As the only bilingual, English and Arabic, IB curriculum school in Dubai, Dar Al Marefa is committed to educating and empowering young minds, striving to create a community of curious and confident lifelong learners. With a state-of-the-art campus, designed and built from the ground up to maximise students’ potential for learning, this is a school with a very strong vision, so when Education UAE got the opportunity to speak to Principal Naira Hamdy, we jumped at it, first asking about her own background and experience in the education sector.
“I’ve been in the educational field for more than 35 years. Don’t ask me about my age because when you’re working in education you always feel young!” Naira begins. “I worked in seven other international schools before coming to UAE. At the same time, I’ve been an IB workshop leader, online facilitator and evaluator for other schools for the International Baccalaureate (IB). So I was very fortunate to visit almost all of the countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
“It was an experience that gave me a different approach to education. Ever since I began working with the IB in 1999, I have felt that this is the right programme for me as an educator. Before that, I was just teaching mathematics but instinctively felt that inquiry in mathematics was the key.
Naira is also an international speaker who specialises in working with other educators to find innovative and sustainable ways to transform teaching
Naira, who has been in Dubai since 2011, has taught elementary, secondary and higher education in a variety of subjects, including maths, science, ICT and the theory of knowledge. She has been an IB team leader, school visitor, consultant, reader, workshop leader and online facilitator in the IB community for over two decades; as well as a school inspector for the ECIS, ADEK and KHDA. Naira is also an international speaker who specialises in working with other educators to find innovative and sustainable ways to transform teaching and to model a professional learning community approach. Her areas of expertise include designing innovative learning experiences, professional learning, cultural leadership and community building.
“I joined Dar Al Marefa in 2012 because of its social culture, vision and mission, and I quickly found out how unique the school is, particularly in regard to being an IB bilingual school,” Naira says.
THINKING IN TWO LANGUAGES
The IB offers covers four programmes – PYP, MYP, DP, and CP. At Dar Al Marefa, they offer three of those – PYP, MYP and DP. “Why only IB?,” Naira asks. “It’s because we believe that IB as a philosophy is more than enough for the child to learn and be ready for life and the real world of work at the end of their education. “So although many other schools combine different systems, we took the decision not to blend the IB with any other programmes. What we were keen on, though, was offering the uniqueness of a truly bilingual approach. But this is not just learning two languages simultaneously; it’s much more. First of all, we’re talking about the cognitive ability of the student, especially in lower grades, the early years. Students come to us who are already speaking two languages, but often, two broken languages. So, how do we make them understand the requirements of fluency in a language, both English and Arabic, at the age of just three?
“What we do is unpack the whole idea with them while immersing them totally in these two languages for half of the day each. So it’s not a full day of English or Arabic, it’s a mixed bag, which helps to conserve the identity of both languages.”
There is plenty of research to show that when learning a new language at a young age, it is also possible to think in that language
Therefore, the students have experience of a language sometimes at the beginning of the day and sometimes at the end of the day, which leads to the important question, how can you extend cultural awareness in both languages? “We are learning a language, yes, but what is the culture behind that language? It is vital that students learn about this, so cultural awareness and understanding are expanded in both languages, which ultimately improves students’ grasp of the world around them as well as their career prospects,” Naira explains.
There is plenty of research to show that when learning a new language at a young age, it is also possible to think in that language, and this makes a huge difference in speaking, reading and writing. At Dar Al Marefa, students can learn a third language too in Grade 6 – Spanish or French – plus a fourth language in the diploma. Of course, other schools offer this, but the difference at Dar Al Marefa is that youngsters learn to think in those languages, a skill that should not be underestimated.
So the uniqueness of Dar Al Marefa is the vision and the mission. And by now it should come as no surprise to discover that the word ‘Dar’ means ‘home’ or ‘house’ in English, so the school name translates as ‘The House of Knowledge’.
SOME OF THE REGION’S FINEST TEACHERS
Good teachers have a profound impact on students’ academic growth. They possess the knowledge, skills, and expertise to effectively convey information and facilitate learning. They inspire students to develop a thirst for knowledge, critical thinking abilities, and problem-solving skills. Good teachers create an environment where students feel encouraged to ask questions, explore ideas, and reach their full academic potential. That’s why, at Dar Al Marefa, they are committed to attracting and retaining some of the finest educators in the region.
“We have the willingness to invest in professional development, so we are recruiting teachers who are qualified to teach IB programmes. We also recruit other teachers who are highly skilled in different systems and then provide them with the professional development required to be able to teach the curriculum,” Naira says. “The school has a whole year’s calendar that meets the needs of every teacher for professional development. And we are constantly updating and upskilling our teachers with the evolving requirements of the IB.”
EVERY CHILD IS UNIQUE
Dar Al Marefa is not only unique but also often ahead of the game, as Naira points out: “We were one of the pioneer schools in promoting the inclusion philosophy of the UAE. It is our belief that every child has the right to learn and the right to be part of a community that makes them feel supported, respected and cared about.
