Category Archives: School

The shiny city of Dubai

The shiny city of Dubai

Every four or five years, certain educators who don’t have enough to do and want to feel important get together to “revise” either the curriculum, the standards or the basic methods of how to teach. Last week, I was sent to Dubai to attend an educational training centred around the newest iteration of the “Middle Years Program” which is being adopted by many international schools.  I had only been to Dubai on lay-overs when changing planes, so I was excited to be able to see a bit more of the city.

I had been booked into a hotel called “Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate” a 5-star hotel a bit outside the city.


Since I am usually a traveler on a budget who stays in hostels where you have to make your own bed, bring your own towels and share a bathroom down the hall, this was quite a treat.  As the cab drove up to the entrance, one person leaped to open the car door for me and another took my bag to bring it up to my room.  The hotel had a huge lobby and atrium  decorated with Arabic themes and lighting.  There were a number of restaurants, a couple of fountains, a roof-top pool, plenty of places to sit and a fairly extensive coffee bar.  Oh, and several life-size statues of camels.

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When I got up to my room, I found that the large flat-screen TV was on with a message, which welcomed me by name to the hotel and to Dubai and informed me that if I needed anything – anything at all – I had only to ask.  The room was spacious and cool and the bathroom had both a waterfall shower and a large tub, plenty of towels of all sizes, slippers and a bathrobe.  In addition,  there was a bidet and also a sprayer attached to the toilet so you could be sure that your bottom bits were sparkling clean.  (Every toilet in Dubai had these sprayer-attachments, including the ones in the malls and the airport.  Apparently, the people of the UAE  like be sure that they have very clean tushies.)

I had taken an overnight flight, so I availed myself of the shower and then a substantial nap.  When I arose, I was ready to try to see a little bit of the city.  I had a lovely latte in the coffee bar downstairs and then grabbed a taxi to the nearest stop on the “Big Bus” tour.  This cost about twice the amount of any other “Big Bus” tour I have taken – Dubai is a very expensive city!

The tour had a choice of 10 languages.


Dubai is both the name of the Emirate (there are seven Emirates in the UAE) and the name of the city.  It is not the capital of the United Arab Emirates (the capital is Abu Dhabi) but it is the largest in population and has become somewhat of a world hub of commerce and culture. Although the economy was originally built on the oil industry, the emirate’s main revenues now come from tourism, aviation and real estate.  It is likely the most “westernised” city in the UAE.

The skyline of Dubai is known for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, in particular the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. There are also man-made islands and some of the largest shopping malls in the region and the world.

It is a very shiny city, with lots of glass and steel.  I also noticed that the architecture includes curves and angles not common to western cities.

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The metro system is fairly new (and also quite shiny.)  It was easy to navigate, cheap (less than $2.00 from one end to the other) and spotlessly clean.  The tracks and stations were purpose-built and are fully automatic.  It was first opened in 2009 and has been extended since that time. The stations are pod-like and looked to me like some kind of fantastic beetle, although I have since discovered that the shiny exterior was meant to evoke the ancient trade of pearl-diving, which sustained Dubai before the discovery of oil.  There is a very interesting article on the design and construction of the metro system HERE. 


One of the stops on the Big Bus was an indoor “souk” or market.  Usually these are outside, or a group of individual stores, but this one was self-contained.  What struck me was how incredibly colourful it was.  I didn’t buy anything…but I sure enjoyed looking.

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We went out onto the island of Palm Jumeirah.  This is a fully man-made island in the shape of a date palm tree.  Here is what it looks like from the air:


There is a tunnel from the top of the “palm tree” to the arches that serve as a break from the sea.  There are highly-desirable villas and apartments on the “palm fronds” and a ridiculously expensive hotel  called “The Atlantis”  on the curved breaks.  The entire island was built using sand sprayed up from the ocean floor and with ecological sustainability in mind.  It was pretty fantastic, actually.

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There was construction of a planned extension to the metro going on.


