At the middle school I taught in, the top year (Y8) timetable had a unique subject called non-French. Pupils were selected for this elite group using the sole criterion that the French department didn’t want to be bothered with them. As you’ll imagine, this didn’t exactly enhance the children’s self-image; things were made worse still by the fact that nobody had the faintest idea of what the lessons should involve and that the group was taken reluctantly by whichever teacher had a free slot on their timetable that year.
I have to confess that the French department and the Head weren’t far-sighted educational thinkers, and neither of them saw anything wrong with putting a subject on the timetable for which the only guidance was that it wasn’t French. So one year I decided I’d have a go with the group, and I must say we had a lot of fun.
Rule 1 was no text-books, and above all no worksheets. Rule 2 was that we’d actually do something positively rather than because it would fill up a lesson or two. So we read and performed comedy scripts such as the classic Tony Hancock Blood Donor. Then we spent a month of lessons exploring some number magic tricks, leading up to a nerve-wracking and rather brilliant performance by the group in which they stunned the audience (i.e. the non-non-French remainder of the year group) by a variety of magical effects and amazing predictions.
I thought of them when I spotted a tweet forwarded by Simon Gregg about measurement using a trundle wheel. One fine morning in early summer we decided to help the groundsman by measuring out the 100-metre track. They organised themselves in half a dozen groups and remarkably, every group chose a different method. One group used strides, one pigeon steps, one a metre stick, another made themselves a 10-metre length of string, …. Even more remarkably, I was flabbergasted that the various methods all agreed within two or three metres – and were in close agreement with the official measurement determined by the school’s trundle wheel.
(Which is why the tweet intrigued me. Simon’s correspondent reported that his trundle wheel measured differently from A to B than from B to A – and that their groundsman says that’s invariably the case!)
Another big topic we did was to make a simulation game of the development of railways across our local Chilterns area. The pupils worked in teams, building routes which avoided hills and rivers to connect revenue-generating towns. We looked at costs, and scheduling, and created a wonderful map of hexagons; the map filled the entire wall of the classroom. One day a visitor came and was a little snooty that we’d played a game to model the process. “Wouldn’t it be better to study what really happened?”, she said. Which was what we’d done the very day before, so the non-Frenchers proudly demonstrated how one of their routes had followed the GWR track out to Reading and the West, while another had followed the Great Central route to Aylesbury and beyond, and another had taken the route out through Luton and Stevenage. I did enjoy that moment!
As the climax of the year the group created and published a comic magazine called Creeps!, sales of which (enhanced by the donation of a huge box of Monster Munch by Walkers Crisps) were large enough to necessitate a reprint.
There was one spin-off that was nicely gratifying. Upsetting the French department was always fun, and they were quite aggrieved by the whole business. They’d been quite happy to slough off their discards, but didn’t much enjoy it when they faced a queue of their students asking if they could drop French and do non-French instead.