Nen and the Lonely Fisherman

So here goes: my first blogged book review and my first blog tour…and on my birthday no less – what a treat!

I came across Ian and James on Twitter via the #Edutwitter and #BookTwitter circles, within which there seems to be much of an overlap. Back in April, Ian asked if I would like to be part of the book launch blog tour and, to be honest, I was a little bit worried. I really wanted to, but what if I wasn’t keen on the book?! I know both Ian and James are wonderfully talented and kind, however it’s always a risk saying yes to something you have yet to read.

When Nen turned up in my pigeon hole at school, I ripped the packaging open and ran up the 8 (yes, 8!) flights of stairs to my classroom. I hunkered down on the sofa in my reading area with some pastries, crossed my fingers – which is tricky with a croissant in hand – and cracked open the book…

Needless to say, my worries were completely misplaced: I put my snorkel on and dived into the pages filled with colour and heart and I loved every moment. I was angry at times, seeing real-world struggles interwoven in and amongst true love and care, yet I smiled from ear to ear when love was allowed to flourish and I was left with a full heart and a feeling of hopefulness. Luckily for me, I had arrived at school extra early and I had time to reread Nen again and again – although I must admit I might have spilled pastry crumbs on some pages as I excitedly scanned through. This book is beautifully crafted and the accompanying illustrations by James Mayhew create such a wonderful level of colourful vibrancy that you really need to pause on each page for a moment after reading, just to enjoy the artwork. The two-page, sideways spreads were particularly stunning and I loved how they showed the depth of the ocean alongside the depths of the story. The seas are such a powerful metaphor for life: stormy at times, calm at others and capable of being endlessly beautiful. Via this metaphor, I really felt the struggles and pride pouring from both Ian and James: this may be a fictional story, however it felt deeply rooted in real life.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. With books, however, we teachers can see them live on endlessly as children discover them. The very next day I had the absolute joy of watching a young learner see himself in the pages after I left the book near his table (the children saw me reading it the previous day and there’s always a mob trying to get hold of my latest page-turner!). Nothing is more valuable to me as a teacher, and as a parent, than children feeling seen and heard. This young chap came to me afterwards, glowing, and asked if his parents could borrow it as he was having some challenging conversations with them at home. “Of course!” I said. He lingered for a moment and said, “Mr Harrison, did you know that this is really similar to what The Little Mermaid should have been?” I could see the parallels, but I asked him to tell me more as I wasn’t sure what he was talking about yet. “Did you know that it was originally meant to be a story about same-sex love?” he continued. Well, I must admit that I was completely oblivious to this fact (discussed in greater detail here: https://www.pride.com/movies/2019/7/08/little-mermaid-was-originally-metaphor-unrequited-gay-love) and I was delighted to learn something new.

All in all, this is a delightful book with a powerful and punchy message underpinning it: everyone deserves to feel loved and everyone has a right to give their love freely to those who deserve it. The way that same-sex relationships are normalised and beautifully celebrated in this book creates a powerful platform for young (and older!) readers as it helps them to see the world without their blinkers on, which is something so sorely needed in today’s society. Books like this give me hope, as an educator, that my children will see and love themselves for who they are, not who they are told to be.

Find that silver lining

I’ve been looking back over my blogs and I’ve noticed a pattern: a lot of my journey and learning that I have shared tends to have somewhat of a negative undertone. My blogs often share the challenges I have faced and what I learned throughout those incredibly tough times, however I feel I need to more effectively communicate the huge, overwhelming positives I have experienced along the way. I was once accused of being ‘sickeningly, unendingly positive’ by someone I worked for in a previous life, many moons ago, and I lost that along the way. I’m starting to rediscover it now.

I’m a big believer in silver linings. Every challenge has a positive side – often something wonderful we can overlook whilst we’re wading through the muck and bullets. For me, the greatest positive has been the people I have met on my journey. The staff, the children and the wider community. I’m going to share who and why below and hopefully – especially if you’re having a tough time – it might help you to find a silver lining or two to hold onto.

Incredible teams

Every single negative experience I have had in schools has centred around poor leadership. Heads and Executive Heads who bully, manipulate, threaten and intimidate have sadly formed the bulk of my experience, despite them being hugely outnumbered by wonderful leaders around the world. Alongside these workplace thugs, however, I have met incredible staff teams who truly go the extra mile as they pick up the pieces in incredibly challenging circumstances. I have taken lifelong friendships with me as I left schools and I will forever be thankful to the teams I was lucky to collaborate with.

Amazing children

Why did we all enter the profession? We want to work with children: it’s as simple as that. Teaching the next generation of world leaders and game changers is a huge honour and I think it makes our chosen profession as noble as it is challenging. I have laughed and cried with my classes and we have grown together, forming those bonds where every year we classroom practitioners are convinced that each class and each child we work with is our favourite. I have done my best to see my classes through to the end of the year, despite my personal changes and circumstances, because I know how hard mid-year changes are for us all – especially children. I have loved every child I have had the pleasure of teaching, bar none, and I miss each and every one of them terribly. They brought smiles, colour and magic to my rainy days.

Wonderful communities

I have worked with some of the most diverse, deprived, wonderful and challenging communities in the country and I have learned a huge amount about what it means to be human. The school communities I have worked alongside have made me a better person, teacher and father. I have made mistakes along the way and I have met my fair share of challenges in the community, yet we all share the same common value: we want our best for the children in our care.

Lessons learned

I heave learned far more than I have taught: I have learned that people are wonderful and they will always surprise you if you give them a chance; I have learned that every cloud has a silver lining if you look closely enough.

