Tuesday, 30 July 2019

A letter to my class about reading

Dear Deer Class,

Well done for getting through Year Six. You've been an absolute joy to teach this year and I hope you've had as much fun as I have along the way. Just before you all head off to your different secondary schools, I wanted to take some time to thank you for being such a passionate and enthusiastic class of readers.

How do I know? Because the evidence is everywhere. Because you start getting ready for story time and moving the cushions to the floor before I've even noticed. Because you make wonderful recommendations to each other and talk about books all the time. Because you remind me about Poem of the Day whenever I forget it and keep it going when I'm not there. Because you give up your time to read with children further down the school. Because you work through lunchtimes to help keep the school library running. Because you loiter around the desk whenever you see a new brown parcel there, just in case it's a new book (and, let's be honest, it usually is). Because your parents post photos on Twitter of you visiting the library and reading at home. Because you sneak into class early to tell me about the books you've read over the weekend or during the holidays.

If you've got a couple of minutes, let me break it down even further...

Winter, I know you're a reader because you have an opinion on virtually every book that's in the classroom and you make me work really hard when you want a book recommended to you that you haven't already read. You've also pointed me in the direction of some fantastic books over the year, so thank you (and yes, I loved Can You See Me?).

Jack C, I know you're a reader because of the way you always listen so carefully to our class book. I absolutely loved watching your reaction as a certain dog saved the day in The Outlaw Varjak Paw.

Cayla, I know you're a reader because you grabbed the opportunity to perform one of your favourite poems at the National Theatre and then delivered something that will genuinely stay with me forever.

Daniel, I know you're a reader because you've read such a wonderful variety of graphic novels across the year. I understand why you love New Kid so much.

Freddie, I know you're a reader because you devoured the Maze Runner series in a few weeks and then wanted more. Enjoy the Hunger Games books next year.

Lois, I know you're a reader because you put such thought and care into selecting the books you read to the group of Year Two girls who seem to turn up in our classroom most lunchtimes.

Lillie, I know you're a reader because you have such an individual reading identity, which always comes through in the choices you make. I'm glad you enjoyed Swimming Against The Storm by Jess Butterworth as much as I did.

Toby, I know you're a reader because you powered through the first couple of books in the Skulduggery Pleasant series and literally nothing could distract you. They're one of my favourite series too, and I'm thrilled you enjoyed them.

Morgan, I know you're a reader because you'd read the Poem of the Day every day if you could. I think you've read more poetry than anyone this year.

Jack B, I know you're a reader because you love non-fiction books about different types of transport. I now know more about the various trains of the world than I ever did before.

Alfie M, I know you're a reader because you just didn't give up. It took a while, but you found the type of books you love in the end. Keep with it!

Emily, I know you're a reader because you're quite happy to abandon a book you're not enjoying. You don't waste time on the boring books because you know there's so much great stuff out there.

Alfie R, I know you're a reader because you invariably seem to know who's got the missing Amulet and Bone books. Thank you for keeping my books bill down!

Demi, I know you're a reader because you could always provide such an accurate summary of whatever happened in Boy In The Tower to anyone who missed a few chapters when we were reading it together.

Danny, I know you're a reader as you find the time. Life is busy, but you manage to find the time because you know it matters.

Honey, I know you're a reader because you loved reading, discussing and then reading again all the Raina Telgemeier graphic novels. Don't forget, her new one is out in September.

Jazmine, I know you're a reader because you came in every day for about a week insisting that the Narwhal and Jelly series are the funniest books ever and that I just had to read them. I did in the end and you're not far wrong.

Ruby, I know you're a reader because virtually every conversation we have is about books and reading. And sometimes different types of chocolate bar. You've read books by so many different authors this year, including Francesca Armour-Chelu, Tom Palmer, Cath Howe and Nadine Wild-Palmer, and you should be proud.

I could go on for a lot longer Deer Class, but won't as I think I've made my point pretty comprehensively. Also, the summer holidays are upon us and we've all got a lot of reading to be getting on with. Have a wonderful break and enjoy your time at secondary school. Find the library, make friends with the librarian, keep reading books and make the most of every single minute.

