Don't write off support

24th December 2004 at 00:00
I have been asked to support a group where the students are generally bright, but have some difficulty completing written tasks. Unfortunately, they are all male teenagers, where saving face is at a premium, and they are not keen to be seen within a mile of a support tutor.

The central focus for the group is a lad who makes up for his slight stature by extreme visibility. His problems are in part to do with hyperactivity and he spends much time scooting around on his chair, distracting his peers. In the opposite corner is an entirely different problem: six foot and 14 stone, morose, for the most part silent, but with a glare designed to make pedestrians jump off the sidewalk when he is in town.

Towards the end of the lesson, he is as irritated by the constant hubbub as I am, and suddenly bellows in his best Anglo-Saxon at the disruptive student. Small student suggests his opponent goes away and makes babies.

Whereupon Mr Big leaps up without warning, spreads his arms wide, puffs up his chest and snarls: "Come on then, if you want to have a go". Small slinks back to his desk, eyes lowered, and I see his jaw is working. Any moment now, David Attenborough will pop up from behind a desk, and will explain, sotto voce and direct to camera, the group dynamics of a pack of adolescent males.

The incident is over and soon the lesson is at an end. The boys check who they have got next. It is Miss B, a woman whom they reckon eats children.

The small student shimmies out into the corridor, fluttering his arms in spook style and in a wavering voice inquires: "Would you like garnish on your children, Miss B?"

Like every self-respecting college we have a mission statement. Like every politically correct mission statement it pledges lifelong learning for the whole community. In basic skills that is what we are proud to deliver. In fact, some of our students are so keen, they would stay on the same course forever, if allowed. But we must encourage them to progress, so many of them have happily sampled cooking, gardening, keyboarding and even signed up to sign language.

Tyrone is such a student. Finally exhausting the range of drama courses at neighbouring colleges, he is now burning to write a novel. He has plenty of ideas and has enrolled for Essential English to help him get it all down on paper. His lecturer feeds him the classic feedback sandwich: praising his ideas and speculating that he may be writing them down just as they come into his head, and suggesting that a way forward would be to plan out the structure of his story. Tyrone is at first dubious, but gradually warms to the idea, as the lecturer explains how to make notes about the plot, the setting and the characters. By the end of the lesson, Tyrone is exultant.

Now, he says, he can see why he regularly failed all his qualifications.

Now, he can see how planning will help, and he can see how to do it. Now, he is sure he will be able to dash off his novel without a problem. Is this the warm moment of epiphany for which every lecturer hopes? Dear reader, you must wait until the next chapter to find out.

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