I’m not sure if it was me or them but my wee class were beginning to weep quietly. Every one of them could tell me how to use a comma, full stop; could tell me what metaphor and a simile were; could recognise a rhetorical question. Using them in their own writing, however, was another matter completely. Our eyes began to meet over a crowded notebook filled with my red comments and both sides began to wave the white flag. Perhaps kids with weaker literacy skills don’t always benefit from continued reminders that their writing is weak. A year and a half with me and they had progressed in lots of areas: writing wasn’t one of them.
Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way. Perhaps if I stopped pointing at the errors they could concentrate on raising their game in other areas. By fourteen years of age it’s a sad indictment of our system that many of these kids are, in some ways, unable to ever write fluently and I don’t know what to do about that. They redraft perfectly, they blog perfectly with support but, on first draft, revert to established habits and carelessness. What if I changed my approach and gave them the same work I’d give to a high-flying top set. Iambic pentameter anyone?
The rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets might help them see that they can do what might be perceived as more challenging work. Watching Akala’s TED talk, see below, they took part in the Hop Hop or Shakespeare quiz and got a kick out of it. I wrote some lines down on the board, gave them some definitions and talked them through loads of examples of Iambic Pentameter. We dum-de-dummed our way though a whole lesson. They tore apart the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, recognising the rhythm and counting the beats. There was engagement I hadn’t seen from them in English.
This is a class which finds it difficult to cope with individual work. In fact, more often than not, when I set them loose on a task, I’m immediately hit with a forest of hands, some low-level indiscipline and some expert A-grade work avoidance. But this. Something grabbed them. The counting of the syllables, the circling of the stresses, the rhythm of the lines. They counted on their fingers, tapped on their desks. They began to chant Shakespeare’s lines perfectly: ’Two households both alike in dignity…’ And so it went on. And it wasn’t purely a numbers game. They could tell me what was happening, what it was about. They wanted more.
We’ll go on to study ’Sonnet 65’ now. I’m confident they’ll cope. I’m not sure what brought the change; whether the far more challenging task which I told them might be too difficult for them brought out the beast and thy wanted to prove me wrong. Whether the different mental strategies engaged them more. What is clear is that my focus on their technical ability wasn’t working. I’ll still tackle that – God help those who give up on their literacy – but, after a year and a half, I now have the trust of these guys; trust enough to push them to study literature they would never have looked at a year ago.