Dubai is known for its malls.  A mall is a mall is a mall, but being Dubai, these malls were a bit…well…shinier.  The one near my hotel had a theme.  The Ibn Battuta Mall was across from my hotel.  Ibn Battuta was a 14th-century Moroccan explorer and scholar known for his extensive travels.  Over a period of thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of the known Islamic world as well as many non-Muslim lands.

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The mall is “themed” according to the countries he visited and there was an interesting exhibit in the very centre, describing many of the inventions and discoveries made in the Arab world during this time.  It struck me that although I consider myself well-educated and certainly well-read, I had never before heard of this great adventurer and explorer.


It was a bit incongruous to see so many western-based stores smack up against Arabic culture, dress and decor.  There was a huge 14-screen movie complex right in the middle of the mall…surrounded by an ancient sailing ship and a guy on a life-size elephant.  And behind the elephant, there was a Cinnabon.  The food court had American chain restaurants as well as more traditional fare, and there were people in all kinds of dress – from traditional Arabic robes and full burka to women in shorts and halter-tops (although these are supposedly discouraged.)  I watched one traditionally-dressed father sit exhausted at a table covered with McDonald’s wrappers while his two little girls shrieked and played with balloons until his burka-wearing wife returned with a huge shopping bag and berated him for allowing the girls to run wild.

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Although Dubai is less restrictive about dress than some other Arabic cities, you still see plenty of women dressed in full hijab, some with just a head-covering and some with the veil that hides the entire face except for the eyes.  Westerners who visit Dubai do not wear the head coverings, but my colleagues who worked at schools in some other places in the UAE like  Ajman and Sharjah told me that almost everyone wears an abaya there – you feel out of place without one.  “Abaya” means “cloak” and is a garment you wear over your regular clothes.  These can be quite fashionable. Here’s one designed by Louis Vuitton!
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To be honest, I can see the attraction of covering up.  You never have to worry about a bad hair day, or about someone leering at you, or feeling too “fat.”  You don’t have to worry about how you sit, how you walk or if you’ve got your make-up on.  And in the bright, hot sun, it make sense to cover your head – I had a light-weight scarf that I used when walking.

Black is the common colour for hijab amongst Arab women (although the Hindu women wear brighter colours) and I saw an advertisement posted in the ladies room for a product designed to “Keep your blacks really black!”  Some women also decorate their “blacks” with sparkly sequins and glittery stones. I also saw a young woman in the bathroom sitting on the counter, her head scarf pushed off, talking on her iPhone and smoking a cigarette!


The Dubai Mall was about three times as large as the Ibn Battuta.  This place had a merry-go-round and full-sized dinosaur skeleton in it.  Also an aquarium.  A full-sized aquarium.  In the mall.


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There were some fantastical glass statues and sculptures as well as decorative windows and passageways.

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The Big Bus took us down into the older part of the city, with smaller stores and residential areas.  There is a creek which flows through Dubai and is the life-blood of the city.  You could take a water-taxi (an “abra”) across to the other side.  Boats and barges were lined up with their wares stacked on the shore.  Traffic signs were in English and Arabic (as almost everything is in Dubai) and although Arabic is the “official” language, most people also have at least some English.  In listening to conversations and announcements on the trains, I realised how many English words come from the Arabic language.  Some common ones: algebra, cotton, zero, spinach, sofa, orange, mummy, lemon, giraffe, candy, artichoke and alcohol…and many, many others.

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Although the air is dry in Dubai, the mid-day temperatures can get very hot.  These are air-conditioned bus stops!



I spent the next two and a half days at the Greenfield  Community School, learning the intricacies of the “new and improved” MYP, hearing buzzwords like “up-skill,” “synergistic,” “dynamic” and “standardised assessment” and trying to bite my tongue.  I did not always succeed.  However, the host school was very welcoming and the catering company had pretty good food.  And, as always, it was good to hob-nob with my fellow wizards…

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I found the people of Dubai invariably friendly, helpful and welcoming.  I did not feel out of place as a “westerner” and enjoyed exploring the incredible architecture and browsing in the malls.  I would like to return when I am not tied to a conference and spend some time down by the creek, shopping in the souks and taking an little cruise along the water.  As it was, I enjoyed sitting in the outdoor lounge on my last evening, having the “special drink of the day” and an assortments of tapas and feeling the desert breeze on my face.

