Friday, September 19, 2008

Adjusting to School

Three weeks into school, and I am finally starting to feel the start of a rhythm. I almost know all my students' names. Turkish names had no existing schema in my brain so they were really hard to remember; the good thing is that they are all named after something, so in learning their names, I have been adding Turkish words to my repertoire: Eylül for September, Su for water, Onur for honor, Buğra for Muhammed's camel, etc..

"Please be quiet, Muhammed's Camel." "Waterfall, do you have your homework?"

I share my room with Stacy from Kansas; she is my mentor, friend, and co-teacher since we teach many of the same courses and have been collaborating on some lesson plans. I love the creative process of planning lessons, and collaborating amplifies that feeling! Our 11th graders have been studying a media and culture unit, and lately learning about the languages of visual composition and sound. We have been looking at how certain techniques are used to manipulate the connotation of a media message. Stacy and I got together to create a killer lesson using trailers for films and their spoofs to show this manipulation. If you have access to youtube (it's banned in Turkey), check out The Shining's original trailer, and then the spoof, which makes it out to be a touchy-feely romantic comedy by changing the music and narration. So funny. Next week, the kids are presenting their own sound manipulations; it's a fun way to start the schoolyear.

Although the school is not enormous (there are only about 40 seniors and 40 juniors), I am finding the atmosphere very busy and distracting. The Vo Ag Center, in comparison, was so quiet and peaceful. I was able to work uninterrupted for hours at a time. Here, I share a room with two other teachers, and my students are always stopping by to talk about something. I've taken to creating "office hours" and stealing away to the library to get work done. Also, even though it is an English-speaking school, 90% of the students are Turkish, and so the hallways are filled with loud Turkish chattering. I find that because I cannot understand it, my brain doesn't know what to do with these sounds, and so it is just noise to me, and can be overwhelming sometimes, too.

Another difference that I am still trying to digest is the students' obsession with their GPA and receiving high marks. The other day I handed back a quiz, the first quiz of a 2-year course, and they were asking me what IB score this would be. An IB score, from 1-7, is reserved for major papers which are externally assessed late next year; these students are so far from that phase of the course. They barely understand what IB is, yet they know about the scores, and have decided they NEED to get a 6 or 7. Similarly, when I handed out progress reports yesterday, everyone got out their calculators and typed away numbers, trying to figure out their GPAs.

I understand it is very competitive to get into Turkish universities, but the culture of this school is marked by an excessive obsession with numbers. I've always felt uncomfortable about assigning numbers to studentwork and using this extrinsic motivation as a teaching advantange, but these students' desperation makes me feel gross sometimes. "Miss Simpson, is there any way I can re-take this quiz?" "Miss Simpson, what were these points taken off for?"

Due to the pressure of good grades, our school also has a problem with cheating and plagiarizing. A friend of mine explained to me that it isn't a matter of ethics; that to say cheating is immoral is projecting our North American values on their culture. I am getting the feeling that the values of equity and fairness are not high on the charts here, and so are not placed under the umbrella of ethics like they are in the states. Being honorable and ethical here takes on a different form. I've seen it in their kindness towards others, towards a foreigner that doesn't have enough money to pay for the cab fare, for example (whoops). The IB program aims to create independent-thinking, risk-taking, just, compassionate, balanced, creative-thinking, globally minded individuals. In Turkey, where there are limited spots at universities, who cares if you can take risks and value justice; if you don't have the marks, you can't move forward in life to exercise any of these traits.

I feel like I am only chipping away at an iceberg here, that I have much to learn and understand about my students and their culture still. Luckily, I teach a subject that lends itself to exploring all these philosophical, personal, touchy-feely, hippy ideas.

Monday, September 15, 2008


There are a handful of small towns in Cappadocia. We stayed in a town called Göreme. We pulled in at 10:30pm, a bus of sleepy teachers who worked hard all week. I wasn't expecting to see anything that night, and was looking forward to waking up to see the crazy rock features for the first time against blue sky. But as we drove on the windy roads in between the fairy chimneys, spotlights were shining every which way, lighting up the buttes. I quickly woke up from my grogginess. It was like a little fairy land.

