Finding your bright stars

4th December 2009 at 00:00

The film Bright Star portrays an image of the poet Keats which has gone down a storm - not just because of Ben Wishaw's charms but because of Keats's words, too. Keats has been embraced by young fans who have squeezed him alongside Kate Moss and Cheryl Cole in their pantheon of celebrity.

See what I did there? I managed to get Keats, Moss and Cole in one sentence. That's what lecturers do. They twist themselves inside out trying to find relevant references when they're teaching so that, having established common ground, they can sneak in a bit of learning.

Keeping it relevant means finding out what your students know, and trying to build on that. Finding appropriate references in class, however, is problematic in further education, where ages can range from teens to an age when it's discreet not to enquire.

It's not just a case of keeping up to date. That's easy. Even if you're not an X Factor fan, you can't have your hair cut without sympathising that Jedward pushed Lucie Jones out - even if it's only to stop your hairdresser cutting your fringe squint again. You've also got to remember that things which seem obvious to you may not be so obvious to those you are teaching. Different lives, different experiences mean different references.

Some learners want to talk about the war, rationing and making paper sticks. Some learners, according to a recent hullabaloo, have never heard of Hitler. I once made a passing reference to Hitler in one class and after break, one student came in for teasing because her group said "she didn't know who Hitler was". Feisty, she stuck up for herself. "I do now," she said. "He's the guy who organised the war."

Then again, my new six-year-old neighbour Harry pointed out his beautiful white cat, sitting on my wall with his back to us. "He's called Hitler," he confided. Just when I was beginning to feel sorry for the animal, he turned and fixed us with a stare, sporting a perfect little black moustache. If in the future you have a student who thinks Hitler was a cat, well then, that will probably be Harry.

The late poet Iain Crichton Smith frequently told a wickedly un-PC anecdote about giving a talk to a young military group on Keats. Their sergeant introduced him: "This man has come to talk to you about Keats. You ignorant lot probably don't even know what a keat is, so listen and learn."

Educating students is a funny business. Sometimes the most important stuff gets covered informally in conversation. That's when you can gauge references, that's when you can pick out starting points and build on them. That's when teaching becomes really exciting.

Doesn't always work, I admit. One student asked me if I'd heard of a poet called Teshuis. I had to admit I hadn't. He promised to bring me some stuff to read. It was only a couple of hours later it struck me that he'd been saying "Ted Hughes".

Teaching in further education is a minefield to be negotiated. Making learning relevant is challenging. If a film like Bright Star can bring John Keats striding into the world of new fans, then I'm swooning too.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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