Head start for young writers

14th December 2012 at 00:00
A teacher's hair-raising lesson plan inspired his pupils to pick up their pens, finds Jackie Cosh

"Have you got any holidays planned this year, Sir?"

The pupils have the hairdresser patter down to a fine art, and Gordon Fisher, principal teacher of languages at Lochend Community High in Glasgow, believes there is at least one potential barber in his class.

But this is not a hairdressing course. The small talk, and the impressive hairdressing skills, came about when Mr Fisher's S2 English class cut his hair as part of the work they were doing on poetry.

"I am always looking for ideas to capture their imagination and find new ways into literature," explains Mr Fisher. "People who teach English are always emphasising pre-writing activities to engage students."

For a pre-writing activity Mr Fisher arranged for the pupils to cut his hair. When they walked into the classroom one day, he was standing with a pair of clippers, looking as if he was about to cut his own hair. The pupils were immediately intrigued and daring him to do it. Instead, he surprised them by handing the clippers over and getting them to cut his hair for him.

The class had been covering poetry and studying The Blue Plate by Scottish poet John Hancox. Set in a butcher's shop, it is a narrative poem about a woman's relationship with a husband who doesn't pay her much attention. Mr Fisher decided against the butcher's theme and instead chose a barber's.

"I thought, 'Well, we have all been to the barber's or hairdresser's - that would be good for discussions.' Most remembered going to the hairdresser's when they were little and it being a traumatic experience, so I thought we could draw on memories and recreate the experience."

Having covered Hancox's poem, they moved on to discuss the experience of going to the hairdresser and the memories, building up a bank of words they would associate with going to the hairdresser's. Their memories were also used as the basis of various writing tasks.

It was then that Mr Fisher came up with the idea of getting them to cut his hair, and, without any prior warning, he set up the classroom so that the pupils walked in one to day to be met with the prospect.

Their hairdressing skills were more than passable; there was no need for any emergency trip to the barber and his hats remain in the cupboard. But it was the change in the pupils' attitude to learning and to poetry that was the real success story.

"It helps my relationship with them that I do something different," says Mr Fisher. "I think it has had a really positive impact on behaviour. They are also more confident and interested in creative writing."

Afterwards they sat down and looked at openers for poems to get ideas, and built on their word banks. They discussed how they felt cutting their teacher's hair. What did it sound like? What words would they use to describe the scissor action?

They then looked at the whole experience of going to the hairdresser's, thinking about what you see, hear, smell; looking at how they feel inside as well as the five senses.

"They had the original John Hancox poem to refer to," says Mr Fisher. "It helped them with structure and with the opening. I gave them a list of features they should have and there was lots of repetition, as well as similes and onomatopoeia. I also asked them to put in dialogue between the barber and customer.

"All the poems have similar features. They were reinforcing these key literary terms. With the redraft I helped with punctuation, but there weren't many changes needed."

The set of lessons has managed to spark an interest in English among the pupils. They describe the poetry-writing exercise as easy and fun, crediting Mr Fisher for making the subject enjoyable.

"It is all about grabbing their imagination," he says." I am now more confident they will do well in screenwriting. I have had so many pupils ask: 'When are we getting you for English? We want to cut your hair.' It has resonated throughout the school. It caught the children's imagination."

Headteacher Geri Collins says: "Gordon Fisher is an incredibly innovative teacher who leads his department by example. He will go to extraordinary lengths to make his subject relevant to young people and often uses unusual approaches to bringing poetry alive.

"His new haircut may have raised eyebrows, but it certainly inspired his class to writing at a level they never thought they could."

Meanwhile, Mr Fisher's hair is beginning to grow again, but he is going to a barber's shop this time. "I would do it again," he says, "but it would need to be only once a year, and it would need to be a class I trusted."


The hairdresser's shop clutches at my imagination.

The smell of hair dye and shampoo,

The roaring sound of hairdryers,

The pretty pictures of hairstyles.

I love to watch the hairdressers cut hair!

The cape covered with hair

The lovely workers

The queue of folk waiting to get their hair cut

The sound of the tap softly running

The cosy comfortable seats

The sound of scissors slicing hair

The workers being so nice

"What you doing today honey?"

"Got anything nice planned?"

I watch her in the mirror and

She looks at me.

I smile at her gently.

When it's done I look in the mirror

I see a masterpiece.

Gratefully I hand over #163;20

"A #163;5 tip for you my love."

I walk out full of delight.

By Ashleigh Donaldson 2.3.

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