Thanks to support from the Geographical Association’s Initiatives Fund (GAIF), Adriana Meirelles and myself were able to take 248 upper Key Stage 2 pupils and 20 teachers and teaching assistants from five schools across the Gloucestershire/South Gloucestershire/Bristol area on a scintillating South American adventure on Wednesday 14th October 2020. It was originally intended to hold this workshop in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of the West of England (UWE) on the outskirts of the city of Bristol. However, implications posed by Covid-19 meant that we had to be even more creative and contemplate using Zoom to still fulfil our obligations during such very uncertain and unprecedented times. As you will see below, we rose to the challenge and achieved all that we set out to do, and more!
The day began by sharing the learning objectives with participants, many of which linked very closely to the National Curriculum Key Stage 2 programme of study for geography and encouraged the development of critical thinking skills, as well as the format of the day:
- To locate the world’s countries, using maps to focus on South America, concentrating on its environmental regions, key physical and human characteristics, countries and major cities.
- To understand geographical similarities and differences through the study of human and physical geography of a region in South America.
- To describe and understand key aspects of physical geography, e.g. climate zones, biomes and vegetation belts.
- To describe and understand key aspects of human geography, e.g. types of settlement and land use, economic activity including trade links and the distribution of natural resources, such as energy, food, minerals and water.
- To use maps, atlases, globes and digital/computer mapping to locate countries and describe features studied.
- To understand how our modern lifestyles are impacting upon the Amazon rainforest.
- To create a piece/s of artwork using natural artefacts.
- To connect with a Brazilian school and share your thoughts and feelings about the Amazon rainforest, as well as pieces of artwork.
- To formulate and express your opinions/thoughts clearly and concisely.
- To encourage high quality independent, pair and group work.
- To evaluate your work/performance.
Each school was given a name based on groups with interest in the Amazon region, e.g. loggers; miners; conservationists; indigenous people; developers.
In order to ‘set the scene’, I accessed Google Earth and took pupils and teachers on a virtual trip from Bristol in south west England to Manaus in Amazonas. I emphasised the cities, regions, countries and continents being explored at the same time too; many children seem to find it very difficult to grasp the difference between a country and a continent! I quizzed pupils about how far they thought we had travelled and how long it might take to get there. This also provoked discussion about the means of transport that might be used and costs involved. I then showed the following movie clip so that the children gained an insight into ‘what it is like’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYAZ3NWVgtc.
The morning session, led by myself, had a geography focus, but attempted to integrate literacy and critical thinking too.
Firstly, we looked at the distribution of tropical rainforests. Within their classrooms, pupils either worked in pairs or independently (whichever their teacher deemed most appropriate given the current situation and their setting). They were asked to access Google Earth, use an online atlas, such as Digimap for Schools, or a globe to discover the answer to the question: ‘On which continents and in which countries are tropical rainforests found?’. Pupils were expected to write their answers around the outside of the map that they had been given. Next, they were prompted to ‘zoom in’ on South America, Brazil and the Amazon basin to gain a ‘bird’s eye view’ of an extensive area of tropical rainforest. Afterwards, I called upon different schools to provide answers to the above question and, again, reinforced the difference between countries and continents.
Working once more either in pairs or independently, pupils were given a climate graph and data for Manaus, a city located on the River Amazon in the state of Amazonas in northern Brazil. They were requested to use these sources to help them identify or calculate answers to a number of questions on the sheet that they had been given. After pupils had attempted all of the questions, which included identifying months with the highest and lowest temperature and precipitation and calculating the range in temperature and annual precipitation, we convened virtually to share our findings.
The third activity concentrated on the tropical rainforest biome. The children were given a short piece of text to read carefully and expected to select a word from the table to fill the gaps. I later revealed the answers on the screen and then asked pupils, ‘What have you learnt about the tropical rainforest biome?’. Not only were they able to recall many details, but also use topical vocabulary accurately and confidently.
After a short break, pupils and teachers returned to the classroom for Activity 4, which focused on the importance of the tropical rainforest and the world’s medicine cabinet. Tropical rainforests are not only a resource, but they are also important in many other ways and are a vital part of the global carbon balance. Pupils were given five reasons stating why tropical rainforests are so valuable and a frame. They were asked to rank the reasons in order of importance (from greater at the top to lesser at the bottom) and encouraged to think about why they placed the statements where they did. I later explained that there were no right or wrong answers, but that they should be able to justify their choices when challenged, which they did very well. Since we are living in the throes of a global pandemic, I shared a few facts and statistics with the children in relation to the tropical rainforest as the world’s medicine cabinet.
