Monday, 23 July 2018

Book Review: 'Secrets of a Sun King' by Emma Carroll

There's not been a prominent children's novel set in Egypt for a while, so when I heard that Emma Carroll's latest book was to have an Egyptian theme I was keen to read it - especially with curriculum planning in mind.

The story simultaneously follows the adventures of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, a young girl's receipt of a cursed canopic jar and an ancient Egyptian girl's account of Tutankhamen's last days. These are expertly woven into a story exploring friendship, family, trust and secrets. Beginning in London, but, unsurprisingly, leading to Egypt, the mystery of the curse unravels as Lily, Tulip and Oz daringly arrange to return the jar to where it should be, following clues from an ancient writer and relying on local knowledge (and of course camels) to help them navigate the dangers of the desert.

Although 'Secrets of a Sun King' can be classed as historical fiction, it has a very contemporary feel. Carroll uses the post-Great War political landscape of women's rights to thrust strong female leads into the limelight, a father in the book even voicing his opinion that girls are 'the future'. With gender issues being very much in the limelight, the fact that females take centre-stage in this exciting adventure story seems only right. Whilst some of the language used by the children seems a little anachronistic (it might not be at all, it just sounds very modern) the exploration of the role of women seems to be retrospectively in-keeping with the time.

Also adding to the modern feel is the fact that many of the co-protagonists are very definitely not white, signalling perhaps that representation of ethnic diversity in children's books might be beginning to improve. The recent CLPE publication Reflecting Realities reported that in children's books published in 2017 only 4% of the characters were black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), so the publication of this book, with its mixed-heritage and Egyptian characters (both ancient and relatively modern) comes at a time when readers might be prompted to seek out some non-white representation.

In fact, Carroll has gone beyond this: there is also an acknowledgement of the historical tendency of the (white) British to act with superiority, including to the point of robbing another country of their treasures. Lil, the main character, realises: 'Being English didn't give me the right to sort out other people's problems, not when they could solve them themselves.' And the characters of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon are not portrayed positively - this is a challenge to our general view of archaeologists and explorers as infallible gentlemanly heroes.

All of these issues make this a great reason to read this with children, especially as part of history work in school. The potential exploration of moral issues surrounding Carter's discovery and working practices will certainly make for a more in-depth way of learning about the ancient Egyptians - particulary good for older primary children who are tackling the topic.

Having said this, teachers may want to be aware of one particular scene in the book where the children use a Ouija board. The scene seems unnecessary and doesn't seem to fit with the idea that the pharaoh's curse may or may not be able to be explained by natural phenomena, or at least that the children are sure of the curse without such overt messages. The fact that the children do not seem scared or shocked by the fact that a spirit communicates with them using the board is strange. Given that this scene is not referred to again in the book, teachers could choose to skip this part if reading aloud.

'Secrets of the Sun King' is a fantastic up-to-date novel for key stage two readers and, far from being a curse, is a gift to any teacher or parent hoping to hook their children into an exploration of the ancient Egyptian times, as well as into a historical period where archaeological discovery made headlines. Superbly written and fast-paced, children will love in equal parts the characters and plot of this excellent book.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book Review: 'Ottoline and the Purple Fox' by Chris Riddell

Two of my daughters (year 1 and year 3 currently) became instafans of Chris Riddell's Ottoline character after I picked up a hardback copy of 'Ottoline at Sea' on a whim. I then borrowed a copy of 'Ottoline and the Yellow Cat' from the school library (must take that back before I leave this summer) which they subsequently devoured. 'Ottoline Goes to School' was purchased with pooled pocket money and enjoyed just as much as the others.

Then came 'Ottoline and the Purple Fox' - time for me to really see what the fuss was all about. Published recently by Pan Macmillan in paperback, you soon forget it doesn't have the fancy covers and extra bits and bobs (Bog Goggles, school badge collection, postcard collection) - the richly illustrated pages draw you in that much. Chris Riddell fans will just revel in the sheer volume of his wonderful images.

A story told just as much in the pictures as in the text, Ottoline and Mr. Munroe's latest adventure is as zany and quirky as one might expect. In actuality, this is a love story, complete with poetry - it's Ottoline's task to discover who the mysterious poet is and who they are in love with. On the way we meet a crazy cast of characters including shy gorillas, library flamingoes and the bear who lives in the basement (not to mention a dream sequence featuring one of Chris Riddell's other characters, Goth Girl).

