Monday, 18 June 2018

From The @TES Blog: Year 1 Should Be Like EYFS, Not Vice Versa


This piece that I wrote for the TES outlines a few questions that I have been asking myself about formalisation of teaching in the Early Years and in KS1 and beyond. It has met with a lot of praise from concerned Early Years practitioners and a certain amount of questioning from those more opposed to the ideas that I raise:

A key component of any phase of a child’s education is preparing them for the next stage, with an eventual goal of preparing them for the big wide world of work. Of course, this isn’t the only purpose of education – there are many immediate benefits, too. However, we try to ensure that Year 6 children are secondary-ready, we prepare our university-bound sixth formers for lectures and self-directed study and we want those leaving Reception to be "school-ready".

Click here to continue reading

Perhaps we need ask not how we can get children school ready, but how we can get school ready for the children?

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Things You Should Continue Doing In The Early Years (And What The Research Says About Why)

Here's another blog post I wrote for the Bradford Research School blog. It is in response to the EEF's guidance report 'Preparing For Literacy', which can be downloaded now for free.

Much of what goes on in Early Years is misunderstood by those without experience of working with the youngest children in our education system. Early Years practitioners can feel like they are continually having to defend their working practices against those who have little understanding of the ways children develop and learn in the Nursery and Reception years. The fact that there are proportionally fewer Early Years teachers than say, Key Stage 2 teachers, or Key Stage 4 teachers, means that they are under-represented in education as a whole.

And nothing is as bad as when an agency produces a report telling the experts how to do it. So, does the EEF’s latest guidance report ‘Preparing for Literacy’ just teach the proverbial grandmother to suck eggs?

One benefit of engaging with research is that often it can confirm that what is being done already has an evidence base. Sometimes, after reading up on a particular working practice, one might discover that nothing needs to change, and that actually the things they are already doing are likely to be effective. Often, teachers will be convinced that their practice is effective because their own assessment of outcomes appears to prove it. For these teachers, checking with research findings can confirm that what they are doing has worked elsewhere too.

With that in mind, here are some common Early Years practices that the ‘Preparing for Literacy’ guidance report confirms as best bets; these are things you should definitely continue to do in your Nursery and Reception classrooms...

Click here to read the whole article

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Reading Roles PLUS: Philosopher Exemplified

The Philosopher Reading Role (click here to find out more about Reading Roles) is concerned with thinking. To explain more, here is my initial explanation of the Philosopher role:

Asking and answering philosophical questions about a text allows children to engage further with what they have read. Doing this has the potential to improve comprehension for the same reasons as we have discussed under other Reading Roles: the deliberate act of thinking about what has been read can lead to better comprehension.

Philosophical questioning and discussion should encourage children to ask and talk about more open-ended questions – questions of morality, questions about life and the universe and so on. Often these questions will touch on curriculum areas such as religious education and personal, social, health, cultural education (PSHCE).

SAPERE’s Philosophy For Children, Colleges and Communities (P4C) resource website is a useful starting point when teaching children to think philosophically:  https://www.sapere.org.uk/Default.aspx?tabid=289

SAPERE outline that philosophical questions:

  • Should be open to examination, further questioning and enquiry
  • Can't be answered by appealing only to scientific investigation or sense experience
  • Are questions about meaning, truth, value, knowledge and reality
Many children’s books lend themselves well to asking questions that fall into those categories. Teachers can look out for opportunities but should also be aware that children might surprise them with philosophical questions prompted by what they’ve read, especially if they have been trained to ask them.

To exemplify this I have some materials from one of my colleagues. As part of a local history unit he asked his year 4 children to read a case study on child labour in mills in the Victorian period (this can be downloaded here). They then spent some time discussing their thoughts on the issue of child labour, prompted by some questions: 


The children then followed this discussion up by answering some basic retrieval questions. I observed the subsequent lesson where children were preparing to write a report on working conditions in the mills from the perspective of a mill inspector. Their engagement with the above Philosopher activity clearly had an impact on their comprehension and understanding of the issue. The fact that the content bore some relevance to them - they too are children living in Bradford - possibly also factored in their engagement with the text and their comprehension of it. 

