STEAM: Revolutionizing Education

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In order to be able to accomplish the skill of properly mailing a letter, in 5th grade I was expected to learn the abbreviation for each state of the United States. For example, my state of Missouri had the abbreviation Mo. while Mississippi and Montana were abbreviated Miss. and Mont., respectively. The first time I took the test over this content I forgot one of the periods. Thus, I was required to rewrite the entire test. I was furious and the second time through I wrote gigantic periods following each abbreviation, almost as large as the “o”s themselves. When the teacher collected my test she commented, “I see someone remembered all the periods this time.” Well, a few years later the postal codes were changed to two letter symbols without the periods i.e. MO, MS, and MT for Missouri, Mississippi, and Montana and I remember thinking back on that 5th grade exercise and feeling like it was the biggest waste of my time and energy. Not to mention that fact that now mailing a letter has become almost obsolete and if I need to know a postal code I have quick access to the information on the Internet.

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And as a teacher I often reflect on whether I have caused my own students to participate in similarly futile exercises. Have I ever forced content that will either become obsolete or is readily available to students via a quick Google Search? And the answer is, sadly, “yes”. So then I’m left with the question, “What is the purpose of education these days”? After all, the jobs my students will be employed in probably don’t even exist right now. So what am I preparing them for?

My thoughts and reflections have driven me to read and ponder a lot about the topic. I started searching for what companies will be looking for in employees in the future. My conclusion is that we, as educators, will benefit our students by fostering the development of novel and adaptive thinking, the ability to work in and think about multiple disciplines at once (transdisciplinarity), innovation, and collaboration. Furthermore, in allowing students to develop high emotional and social intelligence and the ability to make sense out of problems will empower them to interact with others face-to-face and through digital collaborations to solve the problems of the world. Finally, in fostering a service oriented mindset we might see a greater emergence of globally minded citizens intent on providing sustainable solutions. As Mike Newby argued back in 2005, we need to move away from a content-driven curriculum and incorporate an experimental and progressive curriculum that encourages students to take risks and be at ease with an uncertain future (Newby). 

In my current position I was hired to develop the STEM (Science Technology Engineering, and Mathematics) program at our school. To circumvent attempting to change the ways of others, I introduced an entirely new class to the school, our STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) Academy. The objectives of the course are actually to help students develop novel and adaptive thinking, transdisciplinarity, a design mindset, collaborative skills, and new media literacy. This is achieved through hands-on project based activities. The students also engage in daily mini-challenges that develop both design and drawing skills as well as the capacity to think outside of the box.

Mini-Challenge: 5 minutes to build a tower from 2 sheets of paper.

Students have competed in class-wide competitions that extended between all four STEAM classes to build the tallest tower, a bridge that could hold the most mass, the fastest zip-line carrier, and a cargo airplane that could carry the heaviest load and travel the furthest distance. Students also completed a larger project of a self-designed air-powered car and competed in a school-wide competition in the gym. Towards the end of this first semester, the STEAM designers and engineers have built a competitive mousetrap vehicle. Additionally, these scientists have established websites that create or build upon their digital portfolio to showcase their growth and learning in STEAM. 

As one of my colleagues said to me, “It’s a lot of work to keep students engaged in the classroom!” and what does she mean by that? Well, rounding up supplies and being prepared so that students participate in hands-on activities every single class period does take a lot of time and organization. Plus, it feels like the classroom is in a constant state of construction. And there is a lot of mess involved. However, the rewards are worth it. Student heads are bent over projects and they are deep in discussion or they are working intently together, hands gripping a project trying to engineer a specific component. Or, they are drawing a design and discussing different aspects of materials, physics, and construction. During “thinking outside the box” challenges my front wall becomes a display of creative ideas. At the beginning of the semester students struggled to list two or three novel ideas but now they can fill the paper. And then they look over the ideas of others and become even more inspired. Plus, they are learning first hand what the science actually transfers to in real-life. Recently a student said to me regarding his mousetrap car, “It is so fun to actually calculate speed. I mean I’ve done it before on paper in other classes but now it actually means something.”

Of course I’m taking these ideas and transferring them to my other classes. AP chemistry students benefit also from engaging in novel and adaptive thinking, designing experiments, and collaborating. Now let’s spread this type of thinking and education everywhere.  It’s time to revolutionize the way we teach our children.


Crompton, Jen Cohen. "The Future Of Work: 10 Skills You Will Need To Be Successful [INFOGRAPHIC]." Digitalist Magazine. Digitalist, 25 June 2014. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Gray, Alex. "The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution." World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum, 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 9 Oct. 2016.

Institute for the Future for the University Phoenix Research Institute. Future Work Skills 2010. N.p.: Institute for the Future for the U Phoenix Research Institute, 2011. Print.

Kim, Larry. "10 Critical Skills You’ll Need to Succeed at Work in 2020." Inc., 27 May 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Newby, M. (2005). A Curriculum for 2020. Journal Of Education For Teaching: International Research And Pedagogy, 31(4), 297-300.

Samuel-becker. "Forward Thinking: 10 Skills That Will Be the Most Valuable By 2020." The Cheat Sheet. Money and Career Cheat Sheet, 08 Feb. 2016. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

Student Voices: Dasha from Syria


  • Name: Dasha Said
  • Age: 17
  • Year: Senior
  • Home Country: Syria
  • Resident of KSA: 3 years
  • Hobbies: Basketball and Swimming
  • Favorite Foods: fruity yogurt and a Russian rice/chicken/carrots dish 
  • Dislikes: When people ask her what it feels like to be one of a quadruplet.
  • Future Plans: To study architecture

Her whole face lights up when her home country of Syria is mentioned. “It’s such a beautiful place. The people are nice and help each other. Everyone is down to Earth. It’s Safe.” She bows her head, “But now it’s not safe.” Her fingers run across the table top as she formulates her words, “We got used to the war. Got used to the bombs. Got used to not going out on some days.” A pause. “But you can’t stop living, you know? You have to keep carrying on with your life. And if you get hit by a bomb, inshallah, then it was meant to be.”

During her first year in Saudi Arabia at a friend’s birthday celebration someone set off a Birthday Popper.  She describes how it “freaked her out” and how scared she was just from the sound. She thought bombs were going off in Saudi Arabia too.

Her family left Syria after her father’s company suffered economic set-backs from the war. He moved his family to Jeddah in order to take a better job. “We didn’t want to come and we cried in the airplane the entire way here. People in the plane thought someone in our family had died.”

Despite the crises in Syria, Dasha and her family return to visit whenever they can. She mentions that they “are lucky” because they also have Russian passports so they can come and go as they please. Other Syrians are stuck and can’t leave. The good fortune of her Russian heritage partially protects her brothers from being taken forcefully into the military. However, her family is still afraid of this possibility. She says there was a time when there were check points, throughout Syria, even in the capital and all 17 and 18 year olds were captured. Even the husband of one of her mother’s friends was seized. The streets were void of men. “We’re Russians so we pass by easier but [there was a time] we were afraid my brothers would be taken.”

She says they “thank God every day” that they live in the capital because it is safer there than in the rest of Syria since that is where the President resides. She feels sorry for the people outside of Damascus because “those are the ones really suffering.” She says “those people feel bullets passing by their heads. They see blood and dead bodies in the street every day.”

When she visits Damascus she is shocked by the inflation. The price of a falafel has risen from 25 to 250 Syrian Pounds. Going out for drinks and food for 7 or 8 people costs 50,000 Pounds but the average monthly salary for a teacher is only 20,000 Pounds. 

Why return to a country where there is inflation and war? Because of family and friends. Because of her childhood home. “And being able to go out without abayas. Because of the freedom.” But when I ask her about being afraid of the war, she reminds me again, “You can’t stop living.”

After University she wants to return to Syria. She thinks her generation can rebuild Syria. She thinks it will take 10 years to recover from the destruction. But “there is hope”, she says. 

Note: both student and parents agreed to publishing of this post

Ramadan Kareem

It has been 20 days since we flew out of Jeddah for our summer break. It seems as though we’ve traveled to another planet as we’ve re-entered the western world to visit friends and family at different corners of the Earth.

What strikes me most is the lack of Ramadan. When we departed Saudi Arabia, the country was immersed in Ramadan. Even our American school adopted a schedule the last week of school, beginning at 10 a.m. instead of 8, to accommodate for students who had been up late breaking their fast and celebrating with their families.

