A Royal Geographical Society grant has encouraged the development of innovative teaching methods for the popular but poorly funded subject, writes Matthew Brace
With all the intricacies of erosion, volcanism and urban migrations, geography is a tough enough subject to teach children who have a command of the English language. But how do you explain the finer points to pupils who have grown up speaking Turkish or Portuguese?
Paola Gonta, acting head of geography at the 11-18 multi-cultural Langham School in Haringey, north London, has found an answer.
Ms Gonta, who has taught at Langham for more than 10 years, has drawn up and introduced a lexicon that translates key English words and phrases relevant to geography into different languages for the pupils.
The lexicon was made possible by a grant from the Royal Geographical Society under a scheme introduced last year. The awards, worth a total of pound;4,000, are designed to enable geography teachers to develop imaginative teaching materials, field trips and teaching methods.
The high standard of entries last year highlighted the great amount of talent in geography classrooms around Britain at a time when, despite its popularity (geography is the sixth most popular GCSE option), the subject is hobbled by poor funding.
According to Dr Rita Gardner, director and secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, a typical secondary school geography department receives just pound;2.35 per student a year to support all its requirements - books, atlases, field equipment, computer software and contributions to field trips.
The figure is well below the funding for each of the three sciences, at pound;3.79 per pupil, but above the estimated average of pound;1 per pupil for religious education.
"In a comprehensive, where 1,000 students take geography, this represents just about enough to buy one decent PC, printer and software, or 150 standard textbooks," Dr Gardner said at a ceremony in London last October for the first recipients of the annual award.
At Langham School, geography is the most popular option in Year 10. Last year almost 100 students - nearly the entire year group - chose to take it.
The school is an obvious place for a geography lexicon to be born. Its 900 pupils, many of them refugees, speak 43 languages. Turkish is the most widely spoken (219 pupils), followed by Somali (121), Kurdish (64) and Bengali (62). Smaller numbers speak Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), Gujerati, Malay, Persian, Serbo-Croat and Zambian.
Despite having some teething troubles with the lexicon, Ms Gonta was determined to get it up and running. The daughter of an Italian mother and Ukrainian father, she grew up with personal experience of multicultural issues and feels strongly that each child in her school should have equal access to geography regardless of his or her mother tongue.
"The idea originally came from a support teacher at the school, John Randall, but we had to halt its initial launch because we didn't have any money for translators. However, later we had community workers who could do the translations and it all began," she says.
So far Ms Gonta has produced three lexicons - for GCSE topics on the global economy, natural elements and work and employment - in Turkish, Greek, Bengali and Somali. Four more - people and places; climate, environment and people; water, landforms and people; and people, work and development - are now being written for the new GCSE syllabus, with one on tourism for a Certificate of Achievement in geography (up to national curriculum level 3). She also hopes to extend the lexicons to include Portuguese.
Ms Gonta explains that while the lack of English can slow down the pace of learning geography, a multicultural classroom also has its advantages: "We received a lot of children from Monserrat when the volcano erupted, and they were able to tell us what it was like to go through that experience. And one day we were looking at Abidjan in the Ivory Coast and two children stood up and said that was their home town and told us about living there."
She also believes it goes some way to redressing the balance between the positive and negative perceptions of other countries. "When children learn about places like Bangladesh they usually hear about the bad points, like the floods or the poverty. Having children in the classroom from that part of the world offers us all a new perspective. They can give us a first-hand account of the good things as well as the bad."
Other Royal Geographical Society award-winning entries included a CD-Rom - Aspects of Zanzibar; a programme of work with geography and the Internet; and "Learning through Landscapes", a multifaceted geography courtyard created by Ken Dunn, head of geography at Royston Comprehensive School in Barnsley.
Mr Dunn's entry included plans for a working model of a river and examples of UK ecosystems, based in the school's formerly derelict courtyard. The system is now operational and the water is flowing, demonstrating erosion and sedimentation. It is powered by a wind turbine and solar panels, and planted around the river are four ecosystems - moorland, woodland, meadow, and an estuarine area by a pond.
"This is all hands-on stuff," says Mr Dunn. "If the children are actually out in the open air, watching and touching things, they are going to be much more involved in the subject. And I want to make it all run by alternative energy because that gives the pupils an insight into the environmental issues of the day.
Entries for this year's awards, funded by HSBC Holdings, are now being sought.For more detailscontact Alison Glazebrook at the Royal Geographical Society,1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. Tel: 0171 591 3006.Final date for completed proposals is July 17.Further information about the lexicon from Paola Gonta at Langham School, Langham Road, London N15 3RB