It's Back to School in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

A librarian in an international school shares information about the library, her school's student population, and a lesson learned.
Back to School in

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by K. Antigone Trowbridge

In Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the end of summer is the traditional time of renewal and rebirth, when families return from their summer adventures and new people move into the region. As I begin my last term in Rutgers University’s online Master of Information program, I am also preparing to send my youngest two children to start their third year in an international private school in Abu Dhabi. As a volunteer librarian for my children’s school, I have had the pleasure of seeing the prep and background that the administration has put into creating a wholesome library environment for its students. The start of the school year always involves construction, reorganization, and an incredible number of new students to bring into the fold. In the library, it means issuing new library cards, preparing for reading level testing, familiarizing students with their iPads, assisting them as they search for resources, and planning lessons on digital citizenship, social media, research, and attribution. Most of these activities are par for the course in school libraries across the United States. Our unique wrench comes from having 1800 students from more than 80 different countries. American school librarians are familiar with helping English language learners in their pursuit to fluency. In our school, and indeed in our region, this task is especially complex as at least 45 different languages are spoken by our student body. Abu Dhabi is a city comprised of approximately 75 percent expatriates, mostly workers from South and Southeast Asia. As parents, we are spoiled when it comes to choosing a school for our children. Expat children are expected to attend international, private schools. Local families have access to public schools or may choose to pay to send their children to a private school. Where to send a child is often dictated by the family’s national origin. Parents have the option of schools using the British system, the Indian system, the French system, the German system, the American system, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) system. Students can take GCSE exams, A and O levels, IB programs, and advanced placement courses. Some parents choose a school because they care about preserving curriculum continuity for their children when it comes time for them to return home. Others select a school based on location or perceived strengths. Some choose a school because it has a place for their child. Despite the fact that more schools open every year, there is a shortage of spots for elementary-aged children. Homeschooling groups exist and help bridge that gap, but the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which manages all international schools, does not condone homeschooling. Religion-specific schools do not exist. While all elementary students take Arabic as a language course, teachers are not required to and generally do not have the time or resources to do so. Since most teachers and administrators are from the school’s curricular geographic focus, they typically do not have Arabic in their background. This presents an interesting challenge when helping students with limited English and limited familiarity with the English/Latin alphabet navigate in our building Back to school in Abu D Photo by K. Antigone Towbridge

Back to school in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by K. Antigone Trowbridge

This came to my attention recently when working with a student from northern Europe. She had been at the school for two years and had about that many years of English instruction. She was clearly still new to the language, but had been successful in immersion and she seemed fairly fluent. This student was struggling with where to locate a particular fiction title. I pointed to the fiction stacks and explained how fiction was shelved. The girl wandered over to the stacks but was clearly confused. I approached her and asked who wrote her book. We determined the author’s name, then specifically the author’s last name. (This is necessary; in our area of the Middle East the majority of professionals here are called by a title or honorific and their first name. My physician is Dr. Neil. My son’s teacher last year was Ms. Laura.) Once we determined that the surname would be the important bit of information, I then thought to ask, “Do you know what ‘alphabetical' means?” She shook her head. For two years, we in the library had been repeating location information under the assumption that by the time the children entered the primary library (grades two to five) they would know certain code words, such as alphabetical. I realized other assumptions we had might be impeding our students' success. Arabic is written right to left. Did our new English language learners understand the how and why of the physical layout of our space? Did they experience frustration because we shelved left to right? Were they aware we shelved our Arabic books using transliteration, a process that is subjective? Had we made the logic in our choices clear? Were our students familiar enough with our “Arabic numerals,” which are, in fact, not the same as their “Arabic” numerals? Because we were dealing with older primary students, we never considered the necessity of having a poster of the alphabet on display to aid in referencing the order of the letters. This oversight, when rectified, would benefit our Arabic students as well as our Chinese and Hindi readers. I am learning that students may not have a complete understanding of the words I use, even when they seem to be fairly fluent. Children (and adults) are remarkably good at keeping up appearances. I try to make it easy for our students to indicate that they need help. Now I regularly check in with them on concepts that I judged they had mastery of in the past. The key in working with our multilingual students is to recognize that they are sometimes frustrated or stymied by what appears to be easy for others, but they power on in order to preserve their dignity. It’s my goal to help these students be comfortable enough in the library to ask basic questions, and to recognize that all questions are good questions. I feel fortunate to have had this time in our school library and this setting, to better understand how important it is to examine our assumptions about the populations we work with in our professional roles. The Raha International School in Abu Dahbi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by K. Antigone Towbridge

The Raha International School in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Photo by K. Antigone Trowbridge


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