Reading with emotion

Please don’t judge me, but I balk at reading lengthy books, particularly emotional ones, aloud to my class.

I’m currently contemplating all the fantastic material around to enrich the educational experience of my terrific Year 6 class in September, yet feel a strange knot in my stomach about the emotion and anxiety about engaging emotionally with a bunch of characters… in front of a class of 10-11 year-olds.

Thirteen years since qualifying, I have come to realise that, while I have started many entertaining books to read with classes, I have rarely finished them in earnest.

Yes – I know the value in modelling good expression. And yes, I love doing all the voices – especially the women. I also do read lots of children’s books for pleasure.

But it’s still a barrier – an unspoken mystery wrapped in an enigma of a butterfly in my stomach.

When talking to my dad about reading aloud the other day, I was struck by a memory that may just explain why this is… and my dad, mum (and Roald Dahl) are to blame.

It was July 2006. I’d was finishing my NQT year teaching Y3/4 at a large school in Harrogate. My parents, both teachers (Mum – primary, Dad – English), had come over from Barnsley to see the big end-of-year show. Although I taught in Y3/4, I was heavily involved in the Y5/6 show as musical director (pianist and enthusiastic busker/arranger of music). We’d done ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Loads of fun. I even shoe-horned in a few musical cliches as a nod to my early 20s musical sensibility, including a very try-hard and poignant minor key version of ‘Over the Rainbow’. And a techno version of ‘The Lollipop Guild’. (Yep – you had to be there).

Mum and Dad watched and enjoyed the dress rehearsal (“Your piano playing was really measured and subtle – well done, son!”), then, like good teachers, they helped tidy up while I took my Y3/4 class for the last 15 minutes of the day. They were tired, unsettled and hot and it was July; the best thing to do was read our class book.

And here’s where Roald Dahl, and my crippling emotional anxieties about emotional books, possibly started.

It just so happened to be the day when I read the final few pages of Danny the Champion of the World to my class. They had loved it. It wasn’t a topic-related text that we’d galloped through, or even a particular favourite of mine from childhood, just a good read that had grown in importance as we progressed through it.

It was around 3.10 pm. I had my back to the classroom door, and had just reached the last page. I don’t have the book to hand, but am positive it ends in an eloquently expressed passage about how Danny’s father is the best father in the world.

Just as I read those last few pages, I realised that my parents had quietly walked in the room behind me. They stood in my classroom, vaguely ridiculous, holding a stacked sets of chairs and a large piece of Yellow Brick Road. As I turned and noticed them, my breath caught in my throat and Dad’s face crumpled. I stopped reading, mid-sentence. Mum finished off the last few sentences of the book. My class barely noticed.

And I like to think that his face crumpled thinking about the how his youngest son was following in his footsteps as an educator, a reader and an inspiration to the younger generation. But I actually think he just heard words from me (through the book) that he dared hope were true.

The class were dismissed in a sweaty, carefree, July haze. My mum hugged me hard, while Dad composed himself. We’ve never talked about it since.

I have two boys of my own now. I’m always going to read aloud to them – whatever the emotional subject. But, more importantly, I’m going to speak to my mum and dad about ‘Danny the Champion of the World’.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

Mem Fox

‘Donna’s Exciting Transport Adventure’: Story Writing and Life Chances

My 3 year-old son has just told us his first story. Yes – he used a story map (disclaimer: my non-teaching wife claims she has never heard of Pie Corbett), and yes – it made me think. Hard. A proud parental moment soon left me pondering how other preschoolers play with language and stories. And, more importantly, how we can ensure that all pupils can do so in those first few years at school.

The process went as so: my eldest had been in the kitchen playing with some transport stamps and pens. He then announced that he wanted to write a story. It starred (or, at least, started with) a girl called Donna. My wife explained that he muttered excitedly as he drew lines between Donna and the different stamped images, then, when he had reached ‘The End’ (capitals added by me), he retold it to us in full. We prompted him with ‘what happened next?’ etc., but the story was ‘his’ to tell. And it was so so exciting to behold. Here are some of his key sentences:

“The boat hit a big rock and it sunk into the sea.”
“She went too fast on the motorbike so she had to stop.”
“The firemen squirted out the fire.”
“The train took the fire away because a steam train needs a fire to make it go.”
“It puffed and it puffed but smoke went into the pistons.”
“It choo-chooed along the track and went into the tunnel.”
“It was a London train with rats on the tracks.”

