From the slime to the ridiculous

6th September 1996 at 01:00
As a supply teacher I am often called on at short notice to cover for colleagues. After the audible sigh of relief at finding someone who can help, the caller will usually specify the age-range of the class and the current topic. In the beginning, I found this a worry. It is not easy to do research at 10pm, when libraries and shops are closed. But now I have a whole file of perfected lessons that I can march confidently with into any situation.

Two or three times a term I go to schools that happen to be doing mini-beasts. I jump for joy and fish out my "Snails Investigations" file. It must be damp outside so I can get my mixing bowl from the kitchen and go snail-hunting on my patio and in the garden. When I have collected about 20, I cover them with the netting that I use for wine-making and leave them by the front door.

The next morning I get strange looks from other staff on my way to class. But I smile knowingly and keep going. I get a damp sponge which I leave ready in a bowl of water. Then I find my sheet of proposed investigations, photocopy it and cut it up into five strips. I then produce my follow-up sheet, adapted to the age-range of the day, and make enough copies so that each child can have one. I go into my big hold-all and fish out a room thermometer, an egg-timer, a torch and a small bottle of vinegar.

Soon, the children begin to wander in and spot the glass bowl of snails - and I know that I have got their attention for the day.

After the register is completed and I've got to know a few names, I tell the children what we are going to do. They wait with bated breath to see if what I say will come true.

I explain that snails like damp places best, and I choose one child to go around and make a wet pool in the middle of each table. Then I choose three children to carefully place the snails, about four, on each damp patch. I choose three for a reason: at any one time two of them will be holding a snail in a little hand, fascinated by its hard shell and slimy under-carriage. It would take all morning if only one had been chosen.

Then I group the children with what I guess to be a fair distribution of ability and I name one person as the captain. His or her job is to read out the investigation to be carried out by the group, and at the end of the session, report back to the class.

The class has settled to work within minutes. If they are an older class, the captain will appoint someone to make notes. Among the questions posed are: what happens to their tentacles when snails get very close to each other? Do snails like water? How far does a snail travel in three minutes (this one always surprises them)? What is the widest gap a snail can cross? How can you make a snail move? Can a snail see, hear, or smell? The last one is usually the most popular, since all children are fascinated by torches and they use one to shine on the snails and watch for a reaction.

As morning playtime approaches, the captains put the snails back into the glass bowl, clean the tables, and they all go out chattering excitedly, which does nothing to dispel the wary glances from my colleagues as I make my way to the staffroom.

After play the captains make their reports, feeling very important as they do so. I distribute worksheets and they record their findings, with drawings. They write up what they had to find out; what they did; what happened.

If I know that I am there for just the one day, I switch the investigations around the groups in the afternoon. If I know that I'm to be there the following day, I do something else in the afternoon and resume snailly doings the next morning.

Yvonne Stewart is a supply teacher in Oxfordshire If you have a successful lesson which would interest other teachers, please contact Diane Hofkins, primary editor, at The TES.


For her science lesson, Yvonne Stewart used about 20 snails of different sizes a thermometer an egg-timer a torch a bottle of vinegar.

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