Crimean punishment

29th April 2005 at 01:00
I am supposed to teach Reading with Understanding on the job-seekers'

course. You can get fed up with analysing job advertisements and polishing letters of application, so last week we did poetry, and as it's a blokey sort of group I chose "The Charge of the Light Brigade".

"Into the valley of DeathRode the six hundred". As Alfred Lord Tennyson tells it, the brave Light Infantry ride into battle, armed only with sabres, against the full might of the Russian guns. In my case, however, it's One against the Dozen. I'm armed with a board marker pen. They have Biros.

The first burst of small-arms fire comes from Mick. "How is poetry supposed to help me get a job as a fork-lift truck driver?" I explain, with bravado, that it doesn't matter what type of text we analyse. The point is to think what the writer is trying to achieve, formulate a response and write it coherently. You would need the same skills when filing an accident report or replying to a customer query, I argue. And they believe me! Or at least Mick stops sniping.

They seem to like the poem. Of course, we don't analyse it as English literature, but we use it as a starting point for researching the Crimean War, and there are lots of aspects to work on. They seem to find that interesting, too - or is it just the chance to escape to the library and play on the internet?

The following week, we need to finish off the Crimean War. I am waiting to start the lesson but some are missing. Mick is among those who arrive 15 minutes late. I record this fact on the register. I don't like to act tough, but I may be inspected soon and I need to establish the rules of engagement. The others are OK, but Mick is cross and I see that battle lines have been drawn.

I collect last week's work and it's good. But Mick hasn't completed his and asks to go to the library to finish it. I agree, but before he disappears I set a deadline for handing it in before break.

Mick returns at the end of break and demands... a break. Too late, I tell him. He swears he has been working all this time in the library to finish his work, as requested. As there is another break scheduled soon, I tell him to wait, and this time he's mutinous.

I know adults should be treated as such and allowed a degree of independence, but these students are not here by choice. Mick is a conscript, motivated only by the King's shilling that job-seekers get when they come to college. Two skirmishes in one morning seem to suggest Mick has been watching for a weakness to exploit, and I feel that a bit of assertiveness won't go amiss.

One week later, the whole class arrives in good time. The inspector is here soon after. Will this be Mick's moment for the counter-attack? I'm in luck.

The guns have gone silent and he seems to have forgotten all about last week's skirmishes. "Into the jaws of Death... Back from the mouth of Hell... Boldly they rode and well". I'll live to fight another day.

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