Every now and then Riddell includes a page of drawings too intriguing to skim over quickly - the richness of the pictures are sure to prompt lots of conversation between an adult and child reader. In fact, reading activities abound within the pages of this book - this one should be on the shelves of all teachers in lower key stage two.

And Ottoline is such an adorable, non-typical girl character that I'd say it's pretty important for boys and girls to get to know her. She's strong-minded, independent but also thoughtful and kind. Her inquisitive mind and penchant for problem solving makes her a great role model, albeit a fictional one.

Now excuse me whilst I go and read the others - this one has certainly whetted my appetite!

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book Review: 'The Spiderwick Chronicles (Books 1 - 3)' by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

It's no wonder these international bestsellers are being republished. There's something special about them; perhaps something magical.

These are books about faeries. Not pink, glitzy, glittery fairies, but proper badass faeries: boggarts, brownies, goblins. Magical creatures come thick and fast in these short, little bitesize stories: The Phooka, wood elves, dwarves, trolls, griffins and more besides.

There's no messing about when it comes to getting into the story in each of these little books. At around the 100 page mark each, with a good few of those dedicated to the classic yet lively illustrations, the plot comes thick and fast. Where a longer book might faff around, these ones just get straight to the point. This characteristic would make these books perfect for reticent readers - ones who would benefit from the experience of finishing a whole, proper-looking book quickly. And the fact that there's a whole series of further books to read would automatically provide a reluctant child with another book to read - they can even read the first chapter of the next book at the end of their current book to really get them hooked.

In fact, some of these readers might even identify with main protagonist Jared Grace who, since his father's departure has struggled with his behaviour at school. Taken off to live in a strange old house with his twin brother and older sister he soon discovers that there is more to his world than first meets his eye, and, once he has the sight, he and his siblings find themselves embroiled in a faerie battle to wrest ownership of a mysterious tome of faerie world knowledge from their own hands.

Whilst the stories are short and the illustrations are plentiful, there isn't a simplifying of the text. Readers will still be exposed to creative vocabulary and the most exciting of content. Small but perfectly formed these reissues are sure to find themselves to be firm favourites of a whole new generation of children.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Using Mnemonics For Retrieval Practice


What is a mnemonic? Well, according to Wikipedia it is 'is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory.'

To be clear from the outset: an acrostic (such as Naughty Elephants Squirt Water, used to remember the points of the compass) is just one kind of mnemonic. Other kinds of mnemonics are stories, songs and rhymes.

From D.T. Willingham's AFT journal article
'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?'
In D.T. Willingham's 'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?' AFT journal article he summarises the three principles of memory (see the box to the left). He says that 'mnemonics work largely (but not exclusively) by using the first two principles... Mnemonics make meaningless material more meaningful, giving you something to think about and a good cue.

He also makes the point that 'learning something by rote memorisation is a great time to get creative.' Mnemonics '...give students ways to make up meaningful relationships. And the more creative or distinctive, the better.'

Many of those within educational circles who are currently promoting retrieval practice and other memory techniques seem to focus heavily on the testing effect. As such, it appears that quizzes have become the most widely used technique when it comes to helping children to remember things. I have already collated a selection of no-quiz retrieval practice techniques but in that blog post I felt my final recommendation of using stories, songs, rhymes and mnemonics needed some further exploration, hence this further blog post.

Image from Wikipedia
We can all testify to the ease in which we are able to recall the lyrics to certain songs, even ones we've not heard for a while. Most likely we will also remember their tunes - sometimes they pop into heads when were are least expecting it. Many of us will still remember MRS GREN/NERG, My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming (Planets) and Richard Of York Gave Battle (In) Vain. Some of us will even have mastered that knuckle thing to help you remember the number of days in each month. Each one of those is an example of how mnemonics help us to remember things - often things we don't even deliberately try to remember.

So, how can we harness these (dare I say it) fun and engaging ways of memorising information in the classroom? Well, first of all we need to be deliberate about it - we have to intentionally include these opportunities, recognising the potential they have to help children in their learning. It will take a bit of effort to search out a decent (I use this word purposefully) song or rhyme that links to your current topic. It won't be easy to put together a story that features the facts you want the children to learn. But, done well, it should be worth the extra effort.

