Friday 24 July 2009

Romeo and Juliet and the reason why

Two days ago saw the end of term (big sigh of collective relief there.)So I was sitting in the English office contemplating the summer break on the last morning of term, when one of my Year Tens came in and handed me an essay. Come on! On the last hour of the last morning of the last day? But I gave her a bright smile, thanked her and bade her a good summer. And waited until the door had closed behind her to curse.

Actually, she was only doing what I had asked. I'd handed back the class' first draft of their Romeo and Juliet essays and had suggested in passing, that they should do the rewrite over the summer break, or, if they preferred, they could do it before and I would mark it for the beginning of next term. So, swallowing my unreasonable irritation, I read the first paragraph of her essay. And almost cheered. It was riveting. Enthralled, I read on.

By the time I had finished reading the six pages of closely typed A4 sheets, I had tears in my eyes. OK, I could say it was because I was very tired, or it was an allergic reaction to the accumulation of dust on the table. But these would be lies, because the reason for my reaction was simply the fact that the essay was superb. It was the best thing that I had read for a very long time. I had brilliant students in my last lovely year eleven and I've written loads about them, but this essay was something else. My best students from last year, achieved this quality of writing and understanding towards the end of their final year. This girl, has just turned fifteen. She has another year to go of her GCSE, and she's already writing like a very good A level student.

I've had a lot of fun with this girl while teaching R and J. She adores the play and won't hear a word against it. So needless to say, suggesting that Romeo was a bit of an idiot elicited an interesting response. When I suggested that the main theme of the play was not love, if she'd had a gun she'd have shot me! However, although she (very wisely) totally disagreed with me about a lot of what I said about the play, she's very, very bright and can hold her ground in an argument, something of which I thoroughly approve. And it was this originality that came out in her essay. The question had been about the methods that Shakespeare used to manipulate his audience's emotions in Act 3 Scene 5 (the scene when all Hell breaks loose with Juliet's father.) By the time I'd finished reading her essay, not only was it very clear that she completely understood what the Bard was saying, she'd also shown total engagement with the two lovers. Her work was polished, sophisticated and mature. I could give her nothing lower than full marks.

It's been a difficult term and for various reasons mentioned elsewhere, I was really wondering why on earth I was still doing this job. Then I read this girl's essay on Romeo and Juliet, and I rememered. And I ended the term with a smile.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The 'Alan Shore technique'

My year tens have had their final lesson of the year. It consisted of the final few speeches from the class. One of my girls stood up and despite obvious nerves (which she conquered pretty quickly) delivered a riveting speech on tolerance and the monstrous (her word not mine) behaviour of racists who gain followers by pretending to be reasonable and patriotic. Her speech was technically brilliant. Any persuasive technique you could have wanted was there. Her passion and clear understanding of both her subject matter and the what I now call (and so do the kids) the 'Alan Shore technique' was evident in every line and every movement. She was wonderful.

And I wasn't the only one who thought so. The class listened in total silence, completely enthralled by her. When I asked for comments at the end, one of the students, who had mislaid her GCSE speaking and listening criteria said it was an A*. I asked her how she could be so sure if she didn't have the criteria in front of her and she said, "Everyone listened. You could have heard a pin drop. She used all the Alan Shore techniques, but more than that, we were all completely grabbed by what she said, and if that isn't total engagement of audience, I don't know what is."

I had to agree. She was correct. Of course she was.
But the thing was, it wasn't the fact that the student's speech was clearly an A* grade, it was the fact that the other students knew it and were happy for it to be an A*.
There was no jealousy or resentment, just genuine pleasure at the quality of work produced by one of their colleagues. They were, as a whole class, delighted by the work each and every one of them had produced.

During this entire exercise, they were supportive and generous with their praise and help. Not once did I sense envy at a good speech, or malicious glee at a less successful student's work.
When I tried to explain to a colleague that the first ten minutes of all my lessons are spent creating and developing an atmosphere where students feel relaxed, cooperative and part of a team, this is exactly what I was referring to. There is a feeling of friendship in the class. A feeling of everyone being in it together. It takes a while to create this, and sometimes it doesn't work. But it was nice to see in that last lesson, that in this class, it had.