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Geography Surprise

03 Sep 2015

  • Lum Kit Kuan Melanie_02.jpeg

  • Lum Kit Kuan Melanie_01.jpeg

Ms Melanie Lum uses unusual methods to jolt her students into awareness about themselves and deepen their understanding of Geographical ideas. It is her way of showing them that the world is full of wonders – if they only know how to look at it.

Melanie Lum, President’s Award for Teachers 2015 Award Finalist
Catholic Junior College


The lesson was on volcanoes. I walked into the lecture theatre and dimmed the lights as the screen exploded with a dramatic scene from Dante’s Peak showing Pierce Brosnan in a car racing across a lava stream. I asked the 70 students – Based on what you know of volcanoes, do you think this is possible?

They did not expect that. And they thought it was incredibly funny, especially after I stated very matter-of-factly that even if the 800 degree Celsius lava did not melt the car’s tyres, it would not have been able to escape the hot blast of gas and materials racing down the slopes at 100km per hour, technically called a pyroclastic flow. This, I said, is a Hollywood movie.

I do not think they would forget that lesson. My students like it when I spring unexpected surprises in class and I believe surprises help them to remember things. On another occasion, I brought a balloon to class and got a student to pop it to demonstrate air pressure. When I was lecturing them about P-waves and S-waves – these are waves which move through the earth and are relevant to earthquakes – I made them stand up and wiggle like waves.

Lessons with a Twist

I also do things differently to get the students really thinking about their work. Sometimes, students would come for consultations and they say they cannot remember anything! I realised that these students did not develop deep learning about the concepts. To do this, I ask questions to scaffold conceptual understanding.

It is tough coming up with good geographical questions which prompt learning, so I work with other educators in the fraternity. This January, I got together with some colleagues from National Junior College (JC) and Pioneer JC to come up with a detailed framework of subject-specific questions to frame the teaching of Tropical Environments. This framework was subsequently shared with other Geography teachers in an Instructional Programme Support Group session in April.

I have also observed that most students also do not pay attention to the comments we painstakingly write in their essays, so I brainstormed with my colleagues and we came up with some ideas which we implemented this year. One is to get students to compare different samples of work, on aspects such as introductory paragraph, quality of evaluation and paragraph structure against a rubric and get them to articulate which band the work seems to fall into. This helps them understand what quality work is.

Surprisingly Personal

The element of surprise is surprisingly effective too, when I want to jolt students to look at their personal problems with a new perspective. Of course, it also means that I must improvise because their responses may be unexpected!

I once handed a lump of plasticine to a girl who felt troubled and was missing school because her mother had been diagnosed with a medical condition. I just thought I would give her something to do, and respond off-the-cuff to whatever she did, which was to knead it into Charlie Brown’s face. I asked, “Do you know what I’m trying to tell you?” Fortunately, her conclusion was: To look on the bright side of things – an attitude which that famous cartoon strip character is well-known for. Eventually, she was emotionally stabilised and she did well enough to go to university.

I told another student to literally step away from a pillar while counselling him. He had numerous interpersonal problems and could not get along with his friends. I spotted him hanging around and shuffling about nervously one day. When I asked him what was troubling him, he shared about his problems and got quite emotional. To snap him out of it, I asked him to lift his head and tell me what he saw. He said he saw a wall. I asked him to take three steps back and asked him again what he saw. This time, he said, “People”. That was how I got him to see that he had to stop driving himself into a corner, which blinds him from seeing what he has – people who cared about him. It is all about perspective.

After that, I worked closely with his counsellor and got his mother involved to support him at home. When he went to university, both he and his mother thanked me for what I had done, and I was touched when I saw that he had managed to make some friends who cared for him.

The students find my own story remarkable, too. They do not expect to hear that I did not do well enough at ‘A’ levels to make it to the university and had to retake my 'A's as a private candidate. I was taking a subject combination which I did not like, and struggling with poor health, which made it hard to study effectively. Through this, I hope they realise that if their teacher could overcome setbacks, so could they.

A Different Lens

Above all, the one revelation I want them to leave my class with is that Geography is not a boring subject about landforms and distant ideas like globalisation. No, I want them to see that it is a subject which can help them make sense of the world. Geography is real, and it is everywhere.

An understanding of water cycle and the management of water resources will enable a Geography student to understand why there are water tensions between countries. Knowledge of weather patterns will help them make an argument about why global warming will affect other Earth’s spheres and how this will eventually affect everyone. A grasp of the concept of globalisation will lead the Geography student to read an article about friendly ties between Singapore and Australia and say, I know why this is happening.

I purposefully bring across these connections in my classes and I show them newspaper articles which might have a Geographical context. To make those connections even clearer, our college engages people from the wider community like lawyers, businessmen and town planners to come in and speak to students who attend our college’s Ignite residential programme. The town planner could talk, for instance, about how Singapore’s economic and population policies can affect urban planning. It does not just cut across space, the connections also cut across time. In physical geography, for instance, I show them that a grain of sand is not just that. It is the result of rock undergoing thousands and millions of years of erosion. Everything is interconnected.

Geography opens their minds to these connections, and once they see them, they would have adopted what I call the geographer’s lens, which is a way of seeing and understanding the world, questioning the past and present, and asking about the impact that we all have on our natural environment.

Ms Lum Kit Kuan Melanie, 42
Senior Teacher (Geography)