Over in a small classroom on Mina Road, a group of students is debating the differences between fact and fiction with their teacher. But this isn’t a group of high-schoolers – the kids that are confidently discussing the topic are aged just three to eight years old. They are part of FasTracKids, a unique educational and enrichment programme, developed in the US with the aim of nurturing kids’ love of learning.
FasTracKids runs across a 24-month programme, with children exploring 12 different topics across that time, each lasting for around two months. Because the course is modular, new students can join at any point in the year, as long as they can commit to attending one two-hour class per week, which currently run on Wednesdays and Saturdays from the centre on Mina Road, near the Capitol Hotel.
‘We are not a tutoring centre,’ explains Wadad Abdul Massih, an experienced educator who is the programme’s director here in Dubai. ‘We do not teach and do not correct. Fastrackids is an interactive personality development program with specific goals towards this development.’ It is not about helping kids brush up on a certain topic where they may be lagging behind. Rather it is a multi-layered approach that harnesses a child’s creativity, communication skills and critical thinking, stimulating their brain into asking questions and seeking answers in their learning.
A quick glance around the centre gives a good indication of the breadth of learning, not to mention the fun that the kids have in the process. Their handiwork is everywhere you look – giant rocket ships dangle from the ceiling, artwork covers the walls, a hand-made height chart is mounted in the corner. Across the two-year course, the students cover topics such as the environment, biology, art, public speaking and even economics and astronomy (hence the rocket).
On our visit, a class of around eight children is learning all about literacy and understanding. Sitting attentively in a semi-circle around their teacher, Miss Dana, while a second teacher, Miss Suzanna, sits to the side (there are always two tutors in a FasTracKids classroom to ensure that all of the students are equally supported in their learning), the children are rapt as they are led through the story of Mary, a native Australian girl and her adventures.
The class is centred around an interactive learning station – a high-tech white board and viewing screen – which both tells the tale, and enables pupils and teachers to move around objects, tap on correct answers and literally get inside the story as it is told. While the lesson is essentially about literacy and comprehension, the way that the session is formulated means that the teachers are able to weave all manner of life skills and fun teaching methods into the two-hour time period: from social interaction and dealing with others, as the kids watch Mary helping her friends and family, deciding which parts of her story are fact and fiction, to identifying and grouping objects together in the story’s pictures onscreen.
Whether youngest or oldest in the class, quieter or more outgoing, all of the children are actively drawn into the lesson as it progresses, answering questions and being asked to give their opinion (always in full sentences, rather than just a straight answer). ‘Teachers are trained to involve every child in all class activities by engaging them visually and acknowledging whatever they say with a nod or a pat on the shoulder,’ explains Wadad.
As the story ends with Mary helping a frog build his new home, this part of the tale sparks a hands-on craft session involving all of the kids. They’re put into teams to conceptualize and create a fantastic tree house – colouring, cutting and sticking in earnest, the older kids helping the smaller ones out along the way. The finished result has everyone beaming as they gather round to have their picture taken next to their creation.
With the session drawing to a close, Wadad explains how every FasTracKids class ends in a video recording, where each of the kids stands in front of a camera with a microphone, giving their version of the afternoon’s events. ‘One of our goals is developing a child’s communication skills. This helps the child to focus on what he did in class and encourages public speaking and transfer of knowledge.’ Watching as the kids confidently take the mike and talk about what they learned in class, seeing them handle speaking in public that would make many adults nervous is eye-opening. ‘It’s a fantastic way to track their progress and understanding,’ she says. ‘And it’s a tool we can show to parents after the class, too.’ Her point is underlined as a proud mum watches the replay of her son’s recording, with Wadad explaining how he’s come on leaps and bounds since he began the classes a few months earlier.
As the kids make their way home, politely thanking and saying goodbye to Wadad on the way, it’s a testament to how the sessions have made their mark. ‘Overall, we have seen excellent results with children, ranging from opening up and prolonging concentration to engaging in conversation with their peer groups and adults as well as building their leadership skills and team work,’ she says. And judging by the happy faces of parents and kids alike, clearly something is working!
FasTracKids, Mina Road, www.fastrackids.com, email@example.com (050 551 1403). A three-month package, April to June costs Dhs1,800; monthly sessions are Dhs650.