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Everyone loves to play the fool

There will be a lot of practical jokes played on April 1, but the day can also be used to spark classroom debate, says Jim Merrett

As Mark Twain once wrote: "The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year." April Fools' Day will soon be upon us and children will be considering what sorts of pranks they can play. A few teachers probably will too, as it makes an interesting subject for assembly or literacy.

It is generally believed that the tradition of playing tricks on people and calling them an April Fool dates from the calendar change in 1582. In that year, Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar in place of the old Julian one. One of the changes was that New Year's Day now fell on January 1 instead of April 1. Some people refused to accept the change and continued to celebrate the start of the new year on April 1. In France, these became known as poisson d'Avril - April fish (newly hatched fish, in April, are easier to catch, hence the name). Britain didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until some time later but the tradition of sending people on false errands and playing pranks on them came across from France and subsequently spread throughout much of the world, although there are quite a few variations in the way the tradition is practised.

In school, children like to hide furniture, classroom accessories and, sometimes, even themselves. More elaborate hoaxes have included putting a note in every register to say that there will be a dental inspection for that class at morning break, causing the entire school to descend on a little medical inspection room at the same time; advertising smoky custard flavour crisps at the tuck shop was another.

Some teachers like to use the opportunity to reinforce the importance of reading instructions carefully. Prepare a worksheet for pupils to follow.

The first instruction should say to read the paper through first before attempting any answers. After that, there can be a set of questions. At the end, say: "Do not write anything on the paper. Do not attempt any of the questions. Just fold your arms and sit still." It'll be interesting to see how many children will fall for it.

This trick doubles as both an April Fool and a reminder of the importance of reading instructions carefully for the national tests.

Another idea is to send someone to the next room to borrow a tin of blue and yellow stripy paint. While he or she is out, arrange with the rest of the class that they will call a square a circle and vice versa and argue with you over it. When the child returns, with or without the paint, it will be interesting to see if peer-group pressure will cause him or her to side with the rest of the class in calling a square a circle.

It is also worth buying a few newspapers that day, too, and asking the class to spot any April Fool stories. This can lead to lively discussion and interesting comparisons while improving their familiarity with that medium.

Undoubtedly there will be a lot of fun to be had on the day, but children can be encouraged to ensure that no harm is done by their pranks, so that even the "victims" can enjoy the fun.

And, if teachers can stay alert on the day itself, as through the rest of the year, then we can reply to Mark Twain: "Speak for yourself mate."

Jim Merrett is a teacher, writer and ICT consultant

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