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Gorillas in the mission

Last month I said my mission for Backchat was to explore the gap between theory and practice in the classroom. Yes, I know I said "mission" but sometimes you just get sucked into the jargon. Which one of us is not guilty? Anyway, this month I'm talking about student-centred learning, or rather, the difficulties they didn't tell you about on the training course.

"Boring. I don't see the point. It's just stupid" is Helen's response to any activity. She is not interested in any aspect of literacy, it seems, but it is a compulsory unit so I need to get her co-operation, and soon, before all the others start complaining too.

I have read about Bloom's Taxonomy and I think I'll give it a try: put her in charge of her own learning and see if that will improve her motivation.

I am fair, I am flexible and I am prepared to negotiate a project in which Helen can study something she is interested in, providing it involves some reading and writing. But Helen claims not to be interested in anything. "I haven't got any hobbies," she insists. "Why does everyone have to have a hobby? I don't read. I don't watch films. I don't do anything. I just hang around with my mates."

Eventually she admits to reading celebrity magazines. I suggest she might put together her own magazine and she is incredulous. We look at some magazines and work out what goes into one. "Footballers, film stars, anything you like," I offer. "Gorillas", she announces, "they're really cool." So gorillas it is, and Helen is up to the library and on to the internet. She downloads quantities of information and starts indiscriminate copying and pasting.

We have lots of lovely photos of baby gorillas, but Helen hasn't quite got the art of sizing them, so some are long and thin, some extraordinarily short and wide. They don't look quite so cute like that.

During the week, I get reports from other lecturers that Helen is gathering more and more material. I ask to see it, so I can help her sort it out and present it well. She refuses. "You'll just make it like you think it should be," she tells me, "not what I want. It's my project and you can keep off."

The textbook on student-centred approaches didn't warn me about this. I go back to the chapter on Bloom's Taxonomy and find it needs "risk-taking" and "trust". I took the risk, but plainly I am not trusted one inch.

How are we going to move from getting her to do something - anything - to actually improve her writing capabilities? Suggesting some redrafting techniques is out of the question. "Get your friend to read it through, then, to be sure it all makes sense," I venture.

Eventually Helen feels she has done all she can. "What can I do with it now?" she asks. "If it's all for nothing, I don't know why I bothered."

"Magazines are for others to read, so let's put it together, then you can share it with your mates," I try, hoping this isn't going to be the start of another huffy fit.

I go to the office and beg for some plastic filing sleeves. The office assistant counts them out, sparingly. Am I pushing my luck to ask for a treasury tag?

To my amazement, she dives to the back of the cupboard and brings out a presentation binder. I take it back to Helen and her eyes light up. "Did you nick this?" she asks.

Initially I didn't want Helen's negative attitude to affect the rest of the class but now they all want to do a project. So I am trying to run a class in which students are writing a farming memoir, reviewing venues for extreme biking, compiling ghost stories and writing letters to stray dogs'

homes. As no one is above entry level, this is ambitious, and the writing just pours out of their heads and on to the page. Marking is tricky because I don't want to curb their enthusiasm.

Thinking about Bloom reminds me that James Joyce made his name with stream-of-consciousness writing, using a character of that name, but I don't suppose Joyce had to go to the office and beg for presentation folders for his manuscript. And he didn't have to write lesson plans predicting what he would do when an anarchic group of students have free rein to take their own learning forward.

Louise has turned up again. She dropped out of a foundation course ("I hated it"), found a job ("I hated it"), but she's lost that and is here on the unemployed retraining scheme ("I hate it"). I ask if there is any kind of work she thinks she might enjoy? "Dunno. I've tried a few things but I've hated them all." OK, Bloom, what am I going to do with this one?

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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