We stayed in Gümüş Cave, a hotel built into the side of a butte with cave rooms, and a beautiful garden where we were served our breakfast. Everything in this town was in a cave! We ate lunch in a cave, shopped in caves, slept in a cave, visited caves! And many of the people who lived in town were inhabiting old cave dwellings. They installed wooden doorframes and windowframes, and flowerbaskets hung from the windows. The cars parked nearby were an anachronism. While Wall Street was crashing in NYC, I was making plans for my second home in a cave in Turkey.

The Hike up Pigeon Valley to Uçhısar

On Sunday morning, I took a hike up Pigeon Valley with my friends Anjie from Canada and Maiko and baby Kenji from Japan. The neat thing about Cappadocia is that you can GO anywhere. There are no signs restricting you from climbing inside these cave dwellings that date back centuries. So as we walked through the valley, we passed carved-out homes everywhere. To our surprise, the valley took us to the town of Uçhisar. We climbed to the top of the citadel, the highest point in the area, bearing tunnels that ran into all the valleys in case ancient people needed a quick escape.


This is going to need a few posts, because I just returned from one of the coolest places I have EVER been, and I have lots of great photos to share. Twenty-five of us teachers rented a bus service to drive us to Cappadocia for the weekend. (I win out of all the new teachers for being here 4 weekends, and going away each and every one of them. I told the director of the school today that I don't need to rest on the weekends; that I go to work to rest. I soon realized that he is probably not the best person to say that to, but since I met him, I'd say 90% of what comes out of my mouth is of the foot-in-the-mouth nature. For some reason, his presence causes me to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.)

Anyway, Cappadocia: an awesome landscape bearing an ingenious relationship between people and nature. I aliken it to the Badlands, SD meeting the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings of the southwest. Brief history: Three volcanoes erupted a LONG time ago, depositing meters and meters (yes, I have gone metric) of ash that compressed over time into soft sandstone. Water and wind erosion ate away at the sandstone, leaving behind buttes, hills, and phallic looking pinnacles. Then came the people. Anatolia (or present day Turkey) was the most vital center of Christianity for a long time, until a 300-year period of Arab raids. The inhabitants responded to the turbulence with the coolest idea ever: they carved out little homes into the "fairy chimneys" as they're presently called, making the entrances high up so that they could only be reached by ladder which could be pulled up in case of a battle. In the plains, the Christians dug underground cities, but I haven't seen them yet. In Cappadocia, they took to the hills, and carved over 1000 churches into their communities during the 6th and 11th century AD. The iconoclastic controversy (700-800 AD) forbade sacred images from being depicted in churches, but the churches built before this time period had the most beautiful images painted on the ceilings.

My favorite was St. Onophrius, a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert in the fourth and fifth centuries, eating only dates, with a leaf loincloth for cover. Of course, the Cappadocian Christians would worship a hermit. He was originally a woman, and a temptress at that. When she repented her sultry ways and asked to be delivered from the desires of men, she was granted her wish and received a beard. You can see on the frescoe, she kept the boobs.

These photos were all taken in the town of Göreme in the Open Air Museum.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Reading and Writing and Arithmetic, Taught to the Tune of a Hickory Stick"

Well, escuela has started (I don't even know the Turkish word yet), and my life has drastically changed from traveler to teacher. We had one week of preparation (no kids), and today I officially completed one week of school with all my students. Above are pictures of happy hour at the local "Uptown Bistro." My colleagues and I took over the place: Friday after the first week of school. You'd think I'd have pictures of the school to post, but not yet.

