“What’s that, Miss?” enquired one of my students, eyeing the ball of string lying on the floor of the classroom curiously.
Earlier that week, I’d attended a training session that got me thinking about the dreaded TTT – or teacher talk time. As a teacher, I know I talk too much: it’s just something we like to do. In addition, thanks to motivated and respectful students, my classroom has morphed into a teacher-dominated zone in which the ‘sage on the stage’ model has become the norm.
Attending a different conference that same week, I very nearly fell asleep. Granted the subject matter wasn’t very riveting and I was tired, but the monotony of the delivery played a defining role in my disengagement. What must it be for students to encounter this approach in nine out of ten lessons? Is that what my lessons had become? The scissors and string was my attempt to prove otherwise.
Of course, context is everything. Currently, I teach in an international school in Spain full of well-behaved students who respect teachers and allow them to teach (read: lead from the front). My previous school, a tough state school in London, could not have been more different. Getting and keeping students’ attention required serious planning and at any moment, poor behavior could disrupt or even derail the lesson. Acquiring the attentive atmosphere required for in-depth discussions could be a battle. Here, I don’t have to try.
The string and scissors episode fits into a larger unit of work in which students study war poetry, culminating in a piece of reading coursework. The first poem ‘Disabled’ by Wilfred Owen, is a favourite of mine: the opening lines with their haunting imagery of the wheelchair-bound veteran...”shivering in his ghastly suit of grey/Legless, sewn short at elbow” never fail to move me and I wanted my students to appreciate the extent to which the protagonist’s life has changed.
Having bombarded the students with videos of trench warfare and wounded soldiers, it was finally time to read the poem. Loathe to start in the same old way, I pondered alternatives. Perhaps I could project a fake “Your account has been disabled” message on the IWB screen feign frustration, flap about and generally get annoyed. Then we’d have a discussion about the emotions I experienced and blah, blah, blah.
In the end, I decided against it: too teacher-centric, too much focus on me. Recalling a ball of string left over from a drama project, I rushed to my cupboard, pulled it out and started cutting lengths. I was still occupied with this task when the bell went for the start of the lesson and it was entertaining to see the students’ puzzled expressions as they entered. Redirecting them to the back of the room, we did a few star jumps, touched our toes and jogged on the spot. Then I asked for four volunteers and instructed their peers to bind their hands and feet. When we repeated the exercises, the tied-up students could not take part. No help was allowed, either: they had to fend for themselves and by the time we returned to their desks, the cracks were beginning to show.
The torture continued for a few more minutes before they were finally freed and interviewed by their peers. What were their thoughts during the entire experience? How did they feel? Here are some of the words they came up with: impotence, frustration, anger, jealousy, useless, pathetic, self-pity, stress, impatient, miserable, depressed – the list went on. When I asked them, during feedback, to imagine a lifetime of such privations, the mood grew somber. Nevertheless, I was gratified to see some students already reaching for their poetry books.
I’m sure I could have elicited a similar list with a few carefully chosen images: as I mentioned, these are well-behaved students who strive to please. However, I’m confident that this activity helped them empathise with the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist and I know for a fact it engaged: the sound of children chattering excitedly about learning is one that I admit must be heard more in my classroom.
My advice? Take the plunge. Choose your class wisely: trusting kids with scissors and string may, in certain classrooms, be unworkable. Perhaps ‘taking the plunge’ in your class means letting students work in groups or choose their work partner. Whatever you do, establish clear links to learning to avoid disappointment (or worse) in your students. If you’re comfortable departing from your usual routines, aim for a sparky starter or activity to energise your students and make your classroom the kind of place both you and your students want to be in.
Rosie Scourti is an English teacher living and work in an international school in Spain.