Thursday, June 14, 2007

‘Has anyone got an INTELLIGENT question?’

School visitors are usually welcomed with open arms, a break from the daily grind, a chance to chill, relax and watch other people perform, although you’re always thinking, ‘can they cut it?’

For some visitors this doesn’t necessarily apply, most of the so-called Literacy Consultants resolutely refuse to teach, but of course they’re quite happy to watch and then carp and criticise. They’ll spend hours showing you how to plan lessons in minute detail (9.38 a.m. turn page 125 with your right hand and ask the following question…). If the test results aren’t in line with the targets then you as teachers just aren’t up to the mark. After years of these intrusions LEAs finally realised that they were about as popular in some schools as the Black Death was in medieval villages.

Increasingly poets and authors are invited into schools, some of them teachers who have made it as writers and they actually try to inspire and enthuse teachers and children by communicating and transferring their love for writing. We had the poet Ian Bland in teaching the children limericks and how to use rhythm and rhyme. It was also cross-curricula because we got the atlases out to find exotic place names, or the mundane, ‘There was a young woman from Ealing…’ no on second thoughts he didn’t missed that one out.

The children’s writer Alan Gibbons has written some edgy books on controversial topics like bullying, racism and religious bigotry. He got our children writing in shorter ten-minute slots. He’s also pioneered ways to engage boys with literacy through sport, factual writing, gore, snot and other unspeakable bodily functions.

With Jamie’s School Dinners, the battle against obesity and the impending London Olympics millions of pounds is being poured into sport. The Schools Coordinators project has allowed schools to meet together to organise events, it’s also helped by freeing secondary specialists to teach in primary schools and whenever Mark from our local secondary comes in the female members of staff always seem to manage a stroll through the hall.

We’ve had different sports that our children would probably never get the chance to try. The best was a judo taster, Terry the instructor was so gentle and patient, he got some of the real problem children bowing and using faultless Japanese, and there was never any hint of aggression but only Eastern calm. Only at the end of the six weeks did we discover that he is totally blind.

The only problem is that every agency, trust or charity is involved with sport; we seem to get a phone call every week. One day an ex-professional footballer arrived, he was setting up his own training company, he brought in a huge bag of full-sized footballs booted them all over the field and got the children running after them… and that was it, a load of balls. The worst was the cricket coach who was teamed up with one of the less sporty members of staff, he started belittling him in front of the children, “Can’t you catch? ‘ow can you teach them if you can’t do it?” Then he started insulting the children, “Hey dozy, come over here!” After a couple of weeks we rang up to say thanks, but no thanks.

Some visitors just disappoint, the other week we had the Safari Park in and I’ve got to admit I was winding the class up by saying there was a huge trailer outside with a hippo in, that the giraffes would only fit in the hall and the chimps had escaped, were there any volunteers to find them? I was still expecting though a hint of the exotic an African land snail, a giant stick insect or huge beetle perchance? Instead we had a long lecture on life cycles and just to confuse everyone she threw in parthenogenesis in aphids, no males appear in summer until the weather gets colder and eggs need to be laid to survive the winter (a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle). Finally we were promised some eggs to hatch out, an exotic butterfly or endangered species? No, it was the cabbage white! Could do better.

You always get the regulars and we have two lovely old boys who introduce classical stringed instruments from violins to double basses. It’s based on a comedy double act with rude jokes and innuendo the only problem is that after ten years they haven’t changed the jokes or the routine (I know this was the principle that music hall was based on, but look what happened to that). You can telegraph every joke and they must be saying them in their sleep.

There are the one-offs never to be repeated or invited back. Mr Cuddles dressed up in a clown uniform and mimed to songs, prancing up and down the rows of children, the music blasting out from an ancient cassette recorder. He started getting mobbed by the children and disappeared at one stage under a pile of Year 2s. It was all we could do to stop a full-scale riot, the children were so hyper we had to abandon lessons for the rest of the afternoon. Still at £130 an hour there was a queue to join Mr Cuddles.

The one we all remember was “Crabby” Crabtree, he acquired this title due to his attitude, demeanour and sociability. He’d announce his presence by opening the door of the staff room at dinnertime with the imperious command, “You need to move your cars I’ve got to get my equipment in!” No “Hello, how are you, would you mind…?” Bill the caretaker would always make himself scarce and “Crabby” would spend ages staggering in sideways through the doors with his projectors and slides. From his shows you could tell he had an affinity with barnacles, prawns and those vicious eels that hide in holes.

It was always a slide show of the animals he had encountered on his latest holiday. Now I know that in the era of chap books and blackboards the magic lantern shows were bound to be a hit, but when you’re competing against ‘The Blue Planet’ and ‘Natural World’ there just isn’t much of a contest. The whole school would file into the hall, there you were in a dark stuffy atmosphere with hundreds of sweaty children, “Crabby” droning on for ages. On one occasion, much to the amusement of Year 6, I did begin to drop-off, I had to walk about and get a strong coffee, match sticks on the eyes, anything to stay awake. After an hour or so he would see that children’s attention was flagging, glower at them and ask, “Has anyone got an INTELLIGENT question?”

The only thing I can remember was that there was one species of gull that would protect its nest by projectile vomiting the entire contents of its stomach all over its hapless victim, ensuring that you would smell of oily fish for days. Somehow I know where that gull was coming from.

Of course it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning theatre groups, we’ve had some excellent ones that have involved the children, by getting them to dress up, putting messages over through songs, allowing the children to laugh and shout at the tops of their voices. Oh, and embarrassing the teachers as well. The difficulty community theatre has is the skit by the League of Gentlemen with their ‘Legs A Kimbo’ group of primadonnas and thwarted thespians, who constantly argue bicker and squabble. There are also a limited number of actors attempting to portray a mass of bewildering and perplexing characters. One group we had into school attempted the whole of the Old Testament in one hour - with three actors. They raced through Daniel in the Lions Den in two minutes, a whistle stop tour of the Ten Commandments and rushed through Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours. There were numerous baffling costume changes, everything delivered at full volume, slapstick used at inappropriate moments and no attempt to involve the children until the end. “Sir, we’re getting bored.”

School visitors – from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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I am always intrigued by the responses of teachers when I come in. Although I consider myself a trainer I am always introduced as a motivational speaker.

Personally I think its useless me coming into a school unless I have the backing of the teachers and always ask them to provide feedback for me. Although some are scared (maybe it#s my height and scowl) I actually do relish it when I get comments like "I don't know why they bothered. Motivational? Gimme a break they need discipline!" on my comments page.

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