Small is better, Pamela

1st March 1996 at 00:00
The recent cold snap gave Lucy Taylor a chance to have meaningful discussions with the few that braved the elements to attend school. It may be true that class size doesn't matter when the teaching style is chalk and talk. But that's not the way I teach nor is it what most of my pupils need; they do plenty of passive learning in front of the TV. Two skills which many of them obviously lack, in school and beyond, are speaking and listening - and these are much easier to teach if there are fewer people in the class.

The recent snow in the West of England has provided me with conclusive evidence. Valiantly my colleagues and I trudged to school only to find that many pupils hadn't made such a heroic effort. So instead of 30 in my Year 9 English class there were 19.

Ignoring their pleas to "do something fun for a change Miss," I went ahead with the lesson as normal, which meant delivering talks on a well-known person. With the class down to nearly half its usual size and the arctic conditions outside, the atmosphere was almost cosy.

Even when two boys got up to do a joint talk on Pamela Anderson, I didn't feel as apprehensive as I might have done. Typically, what they said was rather brief, most of it gleaned from Ruby Wax's recent interview. Also typically, their delivery was poor - they just read out what they had written. Afterwards the rest of the class remained silent, lacking the confidence to contribute. (Isn't it funny how quiet they go in an organised discussion, when they can raise the roof in an uncontrolled session.) There was more time than usual to spend on each talk so I began to ask a provocative question or two: Is it really necessary for women like Pamela Anderson to have surgery in order to gratify men? What medical evidence is there on the effect of silicone implants? At first there were a few guffaws from the boys, who, of course, all thought Pamela Anderson was great.

Because the class felt relaxed, I quizzed them for more opinions. And then they got going. Gavin (already a popular with the opposite sex) was suddenly waving his hand in the air, clearly desperate to say something: "She's not really a very good role model for other women, is she Miss?" I could feel his comment register with the rest of the class and set them all thinking.

"I wouldn't have mine done," asserted Rachel (aged 13) and her friends muttered in agreement. Others began to have their say and debate the issues. By the time the bell rang I felt we'd spent the time far more purposefully than usual. With a smaller class, I could concentrate on what each pupil had to say and appreciate far more precisely their particular contribution.

However, the snow has melted and now the SATs tests are looming. I shall look back to that day with my shrunken Year 9 group as one of the high points of this term's teaching.

Lucy Taylor lives in Bristol

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