the same time” First answer – leave the bear with grandpa – which didn’t please Dr. Jim Grandpa at all.  We eventually came up with a solution and all ended well.

They are not a boisterous group, though there’s plenty of laughter and an impressive command of English. As in many of the schools we’ve worked in in NYC, there were students who “side translated” for those whose English was not as strong. Overall, the students were very present, enthusiastic and had fun doing the work. They easily saw the connection between theater and education — not just that we were teaching “how to take care of a baby,” but language development, empathy and imagination, working together, and critical thinking.

Completely off the drama topic – after the session a couple of the students and I were talking and they said they would henna my hand. Can’t wait! Expect photos!

Afterwards, we zoomed off to the UAEU Library (whoopee! roundabouts!) to meet with Mary Kay Rathke, Assistant Manager of Public Services for UAEU Library. She, too, had seen the flyer, googled CAT, found the blog (Hi, Mary Kay!) and was very intrigued by both our literacy focus and our issue-based work.  She was interested in using us, some how, to support the UAE Literacy (English) initiative. Not sure what’s going to come of it, what with the schedule Dr. Jim is creating for us, but we hope to demonstrate of our interactive storytelling, perhaps with some volunteers who work in the Children’s Corner – a beautiful area in the library that’s opening up within the month. (That was an overly long sentence. I apologize to English Lit teachers world-wide.)

While at the library, Dr. Husam Mohamed Sultan Al Ulama, Dean of the UAEU library, was kind enough to meet with us and discuss our work. Charming, interested and rightly proud of his beautiful space, he served us what I thought was cardamom tea. Turns out, it was Arabic coffee…. totally not what I thought it was going to taste like…. but it was delicious.

Zoomed back to the hotel to have lunch with Dr. Jim and his friend Gabby (whoopee! roundabouts!). A classically trained musician and wife of a professor at the UAEU, she’s started an Arts Center. Initially they focused on music – they teach music, host and give concerts — now  they are developing into a site that houses all the arts. It looks like this Thursday, Steve and I will do a demonstration of our work with “real” kids – that is, the pre-schoolers that attend her center. If we do, we’ll have some observers – her staff and some other invitees. The plan would be to meet with them afterwards and discuss/breakdown what it is they saw us doing.

That’s basically it for now. I should say the hotel is beyond lovely. Kind staff and lots and lots and LOTS of good food. (Note too self — be very, very careful or… well, or else.)

Finally, I know you’re all looking for a bird update: I’ve seen something blackbird-ish, swallow-ish, pigeon with a striped white-winged-ish, a reddish headed mourning-dove-ish bird, and some iridescent blue magnificent beast that might be related to the Jay family. Have got to work on getting a more specific identification. Ish.

Also, if you notice, I got a comment about birding on the Birds post from someone in the UAE… how cool is that! :-)

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