A few simple prompts in the form of questions are all it takes to get children thinking about what they have read. A lesson based on the Philosopher role does not need to take a lot of preparation - the time spent preparing some prompts is a fraction of the time the children will actually spend discussing their thoughts. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Guest Post: Why Tackling School Leader Workload Is Not Enough By Viv Grant


In March, Damian Hinds announced that the DfE were going to implement measures to reduce teacher workload in an attempt to head off the recruitment and retention crises facing many schools across the country.

Whilst this is a very welcome initiative, unfortunately it is much like putting a sticking plaster on a wound when something more substantial and curative is needed.

If policy makers honestly think that measures to reduce workload are all that’s needed to stem the rising tide of leavers from the profession, then this shows just how far removed they are from the beating heart of those who are at its centre - teachers and school leaders.

So much more must be done to make the role of School Leadership sustainable amidst the growing challenges our Heads face on a daily basis.

The pace and volume of change over the past decade has led to increased ambiguity, inconsistency, insecurity and staggeringly high levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability. Meanwhile, the emphasis on data, results and policies such as academisation, free schools etc have only served to further complicate life as a School Leader.

As a result, Head teachers find themselves having to respond to a range of often conflicting national policy agendas. Many of which draw them away from their central school leadership role and into the world of local politics and excessively complicated levels of bureaucracy. The strain for many can be too much.

Yet the system seems immune to this fact and chooses to ignore the real reasons as to why so many school leaders are leaving the profession. Workload may be a contributing factor but it is not the sole one. School Leaders are leaving the profession because their needs as human beings are not being attended to. This is because we have yet to develop an accurate understanding of the support needs of school leaders.

Along with increased levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability, I believe neglect in meeting Head teacher’s psychological and emotional needs has become a major contributing factor to Head teacher attrition and early retirement.

Whether Heads are new in post or are well established and long serving, too often the predominate type of support that they receive is that which is concerned with meeting the strategic and operational aspects of the role. Their emotional needs are often neglected and this is where the system falls down in fulfilling its duty of care for school leaders.

Consequently, Head teachers often sacrifice the meeting of their own needs in order to meet the needs of those they serve. This level of constant giving, without moments and opportunities for renewal built into their leadership life can often lead to illness and for some, burn out.

This has to be understood and taken seriously because if the emotional and psychological needs of school leaders are not met, not only do our School Leaders themselves suffer but all school improvement efforts are also put at risk.

I fear this situation has been further compounded with local authorities now diminishing in size, meaning that there have been fewer and fewer opportunities where Heads can come together, to offer support for one another, and experience a real sense of collegiality and shared purpose to help combat this.

I feel this reduction of support has been felt across the profession and that’s why on the back of many requests from School Leaders, last year I began hosting “Education for the Soul” Conferences to offer a chance where Heads can have honest conversations about the issues they’re facing, replenish their passion and sense of purpose, and discover how to best support their own needs amidst the challenging demands of Headship.

Whilst I’ve seen what an incredible truly restorative events these can be, I still fear far more needs to be done across the country if we are to tackle this recruitment and retention crisis. We need a whole new conversation around how we support great leadership in schools and to find solutions that takes care of the “Person in the role”.

Meanwhile, policy makers finally recognise that workload measures are not enough. Instead they must learn that if they want help create outstanding schools, they must provide School Leaders and Headteachers with outstanding support.

The price of continually failing to do so is one we can no longer afford to pay. As when we fail to adequately recognise what it takes to create ‘Great School Leaders’, we also fail our children and their hopes of a better tomorrow.

Our children deserve the best care and education and our school leaders also deserve the best care that can be provided so that they can remain in the profession, fulfil their vocations and meet society’s hopes and dreams for our future generations.

Viv has been in the education profession for over twenty five years. She is a former primary head teacher and has been a lead trainer and consultant for a number of educational training bodies. Now as an Executive Coach and Director of Integrity Coaching, Viv works daily with others who have taken on the mantle of school leadership.

Monday, 11 June 2018

No-Quiz Retrieval Practice Techniques

One common rebuttal of retrieval practice and quizzing is that it doesn't promote real understanding of the content that is being memorised - it is seen by some as rote learning of information that the learner will then find difficult to actually understand with any depth.