As we approached this special time of year students would discuss the holiday with eager childish delight. When asked about why they were so looking forward to this month their eyes sparkled with anticipation as they spoke of the time spent with family following a day of fasting. Mouth watering depictions of food were detailed.  Students added that they stay  up late, even until “2,3 4, or 5 in the morning!”  As one student described falling asleep for the day another student interrupted to explain, “But your fast doesn't count unless you get up to pray the required 5 times and if you aren't awake for at least three hours before breaking your  fast.” Everyone nodded in agreement. They described their individual journeys toward becoming a month-long faster which, apparently, is expected of these high school students. All of them acknowledged that while there are social and family expectations to fast, it is an individual choice. From what I could see, they were 100% committed to the month of fast, and were genuinely excited about it.

Two little elementary students were discussing their Ramadan fasting status while crossing the playground. They must have been in first or second grade.

“I’m fasting today but my Mom packed me a lunch box in case I can’t handle it”

“Yeah, me too. My Mom told me that if I just can’t take it anymore I should eat my lunch”

There was a vibrancy in the air. Days and nights seemed to change places as the town slept quietly all day with no stores open. Then, at night it all came alive as stores unbolted their doors  and people came out onto the street. My husband and son were running errands before we left and were shopping at 2 a.m. with  throngs of people on the street and in the stores.

Common working time was 22:00 – 3:00. The holiday permeated every moment of the days. Even the 8th grade promotion at our school started at 20:00 after families, students, and staff gathered together to break the fast over a traditional Iftar meal in the cafeteria.

In my own faith we fast on the first holy day of the month (whether that be Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, depending where you live in the world) for 24 hours. However, depending on circumstances, one might elect to fast anytime during the month to call upon God for extra connection, answers to prayers, or on behalf of another person in need. 

Dates, dried apricots and Holy Water.

My husband and I chose to join the fast with  Muslim friends of ours on the first day of Ramadan to support their fast as they made some serious life-changing decisions for their family. It was a beautiful, unifying experience.  In what felt like a great act of graciousness, our Muslim friend brought us a “fasting survival kit” that included dates, dried apricots, and holy water from Mecca which were to be used when breaking our fast. After our first day of fast how we relished those treats given to us. It served as additional connection to our friend in her time of need. We ended up continuing to fast with our Muslim friends and students for the rest of the week. It felt good to support them by fasting with them. Students who caught wind of our fast were deeply touched and expressed gratitude for our efforts to understand what they were going through.  Responses included “Really? Wow! That is so cool” and “That is so nice. Thank you.” 

It was empowering to have two  faiths joined together in the power of the fast. It removed walls and brought us together as children of the same God, with the same purpose in life namely love and happiness on this Earth.

The article on the practice of Ramadan in Belgium

We left Saudi Arabia and went to Belgium where I noticed an article in the newspaper about Ramadan and how unacceptable it was for students to miss school and how children below the age of 13 are not capable of fasting for a month. It cast a very judgmental cloud on this sacred month. I was reminded of the two children in the schoolyard who clearly were attempting the fast of their own free will and of my friends and students who were immersed in this special month and I missed them and I felt compassion for them in a world that clearly doesn’t understand them.

In the U.S. there is no mention of Ramadan  and I find myself missing it. Additionally, an election year fills the media with drama, rhetoric, and catch phrases that leave me empty and reflective of our life abroad residing in China, the Netherlands and now Saudi Arabia. How grateful I am for these years living in other lands, side by side with the people of our host countries. Though we’ve  faced challenges, we have grown and  our minds have expanded by learning to appreciate different cultures, mindsets, and ways of life. 

A Data Point Supporting Arts in Education

My husband spilled the beans. And before I knew it I was involved in our High School musical production of the Sound of Music.

Dusting off my violin, I joined students in the pit to help provide the sound for the musical. The early rehearsals were rough and my admiration for my colleagues in the music/theater department increased exponentially as they guided, counseled, encouraged, and coached students through learning the music, songs, lines, choreography, and the staging. As with all productions, there was definitely that thought, “Will this ever come together?” But the students and my amazing colleagues never gave up, adding hours to their rehearsals and working together through difficult spots and troublesome glitches. Over time more notes were being played (in tune even!), beautiful songs were sung, lines were remembered, and a story was coming to life.

I love observing students immerse themselves in the creative process. Any student involved in acting, singing, playing, technical crew, or stage crew is positively affected. For those new to the process the growth is most remarkable. They gain new skills and confidence. Most importantly, they are filled with love and appreciation for music. In the hallways they hum or sing the songs from the musical all day long. In the classroom they share the latest triumphs from rehearsal or the challenges to be overcome before show time. And they exude happiness.  Indeed, there is scientific evidence that art and happiness are “inevitably intertwined” in that “people invariably report that art making is a source of joy for them” even when using art to facilitate the grieving process of a loss (Malchiodi).

photo courtesy of Roslyn Dotterweich

Finally, we’re running the show. Of course, it isn’t without flaws but to the audience it’s seamless. For all involved there is a thrill with the completed product and a true sense of accomplishment. I am impressed with how far the students have come and how wonderful the final product is. Of course, the benefits of such a production are not limited to those involved.

Students who attend the show are astounded. And those who came grudgingly with the claim “I don’t really like that kind of stuff” approached me in the pit absolutely gleeful. They reported “This is amazing” or “The music is so good” or “I’m so glad I came”.

Though shocked I was at the diminishment of some of my own skills since my symphony days, there was great gratification in playing again. I have been reminded of the soul filling joy that music (and dance and art) has provided me in my own personal life. It was the balancing thread that carried me through college and graduate school. I am determined that my resurrected violin will no longer remain silent.

There are scientific studies to support that participation in the arts lowers stress levels and improves overall well-being of individuals (Hopper). Using fMRI, scientists have even demonstrated that the creative process of art making actually enhances functional connectivity in the brain (Bolwerk). Who doesn’t want a better functioning brain?

My Sound of Music experience is another small piece of evidence as to why I, as a science teacher, advocated the “A” for arts in the development of our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program, making it STEAM.

This is my plea that whenever the chance arises in your community, please support art programs, funding of the arts and encourage student participation in these programs.


  • Bolwerk, Anne, Jessica Mack-Andrick, Frieder Lang, Arnd Dörfler, and Christian1 Maihöfner. "How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity." PLOS ONE:. PLOS, 1 July 2014. Web. 07 June 2016.
  • Hopper, Elizabeth. The Link Between Creativity and Happiness | HealthyPsych. HealthyPsychcom Site Wide Activity RSS. N.p., 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 07 June 2016.Ho
  • Malchiodi, Cathy. Art and Happiness. Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 27 Sept. 2011. Web. 07 June 2016.

Cultural Clashes Crumpling in the Classroom

It’s clear that I’m “not one of them.” The messages are subtle. Mumbled greetings. Ignoring me in the hallways. Grouping together in the classroom with disregard for what I have to say or present, heads bent on their phones or in huddled conversations between themselves. My 11th grade advisory students are all great kids but they clearly haven’t bought into the “advisory program” and they certainly do not see the purpose of my presence in their lives.

Through my current reading of the book, Understanding Arabs by Margaret K. Nydell (a must read for expats living in the Middle East) I learned that hospitality and the reception of hospitality is very important to Arabs. I asked my advisory students about Arabic hospitality and they went crazy explaining it to me. Using the expression “Welcome” itself is even important. It gave me an idea. If I could change their frame of reference when they entered my classroom maybe we could find a way to connect.

I decided to invite them into advisory as my guests. I brought in hand-made treats, chips, chocolate, fruit, sparkling juice and tea. I covered the table and arranged things nicely. Then I sent an email inviting them to come as my guests into my room for advisory.

 A couple of heads peek curiously into the room, surveying the scene. “Welcome!” I say and motion them into the room.  They spot the table and grins spread across their face. “"What is this?” they query as they begin seriously investigating the food on the table. “"It's a busy week and I think you need a break so I'm treating you like guests today” “This is so sweet.” “Wow, you did this for us?” Genuine expressions of gratitude erupt as they eagerly fill their plates.

 The second wave of students enter, my more skeptical ones. They are more hesitant, suspicious, perhaps expecting “"a catch”. They see the other students enjoying their munchies and they can’t resist. I emphasize my “welcome” and repeat the invitation to be my guest. Their proclivity towards disrespecting advisory is suddenly challenged by their ingrained cultural responsiveness and there is a pause as they are somewhat unsure how to proceed.

 However, they can't resist the draw of the food and drinks and they approach the table. Upon accepting the invitation to be my guest, their cultural reflexes surface and they don’t search for an excuse to leave advisory nor do they get on their phones and they do not ignore me. Instead, they press in, encircling me.

 Then, they start to talk. Really talk. Dreams are shared. Differences between what parents want and what they want are discussed. University hopes are expressed. And in a few minutes I learn more than I have in four months. 

