My best worst lesson

26th September 2008 at 01:00

BEST: I was working on the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy with a group of A-level students in Essex. Once their knowledge of plot, character and theme was fairly secure, I asked them to approach further textual analysis through a creative exercise.

I gave chapters to small groups, and their task was to adapt their chapter for a radio dramatisation of the novel.

Preparatory work led us into interesting discussions around the difference between the novel and drama, Hardy's style and the use of dialogue.

I was particularly interested in how one member of the class would respond to the task. Sally simply would not talk. She would barely say anything in small groups, let alone in whole group discussion.

In progress interviews she had assured me that everything was fine, but she always found it hard to speak in class.

For the Tess adaptation, I assumed she would be the chief script editor, but as I moved around the small groups it was clear that she appeared suddenly to be taking a leading role, making suggestions, encouraging others and creating an atmosphere of happy concentration.

Later, when we listened to the adaptations, I think the whole group was amazed that Sally played the part of Tess in her production, speaking with sensitivity and confidence. Somehow the lesson had unlocked something inside her, and in adapting Tess's voice she had found her own.

WORST: I was teaching for a term at a comprehensive in rural Cambridgeshire. I had devised a sequence of work devoted to teaching the poetry of John Clare to Year 10 through a biographical approach.

Clare was an uneducated "peasant poet" who wrote about his surroundings, and so what could be more obvious than to take my band of Year 10 pupils on a nature walk?

The school was surrounded by fields and I had planned a route that would last about 20 minutes. I had scrounged a set of clipboards, and each pupil had a couple of sheets of paper on which I encouraged them to make notes or sketches to capture what they saw.

Before we set off, I ignored the wise boy who said: "It's going to rain, Sir", and when we were furthest from the school, the skies opened and a heavy rain began to fall.

The paper for the clipboards had long since been ripped away and they were now being used to facilitate armed combat among half the group.

Eventually I ushered my bedraggled band of boys and girls into reception. Some were grinning, some were crying and puddles of water in ever- increasing circles were forming all around them. At this moment, the head emerged from his office. He looked at us, shook his head and retreated. Later that term a permanent vacancy for an English teacher was advertised. I thought it best not to apply.

Mike Dixon is head of Park Sixth Form College, Eastbourne.

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