But retrieval practice is not about regurgitating facts without any understanding of meaning or context. In fact, retrieval practice should be seen more as a learning strategy - one which does more than just enabling children to recall facts and figures. Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal's Retrieval Practice website outlines the additional benefits of retrieval practice:
"By using retrieval practice as a learning strategy (not an assessment tool!), we exercise and strengthen our memory. Research demonstrates that this improvement in memory and long-term learning is flexible, which: 
• Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills• Improves students’ organization of knowledge• Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts 
In other words, retrieval practice doesn’t just lead to memorization – it increases understanding. Because students have a better understanding of classroom material by having practiced using this information, students can adapt their knowledge to new situations, novel questions, and related contexts. You can use a variety of question types (fact-based, conceptual, complex or higher order, etc.) to ensure that students are not memorizing, but using information flexibly."
(https://www.retrievalpractice.org/beyond-memory/)
The Deans For Impact guidance 'The Science Of Learning' outlines how this happens:
"Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter." 
(p5, https://deansforimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/The_Science_of_Learning.pdf)
By memorising certain facts and pieces of information our minds are freed up to think more deeply - we can use this extra capacity to think about how what we already know (background/prior knowledge) can be applied to a new problem or situation.

Once this is accepted, some teachers still have a hard time accepting quizzing (which works on the basis of the testing effect) as an acceptable vehicle for retrieval practice, particularly for younger children. Although quizzing is supposed to be low stakes there are those whose concern is that it is too formal and not engaging enough for primary-aged children. Many would testify against this way of thinking citing experiences of children who love taking the quizzes. Nevertheless, perhaps there would be nothing wrong with exploring some alternative methods to quizzing so as to provide a wider range of situations that a child might be required to recall the information they have learned.

Before we look at some alternatives to quizzing (no-quiz retrieval practice techniques), here are some principles that should be followed when engaging in retrieval practice:

  • Make it challenging - ensure that it incorporates desirable difficulties ("certain training conditions that are difficult and appear to impede performance during training but that yield greater long-term benefits than their easier training counterparts" - https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research/#idd).
  • No grading - any form of grading, such as the teacher collecting in scores, will begin to make the activities feel like they are high stakes which has the potential to make students feel anxious which isn't conducive to remembering.
  • Mistakes are learning's friend - students will learn from their mistakes (as long as feedback is given which highlights their mistakes) and when asked to complete another retrieval practice exercise will be more likely to remember something they previously had got wrong.
  • Feedback must be given - see above; students won't know what they have got wrong or have missed out if feedback is not provided either by a teacher or a fellow student.

So, although quizzing is one popular (and easy) way of ensuring that facts are remembered and recalled, here are some other ways to prompt retrieval of information from the long-term memory. All of these activities could be done by individuals, in pairs or in groups:

Free Recall

Also known as 'brain dump', 'show me what you know' or 'stop and jot', free recall is a learning activity which simply requires students to write down everything they can remember. Giving a specific prompt will make it clear what you expect and imposing a time limit will bring a bit of challenge. Alternatively a given number of points might be required. For more see: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/2017/free-recall

Linked to this is 'Inkshedding': students free-write about a particular topic and then share their writing with other students. Other students might then provide feedback (written or verbal) or continue the writing to form a dialogue.

Megan Smith, in Assessment as Learning: The Role of Retrieval Practice in the Classroom, an Impact journal article, warns that 'for some students, writing out everything they know on a blank sheet of paper may be a daunting task that does not lead to much successful retrieval. To increase success, teachers can implement scaffolded retrieval tasks (read more about them in the article)... With scaffolding, the students can successfully produce the information and work their way up to recalling the information on their own.'

For more information on scaffolding retrieval practice for primary-aged children, see Megan Smith's  How to Create Retrieval Practice Activities for Elementary Students article on the Learning Scientists website.