 One even stays to help me clean up. He continues to talk about his fears and hopes for the future. 

 Two weeks have passed and every time I see my advisory students in the halls they call out to me by name. One student in particular comes to me at random times to update me on a project he’s started in an effort of pursuing his dreams. Even more importantly, I feel a connection to them and my care and concern for them has increased.

There is nothing new in this experience is there? It is just another example of the importance of bridging cultures and reaching out to our students in unique ways. It’s true, we didn’t get to the advisory lesson that day but what we did was so much more important and will hopefully lay the foundation for growth in our next year together.  

Project-based learning does work!

Students engage in a reading activity to introduce them to the vocabulary and the life-cycle of a star. Later a kinesthetic activity places all the students in the center of the classroom acting first as particles of dust and then hydrogen and helium atoms following the sequence a star’s life-cycle. A quiz reveals that the students are beginning to learn the concepts but I wonder if they'llmaster the standards if they immerse themselves in a project.

When introduced to the written guidelines and a detailed rubric the students actually seem excited about the activity. Autonomy is provided and they are thrilled to put their individual touch on the enterprise. They ask all sorts of questions and it is clear that the imaginations are already fully active.

As the due date approaches, the boards and posters start floating into the classroom. Colored foam balls representing different stages of a star’s life cycle or the structure of the sun complete the required 3-D component of the project. The creativity is abundant and the students are clearly proud of their work. I'm genuinely impressed with the diversity in approach and the individuality expressed by each piece of work.

We go through the rubric carefully one more time together and I have the students make a list of what they are still missing from their projects. They take their list home and bring back the final touches the next class period. Then I mark the rubric and allow them one more chance in class to add to their work based on my markings. Finally, nearly every project is complete and demonstrates mastery of the standards.

A colleague suggests giving the students a pop quiz with the same content as their previous quiz to determine whether the students have made progress in learning. The improvement is astounding, the average shifting from 60% to 73%.  As we continue on with the unit the students are able to maintain discussions using the proper vocabulary regarding. It appears that Vanessa Vega’s words ring true, “project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students' attitudes towards learning...

I’ve always known the value of hands-on, project-based learning but it’s nice to have the evidence!

Vega, Vanessa. "Project-Based Learning Research Review." Edutopia. Edutopia, 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

Science Fair!

The counter tops and table tops have become delightfully cluttered with projects in progress. A calcium chloride bottle, spilled yeast, banana peels, beakers, pipettes and graduated cylinders are scattered throughout the classroom.

It’s that time of year when science fair projects are underway all across the world. We’re conducting, for the first time, a science fair in our high school. Initially, we were faced with an onslaught of protest from the students such as “But that’s so much work” and “We’ve already done a science fair!” as though participating once in 4th grade exempts them from the benefits of designing and conducting an experiment as an older, more mature person. Once informed that the Science Fair would contribute significantly to their second semester grade, there was more “buy-in”

Our secondary science department has been stunned with the realization of just how much investment there is in the process. Working with students who haven’t spent a lot of time immersed in scientific thinking requires incorporating extra training time into the classroom, time many don’t feel they necessarily have. Even guiding students towards a question to investigate was more time-consuming than originally expected. The idea of “wandering and wondering” is not yet part of the mindset of our pupils. Helping learners determine what background information they need in order to design an experiment and understand the results was yet another hurdle. Identifying variables and writing a procedure was like extracting teeth. But finally, some are starting to experiment.

It is my preference that students collect their data at the school. This way they have access to legitimate tools of science and guidance from their teachers. However, funneling 400+ students through our lab and classroom space isn’t logistically possible and some experiments are not conducive to completing in the classroom. For example, one student is measuring the heart rate of her canines (she has over 20 dogs) in response to varying types of food. Another pupil is querying whether feeding quails peanuts will result in larger eggs (as with chickens).

He enters with a big smile, “I have more news on my quails.” He then proceeds to describe behaviors he’s noticing. One quail is laying eggs so despite having purchased 10 quails only one is laying eggs. So, he’s doing his entire experiment with one quail but he’s excited about it. He thinks about it constantly. Even though he’s not one of my students, he drops in nearly every day to discuss the progress of his experiment. He shows me pictures. He’s genuinely excited and he’s learned so much about quail biology, their bahaviors, and their care. In my opinion, one of the most important things is for students to find a topic they are genuinely interested in.

“Look, Dr. Markham, my hypothesis is supported!” A grin erupts across his face as he points to his data table and gestures towards the beakers of his experiment.

“This isn’t what I expected but it’s still cool!” Her soap pieces weigh the same before and after soaking in various concentrations of lemon juice and the volumes of the liquid haven’t changed indicating that the soap didn’t dissolve into the liquid. “I think I’m going to let them dry and weigh again, just to be sure. Either way this is interesting.”

Several students are redoing their experiments for a second or third time, working out the details of their protocols, but they remain undiscouraged. In fact, they’re determined to figure out how to make it work. They analyze their technique and the age of the reagents, just like real scientists! It’s so fun for me to watch them in action, to see their enthusiasm, and to witness their determination.

Students who aren’t conducting their experiment at school are engaged in a VESPR project, studying molecular geometry in Chemistry and a Star Project in Physical Science. They’re equally engaged. The classroom is literally buzzing with activity and I’m pulled back and forth between the theoretical and experimental scientists in my classroom. My heart swells with joy.

Evidence of experiments linger long after the students have disappeared. It’s so worth the mess to have witnessed the students learning and experimenting.  But the best part are the grins and the students’ own declarations of “This is actually really fun!”

Of course, I’m not surprised because, even with all the trouble-shooting and the questions and the mess and the chao, science IS fun!

Insha’ Allah

Insha’ Allah: if Allah wills

Instead of being annoyed at, what seems to me, people not doing their jobs this phrase is employed. When an item is out of stock in the store this expression justifies the item not returning to the shelf for another month or more. It was used when my children’s visas weren’t processed. The store is closed for prayers and is supposed to open in 5 minutes but this statement justifies the opening time being delayed 15, 30, or even 60 minutes.

After 2 months of waiting for our visas to Saudi Arabia they finally arrived. We started school over a month late. No one was upset. Everyone just told us, "That's the way it is here." Insha' Allah

When things don’t work out here, everyone just sits back and utters, “Insha’ Allah.” To me it has become an excuse for inaction which goes against my mindset of “make it happen”, you know, do what it takes to make things work. Being a woman of faith myself, I can accept a philosophy of “It’s in God’s hands” but such an attitude  juxtaposes personal effort to work seriously towards the goal.  Only after I've exhausted all my own ideas is it acceptable to acknowledge an alternate plan. Here, however, it seems to me that if something doesn’t happen right away, everyone just nods and utters “Insha’Allah, accepting the fate. Sometimes it feels to me like a fatalistic approach to life resulting in a lack of motivation to take action.

 I began to think that if I heard the utterance “insha’ Allah” one more time I’d explode. “Your order will be ready on Saturday, insha’ Allah.” “Your visa will be ready in 2-3 days, insha’ Allah.” “Insha’ Allah, the store will open at 10:00.” “Insha' Allah, your food will come out in 15 minutes.” “So we have an appointment at 7:30, insha’ Allah.”

In the classroom, looking at the review sheet for one of our chapter tests sitting in front of each student it is clear to me that most of the students haven’t completed it.

“Did you not do the review packet?”

“Insha’ Allah, Dr. Markham.” My blood threatens to boil.

“What do you mean?” Of course I’m not really sure if I want to walk down this path.

“Insha’ Allah. If Allah wants us to do well on the test, we’ll do well on the test.” An explosion is hanging in the air.

“Without reviewing?”


The words are on the tip of my tongue, “I guess you won't do well on the test because you weren't inspired to do the review packet.” But I do not utter them. I also want to remind them that they will need to be pushing the pencil when they sit to write the exam and no one else can do it for them, however I do not. This expression, 'Insha' Allah', while part of the culture may mean "hopefully" is also linked to the religion that many of these students adhere to and in that case it is linked to deity. Thus, I do not wish to offend and must find away to work with the situation as is.

I’ve been pondering how to handle it. How can culture remain in-tact while building motivation to work?

Midterm exams. This time I have prepared an in-class review with questions in a Power Point format for the students to respond to and initiate discussion with. Empowered with white boards and note taking paper the students begin to reply to the queries appearing before them.

“Will you give us a copy of this Power Point?” If the answer is affirmative then all note-taking will cease so, of course, my retort is “no.” And I follow up with, “All of these questions are directly related to the exam, if you want to do well you must take notes and make sure you understand each point we discuss today in class.”