Mr Biddle

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Reading Questions

In an effort to help keep reading at the forefront of people's minds as much as possible during the school day, we created a very simple interactive display in the main corridor. We attached some paper cups to the wall and then filled them with questions about reading. The idea is that the children (and staff) read the questions and then think about and discuss them on the way to assembly, break, etc. We've found that it works best when we use them in short bursts of two or three weeks and then remove the display for a month or two in order to keep it fresh. Although I created the original set of questions, the children now make regular suggestions about what we should include. 'What is your favourite book about magic cats?' was one that particularly stood out. The questions we currently use are attached below, so please feel free to borrow and adapt.


Monday, 10 June 2019

Empathy Day 2019

As a result of being involved with the Patron of Reading movement, I was privileged to hear Miranda McKearney OBE talk about her new EmpathyLab project at one of our early conferences. Since then, I've been delighted to see their fantastic work gain real momentum over the past three years. The EmpathyLab approach is based around using books and reading to help children develop empathy skills. My school, Moorlands Primary Academy, was one of the original twelve pioneer schools and the work that we've done on empathy has made a significant difference to our pupils. A full evaluation report, published earlier this year, goes into detail about the impact that the initiative has had.

With the third national Empathy Day taking place on Tuesday 11th June, I felt it would be an appropriate time to share some favourite recent reads that have an empathy focus. Most have been published over the last year or so but there are a couple that are significantly older. To find even more suggestions, please check out the #ReadForEmpathy and #EmpathyDay hashtags on Twitter which will hopefully be trending on the day. The shortlist of books selected for the 2019 Read For Empathy collection is another useful place to look.

Recent empathy favourites

The Butterfly Circus by Francesca Armour-Chelu
A beautifully written story, very engaging, with a strong female lead character. The relationship between the two sisters in the story is absolutely key, as is the emphasis on belief and self-confidence. Enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the circus setting and also how the book touches on animal welfare.

When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland
Charming picturebook which treats sadness as an inevitable occasional visitor into people's lives. Sensitively and comfortingly done. Loved the subdued colour scheme and how the endpapers are an integral part of the book. Perfect introduction to dealing with difficult times for children in KS1.

New Kid by Jerry Craft
Probably one of my top three graphic novels of the year. Starting at a new school on the other side of the city and away from your friends is hard, but when you are one of very few people of colour attending the school, it's even harder. An engrossing read and provides so much to think about and discuss. This has been doing the rounds in my classroom from the minute it came through the door.

Runaway Robot by Frank Cottrell-Boyce
Everything FCB has ever written has been full of opportunities to think about and discuss empathy, and this is no different. The revelation in the final third of the book genuinely threw me and brought a tear to my eye. I had to stop reading for five minutes and regroup. Just wonderful.

Not My Fault by Cath Howe
Ella On The Outside, Cath Howe's debut book, has been one of our favourite class reads of the school year. This story about two siblings who are struggling to cope with each other on a residential trip is also excellent. Sibling rivalry, the never-ending power struggles that are the basis of many school friendships and the challenges faced by becoming more independent are all covered. Also a great way to introduce dual and unreliable narrators.

Click by Kayla Miller
Another sparkling and vibrant graphic novel, about children finding the courage to make their own choices during their time at school. A student faces up to not being chosen to be in any of the groups for her school talent show and has to find ways to deal with it. Many children will empathise immediately. I did.

The Sea Saw by Tom Percival
Highly atmospheric and engaging picturebook, ostensibly about a girl losing her teddy bear. Our Key Stage One classes have used this as the basis for much of their empathy work over the past few weeks. Exquisitely designed collages just add greater depth to the emotional journey. So many parallels with Kate DiCamillo's joyous The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, one of my favourite children's books.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds
On the surface, a story about a boy's experiences when joining his school athletics team, but really about so much more. First in the Track series, with the second book, Patina, coming out in the summer (and I can't wait). Family, guilt, fear and the importance of strong relationships. An absolute delight, packs a hugely powerful punch.

