The longest day of the year

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Sarah Smythe on a summer school with a simple theme

It is not often that we hear our pupils saying they want to learn more languages and for longer. Yet these were real responses from pupils at the end of our Languages Summer School of Excellence: "I enjoyed learning all the languages. I would like the school to carry on for another week, so we could learn more," and, from another pupil: "I wouldn't want to change anything but, if I did, I would make the day finish later."

In August, a two-week Excellence in Cities summer school was held for 32 able and talented Year 8 and 9 pupils of St Mary's College, a comprehensive in Hull. We - Louise Hammond, Angela Ogilvie, Gerard Lowe and I, teachers of French, Spanish and German respectively - were cautiously enthusiastic but feared the pupils might be reluctant to surrender so much of their summer holiday. Far from it. They were, without exception, refreshingly positive about the whole experience. Reading their evaluations is an instant boost for the flagging spirits of a hard-pressed languages teacher.

We aimed to develop pupils' knowledge of their French, German or Spanish to increase awareness of European and world cultures and to make extensive use of ICT. A major part was to be pupils' contributions to the website we set up to publish each day's events We decided to base the fortnight on the theme of "a continental day". We began each day with breakfast, donated by a supermarket. It was lovely to hear the mixture of Spanish, French and German used to ask for coffee, juice and croissants. All pupils had taster sessions in Italian, Japanese, Russian and Portuguese (we undertook pre-summer school basc learning and continued to learn with the students). This was probably the most popular element. We cooked and shared a meal, played the sports of various countries, staged a mock bullfight, debated the rights and wrongs of blood sports, visited an Italian restaurant and lots more. The taster sessions were designed to show the pupils how quickly they could acquire basic skills in any language they chose. In the event they went far beyond the basics. At our presentation, the parents enjoyed lively Italian cafe and Russian market scenes and were taught Japanese numbers and a Portuguese song and dance by the pupils.

For the main language sessions the pupils were divided into German, French and Spanish groups. Within the range of themes we covered, they were encouraged to increase their use of the target language for natural communication, to develop their ability to express feelings and to use a variety of tenses. All pupils involved will be aiming for GCSE grades of A* to C. We will monitor how successfully they tackle their GCSE courses.

It was an exhausting but wonderful fortnight and we could not have done without our brilliant Year 11 and 12 helpers. Our only real problem was that we aimed to do too much. The pupils had a huge range of experiences over the fortnight. They all commented on how different it was from school.

We gave less time than we initially intended to developing the pupils' knowledge of their first foreign language but that was more than made up for by the increase in their enthusiasm for languages generally, their increased confidence, and the breadth of their experiences.

Sarah Smythe is assistant headteacherhead of languages at St Mary's College, Hull

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