The scariest thing I ever did: A World Book Day Special

Welcome, welcome!  It is every parent's least favourite day of the year this week.  World Book Day is once again upon us!  If you listen carefully, you will just about make out the collected sighs as unprepared parents flock to the supermarket to spend too much money on a polyester onesie or a cheap Hogwart's robe.

If you listen closer still, you'll hear little bits of teachers die as the eightieth child comes dressed as a film character having never read the book the movie was based on.  Ah, World Book Day.  When we throw timetables to the wind, swap classes, attempt whole-school projects, have a little panic attack and remember the good old days of concrete lesson objectives and definitive subject-based teaching.

I'm being cynical.  I love World Book Day.  I don't love the amount of Roald Dahl propaganda (more on that here) that's touted around, but everything else I'm pretty much hot to trot.  

It was on World Book Day, during a whole-school project-in-a-day that I did the scariest thing I have ever done as a teacher.

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Ignore the destination.
Enjoy the ride.
You will arrive where you need to be; 
not necessarily where you wanted to be.
Let go...

In the usual timely fashion (the Wednesday staff meeting) we were told that Friday would see the whole school working on a joint project that was to be finished by 3pm that same Friday.  The whole school would be off timetable; there would be no PE coach.  The whole day was to be given over to the WBD gods, including an unnecessarily protracted whole-school assembly where everyone in a costume would parade around the hall.

The whole school project was based around each year group re-telling Little Red Riding-Hood in a variety of ways.  The usual - Reception would create story maps; Year 1 would re-write it from the wolf's point of view, blah, blah, blah...  Year 6 was to write it up as a newspaper report.  And I'll be honest, that was the last I thought about it.  It was Year 6 in March - I had revision sessions to teach.

Enter Friday (why do they bother setting WBD on a Thursday?  Does any school actually host it on a Thursday?) and the sudden cold sweat of a teacher who had totally forgotten that a whole-school project would be due by the end of the day.  I had remembered my costume though (a rather clever one, if I do say so myself)

Yup, that's me...

So, enter the children.  Many of whom were dressed very casually in their own clothes - a compromise we had established provided they brought in a story they had written in which they were the main character (gotta have that evidence for writing!).  We took the register and then I stood in front of the whiteboard and took a deep breath...

With no other plans in mind beyond 'we have to write a newspaper report by the end of the day', I looked at the children, took a deep breath and asked:

"Has anyone heard anything about that break-in last night?"

No context.  No lead-in.  No explanation of concept.  And I was met with totally blank faces.

So, despite the voice in my head telling me to at least give them a bit of a hint, I continued.

"Come on people, wake up.  There was a break-in and a murder last night.  Somebody must have heard something.  If we don't write this story, the others will."

I'll admit, there was a lot of silence.  There were some giggles.  I picked on a child - one of the creative ones.

"You're always on the socials, you must have heard something."

A bit more silence.  Then...

"I heard it wasn't a murder."

I could have cuddled her.  

"Oh?"  I said.  
"Yeah, it was a cover-up," she said.
"But they found a body," I led. 
"It was an assassination!" 
This was shouted from the other side of the room from the boy who was forever playing Assassin's Creed 

It was met with some giggles.

Giggling.  I had two choices: ignore them or use them.  In improvisation there is a wonderful tool call 'yes... and'.  It's fairly simple.  You take any concept given to you and you say 'yes... and...'  This allows for momentum to build and a world to be created.

So I went with it.

"Don't giggle," I told the three boys, "I know his ideas are out there - we all remember the 'aliens ate my dog' fiasco, but every now and again, the crazy ideas are the accurate ones."

This did a couple of things.  1) It involved the giggling boys in the narrative - they now had an active role to play and their characters giggled at outlandish ideas.  2) It reassured the assassin boy - and by extension, the rest of the class - that ideas would be validated.

Yeah, he carried on.  My source told me that Special Ops were looking for some information.  They've been watching the house for a while now.  I guess they found something.
Go On

This is why I love kids.  Give them some space and they will create a world.

Interesting, I said.  Get on to your source; see if you can get any more information.  

"Mr M...?"  The first chink in the world we were building.  One girl had used my teacher name - this would not do.  If I was going to create a newspaper office (oh, I had decided to make the classroom a newspaper office), then there was no place for a teacher.  

"I've told you," I said, "call me chief.  Mr M is my dad's name."

Now they all knew my role.  Most of the class had cottoned on to the fact that we were a newspaper office.  Most of them were on board.  They still didn't know it was Red Riding Hood, but I had an idea for that...

