Packing Up and Wrapping Up

Originally published Oct. 17, 2008

It’s Friday morning, UAE time, which means it’s 12:30am in New Jersey. HAPPY 75th BIRTHDAY DAD!!!!

Steve and I are finishing up the last of our packing as we prepare to head over to Abu Dhabi and hop a flight back to the States. We’re going to leave mid-afternoon from Al Ain so we can “do the sights.” (Photos to follow.)

Thursday was a nice, easy day, all things considered. Some meetings in the morning and some sightseeing in the evening — as well as some more delicious Moroccan tea — with Dr. Jim and Tatiana. Check out these shots of Sheikh Zayed’s palace:

We morning started with a visit with Dr Abdulla al Khanbashi, who was, in many ways, responsible for Steve and me being able to come to the University. I knew we were going to enjoy his company when, with a twinkle in his eye, he greeted us and said, “My spies are everywhere.” 

He then handed us photographs Sheikh Nahyan’s official photographer had taken of us  shaking hands with the Sheikh and then later, eating dinner.

I’ll admit it, Steve and I were like 5-year-olds at our birthday party.

We then talked a little sports. Or, to be clear, Dr. Khanbashi and I did, since he attended the University of Louisville. As a Big East fan myself, we were able to talk about the Cardinal’s rise and fall in football and a little bit about men’s basketball. I, of course, mentioned that Louisville’s women’s team, under Jeff Walz and with, some would argue, the best senior in the country, Angel McCoughtry, has come leaps and bounds.

Dr.Khanbashi then told me he’d studied at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (which, many will know, has a storied women’s program and an intense rivalry with the University of Connecticut.) I must say, as a UConn fan, I almost had an SEC vs. Big East-moment, but we got through it and moved on to discuss more important things: the impressive work of his students.

As we spoke, what I heard from Dr. Khanbashi echoed many of the sentiments we’d heard from other faculty members of the UAEU: a passionate desire and commitment to serve the needs of their students, both men and women.

It was a sentiment echoed by Nora Mohammed Q. Al Raheedi, Deputy Director of the Private School Sector at the Ministry of Education, with whom we met later at in the morning. (Through the efforts of Mary Kay of the UAEU Library – Thank you!). As we shared information about CAT, its pedagogy and what we had been doing with the UAEU students and staff, early childhood students and TESOL teachers, we began some initial discussions of a return trip to the UAE, one where we might have the opportunity to work with teachers in the Al Ain education system. “They need this kind of work,” said Nora. “And it’s not just the teachers. I see it in my children, too. It’s not enough simply to lecture – they get bored, they get distracted and they become unhappy learners.”

Fingers crossed that 2009 finds us back in the UAE. Not only would it be wonderful to continue to develop a relationship between the UAEU/Al Aing and CUNY/CAT, but Steve and I would LOVE to be able to reunite with the students we worked with these past two weeks.

The Students


I’m not sure I have the words to capture the impact these students have had on Steve and me. We learned so much from them. To watch them dare and struggle and absorb all that we threw at them – the drama work, the educational pedagogy, the push to become a fully engaged storyteller…. It was awe-inspiring.

It makes me think of the fabulous dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred often gets “top billing” but, as someone noted, “Ginger did everything Fred did, but backwards and in high heels.”

Our students were doing all this work in a second language.

And, of course, many DID have absolutely fabulous high-heeled shoes. (I’ll admit, I do secretly covet Lulu’s silver sequined Converse. Don’t know if I’d have the guts to wear’em, though.)

Preparing for Sharing

I’ll write a little about the Wednesday evening sharing because I know that, once I get back to the States, there will be so many things competing for may attention, it may take a while to get back to the blog.

From Sunday to Tuesday, Steve and I focused on interactive storytelling. Instead of asking the students to work up new stories from scratch, we decided to work off of stories we modeled for them. We made this decision for a variety of reasons.

On a practical level, we knew we were going to have a group sharing on Wednesday evening, and we also knew that the student’s regular schedules was having a direct impact on their ability to attend our sessions. Because of conflicts and mid-terms, we weren’t going to get a consistent cohort of leaders. So, we simply decided to work with whoever was there and, by working from a “modeled” piece, give a greater number of people the same “starting point.” Ideally, this would help anyone could just “step in.”

There was also simple fact of confidence and language. We were going to ask students to lead a story (in a big group, so the “spotlight” wasn’t too intense), ask questions of a group of participants who they might or might not know, and improvise and incorporate their answers into their storytelling. Not an easy task in your native tongue. We hoped that by scaffolding their work off a familiar base, they would feel more comfortable leading, asking and listening. In the end, the goal would be to have each student lead a “chunk” of the storytelling.

The Stories

No Dinner! is based on Jessica Souhami’s tale of a skinny, old woman who travels through the forest to have a feast with her granddaughter. On the way, she encounters terrifying beasts who want to eat her up. She tells them to wait until she returns from her granddaughter’s (Nice and fat!) and they agree. With the help of her granddaughter, she manages to trick them and arrive back home safely.

Argghhhhh! Spider!, based on Lydia Monks’ story, tells the tale of a lonely spider who wants to become a family pet. The problem is, every time he tries to impress the prospective family, they freak out and yell, “Arggghhhh! Spider!” and throw him out of the house. Finally, he stops trying to impress and spins a beautiful spider web in the backyard. The family is amazed and invites him to be part of their family.