Here a few quick pointers to get you started using mnemonics in your teaching:

Story

Hywel Roberts and Debra Kidd's latest book Unchartered Territories has a fascinating chapter on how story can be used as an aid memoire. It's a great book in general for those looking to inject some creativity into their lessons


It quotes D.T. Willingham: “Stories are psychologically privileged in our minds”. Roberts and Kidd suggest that we should place knowledge content (i.e. facts and figures) into a dilemma-led story which has four components (the 4 Cs of storytelling):

Causality – how events link through consequence (plot)
Complications – aspects of the stor where things aren’t as they seem
Conflict – tension to engage emotions
Characters – because we relate and connect to other humans

There will be very few stories out there that do this already for each area of learning that a teacher might be teaching so there is a lot of work to be done in order to use this technique. Teachers will need to write their own story, or adapt an exisiting one, in order to present the information in this fashion.

Once done, the potential is huge - children could learn the story Talk 4 Writing-style, they could write their own versions, use role play or toys to retell the story, even making some of these into films or animations. All of this could be considered rehearsal, and therefore retrieval practice. If they can remember the story, then they will remember the facts that are embedded in it.

Willingham also outlines another technique which loosely follows the principles of telling a story in order to memorise information:

From D.T. Willingham's AFT journal article 'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?'
This point alone is worth exploring in much further detail, but for now this will suffice. I do plan to attempt to try out this method in the coming year so will be writing some stories linked to year 5 topics shortly - I will share these, and blog about the process.

Songs and Rhymes

Although some time is required for searching out songs and rhymes, there are often topic-specific examples already out there - many of them on Youtube. The more creative and musically-talented among us might be willing to turn our hand to writing original songs or rhymes (my brother-in-law writes and performs parodies of popular songs to teach physics facts, one of which was recently sung on Radio 1!) but often this level of commitment and skill isn't necessary.

The key here is to choose songs and rhymes wisely. Do they cover the content that we want the children to learn or are we settling for learning whatever the song's current content is? Is the content accurate (e.g. ensure the song is about English grammar and spelling rather than American English grammar and spelling)? Does it reinforce misconceptions? Does it support a good understanding as well as memorisation (Keep Change Flip is a great trick but it doesn't help with conceptual understanding)? Finding and selecting suitable material can sometimes take as long as writing your own!

If you do choose to write your own try using familiar tunes, such as those used in nursery rhymes and popular songs, as a memory cue.

Children could also be asked to write their own songs and rhymes 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).

Expression/Word Mnemonics

These are what we most often think of as being mnemonics. Some of them rhyme, some of them are acronyms, others are acrostics and others of them make associations between something in the to-be-remembered material and an aspect of the material that is hard to remember. Some expression mnemonics make use of more than one of these techniques.

Here are some examples:

Rhyming: Divorced, beheaded, died / Divorced, beheaded, survived
Acrostic: (For the tuning of guitar strings) Every Afternoon Daddy Goes Back East
Acronym: (For coordinating conjunctions) FANBOYS
Associations: stalactites grow from the ceiling; stalagmites from the ground.

Never Eat Shredded Wheat is a rhyming acrostic.

Lists of such mnemonics can be found online such as these ones from Wikipedia, Adducation and Thoughtco. Expression mnemonics can be used to remember tricky spellings (I will never forget the Trunchbull's derision when Nigel spells 'difficulty': "Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY. That spells difficulty.") and lists of facts, names or rules. It is worth regularly searching for such mnemonics when planning to teach something new although it might not be too daunting to create your own. There are also acrostic generators available on the internet.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

On Taking A Career Detour

Recently I've been cycling to work quite a bit - it's a great way to get exercise into the daily routine and has allowed us to be a one-car family again after we scrapped my MOT-failed runaround. But, because I've been working at my current school for nearly four years now, I've sought out a few detours to make the journey a little more interesting; a little more scenic.

One such detour took me off road, through woodland and around the side of a reservoir. As the already-risen sun reflected off the water and the quietness of my surroundings stilled my mind, I was caused to think on the nature of detours.

Detours are what makes life interesting. That I would stand by, and I was sure that some other greater mind must have summarised this thought in better words. Upon arrival I did a quick search for quotations about detours - there were plenty. Here's one of the most succinct:

"See any detour as an opportunity to experience new things." - H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Many other quotations spoke of detours as a metaphor for events in life - something which, as I pedalled on my way, I too had contemplated. My morning ride round the reservoir was a picture of my career moves this year.