Turns out I didn't need it.  One of the girls piped up:

Chief, she said - in full character - gotta love 'em! - did they find anything in the house?

This made my heart sing.  They were looking for ways to develop the narrative.  They might not have seen it that way, but that's what they were doing.  It was like that scene in Hook when Robin Williams starts to pretend there is food on the table and then there is.  We were creating magic.

"Yes!"  I said.  "They found a sort of coat thing.  It was red.  Not sure if that was blood or..."
"Oh," came a sigh of realisation from the back-left of the room, "It's Red Riding Hood."

Now, this was a problem.  It would break the world we were building.  Solution?  Yes... and.

"What's that?" I almost leapt on her.  "You know something?"
"I was just saying that it's like Red Riding Hood."
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This kid wasn't playing.  To be fair, she was on the spectrum, so she was probably relieved to have worked out what the heck was going on.  But I couldn't let the whole thing be derailed and turn into a lesson.  How dull.

So, again, I used it.

"Who?" I asked.
"You know," she began, still not quite getting it, "Red Riding Hood.  She went to see her grandmother and met a wolf.  It's that story, isn't it?"
"Hmmm..."  I said, desperate not to let the world collapse.  "It certainly sounds similar.  But dammit, this is real life, not some silly fairy tale.  People are dead!"

Then, from the most unlikely of places, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.  I'll admit, until this next part, I was thinking that I might have to break role and admit defeat - go to the board and start structuring an approach.  I didn't want to, but they weren't getting it as much as they needed to.

Then it happened.

One of the 'troublesome' boys; one of the group who thinks it's far cooler to derail than join in, uttered the following words to his friend, hoping I wouldn't hear:

"It was terrorists."

I locked eyes with him and asked what he said.

I got the usual replies, nothing; sorry, I was just...  I was having none of it.

"Tell me what you said."

It's fair to say, at this point, I don't think anyone knew if I was in teacher role or newspaper editor role.  The atmosphere was a little on the tense side.  I used it.

"Damn it," thumping the table, "you have information and, by God, you're gonna share it. Now. what.  Did.  You.  Say?"

He looked a little sheepish.  I felt a little bad (not too bad, I was still in role).

"I said they were terrorists."

There was a silence.

"Oh my god," I said.  "That's huge."
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And the whole thing exploded.  The room became this bustling news office with groups of children working on different aspects of the story.  Some chose to work in solitude, writing up character profiles; some worked in pairs or threes, hot-seating others for interviews.  One asked if they could write the adverts for the paper (I wasn't going to allow it, but they asked in character and said that the paper had to make money somehow otherwise there wouldn't be a paper for people to read - that's persuasive!).

It was noisy.  It was chaotic.  It required a lot of bringing people together for newsroom briefings and team meetings.  We got through a lot of blu-tac and flipchart paper.  I had to trust the kids who asked for a Chromebook to do some research.  It was glorious.

By the end of the day, we had more than enough front pages to display and a totally fresh take on the Red Riding Hood story:
'Scarlet' - real name unknown - had been persuaded to join a terrorist organisation.  She was on her way to meet the grandmaster (codename: Grand-Ma) in a secret location.  Little did she know that Agent Black of WOLF (the World Organisation of Low-life Finders - a division of Special Operations at MI5) had been on her case ever since he came across a missing person's report that seemed odd.  
On that fateful day, he was watching the safe-house when Grand-Ma was left alone.  Agent Black entered the house; there was a fight and a single gun-shot.   Agent Black then waited for Scarlet to arrive to arrest her and take her in for questioning.
Unbeknownst to Agent Black, the terrorists had been watching him.  They sent their hitman, Jack Lumber (see what they did there?) to apprehend Agent Black.  
There was another fight.  Agent Black was rushed to hospital but Jack Lumber got away and is currently wanted and considered armed and dangerous.  
Scarlet was arrested and taken in for questioning.

There were complaints about using terrorists as a plot device - but my defence of that is that everything came from the children.  This was their story.  Is it sad that their everyday lives feature such things?  Yes.  Is it great that they can use those influences to create riveting literature?  Absolutely.

So that's my World Book Day story.  I encourage you all to let go and have the children lead the way.  If it all comes crashing down, who cares?  Think of what you'll learn along the way!  

Thanks for reading.  I've recently posted a Twitter poll asking how long a blog post should be - I'd be really grateful if you could let me know how long is too long.  I tend to get carried away!

Have a great week and I'll be back next time with an exploration of why being a heretic in the classroom is a good thing.

Until then, be kind and smile at strangers!

You Da Best

Carl Headley-Morris