Travel Guide: Dresden

Sometimes I like to escape my usual world for a while, just to feel my feet under me again. A beautiful way to do this is out in nature, literally just outside the door, and I do this often. But sometimes I like to go exploring in a different way, the way that reaffirms my confidence in walking independently through the world. I’m not a city girl, as much as I’ve tried to be (much more of a kopi at the hawker girl, a friend aptly said), but I like spending time in cities. I like watching people, I like getting lost, and I like the anonymity that comes with crowded spaces.

And this is how I ended up in Dresden last weekend.

I arrived in the rain and was delighted when the sun came out and kept the rain at bay for the remainder of my visit. My first impressions were everything that comes out of story books. Stone buildings, castles and churches, graceful bridges.

An extraordinary thing about Dresden is that everything has been rebuilt since firebombs destroyed the city in February 1945. This tells us something about what is meaningful to people and, I think, it tells us something about the power of place. These ideas stayed with me as I stopped on Brühlsche Terrasse (Brühl’s Terrace) to look back at the city.

View of Brühlsche Terrasse from across the Elbe

From there I headed for Neustadt, a neighbourhood located across the Elbe from Dresden’s Altstadt, or old town. First, I took a brief walk through Neustädter Markthalle where the vendors sell a variety of local, handmade, and interesting products. Unsurprisingly, the book exchange shelf, a mark of communities everywhere, was my favourite part.

Just around the corner is the Kunsthofpassage, a series of painted courtyards and art galleries dedicated to different themes. I walked into many of the galleries just for a look around and would have loved a seat outside at one of the many cafés, but I was far from the only one with that idea.

The rest of my afternoon walking through Neustadt was pleasant and the temperature slowly climbed, keeping me wandering down neighborhood streets that grew slowly more lively.

I spent the early evening sitting at a beer garden on the Elbe watching the sun, the water, and people enjoying their time outside. It seemed to me that the river is the soul of Dresden. This is where people play and gather and this, in my eyes, is what makes a place a home.

The following morning I stayed on the Altstadt side of the river and joined a walking tour to learn about the history of Dresden. We covered the time period from the Holy Roman Empire through present day, and I was again struck by how old Europe is. I am still tickled by this. Notable stops on the tour included the famous Frauenkirche, which was rebuilt using some of the recovered stone that had been part of a memorial after World War II . . .

. . . and the Fürstenzug, a porcelain tile mural first created in the 1870s that depicts the leaders of Dresden from 1127 until 1904 (the later part was an addition). Interestingly, the tour guide explained, the Fürstenzug survived the war with minimal damage because porcelain is heated to extreme temperatures during its production. As a result, the firebombing that destroyed the city did little damage here. I was intrigued to hear this, as well as to see the rather large club of bearded men (no joke) who were also there for a visit.

Our guide also took us through the inner courtyard of the Residenzschloss (residence castle) . . .

. . . past the Catholic church built by Polish king Augustus the Strong during his role as Elector of Saxony . . .

. . . the Zwinger Palace, also built by Augustus the Strong following a visit to Versailles . . .

. . . the Semperoper, Dresden’s opera house . . .

. . . and a mural celebrating life under communism that functioned as a wonderful piece of propaganda during its time.

As usual, there’s a great deal else to find in an old city with architecture that makes me wonder about the people who crafted it. These are stories I would like to hear.

To get out of the high winds that afternoon, I visited the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (State Art Collection), which is particularly known for the Grünes Gewölbe, or Green Vault. There is a historic Green Vault and a new Green Vault, which contains stunning treasures housed in a normal museum (which happens to be the Residenzschloss) rather than in a literal historic green vault. I’ve been to many art museums, but never one with such whimsical works from centuries ago. Intricate carvings on everything ranging from a cherry seed to coconut shell, for example, as well as works of porcelain, glass, and ivory. I was also particularly interested in an exhibit on Ottoman military tents, which should give you a sense of the range of treasures this museum has to offer.

The following morning I visited the Stadtmuseum (City Museum), which utilizes a collection of artifacts to told the story of Dresden from its founding through the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was especially interesting to see repurposed military items from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany), such as a bomb casing turned into a stove. The Stadtmuseum also highlighted Dresden’s Jewish history with the open question of how to reckon with history, a question that applies in so many societies in our world today.

By the time I needed to catch a train, I felt content with my solitude and comfortable enough with my surroundings to no longer feel lost. And by the time I returned, remembering my pounding heart as I arrived by train almost a year ago, I was fully glad to be back. It’s nice to go away for a while, and part of going away means coming home.

I Wonder

I wonder how much of what’s on paper is real. I wonder how much of poetry comes from life lived.


A few months ago, I started reading a book of poetry* aloud. I’ve carried it around town and read under the tree, in the park, by the fountain. I carry a blue pen with me, slight weight, fine black ink, the kind of pen that was made to tell stories rather than sign papers, I like to think. The kind of pen that’s meant to be enjoyed rather than kept in a box on a desk for special occasions, but also the kind of pen I’d be sad to lose, so I left it at home once, and those pages are easy to find in my journal because they don’t look like the other pages. I haven’t left it at home since.

I carry a blue pen with me and I annotate, underline, fold down page corners, record dates. I read aloud and sometimes I reread, sometimes I stop because the words have become the sound of my voice and I need to go back to the words. I read aloud and sometimes there are people around and sometimes I stop just to take it all in.

There’s something about the words that makes me braver than I am, that reminds me that I am all I have, that assures me that when everything falls apart again, there’s a way to rebuild.


I can still see the look in your eyes I can’t read, hear the chorus that told me what I already knew and didn’t want to know.

Sometimes I wonder if you’re as scared as I am.

