Friday, 23 June 2017

Poetry Post

A couple of weeks ago my class decided that, rather than receiving yet another election leaflet through their letterbox, the residents of the village might prefer to receive a piece of poetry instead.

The children each selected two poems that they really enjoyed, one which they had written themselves and one by a favourite poet. They then wrote them out and added decorations, finally placing them in envelopes, along with details of the school's Twitter account.

The following morning, we walked round the local village posting the poems through random letterboxes. Some of the children were desperate to post them to members of their family, but most of them wanted the surprise of not knowing who was going to receive their poems.


The response from the local community was wonderful. Within a few hours we had received several lovely phone calls and tweets, and a few days later several thank you letters and cards arrived through the post. We also created a Twitter hashtag for it, #PoetryPost.

It was a really simple way to get more poetry out into the community and help build relationships. We've already decided that next year it's going to be a whole school project. We also have a care home just up the road so the children are particularly excited about the prospect of writing some poetry for the residents.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

My Bookshelf

This is a wonderful idea I've pinched from @Elsie2110 on Twitter. It's a great way for the children to record what they read over the year. I think we're also going to record what we read together as a class on a larger one. My fantastic TA, Miss Fuller, has created a blank template (link below) and is more than happy for people to use it.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Promoting poetry in primary schools

Poetry has been the poor relation in the teaching of English at primary schools for as long as I can remember. Occasionally in the staffroom, you might overhear the Year 4 team quickly discussing whether it's time for the infamous annual 'poetry unit', or Year 6 teachers swapping 'fantastic poetry comprehension worksheets with loads of inference questions that'll definitely help the kids with their SATs', but that's not really poetry as far as I'm concerned. For children to genuinely have an appreciation of it, poetry needs to be a regular, high-profile part of the classroom routine, not just a bolted-on extra.

Our classroom poetry collection

Over the past few years, we've tried to nurture a love of reading, writing and performing poetry across the school and make poetry a more integral part of the school day. Below are some of the ideas that we've introduced over the past few months.

Three minute poem
At the start of every half-term, the children all write down some potential poem titles (eg Lonely Giraffes, The Cinema Trip, Beyond The Sky) on to slips of paper. We collect them in and then two or three times a week, one of the titles is randomly selected and shared. The children (and staff!) have three minutes to write a poem based upon the title given. The only rule is that nobody must stop writing until the three minutes are up. It was a real challenge at first (I can't think of anything, It's too hard, I've got an earache, etc), but they soon realised it was a fun way of writing without rules and that it allowed their imaginations take off in strange directions. We always make sure that we read a few at the end of each session.

Poem of the Day
I've written about this before (here), so won't go into too much detail, but basically the children sign up at the beginning of each week to perform a favourite poem to the rest of the class.

Practising for Poem of the Day

Blackout Poetry
We attempted this for the first time last week. It's a good way to squeeze a final bit of use out of any books which would otherwise be destined for the recycling bin, although if you're lucky enough not to have any books in such bad condition, photocopies work just as well. Everyone is given page or two from a book to work with. First, they read through the page to get an overall view of the text and then select two or three words that they want to appear in their poem. The children then read the text again and start to black-out surplus words with a marker pen. They found this difficult to start with, until they realised that they weren't trying to create 'lines' of poetry, but just groups of words that looked and sounded good together. A lot of them started by removing only one or two words from each line. However, they soon noticed that the more ruthless they were, the more the poem would have an identity of its own, rather than simply being a shorter version of the page they started with. One of the children ultimately ended up with a poem of nine words from a full page of text, which sounded great when read aloud.

Our class blackout poems

Writing N+7 poetry is perhaps one of the most well known examples of applying an Oulipo (constrained writing) technique and is certainly the one that's been most enjoyed by my class. The children started off with a poem (they actually used their favourite song lyrics the first time we attempted it) and went through it highlighting the nouns. Once they'd finished, they then found each word in a dictionary and replaced it with the noun that appeared seven nouns after it. It's great fun and completely removes the 'I don't know what to write' option. When we'd tried it a few times, the class were all full of ideas about how to adapt it, including changing the number, replacing verbs and adjectives, using antonyms and simply swapping nouns around.

