I have been teaching SCUBA diving in Indonesia for 5yrs – the last 2 as head instructor at Lutwala Dive (www.lutwala.com) - but recently had to take a break and return to the UK for 6 months. And I felt like, errrr, well, a fish out of water! I missed diving, I missed teaching, I missed being a part of the underwater world I love so much. So I decided to get pro-active and organised to give a presentation on sharks and the threats they face to my local Girl Guide group.
I was excited to share my knowledge and love of sharks but I have to admit to being a little apprehensive: twenty 13yr old girls makes for a potentially tough audience. Their group leader warned me well in advance that they could be very restless and easily distracted. I knew I had to get them excited early on or I'd just be another boring adult come to talk blah blah blah about blah blah blah to them....
I've taught kids in various roles in the past and have found there are 3 key tricks that help to keep them engaged.
Firstly, kids tend to be visual learners, they like to SEE stuff and get bored when they have to just listen for (what seems to them like) hours on end. So within a minute of starting my presentation I showed them a video clip of me diving with 60 sharks. That sure got their attention! And I continued to use photos and videos throughout my presentation, especially personal ones that they could use to relate to the strange adult in front of them.
Secondly, kids LOVE to ask questions. Let them. Forget having a scripted talk, you're never going to stick to it! Have a loose format and then allow the kids to guide it. Accept, no, ENCOURAGE questions. Equally, ASK questions. 'Why do you think sharks might be in danger?', 'How big do you think the biggest shark is?', 'Is it ok to cut a shark's fins off?', 'Why do you think people are often scared of sharks?'. This allows the kids to really process the information they're receiving.
Thirdly, GET ACTIVE! No kid can be expected to sit still for a whooooooooole hour (remember an hour in kid time is a day in our's!). The girls I presented to loved stretching out on the floor, head to toe, to measure out the size of a whale shark! This also links back to visual learning, seeing the shark's size in real terms makes it much easier for them to grasp.
So those are my 3 key tactics to keeping kids engaged in what is potentially a difficult topic. Then, content! I first of all wanted the girls to really feel some excitement about sharks so I talked quite a bit about shark evolution and how awesome they are as apex predators that have been around since before the dinosaurs. The girl's eyes widened as they learnt how far away a shark can smell its prey from, how fast it can swim and how it can navigate its way around the globe: 'No waaaaaaaaaay', 'That's so cooooooooool'.
Now that they were starting to respect the shark, I wanted the girls to empathise and care about it too. But can young teenagers really understand the dangers faced by sharks and the consequences if we lose them from our eco system? Absolutely. If anything, I found them more receptive than the adults I've spoken to in the past. Kids aren't as accepting as adults, they don't yet feel the jaded sense of 'that's just the way it is', they don't doubt that change is possible. These girls felt true anger and horror when I explained to them how and why sharks are finned and in what quantities. And, wonderfully, they WANTED to know what they could do to help. I explained to them the best thing they could do at this stage was simply to spread the word, tell their friends what they'd learnt, put it on Facebook, ask to do a project at school. The loved the idea that if they told 5 people each, and they told 5 people each, and THEY told 5 people each etc, then very rapidly the sharks' plight would become common knowledge. I also explained to them that as they got a bit older they could sign petitions, make informed choices when buying food and maybe one day give their own presentations. And who knows, maybe one of these young girls will become the next big shark conservationist of the future?!
The last thing I would suggest, if time allows, is to plan some shark-related activities. I say if time allows as, in my case, I showed one too many photos and answered one (ok, a hundred!) too many questions and ran out of time! HAD time allowed, I had great plans for the girls: to work in groups to write a letter to the Minister of Fisheries, explaining what they had learnt, how it made them feel and what they would like to change; to design a t-shirt bigging up the sharks; and to make a pop-up card of a shark with a thought bubble saying how the shark's feeling. I DID find the time, before the girls ran off to tell their parents how cool sharks are, to hand out certifcates I'd made: the girls all signed them and by doing so pledged to help protect sharks and spread the word.
All in all, I had a great time with the Girl Guides and I reckon they might just have enjoyed it too: in fact, their leader was gobsmacked, saying she'd never seen them so attentive before! And that's just the mesmerising kind of effect sharks SHOULD have.