WANTED: Learning Imagineer @ InquirED Exemplar Academy

futuristicLocation: InquirED Exemplar Academy (Voluntary Controlled), Arcadia

Role: Learning Imagineer

Salary: Entirely negotiable*

Dear applicant,
Please excuse this rant,
But good staff are scant;
We need you to enchant…

Our students.
I think it would be prudent,
To give you some clues,
So here’s the news:

Can you learning talk like you learning walk?
D’you make eyebrows rise when you scrutinise?
Can you cook the books, create killer hooks?
Do your pupils and your staff think in clear blue skies?

Are you behind on your payments for your car?
Are all your library books overdue?
Are your bank statements full of red scars?
Perhaps they’re just OUTSTANDING…
Exactly like you.

Interviews take place soon*.


Please contact our Chief Of Opportunity on: opportunity@knocks.arcadia or Snapchat us a selfie to ArcadiaSC to unlock a virtual tour led by our Y2 Pupil premium kids.

Peace out.


*One of our golden non-negotiables is the negotiation of everything up for discussion from a TRV (tabla rasa viewpoint).


Getting better at telling stories

story-tellingIn my NQT year, I was in awe of our deputy head. He would regularly stroll into assemblies packed with hundreds of primary kids armed with… nothing. No books, freshly-made resource in large lettering or even a selection of topical objects. And the kids loved it, because he told great stories. He didn’t read ’em, he just told ’em. I goggled at his inventiveness, confidence and clarity as he’d have them eating from the palm of his hand at every twist and turn, without resorting to terrible cliches and mixed metaphors. It was magical. He’d say that his confidence was down to telling stories to his kids at home every night. I sat at the back of his assemblies and said to myself ‘I’m going to be able to do that, one day…’

I’ve written about difficulties I have with reading books aloud here, but this post’s about something altogether more prehistoric: telling stories.

I have two sons aged 2 and 4. Governors’ meetings and parents’ evenings aside, I tend to be home for 7 O’Clock bedtime every night; my wife and I take turns between ourselves putting them down to sleep each night.

My youngest son’s bedtime is currently a few lovingly-shared picture books then perhaps a retelling of Goldilocks (or ‘Babylocks’), Three Little Pigs or Cinderella before a couple of songs. Then he (usually) chats himself off to sleep. Lovely.

For my eldest, it’s normally a ‘read story’ followed by a ‘tell story’. A few years ago, our first ventures into storytelling were, necessarily, fairy tales. Then we progressed to stories based in Postman Pat’s Greendale. And it continued with Thomas the Tank Engine’s lesser-known adventures, often involving overheating boilers, mysteriously uncovered train tracks leading to lost worlds and, when the ideas dried up, character cameos from globe-trotting locomotives.

But now it’s different – we’re on the *totally original* Jack stories. They originate from a sunny day and an eventful walk through a local park in May 2017. Our dear sons were squabbling over collecting a few pine cones. So, as the eventful walk had reached its natural conclusion, it was decided that we should use this collection of natural objects to make a secret potion in the garden ‘when we got home…’ (parent code for: ‘we need an incentive to get home before they implode… now’).

Alas, tea-time and bath-time ensued and the secret potion went unmade. But, true to form, my eldest remembered the secret potion at precisely 6.55pm that evening.

“…Daddy, you said I could go out and make it in the garden… we collected all the bits together and put them in my backpack… you promised… it’s all rainy now…” etc.

*Think fast…*

“Don’t you want to hear what happened to ‘Thomas and Stanislav, the Trans-Siberian Express’?

“No, I want to go outside and make a secret potion now, Daddy…”

“What if we put our magic potion… into our a story?”

[A fraction of a second passed]

“Thomas hasn’t got arms. He can’t make potions. Or take them.”

“Well, how about a story about a little boy who makes magic potions? And… then uses them to turn into…”


Erm… yeah. Dinosaurs. How about other animals, too?”

“Yeah. What animal shall we start with, Daddy?”

“What about a tiger…?”

“Or a pachycephalosaurus?”

Jack stories are now approaching 10 months old. Their structure is invariably something like this:

  1. Jack, accompanied by any combination of his younger brother, Michael and his school friends, Peter and Prasarnmit, are intrigued by an animal (often, but not always, a dinosaur) in some way.
  2. The characters discuss what it would be like to run/climb/eat/smell like that animal.
  3. They collect ingredients for a magic potion (e.g. pine cones, gravel, coriander, bacon) which they stir up in an old watering can.
  4. A cunningly-crafted rhyming spell turns Jack et al into animals, e.g. “Milk is white and so is snow // Turn all of us into water buffalo!”
  5. The animals eat.
  6. The animals drink.
  7. The animals face danger.
  8. The animals escape from said danger in an exciting way.
  9. Jack and his friends return to the garden to transform back into boys just in time for dinner. Again, a tenuous rhyming couplet is involved (“Underground trains travel down a track // Transform us into Michael and Jack!”)
  10. A parental figure makes a comment that unwittingly links to their adventures (e.g. if they had transformed into monkeys: “Well boys, you’re looking a bit cheeky today…”). Hilarious. The boys share a private joke about it.THE END.

