Bestworst lesson

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Best. Like many a literature teacher, I thought the best Dickens for my bottom set Year 11 class would be The Signalman, his ghost story. It was atmospheric, suspenseful and short - and with a video version in reserve.

I set to work looking at the opening and had my pupils visualising the railway setting by asking them to draw what Dickens' description of the line conjured up.

When I came to Craig, a budding artist, he had anticipated the author's intentions by adding a train of his own - but I was struck by its uncanny resemblance to Eurostar.

It would have been a steam train in those days, I pointed out gently. "Oh, is Dickens not alive now?" asked Craig.

No, I explained, he'd been dead for more than 120 years.

"So we don't know what he looked like?" chipped in another pupil, as more of the class listened in.

Well, we did have some photos, I said. Then I suddenly realised they probably had a portrait of him on them.

They didn't know what I was up to when I asked them for a pound;10 note, but once they realised I was not going to steal it, some of them started emptying their blazers.

The next thing we knew, we were gathered round a portrait of the author and the scene from The Pickwick Papers which used to adorn our banknotes, and talking about his life and times and his place in the nation's memory.

They looked with fresh eyes at something they had seen a thousand times and began to know who Dickens was


To a class of street-wise Year 10 children, the factory world of Eva Smith in the play An Inspector Calls seemed horribly remote.

Plus, they agreed with her boss that she was a troublemaker when she tried to strike against the low pay and unfair conditions. So I thought I had to make them see what she was fighting against.

Naive teacher training student that I was, I remembered they were preparing for work experience, so I typed up some details of 1912 factory life as an offer of a work placement, modernising the language and, of course, the money. I thought my rewritten version looked pretty convincing.

Too convincing, as I was about to find out.

My mentor had been in to observe the lesson before - a biddable Year 7 class - so she said she'd watch the first five minutes with Year 10.

She hadn't seen the lesson plan or the resource so she, like the class, was fooled by my opening notice about this placement paying pound;20 a day.

David, a boy who had not sat up straight all term, leapt out of his seat and grabbed the notice off me, while others frantically clamoured that they'd do it too.

They simply never forgave me when they realised the offer wasn't real.

"That was skank, that was, Sir," muttered a bitterly disappointed David.

And nothing in the play seemed as unjust as this teacher who'd robbed them of pound;100 a week

John Gallagher teaches in Warwickshire

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