A lesson in tea bags

Fair trade products from developing countries can enliven geography lessons, says Sally Ramsden

What do you do with a tea bag, a box of exotic objects and a bunch of 10-year-olds? The answer, according to Heather Swainston of Cheshire Development Education Centre, is to teach a lesson about fair trade.

Heather hands out tea bags and worksheets to Year 6 at Kelsall County Primary School in Cheshire, and soon everyone is busy sniffing, shaking and stroking the tea bags as they work through a series of questions about their shape, size, properties, origin and use.

It turns out that two kinds of tea bag have been distributed. They look and feel the same, but half the class has a "normal" tea bag, and the others a fairly traded one, where the tea pickers get a decent wage, have access to schooling and health care, and have the right to join a union.

Soon the class find themselves in groups representing the different people and processes involved in the production and distribution of tea.

One group says the tea pickers should get most of the Pounds 100 sum to be allocated along the different parts of the "food chain". Another insists that the supermarkets should be allowed to make big profits.

When the class finds out that most tea pickers get only seven pence out of every pound, some pupils are shocked. "Whoever pays them that should be ashamed," declares one.

Now the exotic objects are taken from their boxes and shared out. Everyone is soon trying to work out where they come from and what they are for.

A green, wooden contraption that expands like an accordion turns out to be a toy duck from Ghana. There's a bamboo fish- keep from Cambodia, a set of pots for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony and a range of musical instruments from around the world. They are all fairly traded, and can be bought on the high street.

Year 6 not only get their hands on these unusual objects in the classroom; later they will dress the window of their local fair trade shop, part of the nationwide "And Albert" chain, which has loaned the products.

Fair trade is becoming big business in the UK. As a topic, it lends itself to a wide range of hands-on classroom work with immediate currency; children today are consumers from a young age. Moreover, the national curriculum encourages the use of primary source material in subjects as diverse as history, English, science, art and design technology.

"Using real objects is a handy supplement to existing photo packs and other materials," says Heather Swainston. "The objects arouse interest and give relevance and understanding to complex issues."

This session was a geography lesson, but the topic involves cross-curricular strands from citizenship, religious education, art and music as well as core literacy and numeracy work. The lesson helps build basic skills such as describing, analysing and interpreting objects and the ability to ask questions.

In case you haven't got a fair trade shop to hand, the lesson began with pupils describing personal possessions made in a foreign country. Everyone at Kelsall Primary had examples, and most were from developing countries.

Further information from the Cheshire Development Education Centre,tel: 01244 347 880. 'Evaluating Artefacts' and 'The Fair World Cookbook' are available from Oxfam Publishing, tel: 01202 712933

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