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The American Commissary


Because I work at the American International School (which is part of the Embassy) I am entitled to sign up at the commissary.  I could have done this months ago (and I should have!) but this weekend, I finally decided to go and get my paperwork in.  It’s not enough to simply be American to join the commissary. You need to be a card-carrying American School teacher (and a U.S. citizen) or a direct or indirect U.S. government employee.  And they are very strict about it…if you are found buying stuff for non-members, they can kick you out of the super-sekrit club!

Getting to the Commissary is like going on a spy mission.  You have to know where it is.  It’s on a residential street, there is no sign outside the gate and it looks like somebody’s house from the outside!  You almost think you might have to know a password and secret handshake!

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The commissary is a terrific resource for Americans here.  They get four shipments a year of all of your favorite American foods/brands that you can’t get anywhere else.  You can even request certain items, or put in for a full case which gives you a discount.  (For instance, you can buy 6 bags of Starbucks coffee beans and get 10% off the price!) Although I have been pretty satisfied with what I am able to buy at the local shops, it was a real pleasure to see some “stuff” that you just can’t find here! The prices at the commissary are very reasonable and in a few cases items are cheaper than they would be at the local grocery stores.  Of course, other things are more expensive but not outlandishly so.  And it is all “duty-free” – one of the reasons they are so strict about who gets to shop here!

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Never thought I’d be so happy to see Campbell’s soup…or decent paper towels!  (The paper towels here are more like thin toilet paper.)

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And honest-to-god laundry detergent and household cleaners!


They also rent DVDs – TV shows and movies.  $2.50 a day, but if you rent on a Friday, you can keep it all weekend!


They have a great selection of liquors and beers…however, teachers are not allowed to purchase these!  Apparently, these are considered “luxury” items and everyone knows teachers don’t need any luxury!  (I tried to tell the guy who runs the commissary that booze is a necessity for teachers…he laughed, but wasn’t moved.)  So all I was able to do was look with great longing.

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I left with about $70 worth of items…and plans to make a tuna-fish casserole.
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(On the way home, I was waylaid at the stop light and ended up buying 5 beautifully ripe avocados and some grapes the size of golfballs…)


I am glad I finally joined the commissary – my only regret is that now I am likely to spend more money on things I didn’t even realize I was missing!

ISSEA Band Festival in Zimbabwe!


“ISSEA” stands for “International Schools of Southern and Eastern Africa” and they are responsible for coordinating and organising events for the various International Schools.  Previously, all the events were sporting activities – soccer, basketball, volleyball and etc…but this year, for the first time, there was a “cultural” event.  A concert band festival.

Never mind that half the schools involved don’t even HAVE bands, or that it would have been MUCH easier to start with choir or even drama.  The committee that met last year decided that starting with band would be much more spectacular and draw more of a crowd.  So, all the member schools had to scramble around to find “band members.”  Even if they didn’t have a band.

We had exactly two kids in the high school who could play an instrument and were willing to put in the practice time necessary.  Here they are!

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They joined with 70+ kids from seven different schools and more than 50 different countries to create the first-ever ISSEA Band.  And to be fair, the end result really was spectacular.

The kids were all housed with host families…and the accompanying teachers were put up at a very nice place call the Bronte Garden Hotel.  I was impressed.  The rooms were comfortable and spacious and the grounds were lovely, with a wonderful collection of Shona sculpture throughout.  Zimbabwe is known for its fine stone and many local artists create works made from it.

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There was also a restaurant and bar with excellent food and great service and a lovely pool.  It was really nice to meet up with other band/music teachers.  Next year, there will also be a drama and art festival and some of those teachers were also there to help plan the 2015 events.