Finding the right school for you

Recruitment is a two-way process: not only are schools looking for the right people to join their team, you are also looking for the school in which you can flourish. Interviews work both ways, where the candidate is interviewing the school as much as the school are interviewing them. This, in my opinion, is really important to remember when you are looking for the right school for you. It’s also important to remember this if and when a school don’t appoint you: if you weren’t the right fit for them at that time, then they weren’t the right fit for you either. I want to explore – via my personal experiences – why it is so important that we find the right school for ourselves; why we should carry out our due diligence in the job hunting process rather than pushing for anything and everything. I have chosen to share this now as the Summer term is peak season for job hunting, so please listen to and learn from my experiences if you are currently looking for – or considering – a new school or role.

Bad experience 1: out of the frying pan and into the fire

I left my first teaching school after three years. There’s a whole story behind why I left that I might share in detail one day, but it was a really hard time and I was deeply hurt by the process. At this time, a friend signposted a position at a ‘good’ school within my commute range. Interestingly, this job required no observation as I was told I would not be class-based, the interview was carried out at my current school and they wouldn’t let me visit when I asked the Executive Head. Alarm bells should have been ringing, but I really liked the Head and the Associate Head was a friend and mentor of mine, so I took a leap of faith. In the September I started, Ofsted came in and the school slipped from Outstanding to Special Measures. Then, everyone started to leave. I was the Deputy, 100% in class teaching Year 2, EYFS lead (despite there already being a fantastic EYFS lead in post), KS1 lead, phonics lead and leading a range of subjects that weren’t my main strengths. The Head and Associate head left by the January due to the horrendous bullying from the Executive Head and Standards Lead, both of whom were cruel and opportunistic. The subsequent Associate Heads left for the same reasons and the full force of bullying and harassment was directed at me in an effort to shift the Ofsted grade blame (despite it landing the September I started), as it had been with all the other staff who had left. It was brutal. My union were blown away by the illegal actions carried out by the Executive Head and they told me to do an exit interview, cut and run to save myself. I did so after seeing my challenging class through an awfully tough year – I’ll never abandon a class during the school year if I can help it. The Executive Head hid from any form of challenge, so I dealt frontline with scared and angry parents and carers alongside shocking behaviour and a terrified staff body. Luckily, the Executive Head and Standards Lead left soon after I did, however both were congratulated by the Trust on a job well done – despite both sister schools being in Measures as they departed.

Bad experience 2: overload

In my haste to leave, I intended to apply for anything and everything I could find. There was only one job on the market, so I jumped in and went for it. My first alarm bell should have rung when the Head told me in interview that he didn’t want a Deputy, but that the trust had told him he needed one so he could support more schools. My role was vast: Deputy Head, EYFS lead, KS2 lead, curriculum lead, maths lead, phonics lead, teaching 100% of the week in Nursery, Reception and two Year 1 classes due to staff loss, assessment lead, mentor to three (wonderful) student teachers and the head was out 1-3 days per week so I was head of school in their absence. I was forced out, told that I had failed my probation despite being 4 months past it finishing and passing everything, as the head needed to save money. I also found out subsequently that the business manager had told the head I did nothing in his absence and that she ran the school when he was out – he didn’t bother to ask any other member of staff about it, or me! When Ofsted came in, 2 of their 4 key lines of enquiry were for me (EYFS and Phonics) and the team smashed it. They did the same in the Local Authority moderations and were heavily praised. The head came to see me afterwards and offered me a job: the exact same work commitments, but on lower pay and demoted to Assistant Head because I couldn’t handle deputyship. I politely declined, yet he told the staff I would be “back very soon” when it was announced to the full staff that I was leaving.

One problem when you’re searching for jobs is that if you move around too much, then potential employers are going to worry. They might think you don’t stick with things or they might assume you’re not good enough to handle the positions you’re trying to apply for. After leaving one school and doing one year in two schools back to back, I needed to be really careful with where I went next. Three years of school jumps in a row would not look good on my CV, so I needed to take a big step back and think about what would be best for me. I’ve detailed my decision here in my first ever blog post (https://mrhtheteacher.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/im-still-standing-just-a-little-further-back/), so I won’t go into it too much now, but I want to share the benefits of finding the right school – the school that I found next:

The right school

This time, I had a few options. I went with my heart and I chose to step back and build myself back up. I chose a school based on the kindness and empathy that I saw and I am delighted to work in the same school nearly three years later. I work with a Head who seeks out people’s strengths and loves, then asks them to lead on things they genuinely enjoy so they can thrive. This, coupled with the wonderful team and school community, is why I have jumped into my reading journey so heavily this last couple of years: because my school actively encourages me to be me. I’m Assistant Head and KS2 lead, I lead on English and I have asked to take on curriculum design. Our head looks after the team and he constantly worries about overload and wellbeing, so he will not let the team take on too much (although I do worry that he takes on too much at times whilst trying to protect the team – I make sure I nag him regularly!) He understands that letting people do what they love significantly boosts morale, work quality and wellbeing alongside the hugely positive impacts on pupils and their learning journeys. My own health, happiness, teaching and leadership qualities have grown significantly, as have my confidence and self-esteem.

Those who have followed me on Twitter for a while might have seen the shift. I’m much more open and my obsessions for reading, writing and curriculum design are coming through more and more. That’s because I’m encouraged to do what I love every day at work by a team in which I feel valued and loved – the feeling is mutual!

Why am I sharing this? It’s deeply personal, but I have no shame in where I have been. These examples are the tip of the iceberg and I have come through an awful lot. It has made me appreciate what I have now so much more. I don’t believe in pretending to be perfect, I believe in sharing a real picture of my journey – warts and all. I’m sharing this because I want everyone to find the school in which they can thrive. Learn from my mistakes: don’t take the first opportunity that comes, make sure it is the right choice for you. Dont fret that other people are getting jobs and you’re still searching; some people just need longer to find the right match. If there isn’t something for you out there yet, then working on supply is a wonderful alternative where you will learn so much – you might even stumble across the perfect school!