On Sunday, Steve led “No, Dinner!” and we stopped and started throughout the entire telling so the students could focus on 1) the basic storytelling skills he was using to engage the audience (eye contact, physicalization, vocal intonation, gesture, questions, etc.) and 2) what he was doing to get the listeners to become PART of the storytelling. (What we call Points of Participation – both student centered and teacher directed: The storyteller tells listeners what to do or say, and all repeat; the story asks listeners what to do or say and all repeat; the storyteller asks questions where the answers change the direction/outcome of the story.)

Side Note: During the second part of the telling, a professor brought her Human Behavior class in to observe. Steve led his storytelling as he always does, asking questions of the listeners, using whole group call and response and inviting them to contribute to the story. THe difference in the level and kind of response from the students was quite marked.

Paraphrasing what the professor noted afterwards, “The level of trust and confidence that’s been developed is obvious. The students who’ve been with you (she indicated all our students, who were sitting on the floor, scooched close to Steve) were fully engaged and ready to participate. My students started off a little uncertain, but slowly warmed up.”

The students finished the day looking at the original text of “No, Dinner” and, in small groups, discussed how they might change the story or, as Steve likes to say, “add their own flavor.”

On Monday, I led “Spider.”

Students then chose which story they wanted to work on and the broke in to working groups for Tuesday. We finished the day with them getting the text of “Spider,” as well as two handouts: Learn/Tell/Expand (which outlines our process for learning a story and then making it your own), and Point of Participation (which identifies what we see as the four major ways to get students to participate in a storytelling.)

Tuesday and Wednesday mornings were spent rehearsing/practicing with whoever could be there.

A note on this “rehearsing/practicing” thing: though our work is process oriented, not product oriented (there’s no final “show;” it’s not meant for an “audience.”) there is, of course, a “performance” element to our work – it is theater, after all. But, the goal of rehearsal is to develop a product that is repeatable – it’s to develop a “product” that is improvisational.

Think of, say, jazz musicians. You have to master the notes and the basic tune before you can launch off into the stratosphere of improvisiation. Once you’re IN the stratosphere, if you get lost (or the audience gets lost), you can always reach back to your base, your framework.

It’s the same with our interactive storytelling – the more confident we are in our base, our structure, the more willing we are to release it and go with whatever our listeners offer. That makes them co-creators of the story – and makes the story far more creative and exciting than we could have ever made it if we relied only on our own imagination.

Throughout the “rehearsal” process, time and again we saw our students having that “Aha!” moment – when it all came together and they were truly leading, listening and sharing. What a delight it was to witness.

Side note: Throughout our residency, we’ve had a videographer filming the sessions for archival purposes. I must say, he’s done an amazing job being “invisible” throughout the process, especially since he had no idea what he was getting in to that first session. Because we’d had to change the time and location of the evening shareback, it wasn’t clear he could be there to film the final presentation. He was going to try and rearrange his schedule but, said he pointing to the students, “The important things have already happened.”


The Sharing

Wednesday evening saw 65 or so gather for a final session in the Multi-Purpose room. Students had invited their friends and there were several faculty members. As we had told our students, this was meant to be a sharing where EVERYone participated, so Steve and I led a couple of warm-up/icebreaker games for the whole group to get them into the swing of things.

“Cross the room if….” where the leader makes a statement and people cross from one side of the room to another if it’s true for them. (“Cross the room if you’ve participated in one of our sessions” showed that about half the group were “newbies.”)

“Group according to…” where to group yourself will “like” people… your major, month of birth, etc.

We talked briefly about the work we’d done over the last two weeks, asked the visitors to be generous listeners and participants, and then launched into the storytellings.

What. A. Hoot.

Steve’s group had transformed “No, Dinner!” into “No, Water!” It now was a story about an old man and his grumpy wife who was furious because there was no water. Not only was he useless, said the woman, but “You stink!” (let’s all say that, “You stink! Again, “You stink!” LOUDER! “YOU STINK!”). The man walks through the Empty Quarter, encountering scorpions and shifting sands (Give us water!), climbs an mountain and discovers water with magical properties. It makes him young! He travels back to his wife “(Young man, said the scorpion, have you seen an old man with water?” “No!”). She drinks the water and turns young but is still unsatisfied. Sure he’s young, but “You still stink!”

Since we had such a scattershot group of Spider storytellers, I sat with my group. The “No Water! people, piled into the front row, and were all, “What are you doing there? Shoo!” Said one of the Spiders, “She’s the mother spider!” and with a laugh, we launched into the telling.

It was an exercise in delightful chaos. Since people had been in and out or rehearsal, we knew the outline, but never knew who was going to leap in to lead a section. There were sotto voce negotiations in Arabic, and lots of pointing and interrupting. And then, of course, those cheeky No, Water! people kept on trying to horn in and hijack the story. Suddenly, when before there’d been a self-imposed order of answering, it now became like a bidding war on the floor of the Exchange. When one of the leaders asked “What color do you think the door is?” “Red! Pink! Yellow! Blue!” was tossed out her.

She took a moment, took a breath and said, “The door was rainbow colored.”


I don’t know what was more fun – watching our students revel in the power of say, “Let’s all say that. Again. One more time. Stronger!” or watching the “newbies” looking on in amazement at what their friends were doing.

Afterwards we were all a little giddy – teachers, students, participants alike. People stayed and stayed and talked and talked. The building manager had to all but flick the lights to get us out of the space.

It’s two days later and I’m still in awe of these young women. Steve and I have been moved, have been changed, in a way we could never have anticipated.

And for that, we will always be grateful.

To all who made this experience happen — Dr. Jim and Tatiana, the UAEU administration, staff and faculty, and these amazing students — “Shukran.”


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