Mr. Senrick--Teacher/World Traveler

Mr. Senrick--Teacher/World Traveler
Educators to Saudi Arabia 2007

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

And now for something completely different...Amsterdam!

I was fortunate to have some time in Amsterdam, Netherlands on my return home. I had debated about whether or not to include my photos from here on this blog. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a good way to add closure.

Amsterdam is in many ways an antithesis of Saudi Arabia. Here drugs and prostitution are legal. Tourists abound, and it's hard to pick out the local people. Yet even with these extreme differences, there are parallels. I met a man, Hans, while I was on the street trying to read a map of the city. He introduced himself, and offered to help. We got into a conversation and talked about the US, specifically San Francisco as being similarly liberal to Amsterdam, as well as Saudi Arabia as being conservative (from our eyes) at the same level at which Amsterdam is liberal. Again, at the root though, are what all cities have, the Haneens and the Hans, that help us to know the people!

Here are some pictures I took from Amsterdam. Stunning like Saudi Arabia, just different.

More Q and A...

(1) When was the Kingdom tower built? 1999, or somewhere around there…

(2) What is the significance to the beads and plaques hanging on the school walls? The beads are Islamic prayer beads. Most Muslim men carry them around. The plaques are artistic drawings/paintings of Mosques. I included these pictures to show how religion is reflected in all classes—from English to art.

(3) Why were you able to take so many pictures? Basically, the only things that were off limits were some women and security checkpoints. Many women we met let us photograph them, because they are more traditionally liberal. However, many women strictly follow tradition and only like their male relatives to pay them attention. (Which I respected.)

(4) What were the Saudi students like? They were like American students. The group of Middle Eastern female students volunteering at the Help Center were really outgoing. The laughed a lot, and reminded me a lot of my students! I was really impressed with how polite all the students were, and how eager they were to share their lives with me. (Now hopefully they respond to the letters I gave!)

(5) Are you bringing back souvenirs?? TOO MANY!! I want to keep you all in suspense!

(6) What differences in engineering have I noticed? Argh, good question! The buildings here tend to be in more creative geometric shapes, I think. Lots of shiny glass that extends along the lengths of the buildings.

(7) Are hotels like the one I stayed in common? There are lots of nice hotels. There are plenty of Saudis who have a lot of money (and a lot who don’t.)

(8) What kinds of foods? I feel like I’ve answered this one quite a bit. Lots of meat and seafood. It’s all good!

(9) Is Saudi Arabia as developed as I thought it would be? Is there a lot of American influence? Saudi is developed in certain places. The government has done an excellent job of taking oil revenue and using it to build infrastructure—roads, hospitals (though one person said there aren’t enough), sky scrapers, etc. There are some American fast food places, and certain brands. However, the Saudis are a proud, nationalist people. They are not about to let there thousands year old traditions die out to American pop culture.

Was there an elevator in the Kingdom Tower? Thank goodness there was! It was over a hundred floors! Nearly all buildings we were in had elevators. J

What were your stereotypes towards Saudis, and how did they change through your trip? Let me address that one in a final blog entry.

(10) Can everyone go in the malls? Excellent question. Malls have “family hours” where women are allowed with male relatives. All other times are men only.

Desert Picnic

What comes to your mind when you think of the word picnic? Probably not what I experienced in Saudi Arabia today. We loaded the bus in Riyadh and took an hour drive out into desert country. Here is what the landscape looked like as we arrived:

The government has established campgrounds for young men, so that they stay in touch with their desert roots.

I took some time to wander the desert alone. I was impressed at the amount and diversity of plant life, considering the extreme temperatures and the lack of moisture. While I didn’t see much for wildlife, I did notice the entrances to some creatures’ underground lairs, pictured below. I was excited to come across one lizard on a rock. He was even kind enough to let me get a few close up pictures:

Besides just wandering the desert, Aramco had some special things arranged for us as well. I got to ride an ATV for a while. I sped through the sand and got as close to the large stone cliffs as I could. Also, I got to ride on a camel! After bonding with the group of them in Damam at the beginning of my trip, I had looked forward to it. We didn’t go very fast, but it was definitely different from riding a horse. Nicole had asked me where I sat on the camel…right behind its hump. It was hard to tell exactly, because as you can see, I was in a pretty fancy harness. Besides the ATV and the camels, they also had falcons and trainers, so that we could try holding one of these birds. (Using falcons to hunt is still a form of leisure here in Saudi.) I didn’t actually hold the bird…just wasn’t that interested.

