First encounters

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Picture the scene: two boys shouting at each other at the front of a Year 8 class. They'll take every opportunity to insult each other, and afterwards they'll trade some Pokemon cards. Why not? It's natural, I've watched it going on since I was at school, a decade ago. I tell them to calm down, and they carry on shouting - natural for kids.

I keep them back over break and give them a detention - natural for teachers. The truth is, kids may change but their way of thinking doesn't. Take written work. Each week I sit marking exercise books, correcting the same mistakes. Here's a typical sample from a story about being the last woman on Earth, written by a 12-year-old: "Sorry it wasn't I wish it was I'm starving, just then I heard a howl. Oh my what is that I could hardly speak I wasn't scared I was excited maybe it was some other lifeform it was boring on my own I saw a big big waterfall with loads of trees and greenness I ran to look..." And so on. I asked the girl to check over her story. She barely added a comma, and could only understand what I was on about when I read it in my measured adult's voice. Otherwise it made perfect sense to her. Why? Because that is how she speaks. Until Year 10, my pupils speak in a breathless stream of ideas, opinions, wonder and abuse. They write as they talk, without full stops.

It makes me ask why, as adults, we expect children to write as we do. Until kids are shackled by commas and full stops, deadlines and wages, it can be refreshing to watch them career on, mangling language, making up their own codes. At my school, the girls have developed "backslang", where they add a "g" to certain words.

We had slang and private lingoes at my old school, and we also traded cards. In the Eighties I remember buying "Monster" cards, ach with its own "Physical Strength" and "Fear Factor" ratings. Now, my classes are fully in the grip of Pokemon. An hour doesn't pass by when I don't see a surreptitious hand under the desk, a blue deck slipping out of a pocket, the flash of a card album. Some of the little monsters go forpound;30-plus. Like backslang, I've tried deciphering it, but it's beyond me. Trying to understand the children's world is a good way of working out if they understand ours.

The genius of Pokemon and similar crazes is that they appeal to so many different kids at once. Confiscate a pound;20 monster card from a slavering Year 9, and you will have his attention for the rest of the day, if not the term. Tell him that "Palmer's hand to palmer's kiss" (Romeo and Juliet) is an expression of spiritual devotion, and he'll laugh.

There's a danger for teachers, in a frantic effort to appear to appear trendy and relevant, to resort to popular culture. But you can find a modern angle, a way of appealing to modern minds over an ancient text. I've crashed and burned a few times, but my spontaneous recasting of Cherie Blair as Lady Macbeth has drawn out some amazing work from my Year 10s. I ask them to imagine Tony Blair back in '96, fresh and ambitious, seeking the position of PM. Cast against the real McCoy, his wife is ruthless and scheming, inspired by supernatural ramblings from the mysterious Alistair Campbell.

Soon, the class has drawn a picture of the alternative Lady McBlair, with spiky black hair, stilettos, haughty expression, a bullwhip. I've asked them to keep the image in mind as they write up their Lady M's diaries for their GCSE coursework. She's scheming, cool and aggressive: they understand her perfectly now.

Peter Shinglewood teaches at Speedwell school, Bristol


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