Geography in full colour

I have come to know and really like the junior geography teacher at Himarwa.  His name is Lasco Sachuma.  He has been teaching for only a few years but it was obvious to me that he had a real desire for his learners to succeed and for his already successful teaching practice to progress.  He had risen against all odds as a child – having never met his father and losing his mother in grade 10.  He was then in charge of his two younger siblings with the help of an uncle.  They squeaked out a very difficult and  basic living but all worked VERY hard, and each succeeded in their grade 12 years.  Lasco went on to become a teacher; the next sibling won a scholarship to Cuba, and the youngest is off next year on a full scholarship to Russia.

I asked him what the next unit was that he’d be teaching in his grade 10 class.  Grade 10 is a very important year, because the national exams must be passed in order to continue to grade 11.  He was about to launch into the Regional Geography of Namibia, which included physiographic regions, mountains, rivers, vegetation, tourism and resources.  When I looked at the text book the learners had, I was so disappointed – the STUNNINGLY beautiful country had been reduced to small black and white photos.  It’s no wonder this is the most poorly done unit on the exam.  I suggested we try a different approach – use powerpoint to bring the maps and places to life, and get the learners outside using their hands.  Lasco quietly agreed to this, with his understated enthusiasm.  And things just took off from there.

I started working on the powerpoint – created a base map from google earth, and mapped out the physiographic regions.  Fortunatel,y our family adventures had taken us clear across the country and back so I had lots of good images to pull representative samples from.  I then worked up interactive pages to cover the mountains and rivers.  Namibia has only a few perennial rivers – the rest are ephemeral.  While I was in Rundu for a few days fixing computers, I arrived back to find a fabulous 3-D Namibia outside Lasco’s classroom.  As per our earlier discussions, he had assigned his learners to collect clay from the valley and use the plentiful sand around to model the mountains, rivers and physiographic regions.  The map was about 5m x 4m in size.  All mountains and been labelled with sticks and paper.  It was phenomenal.  What I most appreciated was that he hadn’t waited around for me to help – he just dove in with his learners.  He gave them a surprise quiz the next day and was thrilled with the results.

At about the same time we started creating base maps of Namibia on his classroom walls.  I was the map/projector consultant, Lasco was the content consultant, and Kaia and Jake were the chief painters.  Many other learners would come to watch, then join in.  But they were blown away when they realized how much Kaia and Jake knew about Namibian Geography.  These two clearly had been paying close attention on all our journeys!  The point of the maps was to allow the learners to test their knowledge by pasting laminated labels on to the correct positions (regions, tourism/cities, vegetation, resources and physiographic regions with mountains and rivers).

One day as we worked on this, the regional-level geography advisory teacher happened upon our school and became quite excited about what we were doing.  And that gave birth to a region-wide geography workshop that I was to lead with Lasco’s help.  With only 2 weeks lead time, I clearly had my work cut out in terms of completing the powerpoint.  I would not want to guess how many hours were spent on the approximately 200 slides – full of photos, text and animations.  The tourism section took the longest – it highlighted 28 sites the learners had to know – their significance, location, and appearance.  While at a friend’s in Rundu, I put the very final touches to the presentation at about 3:00 AM the night before the workshop (those who know me will be SO surprised to hear it ended up getting completed like this 🙂 )  The workshop was at a high school in Rundu, and 18 geography teachers from all surrounding areas showed up.  Thankfully for me I’d asked my good friend and computer consultant Alex (a Peace Corps volunteer) to check out the lab to make sure computers would run my programs – he had worked all afternoon and had arrived early in the morning to complete the set-up – literally moments before I wanted to start. Thanks Alex!

We started the workshop by having fun with a geo map quiz game that I showed them.  It’s called “Seterra” and is a free download – check on google – its great fun!  It was clear that most of these teachers had not really had time on computer or reason to explore world, European or even wider African geography before.  I then introduced them to my favourite learning resource here – it’s called Learnthings Africa – and has hundreds of excellent and comprehensive lesson plans in math, physics, chemistry, biology, English and geography.  But it’s best feature is its fantastic colour animations for things like volcanoes, earthquakes, magnetic fields, glaciers etc etc.  So I demoed this and became an instant hero – they were thrilled.  They had never had anything more than a piece of chalk or a black and white text book, and now a possibility for colourful animated explanations.  That of course led to a discussion about computer availability, but many of them as it turns out had this program in their lab but just didn’t know about it.  But that said, some of them worked in the bush with no computers in the school.  Sadly they will have to wait until technology and electricity catches up to them.  I had prepared a sheet that mapped their units in the syllabus to specific sections in Learnthings, because that resource was developed for the UK syllabus (OK, then why is it called Learnthings Africa???).  Lasco then took them through the work he’d done with his 3D modelled Namibia and his wall maps.  They were keen.  And then I “unveiled” my powerpoint resource that met with much enthusiasm – they LOVED looking at pictures of their country, and quickly were calling out that their learners now had no reason to fail that unit, which as you can imagine, made me feel much better about my many late nights preparing it.  I finished the workshop demoing the many geography documentaries that I either brought with me or received from a past volunteer.  Many had never seen a geo documentary so were enthralled to see real life earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.  I left the library of videos at the Teachers Resource Center in Rundu, and put all the powerpoint, Seterra game and Learnthings on CD to distribute to them.  All of this has transpired in the past 5 weeks, and has been one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done here.  Kaia was especially helpful throughout the powerpoint creation, because she knew the material inside and out and would often correct my content or spelling.  My presentation is now making its way through schools in the Caprivi Strip thanks to another VSO, and will now be given to all new VSOs as they enter the country.  And I can’t go into our computer lab at Himarwa without finding at least one learner working through the slides.  I assumed that only the grade 10 learners would be interested but have found grades 8 to 12 enjoying it.  Upon reflection though, this is understandable – these learners have NEVER seen their country!  For most of them, the big trip is to Rundu 2 hrs away.  Only one of my learners in grades 11 and 12 had ever been to Etosha National Park.

I never felt like I was doing “work” as I created that powerpoint – because it allowed me to reflect on all aspects of Namibian geography – which has completely captured my imagination through the year.  About 90% of the photos were our own – the rest I shamelessly stole from the internet – not much of an example to set for these teachers – but I think they are a few years away from seriously considering intellectual property issues!

The geo map mural initiatve spawned some other similar projects.  The four of us finally finished a Namibian Map mural in our house that had been sketched in pencil by previous volunteers.  Kaia, Jake & Yvonne helped grade 6 social studies teacher Mr Shenyangana create large unlabelled maps of Africa and Namibia to quiz his learners.  They did a similar map and a labelled human body mural for their teacher Mr Handiba.  And I got my grade 11s to create a large periodic table in our classroom.  They said they would create another one in the other science classroom.  Whether they do or not will likely provide a good idea of how “sustainable” our efforts have been.

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