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Stories Not Worksheets

Drama specialist Paul Bateson shares his experience of what happens when you ignore the worksheets left out for you for the cover lesson and employ some storytelling magic instead.

It’s early morning in the cold community hall on the edges of the ‘twelve toes tops’ mountain range. The villagers are angry about the proposal Coca-Cola development on their land. They have refused to accept the compulsory purchase order for their homes, and wouldn’t even budge despite the developers promise of a lifetime supply of free Diet Coke. The chair of the meeting (me) is struggling to hold order, but suddenly the bell rings and we have to go, we’ve lost track of time.

The reality is that ‘twelve toes tops’ is not a real place but the product of students’ imagination, and that we’re not in the village hall at all but in a steamed up English classroom last period on a winter Wednesday with low set Year 9.

The kids pack up quick as a flash, as they do, and funnel out, but on the way Billy, the inventor of the ‘twelve toes tops’ moniker for our mountain range (so called because there are twelve peaks and they “look like someone’s feet sir”) stops to say; “That was alright that sir, keep the Coca Cola man waiting we’ll get back to him tomorrow”.

I smile satisfied; because if anyone said that this tough y9 class would go for a made up story about a mountain range most people would laugh. But they did go for it. And to be honest I think they are more likely to go for it than the photocopied worksheet cover tasks on persuasive writing they’d been left, actually.

See as a drama teacher I’m always looking the find the story in the learning, and as supply teachers we’re all looking to engage students and build rapport as quickly as possible. So when I read the cover work I often use a combination of drama and stories to engage the students, get them on my side, make the work a little more interesting, and put the learning in a real life context - if I can. And let me clarify, when I say drama, I mean; speaking and listening and imagining a bit - not making a play.

Now I’m not criticizing any professional colleagues for quality of cover work. Yes it varies, but so do the reasons and the circumstances in which it is set. I’ve left ‘make a poster’ or ‘worksheet’ cover work before, because sometimes you can’t plan cover work as you’d plan a ‘normal’ lesson of your own. And often you’re not expecting to have to leave cover, so this is not a whine about word-searches.

Often though, the work that is left is sometimes on the lifeless side so, as supply teachers, it’s our job to bring it to life. That’s where imagination comes in. And stories.

Taking inspiration from Uncharted Territories by Hywel Roberts and Debra Kidd, I have a number of off-the-shelf story settings that can be applied to a range of topics and subjects.

The one I have used successfully the most is a mountain community. Be prepared with a whiteboard pen. Draw a wavy line (like a mountain range. Or feet.) on the board.

Say to the students, as you are about to take the register, ‘Thank you for attending the meeting at such short notice, I know some of you have travelled a long way, but there is a very important issue in our community’. Then mark the village hall on the map with a little box that says ‘Village Hall’.

‘Here’s the village hall we’re in today, here’s the mountain peaks of our community’. Ask the students ‘Whereabouts in the hills have you travelled from today?’. Ask them to mark where they live on the map with their initials. (It’s also good way to learn names quickly- always a plus for a cover teacher). Tell them; ‘That’s a beautiful place to live, what’s there?’. They’ll say trees or rocks or a cave, or something amazing like ‘An old rope bridge over the valley’. Or if there’s some reluctance you can help them along by doing your own ‘house’ first and talking about the ancient well that’s at the end of your garden, then add their landmarks to the map.

Some students won’t answer, some will laugh, some will be completely puzzled. Some will answer, some will love it, most of them will warm up, all of them will be intrigued.

From here depending on how the class are you could:

  • Continue to list landmarks on board and discuss the beauty of our locality, creating their own folk tale stories about the place
  • Ask students to draw the map in their books and label it up with geographical features
  • Plot map on graph paper
  • Choose one landmark and describe it using adjectives and alliteration. Or similes. Or a rhyme.
  • Devise names for the mountain range (‘Twelves Toes Tops’ is taken) and take votes
  • Write a list of questions they’d like to ask me about the ‘problem issue’ we have
  • Devise a role play news report on strange sightings seen in the forest

So, the kids are kind of on board with this make-believe village and you’re twenty minutes into the lesson and you haven’t even mentioned  - and no-one has missed - the pile of worksheet left for you on the teacher’s desk.

But why expend so much effort to do this when you could have handed out the worksheets and sat quietly-ish catching up on your marking?

Well, in this particular instance, the work that was set was persuasive writing, where the students were to read an article about the Nepalese Himalayas and then write an argument for or against increasing tourist trekking according to how they feel about its impact on the environment and local communities. So instead of reading about Nepal, we’re making our own community, and instead of tourists, it’s Coca Cola. They want to build a factory and its planned to be slap bang in the middle of the village. So what’s the impact?

The worksheet I felt was a little cold, the students hadn’t much investment in the Himalayas to write about it. And I didn’t have the rapport/respect of the class to perhaps say ‘Let’s just crack on’. They don’t know me, like me (yet), or feel they need to do any work for me. I have to take the work set and use my professional ingenuity to bring it to life.

And, as ever when it comes to winning human beings over, stories help. They:

  • Engage the class
  • Allow students to be vocal (on your terms)
  • Build rapport
  • Ensure children are invested in the work (they created it themselves so are more likely to care)
  • Have fun

I give them this news about the fizzy drink factory, then hand out the worksheet for us to read through but they’ve too many questions. ‘They can’t do that sir!’, ‘How much will they pay us for the land?’ ‘Why wouldn’t we have it, money, jobs, and as much Coke as we want!’

But we do settle down to read the sheet and the students then do the English work they need to do; as long as I promise to decide on a name for the village and have another debate before we leave for the day.

First of all in their books they write a list of pros and cons, Then they use a word bank I talk them through to identify persuasive language. After this, the students follow a letter template to write to the CEO of Coca-Cola explaining their position. Learning how to layout a letter, the difference between ‘Yours sincerely’ and ’Yours faithfully’ (and the need for one or the other, no matter how angry you are), argument and counter argument etc. While they work I collect the potential village names and conduct the vote.

It was now that ‘Twelve Toes Tops’ was decided upon.

After a while we share some letter extracts - some for, some against - and they are really great. Detailed, structured, and, crucially, authentic. They actually care. During the debate that follows the end of school bell rings as we all realise we’d forgotten the time.

This was a really fun lesson for me the students and using a make-believe place to set the work really helped engage the students and get them to ‘buy into’ my being there.

This was English, persuasive writing. But the mountain range can be used across the curriculum. Where is your subject in a mountain range?

Some ideas:

Geography - volcanoes, erosion, deforestation, water cycle, mapping and more

Art - cave paintings have been found

MFL - there is a indecipherable note pinned to a tree

Music - folk songs, protest songs

Maths - angles, area, percentages, coordinates and more

PE - heart rates from exercise (climbing), diet (protein rich mountain food)

Try it. Before you simply tell them, ‘What you’re doing today…’ and the child whose name you don’t know but who sits closest to the teacher’s desk hands out the worksheet, tell a bit of a story. It really works. [ITL]

Paul Bateson is a teacher in primary and secondary schools in West Yorkshire, and has completed an MA (Education) with a focus on dramatic technique – ‘Mantle of the expert’. He works for University of Huddersfield Drama PGCE and as a creative practitioner for Leeds Playhouse. He works freelance as a teacher trainer, writer, and workshop leader. find out more on, follow him on Twitter @wakeydramapaul or drop him a line

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