It is a Friday afternoon in my PGCE year, and I am still desperately trying to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s two minutes until the end-of-lunch bell rings and my resources, lesson plan and super-‘starter’ are set.
They enter. SLT – “pretend we are not here” – are now all eyes on me. And then it happens.
I’m mid-starter and asking the class to associate pictures of Adam and Eve with the biblical imagery in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sabrina has her hand up.
“Yes Sabrina, so what can you tell me about these pictures? What’s happening?”
“It’s that wifey what scranned the apple sir…”
“It’s whom, Sabrina?” I stumbled, confused.
“Well, ye na sir. That wifey what nicked that gadgie’s apple and propa took liberties by scrannin it in front of him like.”
How to respond? She was right, but her vocabulary did a very good job of hiding that fact.
I realised quickly that I had to find a way to ‘jazz-up’ vocabulary-study for students such as Sabrina. No longer did I want ‘up-levelling’ vocabulary to be arcane and the bête noire of the lesson. On the contrary, my penchant was for wanton-wordplay.
So throughout the remainder of my PGCE, I set to cherry picking ambitious and challenging vocabulary from dictionaries and ‘academic language guides’. A monotonous task at best, yet this showed me first-hand just how some students may feel when faced with ‘looking for synonyms in a thesaurus’ to thus ‘improve’ their writing.
With the 2,500 words chosen, I had to decide what to do with them. I had to find a way to get those words to the students. Serendipity needed to rear its head.
Eureka! Kids like competition.
And that was that. I would set the whole concept up as a competition and thus reward students for their efforts. Reward students for diggin’ language. Haribos instantly came to mind.
I decided to set the words out as a list, alphabetically. Then, I decided to number each word – 1 through to 2,500.
The idea was to give students random numbers in the lesson and those numbers would indicate to the students the words that would belong to them. It was then the students’ task to be able to use the word in a sentence – either vocally or in writing – before the end of the lesson. And if they did, whether used correctly or not, I would award points. Then, the student with the most points at the end of the week would get a prize. Again, Haribos.They were on offer at the time.
But would it work? And how would I control responses? I couldn’t just have hands shooting up sporadically throughout the lesson as this would naturally detract from the lesson focus. That’s if any hands went up at all.
A ‘starter’ activity was the natural remedy.
To this day, the workings of the resource haven’t really changed. Granted, I’ve jettisoned the makeshift paper resource for a more aesthetically pleasing bound, glossy-A5 paperback. But that’s about it. The nuts and bolts, the original idea, the ethos if you like, still remain the same: competition that detracts from the banal ‘up-levelling’-synonym hunt – of which, arguably, we are all guilty.
Eight years on from Sabrina, the resource in question is called Frank, and it is now permeating through my classes at my current school: I’m smashing it in Key Stage 3; Key Stage 4 is now actively using it; and I’m seeking ways to develop it for Key stage 5. But perhaps more importantly, kids – yes, actual children – are now diggin’ language.
Today’s lesson was a stellar example of the plan in action. Students were allocated a number as they entered the classroom; they hunted for their word(s); they recorded this word in the back of their books and then the lesson focused back in on our current novel-study: Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo.
All students used their Frank words in their analysis of the text, thus, points were awarded. Ten minutes before the end of the lesson, however, we all took a break to share our Frank responses. And, what was once a taciturn task pre-Frank, was today none other than a fervent linguistic shindig.
Ben went first: ‘The author is adept at portraying the shocking conditions of the child workers.”
“Well done Ben – three points for you.”
The rest of the class record Ben’s response, thus all students learn from each other.
Next was Will: “The cruel and callous masters who exploit these vulnerable children need to be stopped.”
Will’s on a role. Six points awarded here: astutely, Will also used his word from yesterday’s lesson. Ben scowls across the room.
And so on.
Granted, not all students got the word-usage correct. However, they were nevertheless experimenting with new language. As such, points were still awarded.
Do the kids enjoy it? The reception and progress have been overwhelming, and I have the children and colleagues from my school to thank for that. Students because they were open to trying out a new idea, and colleagues for giving me the autonomy to ‘run’ with this initiative.
As originally intended, students see Frank as a competition. Arguably, that’s Frank’s biggest strength. Students are now playing with language – experimenting with synonyms that had previously eluded their young lexicons. My top sets are now describing their holidays not as being ‘good’ and ‘lush’, but as ‘idyllic’ and ‘utopian’. Lower sets too are just as enthusiastic: Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful is no longer a ‘sad’ story, but a ‘disconsolate’ one; the Battle of the Somme is no longer ‘terrible’, but ‘wretched’, ‘callous’ and ‘unscrupulous’ – according to Adam, Oscar and Jennifer that is.
Children now look forward to Frank in my lessons– and thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve got the authority to take him out. He’s simply gathered too much momentum: kids are now consciously selecting the best word for the task. Consequently, they are now being candid and more honest in their writing. Literally, kids are now being frank.
Moving forward, I’m enthusiastic to know the impact of this resource if introduced early on in Key Stage 1, and, carried through – ‘cross-curricular’ – through Key Stages 2, 3 and 4. I’m keen to develop solid research strategies that demonstrate Frank’s impact on children’s vocabulary development. And, I’m keen to do this soon.
However, baby steps.
I must first continue to monitor the progress within the microcosm of my classroom. I must first take further feedback from students and colleagues on how to improve Frank’s efforts. And I must always ensure that the children – and their ‘wifies’- understand that Frank’s sole purpose is to provide them with choice in and for language. Or perhaps more eloquently put, ‘it is true that copiousness and facility in expression bear abundant fruit, [but only] if controlled by proper knowledge and a strict discipline of the mind’ (Marcus Tullius Cicero).