by Kath Beattie and Kelvin Smythe
‘Why do I write Wednesday?’ ‘Here we go,’ she thought.
The rest of the children thought so too, looking up from their writing, their faces alight with the prospect of what could follow.
‘Because it is Wednesday.’
Reuben hadn’t picked up from her tone that things had changed; not surprising, though, given that a hint of her usual teasing manner with him persisted.
To Reuben’s mind, what she’d said, and how she’d said it, would still act like a red rag to a bull, perhaps a Red Bull to his whizzing thought processes.
‘But it might be Sunday.’
She tried to ignore him.
‘Has everyone written “Wednesday” at the top of their page? And the date?’ ‘If it’s Sunday, the date won’t be right either.’
The principal’s office again; she had moved out from behind her desk – always a bad sign because it meant she was going through her official counselling process for the occasion. Her face had the form of a smile, but her round smoky-blue eyes, enlarged by the silver-rimmed spectacles, were unblinking and stern.
The principal framed the matter as she often did, with a hint in the direction of her vocational vulnerability: ‘advice’ to be given was related to her position as a beginning teacher. This was only a ploy, though, because she had made all teachers come in behind on this one, as in most others.
‘This is a high-performance school,’ she said, ‘and central to that is the use of WALTS and success criteria.’ ‘And not only must the WALTS and success criteria be set out in planning, they must be adhered to in practice.’
‘Above all, as previously discussed, you must crack down on Reuben; bring him into line; he’s distracting the other children; throwing your lessons off course.’
She moved to protest, but the futility of doing so sank in, and she sat there mutely.
The principal had walked in while Reuben had been on one of his mental excursions, which might have been all right, except the rest of the class had become involved and were contributing enthusiastically.
‘How do we know,’ he had said, ‘that the sky isn’t an umbrella and the stars just chinks of light coming through?’
The effect on the class had been electric, and she was about to veer away from the planned lesson to an impromptu one on the night sky.
But the principal’s face was frozen in disapproval as she moved to the table where she looked down at the planning.
The principal was speaking again: ‘WALTS,’ she said, ‘were evidence-based focused learning; they gave children control by informing them in advance what they were going to learn, then the success criteria informed them and everyone else what they had learnt.’
She resigned herself (though inwardly groaning) to hearing the references she knew would follow about how the school was committed to providing feedback and feed forward, and to the exciting new techniques of scaffolding and nesting.
The principal then returned to Reuben, her voice lower and slower, ‘I’ll be watching the Reuben situation carefully.’
She was indicating it was a test for her.
While the principal was willing to play something of a waiting game with her style of teaching, there was a definite urgency in the demand to do something about Reuben.
Perhaps there was a degree of justification for it. He had learned how to manipulate people to ensure attention became centred on himself, and he sometimes crossed the line from spirited to cheeky, especially with some of the other teachers.
And then there was the other side of the coin: Her being accepted in the school was dependent on making some progress in the matter.
‘Just put Wednesday and today’s date, Reuben. At the top of your page.’
Reuben turned back a page and began rubbing out ‘Tuesday’ which headed the previous day’s ‘News’. If today is Sunday he reasoned, then yesterday must have been Saturday. He would write Saturday there.
‘No rubbing out, Reuben.’
Reuben took no notice; after all she had never worried about rubbing out before. As well, he was still picking up on her lack of conviction in attempts to ground any new flights of fancy.
‘Reuben,’ her voice was calm but it did have a different tone. ‘No rubbing out. Just …’
‘But Miss, if today is Sunday, yesterday must have been Saturday. I’m going to change it.’ There was a higher pitch to his voice.
‘And all the other days.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I need to change all the other days. And the dates.’
‘Write your “News” Reuben.’
Reuben’s neck reddened.
Nevertheless, he returned to his scoring out. She darted across the room plucking the rubber from between his fingers as neatly and as swiftly as a hawk swooping on a mouse. She was turning it into a confrontation.
Reuben’s body tensed but he barely paused. Licking the tip of his forefinger he used the wetted end to complete the erasure. A hole appeared in the paper. Unsure how to overcome this procedural calamity, Reuben shot a quick look at her from under his downcast brows then, regaining assurance, hurriedly flicked a few pages forward and, finding an untouched leaf, began his heading: ‘News. Sunday 93.21.2472’.
It was just a routine turn-of-events for starting the day, but it meant the challenge was already being laid down.
Reuben was absorbed in his task of writing. ‘I have put Sunday becors no won nows what day it really is. It cood be Friday but I am putting Sunday becors I like Sundays and that is a good reason.’