Retrieve Taking

Instead of asking students to take notes whilst reading, watching or listening, ask them to write down what they remember once they have finished the activity. For more see: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/2018/5/11/retrieve-taking

Think Pair Share

Think Pair Share is a fairly common technique but it can be adapted to ensure that principles of cognitive science are applied: "Have students write down their response, switch papers to add to another student's paper, and then discuss. Students will have a richer discussion after receiving feedback in writing from another student first." The Retrieval Practice website goes on to outline how spacing and interleaving can be used in Think Pair Share. For more see: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/2018/think-pair-share

Two Things

During a lesson, stop and ask students two write down two things based on a specific response. Students then pass their paper to another student who adds one more thing to the paper and passes it back. Alternatively, students can share their two things with a partner or a group in order to gain feedback. Examples of prompts/questions given on the Retrieval Practice website include:"What are two things you learned so far today? What are two things you learned yesterday (or last week)? What are your two takeaways from today? What are two things you'd like to learn more about? What are two ways today's topic relates to previous topics?"

Last Lesson, Last Week, Last Month (or Can You Still?)

This is simply a case of asking students questions about previous learning; it builds on the concept of spaced practice. Questions can be asked verbally with verbal answers required; the questions and answers could also be recorded in writing. If the activity is a written one, a cloze procedure, multiple choice answers or true/false statements could be provided instead of requiring a written answer. For more see: https://theeffortfuleducator.com/2017/12/10/less-is-more/ and https://themillpedagogy.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/interrupting-the-forgetting-last-lesson-last-week-last-month/

Sorting

With an activity like this it is easy to see how knowledge might be used flexibly once it has been remembered. Students are provided with statements, facts, figures and so on, and they are asked to sort them into categories (provided by the teacher). The sorted items can then be checked against a book or with other students. They can also then be used to help form a short written summary of each category. For more see: https://theeffortfuleducator.com/2017/12/10/less-is-more/

Linking

Similar to Sorting, Linking could utilise loop cards, dominoes or Tarsia puzzles to make connections between pieces of information. This could take the more simple form of questions and answers which match up, or facts and figures which are somehow linked.

Stories, Songs, Rhymes and Mnemonics

Well-written stories (read this interesting article about presenting information in stories), songs, rhymes and mnemonics might be memorised and recalled. Although there are plenty of these already out there for a range of subjects, quality is often an issue so they should be chosen with care. These could be recalled verbally or in writing, including as a cloze procedure.

For more on using Mnemonics, read my blog post 'Using Mnemonics for Retrieval Practice'.

Similarly, students could be asked to write their own using pre-learned information, although some caution should be exercised here as additional skills will be required - this is not as straightforward as a free recall task (although it could follow a free recall task as well as additional teaching on how to write stories, songs, rhymes or mnemonics).

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

Last year for Empathy Day, organised by Empathy Lab UK, I recommended 6 books that encourage children to read for empathy: 'The Unforgotten Coat' by Frank Cottrell Boyce; 'Oranges in No Man's Land' by Elizabeth Laird; 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson; 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond; 'Tall Story' by Candy Gourlay; and 'Noah Barleywater Runs Away' by John Boyne.

Back in October I led a workshop at the Reading Rocks conference entitled 'The More-ness Of Reading'. In it I provided a more extensive list of books that are great for developing empathy as well as whole host of quotes and research explaining why reading for empathy is such a good idea: https://wherereadingrocks.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/the-more-ness-of-reading-by-thatboycanteach/

Since then I've read rather a few more books that easily fall into the category of books that develop empathy in their readers. And with the second Empathy Day taking place on June 12th 2018 it seemed right to produce another list.

Given that my last list contained no non-fiction, I'd like to begin by highlighting a few titles, which, whilst still narratives, tell the stories of real life people.

Coming To England: An Autobiography - Floella Benjamin

Although open and honest about the difficult experiences of a child moving to a new country, this book is written in such a simple way that it is very accessible for young readers - I'd recommend it for emotionally ready year 3 children and upwards. It is fairly hard-hitting - younger readers will definitely benefit from being able to discuss their reading with an adult - but is a great gateway to helping children understand how others feel when they arrive in a strange place where they experience prejudice and hardship. Given that this is a live issue for the UK it is important that children up and down the country understand as they help their new classmates to settle in.

