No time for sitting still

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Alison Thomas meets a languages teacher who believes in getting everyone involved right from the off.

There is not much chance of taking a nap in a French or German lesson at Wyedean School in Chepstow if your teacher is Charlie Berney. At the first signs of lethargy she brings classes to their feet for a spot of snappy revision. "Sonntag, Montag, DienstagI" today it is the turn of Year 8 second linguists and, as they chorus each day, they jog up and down as if on horseback. On reaching Saturday they fling their arms in the air with a dramatic "Samstag!" before she sets them off again "lauter und schneller!"

(louder and faster). The pace has accelerated to a gallop when they finally return to their seats.

"It is hard sitting still all day so I like to keep them active," Charlie explains. She achieves this in a variety of ways. Later in their lesson, Year 8 receive slips of paper with assorted information, and they roam the room questioning classmates until they find someone whose details match theirs.

With Year 10 school uniform is the theme, and she pins two statements on opposite walls - one for, one against - and invites students to vote with their feet. Several individuals are asked to justify their choice, providing an opportunity to practise word order after weil (because).

Getting them out of their seats is just one of many strategies she employs to liven up lessons and focus attention. Some of her activities are tried and tested favourites, others are of her own invention. What is striking is her energy and the quirky little extras that add zest. An assortment of flamboyant timers for games, a colourful beanie character thrown to the person in charge of today's plenary, bingo dabbers allocated to pupils who have been working particularly well. "They cost next to nothing and add interest to the game," she says.

She is also generous with praise and recognition takes the form of stickers, merits and sweets as well as a rather unusual reward. When she feels a whole class deserves congratulations she invites them to give themselves a pat on the back - literally. "Even older students do it quite happily," she says. "It may be silly, but it's fun."

Fun describes her general approach and today's Year 7 lesson is no exception. The target is to learn how to combine the verb "to have" with classroom equipment and a brief spell of whole-class grammar analysis leads into a game. Everyone has an envelope containing a different combination of pictures, except for three volunteers who stand at the front. Their envelopes have exact matches and their task is to find out who holds them.

Two strike lucky quite quickly and are rewarded with a cheer. The third is not so fortunate and there is an audible "Ooh!" when a promising line of questioning comes to nothing.

For the pair work that follows, pupils take it in turns to throw a pen top onto a board divided into 12 numbered squares. Each number denotes a picture, which must be accurately identified before it can be claimed. As there is a prize for the person who collects the most, partners enforce strict rules. A correct noun with the wrong gender does not pass muster.

When homework is issued it seems fairly humdrum - to write sentences beginning "In meiner Tasche habe ichI" (In my bag I haveI). Humdrum is not her style, however, and she reveals that somewhere in the school are four doors boasting pictures of the items she wants pupils to mention. Once they have tracked these down they have the option of submitting work in the conventional way or sending an email to the account she has created for this purpose.

Year 7 pupils have few inhibitions and respond well to a lively approach.

But does it work with self-conscious adolescents? "I do lots of lively activities with my Year 11 middle set because they have poor memories and need constant repetition of the same material," she says. One way she alleviates the tedium of GCSE oral preparation is to get them to interview each other, and then take on their partner's persona, using borrowed clothes or other props for dramatic effect. Another is to ask them to make a recording, distorting their voices to disguise their identity. "We play these back in class and the others have to guess who is speaking," she explains. "Because they have an audience, they take more care with details like adjective endings. On the other hand the impersonal nature of the cassette makes it less embarrassing for the shy ones." These are just some of a huge fund of ideas which she has put onto a CD for other teachers to share.

For a copy of the CD

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