Peak practice

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Variety is the spice of good geography teaching, a Tyne and Wear school has found. Hilary Wilce reports

Geography is thriving at Ryton Comprehensive, in Tyne and Wear, and it is immediately apparent. Entering the department, visitors walk past a lively corridor display of a recent A-level conference investigation into the Udzungwa National Park of Tanzania, while in the classrooms there are posters, murals, globes, maps and diagrams. Blow-up dinosaurs dangle from the ceiling, photographs of field trips cover a wall, and fossils are heaped on a windowsill.

"Geography is a colourful subject," says Dot Kell, the head of department, "and the environment you study it in is very important."

Then there is the teaching. Dot begins a Year 8 lesson on domestic energy use by handing a pupil a cup of coffee. "Eew, Miss, it's horrible! It's all cold, like!"

"Oh dear," she says. "I must have forgotten to turn on the kettle."

Immediately her pupils' thoughts are focused on the machinery that sustains daily life, and she has their full attention as she talks them through the low and high points of daily energy demand.

In another class, James McGrah plays the Mali cattle game with his Year 8s.

A roll of the dice determines drought or a wet season. Pupils have to decide when to sell their cattle, and whether to take them to Navrango or Kumasi. "Remember, under a certain level of income a year you can't feed your family," he warns.

Across the corridor, Susan Askew has asked her Year 8s to be agricultural consultants, advising a farmer on land use.

"Will that be a fishing or a wildlife lake?" she asks one pupil, as she looks at his map. "How will people get to it?"

Beth Jensen, 17, who has a place to study geography at Leeds University, says: "The teachers are so good here. Everything is done to help you. The help you get with coursework is really great, and they teach all the modules in an interesting way. Our geography trips are renowned!"

Ashton Lamb, 17, agrees: "We had a week in the Peak District, and we went to Sheffield and looked at different transects. We looked at rivers as well." Ashton is aiming to go to either Newcastle or Northumbria to study geography.

In addition, students appreciate the resources that are available to help them, the way they have always been encouraged to aim higher, and the individual lessons that are laid on when they struggle. And they are also pleased to have been called on to help select a new geography teacher - luckily their choice chimed with the school's.

Dot Kell says the key to good geography teaching is "variety and making it real". She is careful to make sure pupils don't revisit the same topics in different years any more than they have to.

Susan Askew says it's not dumbing down. "Children like complex information and interesting facts - like the giant sea-going lice in Antarctica."

James McGrah says "Whenever you get a chance, tie it in." He took a video of rivers when he was on holiday in Germany. "They (the pupils) can relate to that, and they like it when you do daft and silly things."

The geography team at Ryton has worked together for many years. They bring differing skills to their work. Dot is a senior moderator with Edexcel and knows everything about the demands of the exams and coursework.

She also produces meticulous notes and resources. Susan is knowledgeable about ICT, and James has travelled widely and has, pupils say, a story for every occasion.

They share copious ICT files - staff and students alike agree Dot is Queen of the PowerPoint presentation - and also a real passion for their subject.

Exam results reflect this. Top-grade GCSEs have gone up from 59 per cent in 1999 to 80 per cent last year, with 13 per cent of these A*s - and a healthy 30 pupils embarking on AS level.

Most AS students at Ryton go on to study A-level, and last year half of them got a grade A. Geography is a popular university choice, and many past students now teach geography throughout the North-east, as well as in other parts of the UK and in Africa.

"We are very proud of this," says Dot.

Geographical interest is sparked in younger pupils by giving them opportunities to make presentations on geographical topics and making sure citizenship issues are woven into the curriculum, along with maths and ICT skills.

The department keeps careful records of exam grades, and sixth-formers find it helpful to have individual monitoring cards showing them exactly how many marks they need to attain particular grades.

Sixth-form students also attend a regional conference that Dot Kell organises, and which attracts 350 students from all over the north of England. In the morning sessions, students have a talk from Sue Warn, the chief examiner for Edexcel Specimen B, before working with university student mentors on presentations based around a synoptic paper. Meanwhile Sue Warn moves on to offer the accompanying staff an inservice training course in the afternoon.

Dot is concerned that the new workplace agreement is making supply cover more expensive and therefore much harder for geography teachers to arrange field trips. She also worries that parents' dated perceptions of geography are stopping some students from taking the subject.

Susan Askew agrees: "They really need to know we're no longer teaching the life cycle of the cocoa pod!"

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