Leo's N+7 poem, based on No Money by Galantis
Sorry I ain't got no mongoose I'm not trying to be funny but I left it all at honey today.
You can call me what you wanna I ain't giving you a dolphin  this time I ain't gonna run away.
You might knock me down, you might knock me down, but I will get back up again
You can call it how you wanna I ain't giving you a dolphin this time I ain't gonna run away.
This tinsel.
This tinsel I ain't gonna rush rush rush rush rush...
Not this tinsel, not this tinsel.
This tinsel I ain't gonna rush rush rush rush rush.
Not this tinsel, not this tinsel.
Not this tinsel, not this tinsel (tinsel)

Nursery Rhyme mash-up
Even with a Year 6 post-SATs class, this activity went down a storm. The children were given copies of about a dozen nursery rhymes and then simply had to create their own, either by mixing up the lines from one nursery rhyme or by selecting and adapting lines from different nursery rhymes. It's quick and can produce some amusing and imaginative combinations. Nursery rhymes also work very well with activities such as N+7.

Humpty Dumpty went up the hill
To fetch a plum pie
Along came a spider
And bumped his head
Then down came a blackbird
And went wee, wee, wee all the way home
Some of our recent purchases

The Room of Stars
This fun game came directly from Jumpstart! Poetry by Pie Corbett. It's an easy way to produce a whole class poem and can be hilarious. Half of the class need to write down five places (castle, river, shed, village, desert) and the other half of the class need to write down five nouns (we started with concrete nouns but they much preferred using abstract nouns). We then selected one child from each half of the class to choose one of their words to pair and create a line of the poem (eg the room of stars, the mountains of desperation, the cafe of misery). Most of the lines worked really well, some were a little dubious (the toilet of stress) and some were very quickly discarded (the bedroom of ecstasy!). We then put the lines together to create the poem.

We're going to spend a lot more time on poetry over the next few weeks, and will be sharing some of our work with other classes and with parents. If you've got a fantastic idea to share, or have tried anything in your class that's been a huge success, please let me know. Equally, if you've tried anything that's been a massive flop, let me know that too, so that we can avoid it.

Below are some the books which have provided the ideas above. I'd also recommend that you visit the blogs of Michael Rosen and Brian Moses, as they're both absolutely full of great ideas for developing a love of poetry.

Useful books
Jumpstart! Poetry, Pie Corbett
What Is Poetry?, Michael Rosen
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Kenneth Koch
Poems To Perform, Julia Donaldson
Published in September 2017: How To Write Poems, Joseph Coelho

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A Year Six view of reading

Last week, ten-year-old Gracie, a girl in my class and one of the most passionate readers I've ever been fortunate enough to teach, wanted to write about what books meant to hear. She wanted other people to understand how important reading was and to explain how she believed it can help make people understand each other. Below is exactly what she wrote:

Ever since I was about five years old, I've always loved reading. I love it for so many reasons that it would be impossible to tell you them all, so I'll share just a few.

I love it because a book can be thought about in lots of different ways. You can just think of a book as a piece of paper with ink printed on it or you can think of it as an adventure in your mind. A book has the power to make you feel things; it can make you joyful, it can make you frustrated, it can make you jealous and it can even make you cry. Isn't that wonderful?

The power of words on a page is never-ending. They can take you to incredible places, such as Hogwarts, Camp Green Lake, Narnia or London during Victorian times, and can even leave you shipwrecked on a desert island. Books are time machines transporting you back hundreds of years, books are spaceships zooming across the sky, books are ships sailing across a distant ocean, books are doors to another universe, but the one thing that they're not is just words on a page.

When I sit down with a new book, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. It's an incredible feeling, wondering what amazing story will come next. Books can be so full of twists and turns that you may think you know where you're going but you can never be sure until you get there. Have you ever read a book where you're confident you know what's going to happen and then, a paragraph later, you realise that you were totally wrong? What an incredible feeling that is! Sometimes the plot of a story isn't as important as getting to know the characters. Stories where nothing much really happens can be just as incredible as books where the characters are saving the world every few chapters. Have you ever read Wonder? It's only really about a boy who goes to school for the first time but, when we read it as a class, we never wanted it to end.

Although I enjoy most types of books, the ones that have the biggest impact on me are stories based in realistic settings such as Not As We Know It, Once and How To Fly With Broken Wings. You could say that they're sad stories, but they have their own beautiful way about them. They leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads them because they're stories that could be real, and they really have the power to change how people think. Trust me, reading books like that will make you empathise with people from all around the world. In fact, reading any kind of book will help you to understand people better.