Saving time

Recently, I have started sharing more and more of my resources via Twitter, Dropbox and email. Why? Well they’re nothing particularly special, unusual or amazing: often, I share simple documents and lesson sequences (although I am super chuffed with our curriculum model, help yourself https://www.dropbox.com/sh/njmylzbgossab6u/AACgv7zChrekIPZCpaLj3IXJa?dl=0). I have a couple of reasons behind my sharing and I’m going to share them with you (see what I did there?) with the hope that more people feel that they can share as well.

So why do it?

Time. That’s my simple answer. If I’ve put the time into making something, the chances are that someone out there is hoping or needing to make something similar. If I can share my documents and save time for the other person, then that’s wonderful. I tried to calculate some shares a while back, bear with me as I’ll make some sketchy assumptions within it:

I shared a set of phonics support resources to around 250-300 people (available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/mb8trknfdij5wa6/AACGi0odT2ZAKdkGBzoysfU3a?dl=0). They took me around 8 hours to create and collate. If everyone uses them, then that’s 1,250-1,500 cumulative hours saved. More realistically, 50 of that original group might use the resources (and some will most likely cherrypick what they need or use it as a starting point), but even then we could be looking at hundreds of hours saved cumulatively. All from about 3 hours of me emailing. Now I use the free version of Dropbox, so it’s even quicker and easier.

Time saved has a huge bonus: more time avaliable = more time for things you want = happier people. Even if my resources make one person’s day easier then, in my opinion, it is well worth sharing. Time is a currency shared by us all and it is in short supply, so clubbing together makes a lot of sense.

It doesn’t need to be amazing

As I said earlier, my resources are nothing special! I’m not charging for them and they work well for me and my class. I share them with the hope that they give others a starting point from which they can create their own resources. Take this science unit for example, available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/lklbgve0j7nugtd/AAAE9s3UMmsjwedHUXVoUG5sa?dl=0. It’s not going to be used as a nationally scrutinised lesson on Oak Academy, but I worked hard on it and I think my cohort will enjoy it. My 3-4(ish) hours spent putting it together were enjoyable as I boosted my subject knowledge whilst researching – sharing this will hopefully give others a useful starting point, even if they only use bits and pieces.

I did the same with a reading spine CPD session (available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/8hogiadwwxcnlcb/AACoHdvCH6to0OoxxnMQ2Ga8a?dl=0) and again the maths was similar: 3 hours to make it and around 250 shares so far.

When I shared our new curriculum model, our Curriculum of PRIDE (available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/njmylzbgossab6u/AACgv7zChrekIPZCpaLj3IXJa?dl=0), I hoped the maths would stack up even more as this key document was backed by around 30 hours of hard work – not counting the additional hours of reading and research behind it. Imagine saving someone even half of that time, I’d be delighted if someone did that for me!

Here’s a couple more links with resources you might find helpful:

Vikings (including Ragnarok narratives, clay runes, Vikings non-chronological reports and more): https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ds79dqanpoucsr4/AAA0P_Q-LHHG327HjnhDYZoWa?dl=0

Time travel narratives (including reading and writing lesson flowcharts, PowerPoint, resources and more): https://www.dropbox.com/sh/wkn7e00cogndsu3/AADM-sqZ0VAaQDUhtvY8oBQha?dl=0

Cocoa bean diaries as part of our Mayan topic: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/sbk9qfkqf5kpydw/AAAYTT4Q9FZGqcGBVYhaGWWca?dl=0

Computing unit for compiling and handling data (linked to space, but easily editable): https://www.dropbox.com/sh/qhx4808fxw0onel/AACZKo9pJ-dF-51iji2OIPRoa?dl=0

Writing unit for writing instructions (linked to Dragons/ Dragonology, but easily editable): https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1fq77zjz38r3vrm/AAC7c-2n8xm2OMgaGNOAk7v8a?dl=0

Many people found this report writing script useful when I shared it on Twitter. Using a template like this can save you heaps of time when you’re writing reports:

Loads of people on Twitter have told me that they don’t want to share resources because they worry their ideas are not good enough. I hope more people feel brave enough to share so we can club together and help each other out. I think of Twitter not only as a staffroom (thanks to Mia @MissBTeaches_), but also as being like a huge shared drive full of treasures waiting to be explored and shared.

Give it a go

Try asking for something you need after reading this blog and see what you get. Make sure you credit the original maker and see what time you can save!

Pay it forward: if you’re feeling intrepid, why don’t you try sharing something you’ve enjoyed putting together or using? Saving time for even one person is a success in my books.

We’re all in this together 💛

Ignoring Book Bands

I’ve been in and around a number of conversations involving book bands for a fair while now. I have decided to share my thoughts on the matter via blog as I feel it’s too big a conversation to do via Tweets.

I have seen it suggested that one way of promoting a love of reading is by ignoring book bands and allowing / encouraging children to choose any book that takes their fancy. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense: choose what you like the look of and you’re more likely to enjoy it, but I feel there is more to explore within this conversation.