Inside Out And Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Although this book has been out for several years, I've only recently read it. An enormously moving verse novel about a family from Vietnam being forced to flee to the USA when war approaches their home town. Demonstrates how relationships need to evolve as circumstances change. Provides many opportunities to talk about the different reasons why people are forced to migrate around the world.

The Busker by Paul Jennings
Paul Jennings is one of the unrivalled masters of writing short stories for children and The Busker, despite being published over thirty years ago, is perhaps his best. A thought-provoking tale that touches on the nature of friendship, the importance of kindness and the necessity to stand up for your beliefs. Have read it to most of the classes I've taught over the past twenty years and it has brought tears and cries of disbelief every time.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

2019 Read For Empathy selections

After thoroughly enjoying my experience of being on the selection panel for 2018's Read for Empathy guide, I was delighted to be invited again to help select the books that would appear on this year's lists. As one of EmpathyLab's twelve original pilot schools from 2015, we've invested a lot of time and effort into developing our children's empathy skills at Moorlands. Much of our work has been centred around the use of high quality books, which studies have shown can have a positive impact on developing empathy, and it was a privilege to be able to help provide other schools with a similar opportunity.

Along Came A Different
a delightfully appealing picturebook about friendship

The first stage of the judging process involved spending a significant chunk of the summer holidays reading approximately 70 books which had all been nominated by their publishers and making notes about the suitability of each. Several books were discarded at this stage, not because they were poorly written or weren't enjoyable to read, but because it was felt that they didn’t quite deliver the specific empathy criteria that we had been tasked with finding. Each book was judged on whether they contain characters that readers can empathise with, the insights into the lives of others that are provided, how emotional vocabulary is used and how the book motivates the reader to put empathy into action.

The seven judges (more information heremet at the CLPE in London in early December to finalise a list of 30 books for primary schools and a list of 15 books for secondary schools. The final lists caused much discussion and occasional (highly professional) disagreements but, as the overall quality of the books was so high, a consensus was reached on the majority quite quickly. Both lists include an exciting combination of picture books, novels, poetry and graphic novels and the panel feel confident that the books selected provide a broad appeal to a wide range of readers.

Ella On The Outside
a very popular read with Deer Class

Some books I read by myself, some I relished having the opportunity to share with my class or my own children. Ella On The Outside, the debut novel from Cath Howe, was an absolute pleasure to read aloud to my Year 6 pupils. There were so many things about the book that the children could relate to and it led to several spontaneous discussions on a variety of subjects. The main character, Ella, suffers from psoriasis, as does a girl in my class, and every time we sat down to enjoy the book, she would shuffle to the front of the carpet and literally hang on to the bottom of my leg as I read. Speaking to her after we finished reading, I asked what she'd enjoyed about it the most and she replied, “It could have been about me. I haven’t read any books like that before". As soon as it went on the class bookshelf, she immediately borrowed it to take home and reread. She's become a real advocate for the book, recommending it to her friends in other classes and always moving it to the display shelf in the school library.

The 2019 Read For Empathy Primary Guide selections

As the above example demonstrates, all children love to see themselves represented in what they read, which is why I'm so delighted that, of the 45 featured titles, 44% have a BAME protagonist or cast of characters. This is significantly more positive than the recent Reflecting Realities study from CLPE, which found that only 1% of children’s books published had a lead BAME character. The selected books include the heartwarming Love From Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke, the beautifully engaging If All The World Were by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys, and the powerful verse novel Booked by Kwame Alexander.

Love From Anna Hibiscus
a wonderful series to share with younger children

Another book that I really enjoyed, and which has been making its way around the class since September, is The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti. It's based on the author's own experiences of Stargardt's disease, a progressive illness which causes a gradual deterioration in eyesight, ultimately leading to complete blindness. It tells the story of Mafalda, who measures her failing vision by the distance from which she can see her favourite cherry tree on her morning journey to school. It's an emotionally powerful book and highly recommended. For my full review, please visit the Just Imagine website.

The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree
an optimistic book full of hope and joy

Each year, I try and read a couple of verse novels to my class, with Cloud BustingInside Out and Back Again and Love That Dog all being among the regulars. Everything All At Once by Steven Camden (aka Polarbear) is a verse novel about adjusting to life at secondary school, an experience common to us all. Every poem is a beautifully observed insight into school life, and the book provides numerous opportunities for discussions about empathy and understanding with students across Key Stage Three.

