The dark side of the whiteboard - Pen is mightier than the bored

17th September 2010 at 01:00

First lessons with a new class are like first dates: you need to look good. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and since most of your beholders smell of Lynx and eat bogeys for breakfast, buying new crayons is a better investment than costume jewellery from Coast. So rather than slapping Benefit over your clubber's complexion and bronzer on top of your Grimsby tan, why not try the magnetic allure of some new highlighters to impress your classes instead? A few felt-tips and a jumbo pack of Post-its will give you instant star appeal. Or, if you are feeling brave, go for the Gloy. Glue is to kids what catnip is to felines: an irresistible substance best experienced by rubbing your face in it.

Resources are seriously undervalued in teaching. The drabbest KS3 lesson can be converted into a hot little number with the help of an MP3 of Car Wash, 12 inflated balloons and a game of keepie-uppie, justified in your lesson plan as a "team building exercise". Kids go mad for new stationery and dishing out a few bits of coloured paper is like giving them alcopops. Except of course you don't have your laptop seized, your hard-drive wiped and your face spread all over a newspaper.

My favourite first-date lesson is the one I give to Year 12 literature students. Using an idea loosely-linked (think crochet squares) to De Bono's Thinking Hats, it introduces the concept that texts have no fixed meaning and are open to different interpretations. Getting them to understand that after a night on the voddy shots is not easy, but by bringing out a few Blue Peter resources I can get the point across. Groups are given a summary of a specific critical school (Marxist, feminist, queer theory), then 20 minutes to make a hat representing this perspective. Finally, they have to "deconstruct" a poem wearing that critical hat. Eventually, most recognise that texts are ambiguous constructs open to different readings.

If not, it's never too late to swap to six-unit IT, which runs in a parallel, nested dream universe, accessed by being kicked off another course. (Watching the film Inception might improve your understanding of that last sentence. Sorry.)

This egalitarian critical approach is new to me. When I was a student we worshipped at the altar of the English literary canon and its elite critical MCs: AC Bradley, FR Leavis, and TS Eliot. In those days, all you needed to get ahead were two initials and a dad who was minted. These critics represented absolute authority, their word was God. No undergraduate essay was complete without some obsequious reference to Bradley or some academic fellatio on the works of Leavis, Eliot or Northrop Frye, oddly not a National Trust property but a celebrated literary theorist.

But now every critic matters: post-colonial, post-structuralist or Postman Pat. In this modern world of critical theory, Stephen Fry and the man who drives the Mr Whippy van are of equal worth. I hanker after the days when a writer wrote, a critic apotheosised and the working classes died of emphysema. I'm all in favour of progress, but this democratisation of literary criticism is taking it a step too far. In the words of The Invincibles: Helen: "Everyone's special, Dash." Dash: "Which is another way of saying no one is."

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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