First dinosaurs were in theme parks, now they belong to theme weeks. Wendy Berliner reports
He stands swaying slightly in a chill wind a full 40 feet from the tip of his tail to the points of his enormous front teeth. Timmy, the T-Rex, has arrived at Fiddlers Lane primary school in Salford to help inject a bit more fun into learning.
Timmy is the inflatable highlight of a week of activities in which the whole curriculum at this suburban primary is being taught through dinosaurs. Literacy, numeracy, science, history, art, even dance have this one theme. There are dinosaur jokes in a corridor display ("What do you call a drunk dinosaur? A wineosaurus.") Latin names on whiteboards, three-D models being crafted with straws, dinosaur habitats being developed in open fronted boxes.
"It's fun this week," says 11-year-old Chelsea Doyle. "We aren't doing any work."
Except they are. Project-based learning didn't exactly go the way of the dinosaurs with the advent of Sats, Office for Standards in Education inspections and government strategies, but it took a brave school to overturn received new wisdom for a theme-based week.
Now with the government officially sanctioning enjoyment as well as excellence, the chains are off and schools like Fiddlers Lane are in their element.
Julie Carson, the school's deputy head, who has hired the dinosaur for the day, is sporting dinosaur earrings. "The children are so excited about the dinosaur coming and they are learning so much. I'm getting homework in on time even from those who don't normally do their homework."
Timmy hasn't come alone. With him is Rochelle Johnston, a young New Zealander, who is teaching the children about dinosaurs, showing them fossils and bones and making them jump out of their skins. Why is someone with a masters in marine biology working with an inflatable dinosaur? She started out doing shows for the education company that she works for with a giant inflatable sperm whale. Timmy came next.
Throughout the day she holds mixed-aged groups of Fiddlers Lane pupils almost spellbound in an hour-long session that teaches a lot about the history, physiology and living habits of the dinosaurs, including some of their terrifying killing habits.
Rochelle, dressed in black apart from the large toothy T-Rex emblazoned on her top which is inviting people to bite him, keeps drafting children in as her assistants in a show designed to keep attention.
She uses Nathan to explain how long a neck one dinosaur had by dispatching him to the other end of the school hall while she plays the other end of the neck. "Its neck was so long that it could still give Nathan a big sloppy kiss," she says. Nathan grins sheepishly.
She uses replica dinosaur claws the size of large adult feet to hack at the air to show how they could rip and kill, making children jump and some cover their eyes in mock horror.
She casts Oliver as an Oliversaurus and leaves him grazing contentedly in front of his audience while she poses as an Allosaurus with dinner on her mind and creeps up behind. It's a winning combination of theatre and lesson.
The children look at real fossils in glass jars and handle replica ones.
There is a dinosaur egg complete with the X-ray which shows the embryo inside, tiny T-Rex brains, enormous footprints and mystery objects.
Then pupils have to guess what the mystery objects are. She holds one up which looks like any large stone and asks who held this? Most of the hands go up. "Well you've been holding dinosaur poo." Most of the hands instantly get dragged down to be wiped frantically on school uniform to a chorus of disgust. "Don't worry, it's turned to stone," says Rochelle. Much more giggling.
Out in the staff car park where Timmy looms in devouring distance, the children are ecstatic. They stroke and hug him or run round him staring upwards. Groups of them take it in turns to jump up to try to touch his teeth; they can't.
Saif, seven, who is visually impaired has a face wreathed in smiles when a teaching assistant holds down Timmy's chin so he can jump up and touch.
Three little girls look up in awe at his tail. One suddenly shouts: "He's coming to get us," and all three run away squealing.
Headteacher Beryl Woodcroft believes the school is more purposeful this week. "I feel the children have looked as if they are enjoying what they are doing. They are more engaged with their lessons."
And she believes that is down to the fact that, because the children are interested in the dinosaur theme they are more motivated to learn. "I think for years schools have had to do a lot of work with children that is not that relevant to their interests.
"This is taking children's interests into account. Unless children are motivated to learn we are not going to go far."
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