Last December, 130 sixth-formers from 11 Essex schools gathered at Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) in Chelmsford for a modern languages day. Unusually, this conference was organised entirely by local secondary and university teachers.
In the morning, interactive workshops in French, German and Spanish focused on aspects of the media. Each student took part in three one-hour workshops relating to the press, television and film, where they improvised role-plays under the direction of trainee teachers and language assistants.
The afternoon session focused on languages in higher education and careers.
Presentations on the variety of courses available and the value of a language qualification were complemented by personal accounts of career experiences by language graduates.
This was a joint project, so networking was important from the start. One of my responsibilities at the Anglo-European School, an established language college, is running a languages development group for local heads of department. Many sixth-form language classes are small: we wanted to give these students the experience of working in a larger group, and to raise the profile of languages generally. We aimed also to extend their horizons beyond exam specifications and to make them aware of higher education opportunities and the value of language skills in the outside world.
The group agreed on "the media" as the broad topic for the day, and put together a draft programme. We also drew up a list of suggestions for advance reading materials and workshop activities, which were presented to PGCE students at APU and in the local school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) consortium.
APU's schools' liaison officer John Butcher took over the afternoon programme and Ienlisted the help of Mike Fay from APU's school of languages in Cambridge. Languages development group colleagues arranged photocopying of the reading materials booklet and identified language assistant helpers.
Email kept us all in constant contact with each other.
Two sessions were held in October with student teachers to involve them in the planning. Our first task was to produce advance reading materials in the form of a booklet of authentic up-to-date texts that would introduce key ideas and vocabulary. The PGCE students produced some excellent materials, which I collated. The final booklets, in French, German and Spanish, contained items such as reviews of current films, an extract from a TV guide, and articles on reality TV and the celebrity press - all likely to interest 16-year-olds while giving them an insight into a different culture.
We wanted students in the workshops to speak as much and as confidently as possible, to be creative and to have fun. The plan was for trainee teachers to explain each activity briefly in the target language, divide students into groups and give each group half an hour to improvise a scene to be performed in the workshop. Activities included acting out a scene from Big Brother, making up film trailers for current blockbusters and improvising a celebrity press conference.
Initially, the concept caused anxiety among workshop leaders and participants: the PGCE students felt they should plan a structured lesson, while the sixth-formers were terrified at the prospect of speaking a foreign language in front of others. On the day, the sense of relief after the first workshop was overwhelming. Workshop leaders were impressed by the energy and creativity of many groups, while students quickly discovered how much they had in common and worked happily together.
By the afternoon, sixth-formers were moving confidently around the APU campus, and the plenary session on higher education and careers built on their new sense of independence. Most of them had no idea that so many courses could include a language component and were amazed and flattered to discover that they had acquired valuable communication skills through their language study. PGCE students spoke about their experiences working abroad and a former BBC presenter entertained us with a video of her younger self on breakfast TV. The world was opening up for our students and looked exciting.
So what were the benefits of the conference? APU and the Anglo-European School made a positive demonstration of their support for local schools.
Members of the languages development group strengthened relationships with colleagues in other schools and established a link with the university, which should lead to further joint projects. Student teachers gained valuable sixth-form experience and language assistants appreciated wider social contacts. Our students met others and improved their oral skills; more importantly, they came away with a new confidence and sense of purpose.
A sixth-form day requires months of planning, but is immensely rewarding for all concerned. If any other schools would like to organise one, I am happy to supply more details by email.
Gill Maynard is languages development officer at the Anglo-European School, Ingatestone and teaches languages at Chelmsford County High School. Email: email@example.com