Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 14 Engagement

Chapter 14


I have always tried to engage with pupils and I think engagement underpins and reinforces all other teaching strategies and techniques.

I used many films and many types of video entertainment to try to connect with, educate and inspire pupils. Musicals turned out to be among the most captivating and successful forms of video stimulation. “Les Misérables” proved immensely popular across the board, as did “Notre Dame de Paris” (the French-Canadian adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale of Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame). While senior classes wrote essays and reviews, younger classes translated songs and even sang along as we watched each musical unfold. All classes seemed to enjoy discussion of themes and character development and this would lead to discussions of broader or perhaps more personal interest.

One of the most popular songs was “Le Temps des Cathédrales” at the start of “Notre Dame”, both because it was catchy and repetitive and because it is sung so powerfully by Bruno Pelletier. For many pupils, this was an introduction to vaguely operatic singing and storytelling, and it worked very well. I greatly admired Bruno Pelletier’s performance and voice (as did the pupils), and I wrote to a contact address on his website to ask if he would be kind enough to provide a signed photo for my pupils while explaining that we used “Notre Dame” to help in the teaching of French. Fairly soon afterward, and to my utter astonishment, I received such a photo with the message “To Mr Fernie’s pupils, Sincerely, Bruno Pelletier” which I pinned on my classroom wall where it remained for several years. Inspired by this, a handful of S4 girls also wrote and requested signed photos which he was kind enough to supply. That personal connection made a real difference not only to that year, but also to later year groups to whom I told the story and showed the photo.

A film that proved hugely popular with every class that saw it was “Les Choristes”, the story of a group of pupils in a school for boys in difficulty run by a disciplinarian Headmaster set in post-war France, and the boys’ lives are changed significantly by the arrival of a kindly supervisor who introduces the boys to a more human approach to teaching and learning while using music.

The film appealed to pupils because of its school setting, but the story itself evoked empathy, sympathy and even outrage. I discovered that classes were happy to produce work on the film, but also worked on other exercises while listening to the soundtrack of the film in the background. Indeed, one S4 class was so taken with the songs in the film (the supervisor formed a choir) that they organised a mini concert based on the songs from the film and invited along one or two members of staff. One of the main instigators of the concert was a young lady called Lauren who could hardly have been accused of being crazy about French, but she was inspired by the film and its songs, organised our mini production with her friends and sang beautifully. Tragically, just a couple of years after leaving the school, she was killed in a road traffic accident just outside Invergordon.

It was not just in using film and songs that I tried to engage my pupils – there were more personal efforts too, most notably by making courageous if ill-conceived attempts to sing myself.

I cannot sing, but I do have a powerful voice and I discovered that if I belted out a few words of a song I managed to dupe people into thinking I had a talent. And so, I started singing with Bruno Pelletier for a few bars, or accompanied Valjean as he sang “What have I done?” (always an appropriate choice, I thought), and I actually received praise from a number of pupils! As I have already indicated, I also sang “Happy birthday” to pupils, often in a duo with the Doc, and often standing on a table in front of the pupil concerned in order to cause maximum embarrassment. I wish I could say we made a deliberate effort to sing off-key and as badly as possible in order to amuse, but the truth is that by and large we were doing our best.

Apart from telling anecdotes from the past to illustrate a cultural or thematic point, I came to realise that storytelling in itself was a useful endeavour (exercise in comprehension and also in focus). However, I did realise that often pupils would not completely comprehend the tale I told them and so I felt the stories needed a dramatic finish and delivery (to maintain interest and concentration), indeed I came to realise that the finish and the way I built up to that finish were probably more important (in terms of comprehension of gist and focus) than the content, so I started telling vaguely creepy stories in French. These were stories that were worthless in themselves (and in fact had no real ending), but served to concentrate pupils’ attention on what I was saying and I built up the tension until …. BANG …. I would suddenly yell and gesticulate threateningly, usually causing screams of panic and fear, followed immediately by laughter and relief.

What I have never been able to fathom is why classes would ask for a repeat performance the following day, or, even worse, ask for a translation what they had just heard and reacted to in French. I would point out that it couldn’t possibly work because this time they knew what was coming, but they persisted in their demands for another “performance”, so I would do it again. And it would work – again. They got a genuine fright and they screamed even though they knew what I was going to do and roughly when!
So, it’s all in the telling of the tale ….

Many years ago, a teacher of English was discussing Macbeth with a senior class and he emphasised the use of blood and the colour red in the course of Shakespeare’s tale. He made very good and salient points, went into detail and produced many examples to elucidate the symbolism and meaning of the text.

Listening to the teacher was a young man who was not particularly gifted at English, but he was a hard worker and so he listened attentively. Some pupils seem to need tools to help them achieve the level of attention required to work well – some like music playing in the background, some like to drum their fingers on the table or their cheeks, and others like to tap pencils. This young man had a very sharp pencil which he held in his right hand and which he tapped gently and silently against his lips, immediately below his nose.

While most teachers know what they’re talking about and manage to convey a wealth of information and intelligent interpretation, not all teachers are gifted with a lively and interesting delivery with which to inspire and motivate their listeners. I’m afraid the English teacher in question tended toward a rather monotonous delivery which did little to encourage attention and concentration, and indeed, at least in this case, had the effect of inducing tiredness and drowsiness.

It will be recalled that the young pupil was tapping a very sharp pencil on his lips immediately below his nose as his teacher’s delivery had the effect of making him dozy. As his eyes began to close, his head arched gently back and he faded into a state of semi-consciousness, but still with the sharp end of the pencil where his lips had been before his head rocked backward.
As he became less aware and consequently exercised less control over his neck muscles, his head fell forward at the perfect angle to allow the sharpened lead point to enter his right nostril and tear the inside, instantly waking the pupil and producing a gush of blood onto his open jotter.

The accompanying scream jangled the nerves of every person in the room and as all eyes landed on the shocked, bleeding pupil, he shot out of his chair and the room at great speed, leaving the teacher and the remaining pupils to contemplate the sight of blood and the colour red in more tangible form.

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