While it won’t win any awards, I think he’s done a pretty good job at such a tender age.

The thing that struck me about his story was that its every nuance and detail could be traced to one of his experiences, both direct (i.e. visits, discussions, games etc) or indirect (books, TV, films etc): rats on the ‘London train’ is from our recent rides on the tube (“Look – over there! You just missed one…”); the ‘puffed and it puffed’ are a variation on the Big Bad Wolf’s catchphrase and the ‘boat hitting a big rock’ were paraphrased from a story I’d made up for him a few nights before, itself based on Thomas the Tank Engine.

Chances are, most educators would agree that this holds true for most children’s imaginary play and stories in their formative years. It also made me revisit a well-trodden thought: when does his mishmash of ideas and experiences truly constitute an original piece of writing? Or is he just riffing on a set idea in a similar way to the reliably effective planning sequence (read ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’…. write ‘We’re Going on a Tiger Hunt’) of many Early Years and KS1 book studies?

And, more soberingly, if, like my lovely son, novices talk about (and therefore, write) only what they know and experience, how do we rate the chances of pupils without access to trips to London, regular reading sessions, or even just the books themselves?

“Children’s literacy levels are strongly influenced by the number of books they are exposed to in the home, irrespective of household income or parental education.”
Lost for Words: poor literacy, the hidden issue in child poverty, National Literacy Trust, 2013

Another link here is the ubiquitous attack on SPaG in primary. While I don’t particularly agree with all of this recent article from the Guardian*,

Ditch the grammar and teach children storytelling instead

… I can see that those pupils without early access to reading materials and learning experiences need to be immersed and captivated by books, rather than being able to identify a plural noun suffix (Year 1) or a subordinating conjunction (Year 2). I acknowledge that the two are not mutually exclusive, but wouldn’t a triage approach to an English curriculum (core knowledge, love of stories, love of reading, love of vocabulary firm and established before higher-order ‘naming of parts’ grammar etc) make much more sense than the blunt instrument of primary SPaG assessment?

Similarly, I’d like to think that my current Year 6 class are confident enough in their writing composition skills to subtly combine both their knowledge of grammar and punctuation with the deeper skill of crafting a good page-turner. But I’d probably be deluding myself. They stop and check so often for semi-colons, passive voice and adverbials that their writing becomes stilted, soulless and a chore for the writer.

In other words, the absolute opposite of ‘Donna’s Exciting Transport Adventure’.


 

That blog was more rambly than I wanted it to be.
All constructive feedback will be welcomed.

 

 

*  Particularly this rather glib bit: “What everyone on both sides of the debate seems to be missing is that storytelling can be taught and tested.” Please, please explain how you can ‘test’ storytelling… and allow teachers in on the secret. You’d make millions thousands hundreds if you sold the idea to Twinkl  a few quid.

Being a teacher: organisational anxiety

The stage was set: crammed into a small outdoor-ed-type classroom in the middle of a country estate were 30-ish primary teachers. Each one of us had raced here straightafterschool, perhaps avoiding that parents at the gates, or that staff meeting, or that cuppa and chat with their job share partner… or perhaps even their after school Fairtrade/Enterprise/Change for Life club.

Now, freshly coffee-and-custard-cream-fuelled, we perched on uncomfortable chairs in awkward, too-close rows and politely listened to the introductory health and safety chat:

“… no planned fire alarm today… ha ha… so, we’ve run this event so many times and have refined the system for signing-up to events every year…. the main advice is to only sign up for three workshops as things often go awry on the day…. the kids will have a blast getting stuck into the activities. And you teachers might do too…!”

So. That was that. We had been provided with the information about each workshop session and now had to sign up to the events using this constantly-refined sign-up system. Perhaps I would learn something quite profound about event organisation.

Here goes!

The system was as follows:

  • Each of the 30 or so different workshops was printed on a different A4 piece of paper
  • These A4 sign up sheets were arranged neatly on two large trestle tables in two separate rooms of the outdoor-ed-type classroom building
  • Each A4 piece of paper had bookable times throughout the day printed on it
  • You had to write down your school name in a box to book it

“So, now that’s clear everyone… off you go!”