The stories have evolved somewhat, but remain essentially the same. He loves them, still. I am sure I never explicitly discussed their formulaic nature with him, but only a few weeks into the Jack-era, I messed up. He was looking so little sleepy during one story that I tried to hasten its conclusion… and missed out number 6.

“Did Jack and Peter the walruses get a drink from the pond on the way back to the garden?”

“Erm… sorry?”

“He forgot to have a drink. All animals need to drink, Daddy. Otherwise they’ll die.”

*What do walruses drink, anyway?? They’re aquatic mammals… but do they go mad like sailors if they drink saltwater??*

“Daddy – stop thinking and say something! Have they had a drink yet?”

“…So, Jack and Peter the walruses had a quick drink from a nearby pond on their way back to the garden.”

That was all that was needed. But a few nights later, his 4 year-old analytic techniques were in action again:

“Where’s the danger bit of the story?”


“The danger bit of the story – Jack and Michael just hid from those big dogs and they didn’t get into much danger. I want some more danger.”

“A chase somewhere? Maybe into the deep dark woods?”


More recently, I had been feeling that Jack stories were approaching their natural coda. Once or twice we did two ‘read’ stories instead of the ‘tell’ story, and I’d even managed to slip in a few tales about Trevor (a charismatic female cat my family once owned).

But the clumsy familiarity of our Jack stories, and the excitement they induce on my eldest’s face, made me persevere.

“OK, son. Jack’s going to have an adventure by himself tonight.”

“No Michael? Or Prasarnmit? Or Peter?”

“No – just Jack. And he’s going to travel to another world.”

“Through a bortal, Daddy?”

“Yes son – a portal to the Masai Mara…”

He’s loving ‘Jack 2.0′; time was right to move the series on.

So, am I making any profound points in this post?

All educators know the power of storytelling: morals, anecdotes, jokes, role plays, dramatic scenarios, social stories and serious political rhetoric all have their place in the classroom. This is not written to go over well-trodden ground about the virtues of reading to kids and the merits of practice, or a rant against modern factors which could be affecting children’s ability to concentrate on oral stories.

My reflections are simply: 

  1. Kids love a framework for a story.
  2. And once the framework is established, they love to play with it.
  3. Storytelling is a real gift. It needs passing on!

And looking back on the NQT watching the deputy head in assembly, I’m pleased to say that I *can* now tell stories. I like to think that I’m passing on a passion for it that both my sons and my pupils will remember fondly one day.

Peer feedback: Good/not good

Good_not good

Barnsley. The late mid-1990s. Year 11 music prefect. I had made it.

It was a (most probably) a wet dinnertime and my mate Mark and I had been asked to tidy up a dusty corner of N27: the largest (and hippest) music classroom at our large comprehensive school.

We set to work shifting discarded photocopies of clarinet II parts; tiny foam pads peeled off ancient Casio keyboards and broken music stands like naked umbrellas. And then we uncovered a goldmine: a cardboard box of long-forgotten exercise books.

‘This one’s from 1986!’
‘That one’s Jonesy’s older brother’s book!’
‘And that’s my sister’s old boyfriend’s book. Can’t read his handwriting, though.’
‘They seem to have done the same stuff we did in Year 7 music.’
‘And the same in Year 8!’

Excited by familiarity with the curriculum, we flicked through to find one of our favourite units of work from a few years hence: a half-term’s task to compose a musical accompaniment to a poetry reading (‘Prayer Before Birth’ by Louis MacNeice). Despite being very cultured Year 8s, I am not sure to what extent we grasped that the poem is interpreted as ‘an agonized plea from the mouth of an unborn infant in its mother’s womb’ (by Wikipedia, anyway). But the task did genuinely touch us with the poem’s rhythmic, grown-up language and the encouragement to experiment with unusual timbres. Our own Y8 performance involved much cymbal crashing, black piano key hammering and vocal sound effects to create tension and dissonance.