He then continued in less and less reliable spelling to hypothesise that as the ‘teecha’ had no explanation it was equally possible that his assertion was correct. ‘Furthermore’ (he’d added that new word to his dictionary last week and used it regularly ever since): ‘Furthermore, who nows what the dates are.’ He expanded on his proposition at some length, detailing the unusual numbers that he had recorded at the top of his page as a new phenomenon where a week had a hundred days if you wanted it to be so.
Usually, when Reuben had his thoughts, she would get him to share them with the class, and animated discussion would often follow; but to dampen him down, which was the policy now in operation, he was left alone with his ‘thoughts’.
The rest of the class had filed out for morning interval, but Reuben worked on in exaggerated fashion, his nose almost touching the table.
‘Playtime Reuben. Rule off now.’
Reuben carried on as if nothing had been said.
‘Reuben … Reuben!’
Reuben scrambled from his desk and raced off.
‘Drives us to distraction,’ his dad had said at the beginning-of-the-year parent interview.
She was then bombarded with anecdotes of Reuben’s misbehaviour, his strangeness, and endless questions.
‘Questions everything we say and do. Everything – isn’t that right, dad?’
‘Dad’ had been clasping and unclasping his hands. As he spoke he spread his wrists open and made a facial expression that communicated ‘the kid’s beyond our comprehension’.
‘He comes up with some beauties all right,’ he shook his head.
‘We just ignore him now,’ the mother interjected. ‘We found the best way was to turn a deaf ear to him.’
‘The trouble is he answers his own questions then. He answers himself, doesn’t he dad?’ The latter phrase was heavily emphasised.
‘Weird all right.’
She had counselled them not to worry, that Reuben was different, but very interesting, and he made the other children think. (She could have added that he also helped her to be the kind of teacher she wanted to be.)
She realised, though, that matters had come to a head. The principal with increasing intensity had made it clear to her that, in her considered view, teaching was a vocation which was now more more plotted; that teachers at her school planned what was to be learnt in precise terms, involved the children in advance, unfolded lessons according to plan (scaffolding where necessary), then ticked off or otherwise the success of that teaching. And Reuben would have to be brought into line; made more disciplined in his behaviour – for his own sake and the children’s. Something had to be done.
It had been building for some time. Her first skirmish with the principal was mainly over planning with the matter of Reuben only being brought up incidentally, or so it seemed. However, she was soon to realise her planning, and Reuben, were simply different parts of the same issue.
The principal had stayed behind her desk on that occasion; the green planning and evaluation book open before her. She projected what she obviously intended as an encouraging smile and asked her how she was settling down into life at her first school. After my murmured reply, she got down to business.
‘I want to talk to you about the school’s policy on planning.’
‘Your WALTS are too general, the children will not understand them in the power-sharing discussion at the beginning of the lesson, and they will not be able to use them for success criteria at the conclusion. How could you measure the WALTS you have provided? Using these WALTS, the lesson could go in any direction.’
Realising she may have been overly brusque, her manner reduced in intensity and the line of her mouth relaxed a little.
‘I’ll show you what I mean.’
‘Let us look at what you have written as WALTS for your expressive writing on signs of the season.’
She read from my green planning and evaluation book in a confidential voice: ‘We Are Learning To: Write with sincerity (truthfulness) about some signs of the season; Write economically, choosing just the right word for the job; Think about where else we could take our writing about signs of the season; Think about other ways we could express our ideas about signs of the season.’
I have also noted other WALTS you sometimes use, for instance: Write with fluency and rhythm; Write with clarity.
‘Those ideas are all well and good but they are too general, too abstract.’
‘Could I suggest the following ideas for WALTS instead?’
She had gone to the trouble of compiling a list. A signal, surely, she wanted and would brook no argument.
This time she read more assertively as though bullet-pointing them: ‘We Are Learning To:
- Write using adjectives and adverbs (Wow words)
- Write using paragraphs
- Write using full stops, commas, colons, and commas
- Write synonyms and alliterations.’
‘Those are just the sort of WALTS that would suit the topic, the children could understand, and would make them feel part of the learning.’
Her mouth tightened, ‘What do you think?’
She considered, briefly, saying something along the lines that she preferred getting the children motivated, getting them writing, then doing the teaching and learning from what they came up with, some of which would be in the WALTS, and some not. Also that WALTS can take the sense of exploration and discovery out of learning.
And, she wanted to ask, was making children write emphasising adjectives and adverbs in the interest of good writing?
‘It’s all evidence based,’ the principal said. ‘And we’re an evidence-based school.’ ‘I’d ask you to think about what I’ve said.’
Well, she had thought about it, and had tried it, but only half-heartedly as the principal’s subsequent sniffy oversight of her planning made clear.
‘And how are you getting on with Reuben?’ she had asked. ‘He needs to be on a tight rein.’
There was a pause.
‘A very tight rein.’
