Chaos is order of the day

17th March 2000 at 00:00
I am in my third year of teaching post-PGCE, and if there is one thing I have learned, it is the lesson of abandonment. Sometimes it is good to walk away.

I discovered this a few months ago with a difficult Year 11 group. We had been studying The Merchant of Venice and working towards a written unit on the courtroom scene. We had read the scene, discussed it and made notes ready for a newspaper lead story assignment. The worksheet I had given them contained essential journalistic phrases and a sound and obvious structure.

I was looking forward to reaping the fruits of our mutual labour. I walked into the double lesson confident of a good hard-working session. I recapped, introduced the task and was ready for stimulation.

What happened next was nothing short of mutiny, the class protesting that what happened in this scene couldn't possibly happen now. You know the feeling - nervous shock. I explained that yes, at any point in time a pound of flesh was a brutal and unthinkable cost. But this wasn't what they meant. Nowadays the whole of a city would not oppose a person in the way Venice opposed Shylock.

In desperation, I grasped the nearest news event, the Neil Hamilton versus Mohammed Al Fayed case. I pointed out that parts of the media had made the owner of Harrods a folk devil in almost the same way Shylock was seen as anevil, exotic Other.

My salvation came in a boy who took up the Al Fayed gauntlet and outlined his interpretation of the case. This started a debate and the lesson spiralled out of my control.

I tried to impose "order" on a heated debate but to no avail, so I took a step back. I realised the lesson I had planned so carefully was in tatters, but something else had emerged. Instead of the class disrupting my lesson, I was now trying to disrupt theirs.

The debate went from Shylock versus Antonio to Hamilton versus Al Fayed to the media hounding of Princess Diana; I was only called on from time to time as an arbiter.

It was a wonderful lesson. The pupils learned a lot about their assignment, background issues, and media manipulation. They went on to produce some excellent written work and had an extremely useful speaking and listening session.

The lesson was not inspired, nor was it an accident: it may have been intuitive but intuition (as my head of department observes) comes through time and experience.

Only now, during half term, do I have time to reflect on this lesson and as a commentary on my teaching style. It is occasionally better to abandon tightly organised lesson plans and simply manage a self-generated and organic learning experience.

Sean Murphy teaches at Mildenhall upper school, Suffolk

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