I hung back in my uncomfortable chair for a heartbeat, unsure of the etiquette. Everyone else had been here last year.

Surely it can’t simply be that you casually muscle in and write your school name down? Surely Shirley not…

Coming to, I was incensed with organisational anxiety. Adrenaline coursed liberally through my veins, (overtaking the caffeine and custard cream crumbs); I stealthily scooted round the edge of the room toward the first table. Pedestrian black and blue ink already adorned each sign-up sheet, the scrawling handwriting of jaded educators spreading like bindweed across the trestle tables.

Another wave hit. Organisational anxiety… There must be a better way to do this!

Had I spoken the words aloud? I would never know.

It was time for action.

Between my finger and thumb, as snug as Heaney’s pen, I wielded my trusty green Pilot G2. Within moments, the short name of my school was on every sign-up sheet. Every single one. I felt crazed. My legs carried me to the other room where I clicked and unclicked the literary sword then Zorro-ed the school’s name on every sheet. Every single one.

Yes! The kids in my class *would* experience willow weaving.

Yes! Sod Sarah Moore’s allergies… they could all go to the ferret handling session.

Yes! They would receive a free flint from the bushfire construction workshop.

I stood back and surveyed my handiwork.

And it was then that I noticed the other teachers. And their sensible pens in black and blue. Glances were cast my way.

“Which pillock wrote their name in green on every sheet?”

 

‘WEDWK?’ The interconnectedness of mathematical knowledge.

WEDWK? Or… ‘What Else Do We Know?’

It’s one of those dreaded acronyms, buzz words and well-worn phrases that blight our screens and twitter feeds.

Actually… I made it up*

But WEDWK? (pronounced ‘wedwik’) has come in very useful in my KS2 teaching. It is a quick (and rather lazy) way of prompting deeper thinking and numerical fluency.

Example 1:

Pupils have been given a warm-up test of multiplication facts. They complete the test as quickly and accurately as possible, but are then asked to choose one fact, e.g. 4 x 8 = 32, and set up a WEDWK? bubble to generate related facts. The obvious, inverse-operational ones should necessarily come first, i.e. 8 x 4 = 32, 32 ÷ 4 = 8 and 32 ÷ 8 = 4

So far, so standard, right?

But then they should be encouraged to take the fact a step further and begin to relate it to all the other operations:

4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 32
8 + 8 + 8 + 8 = 32
32 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 = 0
32 – (8 x 4) = 0
8 + (8 x 3) = 32
(7 x 4) + 4 = 32

They may then extend to shifting the digits to incorporate decimal fractions and large numbers:

0.8 x 4 = 3.2
32 ÷ 0.4 = 80
3.2 ÷ 8 = 0.4
80 x 400 = 32,000

…And then they may explore links to whichever areas of maths they need to practise: a pupil who struggles with fractions may explore this meaning by drawing diagrams:

32 ÷ 4 = 32/4

Or a child who struggles with area may draw, annotate and tinker with compound and regular shapes whose area is 32 cm2.

You get the picture.

Example 2:

When marking any child’s maths work, preferably alongside them in class, I simply write ‘WEDWK?’ next to an answer, particularly if it has come as a result of a paired discussion (or is devoid of written workings).

So, when their answer to…

Mr Dexter buys a TV and a bike
The TV costs £130 more than the bike.
Their total cost is £420.
How much does the TV cost? (White Rose problem)

TV = £275

… is recorded, they are allowed to deepen their understanding with WEDWK? statements.

Bike is £145
B = T+130

Two bikes and two TVs would be double £420 = £840

Or, better still, they write further questions to test on a classmate:

If the total cost was reduced by £100 but the difference between costs was still £130, how would the prices of the bike and TV adjust?
A 25% sale starts. Does the word problem above still make sense? Explain why/why not.

WEDWK? It’s a fluency-encourager, a deep-thinking-prompter and a humble insight into the interconnectedness of knowledge. Try it!

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This was my first blog. Any constructive comments or thoughts you have are very welcome.