Everything All At Once
a poignant verse novel

I’m also absolutely thrilled that the collection also contains some well known ‘empathy classics’, including Elmer by David McKee, Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman and one of my all-time favourites, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. I’ve read this book to almost every class I’ve taught over the past seven or eight years and it's been one of the highlights on our reading journey every time. After the first few chapters, the children tend to decide that Edward is a self-centred and dislikeable character but, by the end of the book, they all adore him and can fully empathise with his emotional experiences. It's an absolutely wonderful book that should be on the bookshelf in every Key Stage Two classroom, and I genuinely look forward to my annual read.

The 2019 Read For Empathy Secondary Guide selections

If I had the time, I'd happily sing the praises of each book on the 2019 Read for Empathy lists as they all deserve to be celebrated. They all have the potential to change a child’s outlook on the world, and it’s so exciting to know that such a high quality collection of literature will be having a positive impact in classrooms across the country. I’m looking forward to finding out all the creative ways that they'll be used in the run-up to National Empathy Day, which takes place on Tuesday 11th June 2019, and can't wait to read and enjoy even more of them with the pupils and staff at my school.

More information about the selections that make up the two lists can be found on the Empathy Lab website.

The combined lists

Friday, 31 August 2018

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

I rarely write reviews about individual books, usually due to lack of time, but when I read a book as powerful as Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, I genuinely feel as if I have little choice. I finished it almost a week ago and its haunting, emotive quality is still firmly in the forefront of my mind.

Jewell Parker Rhodes, author of Ghost Boys

In its most simple terms, the book tells the story of the fatal shooting of Jerome, a 12-year-old boy from Chicago, by a police officer. The chapters are short, almost poetic in style, and move the tale forward at a rapid pace. The book is written from the point of the view of the victim, both before the shooting, where he talks about his life at school, and after, when he shares his experiences as a ghost boy. There are some distressing moments early on, such as when Jerome observes his own funeral and learns of the devastating impact that his death has had on his family, but the story becomes absolutely compelling when he starts to meet other ghost boys, black American children who have also died too young for a range of tragic reasons. The only living person who can interact with Jerome is Sarah, the white daughter of the police officer responsible for his death, which creates a poignant juxtaposition. The impact that his death also has on her family, gradually tearing it apart, gives the book even greater depth and resonance.

Emmett Till

The ghost boy that Jerome encounters most regularly is a teenager called Emmett, who is initially reluctant to share the story of his death, constantly claiming that the time isn't right. When Emmett eventually begins to talk, the horrific tale he tells is truly heartbreaking. To hear the story of his violent death being told from his own point of view is an incredibly hard thing to attempt, but Jewell Parker Rhodes has created a staggeringly intense account of what occurred. I read the book on a train while travelling back from a meeting in London and am not ashamed to admit that I was in tears by the end of the book. The next hour was spent finding out more about some of the real-life characters who appear in the book, including Emmett.

Before reading Ghost Boy, I had some awareness of the violent death of Emmett Till. He was a 14-year-old who was viciously beaten and then lynched by a gang of white men in Mississippi in 1955. He had been accused of whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a grocery store, although many years later she admitted that she had fabricated a significant portion of her testimony. His name later became linked with what was to ultimately become the American civil rights movement.

Emmett Till statue, Denver

To read such a powerful and harrowing book can only help raise children's awareness of the inequalities in the world, and strongly reinforces the message that it is everybody's duty to speak about injustice, in whatever form we may encounter it. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially in light of the recent Reflecting Realities report from the CLPE, which revealed that only 1% of children's books published in the UK last year featured a central BAME character. I'd be cautious about using Ghost Boys with children in Key Stage 2, and believe that it is more appropriate for Key Stage 3.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

First lines of books

We've recently been investigating first lines of books and the impact that they can have on the reader. As a class, we ranked our favourites, discussed how the story might carry on and compared the openings of books from similar genres.