A student queries, “If we know everything from this review will be do well on the exam?

“Insha’ Allah” I reply. To my surprise, the entire class erupts in cheers.

“Here’s the deal,” I continue, “There are two ways to phrase this. Either ‘Insha’ Allah I’ll do my best and do well on the test’ or….” Students are silent, almost holding their breath, as they await my upcoming thought.

 “Or….I’ll do my best and insha’ Allah I’ll do well on the test.” Another giant eruption of cheers accompanied by the outburst, “Oooh” follows. It’s as though I've performed some tricky move in a sports event upsetting the opponent.

With a magnificent smile a student confirms, “We get it Dr. Markham. We get it. We have to do the work.”

 Just the simple implementation of my own personal syntax has eliminated my individual frustration with what I perceive as an excessive use of “Insha ‘Allah.”  It is my motto to appreciate and embrace the culture in which I live. And, by employing the use of “Insh’Allah” in my classroom rather than shunning  it as I was initially inclined to do, my students and I have each taken one step closer to each other.


"Essential Office Stationery... for the Middle East |" N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

Classroom Management: Lab Testing

Last November I reported on some classroom management issues I was having. I wrote about challenging my students with a lab that supposedly exceeded their capabilities (click here to read that post), hoping that the students would learn content and simultaneously become more engaged in the classroom. This approach required exceeding readiness on my part. Since the students’ lab skills were still lacking, everything needed to be prepared ahead of time so that their actual hands-on component would be relatively simple.  My efforts proved worthwhile because, in the end, the students stepped up to the task, learning content and become more serious minded.

However, basic science experiments were still required in order to develop student lab skills. A simple conservation of mass experiment could provide just such an opportunity along with an introduction to content. However, it would be difficult for them to complete it without being silly. They would play with the balloons and chatter and goof around because the lab would seem too easy to warrant their concentration. In the end, I feared they would neither gain the lab skills I was aiming for nor learn the content associated with the lab.

A last-minute stroke of inspiration came: make it an assessment of following directions. I sprang into action as this tactic would also necessitate significant set-up. I had to place students into a testing environment and ensure they could individually perform the experiment. Tables were arranged around the room in a circle so I could stand in the middle and students could work without knowing whether I was looking at them or not. Each seat was equipped with a balloon, a graduated cylinder, vinegar, baking soda and the lab instructions. They would only need to stand to use the measuring scales.

Before entering the room, students were warned that as soon as they crossed the threshold they were in a testing situation. Backpacks were set down at the front of the room and personal computers retrieved. Interest peaked by the unusual set-up, the pupils approached the tables with hushed respect.

First, an online quiz covering content from the previous days was completed. This settled them down right from the start.Then, as instructed, the students moved straight into the practical part of their quiz. Huge emphasis was placed on the fact that this practical portion was part of their assessment. This new approach instigated total silence among the group. Working at different paces from each other, no one needed the scales at the same time. Not a sound was heard when chairs were scooted away and towards the tables. No pushing, giggling, touching, or silliness. Complete silence. Total focus. If I had had a pin to drop, it we would have heard it.

The inherent nature of this set-up actually forced the students to read the instructions. Each person was required to conduct measurements with the graduated cylinder and weighing scale. Everyone was in a serious-minded setting gaining experience in how an experiment should be conducted.  And, unable to consult peers,  the students were coerced into studying and answering the questions connecting the activity to content in this arrangement of a testing situation.

As usual, I advocate thinking outside the box as we seek to meet our students’ needs in the classroom! In this case, both skills and content were attained as measured through later assessment. And, in a review session conducted last week (and months after this activity), formative assessment revealed that most of them had retained what they learned that day. Most importantly, a foundation was laid for how one conducts oneself in the lab, thwarting a tendency for silly behavior and creating an environment more conducive to learning.

Making Models to Build Knowledge

I needed a hands-on model that I could quickly assemble with articles found in the lab. A quick look through my cabinets yielded just such items: different colored marbles, an aluminum dish, and assorted other small items. But what about the electrons? Could I find something that could also help visualize the idea that the electrons are smaller and of much less weight than the protons/neutrons. Paper hole punches! Soon each table was equipped with the makings of an atomic model for every pair of students.

Almost immediately regret over the decision to select marbles settled in. The irritating sound of ricocheting marbles filled the classroom as students succumbed to the irresistible urge to repeatedly drop a marble from their hand onto the table allowing it to reverberate across the epoxy resin surface of the work space.  Clearly, there was no ill-will on the part of the students as they simply “needed” to handle those marbles. So, we carried on. Somehow students were simultaneously listening to instruction and were eager to assemble the atomic models as the theory was introduced. Dropping “neutrons” and “protons” into the “nucleus” was easy but they questioned how they should place the electrons outside the nucleus. Instinctively, they didn’t want to just drop their paper circles by the side of the dish. The concept of energy levels organically became part of our discussion and the students seemed relieved to have direction as to how to order their electron around the nucleus. Great care was taken to properly place their electrons.  Chatter about atoms was filling the classroom.

Later in the unit students easily built isotopes with this same model. They could visualize how the isotope carried the same charge and proton number as the “regular” atoms but that their mass was different. It was easy to accept that these isotopes, because of their varying masses, might have different physical properties and characteristics.

The same models were employed to make cations and anions by adding and removing electrons as the unit moved into ions. Students could easily visualize how charge became negative when electrons were added and positive when electrons were removed.

This same model provided variety to lessons, hands-on learning, and additional review as we built on the students’ understanding of the atomic theory. The models became a familiar tool in the classroom and as they sat before the students,  the marbles were heard ricocheting less and less across the tables. Just like with a beaker or graduated cylinder, the students began to handle the models as a simple piece of equipment required to accomplish a task, in this case, the task of mastering atomic theory.

Keep it simple! No fancy kits need to be ordered to provide our students with hands-on activities. Often things we have lying around can serve the purpose. The rewards include a buzzing classroom and student achievement.

Foster Learning by Making it Personal

A seemingly daunting task lay before me: teaching my chemistry students about the nature of light. That light behaves like a wave and is made up of particles, or photons. The textbook offers the example of the photoelectric effect as proof of the particle nature of light. Which, is cool, but not really imaginable. I wondered, “Could I make my own photoelectric cell and be able to demonstrate the effect in class?” That would make it so much more real to them. Thanks to Google, there were several examples and descriptions online as to how to make, with simple supplies, a photoelectric cell and demonstrate the photoelectric effect. It took a trip to the souks in search of a black light and several attempts of messing around with my materials before I had a functioning device.  I couldn’t wait to show my students.  

The class note-taking sheet was handed out and we began our series of demonstrations and discussions regarding light. The students were engaged with the slinky demonstration and discussion of the wave-like behavior of light. They were wowed by the power of the hand-held spectroscopes to distinguish different wavelengths of visible light. In fact, we lingered here a bit because they really thought this was “cool” and ended up conducting a small exploration by comparing sunlight with fluorescent light in the classroom. Then it was time to talk about photons. 

My little flimsy can with aluminum strips stood on the table. Students gathered in close as they were warned they needed to be looking carefully because what they would be viewing is subtle (the movement of the small pieces of aluminum foil). After charging the pieces of aluminum foil with electrons so that they repelled each other (of course a discussion centered on that!), I held the black light to the can. The students waited skeptically with baited breath for something to happen. Then, the pieces of aluminum foil jumped around a bit and fell side-by-side, no longer repelling each other. Excited outbursts followed. “Can we see that again?” Then we talked our way through what was happening and suddenly they realized they had just seen proof regarding the particle nature of light. One girl’s exclammation, “That is actually really cool” was followed by the others nodding and emitting little sounds of agreement.

Their next task was to explain the photoelectric effect in their own words. In their class notes they found images of the very can they had viewed that day. “Is this here?” a student asks in disbelief. “Yes, I thought having the picture of what you saw would help you make the needed connections.” Several grins spread across the room and soon they are all smiling. I’ll admit, sometimes I’m still never sure if they are laughing at me or with me. I run my tongue over my teeth searching for leftover parsley pieces from lunch and probe, “What is it?”

“Nothing. It’s just that we’ve never had a teacher take pictures for us before.”

Suddenly it hits me, they are appreciative, perhaps even touched, by my effort. They immediately sit down to complete the written task. They question, they ponder, they write. Granted not every student is swept away by my demonstrations but the majority are.