Dear World - Bana Alabed

Another autobiography, this time written by then 8 year old Syrian Bana Alabed. Whilst still in Syria and experiencing firsthand the terrors of civil war in Aleppo Bana took to Twitter in order to share her story - her first tweet read 'I need peace'. As with 'Coming To England' this book is written in a simple way making it accessible to children the same age as Bana and upwards. It is a truly moving account - I admit to crying several times - and is the book I remember more than any others when I consider what I can do to help those fleeing such crises. People who seek refuge in the UK need to be welcomed by open arms, especially the children, and it is books like this that will help our children to resist the racist rhetoric that can be so pervasive and instead show kindness to those who are fleeing their homes.

Malala Yousafzai - Claire Throp

Presented in the usual non-fiction format that you'd typically find in a school library this informative book tells Malala's life story. It's both eye-opening and inspiring, and whilst being an obvious heroine for Muslims and girls there is encouragement to all our young people in the account of Malala's life. As with the previous two books, this volume explains carefully another reason why people might leaving their country in search of another life - to learn about the prejudice and oppression Malala faced from the Taliban in her own country should prompt children to assess their own attitudes towards women and minority groups.

And now for some fiction:

The Kites Are Flying! - Michael Murpurgo

Set in the West Bank this short story explores how Jewish and Palestinian children live in the shadow of the wall and the war that divides them. Contains such a tingle down the spine moment that this is absolutely essential reading. This is a story that will begin to give children an idea of the unrest that goes on overseas, as well as an idea of how this affects children such as themselves. This is 'The Kite Runner' for children.

Skeleton Tree - Kim Ventrella

Death. A tricky, tricky subject for children's books. From my review: "Ventrella cleverly explores the very real experience of how mixed emotions come into play during the loss of a loved one. The skeleton is funny (there are laugh-out-loud moments) and he brings some light relief to what is otherwise a very sad story... The book may help some children to explore the emotions felt during a bereavement."

The Light Jar - Lisa Thompson

This book tackles a rare subject in children's literature: domestic abuse. From my review: "'The Light Jar' is a book that digs deep into human emotion, validating the gamut of thoughts and feelings that children the world over will feel on a day-to-day basis. And with all the current news of young people's mental health issues, books like these are crucial in normalising and validating the responses our children have to difficult life circumstances; 'The Light Jar' will provide illumination in the darkness of some of its readers' lives."

Sky Song - Abi Elphinstone

From my review: "Sky Song is an important lesson in why tribalism, whilst comfortable, will not save the day - a political message that might give children a starting point to thinking about what their role on the world stage might be. Flint's character provides hope that people can change their ideological views in order to become more mindful of others. The character of his sister Blu, based on Elphinstone's own relative who has Down's Syndrome, is also a possible discussion starter for readers to explore and change their thoughts about those with genetic disorders and resulting learning difficulties."

The Wonderling - Mira Bartok

The Wonderling is an Oliver Twist-style adventure with, er... a twist. It is set in a world inhabited by humans, animals and humanoid mixed-breed creatures - foundlings - who are despised by the others. It focuses on the adventures of one such orphan foundling as he escapes the workhouse in order to discover who he really is. This book is a great starting point for empathising with children of the Victorian era who suffered in poverty but it also has modern parallels to children still living in similar situations all over the world.

How To Bee - Bren MacDibble

This difficult yet compelling read is a great dystopian exploration of the gap that exists between rich and poor and as such would be a good way to help children feel empathy for children and adults les fortunate than themselves. From my review: "The subject of domestic abuse – both physical and emotional, towards adults and children – makes this a tough read in places, particularly for the aforementioned age bracket. I would suggest that this book is better suited to teenage readers for this reason."

The Phantom Lollipop Man - Pamela Butchart

From my review: "Despite this looking like a funny book, it actually tackles quite a serious subject matter – so much so that I actually almost had a little cry at the end... It ends up as an exploration of loneliness and old age and is a gentle reminder to any reader to value all members of society, especially those at risk of becoming marginalised. This aspect of the book makes it fully rounded and a perfect read for anyone in lower key stage two..."

The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle - Victoria Williamson

Featuring a Syrian refugee and a girl experiencing severe domestic issues this book is a must-read for upper key stage two children. From my review: "This is a book that I wish every child would read. Politically and socially our children need to be living the out the story in this book if the world is going to have any sort of peaceful future. The book's dual message that differences ought to be celebrated and common ground should be sought is too important for this generation to miss out on. Books such as this are a safe space in which to explore the everyday issues that children might face - we must get these books into their hands."

