We all teach that bottom-set Year 11 class from time to time; the one that takes away the confident, innovative Robin-Williams-in-Dead-Poet's-Society teacher inside and transforms us into confused, disheartened old cynics longing for retirement at 35. Well, it's Thursday period five with that class, and it's Pre-1914 coursework time - "Analyse the writing style of HG Wells in the opening to his short story The Cone." Can't wait!
They slither in, already pining for the bell, throwing out comments like "Haven't we done with coursework yet, sir?" or "Can't we just have a fun lesson?" To which my reply, of course, is that all our lessons are fun. But I have a surprise up my sleeve.
After a starter attempting to focus them on the effect of imagery for the hundredth time falls flat ("Why would ya wanna call a chair a person?"), I bring on the meat of the lesson - Developing Tray.
On the interactive whiteboard, while Darren scans my desk for a pen to "borrow", a sentence is revealing itself. Except it's no ordinary sentence - only a fifth of the letters are visible. When I tell them they're going to read it, the response is predictable: "What?", "Yeah right!", "This is stupid!". But Kerry, one of the sparkier girls begins by identifying the word "summer" from its double "m". The challenge has been thrown down.
Liam can't let the girls take control and frantically throws out a suggestion, "That word there - right, it's 'the'. The one with the 'h' in it - and that one after it, that's 'the' an' all." Guesses on individual words start to come from all over the room. Even Darren is paying attention now. But the obvious words dry up and they begin to flag. It seems like time to intervene.
I've reckoned without Kerry though. She's worked out that the first four words are "The night was hot". How, Kerry? "It's summer, so the night would be hot." We have moved to sentence level.
"The sky red, sir, further on. If the night is hot the sky will be red."
"The sky's black at night, idiot."
"Not if the sun's going down."
"Or it's that imagery-thing."
We have ignition.
I gradually introduce the rest of the text. First the next sentence, then two at a time, then the whole text. The contributions come from all sides at high speed. We move to text level work as they identify the importance of colour in the passage and begin to make associations between sentences.
With a few "peeks" at letters to help them with words they cannot get (charitably allowed by the program), they are nearly there. The first check of their version has revealed one mistake, to loud groans: "The man and woman spoke to one another in low t-' is not 'tonge' (you never correct spelling in Developing Tray, the children will find out eventually for themselves). The argument begins.
No more peeks left, so will they "buy" a letter from the program? Some say yes, but the lads won't be defeated. "We gotta gettit." "It's obvious!" (Although it turns out it isn't). Through the debate comes a sole hand raised. Darren is waiting.
"Tones, sir, like in music."
I use ICT in nearly every lesson I teach, and mostly it's Word or other MS Office packages rather than education programs that are all flash and no substance. Developing Tray is the exception. I have used it with every year from 7 to 13, top set to bottom, with poetry and prose, whole text and single sentences. Whichever class I use it with, even the quietest student joins in, and the lesson becomes a game as they engage with a close reading of the text and use all the strategies they have ever been taught.
They take ownership of the lesson, bouncing off each other's learning styles, the reflectors coming in after the activists. And best of all, they have fun.
Stuart Hoskin is a teacher at Studley high school, Warwickshire
Developing Tray 2SIMPLE Stand C54 Imaginative cloze software for literacy.
Prices: single pound;29
5 users pound;79
10 users pound;149
The author of Developing Tray, Bob Moy, will be present at BETT 2006 on the stand of the IT Learning Exchange (F76), the organisation that further developed this classic program with 2 Simple. He will be happy to deal with reader queries.
Developing Tray tips
* Keep the text you use short so students focus on it.
* Experiment with texts. I have successfully used poetry, prose and drama with Developing Tray. It is also useful for simple sentence work and revision.
* Use the "star out" function. This hides any word in the text, which can be useful for focusing students on the subject of the passage. I was told of one very successful example when the word "Jew" was hidden in the "Am I not a Jew?" speech from The Merchant of Venice, leading to furious debate.
* Let the students take charge, with one of them typing (see left). The more you are removed from the equation, the more ownership of the lesson they take.