I don’t suppose Peter Rowley would ever have thought of himself as associated with Vikings, and I very much doubt whether he has thought about the incident I am about to relate from the day it happened to the present.
But I have, often, because it taught me some very useful lessons. Right out of the blue. That’s often the way the best lessons come, isn’t it?
We were “doing” the Vikings. The class was a collection of boys about twelve years old, in a secondary modern school. Peter Rowley was an average – a very average – pupil in a large class. They were nearly all large classes in secondary modern schools.
But he was a good lad, our Peter – well-mannered, neatly dressed, attentive, and keen to do his best.
As I say, we were doing the Vikings. After a few lessons and a homework or two, we knew about where they came from – all those fjords; how they travelled – the famous longships, their weapons, their dress, their methods, their awful anti-Christian activities; the burning, pillage, and general destruction.
“Philosophical antennae are not at their sharpest on a windy Friday afternoon.”
On a good morning, we even managed a thought or two not on how they did all these things, but on why. You need a good still, fresh morning for heavy stuff like this, preferably early in the week; their philosophical antennae are not at their sharpest on a windy Friday afternoon.
Well, we had got it across that these Vikings were quite something; twelve-year-old boys are always prepared to give an ear to anybody who can raise a bit of Cain.
Anyway, early the following week, I thought it was about time we did a spot of revision, to try and find out how much had been soaked up by the sponges of the inner ear, and how much had gone straight through and out the other side.
What do you do in revision sessions? You don’t need me to tell you that. You may not all have been teachers, but you have all been pupils. You have sat through the round-the-class questions; you have read, and re-read, the relevant chapter in the text book; you have sweated over the short-answer snap test.
“When the Peter Rowleys of this world grasp something, they hang on tight.”
As a way of ringing the changes, I plumped for a map. You can’t beat a good map. But it wasn’t going to be me doing the map-drawing – oh no. We were going to have a bit of fun; they were going to do it. Wriggles of delight all round. This sure as hell beat snap tests.
I wanted a volunteer. No shortage of hands. Even when I told them that they would have to reproduce with chalk and blackboard the coastline of Norway. And the most vigorously waved hand of all belonged to Peter Rowley.
I nearly hesitated. Peter, as already explained, was not the greatest historical scholar in the class, and he was certainly not the best draughtsman either. But he had grasped one or two salient features of the Viking saga.
And when the Peter Rowleys of this world grasp something, they hang on tight. If there was one thing our Peter thought he knew about, it was Norway and long coastlines – and fjords. Peter could imagine the long ships nosing out of those Arctic inlets in the medieval northern mist as plainly as if he had seen them with his own eyes.
“The audience waited in a fidget of scepticism.”
Wondering what I had let myself, and the class, in for, I passed him the chalk as he surged out of his desk towards the board. The audience waited in a fidget of scepticism. It is not only teachers who have a shrewd idea of the abilities of the pupils in the class; it is the pupils themselves.
If you ever want hard-bitten realism when it comes to assessment, ask a member of the group about the others; they don`t miss much.
Well, we all got a surprise.
Peter wisely started at the top. He didn’t know it was the North Cape, of course, but he knew that it made sense to start high, and work your way down.
There was no rushing; there were no sweeping flourishes, no erasures of uncertainty. Peter stuck out his tongue, and set about working his way in and out of every single fjord on the Norwegian coast. Not a single indentation was missed. At any rate, that was what it looked like.
“Every child in the class was drawing that map with him.”
Concentration, like yawning and laughing, is infectious. Long before he was on fjord number five, the room was totally silent. Thirty pairs of eyes were following every quiver of the chalk. In less than a hundred seconds, Peter secured with unconscious ease what every young teacher, and quite a few mature ones, strive for – total involvement with what was going on at the blackboard. Every child in the class was drawing that map with him.
Whether the map was accurate was beside the point. It was about Norway, it was about Vikings, and it was about fjords. And Peter got that message across with total memorability. Well, I remembered; I don`t know whether the class did. Or Peter.
It taught me several very valuable lessons.
Firstly, the value of two-way traffic. Participation. Get them involved. Blindingly obvious, perhaps, but it is useful to be reminded about it nevertheless.
“You can transmit concentration, like a wireless signal.”
Secondly, children love being able to show what they can do. The more so if it is something that is usually performed by the teacher, like writing – or in this case drawing – on the board. Whether they do it well or badly doesn`t matter; the important thing is that they do it. It does their ego such a power of good, and children can do with all the boosts of confidence they can get.
Thirdly, the power of concentration. You can transmit concentration, like a wireless signal. You don’t have to tell them to concentrate; all you have to do is concentrate yourself, and they catch the vibes. And curiously, the more detailed and finicky the procedure is, the more the vibes will resonate.
I doubt if Peter, in the whole of his subsequent school career, ever had a class so completely with him as he did that day. If only he had known. . .
This extract first appeared in Berwick Coates‘ 2019 book On Teaching.