Home > Education > Teaching Geography with Apples! by Sally Earthrowl

Having spent the last few summers enjoying relatively indulgent travel, this summer, I decided to do something slightly different with my holiday and volunteer with the PHASE education team. I now find myself sitting on a roof top terrace, drinking tea and looking out over Boudha, the grand Buddhist stupa to the north east of Kathmandu.  Tourists and locals alike are circumbulate the stupa to the sounds of traditional music from the tourist shops.  The clouds are building up over the hills in the distance, indicating an imminent monsoon downpour and the prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. Although the roads are somewhat hectic, the pace of life in Kathmandu is definitely slower than my busy London schedule, allowing some time to sit, watch and soak up some of the atmosphere.



As I look over at the hills I am reminded of the vulnerability of the remote communities living there.  The news of the Sindulpalchowk landslide has just reached Kathmandu and brings home an awareness of that vulnerability.  With poor infrastructure across most of Nepal, it is no wonder that the work PHASE does across many communities and districts has such an impact.  As a geography teacher who teaches development issues from KS3 to A level, PHASE’s approach has always impressed me.  In my view, the involvement and support of the communities it works alongside results in a very sustainable route to development.


The PHASE office staff are a joy to work with.  In three words; dedicated, talented and friendly. I have been impressed with the skill and knowledge the education team have shown.  After a few days of orientation in the office we ventured to a school in Kathmandu where they were delivering the awareness level programme.  The facilities were basic, and I am convinced that some of the teachers were so young that they could have been in my class at home.  But here we were, in a darkened room, with only an old whiteboard and their own talent and enthusiasm to make teaching and learning effective and interesting for the students that they teach.  I was blown away by one of the demonstration lessons given by Sumi, one of the PHASE Master trainers.  At that moment I knew then that it would be easy to work collaboratively with this team.  They know what they are doing, they grasp the theory and the purpose of child centred learning and critical thinking and I began to rack my brains on how I might possibly be able to support such a talented team.  My own experience seemed somewhat paler in comparison and at that point I didn’t know if I would be of any use at all!


Me in training

Our next challenge was to deliver two days worth of primary school subject specific training to teachers from a Government school in Rayale, a village in the district of Kabhre. The aim was to build on their previous training and demonstrate practical approaches to teaching subject content.  After a bumpy bus ride, where I appeared to have adopted a beautiful baby for the duration, we arrived in Rayale and the mud house of the PHASE lodgings.  After some tasty dhal baht (loving the fact that squash are in season as they make the tastiest curry) we beavered away late into the night prepping resources and sharing plans.


It was definitely worth the work, as the teachers the next day were a joy to train; so enthusiastic about developing their own practice.  They had obviously benefitted from the previous training they had received and were eager to learn more.  We played games, shared stories and rhymes and worked together to illustrate how the ideas and activities shared could be adapted for use with different subjects within the curriculum.  Not only did the teachers get the chance to build up their pedagogical toolkit, but they all seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves.  As one of the best ways of learning is by doing, we played the games we wanted to share.    Never have I seen such a competitive bunch of adults! It was as if the teachers were transferred back in time to their own school days.


Delivering the geography training was great. I was perturbed by some of the textbooks I had seen and wondered how the teachers knew the content when the textbook doesn’t even delve into an explanation.  As it was primary school level, we began with the basics, categorising flash cards made on scrap paper to illustrate the different examples of human and physical geography; playing the compass game and explaining earthquakes strike by clicking fingers.  A far cry from my classroom at home with interactive whiteboard, internet access, atlases, a globe, maps and some decent textbooks, which although I hardly use in my own practice the fact they exist to be utilised I am very grateful for.  Classroom teaching resources are definitely few and far between over here. Never again will I complain that the photocopier has broken or the printer has run out of ink!


Back in Kathmandu the team decided they wanted to run another subject-specific training session to gather more ideas on teaching geography.  A task I was more than happy to be challenged to.  In preparation for this we visited a nearby school to observe the social science teachers and speak with them about what they might need.  These teachers hadn’t had any PHASE training to date, and it was evident.  All the students had textbooks and the teacher had to borrow one to enable them to teach the lesson.  Students read the book, repeated content to the teacher and chatted amongst themselves.  Occasionally a closed question would be thrown out to the class and students would dutifully stand and provide the answer.  I could see the potential in the teachers.  They were charismatic, authoritative and friendly but needed some guidance on teaching in a format other than by rote.  They were keen and open to new ideas when we met with them afterwards and training was set for 2 days time.  I had 36 hours to plan, prepare and create some training for teaching map skills and basic geographic content.  Amazing to have time to be creative and with no interactive whiteboard, no atlases, no maps and a globe that had half of Africa coloured in blue which made it look like the Atlantic Ocean covered far more of the earth’s surface than it actually does, creative I had to be.


In a small room, in St George’s school, a group of teachers gathered and seemed to be eagerly awaiting my training session.  I keenly followed the PHASE instructional sequence whilst delivering so they could see how lesson sequence makes a difference.  Even though the terminology used in the UK is different the principles are the same and I felt it better to follow the format they were used to and would be left with when I departed.  Alongside sharing the practical ideas of finger clicking earthquake and apples used to demonstrate the structure of the earth we focused on map skills.


Me with the team!

Some elements of map reading were easier to deliver.  The compass game my year 7 classes enjoy so much was again repeated and I was impressed that when questioned, the teachers came up with some good follow-up activities that would help consolidate learning.  My favourite quote of the day was when looking at a compass directions pneumonic. ‘Never eat shredded wheat’ wasn’t going to work here as people generally eat Dhal baht three times a day.  I put the question to the teachers and with great amusement their suggestion was ‘never electricity sometimes water’.  Being based in Kathmandu where water in a lot of places is only supplied for 1 hour a day every couple of days and there are frequent blackouts due to load shedding an easy one for students to remember.  Teaching longitude, latitude and time zones was slightly more of a challenge.  With no map or atlas resources (apart from the misleadingly coloured globe)  I resorted to using an apple, my head torch and the trusty white board. I drew a world map on the board and located some key cities, the equator and the prime meridian, explained N, S, E, W and got the teachers to identify the longitude and then latitude of the cities.  We then used the apple to highlight time zones, using the torch to demonstrate how only half the earth was in daylight at any one time and the fact that everyone, wherever they were, wanted to be in daylight at midday.  We calculated the number of degrees the earth spun in each hour and demonstrate that we would add an hour for each 15 degree segment.  We divided the apple by 24 with each segment of apple repenting an hour + or – from the prime meridian.  We discussed the exceptions to the rule (of which Kathmandu is one being 4 hours and 45 minutes ahead of London during British Summer Time) and located and explained the international date line using their apple models. This learning was all new to this groups of geography teachers, and I hope they left with a better knowledge of how the world works that they can pass onto their students.


I hope that I have managed to share some of my ideas with the team which they can utilise in their future training programmes.  I also relished the opportunity to spread some of the joy of geography and world knowledge and understanding to the teachers and their students respectively.  The lack of resources has definitely made me go back to basics and stretch my own teaching craft, and I am in awe of the work to PHASE team do and the creative ideas they come up with.  A few of those will definitely appear in my own classroom in London.


I now have two weeks of exploration before I spend a couple more days at PHASE observing the geography teachers who attended the training.  Although excited to see some more of this beautiful country, I am keen to return to my friends and colleagues at PHASE and see what the impact has been.


Friends at PHASE