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Sometimes you can be too grown-up about life

My Tuesday class is anarchic, silly and 16. Trying to pursue a line of enquiry with them takes a lot of determination as every comment veers off the track and pings around like a steel ball in a pinball machine. The discussion about their class magazine was no different.

The first decision was the target audience. "We could do a magazine for really old folks," someone said. Eyes lit up at the idea of this rebellious suggestion. Old folks. Pretty soon there were the usual jokes about Zimmer frames and absent-mindedness, and a chorus of wavery voices clamouring: "Where's me teeth?"

I'd expected them to choose the 18-30 age group, so that they could write about music, fashion and celebrities. No, they were reluctant to drop the joke while they were having fun.

The joke plodded on. "It's actually a very good idea," I said finally.

"That's decided then. Older people." And I made a little note on my pad with that gesture of finality lecturers use when they have decided to stop pretending they don't have all the power. At first I was joking, too.

But the more they backtracked in panic, the more I held firm to their idea.

"It's brilliant," I insisted. "It will stretch you, which is just what the unit demands."

"Whose stupid idea was this?" Iain moaned as they began, and they all looked at each other, no longer sure who to blame.

Their idea of old people, it turned out, was anyone over 50. Their research uncovered that older people actually have a life. The magazine even covers music, fashion and celebrities, though perhaps not to their taste. Their evaluation of their project, written this week, is full of enthusiasm. "It started out as a joke, really," Eddie wrote, "but I think our target audience would really buy this."

Target audiences were on the minds of my Wednesday group too. Their main project involves a drama production for local schools featuring the social issues young teenagers can face.

Here there are only a couple of years' difference between the ages of the class and their audience. The issues, the anxieties and the worries are close enough for them to remember and to re-create, yet distant enough for them to handle the material objectively and sensitively. Watching their preview, I was struck by how good it is to see students showcase their skills.

On Wednesdays, I prise essays out of them as we explore and research theatre history and I suspect they equate the experience with root canal work. The rest of the week, as one colleague put it, "that lot is in the gym playing with white boxes".

When you teach at the theory end of vocational courses, it can be difficult to engage students who want to be "doing", whether that's playing with white boxes or putting together a video. But all parts of their course are important, I find myself telling them in a Mary Poppins voice. Being creative and developing your natural talent is fine, but no use without discipline. And frequently I have to stop myself clapping my hands two or three times and saying "Spit Spot".

It's good to see them working within the constraints of target audiences, time and money - constraints that offer a vital rehearsal for the real world of work. The play sets out on its school tour this week.

And the magazine is ready. A professional job all round. That's the trouble with young folk and further education. They come in as kids and we turn them into disciplined adults. I do miss the anarchy and the jokes.

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee College.

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