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Starters: I know I shouldn’t laugh…

October 12, 2011 1 comment

Honestly, I do know I shouldn’t laugh, but a colleague passed me a link to Philip Beadle’s comments on starters and I couldn’t help it.  In fact, I found it so amusing that I just had to pass it on here, instead of doing what I should be doing and checking my daughter’s CV – sorry L, maybe tomorrow!  (Anyway, it’s your CV, not mine!)  Please note, that these views are mine and do not necessarily represent those of MPoW!

“Two starters to last you for life | Philip Beadle

I don’t really hold with starters. In fact, I think they may well be the very worst of the many bad ideas the DfES have inflicted on teachers, who were quite busy enough before the advent of this fresh new torment.

The initial reaction that teachers had when this idea was first introduced remains true: where’s the time to write, design and implement a whole new additional six lessons per day on top of the lessons I am already teaching? The answer is, ‘There is no additional time you spineless drone,’ and so my advice would be, don’t do ’em. Ignore the four part lesson plan until such point as you are being observed, and then slap out a perfunctory starter or, better still, do a lesson without a starter that is so good nobody will notice that it doesn’t follow the government’s strictures.

A decent ten-minute start to a lesson can take a decent hour to prepare. And those who are too scared to call it for what it is end up either getting the Scrabble out and letting the children play with squares of ivory for ten minutes, or plunging helplessly in the direction of the wordsearch.

However, you may be working in one of those schools where obedience, from both staff and from pupils, is perceived to be a sign of quality; and for you, here are a couple of starters guaranteed to get senior staff off your back.

Bring in a small ghetto blaster and play them some music: something lyrical; something that excites a response: Tupac, Bob Dylan, MC Paul Barman, Sparks, The Silver Jews; anything which is of interest linguistically, and get your class to transcribe the lyrics. This is not only a really buzzy way to start a lesson, but it gets students quiet, developing their ability to listen pointedly, and allows them a brief moment bathing in language; which may just be a reasonable definition of the service we are employed to provide for them.

Ask them to read their transcriptions back after the exercise. You will find yourself in an interesting debate about how language creates meaning.

The only other starter I have ever used employs – whisper it – PowerPoint. If you are lucky enough to have a stock of mini whiteboards and a surfeit of marker pens, then all the better. Otherwise pieces of blank, unlined paper will do well enough. Ask your students to write the words ‘possessive’ and ‘abbreviation’ on either side of a piece of paper or mini whiteboard, then show them a series of phrases on a Powerpoint which could be one or the other. When they are shown the legend, ‘The Teacher’s shoes look like Cornish pasties,’ they should raise the side to you which says ‘possessive’: when they are shown the sentence ‘The teacher’s a fool who wears Cornish pasty shoes,’ the ‘abbreviation’ side should be on display.

When observed, it makes sense to pretend to take some note of their answers.

Two starters should be enough to see you through a whole teaching career. You will rarely be observed more than twice by the same person. And the whole nonsensical idea will probably have been dropped by the point that the third one is booked.”

I’ve got to confess, I’m probably guilty of rolling the really formal and obvious version of a starter out for ‘The Observation Lesson.’  I haven’t tried either of the above, however; I just need to work out how to adapt them for ICT lessons!

Seriously, though, what do I think of lesson starters?    Is a starter, not something any teachers worth their salt already do as part of  their lessons?  Isn’t it obvious that a decent lesson needs a beginning as well as a middle and an end of some kind?  Whatever happened to common sense?  Actually don’t answer that – we could be here all day! Perhaps in attempting to provide scaffolding for trainee or struggling teachers, the focus has become much more about the starter(and all that other ‘stuff’) itself – and anally having one – rather than the point of it.  For instance, does displaying lesson objectives on the board make them successful? 

Rather, I think if every teacher approaches his or her lessons in the same way, structuring them in exactly the same linear fashion, we’re back to boring our students rigid!  What do you remember most about being at school?  For me, it is those lessons that were different to everyone else’s.  It is those facts and details that were conveyed in an engaging and interesting way by teachers who did not necessarily conform to the accepted ways of delivery.

At the same time, I do not wish to be dismissive.  There are some excellent and creative lesson starters out there which can be used to do exactly what it says on the ‘Starter Tin’ – they can consolidate earlier learning and understanding, create a challenge and an expectation that all students should be thinking and participating in the lesson right from the outset.  And, I’ve got to confess (hrmph) that my colleague and I have just been responsible for uploading the TES’ starter and plenary ideas to our VLE. 

Doesn’t mean I can’t have a laugh about them, though!  And I did. (Sorry about the CV, again, L!)

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