Grease is a rainy Saturday afternoon matinée of a film. It is a cheery, comic book of a movie; a big bubblegum balloon blown up to fill the screen. Songs from the film have become party music staples. Sample any family wedding or birthday and you can be sure Summer Lovin’ or You’re the One That I Want will fill the dance floor with a range of ages; all able to sing along and even dramatise the actions. Well, in most cases.
Seeking to capitalise on this affection for the film, I formed a local branch of the Pink Ladies. The group consists of 5 of our oldest girls (11 years old). They were selected because they were achieving the national expectation in reading but our trajectories and predictions indicated that they could do even better than that. The code word used by staff for any child in our school not achieving their trajectory is ‘pink.’ Therefore the small reading group of older girls are known as The Pink Ladies.
The Pink Ladies are high-ability readers who are all second or third generation Pakistani and Bengali immigrants and all operating above the national age-related expectation. This is unusual because Asian girls are not always encouraged to achieve at school. Culturally there is sometimes a battle to be fought with Asian parents in supporting their higher-achieving daughters. However, the Pink Ladies are all reading at a level about a year beyond their counterparts. But our trajectories show that they could be well beyond a year ahead by next summer. That is the goal.
The purpose of forming the group was to get the over-achieving girls to think bigger and laterally. Our limited reading material at school had been exhausted by them. The group was in need of fresh challenges, of books that would stretch them to their limits.
To this end I took the group to our local bookshop where they chose several titles for themselves. As we walked through the neighbourhood streets they asked where the name Pink Ladies had come from. Not wanting to let on the colour codes we used to describe children’s achievement, I told them half the story;“Grease, of course”, I answered.
I was met with puzzled faces and it dawned on me that I had made the most basic mistake a teacher could make: I assumed the children knew something without first checking the starting point or limit of their current understanding.
Back-pedalling, I spluttered, “There was a film out years ago, it had a gang of cool girls who were called the Pink Ladies. They had pink jackets. It is a very popular movie”
There was a collective “ah-ha” from my crop of Pink Ladies. “I thought we were named after the apple” said one. “There is an apple called a Pink Lady.” The others waded in to support her misconception, “Yes apples are healthy foods and we thought reading was healthy and that is where the name came from.”
It was hard to disagree. The girls had taken the moral and cultural high ground and I – supposedly their Head Teacher and guide through this stage of their life- had named the group after a fictitious band of promiscuous American high school bobby-soxers from the 1950s. “Pink Lady apples,” I nodded in agreement.
That was a fortnight ago. The girls have been devouring their new challenging novels with gusto and excitement. Every time I pass them in the corridor they are keen to tell me where they are in their respective books and the new vocabulary they have encountered.
A few are reading a rather large volume of historical fiction based around the court of Henry VIII: H.M. Castor’s VIII. I met with the group to discuss this book today and to promote lateral thinking skills by generating no-so-obvious questions from the plot. To cut a very long story short, we arrived at a discussion around why people riot and the difference between the Tottenham Riots of last summer here in London and those which spawned the Arab Spring.
In short, dear readers, it was one of those lessons that just clicked. The level of understanding gained and the movement of the girls’ minds from point A to point B was tangible. The girls identified for themselves that the London riots were about the material and concrete. Tottenham had been about people getting things. The Arab Spring riots, on the other hand were abstract in their focus; they were about people wanting something they could not touch.
None of us wanted the session to end. When it did I held up a copy of VIII and told them I never expected to end up in a discussion about rioting at the start of the lesson. “But that is the power of reading challenging books, “ I offered, “They ask questions of you and invite you to ask more questions in return. When we ask questions, we learn.”
The Pink Ladies filed out and made their way to lunch; still blissfully unaware of the existence of Rizzo, Frenchy, Marty and even Sandy herself. To my pupils, they were still apples and would probably remain that way. Try as I might; I couldn’t imagine Stockard Channing and DiDi Conn at a sleep-over, doing each others’ nails and discussing the ultimate aim of rioting; be it concrete or abstract. I could, however, imagine an apple hanging on the tree, absorbing the elements around it, being nourished by the minerals of the rain, soil and sun. I could envisage the Pink Lady fruit: growing full and brimming with zest as it waited for the day it would fall ripe and heavy from the tree.
Pink Ladies are apples, for sure.
Keep the Faith,