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Here's paint on your tie

I recently heard a colleague describe creativity as the classroom equivalent of taking a bungee jump. It's a leap of faith into the unknown that you hope will end with a superb experience, but you suspect it may simply end with a nasty mess on the floor, to say nothing of the desks, the printer and pupils' books.

There is certainly something deeply unsettling about attempting to unleash the imagination and inventiveness of young people. You go through the options as to how they might wish to express their understanding. You tell them, with a big, cheesy grin, that they can write. With slightly lower eyebrows, you tell them they might draw. You barely mumble the words paint or Plasticine, yet they hear you and you brace yourself as you tie the bungee cord of hope around your ankles.

An hour later and we are recording what we understand about Roman gods.

Holst's The Planets is still rumbling in the background, but not as loudly as the noises Junaid is making to go with his aeroplane for no good reason.

Megan is crying because she has paint on her favourite top, while Gurvir is having a director's tantrum at her role play cast that would do Francis Ford Coppola proud.

So why do it? A valid question. Many are the afternoons that I have staggered into the staffroom like Frankenstein's monster, sporting yet another ruined tie. Calmly sitting there is a colleague whose most frantic moment of the day was when the photocopier looked like it might not cope with another run of word searches. They do not say anything, but you can read it in their eyes.

Why do it? It is a question with which you must become comfortable, secure in the knowledge that there is a good answer. Which is that it is the right thing to do. I am the first to complain when I feel I am being told exactly what to teach and how to teach it. "I'm an individual!" I say. "I am not a robot that will output to order!" So how dare I place the demands on my pupils that I refuse to have put on myself?

It is right that each individual in my class is given opportunities to express themselves in an individual way and, more importantly, develop the skills to do that more competently and effectively. That is what the teachers that made me want to become one did. I can think of no more desirable outcome for a pupil in my class than that at the end of the year, they know themselves better and have better skills to share that knowledge with others.

In the corner of that chaotic Roman temple scene sits Amrit. Nursing his ball of Plasticine like a pet, he lovingly teases it and shapes it, over the course of an hour, into the head of an Emperor. Albeit a blue one. He runs with the digital photo we took of it, waving it in front of his mum's face in the playground. She tells me the lecture he gave her all the way home about Roman gods taught her plenty.

My class draws on the metaphor of panning for gold. The early prospectors spent hours on their knees, searching through the mud, in the hope that they would discover some gold. One nugget of precious metal made the time and the discomfort worth it.

My pupils know that they may have to work through many lumps of Plasticine, many splats of paint, numerous digital photos or drafts of writing before they feel they have anything precious. As I mark their work, there will be plenty of mud to wade through, but there is also an excitement. I know that a glint of light will catch my eye. Despite the state of the sink, it will have been the right thing to do.

Peter Greaves teaches in Leicester

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