My teacher once told me a story about a man he met on a train, who didn't learn to read until he was about 40. He was so proud that he had finally learned and he said that he didn't realise what he was missing. He now reads books whenever he can. This man couldn't actually read and that wasn't his fault, but some people just choose not to. People who don't read miss out on the chance to truly relax and let their thoughts roam freely. If you read, it's like an amazing light that shines out of a book into your mind. If you don't read, it's like you're left behind in the darkness. There's a lot of dark and scary places in the world already, so it's up to everybody to pick up a book and try and make the world a lighter place.


Friday, 5 May 2017

The online children's book community- thank you!

Back in March, a boy from my class had his home destroyed by a house fire. Luckily, nobody was seriously hurt (some minor smoke inhalation injuries), but his whole collection of books were destroyed. As a school, we wanted to do something to support him and we thought that, as he's such a keen and passionate reader, helping him replace his lost books would be a great place to start.

A tweet was sent out from the school Twitter account asking for help. We thought we might be lucky and receive a few donations, but we certainly never thought that we'd get the response we did. Within hours, the tweet had been retweeted hundreds of times. We were promised books by authors, publishers, book shops, libraries, other schools and families. Then everything went quiet as the Easter holidays arrived...

I came in to school at the end of the first week of the holidays to do some paperwork and the first thing I saw as I walked in was three enormous mail bags, all full of brown and white parcels. While I was lugging them to my classroom for further investigation, the neighbouring Early Years centre arrived with another bag of parcels that they had been looking after for us. It was a genuinely overwhelming moment!

When the child came back to school, we opened the parcels together. He was absolutely stunned, as was the rest of the school, by the generosity that had been shown. There were books from Anthony Horowitz, MG Leonard, Pie Corbett, Liz Brownlee and several other authors and poets; there were books from St Helens library and the Norfolk schools library service; there were books from a large number of children's publishers; there were books from teachers all across the country; there were books from an anonymous family in Durham; there were books from many other kindhearted and generous people.

The letters and notes that had been attached were so heartwarming that we shared them in a special assembly. The story was later picked up by the local media, who published a story about it which can be found here. To see the online children's book community come together like this to support a child that they'd never met was a humbling experience and one that I will never forget. Thank you to everybody who contributed.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Class Reading Timeline

This year, I'm teaching the same class as I taught last year. In fact, I started at the school with this class when they were in the final term of Year 4 and they're now in Year 6. There are a couple of downsides to this (it's virtually impossible to come up with anything new to say at Parents' Evening that you haven't already mentioned in the previous five!), but there are also a huge number of positives. We've built up a wonderful shared reading history over the past two years, and I can confidently say that I know their individual reading habits inside out.

Earlier in the year we created individual and family reading histories, and the natural progression was to spend time working together to produce our class reading history or reading timeline. We started by talking about all the books that we'd read together and the shared reading experiences that we'd had. These included author visits from Paul Cookson, Matt Dickinson, Pippa Goodhart and Ali Sparkes, judging various book awards (Peters Book Of The Year and Royal Society Young People's Book Prize) and whole school celebrations of reading. We also looked through our class Twitter feed and at the various interactions we'd had with parents, authors, publishers, etc, about reading.

We then thought about which books or authors had created a big buzz and set off a reading 'chain reaction' around the room. In Year 4, everybody was reading the Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face books by John Dougherty. In Year 5 it was all about the Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan and, so far in Year 6, the most popular books have been the Once family by Morris Gleitzman (he doesn't like to call them a series apparently) and Wonder by RJ Palacio. There's also been a real surge of interest in reading graphic novels this year, caused by one of the pupils enjoying Smile by Raina Telgemeier and then getting all of her friends to read it.


The class split into small groups and planned how they were going display their timeline. Most went with using a long piece of wallpaper and photographs alongside written thoughts and reflections, although one group very keen to produce a PowerPoint. It took a couple of afternoons, but we were all were absolutely delighted with how they turned out. Each group took their finished reading timelines round to show the some of the other classes, and they're all currently on display in the school library.

In terms of impact in the classroom, one of the recommendations from the UKLA Teachers as Readers report was to develop pedagogy which fosters 'inside text talk' (spontaneous, informal and child led) about reading and books, and which supports children in creating 'positive reading identities'. The conversations that took place about books, authors and reading between the groups were an absolute joy to be part of. When you overhear a child explaining to an engrossed group of friends the similarities and differences between The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson and The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, then you know it's been time well spent.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Reading aloud in class

'Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.' Marilyn Jager Adams

Reading aloud to a class of any age can be a wonderful experience and is absolutely essential in helping to create a class reading community. To find out more about the numerous benefits, have a read of this great blog post by Nikki Gamble.