The Mystery Of The Colour Thief - Ewa Jozefkowich

This is book about how a child deals with the illness of a parent. It also features a positive-thinking wheelchair user and a whole lot of kindness and hope. From my review: "In this beautifully-written story debut author Ewa Jozefkowicz deftly explores issues that young children may well come up against in real life. 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' will bring comfort to those with similar experiences to those portrayed and will help those who haven't to be that little bit more understanding of those who have."

Illegal - Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano

As Andrew Donkin explains in his guest blog post for me: "We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place." From my review: "Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers."


Max and the Millions - Ross Montgomery

From my review: "Max loves making models; he’s also deaf. This representation of a ‘minority group’ is important in children’s literature. Montgomery writes sensitively and convincingly about the trials a deaf child might face making this an important lesson in empathy for young readers... [children will] be caused to think about how first impressions don’t always count, how kindness and selflessness are key characteristics to develop in oneself and how forgiveness is an essential ingredient for peace and friendship."

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Guest Post: 'Illegal': Reading For Empathy by Andrew Donkin


Our new graphic novel, ILLEGAL, started life with a desire to make our readers feel empathy for people in a very unusual and terrible situation.

Andrew Donkin
It was about four years ago and my co-writer, Eoin Colfer, and I were following postage stamp-sized reports about the sinking of boats full of would-be migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The reports were short, impersonal, and just carried an approximate number of people thought to be missing or dead. It made for grim reading.

We followed the story and dug deeper. When you read a report that says “It’s believed that 217 people died in the sinking” it’s very easy to get lost in the numbers. What do 217 people look like? How many classrooms would they fill? Or how many double decker buses? It’s easy to forget that each one of those 217 is a person just like me and just like you.

These days, everyone has seen the photographs of the so-called “cathedral boats” where every single inch of deck space is packed with a human being desperate to escape their old life or to begin a new one. As I said, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer numbers, and what we wanted to do with ILLEGAL, was to take one person on that dodgy, unseaworthy boat and tell their story. We figured that if we could make our readers feel empathy for one person in the boat, then that would perhaps change the head-numbing statistics into human beings.

ILLEGAL follows the story of two brothers, Ebo and Kwame, as they leave their home and attempt to travel across the Sahara Desert towards the northern coast of Africa where they eventually put their lives in the hands of people traffickers on a boat to Europe.

From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to tell the story of ILLEGAL as a graphic novel rather than a more traditional prose novel. One of the many reasons for this was that we wanted to avoid telling the readers how our characters felt. We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place.

My friend and co-writer, Eoin Colfer wrote recently that “travel broadens the mind, but books broaden the heart.” That’s never been truer of a book than the experience of reading ILLEGAL. Nobody would want to undergo the terrible journey that our characters undertake, but by reading the book in the safety of your own home or school or library, a reader can perhaps take away a small piece, perhaps if we’re really lucky, one-millionth of the real life experience.

Giovanni Rigano
Eoin Colfer
In many ways the job of a writer is feeling empathy for a living. How else could writers get inside the head of their many and varied characters to pen their tales? Writing fiction is a strange alchemy of sometimes transposing your own experiences into the head of other characters, but more often putting your characters in situations you’ve never experienced yourself.

For ILLEGAL, Eoin, myself and our artist Giovanni Rigano did more research than for any other book that we have ever published. Although the story is fictional, every single bit of it is true. Every bit of it happened to someone – usually to many people. Meeting and listening to the survivors of such journeys was a moving and humbling experience as we worked on the book.

The last few years have seen several very divisive political events and movements sweep across the west. It seems to me that books and graphic novels with their ability to transport you not just across time and space, but more importantly into the experiences of another human being are more vital than ever.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Guest Post: Changing Personalities by Dr. Gary Haq

In my new children’s book 'My Dad, the Earth Warrior', Hero Trough’s dad has a bump to the head and then wakes claiming to be Terra Firma, son of Mother Earth, sent to protect her.

