Students at Our Own English High School in Al Warqa, Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News archives

Dubai: Select private schools are expected to pair up with a “twin” Emirati school this year for the ‘Year of Tolerance’ programme in the UAE, a senior educator said on Monday.

Deema Al Alami, vice-president for Arabic language and Islamic studies at GEMS Education — the UAE’s biggest private school group with some 50 schools in the country — told Gulf News that two GEMS schools have already paired up with their Emirati twins under a pilot run of the programme, launched by government officials.

Besides the two schools — GEMS Wellington International School in Dubai and GEMS Winchester School in Fujairah — Al Alami expects more GEMS schools, as well as other private schools, to follow suit in a nationwide rollout of the programme.

Under the programme, students from every paired schools will visit each other to learn about their diverse nationalities and cultures. Expat students will learn about Emirati culture and school life in state schools, while Emirati students will learn about their foreign counterparts in private schools.

The development follows the declaration of 2019 as the ‘Year of Tolerance’ in the UAE, after the ‘Year of Zayed’ in 2018.

Tolerance Garden

Al Alami, who is leading Year of Tolerance programme in GEMS schools, said the two GEMS schools are “also the first ones in the UAE” to establish a ‘Tolerance Garden’. “We’re the first ones to so do in the UAE. Every Garden will include plants from the UAE and from the countries where the students are from. If those plants are not available, some other artefacts representing the countries will take their place. Students will have the opportunity to sit together and enrich their understanding of each other,” Al Alami said.

Extra-curricular activities

The majority of learning and teaching for the Year of Tolerance will take place outside the classroom, as extra-curricular activities, she added. For example, GEMS Dubai American Academy has put up a ‘Wall of Tolerance’ on which students post messages, pictures and artwork relating to any “act of tolerance” they witness someone doing, Al Alami said. Also, GEMS Modern Academy in Dubai recently held a student performance involving poetry to reflect on values of tolerance.

Also in the pipeline are guest speakers on the topic of tolerance; community outreach programmes to children with special needs, construction workers, and others.

“It’s not easy to teach ‘tolerance’ inside the classroom from a book, especially to younger children, because their understanding of it, and its definition can be abstract. Tolerance has to be taught everywhere, in the playground, at home, in the local community, through activities and projects.”

She added: “It’s not about having 60 minutes of a tolerance class. We’re approaching this in every single interaction, from how the principal says good morning, how teachers talk to each other and how students behave.”

Al Alami also said parents are an “integral part” of the Year of Tolerance and they will be enlisted in many of the school activities.

Closing ceremony

“What has been really good is that we’re coming out of the Year of Zayed, and one of the qualities of late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan [the UAE’s founding father] was his tolerance towards everyone in his community and beyond. So students have learnt and practised this quality and we will carry this even further now.”

Al Alami’s comments followed the closing ceremony of the Year of Zayed for GEMS schools, held on Monday at GEMS International School in Al Khail, Dubai. The event announced the winners of its network-wide Year of Zayed Competition.

Dino Varkey, CEO of GEMS Education, said: “The UAE is as much a part of the fabric and identity of GEMS Education as GEMS is a part of the UAE … We are proud to have played a part in helping to highlight and continuing this great leader’s legacy, which lives on in the actions and behaviours of all involved at GEMS Education.”

Cash prizes worth Dh22,000 were awarded to the top three projects, with first place going to GEMS Modern Academy’s Tilly the Turtle Project, second place going to GEMS Millennium School — Sharjah’s Triumph Project, and third place awarded to GEMS International School — Al Khail’s Smiles4Zayed Project.

How schools can teach tolerance

■ Hold student exchange programmes with other schools so children can learn about each other’s backgrounds

■ Invite inspiring guest speakers to talk to students about acts, values and champions of tolerance

■ Take students to nearby construction sites, to centres for people with special needs, and other venues so they can appreciate the diversity in their local community

■ Create a physical space dedicated to talk about and share stories of tolerance and pay tributes in writing and through artworks towards doers of tolerant acts

■ Involve teachers, parents, and principals to lead by example