What a difference a day makes

31st October 2008 at 00:00

There's been another murrr-durrr. But there's no need for any of Taggart's proteges to race to the scene of the crime - a gaggle of 11 and 12-year-old forensics experts is already on the case.

It's Newman Week at Motherwell's Cardinal Newman High, a celebration of a man who gave the school its name. Until a few years ago, this meant a staff versus pupils football match, a visit from the town's bishop, and not having to wear uniform. It's also a chance for teachers to reinvent themselves.

The week's celebrations conclude with Newman Day, when teachers share talents with pupils and colleagues that, for the most part, have little to do with their day-to-day jobs.

Depute head William Tollan has swapped his suit for sports togs and is wowing pupils with his ping-pong skills; PT of computing Eileen Mallagan has ditched spreadsheets for baking trays to impart her cake-decorating talents; and physics teacher John Gibbons is elbow-deep in clay as he renews a passion for pottery he never knew about until one fateful Newman Day a few years back.

"It's a lot different from a normal day," says S1 pupil Emma McGarrell, who is learning nail-painting from fourth-year Jessie Cheung.

As varnish is painstakingly applied in one room, blood has been splattered with abandon in another corner of the building. This is where the S1 forensics team is piecing together clues after the discovery of a "mutilated body" (an educational plastic dummy from the biology department). It's part of a CSI activity, named after the popular American TV dramas based around crime scene investigations.

"You see things like this on TV, and I thought I'd like to do that," says Jack Martin, 11. "I never thought I'd get the chance to do it."

Kevin McCormack, 12, is thrilled by the responsibility given to him to solve the case: "In normal school you always have to read books, but now you're actually looking about for clues. I thought it would just be writing stuff down."

The idea for the finale came from a pupil who suggested that, rather than a no-uniform day, why didn't the school have a no-timetable day?

That inspired moment led to what is now a cornerstone of the school's response to curricular change, as headteacher Isabelle Boyd explained: "It shows youngsters that learning isn't just about being in the classroom with the teacher; it is A Curriculum for Excellence."

The day is a "huge task" to organise, according to enterprise co-ordinator Walter McMurray. S1 and S5 take part in the teacher-led activities in school, S2 and S6 go elsewhere for a day of activities, while S3 and S4 have their own specially-arranged programme, during which outside experts deal with issues such as confidence-building.

To the uninitiated eye, there is a bewildering hive of activity, but it stays on the right side of chaotic: what seems to hold everything together is that everyone is absorbed in what they are doing, whether wrapped up in the quiet industry of clock-making or trying to keep up with the punishing tempo of body jam.

Mrs Boyd recalls that, as the new-look Newman Day established itself, more and more teachers were saying "I would love to do that", as they looked around at the takeover of the school by dog-handlers, plectrum-makers and face-painters.

As a result, an annual half in-service day now takes place in November, when teachers are taught new skills by their talented colleagues - with longer-term benefits for pupils.

"Suddenly, teachers are in the place of learners, and that obviously has an impact in the classroom," Mrs Boyd says.

Or, as 11-year-old Sean McKenna puts it, while watching Mr Gibbons forget about protons and neutrons and getting stuck into the potter's wheel: "Most of the time, teachers are sitting teaching people and they get quite tired. It's nice for them too."

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