And I laugh at myself for wondering because you’re not. You never were. I wonder if that’s how I seem, too, and I wonder if that’s why I can’t read that look in your eyes.

How much of poetry comes from life lived?

Weimar, Germany – March 2022

*River Flow by David Whyte


What Students Want

Recently I wrote a piece about asking students for feedback, which I have since discussed with several friends who are also educators. Subsequently, I had a conversation with a teacher assistant who is working towards teacher certification. She had a few questions that made me smile because they were questions that I first had in her shoes many years ago, questions that I grapple with often. In light of this, I thought it would be helpful to outline a few themes that came through in the DP Psychology course evaluations from my grade 12 students. As their words suggest, students appreciate the following:

Opportunities to learn from each other

I believe that the world needs good people, and I believe that good people work together. They support one another, they work towards shared goals, and they do what is right for the benefit of the group. Schools are phenomenal places of socialization and I’ve learned that these are the lessons that carry outside of the classroom and into the real world. Therefore, one strategy I often use in class is “jigsaw” learning. Divide a task into pieces, share the pieces among the group, conclude the task in a way that requires all pieces to come together. For example, if an essay question contains three parts and then requires an overall evaluation, all three parts must be complete before the group can work together on the evaluation.

But what if he doesn’t do his part, or she completes hers to a much higher degree than they do?

Certainly, this happens. But this is where the framing comes in. When this is framed as an opportunity for students to learn from each other rather than just to complete a task, interaction is more positive. When jigsaw activities provide a means of sharing a range of examples and information in circumstances where there is choice in what students ultimately decide to study, sharing knowledge means that a student might find what a peer has to say more interesting than what they themselves had prepared. In this case, the student has some background knowledge when it comes to making the choice to study a different example than the one they were originally assigned. A student’s overall success does not depend on peers, but working as a group gives everyone a clearer point from which to start.

Real deadlines

I am a stickler for deadlines and have always been. Normal classroom interactions, regardless of grade level, are as follows:

  • “I didn’t finish this.” –> “Submit what you have now.”
  • “Can I have more time?” –> “Submit what you have now and if you’d like to make changes, you have until X time. At that point, I’ll mark whatever is submitted.”
  • “I’m not ready for this test.” –> “Give it a try and if it’s a disaster, we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Do we have to turn this in today?” –> “Yes.”

(Full disclosure: There are exceptions, but they are rare.)

When students ask, as they always do, why deadlines matter, the answer is straightforward:

Deadlines matter because everything operates within the context of a bigger picture. If the problem is procrastination (this is very often the case, and the issue of distraction due to technology grows more alarming with every passing year) postponing a deadline will not solve the problem. Instead, it will exacerbate the problem by creating a domino effect with other deadlines.

Deadlines matter because they allow teachers to catch significant errors when there is still a chance to fix them.

Deadlines matter because unlike the students I work with, who are going through the IB Diploma Programme for the first time, I actually do know how the two-year program works, where the areas of difficulty are likely to be, what to watch out for, and the fluctuations in work ethic that occur throughout. It is not my first time guiding students through this program and that expertise counts.

The easiest example of maintaining real deadlines is with the submission of my students’ replication of a psychology experiment, an internal coursework component that makes up 20-25% of their final official psychology grade. Many students complain about the deadline and protest that we are months ahead of the IB required submission date. Yes we are, I tell them, and you will have plenty to do between now and then. Invariably, every single year, we laugh at this before students go off on study leave. They are always glad that this task was one more thing off the to-do list that never ends.

Organization

A number of years ago, when I moved into a school system that was fully integrated with technology, I started keeping daily plans for my students on blogs and websites with links to all of the resources we would need for that day. This evolved to include search functions, folders of resources, calendars, key words tags, and useful external links. Parents love it because class becomes transparent, and students love it because they know exactly what to do when they’re out and they know where to find everything we’ve ever done in class. When revising for an exam that covers two years of coursework, knowing where to find materials is especially useful. If I am organized, it takes that cognitive load away from my students and allows them to focus on the aspects of learning that require their individualized attention.

My students also wrote about how helpful it was to learn how exam questions are constructed, to begin every unit with a revision document that we filled out in sections throughout the unit, and to follow the same patterns and procedures over and over again. By the end of the course, our psychology key ideas organisers should contain absolutely everything students need to study. And I have heard from students over and over that while there is a lot in these documents, they work.

Thoughtful use of time

I think that one of the reasons students complain about school is similar to one of the reasons adults complain about meetings – they feel that their time is being wasted. I am all for teachers developing a rapport with students. This is critical to creating environments conducive to learning and and to getting to know one another as people, which is essential for working together. However, there is a time and a place. There is a time to laugh and joke, a time to tell a quick story, and a time to spend a few extra minutes on one topic over another.

On the other hand, classroom time is limited and there is a lot that is important to do during that time. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and get caught up in tangentially related ideas, or to spend too much time sharing an interesting story and not enough time following the plan for the day.

We all know that it can be fun to get distracted in class, for teachers as well as students, and I have learned that students appreciate when teachers have an eye on this. There is always a lot to do and it is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that it gets done and to make sure that limited time is used well.

A general sense of security

Overall, I think this comes down to the message that students appreciate actions demonstrating that teachers know what they’re doing and are working to help students achieve their goals. They want to know that teachers make decisions based on what works for students, that teachers are consistent, and that their time in school is valuable. They want to be treated with dignity and respect – and don’t we all?


Shortly after I wrote the first outline for this blog post at the beginning of April, this article came out. It says in better words, backed up with research rather than anecdotes, what I am trying to say here. “Calm, clear, and kind” are the themes that come through. And again, isn’t that what we all want in our interactions?

“Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.” – Hanna Holborn Gray

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place