Fly to new skies

10th March 2000 at 00:00
What's the best way to bring books to life? Raymond Ross finds a rare approach at Stewart's Melville College.

Teaching on the edge" is how English teacher John Allan defines the lesson as we watch a Harris Hawk swoop low over the heads of 100 pupils, almost ruffling their hair in the passing.

"Swift and graceful", "incredibly quiet" and "amazing" are some of the words the second year pupils use to describe the flight of this bird of prey which silently crosses and recrosses the school hall from its temporary perch onto the arm of its falconer.

"Teaching on the edge" is perhaps not a phrase normally associated with teaching in an independent school like Stewart's Melville in Edinburgh, where most of the school's second year classes are gathered for this lesson aimed at bringing alive Barry Hines's popular novel A Kestrel for a Knave.

But teaching on the edge this is, given that the hawk could as easily decide to land (as it has been known to do in past years) on a pupil's shoulder or on a high ledge instead of on the falconer's glove.

This is a lesson in which things could go wrong, which undoubtedly makes it all the more dramatic and memorable - a lesson, as Mr Allan informs the year group, "you might well remember for the rest of your lives."

Re-christened Kes, after Ken Loach's film which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary with a new print and was recently voted one of the top ten British greats of the 20th century, Hines's novel is also something of a schools classic.

The relationship between the young Billy Casper and the kestrel which he learns to train has captured the imaginations of generations of youngsters and it is this relationship which the lesson sets out to explore.

"We don't believe in teaching a novel like this in a dry old way," says principal teacher of English Alistair MacNaughton. "Pupils need every stimulation to read these days and for kids in an independent school it's also important to see something of life in a difficult maintained school like Billy's."

This importance is perhaps underlined at the beginning of the lesson when Mr Allan asks for a defintion of a "knave". The first definition offered unironically - a "schemie" - is quickly dismissed ("I don't like that word") by Mr Allan, who suggests a "rogue" as more germane; and using an imaginary blackboard "held up" by two pupils, he goes on to explore further terms and definitions used in the novel, including the technical terms of falconry.

With a pupil role-playing the part f Billy, the lesson explores issues of intelligence, education, bullying, family and school life and social exclusion, as the pupils discuss whether or not Billy is clever, whether or not he is given a fair chance at school and at home and whether he gets the same care and love as he gives to the kestrel.

The lesson is punctuated by the pupils' own questions to the falconer, Neil Hunter, a police constable whose remit includes that of wildlife liaison officer for Midlothian.

Mr Hunter, it turns out, is living proof of the power of Kes. As a pupil who couldn't tell a hawk from a handsaw, he was inspired by a school visit to the film to read the novel and this led to his life-long interest in falconry. Like Billy, Mr Hunter is a self-taught falconer and he used the same manual of falconry to teach himself the craft as Billy does in the book. Only, Constable Hunter borrowed his copy - rather than stealing it (like Billy) - from the local library.

The wildlife officer has in the past (under a Scottish Home and Health Department licence) captured and trained wild birds of prey before releasing them into the wild again.

But, he adds with a beady eye on environmental studies outcomes, "All birds used in falconry today are from captive bred stock. There's no need now to use wild birds."

The use of a Harris Hawk (native to South and Central America) rather than a native kestrel or a peregrine in the lesson is necessitated by the indoor environment. But, for the pupils, the magic is the same.

S2 pupil Colin Tinniswood, who played Billy, declares: "I was a bit frightened at first, but it was great fun and I learned a lot about birds. When Billy says the bird would bite your hand off, I now know what he means by seeing it so close, and it shows the power of the training he gave it. I sympathise much more with him as a character now."

Extension work will involve the pupils in drama, exploring different episodes in the book, in writing poetry about flight and motion exploring sounds and images, and in writing up reports about the lesson for class newspapers.

"What I'd really like to attempt soon would be to put on the stage version of the book using a Harris Hawk," says John Allan. "That really would be living on the edge!" I can only nod agreement as Mr Allan bends down, clutching a wad of toilet paper, to mop up one of the outcomes dropped by Jude the Harris Hawk during the lesson.

Fittingly enough, on the wall behind is emblazoned the school motto "Never Unprepared".

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