A good thing

 

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This thing happened and it was good.

There are times when something spontaneous happens in the classroom and the results are so unexpectedly cool that it is hard not to stop and enjoy.

We have had a big push on reading with our reluctant KS3 readers over the last couple of weeks. You know the kids I mean. These aren’t the bright, top set kids – who are reading Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man at the age of 12 – these kids are the ones who declare proudly “I’ve never read a book” or “I’ve only read one book ever – it was George’s Marvellous Medicine in year 3”. My personal favourite: “I hate reading.”

This is my class in year 8. Unsurprisingly they are mostly boys, mostly the cheeky ones you see cutting in the lunch queue, mostly the ones who haven’t made much progress.

It became obvious, when I picked this group up, that our KS3 curriculum wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to read, read, then read some more and then read and keep reading. At first most were struggling to read a sentence fluently. Some were unable to read words with three or more syllables. Remembering what we read from one week to the next was an issue. Trying, and learning to keep on trying, even when it got tricky and embarrassing, was as important as learning how to do the reading thing.

So far this year we have read two novels. I won’t bore you with which ones; nothing fancy, books had been sitting in our book cupboard for a few years. Chosen to meet the criteria of being just hard enough to aid learning and with a storyline that was relatively easy to hook onto and remember. After that we read a translation of Grendel and now we are reading non-fiction texts.

I won’t sugar coat it. Reading extended texts with this class is still tricky. Decoding, comprehension and inference skills are improving, but reading has never felt fun in these hours. Reading is still hard. Very hard.

Fast forward then to last week and World Book Day. We start every lesson with 10 minutes of silent reading – most are doing the Diary of Wimpy Kid thing, some have borrowed from my extensive collection of Horrible History books. They are reading though. Not just holding the books and daydreaming. Eyeballs move. Hands go up – “what’s this word Miss?”. Spontaneous comments “This book is funny Miss”. They are reading.

The non-fiction text of the week explained how chicken nuggets are made. Yep, it caused a stir. We tackled the vocabulary – consumption, tempura, raised (as in chicks raised in factories for consumption) etc. Yum!

I then posed the challenge. “I have never eaten a chicken nugget. Can you create a clear argument that would convince and persuade me to eat a nugget?” After the horrific realisation that they were in the same room as a vegetarian, we looked at writing an argument.

The kids wrote. We peer marked. I have worked hard with this class to develop their basic literacy skills through peer marking. We have a set of criteria and use it every lesson, it has numeric scores (i.e. if they have started every sentence with a capital letter, award them 5 marks) and the boys seem to like the clarity this presents. We champion improving on previous scores. They usually get house points if they are in the top 10%.

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Here’s the thing that happened. It was World Book Day. I had been showing off some books that we had been sent and whooping generally about reading. Cheeky Billy piped up “Miss, I want that book. If I get top marks today, can I have it?”

My response was “Heck yes!” After all, what else was I going to do with these books?

Eight other voices called out – “Can I have one if I get good marks?” Affirmative from me.

And so the writing was on. The focus in the room was a notch higher than usual. Muttering could be heard “I need to use an exclamation mark”.

Writing done, peer marking completed, attempts to exploit the marking criteria were batted away and four books were handed out.

The whole class crowded around the box, giving their opinions on each option, helping the lucky four make their choices. Cheeky Billy lost out. His frustration was good humoured “I’ll give you my World Book Day voucher.” Then inspiration struck “Can I earn one tomorrow Miss?”

I grinned and nodded, booting them out the door to lunch and forgot about it.

The next morning, I was on gate duty, four of my gang of boys arrived after the bell shouting “I’m gonna earn that book today Miss.” And so last lesson on Friday afternoon arrived and the remaining gaggle of 11 kids proved themselves desperate to earn a book.

At the end of the lesson, there was pushing and shoving over the last two copies of Cuckoo Song by Francise Hardinge.

Let me repeat, these boys – self-declared haters of reading at the beginning of the year – were pushing and shoving over a book. A book. I could have wept with joy. My job is the best job in the world

Today a whole week later, they are still talking about it. Still telling me what is going on the books they are reading. Still telling their mates that I gave them a book. Still telling their parents that they earned a book at school.

This thing happened and it was good.