How (and why) to bring playground talk into your class

The power and fun of playground rhymes can be harnessed in your FE classroom, writes David Murray

David Murray

GCSE English: How to use playground rhymes in your class

Nearly every year I hear a student sigh with all the world-weariness a teenager can muster. “School kids these days,” they say, shaking their head sadly. “We weren’t like that.” And thus speaks the wisdom of the inexperienced. For the first time in their lives, teenagers have a past as well as a future and it takes some getting used to.

I live near a playground. In the gloaming of a late afternoon, I sometimes see gangly-limbed youths slowly swaying on the swings or slumped on the slide, smoking, as smaller kids are quietly ushered aside. And I can hear my own inner old man emerging to moan, "Kids these days..." 

Why do teenagers hang around in playgrounds? Those of us who work with teenagers have learned to see through the faux-cynical carapace to the child who still hides inside. Teenagers are trans-dimensional creatures, straddling disparate worlds. They have one foot in a new life ahead that seems busy and challenging and that stretches out ominously before them. But their other foot is still in the playground of their past, with its carefree laughter and fun. And they are caught between the two: teenagers are liminal people drawn to liminal places. 

Since so many of our students still have one foot in the playground, I think we can find something to use, even in FE, in the old playground oral traditions we were all part of in childhood. Something of those traditions can become part of the architecture of the bridges we build to help students over. 

In education, we are people of tradition – the word simply meaning to pass something on or hand something over – and primary school playgrounds are bursting with traditions. There are games and songs and sayings which are passed on from one generation of children to another, without adult intervention or intrusion. It's a pure oral tradition. Some of us may remember it. We may have sung in sing-song, “Can"t catch me for a penny cup of tea" (or "…bumble bee," or the downright odd "…toffee flea"). You might have cried for a truce with "crosskeys" (or the puzzlingly archaic "Fainites"). These were a shorthand, easy to pass on and recall when needed. And they invited participation. 

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So how can we turn playground traditions to our advantage as teachers? Instead of demanding students all leap immediately into a new adult world of knowledge, we can help them to ease themselves from childhood using tools they once knew. 

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In earlier stages of education, this is done all the time. Students are steeped in acronyms and mnemonics, in imagery and rhymes. In English, for instance, they may all learn about wisba, or wabbits, or daforest, or flap to remember about word types or necessary essay elements. Teachers at earlier stages know about this and in FE we could do with remembering it, too. 

This works for the spellings of odd words. There are often good ways to remember strange spellings. For instance, you’d be surprised how often I’ve had to help students spell "diarrhoea" (don"t ask). It's easily taught: "Done In A Rush, Run Home Or Else Accident". They don’t tend to ask me again. A quick scan through the internet will return wonderful little rhymes you can use. Just beware the hoary old chestnuts like "i before e except after c," which is nearly always wrong. Make sure it’s true, or it fools me and you. 

It also works for structuring essays. In essay-based subjects, school students have pretty universally learned about PEE paragraphs (“Don’t forget to pee on it,” snigger, snigger) or they may have been taught to write "burger" paragraphs, with the meat in the middle. 

It even works in summarising texts. Hamlet, for instance, can be remembered as "Hesitation And Madness Leads to Everyone"s Termination". Or Othello could be "Old Trusty Hero, Ensign Lies she Loves an Other", but that one might need some more work. 

The key is to make things memorable. We all respond to rhymes, mottos, mnemonics and sayings which are easy to remember and designed to pass on. A guarantee after I set a new piece of work is that I will be asked how many sides it should be. If I start with my motto now, someone else in the class usually joins in: "Short and strong is better than long and wrong." (That’s also a pretty sound life lesson right there). 

In an attempt to maximise the potential of the playground in learning, the other thing I sometimes do is ask students to re-explain what I’ve just said, letting them retell it in their own words. Many times I’ve taken ages to explain something, only to be trumped by a student's admirable (if brutal) concision, “All he said was…”

I don’t tout myself as any great pedagogue, and this isn’t based on some grand educational theory built on the latest developmental psychology. I just know it works. I try to let the playground into my lessons with older teenagers since they’ve often still got one foot there anyway. And we all need to play. So I ask them to pass things on and I let them learn with sayings and rhymes. Even when they’re sitting there looking moody and awkward. Anyway, I could go on, but I won’t. After all, short and strong is better than long and wrong.

David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College

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