There have been MANY changes to my schedule, classroom, and class load over the past two weeks. Last night, we had a 2-hour dept. meeting after school which resulted in one more class being added to my schedule. And I think (I hope) this will be the last change, because, man, all these changes are hard to deal with once the school year has begun. I am busy planning in depth discussions about The Heart of Darkness, at the same time that I am receiving my class rosters for the first time, at the same time I am working on yearly plans for all my classes because the Turkish Ministry of Education requires a plan for what you will do every day of the school year in advance, at the same time that I am checking my school email for the first time because internet just got hooked up, at the same time that I am running back and forth with my USB key to the one printer in the whole K-12 school that is working right now. Very chaotic. And everyone around me looks frazzled. All the enthusiasm of the new teachers during orientation has faded into exhausted, overwhelmed looks as we try to figure out what we're actually supposed to teach and where our resources are. I am told that at many international schools, the kickoff is very disorganized due to all the turnover these schools face. In all my TWO years of teaching :) I've never had such a stressful, shaky start off. It's felt a bit overwhelming coupled with the transition of moving to a brand new country.

The culture of the school is very different from anything I've known, and much of it is still hard to grasp at the moment. Bits will come out in my blog a little at a time. Some of these differences, I think, are related to BUPS being an international school, some are related to the Turkish culture, and some are just plain old BUPS culture.

Just to talk IB for a second (for those of you that understand it), I am teaching two sections of English A2 grade 11, one section of English A1 grade 12, and one section of Drama grade 12. So, the big kids. My English A1 is for students whose first language, their strongest language, is English. And I love this class. I was at first very intimidated by it, because these kids are smart, especially this class of 12th graders, and the training I received in Montezuma was not for A1, it was for A2, which is a class designed for students who speak English as a second language and is much less rigorous. Buuuuut, my A1 class may turn out to be my favorite. We are reading Heart of Darkness right now. (It was their summer reading assignment, and since I didn't find out I was teaching this course until a few days before school started, I admit, I had to rely on sparknotes for the first few classes. I know, I'm a total fraud, and I was sure at any moment, they were going to discover me. But they didn't.) Well, we have been having the most amazing classroom discussions this week. The kids are bright, passionate, articulate, and forthcoming; all the things an English teacher dreams of having in her classroom. It's been such a treat.

The students are also very warm, sweet, and polite. Even the male students that I sense will give me trouble as some point, are extremely sweet and polite, greeting me every time they come in and leave the classroom as well as in the hallway. I am used to mere grunts from these boys in the States. Teachers are quite revered in Turkish culture. Education is extremely revered in Turkish culture. When I asked my students how many planned on attending University after high school, they all raised their hands and laughed at me as if I had just asked, "Who wants to become a bum when they grow up?" Also, a very different response from the group of students I am used to in the States.

Istanbul not Constantinople

After a chaotic week of teacher meetings and preparation for the school year, I took an overnight bus to Istanbul to meet up with my friend, Blair, from Montana, who was visiting a friend of his who teaches in Istanbul.

The buses are really nice in Turkey. There's a little "bus attendant" in a cute suit who walks up and down the aisle every 1/2 hour with his cart to serve tea, biscuits, water, and candy. Kind of annoying when it's an 11pm-5am bus ride, but very pleasant on the Sunday afternoon bus ride back to Ankara.

On Saturday, we took the ferry to a couple of The Prince's Islands, and swam in the Marmara Sea with a view of sprawling Istanbul across the water. No matter when or where, swimming in cool, blue water is an amazingly decompressing experience. It felt so nice to get out of Ankara, which at that time had become "summer-is-over-school-is-here-world."

On Sunday, we only had a few hours in the morning, but we were able to walk around the historic part of Istanbul, and whet my appetite for future visits. We did go inside one free mosque (I don't even know it's name) as ornately decorated as any church in Europe. Religion aside, the work that is put into creating beautiful, wide-open spaces meant to invoke the spirit of God inspires such reverence in me. If enough people put that much positive energy into creating a beautiful space that is so special to them, it feels holy to me.

The drive back to Istanbul was beautiful. The scenery went from oceanside, to green, and slowly less green, to the vast yellow high desert (which I still find beautiful in its own way) surrounding Ankara.