 A personal connection with the content has been made. The students that skeptically hung around the fringe of the group, unwilling to kneel down and see the effect never “got it.” One student actually said to the others, “There’s nothing happening. This isn’t real.” However, those who were on their knees studying the pieces of aluminum foil vehemently defended what they saw and countered the skeptic with scientific explanations.  These are also the students who were able to describe the photoelectric effect and later make connections in a flame test lab, being able to discuss the role of photons in the excitation of electrons and subsequent emissions spectrums while the skeptic remained somewhat lost throughout the unit.

I advocate the effort to “make it personal.” In this case a hands-on experience was provided coupled with the personal touch of the images in the class-note taking sheet. While a small subset of students remained uninvolved despite all efforts on my part, never mastering the concepts of the unit, the rest of the class become involved at different stages. Some students were riveted by only the can, foil strips and black light. Another set was drawn in following discovery of the photographs that related to the class experience. Still another set became interested by the “witnessing” of their peers. All of these students demonstrated learning in subsequent formative and summative assessment.

If even just a handful of students respond to our efforts to “make it personal” and to “make it real”, it’s worth it. The “aha” moments in the classroom, the joy in learning, and the success in assessment are the rewards.   


Inspiration for our Green Hope Group: Field trip to Al Baydha

Al Baydha: A prototype for settling the nomadic people of Saudi Arabia by providing ecological and economical stability through greening of their desert. Ultimately the Bedu people of this region will live off the land they are developing.

About 20 of us clamor onto the bus and shortly teenage rock music fills our space and the desert landscape scattered with camels expands out before us. Two and a half hours later and hundreds of kilometers of sand behind us we finally turn onto a narrow dirt leading to our destination, a lone building surrounded by a burgeoning farm scape. The women in the group all don their abaya and hijab. Several girls chose not to join us due to the clothing requirement so kudos to those who are with us today.


We are the first school group to visit Al Baydha. Our host, Neal Spackman, guides us upstairs to an open-air room of the isolated structure on the property. We seat ourselves comfortably and receive an introduction to this project site.

We study the greening desert immediately surrounding us and note the harsh and barren geography beyond the boundaries of Al Baydha. The  pigeon house, the terrace garden, the dams, and the swales are visible from our viewpoint. We eagerly head out to walk around the site and see the different aspects of the project close up. The students are part of the Green Hope group at school and have visions of making a difference in the world through their environmentally conscious efforts. They are here today to learn about a farming project that actually is building the local water reservoir.

A walk through the swale shows us an area blooming with flowering plants and alive with trees and shrubs. Just outside the swale lies rocks and sand, undisturbed by life. The students are stunned that a simple change in geography (basically building a ditch) can make such a difference. This swale traps water and allows it to absorb into the ground, adding water to the reserves below the surface. The stored water sustains the plant life that provides oils for the local people to sell and animal forage, ground cover, etc. to the developing ecosystem.


The bat cave has been sealed up, waiting for more bats to arrive and for guano to accumulate.

The bat cave is next on the tour. The Bedu workers are proud of this structure and pose for us. One week after the construction of this cave, bats were already sighted within and thousands are expected to eventually reside here. The bats will serve to eat mosquitos and flies and will provide their nitrogen rich guano for fertilization.


The Green Hope Group with Neal Spackman and his workers. On top of the bat cave.

When questioned whether they want to see the dams, the students do not hesitate to accept the offer. Off we march up the hills to observe the dam structure. Again, it is clear that the Bedu workers are proud of the results of their hard labor and eagerly lead the way up the hillside.

Our tour takes us past the pigeon house where pigeons exist without any feeding or maintenance. We climb up onto the garden terraces and step across lush greenery, a rare and amazing experience here in the harsh climate of Saudi Arabia. Here we end our tour with one last view of the project from the terraces.

Back on the bus, the women hastily shed their outerwear and position themselves under the relief of the air conditioning. A student exclaims, “It’s hard to believe that such a place exists here in Saudi Arabia.” The other students nod and utter agreement.

A peace settles in among us.  Climate change can be battled and water can be conserved. Awareness, in already broad-minded students, has been increased. A vision of possibilities has been provided. What a gift to have found this little pocket of hope in Saudi Arabia!

Would you like to know more?

Here is the Al Baydha web page (

And find Neal Spackman’s blog  here ( His blog describes his 5-year journey with the Al Baydha project.






Classroom Management: Tactile Learning and Insisting on Mastery

They’ve been given a piece of paper with random concepts and diagrams. These ideas relate directly to the lauric acid lab they just completed and to the content they will be reading about in their next homework assignment. This is a tactile experience engaging students in the content of Changes of State and the Kinetic Theory. The instructions are to cut the vocabulary terms and the sentences describing and the diagrams illustrating what particles are doing during each phase change and in-between.  Then, they are to glue them in the proper order beginning with “Solid” making the correct links between the words and the diagrams.

As soon as they pick up the scissors they are smiling. They read the words out loud as they cut. Then, they spread them out. “Do you think this goes with that picture?” Intensity fills the room as students concentrate to figure out the connections. First a comparison with each other’s work and then a final check with me before the final gluing. This gives me a chance with each individual to assess whether they are mastering the concepts. It is clear they are still struggling to make a connection between temperature and changes of state.

They are given the additional task to write what is happening to the temperature at each phase of their developing diagram (a direct link to the lauric acid lab).  These instructions are given verbally and written on the board. However, as soon as their last paper is glued down,  they are “done”. The chatter and joking and distraction begin and most of them simply ignore these additional instructions.  So, how do I get them to do it?

“Your exit ticket today is for me to see your written sentences regarding the temperature on your diagrams.” Suddenly they become productive again. They value their break time and do not want to be stuck in the class figuring out temperature and phase change connections. Hastily written sentences are shoved in front of me.  Instructions such as “I can’t read that, please make it legible” or questions like “What is actually happening when you add energy at this stage of your diagram?” or  “What is happening to the atoms and how does that relate to the temperature?” send students returning to their seats in a flurry. Some return three or four times before getting it correct. With each return to the seat there are heavy sighs and murmuring complaints. But once I give that final “OK a huge smile spreads across their faces. Grinning from ear to ear they insert their completed and accurate diagrams into their binders. Some even thank me. All of them cheerfully say “good-bye” as they head off to their well-earned break.

After a couple of months, they are already trained and fewer and fewer are needing to return for “redos” when we have similar activities. They realize I’m actually looking at their work and expecting mastery. Thus, they are making the effort to get it done correctly the first time. And, more and more are asking questions earlier on in the activity to make sure they understand.

Since this activity we have moved on to other topics but the discipline we have been developing is beginning to pay off. Many of the behaviors I described in my previous post have completely disappeared. They still have their moments but there is definite progress. And, my last assessment with them yielded individual ‘bests’ for all students and a drastic overall class improvement in performance at this stage of a unit. My genuine exuberance and expression of pride in them made them laugh at me but I could tell it also made them feel good.

My message from this experience? Give them a chance to “handle” the material, even if it is content but do not let it stop at being a ‘fun’ activity. Stay the course, not lowering standards, and insist that they demonstrate mastery. The results? Developing discipline and leaps in learning!

Classroom Management: Challenge Them

I’ll admit, for the first time in my teaching career I have struggled with classroom management.  It has come as a complete shock to me. Granted my experience isn't happening in every classroom every day.

Here are a few of the issues I have dealt (or didn’t) with:

  1. Students breaking out in outbursts of strange guttural noises, sounding like wild animals. Seriously, I thought one of the boys had Turrets syndrome.
  2.  In the middle of a discussion a student gets up to borrow the hole puncher, a stapler, or get some hand sanitizer, completely oblivious to the fact that I am talking or the timing is just inappropriate
  3. Laughter, background talking, and side conversations
  4. Cross-communication, literally, in the middle of the class between students on opposite sides of the room (“Hey, are you trying out for basketball?”)
  5.  Students not showing up for class or, in particular, tests.
  6. Cheating and plagiarism.
  7. Students doing no work. I mean no work. Seriously, how can you earn 8% in a class?

It’s like the very last item on the agenda was about learning. And actually I don’t even think learning was on the agenda. Have you seen the movie “Dangerous Minds”? A few of those classroom scenes remind me of some of the experiences I have had with some of the students here. However, these students are pampered and spoiled as compared to those economically depraved individuals depicted in the film.

My instinct has been to turn to the literature and to reflect on inspiring movies like “Stand and Deliver.” But I’m no Jaime Escalante.

So, my inspiration was to challenge my students beyond what any of my colleagues thought the students “were ready for.” It was time for my apathetic, singing, distracted students to attempt a legitimate scientific experiment: “What is the effect on the temperature of lauric acid as it is immersed in warm and cold water baths?” (in other words, the heating and cooling curvesfor lauric acid) in the context of studying changes of state.

