Creativity for control freaks

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Peter Greaves shows how teachers can let go without losing it. This week:

I remember getting my first "class pack" back from the school photographer.

On the top was the class photo, all smiling the same smile and sitting neatly in rows, with thumbs inside clenched fists, tidily placed on knees.

Then came the individual portraits. Big grins, mad hair, gappy teeth all the features guaranteed to get grandma weeping. I realised, perhaps for the first time, that in the primary classroom, the sum is not greater than the parts.

If I am to help pupils develop and express individuality in a creative way, I need established routines that improve my knowledge of each individual.

The jewel in my crown of communication at a one-to-one level is the journal. I introduce it with a ridiculously over-staged piece of theatre.

The class sits in a circle, and in an atmosphere of hush and expectation I show them a brand new book. I have used big, small, expensive and even free books; it doesn't seem to make any difference. Neither does the age or ability of the pupil. As I leaf through the untouched pages, I ask them to imagine how the book might look at the end of their year, full of good days and bad, new friends and old, successes and disasters. I give examples from past classes about how knowing what was making certain pupils happy or sad helped me be a better teacher and how I hope they will help me be a better teacher to them. With great ceremony, I hand them each a new book, inviting them to fill the first page with everything they think I should already know about them.

As the year goes on, each journal evolves to suit its owner's needs. Some write news from home or recount glorious victories in playground games, others write of lunchtime loneliness and ask for help. Each entry gives me the opportunity to respond personally. Once pupils come to trust the communication, they use it as and when they need to: some every day, some once a term. I pledge that if anyone leaves their journal out at the end of the day, I will have read it and replied by the following morning. This makes for a heavy workload when novelty value is fresh, but it soon begins to even out, becoming more manageable.

As I sit with piles of books to mark, often nearly all the same, the journals remind me of the individuals who make up the group. The digital photo pasted on the cover, along with the contents of the book itself, tells again that the crowd of 30 pupils I seek to "manage" is made up of other people's sons and daughters, with whom it is a privilege to spend the day.

Peter Greaves teaches at Dovelands Primary School in Leicester

* Don't miss this week's 24-page magazine on creative learning, Mission to Inspire, free inside The TES

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