Jimmy, a Year 6 boy of Samoan heritage, is currently achieving one curriculum level below national expectations for Year 6. He declares emphatically that he doesn’t like writing and says that “It’s boring” and he doesn’t see “any point” to it. So how do you go about inspiring an under-achieving year 6 writer?
Chris Kell, his teacher at Ranui Primary – a decile 2 multi-cultural school in West Auckland, New Zealand – decided to try and motivate Jimmy (which is a pseudonym) and his classmates through the strategic use of a topic that he thought might engage them. Given that New Zealand was at that time, obsessed with the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup – the topic chosen was “participating in a sporting event of your choice”.
Sharing a Short Exemplar
He shared an exemplar that another teacher at the school had written around a great New Zealand sporting moment:
|The weight of a nation rested upon her muscular shoulders, as she took in long, deep breaths and whispered, “Be better than before, be better than before”. Her whole body became tense like a snake ready to strike. Every muscle and fibre twitched in anticipation, ready to please its master. Her sweat caressed her face, the look of sheer determination would not escape this moment. Thoughts of her mother raced into her mind, all the training she had to endure, sacrifices that had to be made to achieve the ultimate goal – being a champion. She mustered in all the courage, strength and power the gods could possibly give and leapt into action like a bullet released out of its chamber. Everything she possessed was released with one monumental hurl. She watched her dream sail through the air – gold.|
The class recognised that this was ‘moment in time’ writing. They also recognised that it contained some great vocabulary (such as “twisted in anticipation”, “caressed her face”, “one monumental hurl”) and some excellent language features (such as “tense like a snake ready to strike” and “like a bullet released out of its chamber”).
Chris’ students were very adept at recognising and appreciating great vocabulary and excellent language features in texts from their continual exposure to them in the many novels that he read and discussed with them. So, as a class, they decided that they would each “make a moment in a real or imaginary sporting event come alive” for a reader by including “some good detail”, using some “strong vocabulary” and using “the five senses as well as some great language features (such as similes, metaphors and alliteration)”.
The students were so excited about the topic and the task that they “just wanted to move off the mat and write”. Because of their sense of excitement, Chris didn’t demand any written planning from them but they had to share (first with a buddy; then with the teacher) what they were going to write about before they left the mat.
Chris recalls that Jimmy “was one of the first to leave the mat and start writing whereas he’d usually be one of the last”. In about twenty minutes and without hesitation, he’d completed his first draft:
I can feel the huge pressure of the crowd as I am about to catch the pass. All my years of training have come down to this very amazing moment. After all this hard work I can show the world who I really am. Bang!! As I catch the ball zooming down the rugby field like flash getting the try. Slamming the ball on the ground and it disappears. Now it’s nowhere to be seen. All my hard work has now become a dream come true!
Chris also recalls Jimmy rushing back to the mat and “being one of the first to want to share”. Jimmy loved it when the rest of the class told him not only how much they liked his writing and but also made him realise that “this was a great moment in time with lots of detail and some excellent words like ‘zooming’ and ‘slamming”. He’d met the success criteria. Everyone especially loved the image of ‘flash getting the try’.
But the more that Jimmy read his text aloud, the more he realised that there were “some changes he could make” and “some sentences that didn’t sound right”. And he wanted to get things right because he knew he’d done something special. Jimmy made these changes (mainly by adding and deleting some key phrases) and typed out a final version ready to be published in the school newsletter:
I can feel the crowd heaping lots of pressure upon me as I go to catch the pass. All my years of training have come down to this very amazing moment of truth. After all this hard work I can show the world who I really am. Thud!! I catch the ball as I’m zooming down the rugby field like Flash dancing toward the try line. Slamming the ball on the ground, it disappears.
I have won the Rugby World Cup for my team. All my hard work has now become a dream come true.
Why This Worked
When I visited the school, Jimmy remembered that I’d seen his initial draft and he couldn’t wait to share his final version with me. He was very proud of his work.
When Chris and I discussed what made this particular writing experience ‘work’ for Jimmy, we decided on four factors:
- That his students had taken on a topic that really engaged them and they were given some choice about how to approach it.
- That they had received good scaffolding from a carefully selected exemplar.
- That students WILL make changes to their writing if the writing is important to them.
- That the task was manageable in that the exemplar was eight (well written) sentences only.
This classroom story confirms for me some ‘bottom lines’ that are needed for engaging students (especially boys) who present themselves as ‘struggling and reluctant writers’: that it’s all about hooking them through a topic that is meaningful to them; that it’s all about providing them with direct instruction (undertaken, in this case, by receptive modelling); and that it’s all about making the task manageable for students.
So how do you go about inspiring an under-achieving year 6 writer? Well, Jimmy had learnt something really important in this lesson – that good writing is “all about quality; not quantity”.
He succeeded by NOT writing a long-winded recount.
In my forthcoming book – working with under-achieving writers you will be able to discover more techniques like this.
The book should be available online in the shop by the end of January 2020.