I’ve loaded my portable lab station with all the necessary supplies. My planning has to be meticulous, trouble-shooting all the pitfalls and challenges the students will face and setting up the experiment in such a way that students can focus on what is happening without being burdened by too much manipulation of equipment. Because these students have, unfortunately, not had much time in the lab. Thus, their skills are not developed.


The students are questioned as to what they think will happen to the temperature of the solid lauric acid when it is heated. With white boards and markers in front of them, they make predictions. None of them are even close.

“You all have an idea of what might happen. Now you get to do the experiment and discover the truth.” Their eyes widen. The silence is broken with, “Is this the right answer?” as a student points to his white board.

“You will determine that for yourselves.  Your challenge is to keep your mind open as you do your experiment. Be careful so that you obtain accurate data. If you do it correctly, I predict that all of you will be surprised with the results.”

With their enlarged eyes they smile and look around the room at the prepared experimental set-up they will be using. Anticipation settles in and it is clear they are eager to get started. They actually want discover the truth!

After reading through the purpose and procedure, it’s time to begin. The students approach the lab bench with hushed respect like small children who have just been handed a “grown-up” task. Pride exudes from their teenage frames. Serious business is underway as the students operate the temperature probes, record data and make observations.

“The temperature isn’t lowering!”

“Why isn’t the temperature falling?”

And thus the discovery begins.  “Is it the equipment?”  “How is my prediction wrong?” “What is going on?” “Does this have to do with energy?”

And thus they begin their discovery of the role of energy in changes of states of matter. Graphing their data is energizing and clearly they enjoy seeing the visual of their own work. The curves are perfect. Their results demonstrate they are making the connections.

And, I realize that they are learning and that we have had several classes without management problems. Others thought these students couldn’t do it. But I thought otherwise.

My thought for today? Take students to higher levels: they will rise to the challenge and classroom management issues will diminish.

3-Dimensional Learning with the History of Atomic Theory

Simple supplies

It’s Thursday afternoon (the equivalent of Friday to the rest of the world). They’re tired. They would rather go to the volleyball tournament but our team isn’t currently playing. And we are discussing the history of the atomic theory. They clearly are not convinced this is going to be an interesting lesson.

In an effort to help them appreciate the study of the unseen world, practice conducting an investigation, collaborate to produce data to serve as a basis for evidence, to see that different patters observed can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena all in the context of studying the history of the development of atomic theory, I set up a little activity for them that I had modified (by making it simpler, of course!) from one I found on the Internet (1).

A board, some textbooks, a marble, butcher paper, and they’re intrigued. On the floor and pencils in hand, they are intent on the task. Mental gymnastics begin to take place as they try to figure out the shape and placement of the unknown object under the board. Inadvertently my students find themselves in observation, recording of data, and discussion.  

It was intense. And, it was also the last school day before Halloween.

“If it bounces off in that direction, what does it mean?”

“Wait, does that mean a rounded or straight edge?”

“What do you think?”

“Should we mark it here or there?”

“What is another way we can approach this?”

They also make connections to the documentary film, “Clash of the Titans” on the development of atomic theory they were to have viewed before coming to class. The gold-foil experiment of Ernest Rutherford is suddenly appreciated. The students wonder at the determination, the intuition, the ideas, the experimentation of great scientists. More importantly they see how different and conflicting perspectives work together to come up with more accurate results. They perceive 

I concur that “Science is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world..."  President Obama (2)

Furthermore, “The National Research Council's (NRC) Framework describes a vision of what it means to be proficient in science; it rests on a view of science as both a body of knowledge and an evidence-based, model and theory building enterprise that continually extends, refines, and revises knowledge.” (3)  Thus, students must be immersed in practices that connect them with this vision.

Even a discussion of the history of atomic theory can take students on a three dimensional journey that covers not only content but involves them in practices fostering connections with the world and broader ideas found therein.

  1. Muller, Eric. "READ: RUTHERFORD ROLLER - EXPLORATORIUM | THE MUSEUM - AWED.BIZ." AWED.BIZ. N.p., 2003. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
  2. "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership." <i>Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for Global Leadership</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
  3. "Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards." <i>Three Dimensions | Next Generation Science Standards</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: How does Middle Eastern Life present itself in my classroom?

Map courtesy of used with permission

“It’s like texting your grandmother on Eid instead of calling”  one student explains to the class. There is a unanimous hum of agreement as he continues, “you just wouldn’t do that. It’s wrong”. 

They are debating the plan for Facebook to introduce six new emojis in order to “rope in even more members” by providing users with more ways to interact with each other. These tech savvy youngsters are very critical of the insincere component of these new emojiis. While they have all had fb, Instagram, and snapchat accounts, many claim it isn’t worth their time. They agree that it gives users a false sense of security and well-being. They agree that the new emojis won’t entice them to use Facebook more as they perceive the use of these emojis to be fake engagement.

I must admit, I’m stunned by the fact that only a handful of students actively use social media and that most of them are very critical of it. So far, my experience in the U.S.A., China, and Europe has left me believing that teenagers are, indeed, the same all over the world. However, despite some universals, I am seeing differences in my arabic students as compared to their western counterparts.

It’s all about Getting someone else to do it

To get things done in this country, it’s easiest when one has connections. You want the Internet installed? It’s much faster if you have a friend that works for the company. To get a mobile phone account set up it will be much smoother if you take someone who knows someone who works at the phone store. You find someone to do it for you. Of course if something goes wrong, you find someone to blame.

In the robotics class when a robot doesn’t run the course properly, a student will insist on running the course over and over again claiming, “This stupid robot won’t do what I want.” It is much more logical to them to blame the robot rather than review for error in their own programming. Over and over again I encourage them to return to their program and make adjustments. Over and over again they finally realise that it IS the programming and NOT the robot!

Recently, a student came in to review an assignment on which he received a low grade. We examined the rubric together and as we discussed the first aspect of the rubric he put his finger up to indicate he’d be a minute as he dialed a number on his phone, “I’m with Miss Nina right now and she’s telling me we did something wrong.”

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for a maid, tutor, or parent to complete homework.

Different Educational Expectations

With disbelief a student stares at his poster lying in front of us on the table. A few days prior we had studied the rubric together and he took his project home to rework it for an improved grade. He can’t fathom that the grade has not changed despite his “improvements” to the poster, none of which reflect the expectations of the rubric.

“Then why did I do all that work? I should get some points for redoing it.” Of course secretly I want to ask him why he did all that work without consulting the rubric again! “Miss, can’t you at least give him some more points for making it better?” his pal queries while another pipes in, “Yes, Miss. He is a good kid. He should have an ‘A’.”

And they are serious.

On another occasion, a student points to her lab observations, “Miss, is this correct?” When informed that “there is no correct” as she is the scientist and her observations are real, her face scrunches up, she pouts, and jumps a bit. With near desperation and exasperation she pleads, “Please, Miss. Just tell me if it’s right”

The world of “right and wrong” and rote memorisation is very much a major component of the educational history of some of my new students.


On several occasions students or parents have approached me in a somewhat condescending tone, however, as soon as they realise I have a “Dr.” title, the tune changes dramatically.

In this part of the world, a simple title reduces reproof.

High School Sweethearts

Though I’ve been told that if I look carefully, I’ll see “pairing off”. However, there are no entwined couples. No back massages. No lap sitting. No hugging. Not even hand-holding.

The culture keeps men and women segregated to such an extreme that it permeates even the habits of teenagers attending our school offering a traditional American High School education.

Unique Life Experiences

The large printed words “Innocent kids during war in Syria” loom before us on the screen. As this young woman stands before the class her dark curls jostle gently as she turns from her slide and tells us that she chose this topic because her country, Syria, was “one of the safest countries in the world” but now 5 years of war has changed everything. She claims that most of the children in Syria have had their childhood taken away from them because they live in fear of being killed or bombed. She proceeds to share stunning and touching images of children at play in war-torn Syria and adds, “You can see that the kids are fighting for their childhood in these pictures, and they are much wiser than most of the children you’ll ever know…” The entire class, filled with students from Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and other countries in the region, is listening, respectful, and sympathetic. 

Most of these 14-17 year olds all have first hand experience with war, unrest, and/or revolution.

Universal but Different

My students laugh, joke, study, and learn. They try to persuade me to to tell them what’s on the test or to make the test easy for them. Hormonal changes affect them. The relentless heat tires them. An exam makes them nervous. Playing sports is important to them. They debate who the best players are in football (soccer). They watch T.V. shows and have favorite movies (even though there are no movie theatres in this country). 

