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Hybrid Learning

Some years ago, I very seriously considered taking a break from working to pursue and complete my Masters degree in literature. Unfortunately, there were two barriers: the fact that I was already earning and the independent life I had, living abroad. Not to mention that fact that I just really love what I do! Did I really want to give that up, albeit temporarily?

Haunted by memories of excessive penny-pinching as a college student (Christabel, Dominic and Denise, you know what I mean) I decided to keep my job and signed up to a distance learning MA. Despite the limitations, the course which is delivered through online resources and a massive supply of very sketchy guides, offers me the best of both worlds. Better still, I get to study anywhere I want and in time slots that best suit me.

I love being able to initiate student mode occasionally during the week or early on a weekend morning. Reading the texts or online resources gives me the thrill of learning new things and increases my love of literature and it goes without saying that this joy comes from being able to ceaselessly study what I love.

Of course, there are limits to learning this way. One major downside to distance learning is that it’s almost impossible to build friendships with classmates when you’re living in different parts of the world. Although we keep in touch through an online portal and get to see one another at our occasional module meetings, nothing creates a sense of camaraderie quite like post-lecture coffee at Lavazza or a jaunt to a local mall as you laugh raucously and discuss that moment your professor spotted you laughing at him and directed a nasty comment your way! (Yes, that happened…long story!)

So, as my first year of hybrid learning draws to an end, what are my thoughts on this distance method? For those with financial concerns about university, or with work and family commitments, it’s a great way to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and broaden your opportunities.

One of the main things I have realized along the way is that education is a lifelong journey and distance learning makes that journey so much more accessible and extremely rewarding. It’s amazing to me when I think of the magic one can do with a will to learn and an easy access to a steady WiFi connection!

On the other hand, I’ve also learned that I procrastinate way too much…like right now while I should be completing the assignments I began a few hours ago. So, enough mental meandering for today, it’s time I got back to analyzing the 21st century relevance of Dr. Faustus and his complex egocentric ways.

Bah! …English teachers…always overanalyzing! ;)


My Mind Wanders…and Wonders…

I began typing this post as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the imposing sky scrapers that dot the Sharjah skyline. The view from Qasbawhere I’m sitting is breathtaking. In front of me is the lagoon, to my right is a giant Ferris wheel and fountains and over on my left is a parking lot. Ok, maybe not all of it is breathtaking!

So here I am! Almost seven years since I first arrived here and I have not stopped since then— working, meeting people, eating, walking, learning, more eating and meeting more people. And as far as I know, as long as I live in the UAE it is going to be like this.

The sights here are surreal, and that’s the only word I can find to adequately describe this place. As I look out at the restaurants stirring back to life, the Mu’azzin’s full throated voice fills the air as he calls his brothers and sisters to prayer; Maghrib. Soft music begins to play, long tapered candles are being lit in the Turkish café across the wooden bridge and I continue to linger at my table, my fingers circling the rim of my paper-fiber coffee cup. There’s so much to see here, so many things to learn, so much to experience and I don’t think I have the language for a fitting description of it all.

Seven years is a long time to be away from home. But the UAE has grown on me and as clichéd as this might seem, it now feels like home too. Moving here was exciting, scary even – I was only 23 and while I sometime miss the structure, comfortable routine and massive social network one has at home with family, I have gained an exciting, interesting life that keeps me open-minded and on my toes, it encourages me to me make new friends and new memories here and across the globe.

I wonder though if my life turned out as it was meant to. I remember sitting in a friend’s car past midnight a week or two ago and thinking out loud. Is this it? What more does life have in store? Why does it feel like we’re all on the brink of something monumental but we don’t know what it is? Does one’s Raison d’être have to be fixed, static and one-dimensional or do we allow it to evolve, to grown and to unfold?

I know I’m babbling this evening but even this gibberish keying feels cathartic. All I’m saying really is this; I’m still searching. I’m still looking. I’m still figuring out what God has in store for me and why I’m here at this point, at this stage of my life. The questions come in torrents the answers don’t. So I wait. I Work. I plan. I do. I dream. I wonder. I and I love that I get to explore all of those opportunities here in the UAE where it feels like home even if it’s just for now.

Anyway, the city has come back to life and the tranquility of the Qasba has been supplanted with the raucous cacophony of the post- Iftar shoppers. So, time to stop ruminating and get a move on things; back to more writings and more meetings.

Everything will fall in place. It always does.
I need a coffee refill!



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Digital Detox

A little while ago I was sitting on my bed reading my daily quota (3 chapters) of Junot Diaz’s riveting novel ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’. All the while my right hand kept twitching; my mind signaling me to get up and make a grab for my smartphone or my iPad. You see ladies and gentlemen, my name is Sydney Atkins and it’s fair to say I’m a digiholic!

