Friday, 31 August 2018

Diary of a Deputy - Week 1: False Start?

It's Friday, I'm on the coach on the way back from year 5's first trip - the first trip I've organised as Deputy Head. We are coming back early because it happened. That thing we all fear will happen did happen.

I booked this trip back in June. But when we turned up today they didn't know we were coming. In fact all of the staff who work at the facility were on annual leave. The facility in question is housed within a local college building and, hats off to a variety of college staff, we managed to make something of the morning. Whilst I tried to work out what on earth had gone wrong and how we were going to make it all right the children had an enjoyable hour and a half learning. Next job: reschedule and work out how to explain it to the parents of the class who certainly won't be making the afternoon visit. Oh, and work overtime to remind myself that this wasn't my fault.

- - -

I'm now sitting in the waiting room of the doctors' surgery. It's Friday afternoon. This week promised to be difficult from the off, I suppose. 

I set off on my bike on the first day and, two minutes away from home, realised that cycling one-handed on account of a shoulder problem I developed on holiday was not going to cut it. These Yorkshire hills require a whole-body approach to cycling. 

I headed back home (where my wife was busy broadcasting live baking on BBC Radio Leeds) to think through my options. I couldn't take the car - the lease company were picking it up later that day. We weren't getting a replacement until the day after. Public transport requires multiple vehicles and lots of walking and a journey time of over an hour (it takes 15 minutes in the car). Taxi it was. After setting off in the wrong direction I set the driver on the right course and once I'd handed over the princely sum of £13 I was through the school gates for my first day as deputy head.

After 12 minutes on hold to the doctors' (during which time I was informed that I'd moved from caller number 6 to the heady heights of caller number 5) I walked into a dead zone (the HR office) and lost my connection. My lovely wife, now finished with her brush with radio stardom, then spent a further half hour on the phone to secure me a physio appointment, hence my current location.

But, looking back, it's not at all been doom and gloom. In fact, I've been able to see the 'amusing' side of the less desirable events of my first week in post. It's been a brilliant week.

The first day, once I'd managed to get myself there, kicked off, predictably, with a whole staff meeting. My new school is a through school: nursery to 6th form = huge student body and a large staff. One apparent tradition is to welcome new staff at these well-attended meetings. When my name was called (and I wouldn't usually share this kind of thing for fear of sounding arrogant) the whole of the primary staff gave a huge cheer - louder than they had for any other. So, as long as they weren't taking the mick, and this wasn't some cruel joke, that welcome meant more to me then they might have intended. And the feeling of belonging it gave me has carried me through the week, even providing comfort when I turned up with 30 children and 4 members staff to a trip that wasn't even booked (wasn't my fault).

And it's not just that that means I'm finishing my first week as a Deputy Head feeling elated. My new year 5 team is showing all the signs of gelling and the children arrived glowing and smiley on Thursday morning, positive and ready to learn. We are trying out some new things: an out-of-class studio area where children have permanent access to a wide variety of resources, ways of teaching and timetabling that respond to the exact needs of the children and a holistic approach to learning that goes beyond the typical upper key stage two focus on maths and English, and beyond a focus on academic results. And the children have responded really well, particularly in how well they have used the studio to practise and demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a variety of ways. The teachers too have demonstrated adaptability, filling me with confidence that we will absolutely make a success of this year.

- - -

False start? Not really. Barely even bumps in the road. It'll take a lot more than that to make me downhearted! Plus I now have a long piece of stretchy stuff, a suite of exercises for my possibly torn supraspinatus and a follow-up appointment in three weeks - hopefully I'm on the mend.

Lessons to be learned?

Phone ahead to make sure the trip venue know you're coming, preferably a few days in advance.
Don't be too optimistic about health - you might actually just need to admit you can't do certain things and that the advice of a professional needs to be sought (this is a told-you-so moment for my wife).

Monday, 27 August 2018

Book Review: 'Dave Pigeon' by Swapna Haddow, Illustrated by Sheena Dempsey

Funny books. That's what our children get these days when they move off the reading scheme books at school and begin to read whole chapter books themselves. And thankfully when the books are as good as 'Dave Pigeon' that's more than OK.

Swapna Haddow has balanced the funniness with good quality writing in a way that perfectly introduces young readers to the concept of reading a longer book. The story is engaging (and funny - did I mention that?) and in this way reading stamina is really encouraged. The accompanying illustrations contribute to this - some pictures take up most of the page, allowing children to experience the feeling of having read a decent chunk of a book. The speech bubbles included in the pictures are also bound to be loved by young readers - children will feel great accomplishment as they read the text and the pictures together.

