Ruck Over! How to use rugby to immerse boys in writing

The Guardian really can produce some interesting articles at times. I’ve always been interested in why there are gender differences in attainment in maths and english, particularly writing. Teacher Matt James wrote an article in there today that describes how he turned his classroom into a rugby stadium to immerse boys in writing. Here’s what he wrote;

When I was eight years old my father took me to Wales’ home stadium, then affectionately known as the Arms Park. To this day, I remember it vividly. I can recall the sounds, the sights, even the smells. Years later I found myself trying to engage a class in descriptive writing with a particular focus on Cwricwlwm Cymreig – the idea of Wales and Welsh.

It was also around this point that my headteacher called me into his office and asked me to take the school lead on the national classroom conundrum – countering boys’ underachievement.

Remembering my first time at a stadium, I decided to arm myself with both conundrums – Wales and boys’ needs – and ask my class to list, in a table of the senses, things they would find at the Millennium Stadium (or another stadium of their choice).

To my surprise, very few of my students had made the pilgrimage to the home of Welsh rugby or, indeed, any stadium. My naivety had blinkered me to the socio-economic challenges of the local environment. After a hastily rearranged lesson, I went home and thought about possible alternatives.

At such short notice I couldn’t take a whole class to the stadium, let alone to see a game, so I decided to bring the stadium to the classroom.

I told my pupils that in their next lesson we would describe the Millennium Stadium and that the classroom was going to become the rugby arena. I invited them to bring their Welsh rugby tops and they were permitted (just this once) to bring snacks and drinks.

The focus was still going to be descriptive writing and they were still going to be thinking about the stadium using their five senses. I just wanted them to get a genuine feel for what it would be like to be there and to experience what they were being asked to write about. If there was no experiential learning, I may as well have asked them to describe the scene at midnight on the moon.

Prior to their arrival at the next lesson I organised my room so that all desks were at the back and the chairs formed two horseshoes, both facing the interactive whiteboard. As the class entered the room the speakers blared “Bread of Heaven” and”Men of Harlech” – two anthems strongly associated with Welsh rugby – and the pupils were told that all they would need is their table of senses from the earlier (failed) lesson and a pen.

I invited them to fill out the table now as they sat in their seats watching the interactive board playing one of my many rugby DVDs. This one, incidentally, showed extended highlights of Wales’ victory over England in 2008.

I was amazed at the engagement of the class. This wasn’t the real stadium but, with their tops on, food and drink at the ready, and the volume turned up to the maximum, they did begin to get a genuine sense of place.

At the end of the match, which brought with it many loud cheers, I informed the pupils that they now had to go to the “press room” at the back of the class. They carried their seats to the desks and began writing up their findings.

I was delighted to read some exciting writing from some previously disengaged boys. One had even commented on the “boy sitting behind me who couldn’t sit still and tipped crisps on my seat”. Another, without being asked, started creating similes such as, “the players played like dragons” and “the crowd roared like a lion”.

I was delighted. The pupils from this first lesson have since left the school armed with their GCSEs but I still remember their year eight excitement as they left the classroom, discussing the match as if they had been there.

I’m constantly updating this lesson. One issue I often have with it is asking pupils to disregard the match commentary. Most find this an easy task, but lower-ability pupils sometimes fall into the trap of describing what they hear the commentator saying. Something that I’m also always aware of is that not all boys are interested in sport. For this reason, sometimes the lesson is turned into “describe a theme park” and YouTube videos of rollercoasters are used. The possibilities, while not endless, are numerous.

When I next do this lesson, I’m going to prepare match day tickets before to the lesson so that pupils have to go to allocated seats and maybe face the shuffle down the row as others have to stand or swing their knees to one side. Now, every time I go to watch a game I’m always thinking about how to bring certain aspects of it to my classroom. I think it’d be a bit too far to bring hotdogs and burgers to lesson though.


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