Tropical rainforests are both a local and global resource. They are coming under increasing pressure as countries see the exploitation of rainforest resources as a way of earning money in order to improve living conditions in some of the poorest parts of the world. Consequently, there is often conflict with those who feel that the rainforest should be conserved for future generations. Activity 5 explored deforestation within the tropical rainforest. I showed a couple of short movie clips (https://www.wwf.org.uk/where-we-work/places/amazon and https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/videos/amazon-story-how-will-it-end), before displaying an image on the screen and using the 5Ws + how? approach to convey some fundamental points. The main threat to tropical rainforests is, in fact, illegal activity. It is estimated that 50% of deforestation in tropical rainforests is due to illegal activities, such as logging, mining and agriculture. These activities create few opportunities for the local people and bring no benefit to the government, thus adding very little to the overall well-being of the population. Illegal deforestation causes huge amounts of environmental destruction too since it is unregulated and ignores any environmental laws that exist. These people destroy large areas of the forest to obtain the most valuable trees and their mining activities pollute the land and rivers. Deforestation has increased significantly in the last couple of years. If illegal activities could be controlled, then the threat of deforestation would be reduced and tropical rainforests could be managed more effectively. I projected some statistics to highlight how drastically things have changed and the gloomy predictions for the future; half of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed within the past 100 years and, at current rates, will disappear completely within the next 100 years. We discussed action that is being taken, but also appreciated that much more needs to be done.
Our final activity centred on a ‘thunk’ about the Amazon rainforest. Working in pairs or independently, pupils viewed three images of the tropical rainforest and selected a suitable caption to go alongside each one. Next, they were asked to consider the following options and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each:
Option 1: Let the indigenous people live and manage the land as they have for thousands of years.
Option 2: Clear the land for cattle ranching.
Lively discussions ensued in each classroom, which was lovely to witness. In order to inject some positivity and provide inspiration for the second half of Activity 6, I outlined some ways in which the tropical rainforest might be protected, e.g. selective logging; replanting trees (reforestation/afforestation); introducing environmental laws to make logging illegal (this can be hard to police, however); setting up national parks and nature reserves; encouraging ecotourism; persuading people to stop buying tropical hardwood; helping poorer countries develop, so they do not have to use rainforest resources unsustainably. Next, the children were asked to think deeply, philosophically and for themselves about the following ‘thunk’: What would your ‘dream’ Amazon be like?. I emphasised that they could not be wrong, or right. It was suggested that they jotted down a few key words and tried to expand each of these until they had a series of bullet points or paragraph of writing. They were then asked to share their bullet points or paragraph of writing with one or more of their peers and ponder whether their ‘dreams’ for the Amazon were very similar or different. During the subsequent discussion, I invited one or two pupils from different schools to reveal what their ‘dream’ Amazon would be like. I sincerely hope some of these become reality for the future of the Amazon.
After lunch, we came together again virtually for the afternoon session, led by Adriana Meirelles, a Brazilian film producer with first-hand experience of the Amazon, to learn about the indigenous people’s culture and lifestyle through the medium of art and design and technology. Adriana encouraged the children to imagine that they were in Manaus. Using a series of photographs, she took them into the heart of the Amazon to visit a smaller town and some indigenous communities. Adriana explained that the rivers are seen as roads and she projected images of river boats with hammocks and many people. She talked about some of the issues people in the Amazon face and asked the children to consider how this might relate to them. Next, a film about riverside villages and indigenous people was screened. Adriana explained that people live in the forest and work with nature, protecting it and living in harmony. They have a simple life, living in communities and maintaining strong traditions. They live extensive distances from each other. Such traditions encourage them to meet up, have fun and help each other. Adriana discussed the indigenous people’s philosophy in order to ensure the sustainability of the tropical rainforest; living within its limits; relating to it in an ‘affectionate’ way; ‘dreaming’ about the forest; belief about ‘forest spirits’. Marcella Haddad, a professional photographer and close Brazilian friend of Adriana, joined us. She had spent a day with the indigenous people in Adriana’s film and pupils were given an opportunity to ask her any questions that they had.