Virtually every hour of my day is spent with some form of technology at arm’s reach. While I am far from the worst offender of this nature, since last night I have been on a self-imposed digital detox; limiting my use of the internet to only e-mails and of course, blogging. Since 11:50 last night this experiment has been underway.

Why am I doing this? For a while I’ve been feeling the urge to try fully disconnecting to free myself from the never-ending obligations and the constant stimuli. I wanted to take a break from it all for a couple of days at least to see what happened. After all, throughout the last few years, I’ve been plugged in 24 X 7, hyperactive to my work e-mail inbox and social media notifications. The PINGS come in torrents and it’s taking me every ounce of will power to press the mute button and ignore them all.

This final push to try going sans internet came yesterday when a colleague advised us on the benefits of disconnecting and doing nothing just for a few minutes in the day. Living in a world where the line between digital and real gets blurred at times I was forced to see the significance of her words and this experiment is step one in my journey to being able to perfect the art of doing ‘nothing’, just for a few moments every day.

As you can tell by this blog post, abstaining is not an easy task! My hands feel restless without something to tap on, and I have begun to imagine my phone sending of subtle PINGS to get my attention. It’s like all the devices in my home are playing mind-games with me. I’m pretty sure this is what withdrawal symptoms must feel like.

Anyhow, in case you’re wondering why my twitter feed is silent or why I haven’t uploaded another selfie on Facebook, well now you know! I’ve got another day to go. I am fully aware that  I’m  not going to be any less of an addict on Friday morning, but I’m learning to handle the craving for my digi-highs and I’m sure it will make me appreciate my time a little more. For my twitter followers, you might want to download tweetdeck and mute my account this Friday. I have a feeling I’m going to be tweeting to make up for the 48 hours spent offline!


P.S This blog post gets shared to my twitter and Facebook feed automatically, I do not cheat.

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Silence is Overrated

‘Silence please’ is a phrase I hear about a thousand times each day. While that may be an exaggeration, you get my drift, right? Lately however I have realized that for me, silence is overrated. I don’t like a silent classroom, I don’t like the silence in the corridors when students are on leave and I most certainly don’t like silence when I’m at home.

To me this feels like a new-age problem, brought on, I believe, because of a culmination of several things. My job, my lifestyle, my friends and to an extent the time I spend online. Whenever I’m under-stimulated, such as in a quiet environment, I become instantly bored or very very lazy.

Luckily there isn’t much quietness in my life. Life is mostly noisy. I’m sitting outside a Starbucks right now there are families walking by, couples laughing and little children enjoying their evening out. I can hear a low hum of freeway traffic in the distance and some industrial moans from the crane across the parking lot as labourers work tirelessly in their evening shifts to add another imposing structure to the Sharjah skyline. Strangely, all of this is just the right amount of noise to keep the quiet away without distracting me.

I find that I am more creative and productive when there’s human background noise, such as in a coffee shop or at work each day. The trick with background noise is that I’m not interested in hearing individual conversations. I just enjoy the muffled hum of activity.

Don’t get me wrong, I love quiet solitude in proper doses too. Too little is stressful. Too much is its own kind of stress. When I need to focus for long periods of time on a solo task, I need some sort of background noise. I often play the same couple of albums over and over at low volume – but coffee shops work best! This is just me, take it for what you will.

OK then time to wrap up, I need to head home before the Barista’s decide to pour me a re-fill. Good night y’all!

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Take Time To Listen

I just got home from school about thirty minutes ago, I’m in my bed, coffee mug beside me and the radio is playing a 90’s pop ballad softly in the next room. This is probably the calmest part of my day and boy what a day it has been!

Working as a high-school teacher is (I assume) a little like being schizophrenic. I hear a hundred voices in the day. The difference is that they are mostly not in my head. It is the student whose enhancement class schedule is not quite right, the colleague who wants to discuss the ‘attitude’ of a cheeky 11th grader, the disappointed parent who writes a long email about his son still not finding good friends, the list is endless. I hear complaints and laughter, anecdotes and protests, girly talk and boy trouble and all about teenage romances!

And then suddenly, in the midst of all these voices I hear something that catches my attention. A cry for help, a colleague in need of someone who he can share with, a child who needs to confess something or a teenager facing adult problems that seem to weigh down heavily on his young shoulders. It’s in those moments when I stop hearing and begin listening instead.

At this juncture, I’m forced to reflect on how we live our lives. Are we too focused on the messages WE want to deliver, and not necessarily on the messages the people around us want us to receive? Are we just constantly talking AT our students, and not engaging them in  conversation? Do we take enough time to actually listen to the subtle hints, the cries for help or the joy that is waiting to be shared?