Accessibility:

What happens if a child takes a book that they are not ready to access yet? On one side, it might be a book they cannot yet decode and this may lead to them believing they are not a reader – imagine picking up The Iliad when you are reading at around the age of a Year 3 child. You’d give up relatively quickly I imagine. Alternatively, what if the book is not age-appropriate in terms of content? The lexile count of a book like The Hunger Games puts it on primary school bookshelves, however I know it would be unsuitable for many of my children – even some of my higher attaining readers. Within this conversation, we need to make sure we have a good range of high quality texts available across all ages and stages of school. In our school, we have identified a gap in quality texts for our lower attaining Year 3 and 4 readers and we are currently focusing our efforts on growing and curating the relevant bookshelves to provide a greater range of choice (this is a key reason behind our development of quality assured book spines across our school).

Progress:

I’m really curious about how we would measure progress without suitably levelled or banded books other than by testing, testing and testing. We don’t teach to the test, but tracking and facilitating progress is a huge part of what we do and book bands are an easy way of demonstrating this outside of formal assessment. For context, we as a school use Star Reader tests for reading assessment which gives Accelerated Reader book levels which children can select from (these link to similarly levelled quizzes on completion). Giving children any book from the library would make this process significantly harder and facilitating progress would be tricker to maintain unless I have a very deep knowledge about every book on the shelves that the children select over time and how these correlate in terms of challenge and content.

Sensitive redirection:

I think something that isn’t mentioned enough is the idea of ‘ sensitive redirection’. I don’t agree with saying yes to every book choice a child makes: I believe in surrounding their choice with ‘book talk’. Why have they made that choice? What options did they have? Which other books could I signpost? Is the book accessible for them? Is the content appropriate? You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can tell a lot by the blurb and the 99th page – have they read these? I recently had a really good conversation with a young learner and his dad about the suitability of a book (The Hunger Games series, he’s in Year 5) and we all left knowing that it’s a series of books he really wants to immerse himself in. If this wasn’t the case, then it is my job as a reader teacher to redirect him to something that tickles his fancy whilst covering the genres and styles he enjoys. This takes me back to curating quality assured reading spines and, as I have discussed in previous blogs, knowing what you have on your shelves. Failing that, websites like https://www.thereaderteacher.com/ (@MrEPrimary) provide excellent matchmaking systems.

Book juggling:

My children all have multiple books on the go, just like I do. Every single one of them has a ‘Jungle Library Book’ that sits within their reading parameters (as measured by the Star Reader tests) alongside one of my personal book collection that I have purposely not labelled or levelled. This has provided a fabulous balance where I can still track and facilitate progress whilst providing a broad range of high quality literature. Some of my class take this too far and juggle 5 or 6 books, but it seems to have worked well for my cohort.

I am more than happy to be challenged on my thoughts here. Nothing I have written in this blog is factual, it is merely a collection of my musings based on my opinions, experience and cohort. I do enjoy the opportunity to be challenged and debated, so please come and join the Twitter thread if you have something you would like to share.

Creatively Speaking: Authors and Illustrators

Introduction by Christopher Harrison (@MrHtheteacher)

We teachers – especially in primary settings – tend to be Jacks of all trades as we try to balance each curriculum aspect fairly, however it can be really hard to give each area the time, energy and thought it requires to take it to the next level. When Darrell Wakelam (@DarrellWakelam) and I discussed this, we agreed that bringing creative freelancers into schools can have a hugely positive impact whilst being enjoyable, affordable and having long-lasting, positive impacts on the school communities visited. The purpose of the Creatively Speaking sequence of blogs, thought up by Darrell, is simply to raise awareness: do schools know which creative freelancers are out there? Do freelancers know the best strategies to engage with schools? Do schools and freelancers know how to get the most out of their sessions together?

Author and illustrator visits are, in my opinion, one of the most powerful stimuli that can have the potential to create wonderful bonds between children and books. This, in turn, can have a drastic impact on engagement with reading for even the most reluctant potential bookworms. Engaging with the #Edutwitter community alongside the wonderful author and illustrator communities online (in which I include the librararian, publishing and independent book-selling communities) has really opened my eyes to the potential synergies of networking with non-school based individuals as a means of broadening the curriculum experiences offered in schools. With this in mind, I asked one of my favourite authors – Maz Evans (@MaryAliceEvans) – if she would like to share some of her thoughts on how we might support creative communities and schools support each other.

Introductions:

Hello! I’m Maz Evans (@MaryAliceEvans), author of the WHO LET THE GODS OUT series, VI SPY and THE EXPLODING LIFE OF SCARLETT FIFE. I’m an author, scriptwriter, lyricist and I make great pasta. I’m currently reading (and loving) Phil Earle’s WHEN THE SKY FALLS.

Questions from Chris for Maz

  1. Your visits, both digital and in person (including your awesome masterclasses on Authorfy!), come highly recommended. What advice would you give to any authors and illustrators looking to work with schools? How might they begin to build book bridges with education settings?

You’re very kind! It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of my relationship with schools to my career – I owe you all so much, as does my landlord. I think there is so much we can do to help each other and achieve the common goal which is to get kids reading a wide variety of materials.

Personally, I don’t like social media, but professionally, it is a huge point of contact with schools. My connection started when schools started tweeting me questions about Gods, which I always love to answer. I’m mindful that not all schools want or can afford author visits, but if you email or Tweet me I will always try to respond. Creators need to make sure that their offering is good value for schools and achievable for them – I think we all start off offering umpteen sessions however a school wants them, but soon realise we’ll die of exhaustion. At the moment of course, everything is online, but that can be a lovely way to connect with a single class that has loved your book. Engage with teachers and listen to what they want – you are working with 21 million British schoolchildren – we’d be daft not to want to work with you!

2. What would you ask schools to do to prepare for your visit and what legacy / impact would you hope to see following your visit?