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The first day, we all gathered at the Harare International School’s performing arts centre.  We got the kids situated  and (sort of) tuned and launched into the first piece.

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It was dreadful.  We wondered what we had done…had we expected too much?  Should we cut some of the selections?  Shorten some of the pieces? However, by the end of the day –  after sectionals and some rigorous rehearsal…the cacophony had started to sound like a band.  We were very fortunate in having section leaders who knew their instrument and also knew how to teach it.

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The next day, kids could take workshops from some local musicians.  They included mbira (also called kalimba – a “thumb piano”) marimba,  jazz improv and drumming.

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There were also some impromptu performances by the locals.


There were seven selections for the concert and each music teacher had the opportunity to conduct one of them.  Here I am, rehearsing “Invocation and African Dance.”  I had a great time – I haven’t conducted a band since I left ACS in England!

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By the time Saturday night rolled around, the band was ready!  Everyone wore their ISSEA Band t-shirts (complete with the  host school “Warthog” mascot on the front playing a variety of instruments) and the superintendent made a lovely speech.  Our concert was very well-received and everyone had good reason to be proud.

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There was supposed to be a live feed of the concert, but as is typical for Africa, the internet connect went out.  At some point, the entire concert is supposed to be uploaded to Facebook and when they finally work out the glitches, I will share it.  However, a video will not convey the fun, excitement and sense of accomplishment that was palpable in the room.

Meanwhile, here is a slide show put together by the media team!

There will be another Band Festival next year (probably in Johannesburg) and we are also adding Choir.  It should be a blast!

Christmastime in Zambia…no snow, but plenty of cheer!


Christmas was “invented” (if you will) in the northern hemisphere.  The long, cold, dark nights of December cried out for light.  The pagans already celebrated the winter Solstice with great gusto (fires, candles, dancing, feasting and general revelry) and so, knowing a good thing when he saw it,  after the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s favored religion, he then decided that December 25 made a great day to celebrate the birth of Christ. 

And so we who live north of the equator tend to associate Christmas with cold and snow and candles and evergreen trees.  We have Christmas songs about “in the bleak mid-winter” and Santa’s sleigh in the the snow and dashing through the snow and “White Christmas.”

When Christianity moved south, so did the holidays associated with it.  And, as incongruous as it may be, so did the traditions.  Even though it is the height of summer here, people put up evergreen trees, hang lights, Santa arrives dressed in boots and furs, there are reindeer sleighs and songs about a “White Christmas.”  Never mind that most Zambians have never seen a single snowflake or experienced temperatures much below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Christmas is irrevocably linked to the winter. 

So, the decorations go up at the malls.

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There was even a huge tree made out of green plastic bottles – a joint effort by several companies to encourage recycling.


And the InterContinental Hotel put out a call for carolers.  I brought my 6th, 7th and 8th graders (on three separate days) to sing “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “Silent Night” in the lobby.  We had a great time.

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Our singing was well received….even though they didn’t give us any Christmas cookies or punch, as is supposed to be traditional for carollers!

And now…I am on my way to the airport and in 24 hours, will touch down at JFK – where I hear there is actually some snow and the temperatures are decidedly frosty. 

I’m looking forward to it!

United Nations Day


October 24 is “United Nations Day” and we, as an international school, were of course bound to celebrate it!  (Pictures by Heather PIllar…click to enlarge! )

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I have celebrated UN Day before, both in the USA and at my UK school…but it has never felt like this.  Our school has students from 53 different countries.  For UN day, everyone – from the 2-year-old “play school” students to the 18+ year old seniors, gathered in the gym.  Everyone was seated by country.  Many students were dressed in traditional dress from their country or had their faces painted in the colors of their flag.  Some of the elementary students had hand-made flags to wave; some had painted their faces.

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There was a parade of countries, similar to the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  Selected students carried their country’s flag and everyone cheered as they walked into the gym.