The last year has been eye-opening for me. I’ve realized that 21st century children have a whole new set of 21st century problems to deal with, and sometimes listening to these things leaves me down and miserable. My thoughts come like torrents. Why do children have to have bad days? Why can’t adults be more sensitive? Why can’t friends be more supportive? Why do children have to suffer?

But then when the questioning slows down, when the emotions settle a little and when there’s a moment of quietness I realize that there is a calm reassurance within; a gentle voice whispering to me and reminding me ‘that’s what you’re here for’. So I sit down and think. I plan. I organize. I pray. I remember that HE is in control and so I take one day at a time and do what I can each day, every day. And by the time the end of the year rolls around I may be worn a little thin, but I’ll end the year knowing I have done what I can, for as many as I can. And, most of the time that is enough.

Sigh! Coffee’s gone cold.

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Because Moulds Are Too Mainstream

I’m amazed by the number of young people I meet who feel they’re stuck in a limbo; caught between their dreams and a society that thrusts its dreams on them.

Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? This is a question that haunts them and us at various points, especially when the people around us are trying to constantly answer this question for us.

It is a universal truth that it is difficult and uncomfortable to be different, so why not just conform? The mold is there for a reason, right? While I can’t answer that question for you, I can tell you that the mould didn’t work for me and I continue to meet so many young people who have had that same realization but can’t do anything about it.

Growing up I was fortunate to have parents who thankfully didn’t load me with too many expectations other than having good manners and being kind and respectful towards others. I was allowed to grow and evolve into who I am today. I made my own choices. Made my own mistakes (plenty of), but I learned along the way.

Now as a teacher, I am more and more aware that the many expectations that parents hold can linger over their children in such a negative way. The general expectations have developed over time and through our culture and they are not necessarily wrong, but for children they can be quite a load to bear.

I met someone recently whose parents have just enrolled him in a course in chartered accountancy. He has no option but to attend. What he really wants, is to study film-making in the USA.

It is so sad that some parents want their children to fit into these water-tight moulds. It can be exhausting sometimes for teenagers to remain true to themselves in an environment where everyone expects them to be something else; someone that they don’t want to be.

Sadly, as long as these young people are dependent on their parents, several of them are going to have to conform, to fold, to play along in a symphony that drowns out their own voices.

I know that most parents mean well. But I think that as educators, we need to remind them that sometimes freeing their children of these expectations is as important as teaching them right from wrong, and doing so will have a profound impact on the adults they grow up to be.

To the kids who read this and say ‘hey, that’s me’, realize that you are in good company. Almost all the great people in history chose to break the mold and to walk their own path when they had the chance to. At some point you will have that chance. So be the square peg in the round hole. Colour outside the lines. Dream and pursue those dreams. After all, moulds are too mainstream.

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Normal Is Not Really My Thing

I had a very interesting conversation with someone this weekend – someone who was on a mission (or so it seemed) to make me see the sense in wanting what she called a ‘normal life’.  A life that included a very definite plan for marriage, children, buying a home and living the predictable way that everybody seems to love and want. The problem is I don’t want all of that, yet.  In fact, I really don’t know what I want just as yet and I see nothing wrong in that. But I’m pretty certain that ‘normal’ isn’t something I want my life to be.

I think when people say normal they actually mean typical or average, neither of which I’ve ever wanted to be. It has taken me years to not-fit-in and I’m not about to let that go. I’ve always been drawn to the road less traveled, the abnormal, the uncommon, the strange, the romantics, the round pegs in the square holes and the freaks.

I’ve been questioned and prodded about my choices. I never shared my friend’s interests or hobbies. Typical teenage shenanigans bored me. In fact and as far back as I can remember I have always been known to go back to what my heart really wants.

I guess people just want to feel comfortable around us and when we choose things that sort of rock their world or are different from what they think is normal, it makes them uncomfortable. Maybe it makes them question their own choices, or maybe it brings up their own desire to not fit in so perfectly. It really has very little do with us.

To assume there is a normal way of life, and to judge others is a form of denial. It’s denying the beautiful differences and freedom of choice that we have been given. It is a way of disconnecting from others and leading isolated lives. Well, that’s how I see it.

I learned long ago to live with my choices. They make me happy. I am still learning to be open to what comes to me when I ask God to lead my footsteps. I know he’s pretty unpredictable, always springing surprises and I really love it!  I am about letting go of the past and what others might want for me. I am about the round pegs in those square holes I talked about. I just wish more people saw that as sort of normal too!



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