The notion of a person changing their character and behavioural traits is not new in literature. Miguel de Cervantes’ 'Don Quixote' (1605) is a story of an old nobleman who after reading stories about knights, decides to become a knight-errant and goes off in search of adventures. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' (1886) explores the interplay of good and evil in human personalities with two contrasting characters.

From Marvel Comics the journalist Clark Kent, wealthy industrialist Bruce Wayne and science student Peter Parker are the alter egos of Superman, Batman and Spiderman respectively.


When Mr Benn visited a fancy-dress shop and traded in his black bowler hat and suit for a new costume, he then entered a new world appropriate to his costume and a new adventure via a magical door.


In 'My Dad the Earth Warrior', Dad has become boring to Hero - having taken on the task of updating Cuthbert’s encyclopaedia collection. Fed up with an increasingly distant father, Hero yearns for change. Then one day, Dad has this freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an earth warrior.

In his new persona, Dad is strong and charismatic - determined to achieve his goal of gathering a tribe, becoming a chief and protecting Mother Earth. Hero struggles to deal with Dad as an earth warrior and all the ensuing consequences. However, there are times when he actually is intrigued that Dad is different.

I have always liked the idea of changing personality and have enjoyed dressing up in fancy dress. As you, can see from these photos on the left! Changing from Mr Average to someone different provides the opportunity for many wonderful adventures as Hero and his Dad experience in the book.

Gary Haq is an earth warrior whose day job is saving the planet. He is an associate researcher at a prestigious global environmental think tank and a research scientist at a European research centre. He tries his best to be the change he wants to see in the world and hopes to inspire others with his stories. When he’s not involved in his own eco-adventures, he likes to write, read, learn languages and explore new cultures. Gary lives with his wife and young daughter, and spends his time between York, England and Laveno, Italy. My Dad, the Earth Warrior is his debut novel - available now.

www.garyhaqwrites.com
@drgaryhaq
www.facebook.com/garyhaqauthor
www.worldenvironmentday.global

Book Review: 'Illegal' by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin & Giovanni Rigano

Every now and then a graphic novel appears which pushes itself into the consciousness of the mainstream. Readers unaccustomed to reading pictures and text together suddenly find themselves exercising a muscle that has been resting since their childhood. It would seem though that it takes something pretty special to break this boundary. And 'Illegal' is special.

The death of Alan Kurdi in 2015, and the heart-rending photo of him that shocked the world, brought a crisis to light: those escaping war and poverty were being trafficked in unseaworthy vessels resulting in many lives lost. The media began to report further stories of similar tragedies, but as is the way, these stories soon became old news. But it is still happening. Google 'migrant boat sinks' and you'll see much more recent instances of these horrific events.

Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers.

As is the way with graphic novels, readers need to exert some effort into imagining the characters' feelings - with an economy of words comes more work for the reader. However, Rigano's bold illustrations, simultaneously classically-styled yet original and contemporary, do an exceptional job of conveying meaning - a picture really is worth a thousand words when its as carefully drawn as this. The storytelling of the combined text and pictures is accessible even to those who might normal find graphic novels too visually stimulating and busy - the illustrations are clean, detailed yet uncluttered, and colour palettes for each sequence are carefully chosen to evoke a sense of place, atmosphere and mood. Here, engaging with the images is crucial if the reader is to empathise with the plight of the world's humans in flight.

Although the demands of the text are low, the subject matter is emotionally involving making this book a certificate PG. Teachers, librarians and parents should consider how they present this book to their child - it is one that should be framed by good conversation with trusted adults. For anyone desensitised by the news, or for one who has a hard time knowing how to respond to terrible events in the world, this book will provide an alternative way into grappling with the issues.

In 'Illegal' horror and hope sit side by side, necessary bedfellows in a book which portrays the world we live in as it really is. Essential reading.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Guest Post: Reading In My Dad’s Bookshop by Ewa Jozefkowicz

 Many adults have one or two characters in a book that they read as a child - their ultimate hero or heroine - who stays with them through the years. But whenever anybody asks me who mine is, I find it difficult to make a shortlist of ten, let alone to carefully select one or two. I was extremely lucky to grow up surrounded by books meaning that I could browse, peruse and devour them at every available moment.

