The following is purely self indulgence. Of all the things I invented in my teaching career this is the one that gave me my greatest thrill; time and time again.
Year nine students, in Australia, are somewhere around 14 – 15 years of age and are usually considered to be at their most obnoxious and troublesome. Massive doses of testosterone and other hormones are not conducive to acquiescence and gentle cooperation.
So expecting the little darlings to agree without much trouble to sitting and writing poetry is, perhaps, a bit much to expect. But that is what I set out to do. The following is my lesson which I recently discovered hidden in a box that was destined for the incinerator.
I explain to my class that they were all going to write a poem and they would all be happy with the result and would even take it home and show their parents, with pride. They twisted and squirmed and looked hostile and disbelieving. The whole thing was planned to take three lessons. Luckily I had the class for English and Maths and Extra Language and so I could go right through from recess to lunch and after lunch.
My class was made up migrants or the children of recent migrants and the preponderance was Italian, Lebanese, Greek and Vietnamese. With the overall aim of getting their undivided cooperation I told them I was going to show them how to make brandy. I simplified the process for their benefit.
- First step is to go out into the vineyard and collect as much grape as possible. There’s no need to be gentle – these aren’t table grapes. Pick the stalks and and spiders and all.
- Tip the baskets into a big bin. Jump in and stomp and squish and squash until the whole mess is as liquid as possible.
- The question now is this; If you pour the juice into a bottle and seal it and put it in the cellar for ten years, what will you have? There were a few suggestions until I explained that you would have ten year old grape juice. No, not wine, because you need yeast. (I skirted around the fact that grapes have yeast in the bloom on their skins.) So you add yeast and then wait around for a while until the yeast eats up all the sugar in the juice. As it grows the yeast burps out carbon dioxide and urinates alcohol. (This cause great enjoyment) If the plan was to make wine then you bottle it and wait for as long as you want.
- But we want Brandy therefore we need a still. A simplified drawing of a still is now drawn on the board. Wine is placed in the pot and heated gently. When the wine reaches a certain temperature some vapours will come off. These are bad and mostly contain methanol; a type of alcohol that can cause you to get quite sick. When the temperature gets to approximately 78ºC the vapour that comes of is what we want to keep. This vapour is passed through a coil of copper and is cooled down and condensed. This is your rough spirit.
- The rough spirit is then placed in an oak cask and left to age. The ageing process mellows the spirit and in a few years you can call it Brandy.
The process above was explained and took almost all of the first lesson. I then said the poetry writing part of the lesson would begin.
“In order to write poetry you need to have some ideas and thoughts. In a little while you will collect those thoughts. You were asked to bring a blindfold with you. Clear your desks of everything except a sheet of paper and a pencil. When I ask you to put your blindfold on you MUST all remain TOTALLY SILENT. I want you to write down all that you hear while you are blind. This is the ‘Collecting Grapes’ part of the process. The more grapes you collect the better.
Now I had just spent half a lesson talking about making brandy and they were not going to be tested on it. They hadn’t had to do any work at all. The price they would pay would be to keep the rule concerning total silence. They did. They put their blindfolds on and there was silence. They needed a little encouragement so I waited and the first noise I heard was a car driving on the road outside.
“Put your hand up if you wrote down the noise of the car? If you did that’s you first bunch of grapes. If you didn’t you’d better go back and pick it.”
All the time I am using the words from the Brandy making lesson. Very quickly they all started to write down everything.
I will write down a list of those things that I recall and tomorrow I will complete the lesson.
- Car in street
- Boy running down corridor outside.
- Grade Seven boys on basketball court in yard.
- Aeroplane flying overhead.
- Birds. Birds. Birds.
- Students shuffling in their seats.
- Moments of total silence.
- A crash as I slammed a blackboard ruler on a desk at the back of the class.
- Noise of boys reacting (sharp intake of breath.)
- One boy sneezed.
- The Principal outside in the yard shouting at a boy to stop running and to get back to class.
- A boy near the door who giggled.
There was a lot more. This is going to surprise you. It surprised me. But you’ll need to wait for episode #2.