Extensive experience of catering for children with learning difficulties is one of our strengths as an inner-city comprehensive. At Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College our involvement in a borough-wide gifted and talented pupil (GTP) programme has allowed us to apply that expertise to able students, too. We may not have as many high-fliers as more academic establishments, but the challenge is the same: how to help our most promising linguists realise their potential while still addressing the needs of the others. And the result is that we're seeing pupils falling over themselves to make the grade.
Some of our strategies apply across the board irrespective of ability. One is a thorough knowledge of our students, including reading ages, so that we can pitch work at an appropriate level. Another is a clear focus on national curriculum levels to help students identify exactly what they need to do to progress up the scale. Most of all, we promote languages as a "cool" subject. Our classrooms are a blaze of colour, we tap into teen culture and we are not afraid of trying out new approaches. We also run lots of cross-curricular projects. In a technology college languages could become marginalised, but we refuse to let that happen. We think working with other departments is as important as the nuts and bolts of language teaching.
Our GTP participants are selected not only for their linguistic ability, but for showing a genuine interest in developing their knowledge and skills. The chosen few (five to 10 per cent of each year group) are withdrawn from some language lessons for extra activities and have automatic membership of a lunchtime club. Attendance at the clubs is fantastic, not least because regular attenders go on free trips - recently, for example, we went to see the film Jeunesse Doree at l'Institut Francais and met some of the cast for a conversation in French. Most of our Year 8 Spanish GTP group are Latin American, and Spanish is their first language, but they have never been to Spain. Once a week they are withdrawn from class to enjoy sessions on Spanish culture. Recently they have been watching the 4Learning video Cuentos y Leyendas. The Year 10 club focuses on raising confidence in French at GCSE level. They are particularly keen on listening to French pop songs and have also been showing independence in working on a "mystery" project. Year 11 students receive help with their speaking skills, with particular attention to the GCSE presentation and conversation topics.
Key features of the programme are longevity, creativity and using language for a real purpose. One current Year 9 group has for the past 18 months been working with the French assistant on a collaborative project with our partner school in France. One of their early joint creations was a bilingual calendar featuring pupils' poems and they are now engaged on a video project showcasing our school. They produced a storyboard including a tour of the school and did interviews with French-speaking staff. Filming began in December, when their French partners came to London on a two-day visit.
Later this year participants will meet again in France, where they will capture on film those aspects of school life that are peculiarly French.
The impact of such projects on student autonomy has been tremendous and they have become very confident at expressing themselves and sharing experiences. For teachers, "letting go" requires a leap of faith, but young people become independent learners only through doing things for themselves.
There has been a knock-on effect in other areas, too. The heightened aspirations and increased self-reliance of our GTPs have made our classrooms more dynamic places for everyone. Teachers have also grown more adventurous - more willing to experiment in class with activities and techniques that proved successful with GTP groups.
Charles Claxton is assistant headteacher at Archbishop Michael Ramsey Technology College, Camberwell. He will be speaking at Language World 2003, University of Bath, on April 5
Raising the Standard: Addressing the Needs of Gifted and Talented Pupils.
By Anneli McLachlan
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