“One of my favourite examples of inclusion is one of our students who has been with us since Grade 8. We modified the curriculum for her until she reached the diploma programme, which is one of the most challenging programmes in the world. We fitted her needs to be able to excel in art and design, and collaborated with her chosen university so that she could move on to higher education seamlessly. If you see her art and level of production you would be amazed. I had tears in my eyes when her final art exhibition was presented in Grade 11, prior to her graduation. We have lots of stories like this, but this, for me, was one of the most fantastic,” Naira says.
“Dar Al Marefa is one of the pioneer schools in promoting the inclusion philosophy in the UAE”
Every child is a ‘genius’ at something and Dar Al Marefa provides an inimitable opportunity to find out what that ‘something’ is. It goes beyond that, though, with the school supporting students with their gifts in a way that is both inclusive and compassionate.
“In the school assembly last week, for example, it was all about all gifted students presenting their own skills, talking about their individual needs, and how they are able to integrate into the community,” Naira continues. “If they have behavioural problems, for instance, it was about how they explained the tension inside of them so that others could respect that and work with them.” Every gifted child is unique, and individualised attention is crucial for their optimal development. The school understands that it is important to foster their strengths, provide appropriate challenges, and nurture their social-emotional well-being to help them reach their full potential.
BRINGING THE COMMUNITY TOGETHER
Dar Al Marefa’s extracurricular activity programme is built on four pillars that support the academic curriculum, with Naira explaining: “We endeavour to encourage and enrich the health and well-being of students in different activities, including sports and all physical activities. Then there is innovation, creation, robotics, and everything in relation to new technology, including artificial intelligence. And finally, there are the visual arts, creativity, and anything in relation to performance. In total we have more than 150 activities across different age groups, starting from grade pre-K, which is three years of age, up until Grade 12.”
It is a very complete programme that caters to the needs of every child and modified to meet the needs of different families. “We have activities during the weekend when, for example, we invite families for a cycling event; all of them together, the father, the son – even sometimes the mother and daughter. So we are bringing the whole community together. Yes, it is about physical education and movement, but it’s also about also bringing the family together. ”
AN OPEN-DOOR POLICY
The school is currently home to 1,050 students – that’s a lot of energy and inquisitiveness! But, as Naira points out, the campus is huge … and very unique. “We are one of the only horizontal campuses in the UAE, so you’ll see no towers – it’s like a small island where all of the classrooms come together to become one community.
“We are one of the only horizontal campuses in the UAE, so you’ll see no towers – it’s like a small island where all of the classrooms come together to become one community”
“And everyone is welcome! You know, some schools think that IB is only for elite students, those who can achieve sixth and seventh in the diploma and are able to acquire all of the knowledge in a meaningful way and tackle the extended essay requirements, which are colossal. But if we’re looking at a child at the age of three who is learning two languages, we are already building a different mindset in that student. We start to model the learner profile at that age. Even so, if the student is not exceeding expectations in the first year, they have time to acquire the skills necessary to succeed, and this is how we provide an education to all of our students.
“Of course, we have to access our students’ performance and we have to have a very thorough assessment from the beginning. However, we are not only building our knowledge on summative assessment, which is well structured in our assessment calendar, we have lots of other strategies and tools inside the classroom to enable us to have enough data for formative assessment – giving tasks, testing the student’s awareness, and then providing them with another target, another goal to achieve according to their needs. So, observation, anecdotal records, and any kinds of different tasks and quizzes are taken into consideration while assessing the whole holistic approach of students.”
Finally, we asked Naira if she had any advice for people, particularly young people, arriving in Dubai for the first time. “If you’re coming to Dubai, open your ears and discover everything around you. Use your eyes, you have everything available. But maintain your own identity and show and be proud of your culture because it’s unique wherever you are from. Dubai is a very homogeneous community of different cultures, but at the same time, every student should keep their own identity and this is what we are trying to do.”
For any parents out there who would like to get in touch with Dar Al Marefa, the process just couldn’t be simpler. There is an open-door policy throughout the school, meaning that if a parent arrives on campus they are seen immediately. Naturally, parents can also contact the school through its website to make an appointment, but whatever the approach they can be assured of a full tour of the school.
It doesn’t stop there. “We’re offering any potential students the opportunity to come and be in our classrooms for a day with our students so that they can get a good feel for the place. And we have found this amazing because youngsters come into the school and start to make connections even before they have enrolled!” Naira concludes. That just about sums up Dar Al Marefa – inclusive, committed to the highest standards of education, and very, very welcoming.
Naira Hamdy, School Principal In education for 22 years, Naira has taught elementary, secondary, and higher education in subjects that include Maths, Science, ICT, and Theory of Knowledge. She has been an IB team leader and online facilitator in the IB community for over two decades, as well as a school inspector for the ECIS, ADEK, and KHDA. Also an international speaker, her areas of expertise include designing innovative learning experiences, professional learning, cultural leadership, and community building.