Reva Klein meets a woman whose travelling show makes learning about punctuation and spelling fun. Meet Howard and Hilda Bracket. They're countryfolk, kitted out in smocks and straw hats with straw in their mouths. They carry crooks to keep the sheep in and say "errr" and "arrr" every now and then. In their other job, they hold words in, too.
Oh, and here's Ron and Ronette Dash, bouncers at the seedy Casablanca nightclub. They try to come across all strong and tough, but they don't have the authority of the Policeman, also known as Full Stop. They are just some of the inhabitants of Punk-tuation Street. There's even a rap about the Street: "You gotta punk and chunk to make that text make senseYou gotta put a full stop after every sen-tence."
Confused? Welcome to the wacky but pedagogically correct world of Sue Palmer's Language Roadshow. All over the country, this funny, charismatic grammar evangelist slips her costumes and mobile sets into schools to present highly interactive and entertaining grammar and spelling lessons, which isn't the contradiction in terms that it seems. With her around, punctuation really is a hoot.
The Cornwall-based former class teacher, headteacher, educational author and book editor decided to become a travelling player after a long stretch out of the classroom. "This is really an excuse for me to get into schools and see children again and meet teachers," she says. But of course it's much more than that. Palmer's work is a quest which was, up until quite recently, a singularly lonely one.
"I'm trying to put the glamour back into punctuation and spelling," she declares, pushing the bounds of credibility as to whether there ever was glamour in punctuation and spelling. "Grammar went out of fashion in schools in the sixties and ever since it's been a problem area because teachers haven't been sure of how to teach it. They feel threatened by it because there's been no training for it. So for me to come into schools from the outside is like a shot in the arm for their basic skills."
Headteacher Maureen Woodhouse couldn't agree more. Sitting in the playground at lunchtime, looking down upon St Michael's Mount and watching as seagulls swoop to pinch children's sandwiches, she extols the long-term effects of having an expert like Sue come in with a fresh approach. "The humour she brings into it, along with her other methods, can be carried through into the classroom by the teachers." As well as half-day presentations, Sue offers Inset for teachers, too.
She sees herself as reaffirming what teachers already do with grammar and spelling, rather than breezing in with something new and better. "I offer hangers on which teachers can hook their teaching methodologies. I'm just a different voice, summing up good practice."
All serious stuff, but it's the heady mix of didacticism and zaniness that make the Grammar Roadshow the memorable and fun resource that it is. Whether it's getting a pair of children to stand as birds on a wire, one flapping a pair of "66" wings and another a pair of "99"s to illustrate speech marks; or the exclamation mark as a clown, complete with lurid red wig and flashing red nose; or the rapper, sporting an enormous blue mohican wig, a stick-on safety pin on his face and silver studded jewellery, leading the Punk-tuation Street rap; or, indeed, the toga-clad girl wearing a crown of laurels to pull out of a trunk flash cards of words that come from Greek roots - it will be a long time before anybody forgets the day Sue Palmer came into school.
As nine-year-old Luke Marks puts it, "In the classroom, grammar's boring. But out here, we're learning it in a different way." Year 6 teacher Sheila Lynn, who might dispute Luke's interpretation of classroom practice, is similarly upbeat about Sue's approach. "This is lovely - it reinforces what we're doing but does it in a fun way, so the children remember it."
As for the Helpful Brownies who, as commas, rush about helping people or Sherlock Holmes, the question mark - they're too busy fulfilling their grammatical functions to say what it all means. But judging by their engagement with it all, I'd say they were having a lot of fun learning about something that is all too often the educational equivalent of parents' insistence on eating your spinach and sprouts.
For information write to Sue Palmer's Language Live Roadshow, 11 St George's Road, Truro TR1 3JE or phone or fax 01872 41776.