You use a key word there, which is ‘prepare’. It amazes me the number of schools that pay for me to come, but take no time to tell their pupils anything about me or my books! Even just a look at my (www.maz.world) or Chicken House’s website (https://www.chickenhousebooks.com/schools/maz-evans-author/) will tell you a bit about me and show you some videos and extracts from my work – it’s amazing what a difference that makes!

Beyond that, it’s obviously always great to work with schools who have read one of your books – it still humbles me how excited kids get about a middle-aged old bat turning up to their school just because they’ve seen my name on a book! Authors rely on book sales at these events, so it’s really helpful when schools put time into promoting and organising that side of events. I appreciate you are busy, so I try to make it as simple as possible, but it’s always horrible when kids really want to buy books, but arrangements haven’t been made.

My legacy is the most important thing for me. I hope that through my visits and the virtual workshops I leave behind, kids can learn about the importance of creativity, the joy of reading, they can feel empowered to write their own stories (and understand the importance of editing) and truly believe that their story matters. And that they’ve had a really good time along the way.

3. What added value do you believe authors and illustrators might bring into schools that we might struggle to take just from the text?

I think that the importance of creativity is understated in our world generally. People think that just because they can’t or don’t write or draw, they aren’t or don’t need to be creative. It’s simply not the case. You can’t get through a day on planet Earth without being creative – we tell stories, we solve problems, we tell lies… all of these are creative parts of daily life. I’m very keen to stress to even the most reluctant readers and writers that creativity has many outlets – how do they think computer games are designed? I think creators can make that point very effectively.

Many schools have said to me how helpful it is to put a personality to the writing – having met me, they can see how my books have become so daft! And for me personally, it’s important to show that women, mothers, dull, unremarkable people like me can create imaginative worlds that people love. I’m nothing special – so if I can do it, so can they.

4. Visits are often a large part of an author or illustrators income, however school budgets are incredibly tight. Are there any websites, funds or grants that schools might want to explore to facilitate visits from authors and illustrators?

In my experience, my visits are generally funded by either pupil premium or PTAs – very few schools fund me out of their core budget. I wish I were aware of grants – if there are some, I don’t know of any… I have always wondered if author visits could be funded by local businesses or sponsorship of some kind – surely someone can put us down against tax or corporate social responsibility budget?

But as you say, visits are a huge part of our income. When you consider that most creators make less than £11Kpa from royalties alone, you’ll understand that few earn a living wage from book sales. This is why you might not be met with wild enthusiasm if you ask authors to send you freebies, even postcards, through the post – let alone books (which we have to buy ourselves, we don’t get an inexhaustible supply!). We make pennies per sale – the cost of a stamp is probably more than the royalty earned on a book. Tweets and emails are quick and easy for us to facilitate – trips to the post office and endless personalised videos take time and money that sadly, we don’t always have to give.

5. If you could go back in time and experience school all over again as a pupil, which books would you love to see on your classroom shelves and which authors / illustrators – alive or dead – would you love to have met in school?

The sad truth is that when I was in school (in the 80s, eeeeek!) the range of books available to me was really quite limited and largely by dead, white men…. I’m so happy to see the massive steps taken to diversify authors and books – the industry has a long way to go, but I hope the will is there. I would have love to have seen anything from contemporary (non-celeb!) authors line my shelves – truly we are in a golden age for contemporary children’s fiction, non-fiction, poetry and everything else!

Whilst I acknowledge problems with some aspects of his world view and his writing now, as a child, I loved Roald Dahl. I am so old that I remember queuing up to buy Matilda when it came out! I still have a first edition on my youngest daughter’s bookshelf, which I only allow her to read as if she were handling the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Questions for Chris from Maz:

  1. What makes you decide on a class book? Are you governed more by topic or enjoyment?

There’s so many factors to consider here: topics studied are often put at the forefront for many schools, however I’d strongly suggest that the teachers should always take a good, long look at their cohort and consider how their book choices might connect with their unique cohort (or not!). We’ve all been there when a book falls flat and just doesn’t click with the class, so we need to make sure we offer quality-assured depth and breadth whilst making sure children are involved in the decision making process.

I’m a big believer in creating and curating whole-school reading spines that give an accurate representation of society on a local, national and global scale. So many school’s reading lists will be dominated by white, mostly British, blokes (Morpurgo, Walliams, Dahl and so on) because that is what the children’s book market was dominated by when we were in school – like you said with your school experience. Here, we need to listen to the experts: which books are authors and illustrators blown away by? Are we engaging with book nuts online? Are we actively reading and quality-assuring texts?

I also believe in having more than one book on the go – a topic text and a treat text – and our school has reading spines for both. This gives you a nice mixture of themed books and reading simply for pleasure. It also means you can shoehorn in more genres of text in shorter periods of time or you can follow children’s interests and recommendations without being tied to the topics being taught at that time.

2. What online resources would be genuinely useful for us to provide for you?

I have found author visits and online videos from organisations, like Authorfy, incredibly useful as they make authors and illustrators ‘real’ to the children (and staff!). Online visits seem to be an area we can really explore here as there are no commuting costs for visitors, therefore meaning prices can be dropped whilst maintaining quality and impact (although the ‘human’ element may potentially take a hit).

I’m also a huge fan of sharing author’s and illustrator’s creative processes with the class. Writers like S. F. Said have amazing resources showing their approach to drafting and crafting something powerful and I’d love to see more of this. I know that writers like yourself, Brian Moses, Lisa Thompson and Larraine Harrison also put teaching and learning ideas together for your books and this is incredibly useful for busy teachers! I wonder if more authors and illustrators might collaborate with teachers to develop these in line with curriculum expectations.

