Pupils who take the biscuit

6th October 2000 at 01:00
Try something a little bit different if you want to teach rather than tell your students, says Hilary Moriarty

What do you do when you know that pupils learn differently, you are aware of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles, and you really want to expand your teaching range, but you teach English? I remember once emerging from a last lesson in the day, baffled by the fact that I had definitely been transmitting, but reception was undeniably poor. A wise colleague observed that of course they did not "know" what I thought they should know, after my heroic efforts, "because you didn't teach them at all - you told them". Ah.

So, how to do better? How to make English kinaesthetic, and real and memorable? How to teach, rather than tell? And have pupils learn rather than endure? For Macbeth I raided the loft and the previous lifetimes of my own children. Into class came a huge goodybag - that in itself was a novelty - instead of boring files or scary homework to return. Out of the bag came three Cindy dolls, dressed in red, black and white respectively; a Power Ranger sword with a button on the handle that made electronic noises (arguably a mistake, on reflection); a puppet dangling on strings from a ruler; a naked ruler; and - snatched from the garden as I left - a fir branch.

Format: groups of three. Invitation: pick from the lucky dip bag. Task, five minutes to prepare a presentation of Macbeth based on the item you have chosen making use of at least five quotations.

We had the most fun. The classroom buzzed with discussion and purposeful activity. No one needed me. I felt like a real facilitator. There was an energy and enthusiasm about the activity which in itself would make it memorable for them. And the presentations were superb. They really knew their stuff and their interpretations of the props were inventive, innovative, ingenious and entertaining. Incidentally the ruler ws Duncan - geddit? Or, of course, Macbeth, because that was his ambition; or a sword to represent the fights; or a measure of "this petty pace". Great stuff.

Another lesson began with packets of cookies: "Go on, have one." Initial deep suspicion was overcome by end-of-the-day hunger. Class full of happy chomping. And then, the task: how is a cookie like a piece of prose or poetry? Answer: most of it is plain, but there are some really good chewy, interesting pieces. The chewy bits, the bits you notice, those are the cookie equivalent of imagery - notable pieces of language where the writer makes you see, feel, know what he means. Powerful language that makes an impact and is worth talking about, as when Nina Bawden describes a middle-aged woman remembering happy times as, "so happy and ironed-out and eager" (Carrie's War). You can do without "happy" and "eager", but "ironed out"? That's marvellous, well worth comment - a chocolate chip to chew on in the cookie.

English exams require that kind of detailed attention: "How does the writer make you sympathise with...", "How does the writer make you see..." The answer is always "with the words he or she chooses", but for young readers, which words? Quoting paragraphs is no good; you have to get to the bits that really matter - the chocolate chips.

My class never forgot this lesson. When I left last term, among the presents they gave me was a box of assorted cookies. I swear, in the years to come, every time they eat a cookie, they will remember. That's real learning.

It is possible such devices are the stock in trade of junior school teaching. My pupils were bright Year 11s. Perhaps the novel, kinaesthetic approach worked even better for them since there were not a lot of cookies or toy swords in their usual academic diet. Now, about the apostrophe ...

Hilary Moriarty is headteacher of Bedgebury school in Kent and teaches English

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