Windows of opportunity

The infants in Julia Kelly's class know that Cinderella could never have done it; her glass slipper wouldn't have stood up to a wild night in the disco. They know because they've studied the fragile material with Julia, the 1996 TESASE Primary Science Teacher of the Year. Hilary Wilce watches her at work.

It is a raw winter morning outside Dudley Infants School, Hastings, but when the children in Julia Kelly's class look out, they don't see the seagulls wheeling around among the low clouds, but the window itself.

What's glass like? she asks them. They've already looked around the room and identified things that are made of glass - lights and containers.

They stare at the window. It's got to be hard, they decide, to keep the rain and the burglars out, and to be see-through. Julia Kelly nudges them towards the word transparent. A boy says they make glass from sand. His dad told him. "You put something special in it, and you put it in a special machine and flatten it."

"Do you know what we call a slice of glass?" she asks. "It begins with p-" These five and six-year-olds are studying the Cinderella story. They've got to the part where Cinderella runs off and loses her slipper, and they are considering whether glass is a good thing to make shoes from.

Julia Kelly takes a red sandal from a girl. What's it made of? she asks. Rubber, they say. No, plastic. No - leather! What's leather made of? She puts it in a glass box, holds it up and shakes it around to simulate Cinderella's wild night of disco dancing. Is the shoe still all right? Yes, it's fine. So is the canvas plimsoll that goes in next.

But how about this? She unwraps an intricate miniature bird bath in blown glass, and holds it up so it sparkles in the light. The children ooh and ah. "I couldn't find a glass shoe anywhere," she tells them, so a local glass blower gave her this. They tell her they've seen how the glass blower heats the glass, and bends it. Then she puts it carefully in her open-ended box, covers it with a plastic bag - Why? she asks - and holds it up.

It's a moment of pure theatre. They can't quite believe she's really going to do this, and she makes the most of it with some more questions about the plastic bag. Is it see-through? As see-through as glass? Not quite, so it's called something else. Translucent.

Then, slowly, she begins to "dance" the glass ornament about. The children watch with delicious horror. It shatters. The case is proven. Glass is not the best thing to go dancing in.

Now the class splits up. Two groups go off with parent helpers to do writing tasks, another makes Christmas fudge with the classroom ancillary, and Julia Kelly takes her group off to a side table, where, in Christmassy vein, they are studying candles.

For possibly 10 to 15 minutes they do nothing but look at the candle and discuss what they see. No one fidgets or loses concentration. They all really look, and under Julia Kelly's gentle questioning (What's a candle made of? What happens when it's lit? Look at the flame. What can you see there? What shape is it? Why do you think it's moving around like that? If you - very carefully - put your hand up here what do you feel? And at the sides?) they learn what candles are made of, and how they burn.

It all seems so quiet and easy, it almost looks effortless, but props have been assembled, helpers carefully briefed, and discipline retained at all times ("bottoms back on the carpet") in order for things to go so smoothly. As a result, a huge amount of ground is covered in just 45 minutes, and these young mixed-ability infants, have been able to demonstrate a surprisingly sophisticated grasp of the world around them.

"I try and start from where they are at," Julia says. "After all, they don't come to school empty-headed. But they do have a lot of misconceptions and it's my job to steer them in the right direction."

Julia Kelly, 38, took a BEd at the University of Sussex and worked in private schools before moving into the maintained sector. "It was when the national curriculum was coming in," she says. "I could see things were changing and I wanted to be part of it."

Until recently she was not a science teacher in any shape or form. Her subject was geography, and her interest was in art. Like many primary teachers, she was even nervous of some aspects of science, particularly forces and energy. But a year-long distance learning course with the University of Kent changed all that. "What I learned more than anything was a questioning technique," she says. "How to draw things out of the children, and build on what they know, rather than tell them what they're seeing."

Now she is science and environment co-ordinator of her school, as well as helping to train other teachers and to put science materials into more user-friendly language.

She draws on the children's rich local environment to introduce them to basic science - Hastings, with its fishing fleet, historic Old Town and urban sprawl, is full of possibilities. She's had a fisherman father bring in his catch as part of a beach project; has sat up with a video camera at night to answer the question "Will a badger eat spaghetti bolognese?", and turned urban explorer to develop an environmental walk through a gorge through the middle of the town.

"My husband has been heard to say he sometimes wishes I'd practise more science in the kitchen," she says.

But she is passionate about the early years teaching. "This age is so important, they're developing all their skills, and you can do so much with them. But you've got to get it right or you've lost them."

It's clear that everyone around her thinks she's getting it right. "If Julia does anything, she does 150 per cent," says Janet Wyatt, the school head. "She stimulates all the staff, and I think we've all learned to take more from the children. I know I have. I start more with what they know, and try to find out what they want to learn."

And Dr Christine Jones, the East Sussex science co-ordinator who first proposed her for the primary teacher of science award, wrote: "She has a marvellous ability to deliver science which is stimulating and motivating. I read recently of some research that has shown that pupils' attitudes towards science are formed before they are eight - in Julia's school they have a head start!"

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