English with a smile - In a unique teaching exercise the use of a parachute allows
the children of Gamboraya village to "learn how to be cooperative instead of competitive,
as there are no winners or losers.
by ROHAN CANAGASABEY
Being able to speak and understand English is the key to employment or business
in the urban commercial sector. But in Sri Lanka's archaic learning-by-rote system,
learning is not usually associated with fun and enjoyment.So when one sees giggling
children running around a multi-coloured parachute as part of their English lesson,
it is certainly worth investigating.
With the southern boundary of Wasgamuwa national park just behind them, a kilometre
away, and with the peaks of the Knuckles mountain range, north of Kandy in sight,
the children of Gamboraya village have for the last eight weeks been learning English
the fun way, with two retired teachers hailing from the county of Hertfordshire,
Carole Bennett and Roberta Bird were here on a self-financing voluntary project
by www.travellersworldwide.com of the UK, which was facilitated
by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society's (SLWCS - www.slwcs.org) Saving
Elephants by Helping People programme.
The connection between helping to conserve elephants and teaching English is understandably
not obviously apparent. Gamboraya, like the other villages in this area, is a relatively
new farming settlement, established in the last few decades, and consequently part
of the human-elephant conflict zone, with the associated crop destruction and occasional
tragic human deaths.
The main focus of SLWCS's work here is to maintain and continue expansion of solar-powered
electric fences around threatened villages, whilst also researching wild elephant
numbers and roaming patterns outside of Wasgamuwa national park nearby.
Facilitating the learning of English, argued SLWCS Project Director Chandeep Corea,
gives farmers' children the option of seeking a livelihood other than through farming,
thus eventually reducing the demand for cultivated land in this human-elephant conflict
Though Ms. Bennett and Ms. Bird were not English teachers as such, at this level,
when even native English speaking A-level school leavers are placed on voluntary
teaching projects in many villages throughout most of Sri Lanka, they have brought
a wealth of experience, particularly Ms. Bennett, who was involved in teacher training
in the UK. And the use of a parachute, said Ms. Bennett, has been employed for some
time in the UK, progressing from a single-colour military parachute to a specifically
designed multi-coloured one, as it gained in popularity as an innovative method
for teaching, at the basic level to young children.
Here in Gamboraya, the parachute was used in the under-12 class. It begins with
distribution of different coloured ribbons corresponding to some of the colours
on the parachute. With Ms. Bennett and Ms. Bird at the helm, the children respond
to instructions, which apply to one set of children at a time, depending on the
colours of the ribbons given to them.
The actions asked and conducted by the children can range from running around the
parachute, to running back and forth under it in the fastest possible time, sometimes
after picking up a hat. At the end of the session, which included keeping a red
ball in the air with the parachute, they all huddled together for a few seconds
under it, in quick response to an instruction. And afterwards the children continue
to linger, having enjoyed this once weekly novel teaching experience, as the other
afternoon classes during the week are conducted in the classroom.
These two foreign volunteer teachers were assisted by local youth employed by SLWCS
as field scouts, who in the morning conduct research into wild elephant roaming
patterns a few kilometres away. Watching the young children of Gamboraya laughing
and enjoying themselves, through this English lesson, on an overcast day recently,
left me wondering if this was playtime or an actual lesson.
But there is serious side to this fun. As Ms Bennett explained, the use of the parachute
allows the children to "learn how to be cooperative instead of competitive, as there
are no winners or losers". In this case, it is achieved when children with one set
of coloured ribbons have to cooperate, to complete the tasks.
The different coloured teams are created only to manage numbers, as they do not
against each other. The other point, apart from encouraging cooperation instead
of competition, is the obvious one, as "it is fun way to learn, using colours and
numbers as well as enabling the children to understand and follow instructions",
said Ms. Bennett. In the next class for the older children, Ms. Bennett and Ms.
Bird also used role-play.
This for example, meant one of them holding their stomach and acting out being in
pain, while the other went around the class with a card on which was written the
words stomach ache. The children clearly enjoyed watching their teachers act out
different words. Another method used in the classroom was interactive learning,
and as it implies, an actively participatory way to learn English.
Whilst Ms. Bennett and Ms. Bird have finished their time here in Sri Lanka, and
very shortly be returning to their respective families in England, they leave behind
with the children of Gamboraya, an eagerness to continue learning English, and hopefully,
said Ms. Bennett, with other volunteer teachers from Travellers Worldwide.
On the question on what they had achieved in their eight weeks of teaching, both
said that they had succeeded in giving the children confidence to speak in English,
which they had already learnt at school, but were previously reluctant to use.
Perhaps there are lessons here in the teaching methods used by these retired teachers
for the school teaching profession in general in Sri Lanka, that the Education Department
should consider incorporating, as, a cooperative, fun and interactive way to learn
could be achieved, with or without a parachute.