Classic inspiration

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Moliere's misanthrope prompted Nicholas Messenger's students to see the funny side of French...

As schools across the country cast around for ways of inspiring Year 9 with a love of languages, Filey School in North Yorkshire has come up with an unusual approach: French classic literature. Moli re to be precise.

"We were looking for something more dynamic than the usual transactional role plays, that would lead into preparation for AQA module 1 speaking assessment in Year 10," says head of department, Nicholas Messenger. "We also hoped that something a little more mature might encourage better take-up in the sixth form."

Moliere fitted the bill perfectly. First, because drama boosts confidence and loosens tongues. Second, because his particular brand of humour goes down well with this age group. "Slapstick, exaggeration, visual humour - these are just the sort of comic devices that appeal and demonstrate that classic literature doesn't have to be dated," he says.

So was born L'Avare de Filey, a modern-day take on Moli re's 17th-century miser, which students wrote themselves and acted out before their peers. Preparation began towards the end of Year 9, when they researched the playwright's life and times on the internet and began to explore the text. "We didn't read it all in one go. We chose key scenes and looked at them together in class. Language skills came into play as they worked out the meaning and realised that you don't have to understand every word," he says.

From here they moved on to the humour. Which bits were funny and why? What made the characters tick? How did they interact? Then, working in groups of four or five, they focused on specific personality traits to invent scenarios that would draw out these qualities and make the audience laugh.

The setting might be McDonald's, where a tight-fisted individual expresses horror at the quantity of burgers and chips ordered by his companions and insists on sending some back. Or a teenager's house, where several friends have gathered for the evening. As the first guest prepares to leave, the host takes fright at the sight of his bulky winter coat and voluminous pockets and searches him for stolen CDs and DVDs. "They created props and costumes as well. A lot of the humour comes from that," says Nicholas.

The project took just over a term to complete, interspersed with other activities to practise listening and reading. The ultimate goal of staging a performance was highly motivating and the knowledge that they were simultaneously preparing for a GCSE assessment gave students an added incentive to pull out the stops. "By the time they made their recordings, they were thoroughly familiar with the language," he says. "They entered into the spirit of it, tried to reproduce authentic accents and put expression into their words. It generated much more enthusiasm than a conventional presentation."

But how did the content tie in with the speaking assessment? While the link was straightforward in some areas, such as describing neighbourhood, family and friends, incorporating the well-rehearsed story lines required a little imagination. "For example, one person said there was a McDonald's near his home, which he visited last weekend with a friend, who ate next to nothing because it was too expensive. That was worth a few points - a past tense and an opinion in a single sentence." I try to imagine the examiner's reaction as tape after tape features miserly individuals in various guises.

"It makes a change from 'I have two brothers' and 'my mother is 40 years old'," says Nicholas.

The strategy must have worked, because results were outstanding. Of the 38 mixed-ability students involved, 23 were awarded A*, of whom nine had been predicted grade D based on key stage 3 Sats in English, maths and science.

Unfortunately, this year a change in the syllabus means that L'Avare is no longer suitable. Nicholas is investigating potential alternatives. "The presentation has been expanded and more time is allowed for preparation. We are still feeling our way," he says.

Whatever he comes up with, he believes in pushing the boundaries, not only of students but of teachers, too. "Module 1 covers old ground from KS3," he says. "It is tempting to stick with what is safe but if you are prepared to take risks and try something a little more exciting, by and large the children go with you."

* L'Avare de Filey won a European Award for Languages in September 2005 This year's EAL deadline is April 13. More at:

Dramatic links

* Choose something that you yourself enjoy. Without your enthusiasm, students will not become involved.

* Comedy is a good area to tap into. Once you expose the humour, drawing out the skills of the writer, learners begin to respond and appreciate the work's relevance today.

* Select key scenes. Do not attempt to read the whole play.

* Make the links between the drama work and the assessment explicit. The double motivation keeps students on board.

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