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Finally, it was time for Zambia, our host country.  There was a huge cheer…and my little “orchestra” was ready.  We played the Zambian National Anthem as everyone sang with great gusto!  (That’s me on the clarinet.) The rest of the “orchestra” consists of a trombone, a violin, a snare drum, a rhythm  guitar and another clarinet. Hey, it’s a start!  We also had a vocalist.

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The student council president spoke, and there was some traditional Zambian drumming and dancing!

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We also had a surprise visit from the AISL mascot (a leopard!) as we prepared to host the upcoming ISSEA Volleyball Tournament.

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We left the gym to partake of a feast – an “international food festival.”  I have to say that the parents oputdid themselves…I have never seen so much food!  Each table was labeled with the country or area and there was plenty for all!

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It was a great way to start our October break!  I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work at this school!

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“24 Hour Drama”



Besides hanging around at various Zambian locales and investigating the flora and fauna, I also work!  I teach music, and I am fortunate to be working with a drama director with lots of experience, plenty of energy, an enormous amount of creativity and a healthy dose of insanity.

This past weekend was the annual “24 Hour Drama” event.

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About 50 middle-school students (grades 6 – 8) descended upon the Performing Arts Center at exactly 7:00pm Friday evening and were greeted by about 10 High School drama students, who would be their teachers and guides for the next 24 hours.

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The kids were divided into three groups for warm-ups, brainstorming, discussion of themes and plots, various theater games and finally, creating, rehearsing and performing an original short play for their parents and friends on the following evening.

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In between, they would eat, swim in the pool, drink plenty of water and (at some point) sleep.

I showed up Saturday morning to check out the scene and take a few pictures.  Everyone was into the “brainstorming” phase, which included lots of physical activity and movement.

When I returned that evening, the motley groups had been transformed.  Now they were in “costume” and focused, ready to go on stage with their premiere performances.

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I was very impressed.  Each little play had a theme, a plot, an over-all “message” and every single student was involved.  Some had choreography and singing, too. From chaos had come order – and it was all their own work (with a big boost from the High School students, who looked only slightly bleary at the end!)




Hats, hats, hats…



Every primary student (up to Grade 5) at the school is required to wear a hat when outside for lunch or recess.  If they don’t, they are restricted to a small shaded area.  The Zambian sun is very hot mid-day and kids could easily get sunstroke.  Copious water-drinking is also encouraged.  Most teachers also don a hat and carry a water bottle when outside.

When I was on a break the other day, the array of hats on the playground was so colourful that I thought I’d snap a few pictures.  Some of the kids were happy to pose for me, showing off their chapeaus.

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The older kids have no such restrictions – presumably they have enough brains to stay hydrated and out of the sun on their own.  And for the most part, they do!  The campus is open and there are plenty of ready-made places to sit for lunch, or study or a giggle with your friends.

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The First Day of School


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I have been teaching for almost 40 years and the first day of school is still filled with a special kind of excitement and anticipation that is like no other.

The American Embassy School where I work in Lusaka has over 500 students from “play school” (age 2)  up through  grade 12 (age 18+)  from more than 40 different countries.   This year, almost 25% of the students were brand new to the school and many came with anxious parents trailing behind them, making sure they found their classroom, checking their book-bags for supplies and lunch, cornering the teacher or principal for reassurance that the day would go well for Johnny or Susie (or Mtwalo or Sasha…)  After a brief time in advisory class or homeroom, all the students trooped down to the PAC (Performing Arts Center) for the opening assembly.

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It was quite a sight as the kids filled up the auditorium.  There was that unmistakable vibe of a new year beginning.  Students filled in with their classes – everyone from the strapping, know-it-all seniors at the back, to the teeny-tiny preschoolers at the front.   Rhythmic music played over the sound system and kids came in grinning and waving, wide-eyed and nervous, some holding hands, some of the younger ones being propelled by their teachers, some bounding into the space like they owned it.


And then the director stood up and asked everyone to stand and sing the national anthem.  My musical debut at the school, I played the piano while the student body sang with great gusto!  And then…the school year began!