Why I love hate 13-yr-olds

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Love 'em. Hate 'em. Nick Davey explains why he finds Year 9 the ultimate teaching challenge


Why are Year 9 happy to write about their loves, lusts, lives and longings in the back of planners and on their hands but reluctant to put pen to paper about anything we ask them to do? There's not even much chance to teach Romeo and Juliet, a KS4 text, to encourage them to write a diary on behalf of one of the protagonists and help channel the torrent of emotions.

* There's a frisson about working with Year 9: we know they're more interested in anything other than what's happening in front of them.

So, a moment of epiphany during a discussion or a lesson where the plenary shows they really might have grasped the learning objective means you too get a rush: that sense of achievement that lured you into, or has kept you in, the job.

* They provide teachers with more of a challenge

That particular brand of gun-dog loyalty peculiar to Year 7 has disappeared: lessons have to be planned to engage, entertain and take account of reduced concentration levels (see above); personality clashes and differences of opinion between characters become the class dynamic, displacing a focus on the teaching of a text; and homework has to be chased like Macduff taking revenge on Macbeth, eventually to be "untimely ripp'd" from pupils' grasp in a state just as messy.

* However we try to meet the challenge, it's got to be good for our teaching and their learning. Not every lesson can be a Jazz Singer special (all singing, all dancing, all talking); but if we're rising to the challenge, we are likely to be thinking more about what really engages the 13-year-old mind. Clever starter activities and segmented lessons were made for short attention spans.

* They have a sense of the dramatic

The phrase "drama queen" should have been invented for girls in Year 9.

The pre-occupation with appearance means that hair is teased ready for tossing and bodies ripe for flouncing. Lads have a slower burn; but the long-nurtured "black dog" of the nascent adolescent male may reach its howling climax in your presence. Be prepared to cover your ears.

* Because they haven't yet reached the super-cool upper-school stage, Year 9 will throw themselves into role play, performance, improvised scenes, dramatisation, even simple play-reading with the last vestiges of abandon.

(It's also more than mildly amusing when they do have a real strop in your presence: I've taught classes where you could have a competition to guess the depth of the largest protruding bottom lip. In fact, we did award a prize on that basis at the end of a particularly thespian residential field trip walking in North Yorkshire.)

* their prefered reading is no longer in the Waterstones 9 to12 category * The notes they exchange may have an explicitness of pornographic "quality". How do you explain that sex isn't really like that or that there's more to love than this? How to make clear that what's being described is a biological impossibility or that, actually, you didn't understand what they were describing? Again, trying to encourage them to show the same enthusiasm for their studies is a lost cause. Although Melvin Burgess, author of Doing It, thinks he's found the solution.

* You can find areas of common interest without becoming one of those sad people who reads Harry Potter with an adult cover. Teenage girls are shocked to find that a male teacher might also enjoy reading Louise Rennison. Boys discover that a recommendation by a fortysomething might open up a world beyond the Deepwoods in an alternative sci-fi world: I've not yet met a 13-year-old who didn't enjoy Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder. And there's always the possibility for "non-readers" that we could exchange magazines and find some mutual pleasure. (I'm thinking MojoKerrang and Four-Four-Twolatest footie programme rather than other teenage pursuits.)

* They are developing a more adult sense of humour

* The disappointment when you realise the sort of play on words or witty anecdote that has Year 8 rolling in the aisles no longer breaks the tensions or works with Year 9.

* And I have to stop myself smiling. You could write a thesis on the use of irony among teenagers - boys in particular. Somebody probably has.

They have National Curriculum Tests within a year

* So, there you are exploring love poetry and having fun doing performances of their interpretations of "i wanna be yours" by John Cooper Clarke; then the nagging thought comes into your mind that you'd better only spend three lessons on this as the test has no spoken element and for them to stand up and perform any piece which crept onto the reading paper would result in disqualification.

* Say what you will about Sats, there's a sharper edge and focus to my lessons in Year 9 than there was when I started teaching. More importantly, the approach to the key stage means we do now have more pupils writing and speaking independently and creatively, developing skills that will take them beyond the tests. I like to feel we've achieved that together.

Nick Davey is assistant head and English teacher at Hasland Hall community school, Chesterfield

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