It started with wooden teeth ...

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Travelling literacy consultant Sue Palmer finds that pupils are switched on to learning frequently by the strangest things

My friend Della was ferreting about in a market one day when she found an ink-stamp engraved with a cartoon wasp. It was such an attractive wasp that Della felt obliged to buy it. And, as she is a primary teacher, she soon came up with a way of using it - a Writing And Spelling Project. Before long, Della's Year 6 pupils were labelling bright new jotters 'WASP books', while she worked out handwriting and spelling activities motivating enough to earn an inky stamp in the corner of the page.

All this probably seems rather whimsical and childish to the sort of serious grown-ups who work in the Department for Education and Skills. They are not teachers, and they do not spend their time surrounded by children ... so they don't know that teaching is all about appealing to the infant mind, and turning what would otherwise be dreary slog into something exciting and memorable. When teachers feel free to be quirky and creative, their own enthusiasm spreads to the pupils, and learning follows naturally.

As a travelling literacy specialist, I meet it all the time.

The young man in Worcester who has worked out a brilliant system of teaching grammar by hand signals. The Yorkshire teacher who spent her weekend penning a five-foot square reply to her Y2's letters to a giant. Or the delightful motherly lady who sidled up to me the other day at an in-service education and training session and said: "I wouldn't want to mention this in front of the others, but every Friday afternoon I dress up as a witch."

It is for spelling, you see. She swirls into her key stage 2 classroom in a black cloak, swishing a sparkly wand, and does spells with magnetic letters. She spends hours working out the scripts. The children, naturally, are entranced.

On the other hand, when teachers are kept so busy filling in forms and "delivering" teaching packages that they haven't the time or energy to be creative, the chances of enchantment are greatly reduced. Bored teachers mean bored pupils, and bored pupils don't learn anywhere near as well.

So it doesn't matter how many scripted lessons the Department for Education and Skills pumps out on the web (cunningly disguised as "planning exemplification") - other people's lessons just aren't that interesting, either to the pupils or the teachers. If they were, the writers of textbooks would have cleaned up ages ago - don't think we didn't try.

Teaching will never be about merely "delivering" chunks of information, however earnestly and thoroughly one applies oneself to the task. Teaching is about inspiring pupils to listen to and remember the content of said chunks. It is about individuality and human interaction. It is also about fun.

Ironically, the man behind the current dreary regimentation of education - Professor Michael Barber (Mr Standards himself) who masterminded the literacy and numeracy strategies - once actually knew this. A year or so before he set up the DfES's standards and effectiveness unit, he was interviewed by The TES about his "best teacher". Strangely, Professor Barber didn't choose someone who made the raising of national test scores his only aim. He chose a quirky history teacher who laced lessons with diverting and totally useless information - such as the fact that George Washington once had a set of wooden false teeth. The enthusiastic and individual teaching approach made such an impression on the young Michael that he went on to read the subject at Oxford.

I bet there is someone in an Essex classroom at the moment, colouring in an inky wasp, who will one day look up from their university studies and remember Della with the same grateful affection.

Phonically challenged, 16

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