2.2 Teachers create and maintain a challenging learning environment
1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate
Four Year 11 girls are in front of the class singing about Norman Bates to the tune of 'Mama Mia'. They've written the song as part of their response to the film, Psycho, and have decided to perform it, accompanied by a karoake tape. These students have tapped into Hitchcock's black humour and word-play and are attempting the same with their own work. By choosing to perform their song rather than just hand in the lyrics, the result is richer and more pleasurable for performers and audience. Like all good oral work, this presentation has grown out of and reinforces the class's sense of community and shared experience, and is a social occasion as well as a learning occasion.
Oral work has its own particular pleasures and rewards. It allows me to encourage students to take risks, experiment, be creative and original. The girls in the 'Psycho' group wanted to do something different. They wanted to challenge themselves - engage in the kind of thinking you'd expect from intelligent, confident, articulate students. All the work they've done for me in English over the past year has been great. The whole English curriculum is open to them. But we also know that for many of our students the English curriculum is closed. So I want to juxtapose the 'Psycho' girls with two groups of boys in another one of my classes who also did some oral work, and to suggest that this kind of work offers possibilities for success for low as well as high-achieving students.
Here I'm focusing on oral work as 'performance', ie. oral work which has much in common with Drama and fields like Media Studies, Art or even Music, and which we can clearly distinguish from 'declamatory' oral work - formal presentations such as debating and public speaking.
Both groups of boys were in Year 8. The task which I'd given the class was for students to present an instructional text, written or oral, individually or as a group. We looked at a few examples, spent some time discussing possibilities, then I got out of their way and let them at it. Most students, interestingly, decided on group oral presentations - and a number of them wanted to videotape their performances. Some students spent a lot of time out of school hours working on their videos.
The first group of students I want to look at are three boys who decided to write a play and perform it for the class, showing how to deal with an unwelcome vacuum cleaner salesman. Two of the boys are confident extroverts. Both like to have plenty to say in class, are boisterous and enjoy attention, but usually play the percentages, doing as little as possible. The third boy, Trent, is quiet, has substantial problems with his literacy skills (he reads and writes at around grade 3 level), and on top of that he has another learning difficulty: he can't follow more than two or three instructions at a time. This student had spent most of the year drawing pictures, colouring in pictures, cutting out pictures. Not, I should hasten to add, at my behest. He's a passive resister.
The students decided to perform a play. They had to plan it, script it, and rehearse, organise costumes and book the Drama room with the Drama teacher, and then perform it. I spent some time conferencing with the group, making a few suggestions about content and organisation. Their purpose was not so much to instruct as to entertain - 'It's gotta be funny', they repeatedly remarked to me and to one another, as they prepared for their presentation. Conversation in the group was animated, with Trent contributing ideas and criticisms, as well as taking responsibility for some organisational aspects. The other two listened to him, asked him to do things and for the first time in the year I felt that he was actively involved in his work. All three were motivated. I can remember one day when one of them even yelled out the window to the Year 8 Co-ordinator who was passing by, 'Look at me, I'm working!'
When they went outside to rehearse they were focused (apart from one occasion when they got carried away and threw some dirt at another group). Their rehearsal looked chaotic, but it was thorough, as was revealed by their performance. It was very funny, witty and entertaining. They set up the Drama room, put on their costumes, and then kept us in stitches for half a period. Trent's contribution was a revelation. He was a very spirited performer, a natural. He showed no self consciousness; he was dressed as a woman and was hamming it up Monty Python style. And he wasn't just showing off; his acting was expressive and appropriate. Not only was the performance superb. I was also impressed by their capacity to plan and organise, to devote a fair bit of their own time to the project, and to do their best rather than enough.
Another group of boys decided to make a video about how to deal with annoying neighbours. I was sceptical about the possibility of this group producing anything at all. The five boys, with one exception, were passive resisters, students who could make no connections whatsoever with what they were offered in English. Whenever I enquired about the video's progress they confidently told me that it was coming along fine. Screening the video to the rest of the class was an important moment for them - we even had to book a particular room which could be darkened. My scepticism about the group's capacity to work together and produce anything at all was demolished in a few minutes. None of the boys had given any indication during the year that they could be so confident, imaginative and organised. They'd worked together co-operatively (out of school hours!) over an extended period of time, and most significantly, had approached the task with enthusiasm and dedication, and had achieved success - the rest of the class loved it.
But back in regular English classes things didn't change much for these boys. It wasn't as though they suddenly rushed headlong into the richness of the contemporary English curriculum. The success of the oral projects did not carry over into the rest of their work. What, if anything, can be done for these students to build on their success. How might they be encouraged to take up other work in English?