How I Teach - Chill winds can fire up a class

18th October 2013 at 01:00
A whiteboard and a winter's tale add up to enlightenment

Standing in front of a challenging group of mixed-ability 14- to 15- year-old boys with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties can be intimidating. Trying to teach them inference and deduction when they claim to know nothing about either - and when they show little enthusiasm for changing that fact - can add to this feeling.

What you need is a strong lesson plan. Here is an experience I had recently that I hope you can adapt to formulate lessons for teaching difficult classes.

I intended initially to use my lesson on inference and deduction for writing purposes; then I would explain how the skills were transferable to any reading assessment.

It started badly, as I foresaw. We began with a grid on the interactive whiteboard. In it were written the boys' names, under which they could note down what they knew about inference or deduction. Twelve "no ideas" (or, rather, colourful linguistic alternatives to "no idea") were written into the spaces.

I disappeared into the adjoining library and changed into an outdoor winter coat. When I came back in, the boys stared. I began a monologue: I left my house, I told them, extracted a woolly hat from one pocket and pulled it down hard over my head; I got out gloves and put them on; I crunched down the path to the frost-covered gate; I stepped outside, turned left, bowed my head slightly against the biting wind, buried my hands deep in my coat pockets and lumbered off down the pavement.

"So what's the weather like where I am?" I asked 12 confused faces. "What season do you think it is? Why?"

Fortunately, they were all engaged enough by my random performance to deduce that it was winter and very cold. The monologue was then projected on to the whiteboard in text form and each boy took turns to highlight a word or short phrase that inferred a cold, wintry environment. We ended up with 13 highlighted areas.

The next task was to highlight all the words or phrases that explicitly told the reader or listener that it was winter. There were, of course, none.

The boys looked surprised. They were impressed by their own ability to deduce and infer. It proved that taking a slightly offbeat approach and showing - not telling - can have a significant impact, particularly with difficult classes.

That was not the end of the lesson. The students then had to write something of their own to do with a feeling, a place or the seasons that enabled their reader to deduce and infer what was being described without being told explicitly. Some excellent writing followed, alongside some confident reading.

To finish, it was back to the whiteboard to review the starter grid. We filled it with the students' newly acquired knowledge and experience of what the terms meant.

The boys had grasped the power of words and phrases to create a picture. This was invaluable when they read Shakespeare and poetry later in the term, as they had the confidence to interpret through deduction and inference and the ability to quote evidence for it. It shows that you should not write off difficult classes, just find new ways of engaging them.

David Ludlam teaches English at Lord Wilson School, Hampshire, a specialist boys' school in south-east England

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