From the Nepal Himalayas, to the Cambridgeshire Chalk Marl, to the Italian lakes

In the winter of 2013/14, an environmentally orientated communication between schools in Italy, England and Nepal began. To initiate the connection, several steps had to be taken. First of all, while collaborators introduced the idea into the European schools, four volunteers began making their way up into a remote region of Nepal. From the capital, the journey lasted a rough 12-16 hours by jeep, with a following 8 hours by foot after a night‘s sleep at 3000 metres above sea level. After the journey, the volunteers finally arrived at Dhikure School in Okhaldhunga district, where roughly 50 students, their families, and the total of 3 teaching staff, including the headmaster, welcomed them. The school is not far from the famous trekking route leading to Everest basecamp, however it’s just far enough to leave it as though forgotten.

While on the one hand the nature is spectacular and the landscape undamaged by overpopulation and tourism, the school is gravely under-resourced. Children are separated into classes by age and the teachers rotate, giving each class an exercise for them to carry out alone, during the time in which they will set activities for the other kids. In Dhikure School, subjects that are taught are maths, Nepali, English, science, social science and a slot is left for a mixture of music, dance, or physical education. The Nepalese primary school curriculum mentions environmental education in science and social studies, but not in great detail. There is no specific mention of climate change. It also states that the curriculum for local subjects, including environment and conservation, will be developed by schools themselves with help. However, in this school this was not put into effect and there was no formal environmental teaching with or without a local component.

Until we arrived, the children had been teaching themselves English, as none of the teachers had a sufficient grasp of the language. The children demonstrated great dedication in teaching themselves from the work books, cooperating to complete difficult tasks. This meant that the children could write well in English, but needed practice in conversation.  We were tasked with teaching English, with an environmental orientation.  Thus, we began by showing an interest in their stories of local spirits and the places that they play, to make links between their daily experiences and connections to their local environment and the curriculum in an attempt to show them how what they already know and do is relevant in the sphere of academic knowledge of the school curriculum.  One area of which they did not seem to have much awareness was what to do with the kind of waste that comes from packaging, so we spent time encouraging them to think about this. In all of this we were teaching them vocabulary and phrases that could be used in such a context. What began as random word games soon developed into exercises in comprehension and communication.

We found that the daily journey to school provided a rich resource of local knowledge. Every day the kids walked different routes to school, each of which took a different amount of time. The most well-trodden route lasted about an hour and we would spend the majority of the time trying to keep up with the kids, or sitting for a rest, and seeing the ones who were late race down the valley and catch us up. During this time, we managed to tap into the local narrative on the environment, which we later followed up with the adults. These fascinating local narratives became core to our understanding of the people’s perception of the environment. Particular attention was given to spiritual entities that inhabit it, such as Lu gyalpo, the King of the Lu, who is considered responsible for earthquakes; and the Bhanjakris, spirits of the forests.

The children spent most of their free time roaming around the hills in big groups, not separated by age barriers, playing games. One of their most exciting games consisted of using their treasured wooden planks, which they stored in a hidden place, to shoot down the steep hill towards a stream, sometimes managing to stand for a few seconds. This enabled us to have a better understanding of the important places for the children, outside of school.  As we carried on with our lessons at Dhikure school, friends in the UK and Italy gathered together their own activities and reflections on the environment. This all culminated in communications with both Italy and England in both an oral (phone conversations via the computers) and material sense (exchange of letters, pictures and poems which we delivered to the UK schools on our return).

The second connection was planned for spring 2015 but, as we were checking in for our flight, word reached us of the earthquake. Unsurprisingly, this catastrophic and devastating event changed the nature of the interchanges that took place. It became a core theme that was discussed with each of the kids in each of the countries, and was approached in a scientific sense in Nepal through a workshop that was carried out to test the purity of the water. All three communities engaged in the interchange developed a very different sense of the significance of natural forces and a distinctive understanding of environmental change that would not have been possible if they had not been engaged in this interchange.

The schools in Italy and the UK were able to raise some funds for their friends in Dhikure, Nepal to help them to rebuild their school.  The connection and relationship that resulted between the children of these schools left a great impression on the kids involved, not only by giving them a concrete reason to want to improve their language and communication skills, but also by putting them into contact with living and dynamic examples of fascinating yet distant cultures and perspectives. The Nepali children were furthermore extremely excited with the idea of sharing their local stories, and since then we have heard many other tales, told to us to pass on to the wider world. For these reasons and many more, we all very much hope to maintain this interface. Having already had more than one connection, we are continuously improving our approaches, and the kids are becoming ever more enthusiastic with their new level of English. In the future, we hope to expand the creative aspects, as well as the school connection and language skills, by experimenting with different ways of teaching. Some of which include child-led photography explorations of the environment, so the children can not only explore their sense of aesthetics, but also document the possible changes to their environment.

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Authors: Yancen Diemberger, Olive Gillespie, Charlie Lumby & Jakub Suberlak

Contacts: yancen1@yahoo.it; gillespieolive@.com; miles_lumby@yahoo.co.uk; jakub2458@gmail.com

The group of volunteers who authored this paper was a mix of TEFL qualified English teachers and university students from Bristol, London, Vienna and Cambridge.  This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017  journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.