After the typical tea, dates, and sweets that started nearly every meal we’ve had here, we proceeded to the “picnic.” This picnic was catered by the five star hotel we’d been staying at in Riyadh, so the food was pretty fancy! There was jumbo shrimp cocktail, fish of various kinds, at least 4 varieties of hummus, beef, lamb, fried shrimp, lobster rolls, rice, and the list goes on. The dessert options were also numerous—cheesecakes, crème Brule (in a variety of flavors—bannana, strawberry), chocolate cake, fresh fruit, and so on. As if the food spread wasn’t impressive enough, they also had two ice sculptures made for us! This massive spread could have fed a group ten times our size. That just goes to show how Aramco continued to treat us like royalty.

At the end of the meeting, we were bestowed with a final gift. Though we are already over burdened with all of the books and other gifts we’ve been given (or purchased), we were thankful to received a beautiful briefcase. I’ve never actually owned one, so I thought it was pretty cool.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Kingdom Tower

We had the opportunity to visit the award winning Kingdom Tower. Nearly 300 meters high, this building contains the Guiness Book's highest Mosque. The birds-eye view photos come from the bridge at the very top of the building. FYI--The architecht for the project was American.

Royal treatment.

I have heard this question a few times, "How do the Saudis treat you?" Like royalty! Aramco, our sponsor, has spared no expense on this trip, which is something we American teachers are not used to. From the most lavish of accomodations, to meals that leave us busting at the seems, to gifts that could fill an additional suit case, we have been left spoiled. At the same time, they have exposed us to experiences and introduced us to people that will have us sharing the positive attributes of the Kingdom (as well as some negative) to our students and communities for years to come. Here are pictures from the exquisite hotel we are staying at now, as well as the view from my window:

Riding through Riyadh...

Though I can't comment on many of the buildings, here is a peek at what we have seen from our bus:

The Kingdom tower is visible from my room. We will be visiting it later today.

Sulaiman is the Arabic form of my name :-)

Of course there are many malls here. There is even one connected to our hotel. It is closed during prayer tim, 12-4, which is when our break is :-)

Saudi Government School

We had quite the opportunity today! We visited the King Faisal Educational Complex, a network of 3 government ran Saudi schools. Located on the campus of a local university, most of the attendees are sons of university employees. (The women in our group visited a female school some distance away.) We are the first international group that has been allowed to visit these 3 schools, and the first in the IIE's program to visit a non-private school. It was an amazing opportunity, and an enlightening one to learn about it from administrators, while also having opportunities to visit with students.

The complex is divided into three schools, elementary, intermediate, and secondary sections. While there were certainly differences between the sections, here are some generalizations that could be made for all:

(1) There were good resources for special education students. In all three levels, their were separate rooms/facilities particularly for blind students. Students with higher academic needs were also accommodated with one-on-one attention from teachers.

(2) At all levels, students sat in desks. While sometimes in groups, there seemed to be a focus on direct instruction from the teacher. With the exception of a math and English class we visited, there were no textbooks for students. In all cases, the teacher was standing at the front delivering a lesson while students listened. (I didn't notice them taking notes either.) Now, I can only share what I observed. Perhaps students are more engaged in writing or reading at other times. One of the guides informed me that in the science classes, students only observe experiments. By doing so, they are unable to do some of their own critical thinking that comes through experiencing the activity.

(3) The little social studies instruction they get is in geography and economics. What I found interesting was that the only maps I saw on walls were of either the Arab or Islamic world. The few world maps I saw were focused specifically on the Arab countries. It's worth noting that these maps were also strictly physical maps, or religion maps. Though we were told that they are taught about other world cultures, students' work reflected a focus on the physical geography. One member of our group commented that this could reflect the focus on training petroleum engineers at the college level.

(4) Nearly all of the students were excited and friendly towards us. I really enjoyed getting to interact with some of the kids! When asked what their favorite parts of school were, most said sports--soccer and basketball! (It felt like I was in the US :-)) One said English and another Math. I also met a few students who had been in schools in the US at some point. When asked if which school they liked better, they said the US schools.

(5) Maintaining the Islamic faith is an integral theme in the school. Islam is a pervasive theme in all classes, not just the ones they take on the Koran or the teachings of Mohamed. In the English class we visited, students were reciting religious historical facts in English. Also, the posters on the wall were Islamic in nature. At the end of our visit, it was prayer time. Prayer rugs were rolled out into the center plaza of the school. Hundreds of students gathered to say their recited prayers. Unfortunately, we were rushed out at that point. I think it would have been fascinating to see them pray, yet at the same time I respect their protection of their religion. (It did make me grateful that our schools in the US are not tied directly to any religion.)