When the children came back from interval, she decided to act with absolute resolve.
‘Tell me some things about yourself,’ she asked Reuben.
‘I might have been a bird before I was born.’
She completely ignored this.
‘Tell me about what you do when you get out of bed in the morning.’ ‘I have “Ricies”.’
‘Excellent! Well done! Good boy!’
Reuben would be rewarded with praise, attention, and treats when he kept on track; ignored or diverted when he strayed.
After about five minutes discussion, she said, ‘Now that we’ve finished talking about your life, Reuben, it’s time for you to write about it. Here, put your name at the top of the pad and use the words we’ve listed on the board to compose your story.’
Reuben was thoughtful.
‘Your name first.’
Reuben wrote the heading ‘Me’ in capitals. She registered the first sally, but ignored it.
Reuben came again.
‘Where was I before I was?’
‘Write down where you were born, Reuben.’
‘You were very clever when you talked to me about yourself. Now write down, “I was born at …” ’
‘I think I was like a dandelion seed. Blowing all over the sky. Way, way up by aeroplanes, and on the trees and flying out over the sea.’
For a moment she was entranced by the poetic vision of specks of life floating aimlessly through infinity.
‘How do you spell “dandelion”?’
‘I would like the story of your home and parents.’ Reuben wrote, ‘I am a dandilion sid up in the ski.’
She worked hastily to grab control. ‘Reuben. I am going to put the writing on hold for about five minutes more while we talk about your … about … before you were born. After that you do as I say. Okay?’ (This way she hoped to settle him down, but in a way that deprived him of the audience of the other children.)
Reuben grinned, ‘Okay.’
‘Well now. Your turn to start.’
‘Was I a seed?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t think I was a seed.’
‘Because seeds are hard.’ Reuben screwed up his face in puzzled thought. ‘I think,’ he said conspiratorially, ‘that I was a ghost. Before I was born I reckon I was a ghost. No-one you could see.’
‘That sounds about right, Reuben. Some call your ghost a soul or a spirit.’
‘How do you spell “soul”?’
Reuben crossed out his first sentence and wrote, ‘I was a soul.’ Then he smiled and continued, ‘I was born at …’
She gave Reuben a dinosaur stamp on the back his hand. Her friend (who taught in the room next door) was impressed, though she did ask where the ‘soul’ bit had come from.
‘Early days yet,’ she replied.
In the middle of the maths session Reuben would suddenly ask, ‘How do flowers know what colour they ought to be?’
‘It has to do with genes. We’ll read it up in nature time.’
Or as spelling was in progress, ‘Why is the sea salty when all the rivers run into it?’
‘You have a very good point there, Reuben; we’ll look it up later.’
‘We will talk about it when we do science next week.’
The five minute time-out to talk was undertaken regularly. It was both challenging and exciting.
‘How do you know there was sun above the clouds?’
‘Because I’ve been there.’
‘Above the clouds?’
‘Yes.’ The question did not seem to be up to his usual standard of challenge; was she being set up? She was.
Reuben paused ever so slightly: ‘How far does the sky go?’
‘Back to fractions, Reuben, and as soon as you’ve finished, all neat and correct, you can use the computer.’
They had agreed that good progress in getting his work done would be rewarded with thirty minutes on the computer. This time on the computer was highly prized by Reuben.
By the end of week four, the project had proved a great success. Reuben was a changed child. At home his parents reported he did as he was asked, refrained from endless arguing and questioning, even brought school mates home. ‘He’s not perfect,’ they said, ‘but he’s like a normal kid.’
Other teachers who taught him were even more complimentary. ‘I hardly know he’s here these days,’ one said, ‘no fuss … able to work without continual oversight, pretty focused on his studies, and not disruptive to the class with his questions.’
The principal even gave her what passed for a warm smile.
She and Reuben were good friends, enjoying the banter that was part of their relationship, and respecting each other’s astuteness. She felt a sense of achievement.
It was the last day of term. The school was empty, the chairs neatly stacked, the staffroom blinds pulled. The main doors locked and, except for a lunch wrapper skidding across the tennis court, the playground was deserted.
It was autumn. Bronzed oak leaves matted the path, spent rye grass brushed her skirt, and ripe thistle-heads from their prickly containers, sought air currents.
‘Just like dandilion sids,’ she grinned.
She paused, and then stopped abruptly, lifting her face skyward as a soft westerly surrounded her with a veil of thistledown.
‘Where was I before I was?’ she heard the ghost of Reuben whisper.
She felt faint, dreamlike, and in the distance she could hear a voice calling, ‘Who tells the bulbs to grow in spring?’
‘Why is it cold on mountain tops when they’re nearer the sun?’ A rush of anguish.
She knew then it was all over.