It was the first week back after half term so the usual ‘stepping back on the treadmill’ stuff was happening. Planning, prepping, panicking, etc.

Then on Thursday, I was sent on a course at the last minute. It meant driving through picturesque Wales to Llanrwst, taking part in a drama workshop and, the clincher, a free lunch so, of course, I was on board immediately.

The focus of the course was Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert strategy. Having spent a lot of time researching this particular area of Heathcote’s work as part of my PGCE dissertation, I was really excited to see how a school in Brecon had put the strategy and pedagogy into practice. Mantle of the Expert is all about engaging pupils in a task by adding a sense of theatre. Obviously, this was my jam. After some hands-on examples of how this can be implemented, I certainly left Llanrwst feeling motivated and re-energised. It was a much-welcome boost.

The teachers leading the training were inspirational and it was refreshing to hear their realistic opinions and experiences. These were everyday teachers who experienced the same ups and downs as the rest of us, but were enjoying lots of success after taking a risk with their teaching. ‘Mantle’ involves putting the pupil in charge, whilst the teacher takes more of a directorial role. The pupil is given the freedom to explore and lead their own learning, whist in a role as an ‘expert’. For example, their role could be a leader of an expedition to the Titanic wreckage, or a recruitment agent for a Superhero agency. The trainers shared countless examples of how they have used Mantle in the classroom and I was pleased to see some of the techniques were already being touched on in my class. This term I’ve already asked year one to be wedding planners and party organisers, so I felt like a lot of the ideas shared would fit in with my teaching.

So, on Friday I bounced into class with a new idea. I needed to teach ‘Light and Dark’ to the children and I had an idea of how to introduce it. Using a pop up tent, some leaves and plenty of fabric, I built a cave in the corner of my classroom and set up the laptop to play soft snoring sounds into the class. When the children came in I greeted them with lots of ssssh-ing and gesturing to the cave. Straight away they were in total awe and began questioning what could be inside the cave, all through careful whispers so as not to wake our visitor up. I of course feigned ignorance and conjured up a story of how I’d found this cave when I arrived at school and wanted to wait for the children before I went inside as I wasn’t quite brave enough to risk it alone.

I left them hanging for a bit whilst we carried out our usual morning rituals, then got them all riled up by asking them if they’d like to see what was inside. The answer was, of course, ‘YES!’. So, in my most Olivier-worthy performance, I crept over into the tent and performed my side of a conversation. When I emerged, the children were rapt with interest. I explained that inside the cave was a very friendly bear and the reason he was sleeping was because he had such a terrible night’s rest due to his fear of the dark. The children were very sympathetic and before I could explain further they were suggesting ways we could help. Which is exactly what I wanted them to do. So, following ‘their’ suggestions, we researched light sources on the internet and watched a video clip, dismissing sources which we couldn’t use, such as as the sun or car headlights, and made a list of possibilities. We tested a candle in the classroom, but the children were quick to point out that might not be a safe option for the bear. I then gave the children time to, in groups, test out some objects we’d found in the classroom (some handily placed) by taking them into the cave. If the objects helped them see the bear then they were light sources, but if they didn’t then they were not.

I can’t tell you how excited they were. Most notably, the children who are usually less focused and engaged were fizzing with energy and excitement. One boy was so animated, it was lovely to see him dashing around the classroom and testing things out in the cave, keen to find a solution for the bear. He was also using complex, topic-appropriate language within his investigation. It was fab!

The course trainers had shared how Mantle had not only improved standards of work and behaviour in their school but it had also given the children a sense of value. They knew they were being trusted with their learning so they made sure they didn’t abuse that trust. Differing to our usual Topic-based work, which change termly, Mantles can run for any length of time. In this particular school they stressed the importance of allowing a Mantle to run its course and not feel pressured to squeeze as many in as possible. Some Mantles can last for weeks whilst some can run their natural course in just a few days. It all depends on the children’s responses and the ideas they want to explore.

From my initial experiences with Mantle of the Expert I can already see that it is a powerful tool to enhance learning and self-confidence. After last week’s brief session, I’m going to try to develop the ‘bear cave’ idea to incorporate natural and man-made light, shadows and transparent and opaque materials. It was a huge hit in blwyddyn un and from the responses of the children it is definitely something I’ll be implementing more often in the future.