Dads know best

7th December 2007 at 00:00

David Wares gets his pupils fired up about Shakespeare by creating a righteous fury. I look around at the girls in my class. "Juliet was 13," I tell them. "That's Year 8, the same as you." There are a few loud mutters. The odd "disgraceful" or "child abuse" is thrown in by the girls and quite a few statements to the effect that her human rights must have been infringed.

"Human rights?" I tell them, "She had none. She was just a girl. Girls don't have rights."

A forest fire of female fury is being fanned.

"She was forced into an arranged marriage at 13. By her dad," I say. "And when she refused, he beat her and beat her mother and threatened to throw her out on the street."

The indignation grows louder. I pause and smile as I allow the class to quieten down a little. "Who thinks that their parents should be allowed to choose their husband or wife?

"If I could choose a husband for my daughter, I would."

I'm shouted down. "Love?" I argue. "Rubbish!" More shouts. "Dads know best. Girls shouldn't be allowed to choose their husbands."

The class is in uproar now. I smile to let them know that I am only joking and I visually push down the noise level with my palms.

"Sir, you wouldn't really choose your daughter's husband, would you?"

I draw a breath: "Why not? Tell me why it wouldn't be a good idea?"

A 15-minute debate ensues, during which quiet, hard-working girls demand to be heard, alongside eye-linered, gum-chewing girls who argue vociferously for female emancipation in Elizabethan England.

"Well, she does end up dead," Sharnice admits. "But still, that's her choice, not her dad's." This debate occurred during discussion time, which I use to start most English schemes of work. It proves that the arranged marriages, teenage violence and peer pressure found in Romeo and Juliet are all well worth thorough investigation.

And it proves teaching is a performance. I'm no Ian McKellen, but I know how to make a song and dance and how to wind up an audience.

I can plan for it, but cannot be totally sure how it will go as I prod, nettle and encourage the pupils to become more active learners.

I would encourage schools to set up their own regular discussion time, because if a pupil can discuss a play, and talk through the issues and narrative with passion, while understanding the characters, context and the language, then they can write about it too. They will want to do it again.

It is the starting point for debate and it is a good interim booster session. And if a pupil brings up an interesting angle on something we are studying, I might use it again.

Clear ground rules are needed, and the discussion must stay on topic, but it pays massive dividends

David Wares teaches English, drama and media studies at Joseph Swan School in Gateshead

Teacher tips

Choose an issue from the text that is deliberately provocative.

Whoever speaks, we all listen. Including the teacher.

Ensure an orderly transition between speakers. For example, use the marker system, where only the person holding a designated whiteboard pen is allowed to speak. Others can raise their hand to have it passed to them.

Encourage pupils to think for themselves, so answer a question with a question.


Book: Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin, Egmont, pound;5.99.

Good class reader or for pupils to read alone. Exuberant and rich drama set in the 18th century, with abandoned babies, feckless aristocrats, dollops of slavery and much else. It's fantastically well plotted and written too.

Resource: The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1 1AZ,

If you study Coram Boy, take pupils for a free workshop at this very touching museum. If not, go for the story of the Foundling Hospital and its campaigning founder.

Website www.vam. ac.ukmoc childrens_livesholidays_ entertainmentthe_singing_playgroundindex.html

Hear playground songs from all over the world, as sung in our multi- cultural schools. Particularly great for pupils with English as an additional language.

Jo Klaces teaches English at Queensbridge School in Birmingham.

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