My best lesson - The Pythons never had it as bad as this lot

18th October 2013 at 01:00

How on earth do you make foreign language grammar interesting? The answer to this question is even more difficult to ascertain now that we have the interfacetube generation that demands constant entertainment to avoid boredom. However, one of the best lessons I ever taught managed to overcome this issue.

My story began with your worst nightmare. It was Friday afternoon - the graveyard shift. I stood ready to do battle with a classroom full of 14-year-olds and was at that point in the scheme of work where I had to teach the mind-numbingly boring imperfect tense: in a nutshell, a past tense that describes a continuous, incomplete or habitual action in the past, as opposed to the perfect tense, which describes a single, complete action in the past. The imperfect basically translates as "waswere doing" or "used to do".

My first tactic was to completely confuse the enemy, so I showed them some Monty Python - the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, to be exact. This timeless classic portrays four wealthy men, who sit drinking champagne, discussing how hard they had it while growing up. Each describes in turn how ridiculously difficult his life "used to be".

The strategy worked. The students were amused and I had their attention. Next, I put my own French version of the first three men's diatribes up on the interactive whiteboard, with the imperfect tense forms underlined. We read through and translated them. They were funny, the students laughed and, more importantly, they continued to concentrate.

The next 15 minutes of the lesson were risky. Could I harness their energy long enough to discuss the underlined verb forms and explain how the imperfect tense was used and formed without losing them? It was a close call, but it worked.

Then came the icing on the cake. Dictionaries were distributed and students, in pairs, wrote their own version of the fourth man's splenetic rant. I have never seen students work so hard at French grammar on a Friday afternoon, each pair trying to make their living conditions sound worse than anyone else's.

Simon Ravenhall is head of modern languages at Yarm School, North Yorkshire.

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