After three years as an Assistant Vice Principal (that's the academy speak for Assistant Head) I was presented with a new challenge: I applied for the role of Primary Lead Practitioner within the MAT my primary school is a part of. I was successful and I was excited to take on my new role supporting the handful of primary schools in the group. I was to work two days for the MAT and three days as AVP at my school. The decision was made that I wouldn't have a regular teaching commitment due to my reduced time in school - my 12th year in the job has been the first year I haven't had my own class. The end of August rolled around and thus began what I recognise now to have been my career detour.

I've always taken a one step at a time approach to my career, seeing my journey not as on a road but as one might cross a river on stepping stones. I've not waited for opportunities to be handed to me, but have sought them out when I've felt ready: I'm still skeptical about 5-year and 10-year plans. But what has happened is, as I've progressed, I've always found myself at a point where I do want to pursue management and leadership. Whilst I acknowledge this isn't the only progression path to take in education, it's the one I've found myself to be on, and I've enjoyed the ride so far.

I had begun to assume that my next move would be to Deputy Head and had concluded that this would mean a change of school. Indeed, I had applied for a Deputy Headship, but despite getting through a rather grueling two-day process with an oncoming case of my yearly laryngitis, I was unsuccessful, coming second to a more suitable candidate. It was, as they say, all good experience. That straightforward road from Assistant to Deputy was not meant to be for me - I was meant to take a detour.
Early on in my year of being Lead Primary Practitioner it became apparent that one of the schools I was working in needed more support than the others due to a reduced leadership team. I began spending more of my time there. This was to become a detour from my detour - my role changed significantly as I effectively became a two-day-a-week Deputy whilst the actual Deputy became Acting Head.

During this time I also took on an active role with the research school attending planning meetings, speaking at events, preparing and running a three-day course and writing material for the blog. Through the research school I also got involved briefly with the Opportunity Area work. My role as PLP also saw me being involved in the MAT's NQT and RQT network programme of events. My online activity was also of a significant quantity as I wrote for TES, Teach Primary, Third Space and Innovate My School, as well as for my own blog. All of this weighed heavily, not to mention my 'normal' job of leading maths, leading LKS2, mentoring three NQTs, two students and carrying out general SLT duties, became quite burdensome.

The fact that I spent a reduced amount of time in my own school (and had begun working with a brand new team there with none of my previous colleagues), and limited amounts of time in other schools, meant that I began to miss the relationships I had formed. I began to feel like I didn't belong anywhere in particular.

Then, in December, Ofsted called. I rushed back into school from elsewhere to spend the afternoon in the usual preparation. It was a rigorous couple of days but when we eventually received the verdict I discovered that I had had a previously unrecognised, hidden goal: the job advert I answered called me to join the school on their journey to Good and this is what, deep down, I had been hoping to achieve with my colleagues. And, from the school's previous inspection judgement of Inadequate, that was the journey our inspection report deemed us to have made. On receiving that news I realised I had achieved a goal, and that almost immediately I wanted a new challenge.

Without going into too much more detail this cocktail of responsibilities suddenly felt like a lot and I began to struggle quite significantly, questioning my purpose and my impact. I began to renege on speaking and writing commitments I'd made and also asked to have some of my more extraneous work responsibilities removed. Whilst I still have moments of difficulty these actions have been largely successful in preserving my sanity.

Don't get me wrong, there have been some excellent moments this year - the very fact that the school where I began spending two days a week employed me as their Deputy Head (starting at the end of August) is enough to make my detour all worthwhile. But the best part is that I have learned more about what I want in my career by experiencing things that I think, in the long run, I don't want to be particular features of my work.

Career-wise, I have learned that (at least for the time being):
  • I want to have a regular teaching commitment
  • I want to commit the majority of my time to working with and for one school rather than across several school 
  • I don't want to make a habit of public speaking
  • I want to continue to prioritise doing things that have a visible impact in classrooms that I frequent
  • I want to ensure that I don't deprioritise my own health or my family

More generally I have learned that detours, welcome or or otherwise, are great and worthy learning opportunities and that they certainly do make life interesting. Despite some bumpiness in the off-road nature of my career detour this year I have experienced new things, all of which have taught me, one way or another, a little more about myself and what I want from my career.

If you have made it through my personal ramblings, and are reading this final paragraph, I'd urge you, if opportunities arise, to take a detour. Whether it's a change in route on your actual journey to work or a step in a new, unexpected direction in your career, it will certainly keep life interesting and will probably teach you a thing or two along the way.