Peter Greaves shows how teachers can let go without losing it. This week: The big conversation

During a science lesson recently, I started talking with Liam about our learning focus, growth. "How much would you like to grow?" I asked him.

There was just the longest pause. This was obviously a much bigger question than I realised. "I don't care," he said, "as long as it is at least 2cm taller than my brother." This sparked a conversation with some others on the table, and we were off.

In that pause between work starting and getting stuck, I love to grab a moment and talk about the bigger things around the lesson content. Having a meaningful conversation with pupils is such a treat, and important in sustaining an exciting, creative, stimulating classroom. The problem is getting round everyone. Circle time gives a context for this occasionally, but it can easily become unwieldy with larger class sizes if the focus is allowed to drift. Instead of waiting for a lull to stimulate conversation, I decided to try to instigate it from the beginning of the lesson. And I found an unlikely ally in an old enemy.

What is it about felt-tips? Pupils come into my room, with a pen for every colour under the sun, each capable of ruining books, clothes, desks and my mood. Like electricity though, this destructive power can be harnessed.

Pupils will always seize the opportunity to use felt-tips, the bigger the better. I began to think of the kind of questions I would ask one-to-one if I had the chance. I introduced these to the class at the start of the lesson and wrote them on separate flipchart sheets that then got stuck around the room. At appropriate points in the lesson, I gave chunky felt-tip pens to small groups and told them they could reply to the questions they wanted to. I also gave them permission to use their own pens which brought some smiles.

The opportunity to use those felt-tips was irresistible. Suddenly, everyone was huddled around sheets, engaged in the conversation. In geography, to the question "Where is the best place on Earth?", responses ranged from "the swimming pool in Portugal" to "my Granny's living room". In music, we found preferences for Jools Holland and JS Bach. In RE we learned that of the 23 pupils who said they prayed, 16 believed it worked. The real bonus was that these answers were not just for me as pupils started responding to one another's answers, developing the conversation through asking further questions. As a result this paper-based discussion has only ever added to the quality of learning.

The crowning moment came during a discussion about a favourite painting.

Nell turned to me and said, "What do you think, Mr Greaves?" and there was an expectant hush for my answer. I turned to Nell and spoke words that I have never said before: "Can I borrow a felt-tip?"

Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School in Leicester. Write to

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