However, choosing the 'correct' book is never easy. It needs to tick several boxes: it has to capture their imagination in the first few pages, it should provide opportunities for them to reflect and think about the world, it should entertain them and make them want to read more and, equally importantly, it should be a book that the teacher also enjoys. I've occasionally started books before with classes without reading them first, got about three chapters in and realised that if I'm totally bored by the book, then there's a pretty good chance that the kids are too. I'm now well into my second year of teaching the same class and we've read some absolutely incredible books together, many of which I intend to revisit in the future.

A story I often read with a new class (Year 5/6) is The Busker by Paul Jennings. Paul has written a huge number of short stories, most of which are thoroughly enjoyable with a clever twist at the end. However, out of them all, The Busker is the one that always has the biggest emotional impact. It's a story about a busker who wins several million dollars in the Australian lottery and the incredible loyalty of his dog. Gasps of shock and outraged faces are guaranteed.

One of the most popular novels that we read in Year 5 last year was One Dog And His Boy by Eva Ibbotson. It's not my favourite book of hers (that would Journey To The River Sea, which I adore) but it is my favourite one to read aloud. It's about a young boy, Hal, whose parents are far too busy and far too important to spend any quality time with him, so they try and make up for it by buying him expensive gifts. All Hal wants for his birthday is a dog and he's absolutely delighted when he is given Fleck as a present. Unfortunately, Hal doesn't realise that his parents have only hired Fleck for the weekend. He comes home from school on Monday, finds Fleck missing and decides that his only option is to run away to find him. It's a simple story, beautifully written, and always causes lots of discussion (and quite a few tears) in class. It has a lovely ending, where Hal's parents finally discover the error of their ways and realise what is actually important in life.

Another Year 5 classic is The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, the story of Nobody (Bod) Owens, a small boy raised in a graveyard. Bod came to the graveyard as a toddler, escaping after the murder of the rest of his family by the man Jack. It's full of action and slightly scary in places, with a wonderful range of characters for the children to enjoy.

Last year, I also read Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman with a class for the first time. It's one of my favourite books but I wasn't sure how it would be received, as it's about two child refugees from Afghanistan who are trying to flee to Australia. It was actually the most popular book of the whole year! I think because we'd done a fair amount of work about the refugee situation around the world, the children were able to empathise with Jamal and Bibi, the two main characters. There are some highly emotional chapters, especially when the children get separated from their parents, but every child in the class was desperate to hear how the story turned out. Several of them have asked if we can read the follow-up, Girl Underground, later this year and some of them have already read it independently.

We also read some more light-hearted books across the year. The ones we most enjoyed were a couple in the Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series by John Dougherty, and The Spy Who Loved School Dinners and Baby Aliens Got My Teacher by Pamela Butchart. Both series are enjoyably written, with ridiculous plots, and are an absolute treat to read aloud.

In Year 6, the highlight so far has definitely been Wonder by RJ Palacio. It's already regarded as a classic and, in my opinion, should be read to (or by) every child in Year 6. It tells the story of Auggie, a ten-year-old with a rare facial deformity, and his experiences when starting middle school. It's written in the first person from a variety of character viewpoints and, as well as being a heartwarming story, teaches valuable lessons about empathy and understanding. When we finished the book, several parents asked if they could borrow it to read, as their children had gone home every day telling them about how amazing it is!

We're currently enjoying Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird. It's a fantastic book, although I've had to selectively edit a couple of the more graphic passages. It's led to a lot of questions and further reading about refugees by the children, although it's possibly more suited to Year 7 upwards.

Below are some of the class stories we've read, or are planning to read over the next few months. We also try and share picture books together as often as we can. This year we've read Isn't It Great by Gerard Greverand,  My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson, Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland and Mr Wuffles by David Wiesner as well as several others. All of them can be enjoyed on more than one level and be used as a basis for some interesting debate.

Several of these books will definitely make the cut for next year (assuming that I'm teaching in Year 6), but it's also exciting to read new books with a class. Next year, I'm very tempted to give The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie a try, as well as Once by Morris Gleitzman. I'd be really interested to know which books other teachers enjoy reading to their class and try to revisit regularly.

'You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.' Dr Seuss