Unfinished business

16th December 2011 at 00:00
Critics condemn the frequent repetition of well-worn subjects like the Nazis and teachers face a constant battle to keep them fresh. But returning to the same topics year after year may have surprising benefits for everyone

Ten minutes into the start of the English lesson, the teacher still had not turned up.

The class was studying Lord of the Flies. The teacher, like all English teachers, had taught the book before. Many times before. Possibly every year of his teaching career. And, this time round, he decided to do something different.

In previous lessons, pupils had discussed how they might react if they, like the novel's protagonists, were to crash-land on a desert island with no adult supervision. Most insisted that, unlike the characters in the book, they would manage to cope without descending into uncivilised chaos.

And then the teacher did not turn up for the start of the lesson. Or immediately afterwards. Or, indeed, for some time after that. No one, however, was watching the clock. Some boys had started eating their lunch; others were holding conversations across the breadth of the classroom.

A group of pupils began chasing one another around a cluster of desks. And then the teacher arrived. "There," he said. "Now you know what would happen on the island if you were left alone. There would be mayhem."

This is not, Di Beddow says, something teachers would do now. Health and safety regulations have put paid to the idea of cultivating an end-of-days dystopia in one's classroom, even in miniature.

But at the time, Mrs Beddow, now deputy head of Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire, served in the English department with that teacher. And, she says, she has enormous sympathy for his need to experiment with different ways of teaching the text. She, too, has taught William Golding's 1954 novel more times than she can count on her fingers.

She first came across the book when she studied it for her own English O-level course. During her first year as a teacher, she read it with her fifth-form class. In the three decades since - including non-teaching hours in senior management - she estimates that she has taught it at least 15 times. "If I had pound;5 for every time I've taught Lord of the Flies," she says, "I would be a rich woman."

She is not the only teacher to have found that her career contains more than a hint of classroom dj vu. "Teachers taught the same books - Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men - even before the national curriculum came in," says Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London. "It's partly to do with exams. These books are always on the exam syllabus. Also, books are expensive to get. If you have a set of those books, you're going to use them again and again."

You can read the full article in the December 16 issue of TES.

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