A hands-free approach to teaching. (October-2013)

This article, written by Róisín Ingle, appeared in the Irish Times on 12th October, 2013.

Maggie Owens is one of those teachers fizzing with ideas, the kind that carries everyone else along with her enthusiasm, the type who shakes things up.

Wearing a bright purple dress and leopard-print heels, she is organising students at St Mary's School for Deaf Girls in Dublin into different groups for their first No Pens Day, which took place earlier this week.

The school hall atmosphere is giddy, expectant. The students and teachers at St Mary's are about to embark on an interesting experiment: what happens when an entire school bans the use of pens for a day?

No Pens Day is a UK initiative which Owens, a maths teacher, deaf woman and former pupil at St Mary's, decided would work well in their school.

"I learned from the Communication Trust, which pioneered No Pens Day two years ago in Britain, that the average verbal contribution by children in class is surprisingly low," says Owens. "It just made me think."

She added: "Developing expression and communication is hugely important in all schools but especially here.

"We wanted to see what would happen when we took away the pens and came up with more imaginative ways of teaching and learning. The idea is that there will be more communication and a better quality of listening."

One million students took part in the third British event this year, while St Mary's is thought to be the first Irish school to be involved.

The day began with a pen- free roll call during which principal Regina O'Connell asked students for ideas of how she should keep track of her appointments during the day in the absence of a pen. "Use stickers," was one suggestion from the students.

During a PowerPoint presentation in front of her schoolmates,Denise Doran used a photograph of Alan Sugar from The Apprentice to illustrate her point that good communication was essential. "If you don't communicate properly, you get fired," she signed to laughs from her audience.

The 44 students at the school were split up into groups and, in place of conventional classes, attended workshops including drama, maths and English.

In the home economics workshop, they blind-tested own- brand and named-brand crisps and cola to see if they could taste the difference.

In science, there was an "eggsperiment", an air contracting trick where after lit matches were placed in a narrow glass jar, a boiled egg was squeezed through the narrow opening, to gasps of surprise.

The highlight of the day came when acclaimed Dublin performance artist Amanda Coogan, who was brought up signing at home with deaf parents, led the students and teachers in a sign language performance of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

Coláiste Lurgan became a YouTube hit recently for their Irish renditions of pop songs. This deaf choir may be another sensation-in-waiting. Their beautifully co-ordinated, elegant hand gestures along with some enthusiastic headbanging, breathe new life into a familiar rock classic.

In a week when the Seanad passed a motion to recognise Irish Sign Language as an official language, a motion deaf campaigners hope will be supported by the Government, it was an uplifting moment.

Owens (35) is in her element watching the students. The Kildare woman, the eldest of six, is the only deaf person in her family. She relies on lip-reading and communicates orally as well as with Irish Sign Language.

The mother of two daughters is passionate about the ethos at St Mary's, which she credits with giving her the confidence to pursue a teaching career.

"This school is about supporting each deaf child to reach their full potential," she says.

While acknowledging that the Government's inclusion policy works well for some people - increasing numbers of deaf children are now educated in mainstream schools - she is also critical of the policy.

Lack of resources
"There are deaf people who progress academically in mainstream schools but suffer emotionally and socially," she says. "Other students struggle for reasons such as lack of resources and their potential not being spotted. Sometimes students at a later stage in their education come to St Mary's when mainstream hasn't worked, but "unfortunately their experience may have caused a significant language delay".

The students at St Mary's are full of praise for No Pens Day. Leah Ennis (16) from Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, says it made her feel closer to teachers.

"Because everyone got involved, it wasn't just them and us," she says. Her sister Amy (15) is also impressed.

"When you are not writing things down all the time, you are thinking harder, making more of an effort to remember so I definitely think it's good."

As for Owens and the rest of the teachers at St Mary's, No Pens Day is something they believe all Irish schools should try out next year, "and not just because it means we don't have any marking to do tonight", she laughs.

© 2013