My Way

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Name: Nancy Jenkins

Age: 37

School: Langdon Park, London borough of Tower Hamlets

Post: Deputy head of English

When Nancy Jenkins and her colleagues took a group of Year 10 and 11 students to the National Theatre to see Mother Courage, a teacher sitting behind them commented on how attentive and well-behaved they were. He was even more impressed when he learnt their ages. "I'm teaching this to my A-level theatre studies group," he said.

Without knowing, he'd put his finger on one of Nancy's central philosophies: that you can teach any text to any student, so long as you make it interesting and relevant.

Perhaps more surprising than their youth is the fact that the students weren't from a middle-class area, but from housing estates in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

"Wonderful students" motivate Nancy. "They're lively, enthusiastic, friendly and open," she says. "And, like students everywhere, they're ready to be inspired" - even by texts which other teachers might regard as too advanced. This particular day, the Year 9s are tackling Steinbeck's of Mice and Men

"Some people say you can't teach this till key stage 4 because it's too difficult. That's nonsense. These students understand the characters really well."

They do so because they've been thoroughly prepared. Before giving them the book, Nancy invented correspondence from the major characters, which each group - a careful mix of ability, race and gender - analysed. Now, they are engaging imaginatively with the text - thinking themselves into the characters, writing down those thoughts, discussing them in small groups, performing tableaux.

All the time, quietly but firmly, Nancy keeps them under control. The result is impressive - especially considering it's the last double period on Friday afternoon.

"The most important thing," she says afterwards, "is to know that everyone has the potential to be interested and to achieve. And to plan to get something out of every text, no matter how challenging."

The key is careful planning and structuring - like many teachers, Nancy thinks nothing of working a 70-hour week. "It's also important to know the students' own needs and interests and abilities. That's why my door is always open. And I like to use things like posters, presentations and drama to release their understanding."

So, before seeing Mother Courage, the students were given a synopsis of the play, collected evidence about the characters and themes, read and discussed key scenes, and dramatised the songs. Afterwards, they designed their own programme.

Teaching Romeo and Juliet involved drawing parallels with a traditional Hindi story about arranged marriages - 45 per cent of the school's 950 students are from ethnic minorities, mainly Bengali and Afro-Caribbean. When studying Macbeth, they dramatised how they would murder King Duncan and made a video of the witches' scenes. "We put them in the position of being detectives almost, " Nancy says of these pre-reading, confidence-building exercises.

She is helped in this creativity by links with outside sources. Last year, the school took part in the National Theatre's Stage Door project. A summer school with the RSC led to the company's education officer giving a workshop on A Winter's Tale and to the Year 11s forming a "jury" at the trial of Queen Hermione.

"The process is as important as the product," says Nancy who has a PGCE from Cambridge, an MA from Birbeck College and has done a media education course. "The essence of my teaching is to guide the students towards being reflective and, as far as possible, self-motivated, autonomous learners." Every student, she says, has a right to excellence and to committed teachers. "I want them to feel they can have a relationship with me. That I'm not just a person delivering lessons."

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