Below are a few of our class favourites. To download and use them, please use this link:

Sunday, 25 March 2018

School reading culture...breakthrough moments

Last Thursday, I was absolutely delighted and extremely humbled to have been awarded the Egmont 2018 Reading for Pleasure Teacher Award. I travelled to London with my headteacher to attend the BERA/UKLA/OU Reading for Pleasure research symposium, and was presented with the award by Michael Rosen.

Being part of a school with reading at its heart is absolutely fundamental to what I believe in as a teacher. I'm fortunate to work in an environment where I'm supported, trusted and actively encouraged by my headteacher to take risks and try new ideas, as well as alongside an amazing group of teachers and support staff who understand the importance of creating a deep, genuine and firmly embedded reading for pleasure culture. They know that it can't be achieved with quick fix solutions and short term interventions. They know that adult knowledge of children's literature is essential, and that independent reading time must be protected against the pressures of the timetable. They know that reading aloud, in all its various forms, is crucial, and that encouraging spontaneous and informal book talk at every opportunity is an important way for children to truly engage with their reading. They know all this, and much more, and they do their best to make sure it happens.

After three years of extremely hard work from everyone in our school community, it's noticeable that over the past few months, there's been a significant cultural shift in the attitude towards reading. Conversations and interactions are happening between pupils, staff and parents that are making it a very exciting place to be.

For example, just before Christmas we introduced pupil-staff reading buddies (visit the Open University Reading for Pleasure site for more details). I'd been working with my buddy from Year 2 for several weeks. He wasn't a keen reader at home, showed little interest in reading at school and was one of those children who, if not picked up, could easily slip through the net. He'd always dutifully come along to our meetings and listen politely to whichever book I'd selected, but didn't really engage with the stories. In fact, most of his time would be spent looking out of the window or rearranging the cushions he was sitting on. After a couple of weeks, he started to show more interest, making an effort to listen to the story and even asking the occasional question. One lunchtime, just before half-term, he sauntered into the classroom (to be honest, he saunters everywhere), with his hands hidden behind his back...

"Hello, lovely to see you. How are you?"

"Mmmm, yeah, alright."

"Have you come to talk to me? Is everything OK?"

"Mmmm, yeah."

Slightly awkward pause...

"So, did you want to show me something?"

"Mmmm, yeah."

Slightly more awkward pause...

"Right then...what is it? Are you holding something exciting in your hands?"

At this point, he gave an enormous grin, and whipped out a copy of Harry And The Dinosaurs Go To School from behind his back.

"I found this book in my classroom and I brought it. I think it's going to be really good and we should read it."

"Well, I'd be delighted to, absolutely delighted."

It felt like a massive breakthrough. He'd found and chosen a book that he thought he'd enjoy, and had wanted to share that experience with someone. It was another tiny, but significant, step on his journey to becoming a genuine reader and I was thrilled to have been there for it. Moments like those can't easily be measured or quantified (apart from by the size of a smile!), but they're the moments that genuinely matter, the moments that can have an impact on a child's attitude to reading forever.

A second example, several weeks ago I was heading along the corridor to make (yet another) coffee when I walked past three teachers, all from different year groups, discussing the wonderful Letters From The Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. About ten minutes later, having made my drink, I came back and they were still there, but this time comparing the book and film versions of Wonder by RJ Palacio. Teachers, who had a thousand other things that they could be doing, were standing around and talking about children's books! Reading is increasingly becoming an essential part of the daily conversation across the school and it's very, very exciting.

Similar breakthroughs are happening across the school community. There are staff giving up five minutes of their break to seek out books that their reading buddies will enjoy. There are Year 6 children wanting to read stories to children from Year 1 and 2 in the library at lunchtime. There are parents working with their children to create book characters from potatoes. There are classes spontaneously starting informal book groups based on shared interests (the Amulet group is growing by the hour!). There are pupils cheering when new deliveries of books arrive in the post. There are about half of our teaching staff attending a local Teachers' Reading Group. There is a real book buzz, a reading buzz, a feeling of gathering momentum and a sense that the school reading community is beginning to take on a life of its own. We're not yet a reading for pleasure school, there's still a lot that we need to improve and develop further, but we believe we're heading in the right direction and we're very proud.