As smug Y11 GCSE music students who knew their crescendos from their diminuendos, we flicked through for the 24-carat nuggets in the goldmine: written evaluations of those group performances. It wasn’t long until we uncovered a cracker. It went something like this:

Group 1
The piano was not good.
The ending was good.
The singing was good.
The percussion part was not good.

Group 2
The instruments were good.
The beginning was good.
The singing was good.
The end was good not good.

Now I’m clearly paraphrasing, but I remember the gist of it. The pupil had only one adjective at his disposal to attempt his written appraisal. Facets of performance in his world were simply either good or not good.

And here, finally, is where I make my point about peer feedback: you have to teach peer feedback and any evaluative writing explicitly with agreed terminology. That way, you’ll avoid the trap Jonesy’s older brother fell into.

In my Y6 class now I often tell them this story as a way of getting them to remember the meaninglessness of empty praise. For our peer feedback we use FiSH (Friendly, Specific and Helpful) feedback, adapted from Ron Berger’s principles of critique: David Didau’s take on Ron Berger.

FiSH feedbackAnd it’s successful for scaffolding their language and has improved the clarity of feedback in general.

You could say it’s not good.


Four Yorkshire Primary Teachers

four yorkshiremen



A primary school staffroom in Bradhuddersfax, a small rural megalopolis in the United Emirates of Yorkshire.

Aye, very passable, that – very passable locust-ham butty.

Aye indeed. And there’s nothing like a good swig of reconstituted herbal tea before we get t’ kids in from dinnertime, eh, Josiah?

You’re right there, Obadiah.

Who’d have thought, thirty year ago, we’d all still be sittin’ here in a staffroom at all, eh?

In them days we thought we’d all be killed off by now wi’ robots tekking over t’ classroom; that we’d be parroting endless scripted lessons, struggling with questionable school leadership structures, failing under an accountability system built on faulty logic about relentless improvement, battling terminal teacher retention issues and assassinating all them ministers who mentioned bloody 21st century skills.

Aye, but did it chuff kill us off. Just brought us back in time. Back to blackboards. Back to compulsory rows. Back to corporal punishment. N’ back to object lessons, eventually. T’ dawn o’ Educational Fundamentalism itself.

That’s right, Obadiah. EF till I die, that’s me.

Or, at least until you get your pension, Fred.

Yep – all thirty five Eurasian dollars on it. Then I’ll denounce EF and hark back to t’ glory days of huge pensions, long holidays and free King James Bibles.

Well you know my old dad used to say: “Money doesn’t bring you happiness.”

He weren’t wrong. That’s exactly why I went into teaching: I craved misery.

Aye, right ‘e was. I were much more miserable back then. I’d moved down South n’ started off teaching in this shiny primary academy in Tower Hamlets during t’ boom time. Money were no object… if t’ kids were on free school meals. But then we were hit by that hyper-gentrification wave – bloody middle class parents wanting t’best schools – they all muscled in and t’ pupil premium just disappeared. We were all forecasting deficit budgets again afore tha’ knew it. T’ cycle were complete within ten years and t’ next thing I knew I were teaching mastery maths to 65 year 4s in one room.

Just 65? Hyper-gentrification? You were lucky. I were enjoying being CEO of 15 identical schools on half a million a year when I were unexpectedly headhunted by a Free School in Wembley. They wanted a tough Northern figurehead to set up a neo-trad feeder primary: day 1 we had 150 five year-olds kids in one room all reciting t’Iliad, followed by double sessions of adding fractions with different denominators. In Ancient Greek. No excuses, they said…

Eh, you were lucky to have a room! All o’ Key Stage 2 used to have to recite our poetry and study advanced algebraic logic in’t corridor!

Oh, we used to dream of lessons in a corridor… when I returned from paternity I got a demotion to Intervention Teacher. I had a targeted booster group of 19 nursery children identified as being pre-early-years-foundation-stage-below-expected-standard in arithmetic by t’ Neonatal Numeracy Skills Check. A corridor would’ve been a palace to us! I used to teach my group in t’ caretaker’s cupboard using a mop as a counting stick. Corridor? Huh!

Well, when I say ‘classroom’, it was just a hole in the ground covered by a sheet o’ tarpaulin, but it was a classroom to us.

We lost our classroom after our Ofsted put us into CRAP…

‘Candidate for Rapid Academisation Process’?

Aye, when we went into CRAP, all t’ senior staff and governors skedaddled except me and a decrepit dinnertime supervisor called Ray. Teaching were a farce and t’ governing body weren’t quorate to appoint new teachers – we had to co-opt some Greater Depth pupils in Year 6 onto t’ Finance Committee to get us budget signed off. For t’poetry we set up one of them lucky cat things you get in Chinese restaurants: it kept ’em in rhythm on t’ trickier passages of iambic pentameter. And Ray just took t’other 200 kids for cursive handwriting all day.

