Bo is dissecting his rubber, Jadie is ferreting through her tray, and Foyez is looking at his pencil as if wondering which end makes marks on the paper

10th June 2005 at 01:00
I still do a fair amount of teaching, and my Monday afternoons are reserved for literacy with Year 6. We divide the children into ability groups and I've had the pleasure of teaching those who enjoy literature and are, in many cases, accomplished writers.

But not this term. I've set myself a challenging target and opted for the "less able": the ones who struggle with reading and aren't that keen on picking up a pencil for anything, let alone creating sentences. They're taken aback when they discover I'll be taking the class, realising they'll need to be inventive with their methods of work avoidance. They eye me cautiously as I appear in the doorway for the first lesson.

I give out nice new books and we make colourful covers. They like this bit.

Then comes the hard part. I explain that writing is actually great fun, that I love it to bits, and by the end of the year they'll be enjoying it just as much as me. They don't believe a word of this, and already their attention is drifting: Bo is dissecting his rubber, Jadie is ferreting through her tray, and Foyez is looking at his pencil as if wondering which end makes marks on the paper. Abdul suddenly peers at me intently and his hand shoots into the air. He asks with genuine curiosity: "Sir, why do your eyebrows go up and down when you talk?"

"Thank you, Abdul," I reply. "I wasn't aware that they did." For the next half an hour I concentrate on keeping my eyebrows still as I speak.

I tell them we're going to write about things we know well, and I ask them to shut their eyes and cast their memories as far back as possible. Then I describe my own first day at school as an infant, remembering how my mother deposited me in the classroom and beat a hasty retreat, hoping I wouldn't notice. I did of course, and hared into the playground, where she'd locked herself in the lavs, again hoping I wouldn't notice. The teacher peeled me from the toilet door like a bluebottle off a flypaper and dragged me, sobbing, back into the classroom.

The group enjoy this story, and we talk about everything we do to make everybody's first day at Comber Grove a happy one. I ask them to think about their own first day at school and write about it. I say that I'll give them a few moments to put their thoughts together.

They chatter excitedly over "do you remember?" anecdotes, and then gradually settle into silence. Brandon, never one for writing, says he needs the toilet. "Of course," I say loudly for everyone's benefit, "as soon as you've finished your writing." Foiled, he gazes blankly at his page and says he can't think of anything. I explain that all writers experience that problem, but something will come into his mind soon. And eventually it does, because he doesn't fancy sitting bored stiff for the next half an hour.

By the end of the lesson they've written a reasonable amount. It's ragged, but laced with enthusiasm. They're eager to read aloud, and Abdul's story is riveting. He writes descriptively about his first teacher in Sierra Leone, who smelt badly and whose wife left him. "So, guys," he writes in his last sentence, "if you want to keep your womun mak sure you use a lot of sope." The group nods appreciatively.

As the whistle blows the following Monday, Jadie runs up to me and asks if we have literacy. "Indeed we have," I say. "Yes!" she says, punching the air. Who knows, by the end of the year my "less able" group could be more able than they'd imagined.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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