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Primary Education News
News How a Dragons' Den-style careers class developed my students' speaking skills
English teacher Laura Rowlands got students to 'sell' whoopee cushions, rubber ducks and pink cowboy hats as a way to practice speaking and interview skills
Though I rarely have as much time as I'd like to lounge around watching TV, one programme I have always enjoyed is Dragons' Den. From the incredulous look on the dragons' faces when they encounter some ridiculous contraption, to the smiles all round when something inspirational is presented, it's always worth a watch. That and Hilary Devey's incredible shoulder pads.
So, the news that our school was having an Ofsted spot check, focussing on careers and guidance, couldn't have come at a better time. I had been covering the power of advertising with one of my year 9 groups and had had a lot of fun with them learning about the language of advertising, as well as the importance of colour, images and subliminal messages. Dragons' Den seemed to fit well with ideas of presentation, interview scenarios and jobs. My top-set year 9s are a lively, imaginative bunch, but what they produce on paper isn't always as confident and professional when they try to put verbalise their ideas. Combining my favourite TV series with a great, relevant speaking and listening exercise was an opportunity not to be missed.
As students entered the room, I had the Dragons' Den theme music playing and a large picture of the Dragons themselves glaring down from a projector. This set the scene as students began to wonder what was going on. The starting activity was paired: I played a clip of a girl selling an imaginary product. One partner had to identify the persuasive language features from a transcript I typed up, while the other had to tick off and describe the non-verbal communication used, such as gesture, eye contact and facial expression.
Next, I walked around the room distributing to the pairs random items from a plastic bag – whoopee cushions, rubber ducks, mad-eye plastic specs and pink Stetsons. I won't lie; I had great fun watching the faces of the rugby playing macho boys as they were presented with a rhinestone encrusted cowboy hat. They loved them and wore them for the duration of the lesson. And I could barely keep a straight face when one of the whoopee cushions was tested just as the deputy head walked in.
I told the pairs to plan a pitch to sell the item and gave them an A3 sheet to use – I adapted the Teacher Toolkit 5 minute lesson plan for this. To make sure they understood how to approach it, I showed them what to do using a pineapple as my product. Trying to think of a unique selling proposition, slogan and key demographic for this took ages, but it paid off. However, realising that I was still holding the pineapple lovingly a few minutes later was a bit embarrassing.
Their task was to present their pitch to the opposite pair on their tables - the dragons. The dragons had a peer assessment tick sheet with level 7 to 8 speaking and listening criteria. If the presenting partners got three or more out of five, the dragons were "in". If they didn't get at least three, the dragons were "out", but they had to explain why. Hearing some of the pitches was incredible - students really entered into the spirit of the idea. There was a great dialogue between the presenters and their dragons, with the dragons being invited to try on, hold and test out the products, make comments and ask questions in turn.
The idea of entrepreneurship is not on the curriculum, but perhaps it should be. The soft skills so important in interviews for further study or work are not something we have enough time to devote to in schools. And yet seeing some of my quieter, more reserved students inform me that "I'd be mad to miss" the opportunity to buy a pair of "marvellous mad-eye monocles" was brilliant; not only for their great use of the language of advertising, but also because of their confidence in saying so. Indeed, being joyfully informed that the whoopee cushion was "endorsed by Whoopi Goldberg herself", delivered in an inexplicable, yet very funny, West Country accent, summed up what I've thought all along; that students need time to be creative, to think, to feel and to be silly, to produce something that isn't just another assessment, but a set of very real and relevant skills.
The confidence, warmth and professionalism I saw in these presentations isn't necessarily something that can be taught. Yet it is something that can, and should, be fostered, nurtured and developed if we're to produce students who are able to present themselves to the best of their ability.
Also, let's be honest, any teacher loves the opportunity to go wild in the 99p shop.
Laura Rowlands is an English teacher at Bitterne Park School in Southampton. She is particularly interested in using creative and unusual ways to engage learners in English and literacy. She writes a blog and tweets at @TillyTeacup.