Adriana also showcased some items that she had collected during her trip to the Amazon rainforest and demonstrated how she had used these to create her own ‘forest spirit’ and allow its character to be unveiled using her animation skills. It was then time for pupils to be creative! She invited the children to create their own ‘forest spirit’ using natural artefacts (an English forest spirit, who would become friends with a Brazilian forest spirit). Teachers were requested to take photographs of pupils’ artwork, so that they could be shared with Brazilian teachers and their pupils at a later date. One school even attempted to use animation software to bring their forest spirit to life too! Subsequently, Adriana led a whole group discussion, challenging pupils to think about what the children in Brazil have taught them, e.g. living in a simpler way; helping communities; exploring their own traditions to keep them alive, as well as have fun at the same time, and envisaging what they might now do to support those in Brazil, and vice versa, which generated some deep and thoughtful answers from the youngsters.
Half an hour before we were due to finish, we gathered for a period of reflection and shared our learning and experiences. Both pupils and teachers were asked to sum up the day in five words or a sentence or two. Some of their ‘concluding comments’ can be viewed below:
‘Children loved doing their ‘thunks’ … .’
‘The children have really enjoyed the day … .’
‘… thank you for an amazing day.’
‘Thank you very much for a very interesting day – we learnt loads!’
‘Really enjoyed creating our forest pictures!’
‘Our children enjoyed learning about the continents and maps.’
‘Thank you so much, we have really enjoyed it … .’
‘Such a great day yesterday. The children really enjoyed it and got a lot from it.’
‘Thank you so much for the opportunity for yesterday’s workshop. The children thoroughly enjoyed the event and loved watching the video of the little girl in the rainforest and seeing the photographs of the Amazon and Brazil. I feel the children learnt a lot of information in a short space of time. There is much that we will revisit over the course of this term during our rainforest topic. It was a great opportunity for the children to use Zoom, interact with yourselves and the other schools. A brilliant day! I have attached some photographs and writing that the children did on the day and as follow up today.’
‘Thank you very much for letting us be a part of the day, it was very interesting. The content was amazing. They enjoyed learning about the rainforest and the effect of deforestation on it. It was really nice to do something art related in the afternoon as it gave the children the opportunity to express themselves using organic material.’
‘What a fantastic learning experience for staff and students at our school. The pupils were fully engaged and were able to use such a wide range of skills throughout the day from problem solving to analysing to thinking creatively. The day was a great way of enriching our geography curriculum and bringing core KS2 geographical knowledge and skills to life. A really valuable experience that the children learnt a lot from!’
‘Thank you again for running the day, the whole class had a wonderful time and the virtual platform didn’t stop them from engaging fully with the experience.’
‘It was a great day, full of things the children had never experienced. The resource booklet was really great and I appreciated having them sent beforehand, as it meant that setting up for the day was a total breeze the night before – teachers always appreciate that! Also, on the day, it meant I could very easily direct the children to whichever activity they were doing and there was zero fussing. … The afternoon was lovely – seeing Marcella’s videos of her own experience in the Amazon was near magical, … . I have a lot of positive takeaways from the day, especially the subject content, but the timing of it and having so many others involved made the work aspect a bit of a rush when really the children were loving the subject content and so wanted to spend more time doing it. The children were very enthusiastic about their day – particularly loving the baby monkey in the video and what they learnt. Even this morning they were talking about the environmental impacts of the huge deforestation in the Amazon, so you’ve definitely made a very positive impact there. Thank you very much for the day. Your efforts were most appreciated!’
Feedback from children at Lydney C of E Community School:
‘It was really fun to learn more about South America and the people and children who live there.’
‘I know lots more about the Amazon now. We need to do more to help.’
‘I loved making my forest spirit. It was fun to learn about life in rainforests too.’
Here are some quotes from the children at St. Mary Redcliffe C of E Primary School:
‘I enjoyed having a Zoom session with other schools so we could learn together.’
‘I liked making the forest spirits because there are lots of different shapes and sizes and you could create anything!’
‘I like the opportunity to learn from someone who has had experience of it – not just my teacher!’
Next, I posed a number of questions to pupils, namely:
- What do you think the Amazon will be like in 2050?;
- What now needs to be done in order to secure a positive future for the Amazon?
- Is there anything that you could personally do?
The children responded willingly with some very profound answers, demonstrating that they had acquired much knowledge, in-depth understanding and new skills during our virtual adventure.
A review of the learning outcomes received plenty of thumbs up from both pupils and teachers in the five schools that had taken part. A thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding, if not rather exhausting day. Many thanks, once again, to the Geographical Association, for all their support, both financially and otherwise.