Handwriting? You were lucky… when we’d finished reciting poetry and solving algebra in t’ corridor, we’d go and do four hours of Think-Say-Inc. You remember it – our hallowed academy trust piloted it after Nick Gibb wanted to ban writing by hand ‘cause it “damaged kids’ ability to be economically viable” or summat. Invested millions in voice recognition tech and in a few short years every kid’d lost t’ability to do ‘owt. Couldn’t even brush their teeth. Forty-three of ’em had false ones by t’ time they were 9.

Well, you know, we had it tough. After my intervention teacher job, I finally got back on t’ career ladder then got seconded to an I-CAT U-CAT…

Erm… Inner-City All-Through Ultra-Comprehensive Academy Trust?

Aye, and I were made staff well-being champion, social mobility officer, family liaison service facilitator, community cohesion … bloke and t’ dishwasher rota chief. Every week I’d have to answer to a representative panel of 3 – 19 year olds who’d rate how fun I wor’. If I averaged below a three, mi pay were docked.

Luxury… I used to get up in the morning, half an hour before I went to bed, then triple mark Big Writes from a class of 60 well-below-expected-level pupils, before teaching t’ compulsory staff well-being Pilates at 7 in t’ morning. Then I’d teach DT, art, music, French, history, geography, RE and computing in a round robin activity lasting 8 minutes each before dedicating t’ rest of t’ day to fronted adverbials and bar modelling, all completed whilst reflecting on our resilience, reflection and restauranteur skills. Sports funding went into buying iPads and PE were covered ‘cos t’ staff and kids had to jog on t’ spot all day. And every lesson I had four NQTs, eight SCITT students and a senior staff member on capability procedures observing me and feeding back. And three days out of five I had playtime duty.

I tell you what, you tell these NQTs o’ today that, and they won’t believe you!

Indeed they won’t.

Right…. whose assembly is it this afternoon?

Our Elephant Masterpiece

sad elephantOur Elephant Masterpiece. It took us nearly two weeks.

Well, two weeks of afternoons in Mrs Penrose’s Year 3 class. We always did literacy and numeracy in the mornings – that’s English and maths in more mature language – but the afternoons we were a bit freer. And we probably did some PE so it wasn’t every afternoon. But it felt like we worked on it for ages.

We were doing ‘India’. Most of the topic was a bit boring. You know the sort of thing that you do at primary school: find India on a map; draw some Rangoli patterns on the playground; design a new flag; read a poem about ‘If I did this and if I did that’.

And then we got onto Indian wildlife. Brilliant! Me and Ella were both well into animals. Back then, we’d often do trips together in the summer holidays. Ella’s mum had taken us both to the big wildlife park just a few weeks before I think. Our mums still sort of know each other now, but we don’t do trips any more.

Anyway, the wildlife park that summer had had some new arrivals: a family of elephants. Elephant mothers like staying with their kids when they move zoos, so they arrived together. A mum and a little one. Just like my family really. Ella and I laughed loads when the big elephant crapped all over a park-keeper’s leg. I suppose it’s part of the job so he wasn’t too upset. But it was dead funny.

I think in a funny way that Our Elephant Masterpiece was a bit of a tribute to that trip. All those afternoons of papier-mâché, moulding, painting, and then… bang – it was there in front of us. Perfect. Ella and I had made a brand new real thing. It was supposed to stand on four legs but we cheated a bit and added a sort of colourful circus-like box for it to kneel on that made it steadier.

And boy – did everyone like it. It sat for the rest of the year on the ‘Art Attack!’ table in the school entrance hall. You’d pass its big elephant grin as you went into assembly and you couldn’t help smile back or give the thumbs up. Loads of teachers and visitors would say, “Did you two make that by yourselves?”, “How long did it take you?” and “Oh – you did it with Ella? That must’ve been before….”

They’d just trail off. And I’d go quiet too.

When the time came for it to be taken out of the school entrance hall at the end of Year 3, Mrs Penrose suggested that Ella and I have part-share in it. I was 8 so wanted it all for myself. And I didn’t want to have to go and visit Ella in the state that she was in. I can see now that Mrs Penrose just wanted to encourage Ella to have visitors. But, at 8, it all just scared me.


I saw something the other day on telly about India. A travel programme. The presenter went on about seeing elephants in the wild and them dying out. And I felt suddenly panicked. My throat tightened and I remembered it. Our Elephant Masterpiece. I ran up to the loft, scrabbled in a few boxes then found it. One of the legs was missing and its grin was a bit lopsided, but it still looked special. Perfect.