3. Are there any topics/genres not presently catered for that you’d like to see books about?

Most school reading spines and book awards tend to be dominated by stories, so we need far more non-fiction and poetry amongst other genres to give children a broader, richer reading diet. The breadth present in the market now is significantly better (and gradually getting even better) than it has been in the past – my issue isn’t so much with what’s increasingly available, it’s more with what gets marketed and celebrated by the big sellers (supermarkets etc). Consumers are blinkered by what’s put directly in front of their noses and what they’ve experienced in their own education. I’d also love to see a greater push for texts that normalise uniqueness – for example same sex relationships and different family dynamics (like the fractured family in Vi Spy!). This will support children whose experiences don’t match old-fashioned ‘normals’ because they are more likely to see themselves.

4. How can we support schools and parents to promote reading for pleasure?

Every child has a right to feel represented and celebrated by what they read. I try to look at books from two angles: diversity (do they reflect societal structures?) and representation (do they paint an accurate / fair picture of societal groups?). Books are both windows and mirrors: if children cannot see themselves in books and if they can’t be transported to somewhere that genuinely excites them then they will never engage with or love reading. This, in my experience, is one of the greatest barriers that children often encounter.

I also think it’s crucial to differentiate between ‘low challenge’ and ‘low quality’ texts. Again, a quality assured whole-school reading spine is so important here as we can offer less challenging alternatives to children (like stories with a younger target audience, poetry or graphic novels) without offering them absolute rubbish. Imagine sitting with your friends and they’re all reading amazing books, but you’re sat with Biff, Chip and Kipper: you’re going to feel pretty isolated and self-conscious. I guarantee these children will often forget or lose their books, or they’ll hide it under the table when they do have them. This extends further to inappropriate texts on the market (like certain celebrity authors who fat shame and stereotype!) – we teachers need to know what we’re putting in our children’s hands, so it’s crucial that teachers read! Celebrating children’s books as books for everyone might work here as I know a lot of people can turn their noses up at ‘kid lit’ despite it being incredible!

Finally, visits and digital interaction play a huge part in building relationships between children and their families with books and their makers. My class begged me to order more Lisa Thompson books after meeting her and I know her name was popular on many Christmas lists after the class met her! Even a simple Tweet can go such a long way and I know some authors and illustrators have templates of letters that can be downloaded and personalised by schools for their classes.

5. How do you think we can work together to promote the range of brilliant (non-celeb!) books out there?

I love the way that authors and illustrators often don’t work in competition with each other: they collaborate and share the successes of others. This has been a great ay to introduce other authors and illustrators to the public. The problem here is that most ‘Edutweeters’ that engage with authors and illustrators are already keen on books, so we need to figure out ways of passing ideas and information on to teachers that are less keen on reading and those that do not engage with social media. In ‘normal’ times, I’d love to see lots of diverse reading festivals (like Richard O’Niell’s Diverse Book Week) and book fairs run by independent book retailers that scream and shout about the amazing books out there!

Both of us could easily speak in far greater depth about the topics covered here, but we don’t want to scare you off with a frighteningly long blog! Instead, we’ll hand the discussion over to you: our intrepid readers. Have you got any questions or thoughts about the conversation here? Come and join the discussion on the Twitter thread and let’s share the book love!

Which books would you say define your school?

We’re in the process of creating a large book spine display in the main school entrance and it got me thinking: which books should we choose and why? They’re one of the first things you will see as you enter our school building, so they should communicate who we are and what we’re all about. I’ve picked my 5 picture books and 5 stories from our school KS2 reading spines (because that’s where I’m based) and it really made me reflect on who we are as a school and the educational offer we make to our community. It was an agonising choice to be honest, so in the end I went with my gut instinct throughout.

The Journey by Francesca Sanna:

We are a ‘School of Sanctuary’, meaning that we are committed to “supporting the thousands of young people seeking sanctuary in the UK, creating a culture of welcome, and raising awareness of the issues faced by refugees and asylum seekers” (https://schools.cityofsanctuary.org/). The Journey ends with the family looking into the future with a mixture of trepidation and optimism: we imagine our school lying over the next hill, ready to welcome them into our community with open arms.

I Speak Like the River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith:

Everyone, even the quietest individuals, have their own unique voice and we do everything we can to create an environment where they can share it in their own wonderful way. Our specialist on-site unit provides an incredible level of care for very high need, vulnerable children who thrive when they come to us. We understand that, like a river, we often need quieter and louder times and we appreciate that everybody needs to create and travel along their own bespoke path to success.

Yokki and the Parno Gry by Richard O’Neill, Katharine Quarmby and Marieke Nelissen:

Stories are our lifeblood, they’re at the heart of everything we teach, and we love to hear the stories behind our children and their families. Every unit we teach is underpinned by our diverse book spines and we love seeing our children look through books as windows or as mirrors, through which they can see new worlds or begin to understand themselves more deeply.

Maia and What Matters by Tine Mortier and Kaatje Vermiere:

There is so much beauty in the world, but also a lot of sadness – especially at the moment. We don’t shy away from the nitty gritty and those tough conversations, these are the times where children can really open up and discover who they are. We see the greatest levels of beauty and love in the relationships around us, so we put them at the heart of everything we do.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley,Winifred Conkling and Laura Freeman:

As a school, we genuinely believe that everyone has the capacity to change the world. It is our duty as educators to help children to realise their potential and to thrive, becoming leaders of change and ambassadors of kindness within the community on a local, national and global scale.

Malamander by Thomas Taylor:

Everyone needs to find themselves, but often we need a helping hand: we educators are the Lost and Founders, just like young Herbie. We see beauty in the eye of the stormclouds that can often surround troubled youngsters and we weather those storms together. We also love trying to solve a good mystery!