So, they are similar to teenagers throughout the world but they also bring to the table new dimensions that will enrich our classroom experience together. As I look forward to this year, I’m eager for what they will teach me.

Compound Living: Teacher accommodations in KSA

Steve, my husband, outside our gates

Skyler and I have just walked from the photo shop not too far from our compound to obtain photos for his residence visa. The sun beats down upon us. We approach the gate of our compound and I anticipate the shedding of my abaya. The guards check our I.D. status and we enter our residence area. As soon as I’m inside the gate, the abaya is unzipped, removed and thrown over my shoulder for the remaining part of our walk.

Within these walls we can dress and act as we please. Members of the community can be found meandering, biking, running and swimming in what we identify as typical western clothing or athletic attire. There are also shrouded women but here I do not have to join them.

The “Villa”

Upon entering our place, we are greeted by a burst of cold air and cool marble floors. Slowly we're becoming accustomed to the constant din of the endlessly running cooling units that provide us with relief from the sweltering conditions outside.

Along with other teaching families, a row house on the compound has been commissioned to us. These row houses have been coined “villas” in contrast to the apartments that the single teachers and couples without children are assigned to. 

The school was transparent regarding the condition of these aging facilities. Beneath the fresh paint there is evidence of wear and tear. Often one of us must summon the others to battle a sudden swarm of ants in the kitchen. And frankly, there are couple of cabinets I am hesitant to use for food items because they feel too close to potential infestation. This is where we choose to store surplus soap, cleaning supplies, aluminium foil and plastic wrap.

Occasionally we turn off the air conditioning units. The absence of their noise calms my mind and my body is gradually enveloped with a heavenly warmth. And, I relax. However, soon the room becomes humid again and we must choose between enduring mugginess or cold.  The air conditioners go on again and I put on a sweater.

The best aspect of our “villa”? It’s right across the street from a pool and a 2-minute walk from another pool. 

The Pools

Standing at the edge of the pool I still have a feeling of dread, anticipating the cold shock of the water spreading across my body as I enter in. However, every night it is the same. I step on the top of the ladder allowing my toes to sense the water and the pleasure is all mine as my body is immersed in the balmy paradise of the pool. Truthfully, it’s more like a bath. Lap swimming was initially a challenge but now I’m accustomed to my swimming work-out in 27 oC (80 oF) water. In fact, I wonder if I’ll even swim again once I leave Saudi Arabia as I am becoming spoiled with my enjoyment of these temperate waters.  Plus, playing games with Skyler is easy because coldness never settles in. Thus, given that the pool is across the street from our house, we swim nearly every day.

Last night we met another family at the larger pool, a two-minute walk from our place. It was unsettling how difficult it was for me to enter the “cooler” 24 oC (75 oF) water. However, I can imagine myself opting for a work-out in that pool every now and then.

Teen Life

Laughter accompanied by Mario Cart sounds punctuated with outbursts of teenage exclamations permeate our living room. Skyler and three friends are in heated competition on the couches. The entertainment continues until a sudden announcement is made.

“We’re going to go get something to eat.” They depart for “City Station” the local restaurant on the compound offering American and International dishes. The boys opt for pizza and pasta though the hummus and tabouleh are delicious. It’s safe for these 7th and 8th graders to cross the compound for a meal out together on their own and I am left with no concerns about their safety or well-being.

On another evening after a board game of Risk Skyler and his friend head out for a work-out consisting of laps in the pool with a set of burpees on the pool deck in between each lap. Sometimes they also go for a run together. 

Skyler walks or skateboards around the compound to get to friends and activities. He has the spots memorised where the pavement is actually smooth enough to board. Otherwise he hikes his skateboard under his arm and trots to the next even location.

Skyler has a regular-sized room (as opposed to his closet-sized space in the Netherlands), orange sheets, his own bathroom, good friends, and freedom to move around as he pleases. In his mind, his world is complete.

The cats

One evening, out for a walk, passing a garbage bin on the sidewalk I was shocked by a creature leaping from the inside of the bin straight into the air while emitting an eerie screeching sound. As I stumbled to recover from falling off the curb laughter erupted from my 14-year old son as he exclaimed, “It’s just a cat, Mom”. 

The stray cats linger and leer at us from every corner of the compound. They come in every color but all of them are scrawny and tattered. None of them seek out human contact but some are more skittish than others, quickly scurrying under a staircase or into a bush as we pass. 

A white fluffy cat lies at our front door where it seeks out the cool air seeping from underneath the frame. It departs immediately when we open the door or when we approach from the outside. But it’s always there. Skyler has started trying to get it to become “our outside cat that we don’t have to take care of.” Meaning, it hangs around and we can pet it anytime we want without having any responsibility for it. He lures the cat with a fingertip of cream cheese. Within two days the cat will come up to him and allow itself to be pet. When he hears us stirring from within or sees us coming home, he begins to meow. We call him Fluffy.


A woman colleague attempted a bike ride with her husband and a group of other male teachers. She wore sweatpants and her head was covered. However, once outside the Jeddah city limits they were swarmed with arabic men that pestered the group to such an extent that the husband returned with his wife to the compound.

Thus, some might feel “trapped” in the compound because outside our walls restrictions and rules are imposed upon us to a point that it might dictate whether we choose to leave the compound or not.

However, in choosing to move to Saudi Arabia, I knew I was making a choice for a different kind of life. I knew biking and long-distance runs and even driving outside the compound would not be part of my activities. Furthermore, I’m determined to experience all I can outside of the compound therefore I do venture out regularly. So, though I miss some traditional activities (like biking), in these early days of my life here in the Kingdom, the compound is actually a haven for me. 

It’s a haven from abayas, racing cars, rubble piled streets, and being in crowds dominated by males. I can do as I please. I am comfortable. And I swim everyday. It’s a good life.


Before School Begins

The initial impression was, of course,  the interview process.  After our second interview we knew we would take an offer if it was given to us because we were impressed. The school was very transparent with us regarding living circumstances and life-style in Saudi Arabia. So, if anything, things were made to be worse than they actually are (i.e. the housing---details in another post). 

The next first impression was of the visa processing journey. The school was communicative and clearly doing everything possible to get us through the process and to Saudi Arabia. After my husband's trip to KSA to process my visa and his return to the US to pick us up, we finally arrived on September 20, a month after school had started.

Members of the welcoming committee have gone out of their way in helping us get settled. Sheets are on the bed and food is in the fridge. Rides are arranged to stores and souks for gathering supplies. Phone numbers and countless small details are handed to us to aid in adjusting quickly. Even a glorious trip to the beach has been arranged.

I arrived during the Hajj break. So, I was met by an empty classroom the first time I went to the school. A run-down room without students is just a run-down room. A small sense of sadness wells within me. Suddenly I miss my last school. And thoughts and memories of my former students flood through my mind. “Will these students also find a way into my heart?” I wonder. “What if they don’t?” I worry.

In preparing the room a small sense of excitement begins to appear. The tables are in place, the whiteboards ready to go, and my desk organised. But the packed cabinets will have to wait (there are many interesting things in there to explore. It’s definitely going to be a treasure hunt). Anticipation of students is present.

My First Week (the King extends the Hajj break in a last minute decision so the first week is only 4 days).

First of all, lots of beards. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of fully bearded students (and faculty).

“Hi Dr. Markham!” rings through my ears as I walk through the hallway. How do they know me? I return the greetings and make my way to the classroom. All morning students pop their heads in to welcome me. “Which class do I have you in?” “Oh, I don’t have you but I just wanted to meet you and welcome you to the school!”

It’s a treat to have the students so eager to meet and welcome me. Others come in with tales of “the substitute” and how “she didn’t have us do ANYTHING” as if to prepare me for their lack of progress in my absence. 

Their greetings warm my heart and their excuses make me smile. Many come from Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other areas of the Middle East. Even those who were born or raised in the U.S.A. have arabic origins and present with names like Abdul, Omar or Mohamed. 

They are typical, delightful teenagers and it is clear, they will work their way into my heart! They are why I am here. They are what will give me purpose and satisfaction. Rapidly my classroom fills with life and energy.

We are on a rotating block schedule so I see each class every other day. Thus, the first two days are filled with trying to calm the chaos of my absence, sorting assignments, learning names, and establishing rapport. You’d think it would be easy to recognise and learn the names of the few non-middle eastern students but I still struggle to differentiate Joshua, Justin, and Jason. 

How quickly beards and scarves become the norm. Very few wear the abaya in school but many students and teachers wear head-covering. I have a colleague who compiles stunning color combinations of scarves and clothing. I worry that she’ll catch me staring but I am entranced with her elegance.

