Wednesday 21 May 2008

nouns, and books, and show and tell....

I had my first stint as a volunteer reader this morning. Instead of dragging myself into work late and spending the first hour or so of the day idly perusing my email over the first coffee of the day, I made my way over to a local primary school and spent that time far more productively.

It was really good. I spent the first few minutes in the classroom chatting to the teacher and waiting for the children to arrive, admiring the pictures that adorned every wall. As they began to arrive and filed neatly into the classroom, the first thing that struck me was quite how small they all were - perhaps not so surprising really considering I've been assigned to year one, who are all between five and six years old - they're hardly likely to be giants, are they? You'd imagine that these kids would perhaps be a little wary of this hulking great big stranger in their midst, but although one or two looked a little shy, most gave me a friendly smile or gave me a cheery hello as they trooped in a stowed their bags in their trays. There were about thirty of them in all, and I stood and watched as they all took their places around the classroom and then acted along to a warm-up video that their teacher played on the big screen at the front of the class. They did a little bit of dancing and clapping and I was reminded faintly of all those ridiculous ice-breaker exercises that we always seem to do when we're on courses at work. Actually, I think I might suggest at the next one I attend that we do "Clap Around the Clock":

[both arms pointing straight up]
"O'clock" CLAP
[arms pointing right]
"Quarter past" CLAP
[arms pointing down]
"Half past" CLAP
[arms pointing left]
"Quarter to" CLAP

...and so on. Brilliant.

After that, we had the register, at which each member of the class was greeted in turn by their teacher, and replied everso politely. As well as me, there were three other adult helpers, and we were all introduced to the children. One of the helpers was there solely to support the teacher with an autistic child in the class, which I think shows how far our understanding of these things has come on since I was 5 years old, a mind-boggling 29 years ago. Needless to say, I wasn't going to be reading with this child.

Each member of the class is buddied up with someone of a similar reading standard, and with all the preliminaries over, the first pair were assigned to me for reading practice. We retired to a little nest of cushions just outside the classroom, where each child brought along their reading bag. The bag contained the two books they were reading and a reading diary that I was supposed to fill in to chart their progress. The standard of reading varied enormously, as did levels of concentration, although all of them were very enthusiastic about getting to read. The school uses the Oxford Reading Tree books, which are brilliant. They have bright, interesting illustrations with lots of detail, and they have easy to follow engaging stories featuring a regular cast of carefully multi-denominational and non-gender specifically named children and a dog called Floppy. The books come in several stages of increasing difficulty, and each child in the class seemed to be at a different level. I only had about an hour, and with all the to-ing and fro-ing, I only read with about 8 kids in all, but even in that little group, some were brilliant and read without any hesitation at all, whilst others struggled and sounded out the words, or even made wild guesses based upon the pictures. It was my first time there, and I don't have any kids of my own, so I imagine it will take me a few visits to really get a feel for how to get the best out of the time I spend with the kids, and I imagine it will take them a while to get used to me too.

I was asked when I got back to work if spending time with these children made me feel at all broody. Er.... no. It was good to help them with their reading for an hour, but it was also good to leave them with someone else for the rest of the week. They were mostly very well-behaved, to be fair, but I did witness one class member throwing an impressive tantrum that involved kicking, screaming and running around the school throwing things off tables and the like. Luckily, I wasn't expected to read with him either. The teacher in the class I was in was brilliant, and I can only take my hat off to the way she managed those kids: knowing when to be gently stern with them, but also knowing when to administer a good old-fashioned hug as she did to a child who has a relative in hospital and was looking a bit down. They all made a card for him to take with him on his next visit. I tell you, these primary school teachers are made of tough stuff and have the patience of saints. Now that's a difficult job. By comparison, this one's a doddle.

It's half term next week, but I'm looking forward to having another go in a couple of weeks time.

God, I'm so worthy.

A good day.

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