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson:

Magic and mystery lies at the heart of our experience-led curriculum. We all love surprises, from wooly mammoth stampedes to burning bakeries, and the learning that comes from these experiences is invaluable. We also love exploring the cultures and communities within our diverse school, especially when we get to learn exciting new things! Our school building also has it’s own weird and wonderful personality, just visit and you will see!

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery:

Us teachers are so protective of our children. Sometimes we suit up in our armour and fight dragons, sometimes we sniff out challenges and sometimes we grow to our greatest size to give big cuddles when they’re needed (albeit from a distance at present!)

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston:

This book really celebrates how people can be so much more than they first seem on the surface and how we never give up on each other! Family and friends come first and success comes through hard work and loving what we do. In our school, we believe that every member of our community has an incredible amount of potential and that everyone is an expert in something.

Orion Lost by Alastair Chisholm:

I couldn’t resist including this, simply because we’re immersed in a world of technology that I don’t necessarily trust! Well, that and it shows that children can do so much more when they’re trusted and respected to take on challenges!

So which books match you and / or your school best? Join in on the tread and share some book love!

Our Curriculum of PRIDE

Curriculum statement: Our philosophy of learning, delivered through our broad and rich Grove Road Curriculum, creatively embraces the essence of our vision to instil in our children the knowledge, skills and values to be happy, confident, independent and successful life-long learners. 

Our PRIDE characteristics are the foundations of our curriculum and underpin what we believe makes a child happy, healthy and ready to learn. With these, children are able and willing to engage with the PRIME areas and, in turn, will be able to access the subject specialisms. Every child has a right to a fun, exciting, experience-led education that inspires, challenges and supports them in equal measure. The PRIDE characteristics, PRIME areas and subject specialisms are all interconnected and influence each other.

Our curriculum model encourages pupils to make discoveries, to be excited and to want to find out more. Learning is personalised and achievements are recognised and celebrated. The emphasis is on the development of skills and understanding and on encouraging learners to investigate and expand their subject knowledge through a range of activities designed for the individual. Our entire curriculum is underpinned by our PRIDE values, the core foundations of our school, and these are the key building blocks that we believe enable children to thrive in their learning. This has been built with reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where an individual must be supported holistically in order to develop higher order skills:

simplypsychology.org

Once children have developed their PRIDE characteristics, they can then access the PRIME areas which are broken down into key phases and sections in line with Development Matters:

Each PRIME area is explored in detail in each phase (Early Years will work within Development Matters) and has been broken down into: what a unique child should be able to do at that age and stage; what adults can do and provide based on the positive relationships they maintain with the children and how the school environments will facilitate this. Each of the 7 PRIME areas is broken down below:

Once children are working within the PRIDE Characteristics and PRIME areas then they are ready to learn within the subject specialisms. Each subject is planned for and taught with reference to flowcharts (examples below) that support with consistency and clarity across school:

Subject leaders maintain five key documents: topic webs (above), progression maps, long-term coverage plans (LTPs), medium-term planning templates (MTPs) and subject leader action plans. The progression maps (example below) lay out what a unique child should be able to do at each age and stage of their development in line with the National Curriculum and school Curriculum of PRIDE. This is then used to inform planning and teacher assessment across school:

Thematic Learning & Topic Webs

Across each phase of school, teachers use a thematic approach to planning, putting together long-term curriculum overviews and half-termly/termly topic webs that advocate creativity, cross-curricular learning and active engagement (refer to the example curriculum overview and topic web below). These are shared with families via the school website to support them in joining their children on their learning journey:

Each topic web is centred on a theme or topic that teachers believe will attract their pupils’ imaginations and interests, creating a ‘way in’ for various areas of the curriculum. Topic webs incorporate a ‘Stunning Start’ and ‘Fabulous Finish’. A ‘Stunning Start’ is a launch event, often rooted in suspended belief, that engages children in their learning; a focal point for the sequence of teaching that leads to multiple learning opportunities and avenues for investigation. This might include a space ship crash landing, a letter from the local MP, a special visitor or an archaeological find. A ‘Fabulous Finish’ is a ‘finale’ to a sequence of learning that creates purpose and closure to the children’s learning, such as a performance assembly where visitors are invited, writing to the Prime Minister or running a campaign to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund in order to protect wild animals.

Creativity and fun in planning for learning is a priority to ensure learning is enjoyable, active and challenging. The Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural aspects of learning are taken into account ensuring teaching reflects and celebrates our cultural diversity as a school.

Enthusing the Unenthused Mathematician

This is a guest blog curtesy of Matthew West (@westulon): a father, husband, cyclist, tinkerer, Assistant Head, maths lead and SLE.

The more I have learnt about teaching maths effectively, the more I have come to realise that it is really quite tricky. Quite frankly, any human who can systematically develop an ever-increasingly complex understanding of abstract mathematical concepts, such as we do, in the minds of sometimes unwilling (and often unwitting) smaller humans deserves a sticker – if not decent pay and the respect of the press and politicians.

So, when Chris asked me to write a blog post on teaching reluctant mathematicians, I thought to myself, “Errrrrr.” But, because I work in an area with exceptionally high levels of social and economic deprivation and face all the trials this entails for the teaching of maths, year on year, and do so with a moderate level of success, I thought I should give it a go. 

And what is my secret to this moderate level of success?

  1. Enable them to be successful.

That’s it. If pupils can become good at something, they will find they become confident in their abilities and grow to enjoy it. Enjoyment and motivation follow hard work and success and not the other way round. This leads us to a second question: how do we overcome the self-fulfilling prophecy of low confidence in maths? This is slightly more complicated.

