Most educators will agree that a school’s success is largely dependent on its staff, in particular, its educators. Al Muna Primary School has been lauded as one of the top private schools in Abu Dhabi. This particular accolade is well deserved since the school’s staff is representative of some of the best teachers in the UAE.
Teach UAE Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Katie Corr and Jane Langton of Al Muna Primary, who came highly recommended for their innovative work with what they have named Desert Schools.
Katie Corr is a native of Birmingham, England whose family connections in the UAE made her decision to move here a bit easier. It also helped that she was given the opportunity to move abroad with what she describes as a fast growing company, the prestigious Aldar Academies. Her love for teaching coupled with a great school that allows her to explore her creative ideas in the classroom have resulted in fruitful learning opportunities for her students and practical experience worth sharing with other educators.
Jane Langton, also from England, brings a lovely energy and much enthusiasm to her students and all whom she meets. She became a teacher because she really wanted to change people’s lives and so far, she has been doing just that. Jane has been in the UAE for four years. Her extensive experience in education and ability to work well with her colleagues have made her a wonderful collaborator and innovator, one from whom a lot more great work is expected.
Tell us about the Desert Schools Project. What motivated you to start it?
Katie: Our Desert Schools project started two years ago. It came about as a way of enhancing our curriculum. Our Principal, Mr Howsen is always encouraging us as teachers to strive to be creative with our lessons. We took on the challenge and came up with the idea of using the local environment for children to learn outside of the classroom in the great outdoors. We wanted to make our lessons practical and memorable thus the desert school project was born. We also wanted to cater to the different needs of our students because we realised that not all students learn best by just sitting in a classroom, some of them need to be actively moving and engaged in practical real life activities. We set up the project for a trial period to start with. We started with children in year one visiting Desert Schools and bringing literacy activities that were linked to our topics to the beach at Al Bateen, which is where the project began.
Jane: I became part of Desert Schools this year. I work with FS2 (Foundation Stage 2 or Kindergarten). We decided to do a project linking two age groups. Our motivation for that was particularly to develop confidence in the children by creating a peer-buddy system. So year 3 classes, which are Katie’s classes, are working with the FS2 classes as partners. The setting-up of the peer-buddy system encouraged the year 3 senior students to take on a sense of responsibility in helping the younger children to do their learning in the outdoor environment.
Katie: We also wanted to engage them further in language. We wanted to encourage effective verbal communication, which is one of the key priorities of the school this year. This is why the project fitted so well with older children acting as peer buddies for the younger ones.
What were some of the challenges of the project and how were these dealt with?
Katie: One of the challenges was with establishing the peer partners. We weren’t sure of what the outcome would be. Previously, we had only done it with the same age group in the same class. So the challenge was not only setting it up, but also to see whether the Year 3s would be up to the challenge, as well as how the FS2 students would relate to an older child working with them. It required that the Year 3s be in charge and facilitate their learning at the beach.
Jane: One of the ways in which we addressed this issue was to allow the classes to spend time with each other prior to taking them to the beach. This gave the students the opportunity to get to know their partners. At the beginning of each session, we included activities to foster the bond that was needed. These activities included shadowing their partners for a day.
Katie: They played the “Mirrors” game as well. At the end of each session, they were given a reflection time, so that they could talk to each other about what they had learned for the day, their experiences and what they did. There was a lot of talking involved. In the end, they became quite close friends.
What guidance did you offer to the students during the project?
Katie: We acted as facilitators mainly. We ensured that they were on task by using little prompt questions at different points. We didn’t want to be too fully involved once they were out there because we had already spent a lot of time doing the preparation with them.
Jane: Each time we went to the beach, the students had specific activities that they were involved in. They knew beforehand what they had to do. We were enabling them as ‘buddies’.
Were there any surprises? If yes, what were these and how did they affect the next steps that you took with the project?
Katie: One of the surprises was the success of the peer buddies. We were very pleased by the outcome.
Jane: It really took off. We did it as a trial because there are three classes in Year 3 and FS2. It worked really well so now we are thinking about expanding it!
Katie: The Year 3 was up for the challenge and the FS2 students showed a lot of independence. That was really good.
What is the short-term impact of the project?
Katie: The short term impact is to have creativity in the curriculum, bringing the learning outdoors. One of our key focuses was obviously celebrating UAE culture and making children from many different cultures here aware of where they are from. It is so important especially coming up to 43rd National Day.
Jane: Do you want to give her an example of an activity that we did?
Katie: Yes, we used Andy Goldsworthy [British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist] and his images of what he creates with his art. Andy creates site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings. This gave the students a similar opportunity to create their own art at the beach.
Jane: They used pebbles, shells and sticks and created a montage similar to work done by Andy. They were really inspired. We were excited to watch them as they worked and also by their end product.
What is the long-term goal of the project?
Katie: It started in Year One and it’s been two years. We escalated it to Year 3 and FS2. I would say the long- term impact is that it is sustained in the system throughout the school. We hope that other year groups will get involved and be able to enhance their learning outside of the classroom. We also hope it can have an impact for EAL learners in speaking and listening as well as improving their vocabulary. Hopefully it will be something they will remember from Primary school, that they went to desert schools.
Jane: I think that other year groups will take it up next year. It’s been successful in Year One, with Year 3 and FS2 and so now many other classes throughout the school will do it. Another long-term impact is that this is an Aldar school and Aldar training for professional development is done throughout all the academies. As a result of the success of this project, we are going to do some training workshops with teachers in all the other academies. We hope to share the practice and that they will also benefit from doing a similar project.
Provide us with tips for other schools that would like to implement such a project? What resources would they require?
Katie: You have to have a creative mind and to also allow time for it in your curriculum. Jane and I have different year groups and were following different curriculums, as a result proper planning was required to ensure that the timing was right for the two curriculums to effectively work together.
Jane: We would invite persons who are interested to come with us to the beach to see how we do it. After observing they can talk it through with us and then if we are doing the trainings, they can learn more about it.
Katie: It would help to make it as cross curricular as possible. If it fits with a certain topic that a school is doing with a particular year group, it would be really good to link it to the local environment. So if they do not wish to use the beach, they can use the desert. Basically, whatever you are teaching in literacy, if you base your literacy work on a story, using a project like this can enhance the activities at the beach/ desert. So if you are doing a story on the rainbow fish, then your activities could be dramatizing a part of the story, creating nets for the fish, using puppets to inspire them in different ways. You take them out of the classroom to the outdoor setting where they can be creative and apply their skills.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
Katie: We are just looking at the Arabic department in our school with the way that they teach letters to natives and non-native learners. We are going to look at using the same style that the English curriculum encourages with using review, teach, practice and apply. We are going to explore how it’s linked, so that we can set up a peer buddy system with the Arabic department, the school and the Western teachers so that its successfully integrated.
There are many ways of stimulating the learning process in students. A change of environment has certainly proven to be useful in facilitating creativity, student engagement and improving the social skills of the students who participated. Both teachers are very enthusiastic about the progress that their classes have made in the desert schools. With educators like Katie and Jane, Al Muna Primary School will continue to shine.