The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It's been a really bloody hard two weeks before half term, but days like today make it all worthwhile. You'll have to forgive me a post of self congratulation, because the day I've had was unbelievable.

First, I hit all my deadlines.
I sent off the last of the five classes's worth of coursework I had to grade and moderate - each one using a different new syllabus, and needing every i dotted and every t crossed to ensure I was following the examination board's specification exactly. At one point, I was grading the same piece of work out of 6, out of 9, then out of 18, out of 27, 54, out of 67, then again out of 20, and then again out of 3. Then the averages.
I'm not a natural at the more mundane paperwork part of the job, so my relief from this burden has to be to throw myself utterly and enthusiastically into my classroom teaching.

Today it paid off, because in a week where all our staff have experienced real pressure keeping students of all levels in their seats and in the room, let alone focussed, a week where the sickness and stress leave is depleting my colleagues as fast as I can think up a half organised cover task, my classes enthused.
Every single class I taught ended with that lovely drainage effect, where children crowd around you at the end of the period, anxious to know more about the topic.

  • I'd tried to ignore the croaky throat that threatened to give way to use drums, legs, desks and student's best sense of loud, repetitive rhythms to sing a poem to my first class. I tried to ignore how stupid I felt to injext some damn enthusiasm into the dry stale exam texts we're forced to study.
    They fizzed about after period one, fifteen year olds wanting to know more about slavery (we were studying a Kamau Brathwaite poem, and had supplemented their free association poetry analysis lesson with some background research on Alex Haley in the form of clips of Kunta Kinte), an African student trying to translate the usually ignored swahili asides.

  • Period 3 had fourteen year olds who'd been learning to draft their creative pieces as a real writer might, while studying some of Stephen King's quieter, more reflective pieces on childhood nostalgia. I'd finally relented and let them read one of his miniature horror tales, 'Chattering Teeth', and we'd read right up to the point where the young mugger causes a car accident, and the set of walking plastic, wind up teeth begin to 'click'. The bell came at a crucial moment, amidst wails of 'finish the paragraph at least, miss!'
    Cruel as ... as ... as a teacher, I shushed them out of the room, to make way for a class of thirteen year olds whom I'd volunteered to take on to give some respite to the teacher whose lives they'd made a total misery all year.

  • I love teaching thirteen year olds - they're the year that time forgot, the year everyone ignores, and so any extra effort on planning is repaid a hundredfold. Having studied Dickens' ghost stories a fortnight ago, I'd promised something special this week, and they'd heard some clues of what was in store from previous year's students, who remembered this lesson as an old favourite.
    The curtains were drawn, spooky music played through the speakers, low, tables pushed back, and a circle of chairs formed. The point of the lesson is to talk to each other, to tell each other ghost stories - the proviso being that they have to sound real - to think about how ficiton exploits the little unexplained mysteries of life, and to vote on the student whose tale was best told. It's magic.
    The end of the lesson, and roughly fifty percent of this bunch of little hard nuts hung back to tell me more of their stories, excitedly. Wonderful.

  • The afternoon, and an unspecified number of sixteen year olds were due to come back into school from their study leave for an optional two hour revision class, the day before their formal examinations begin. They would begin with the most difficult paper, and the powers that be had decided early evening and Saturday classes were a good idea not so good they're willing to pay me for doing them, but still). The maximum attendees could be 356, and there was me, one room, and my wits to deal with a bunch of kids who were by and large strangers to me.
    We raced through eighty examiner-set poems, playing memory games, teasing each other in poetry races, and picking straws to find which essay title we'd won. Chocolate biscuits and Pringles for a five minute break, and onto the structural patterns in the examiner-set novel.
    I took advantage of the lack of upper echelon support to eject five students who'd reached their limit of time they were able to focus - four went willingly after I pointed out that managing seventy five minutes of an intensive lesson in a subject they weren't keen on wasn't all bad, one refused to budge. Dominic has never dealt well with public reprimands, however quietly and calmly delivered. But it was crunch time. I told him that until he did budge, my lips were sealed. The other forty students crammed every which way into the stifling sweaty but purposeful room decided en masse that my company was proving more useful than Dominic's, and kicked him out for me.
    The lesson ended five minutes overtime, students thanked me on the way out, and six students stayed an extra hour for some intensive coaching on comparing a Shakespearean sonnet to Robert Browning's work.

  • Walking past a parent-teacher interview evening on the way out, five students stage whispered 'that's my teacher!' to their parent before waving like a kid off on a tour of the world's best theme parks.

  • Crossing the road outside, I winked at an ex-student on the crossing. He leapt back through the traffic to chat to me, delight on his face at being able to tell someone how well he's been doing at his new college.

It's the last week of term. It's usually mental here. If you come out unbruised, you're generally doing well.

I apologise if this sounds like bragging, and for going into the minutiae of my day - but dammit, it worked. I'm so, like, cool.