Give us a little life, a little colour and some style

29th September 2000 at 01:00
THE verdict on the first month of teaching? As the song says, things can only get better.

Maybe it was the fact that it had all started so well. Our sector had been whisked off to an overnight residential where we had the chance to team-build, to plan, to dream. Outside, the slumbering hills of Dunkeld basked in the hottest temperatures of the year. Later in the afternoon, the sound of bagpipes drifted in through open windows.

Wrenched from our Brigadoon, perhaps we were simply unprepared for what lay ahead. Or maybe we'd just become big softies. But this month has been hard.

First there was the problem of petrol.Then those of us who thought themselves lucky to be able to drive to work were met on Monday by emergency vehicles parked across the main approach roads as flames billowed from the old hospital behind the college. I couldn't help but feel that the plans we made during our idyll in Dunkeld omitted to cover basic strategies such as: 1 How to forage for petrol. 2 How to beat the barricades.

Minor things go wrong. You catch flu, the cap on your front tooth begins to wobble and you end up speaking with a lisp. But you soldier on. The hardest classes are the courses we service. Teaching communication to vocational groups has never been easy. You have to beat the barricades here, too.

Sometimes it's resentment that a vocational course includes "English". Sometimes it's fear about facing a subject that has given a student problems before. And sometimes, an adult returner may feel too rusty to cope with the work. Usually you can work round that - in the past, assessment material has been chosen for vocational relevance and that has made it more palatable. Now, with Higher Still, we're having to find ways to reach students using national assessment material.

My Friday group doing English and Communication is keen but very wary. We had a chat about what they read (only newspapers) and why some writing was considered "literature" and some not. "Hamlet is literature," Peter voluntered, then added suspiciously, "We're not going to have to read Hamlet, are we? I hate Shakespeare."

I won them round a bit by saying that if the Bard had been alive today he'd be writing for EastEnders. We thought up some new plot lines and spirits lifted.

Their literature unit, however, will be personal responses to a novel of their choice. I'm going to have to work round to this carefully and take a long run at it. This week we looked at an example of a close-reading assessment: the

passage was about a talking tarantula. References to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman helped, as did its humour.

As she left, Anne said: "I liked that. I thought it was great." I know that wasn't everyone's response, however. So far I sense that the jury's out on English and Communication.

As lecturers we have to find ways of making Higher Still materials work for all our students, whether mothers, fathers, wives or grandmas, from all backgrounds. It's not easy. The bottom line, as always, is confidence. Chiselling away at fear, building confidence, takes time, and much energy.

And while lecturers aren't stinting in their efforts to make Higher Still work, it would help if someone could create some user-friendly national assessment material. Given our advances in publishing technology, surely we can progress from po-faced layouts and typefaces which were around when I was at school and which, for some

students, bring back unpleasant

memories? A bit of life, colour, style, would make our task easier.

As the Dunkeld residential

experience fades from our memories, lecturers learn to cope again with daily realities. Things are getting better. My car has petrol, my tooth has been glued back, my flu is nearly gone, and I've had a brilliant idea. If Anne liked the article about a talking tarantula, would she be up for a novel about a salesman who goes to bed one night and wakes up as a giant dung beetle?

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College.

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