Another fine mess you've got me out of

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Peter Greaves accidentally discovered that Laurel and Hardy are just the thing to teach speaking and listening

All teachers search for material that will stimulate the pupils that other resources cannot reach. My treasure was found in the unlikely context of a wet playtime.

In desperation, I had shoved the only DVD I had into my laptop and invited my class of Year 3s to gather round. I didn't hold out much hope. Nothing could have been further from their usual viewing of choice.

Seventy-years-old, black and white, not just special effects-free but sound free. I wondered what they would make of the comedy as two very strange men exhibited the kind of juvenile behaviour that many in the class would engage in themselves.

By the end of wet play, the whole class was huddled round the tiny screen and I knew I had discovered gold "in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia".

That was a few months ago. Since then, pupils in other classes have confirmed the enduring comedy and appeal of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Viewing these short films produced a completely different reaction from the more familiar material (the oldest ones are silent, but I show all the films with the sound off). Usually, showing any kind of video produces goggle-eyed silence. In contrast, with these the pupils talked to each other about what they were seeing. Their laughter was spontaneous and genuine, the action predictable and all the better for it.

"He's gonna hit him back, I bet you ... see! I told you! I told you!" "Oh no, mind the steps!" Their remarks formed a running commentary about what was going on, but quickly developed into observations about the patterns that were unfolding as pupils became more familiar with the famous double act.

Jasdeep and Hiran were talking about which of the two caused most of the trouble: "The thin one is so stupid, I don't know why the big one hangs around with him; he always comes off worse."

But partners in conversation challenged each other's hypotheses and put forward their own opinions: "The thin one looks like the stupid one, but he's the one who gets them out of all the problems they get into."

As the focus of their conversation was so light-hearted - even frankly ridiculous - there appeared to be no particular merit or shame in getting things right or wrong. This superficiality of content however did not undermine the quality of the skills being used, as pupils negotiated with each other, challenging and building on each other's suggestions. Now when they watch, pupils draw parallels with more familiar material, identifying the impact that this duo has made on popular culture. Faisa said: "It's exactly like Keenan and Kel! You've got a fat one and a skinny one who get into all kinds of mess. I don't know why they hang around together." The reply came from Adam: "It's because they're mates. They'd rather be together in a mess than OK on their own."

Last summer's Progress in International Reading Literacy Study report, which showed our 10-year-olds had among the best reading skills in the world but among the least enthusiasm for it, must alert us to these gems as we come across them.

The wider our interpretation of what a "text" and "reading" are, the more likely we are to draw out the reluctant readers while teaching all pupils to apply their skills to everyday activities. This does not demand analysing the joy out of these visual treats or neglecting the written word. As we read and enjoyed Fantastic Mr Fox, how naturally our conversation flowed from the behaviour of Stan and Ollie to that of Boggis, Bunce and Bean. There are plenty of opportunities to incorporate this booty into everyday teaching.

These shorts, along with some of the older cartoons such as Road Runner and Tom and Jerry, provide whatever you need to develop skills highlighted in the Government's new speaking and listening materials. They can then be practised in other lessons without compromising the content of what is being taught.

Suddenly my misspent youth of summer holiday morning-TV viewing seems almost worthwhile. Now, if I could only find a use for Champion the Wonder Horse...

Pete Greaves teaches at Coleman Primary School, Leicester

Meeting speaking and listening goals with Laurel and Hardy

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's Year 3 term 2 drama objective is "to identify and discuss qualities of others' performances, including gesture, action and costume." One of the things pupils noticed is how Hardy in particular is always looking straight at the camera. You know straight away how he is feeling and his eye contact helps you empathise with him.

Our "group discussion and interaction" objective for the same term is "to actively include and respond to all members of the group". We talked about the problems these two characters would have being a part of any group. What would they do if they disagreed with someone? How long would they be able to listen before they got bored and did something stupid? We used this as a springboard to think about how we should be acting as part of a group, challenging each other not to be like them.

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