My dad was a bookseller, and when I was at primary school, I would spend every half term and many a weekend in his bookshops, reading in the children's section. I was so fascinated by books that I would read anything and everything, from Point Horror classics, through Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, all the way to The Moomins. Looking back now on the characters that I loved, there was only one thing that linked them. They could be any gender, background, age or period, but they had to overcome their fears and to be brave. So whether it was Lyra meeting the king of the Gyptians, Charlie stepping into the Chocolate Factory, or Tracy Beaker setting out to find her real mum, they had to be bold in everything they did. It was characters like them who made me believe that anything was possible as long as you put your mind to it.

When I'd thoroughly read my way through the shelves of children's literature, I started on the adult sections - my tastes here also varied dramatically. I loved nature books with all the illustrations of different animal species, but I was also fascinated by travel stories, and even big coffee table books about fashion through the ages.

I was hugely fascinated by books in other languages. There was a foreign literature children’s section in our bookshop, which was really the only part which was out of bounds for me, because I didn’t understand the words. The only other language that I could read in was Polish, and I felt envious of other kids who could read in French, Mandarin, Swedish and so on… I remember always searching for the most interesting looking stories in their English versions.

My dad often had to visit warehouses to put in new orders for books and I was always so excited to be one of the first people who would see the new releases. Some of the warehouse team got to know me, and I was allowed to carefully read a few of the children's books that had just come in (if I promised not to bend the spine or leave any fingerprints). Sometimes, I even got to help out with
suggestions of which titles to order.

My dad passed away when I was sixteen and I still think about him every day. Unsurprisingly, he crops up in my thoughts usually when I've opened a new book. I wonder what he would have thought of this one, I say to myself when I've finished it, and a part of me is sad that we can't discuss what we'd just read. I hope he would have been proud of me writing 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief'. He certainly played a big part in making it happen.


'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' by Ewa Jozefkowicz is available not in hardback, £10.99 from Zephyr

You can follow Ewa on Twitter: @EwaJozefkowicz

Click here to read my review of 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' 

Monday, 4 June 2018

Book Review: 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' by Ewa Jozefkowicz

If you're a regular reader of my book reviews then you'll know there is one quality above all others that I look for in children's novels: the potential for it to develop empathy in the reader. This book has that in spades.

Izzy blames herself for what happened to her mum. Since the incident her relationship with her best friend has suffered and despite many well-meaning adults offering support, she is finding life difficult to cope with. And it doesn't help that her recurring nightmare features a shadowy man who begins to steal the colours, one by one, from her life.

But then she meets Toby - a wheelchair-user who has moved in up the road - and he introduces her to Spike, a young swan and the runt of the litter. She and Toby strike up a friendship and in their dedication to saving the starving cygnet, Izzy finds hope and purpose. She also finds inspiration in straight-talking Toby who, through the wisdom gained from his own experiences, helps her to solve the mystery of the colour thief.

Imagery abounds in this wonderful short novel aimed at Key Stage 2 and 3 children. The gradual loss of colour in the mural of her life that her mum painted above her bed is a sensitive metaphor for the creeping onset of depression. The improving wellbeing of Spike causes and provides parallels with Izzy's improving mental health - in both cases the injured party allows others to help them. The feather Izzy gives to her mum as she lies in a coma is a symbol of optimism and freedom -  a freedom which Izzy eventually gains as she discovers she is guilt-free.

In this beautifully-written story debut author Ewa Jozefkowicz deftly explores issues that young children may well come up against in real life. 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' will bring comfort to those with similar experiences to those portrayed and will help those who haven't to be that little bit more understanding of those who have.

A must for any library, classroom or home bookshelf - books like this position the current generation  to begin to work for a better, kinder future.

Perfect Partners:

'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' by Victoria Williamson - another story in which an unlikely duo bond over caring for an injured wild animal
'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond - aimed at a younger audience, and a little zanier, this story also explores how a young girl and her dad feel after the loss of her mother
'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness - aimed at an older audience, this book also explores the feelings of a young person experiencing the illness and loss of his mother

Look out for a guest post from Ewa Jozefkowicz on how growing up in her father's bookshop inspired her to write 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' - coming to www.thatboycanteach.co.uk soon!