It's so busy that there isn't much time with my science colleagues. However, it is apparent that our one lab room is overbooked. So, to reduce stress in our department and on our lab assistant, I create a "mobile lab" with a funky cart found tucked away in the chemical store room. I'm proud of this gem that will allow me more flexibility in doing lab work with the students.

It’s so strange to have had 6 weeks of communication with students but to still not know them. It’s unsettling and leaves me feeling a bit out of sorts and fiercely missing my old school and my former colleagues.

However, during days 3 and 4, faces and names are becoming familiar. Personalities and learning styles are emerging. During an introductory lab my groove begins to appear. And there it is, the warmth. That creeping into the heart. My love for these teenagers is beginning to blossom. And as the the weekend approaches, I am looking forward to a new week.

Freedom in Western Escapes

“No pictures! No pictures!” he shouts as he frantically waves his hands and approaches me.

“Just my snorkelling gear. No people!” In affirming the subject of my photo, I'm hoping to assuage his anxiety.

“No camera. No camera.” His curls are tousled from swimming in the sea and then drying in the warm breeze. With continued hand and head gesticulations he blocks any view of his wife and child as if to protect them from my evil intent.

I’ve just created the ideal scene: my fins, mask and snorkel artistically arranged on a rock ledge with the Red Sea stretching out behind. The snorkel gear would be in focus and the rocks and sea would be a blurry nostalgic background. It was to be the perfect reminder of this glorious day. 

Just hours before, the snorkel gear enabled me to slide into the refreshing waters of the Red Sea and discover, just steps away from the beach where we swam, a pristine coral reef alive with diverse and colourful marine life. Floating there and looking down 25 meters along the reef through the clear waters into the undersea world was a true escape from the heat, humidity, cement, rubble, constantly humming air conditioners, and rules of my new life. 

But here this agitated man is reminding me of more rules! I can’t even take a picture of snorkelling gear? I gather my items, without taking the picture, and stow them under the straw beach umbrella where my husband snoozes in his reclining lounge chair.

Later I notice the large “no video or still photography” signs accompanied with an image of a camera marked through with an “X”. I’m glad I didn’t insist on clicking the button on my camera for that one shot.

We are all guests at a private beach. We women have entered the premises wearing our abayas. However, once inside the gates, we immediately remove them. At other locations where women are allowed to swim, we would be required to wear head-to-toe swimming attire. But not here. We swim and enjoy the beach as we would anywhere else in the world. All afternoon families lounge, swim, and eat together in total relaxation. There are sounds of joy coming from the beach and bursts of laughter from groups seated in lounge chairs or around tables scattered throughout the property. 

It is a sense of freedom I have never before appreciated. But it is also a special privilege and no one wants official documentation of it. In all fairness, my frenetic opponent did not want his (or his family’s) picture from this location to be made public in any way. 

The burning heat on the backs of my legs (as I did not anticipate spending so much time floating on the water due to stupendous snorkelling and did not properly apply sunscreen) serves to remind me of the magnificent escape at the surface of the Red Sea this afternoon. And coming home I take a picture of my snorkelling gear on the floor of my house. Not the same but it’s the best I have. Images of vibrant coral, brilliant Bullethead Parrotfish,  pendulous Masked Puffer fish along with a host of other dazzling creatures observed today flutter through my mind. Those relaxing, peaceful moments on the sea are recollections that stay with me long into the night.

It makes me reflect on freedom. What does it mean to me to be free? Today, to me it means being able to act as I am accustomed within my cultural norms and within the laws of the land. Then, I am free.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Wearing the abaya

It is a law in Saudi Arabia that all women are properly covered when in public. For local women this means wearing a robe, or abaya, and a head scarf, or hijab. Of westerners in Jeddah it is required that we wear only the abaya.  This has been explained and well-outlined to me before we signed contracts to teach in this country. My husband has been given a robe to deliver to me with instructions to put on the abaya before exiting the plane in Saudi Arabia.

In cities throughout the world fully covered (i.e. abaya and hijab) Muslim women outside their country of origins can be seen. Thus, my expectation was to find, at the gate in New York, before boarding the plane to Jeddah, that most of the women would be covered with both abaya and hijab.

However, there are only a handful of woman wearing both abaya and hijab. Many more women are are wearing “normal clothes” i.e. a pair of pants and a shirt accompanied with a hijab. A young mother in jeans and a t-shirt is wearing a white hijab and corrals two little boys into our same row in the plane.

Twenty minutes before landing in Jeddah,  I contemplate getting into the robe. I reach down to the bottom of my Egyptian tent-maker bag and feel the silky abaya rolled up under my computer like a sausage. Secretly, I fear feeling foolish once I don the robe. Since no other women have made an effort to put on the black abaya, I busy myself with a scrabble game hoping these last few minutes of flight will quickly pass. At one point I look up and am astonished to see that the young mother of the two boys has pulled on a black abaya and has switched her white hijab for a black one and added a veil that falls from the bridge of her nose and covers the lower half of her face (I believe it’s called a Niqaab). In fact, her transformation is so extreme that it is by her boys I actually identify her.

In looking around it is apparent that other women have exchanged their lighter abayas and hijab for black. A few, but not all, have added the Niqaab. Non-Saudi arabic women choose to wear black but most of the westerners remain in lighter colored abayas. I resist putting on my abaya until we have landed and it’s time to exit the plane.

The abaya slips on easily and I snap the buttons down the front, closing the abaya around my body.  Indeed, I feel somewhat foolish. My 14-year old, Skyler, eyes me skeptically and I wonder what it’s like for him to see his mother so clad.

We step out onto the stairs descending from the plane to the bus that will take us to the terminal. The heat and humidity take my breath away and by the time I reach the bus I am sweltering. Immediately I am grateful that it is not expected of me to cover my head and face. 

The air conditioning in the airport is a relief from my short foray in the afternoon sun and makes wearing the abaya tolerable. As Steve deals with our lost baggage, Skyler and I have plenty of time to observe people passing through the airport. The women interest me most. First of all, black is definitely the dominant color. Of the women clad in black, there are different levels of facial covering. A few women have elegantly draped Hijabs that allow for their entire face to be seen. For some the face is completely shrouded in black. Referring to women completely enveloped in black, Skyler remarks, “Mom, you could opt for that technique where you just drape the veil over your face and don’t bother wrapping it”. He seems to perceive the burqa (or total covering) as a method of “ease” rather than a level of covering. As such women pass us, I notice several of them pressing the mesh closer to their face so they can see. Some also wear black gloves. None of them have bare feet (even if wearing sandals they have black socks on). Many women have either the Niqaab, covering the lower portion of their faces or the burqa, cloaking the entire face. Near us a women is eating a snack. She places a hand under her veil and pushes it out from her face a sufficient distance to allow herself to bring the food to her mouth. Her face and hands remain completely covered.

Of the non-black abayas there is a diverse ranges of styles, colors, and fabrics. Some of them look outright comfortable and I make a silent note to self to secure myself a lightly coloured abaya made out of linen or other lightweight fabric. If I plan to be out and about I think it will be worth finding a way to increase my comfort level in the heat.

Once again I feel ludicrous as I stumble over my robe in an effort to manipulate a piece of luggage onto the conveyor belt of the scanning machine at the airport’s exit. I notice none of the other women are handling baggage and I follow their example by simply standing by the cart as my husband places and retrieves all of our suitcases on and from the conveyor belt.

At our new home once again I flounder in my abaya as I try to push our suitcases up the sidewalk. Realizing I am not obligated to wear the abaya on the compound, I shed myself of it and enjoy the freedom of being able to help with our baggage.

The next morning I wear my abaya to take take passport photos and undergo medical examination for my iqama (residence permit). There are three of us: another new hire and our woman escort who is helping us out. While waiting for our photos we decide to walk a couple of blocks away to a Starbucks for some refreshment. We question our decision to walk (instead of asking the driver take us) as the sun’s rays bake us beneath our black abayas. After ordering my mango/passion fruit smoothie I follow the other new hire upstairs to the “women’s section”. Both of us trip on our robes on the way up.

I’ve only been here one day and I already find myself debating whether I want to do a certain activity based on whether I need to put on the abaya. YIKES. Steve and I pride ourselves in getting to know and enjoying our host country by immersing ourselves in local tradition and discovering local history, culture, and sites. In order to do this here, I will need to embrace wearing the abaya. I’m going to have to get my mind around this one! There is comfort in observing my western colleagues, already living in Saudi Arabia for over a year, at ease and comfort in their abayas. Maybe it won’t be so bad!

And no, it is not required to wear the abaya while on site at the school. At least while teaching, this burden of apparel will not be mine!