Bestworst lesson

25th January 2008 at 00:00
Best: It was nearing the end of summer term in a baking hot classroom with pupils (and teacher) beginning to flag slightly amid daydreams of summer holidays. The group was Year 11 GCSE history and the topic was 19th-century public health reform, not the most inspiring part of the syllabus, or so it seemed.

In a bid to stir wavering interest, I acted on the suggestion of a colleague to try a parliamentary debate. A practice session was hastily convened to discuss the burning issue of dogs versus cats and the impact was immediate. Pupils hotly debated key issues such as the scarcity of dogs getting stuck up trees and the possibility of "police cats" as a viable security force.

Previously passive pupils were involved straight away, the most likely to become distracted becoming the most focused in their speeches.

Next we went on to YouTube to study the professionals in action at Westminster. Pupils prepared their speeches for homework and the stage was set for the Commons to come to Colwyn Bay. They performed brilliantly, using all the rules and techniques employed in the real thing. They even organised their own film crew to record the proceedings and analyse their efforts.

Even better, they dug beneath the surface of the arguments to analyse the pros and cons of reform from a variety of different angles. A great way of bringing an apparently dry topic to life.

Worst: As a recently qualified teacher, delivering the medieval realms unit to a mixed-ability Year 7 group, I decided that the best way of bringing the subject alive would be to organise a medieval banquet, with pupils preparing and sampling their own food based on original recipes.

At first the lesson seemed destined to be a great success. All the pupils had managed to find a recipe and bring something in, ranging from the humble mince pie to pease pottage and even a pair of pigs' trotters (not on the menu, I hasten to add). Medieval music was played, some pupils had got hold of appropriate clothing and one volunteered to be class jester.

Things began to go wrong after one pupil sampled a seemingly innocent blackcurrant crumble. His face quickly turned the colour of the rhubarb stew and off he rushed to the boys' room to relieve his poor stomach of its contents.

Unfortunately this incident appeared to set off a domino effect in which one pupil after another decided that they had been "poisoned" by the crumble, and I was soon left with a much reduced class and a less than enviable reputation in the staffroom.

Later, it turned out that the boy in question had been suffering from an upset stomach and the other pupils demonstrated no further ill effects. A lesson was learned, and while the banquet has gone from strength to strength, the sampling sessions have been severely restricted

Sean Gavin teaches history at Eirias High School in Colwyn Bay, North Wales.

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