* No, really – I did. It started out as ‘WEDIK’ (‘What Else Do I Know?’), but 5 minutes into its introduction to a lively class, I changed the personal pronoun. But yes, it’s based on well-trodden teaching principles and in no way revolutionary or particularly clever. It’s just memorable and useful.

 

English Monarchs poem: post-1066

monarchs picEnglish Monarchs

Vimeo – poem read aloud

This ditty’s a reminder of our history’s tendency,
To structure all our facts around who’s in the ascendency…

So after William the conqueror in 66 and 10,
‘Twas Rufus running England – yep, William again,
Henry One and Stephen brought an end to Norman rule,
The Plantagenets kicked off with Becket killer Henry Two,

Then Richard Lionheart-ed, brave crusader came along,
And 1215 saw Magna Carta signed by brother, John,
For two score years and sixteen the third Henry took the stage,
Then Edwards One, Two, Three avoided Black Death like the plague,

Rich Two was ‘Revolt’-ed that the peasants were so poor,
And met his fate in prison at the hands of Henry Four,
Now the ruling house was Lancaster and soon at Agincourt,
Henry V beat the French – for England and St George!

War was quite ‘on trend’ so Henry Six fought ‘gainst the Yorks,
Edwards Four and Five made way for Rich Three and his horse,
At Bosworth Field in ’85 the Tudors were victorious,
Swiftly after Henry Seven came Henry Eight (notorious),

Eddie Six and Mary One went by with quite a whizz,
Before the empire swelled under the Virgin queen dear Liz,
Excepting dreary Cromwells then the Stuarts played name tennis,
First James then Charles, then Charles then James unleashed their reigns of menace,

Then, bored of being tyrant, Will Three ruled with Mary Two,
And Anne made way for German Georges Four Three One and Two,
Sailor King Will Four died quickly leaving Vic as queen,
She ruled for 64 good years, the longest there had been,

Just like Prince Charles, son Edward Seven waited for so long,
He lasted nine years only, four years shy of World War One,
The speeches of the Georges gave the Wars their sad narration,
With brief respite for Edward Eight and crisis abdication,

Just like her darling corgis, Lizzie Two was groomed and primed,
And if she’s like her dear old mum she’ll be here for some time.
So while they’re mad and bad and often huge financial drain,
You can be one too… if you have blue blood in your veins.

© Joe Cooper 2012

Semi-colon song/rap

Vimeo link – audio

Semi colon song/rap

A semi-colon is a silent conjunction
A silent conjunction
A silent conjunction
Yes, a semi-colon is a silent conjunction
A (shh!) conjunction
Yeah…
And a semi colon is a super comma,
A super comma
A super comma
Yes, a semi colon is a super comma,
A super duper comma
Yeah…

There’s a piece of punctuation that is splendid and amazing,
But its abilities need some appraising,
Yes the semi-colon is a made-up of two signs,
It’s a comma and a colon combined.

Take this example which is clear enough to all:
“Alice hit her head; she didn’t see the wall.”
Now because the two clauses are independent,
You don’t need a conjunction like ‘because’ or ‘when’
Type that little button just below the ‘p’
And shake it up a little with a colon (semi),

‘Cos a semi-colon is a silent conjunction
A silent conjunction
A silent conjunction
Yes, a semi-colon is a silent conjunction
A (shh!) conjunction
Yeah…

Let’s keep on rapping and not be dense,
Semi-colons sort your lists, makes them all make sense,
If you’ve got a crazy list with complicated bits of in-fo,
Try a semi-colon – here we go:
Yes, a simple shopping list can be so much more appealing,
Not just ‘Bread, milk and eggs’
Get those nuances of meaning
So it’s “Fresh brown bread made with sunflower seeds;
(Semi-colon after ‘seeds’)
Then full fat milk from a farm near Leeds
(No semi-colon this time, please)
And half-a-dozen, free range eggs.”
Do I really have to say,
Do I have to beg?

Yes a semi-colon is a super comma,
A super comma
A super comma
Yes, a semi-colon is a super comma,
A super comma
Yeah…

And a semi-colon is a silent conjunction
A silent conjunction
A silent conjunction
Yes, a semi-colon is a silent conjunction
A (shh!) conjunction
Yeah…