A snapshot of Ms Alona's Neighbourhood.
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A snapshot of Ms Alona's Neighbourhood.
A snapshot of Ms Alona’s Neighbourhood. (Photo Credit: Ms Alona Ballard)

After four years of teaching kindergarten and sharing a room with a partner teacher, I was delighted to make the transition into teaching Cycle 1 for the 2014-15 school year.

Before I made my first visit to the new school, Ain Jaloot in Al Bahya, Abu Dhabi, I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found was delightful.

This new space immediately reminded me of the infamous text, ‘Last Lecture’ by the late Randy Pausch (its subtitle was ‘Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’).

In it, the computer science professor recalls the dreams he achieved and how he did it. He also urges his audience to enable others to achieve their childhood dreams. One quote from that lecture really stands out for me. Pausch, who had painted everything from a quadratic formula to a submarine on his walls in his childhood home said, “If your kids want to paint their bedroom, as a favour to me, let them do it.”

While walking the hallways for an initial tour, I saw something that I had never seen at my former school, or any other school for that matter. Words, written on a wall — with a sharpie! At that moment I knew I was in the right place.

“Is it okay if I paint on the walls in my classroom?” I asked my Head of Faculty kind of sheepishly. I knew that an affirmative response would mean something magical was about to happen.

“Sure, no problem,” she said.

Now with the go-ahead, I headed to Ace Hardware and bought cans of paint in the primary colours as well as black and white. I painted on the walls a baqala, a McDonald’s, a bank branch and an ATM. These are places the students and/or their parents encounter daily.

In the McDonald’s, we role-play good manners in a store, placing an order and paying for the meal. We count chicken nuggets, burgers and fries in our math lessons. In the baqala, we do more of the same. Our bank branch and ATM are also popular. Students know that their ability to count to 100 will make them a manager. Also, in the bank I have a debit card with each child’s picture on it. Behind it is the money of their checking account. When a child is naughty, I take away five dirhams. They can earn it back by doing great work. Our ATM accepts real dirham coins and the children know that this is our savings for things we need in the class.

As I worked on my project, I was inspired to do even more. I created “Miss Alona’s Neighbourhood,” the series. This features regular video presentations that demonstrate the activities in the class to extend the lessons into the home, and ultimately the entire community. These can be found at www.vimeo.com/MissAlonaUAE.

I was heartened by the positive reactions that the project got from the students, parents, administration and my colleagues. I intend to study the students so as to discern whether or not those who watch Miss Alona’s Neighbourhood achieve more in meeting the objectives.

Every teacher has his or her own unique philosophy on how learning is best achieved. These philosophies may be rooted in what best works for them as a learner. I believe that learning should be fun for the students. Miss Alona’s Neighbourhood allows my students to learn each day in an environment that is designed for them to have fun.

It is said that ‘experience is the best teacher’. This means that I am in a unique position to be the mastermind behind organic real-life experiences that my students encounter inside my classroom.

Could this model that I have created become the standard for the 21st century classroom? Is this implementation of aspects of students’ experiences outside the classroom being used to facilitate their learning of the various subjects, one of the keys to shaping critical thinking?

I hope so. This is the essence of Miss Alona’s Neighbourhood.

By Alona Ballard

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