Teaching with Heart, not Materials: Ethiopia, Crete, Ecuador and Borneo

Teaching with Heart, not Materials: Ethiopia, Crete, Ecuador and Borneo

Working in low resource classrooms is a hugely rewarding experience. Herewith some more activities that I designed to make up for few (if any) resources.


In the Amazonian jungle, I “borrowed” guests from the nearby Eco-Lodge (I was staying there, too); I persuaded them to come and observe my classes and then talk to my students on a one-to-one basis. I had a favourite activity that did not require too many resources. After a hangman exercise to guess the guests’ names, the visitors were given a list of my students with three columns: first, they had to guess how many brothers and sisters my students had. Next, my students stood up one by one and gave a mini-presentation on their families including how many siblings they had. The guests had to jot down the correct numbers as well as note down the difference. Most often the American, French and German tourists seriously underestimated the numbers: in an Achuar family, there are typically 8 to 12 children. (If there had been no facility to print at all, I could have asked my guests to write down the names of my students as they introduced themselves when greeting the visitors at the beginning of the lesson and enter the data in the three columns drawn by hand.)

It was then time for turning the tables. I asked the visitors to say a couple of words about themselves and specifically mention how many brothers and sisters they had. In the final 10 minutes, the guests sat with my students and talked to them individually. Many later said that the visit to the school was one of the highlights of their stay in the jungle and after returning to their home countries some of them even found ways of helping to get more resources (they donated money for solar panels, sent laminated maps and supported/sponsored an Achuar student of mine who came to live with me in the cultural capital of Ecuador, Cuenca, for a whole year).

On Mabul Island, my daughter took the kids outside to sing “Head, knees and toes” and we did an activity on how to keep the environment clean by gathering rubbish as we went to the school (carefully explaining in class what is organic and what will stay in the soil for hundreds of years). We had plastic bottles, metal bottle caps, plastic bags as well as smelly, rotting fruits, cellophane wrappings and small pieces of water-logged wood. We hauled in a large plastic bin (OK, we bought the bin liners) and the kids had to throw rubbish in it while naming the items in English. During the lesson we encouraged them to recycle and to collect rubbish in general. This approach must have been a novelty as the same morning we could see that the local police ordered kids to rake leaves (par excellence organic) around their garrison while impassively staring at the filthy beach strewn with rubbish.

In Crete, we played battleships: you only need one master sheet to photocopy each time. If you don’t have access to a photocopier, you can easily get your students to draw the 10 x 10 grid in their exercise books on the spot. We did it in two groups rather than pairs with each individual calling out a line and a letter. Since my students were adults who held down jobs (most of them in the grey economy) we often played charades miming what their work was for the others to find out. The topics and categories are, of course, endless.

Like most volunteer teachers, I often used my own money to buy resources while nudging my family and friends to donate. From small items like stationery to large items like batteries for solar panels, from small presents for Christmas to huge projects like supporting an Ecuadorian student in his further studies for a year as well as successfully applying to foundations to finance projects – I did it all.

Maybe I am cheating when I talk about low resource classrooms. However, on at least two occasions, I started all over again with no resources whatsoever. Even if I had nothing else, I always had a hand-written sheet (no PC, no printer) about myself with a passport size photo stuck onto the door of my office.

Without fail, it was nicked.

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