Now, before I go on, my advice here assumes the following: the pupil you are trying to support has no barriers to learning in maths apart from not really liking maths. That’s not to say that pupils with other ongoing issues can’t find maths an enjoyable and welcome distraction, but the following alone is unlikely to help.

As Daniel Willingham writes in his book Why Don’t Students Like School, for a pupil to enjoy learning, the pitch of the work which there are completing needs to be precisely calibrated. If the work is too hard, they are unable to be successful, but if it is easy, they gain no satisfaction from being successful. 

For those pupils that are the most able, but just don’t seem motivated, perhaps you need to find a way to add a great deal more challenge to their mathematical diet, but for those who are not attaining well and don’t appear to care (they probably do care, but it’s easier to pretend not to) we need to consider how we can ensure that they are able to feel successful.

Personally, I find this much harder than stretching the most able. It is a complex process. First, we need a detailed understanding of what the pupil can and can’t do and this might entail hunting for and identifying gaps in understanding that should have been developed several years ago. This is usually best done by working closely with the pupil and whilst doing your best impression of a mathematical Dr. Greggory House doing a differential diagnosis. It doesn’t need to be through any formal assessment and, in fact I would actively discourage using formal assessment to identify gaps. Summative assessments are not designed to be diagnostic – it is not enough to know that a pupil failed to answer a question correctly because we need to know why.

Once you know what the pupil’s gaps (or chasms) in their understanding are, you need to address them thoroughly. This means teaching for conceptual understanding and providing ample opportunity to practise and reason.

Often, to catch up pupils, teachers try to go as quickly as possible, but this is counterproductive. A phrase I have recently heard that encapsulates how you should approach learning is: ‘Go slowly to go quicky.’ In other words, it’s better to teach something slowly and thoroughly rather than have to teach it again. Moreover, a pupil who has fallen behind is unlikely to be helped by quick and shallow coverage – to be fair, very few pupils thrive when the teacher focuses upon content coverage over and above developing a secure understanding.

Now, for some pupils, it might be that they had only a few gaps in the fundamentals and they are able to work on the same content as the rest of the class and if they are able to find success, this is the best-case scenario; however, those pupils with numerous gaps may need to work at a lower level if they can’t access the learning with scaffolding. You might say that you follow a mastery curriculum but please remember that this is just a tool to support the pupils and is not an altar upon which we should sacrifice those who are unable to benefit. If pupils need a different curriculum for them to be working at a level where they are both stretched and able to be successful, then that is what they should get.

Now that the curriculum is meeting the needs of the pupils, I think it is important to discuss praise. I’m of the opinion that praise should be genuine and only be given for going over and above the standard expectations of the class. I think praise should be hard earnt and really mean something. If given too frequently it becomes devalued and if it given for anything less than excellence, you set the standard that you’re willing to accept. That’s not to say that pupils should only be praised for the outcome of their work; effort and perseverance are equally important (nor does it mean that you shouldn’t be warm and friendly).

Finally, I find that pupils appreciate it when you have high expectations of them and hold them to account when they underperform. If a pupil presents you with work that isn’t of a high standard, they’ll usually give an honest answer if you ask them if they tried their hardest. ‘I know you can do better,’ are powerful words and simultaneously tell the pupils that you believe in them, but that they have failed to meet your expectations.

Despite all of this, you might find that a pupil still fails to become motivated; however, at this point, not giving up on them becomes all the more important. They might not like maths, but you still have to hold them to a high standard because whether they like it or not, they need to be proficient mathematicians and to allow them to fail to meet the standard of which they are capable is something which they can ill afford if they are to have the best life chances.

Lost in Translation

Oh, wait, don’t you know how to read morse code? Fine, that’s pretty inconvenient for me, but I’ll translate:

Let’s kick this off by saying I am strongly against the current forms of formal testing used at present in English primary schools. I feel they are a stick with which to beat down the profession, not a support for the children they should serve. That being said, they are (at present) a necessary evil that we need to see our children through as best we can.

How did you feel about reading my opening in morse code? Those that understood it were at an instant advantage before they even started reading, those that didn’t were at an instant disadvantage when compared. The frustration and worry that come with an inability to access something plagues us all – I’m like that with technology (live lessons are way out of my comfort zone). You’d probably be even more irritated if you actually wasted the time translating what I wrote.

How many times have you been left with your head in your hands after marking test papers, where you see answers you know your class should have got? Especially when there’s some sneaky or unusual phrasing in the question designed to trip them up. That’s why I always believe that carefully moderated teacher assessment trumps formal testing in primary schools – but that’s a conversation for another blog. Translating exam questions is hard and children often make mistakes simply in understanding what the questions are asking them to do. Children are so often limited by their understanding of the question, not their ability to answer it.

Now let’s consider those children with English as an additional language: they have to double translate from test language to English, then again to their home language. This takes a huge mental capacity and, unsurprisingly, a lot of time and energy.

We need children to have a certain level of ‘test fluency’ – in all honesty, this (and building confidence in the process) is the only decent argument I have for asking to do mock tests throughout Year 6. Arguably, the quickest way to learn a language is through immersion: if you want to learn French, then moving to France and jumping in at the deep end will force you to learn the ins and out of the language quickly in order to survive.

With this in mind, I’d like to explore the idea of whole-school use of assessment question stems to support this becoming children’s natural vocabulary. I hope, given what has happened to the last two years of SATs, that this conversation is unnecessary, however it’s something I’m looking into to help our children. If we take the question stems from past assessments and collate them, then use these as question stems from the moment children enter school in nursery to make it a natural and understood part of their dialect, surely this will give them more of a fighting chance come crunch time. Would it not?

It’s only a short blog today – more of a thought that has rattled around my head recently, and it will be part of the reading training I’m currently putting together.

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