Mum says that Ella still lives only a few streets away, just past my high school.

She hasn’t got that long, apparently.

So that’s where I’m going now. Our Elephant Masterpiece is tucked under my coat, shielded from the persistent drizzle.

I step into the greying evening light on heavy legs.

Walk This Way (Thatcher + Scargill feat. Police/Miners)

Miners' wives on the picket line in Yorkshire, 1984

July 2011. A heady summer and a real stonker of a musical for Y5/6. We were a tight unit of Key Stage 2 teachers, a conglomeration of misfits who knew a good tune, a well-timed dance move and had a killer story to knit it all together. Chuck in 100-ish kids and we had an amazing set up for the creation of a masterpiece: ‘Generations: History in the making’, a musical journey through 20th century history with the headline events relevant to primary kids.

The premise of one scene was a distillation of the ’84-’85 Miners’ Strike. We used Run DMC/Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ – one of the biggest hits of 1985 – as the basis for a rap battle between Margaret Thatcher (backed by the police) and Arthur Scargill (backed by miners).

Here it is:


Arthur Scargill
Mines are a’ closin’ and the pits are a’ shutting,
The country’s in a real state,
With Maggie in her tower, holding all the power,
Won’t be long till we meet our fate,
There’s a scab on the corner, he’s got a wife and a daughter
They were living off a pound a day,
He was finding it tough and he’d enough
So he broke through the picket for a wage – hey hey!

4 bars bass riff – Chorus beatbox on hi-hat (t t t t t t t t)

Maggie Thatcher
Coal’s expensive and our future’s green
The industry’s a little slack,
If profits aren’t made and it doesn’t make the grade
Those miners are going to get the sack – whack!
We need fuel that’s cheap, we’ve got to dig deep,
Down down under the sea,
So pits on land just ain’t gonna stand,
Just get up and follow me…

Police: She’ll tell you to… Walk this way
Miners: No, walk that way
(repeat x 2)

4 bars guitar picking then
4 bars bass riff – Chorus beatbox on hi-hat (t t t t t t t t)

In ’74 at Ted Heath’s door
We made our intentions clear
And we’ll do the same to your government
United men have nothing to fear – no fear!
But there’s one little thing you’re forgetting, Art,
And that’s your democratic system,
Not all these miners voted to strike,
You just assumed they did in your wisdom – huh!

4 bars bass riff – Chorus beatbox on hi-hat (t t t t t t t t)

The country needs fuel to keep the kids in school
So accept that you need us to work
Well that’s where you’re wrong so keep singing your song
There’s coal still left to burn – huh!
It’s not just about the mines, it’s about what’s ours
Our towns will be no more
But the country’s on its knees, listen to me please
You just don’t know the whole score – no more!

Dance break solos

Repeat chorus x 4

Primary School Smells – not a sonnet*

Link to poem read aloud (Vimeo)

When I think back to Primary School I sniff,
The PVA dripping from blue glue sticks,
Thin carpets caked in playdough far too thick,
Wax crayons, trying to resist; a riff
On temptation. Sweet smelling as lemons,
(Some Banda addict got delirium tremens).
Bashing chalk dust rubbers that stifled and choked,
Do the sniff test to see whose is whose coat.
Did Tipp-Ex really have magical powers?
Can TCP cure every illness?
Did urinal biscuits last for six hours?
Fragrant stock cupboards: stationery stillness.
Let not our memories spoil or turn sour,
Like free milk spilled on a checked summer dress.
* Line 6 is in iambic hexameter, I think. The rest is in pentameter, but don’t feel that it’s particularly iambic.

** Thanks to @Beta_Teacher who pointed out that it lacked a volta. So it’s not actually a sonnet. Just a (fairly terrible) poem. Oh.




KS2 writing assessment framework for 2017-18

2017-18 writing KS2 assessmentFollowing the release of new assessment info from the STA on September 14th (Teacher assessment frameworks at the end of key stage 2)

… I have put together this (very simple) Excel resource. Hoping it will save someone a bit of time.

Quick caveats:

  • It may be that moderators end up giving conflicting advice on how best to collate evidence in the post-‘secure fit’ (‘discretionary fit’). In which case ignore this completely… but I’m sure you’d all agree that a table with tick-boxes is one sure-fire way to get going on something. Only around 280 days to go (if TA is collected at a similar time as in 2017)…
  • Yes – it’s not perfect. Customise away!

    The Excel file is here:

  • Writing assessment 2017-18 Teacher Assessment


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 (and beyond…).

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 so profoundly 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.