Dave and his mate Skipper are taken in by a kind human lady when Dave injures his wing. Unfortunately she also has a mean cat who, of course, must be got rid of so that the pigeon duo can live in the lap of luxury in the house, rather than the shed. Their catbrained schemes are, predictably, wildly unsuccessful until, accidentally, one of their plans does work. Even then they are faced with a further dilemma - they have to share their bounty with all the other birds in the neighbourhood. This amusing story of perseverance and resilience is a great way to introduce young children to the concept of never giving up and always trying again - who'd have thought two daft pigeons could be such good role models? 

Another huge plus for this book is that it is the first in a series. So if it hooks your child in, you can build on the momentum by getting the two follow-up books for them to read too. And as Tom Fletcher picked this for his WH Smith Book Club 2 you should have no problems getting hold of this excellent (and hilarious) book.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Book Review: 'Armistice Runner' by Tom Palmer

The World Wars have provided many an author with fodder for their fiction and there are some truly brilliant books out there as a result. The best are the ones that take a slightly different angle and explore one of millions of individual lives that were affected by those conflicts. 'Armistice Runner' is one such book. Tom Palmer focuses in on one soldier, Ernest, originally a fell runner from the Lake District, and lets him tell his story of running messages between British army positions in the lead up to the signing of the Armistice in the Great War.

This isn't just historical fiction, though. Palmer has skilfully woven in a modern story of a young girl, also a fell runner, who is a descendent of the World War 1 soldier. Lily is fighting her own battles - Abbie, her rival, always seems to beat her, and her beloved Grandma has Alzheimer's.

On a visit to her grandparents' in the Lakes, and in the run up to a very important race, Lily is given a box containing some of Ernest's things. In the box are some running logs which, Lily discovers, contain much more than just details of her great-great-grandfather's exercise regime: she discovers a commentary of Ernest's time in France and she's desperate to find out what happens.

However, things keep preventing her from reading more - like the disappearance of her Grandma. Through both stories Palmer brilliantly brings together and draws parallels on the themes of family, friendship, rivalry, revenge and loss. The mirrored issues never seem forced - both stories are believable. Many children will identify with Lily's love of her sport, how annoying her little brother is and how worried she is about her grandma. At the same time they will be introduced to the horrors of trench warfare at the beginning of the twentieth century - without going over the top (pun not intended) Palmer describes the smell of a rotting flesh wound in a way that will make the reader physically recoil. For teachers looking for a story set in World War One, this book provides a good starting point to explore both the bigger picture of the war, as well as how individual lives were changed as a result.

The story concludes optimistically with a strong but implicit moral message about putting aside differences and showing kindness to others. In fact, all the way through there is much to develop empathy in the reader, making this a great book to share and discuss with children. The fact that a book with sports and war themes centres around a female character is also a plus point - too often these topics see males take centre stage.

But this isn't only a book about sports or war - it's a just a great story, expertly told, and one that every child should have a chance to read. As with all truly great children's books it's one that adults will enjoy sharing too, potentially prompting grown-ups to share their own family's history and involvement with the World Wars with their children, thus preserving those stories for another generation.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Book Review: 'The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid' by Tania Unsworth

I'm just going to come right out and say it: this is a perfectly told story which twists fantasy into reality in an oh-so satisfying way. Dealing with themes of loss, grief, friendship and discovery this book, I would go so far to say, is a must read.

The pain experienced by a grieving husband, the love and wisdom of a grandparent with alzheimers, the way that a child tries to deal with memories of a lost parent, the desparation of an abused employee, the delight of new friendship, the terror of being kidnapped, the bitterness and cruelty of someone who can't let go, the rushing sensation of elation when a remarkable discovery is made - this book has all the feels. Who'd have thought all of that would come from a tale about mermaids?

After the death of her mum Stella sets out on a dangerous voyage of discovery to find out more about who her mum really was. She makes brave and daring decisions but finds herself in grave trouble as she seeks to find the truth behind her mum's past. So compelling is the story, and so believable, I found myself reading the whole book in the space of day - Tania Unsworth draws in the reader with her beautiful writing and intensity of plot - an intensity that nevertheless still feels perfectly paced.

With the mention of mermaids in the title, this very well may get left on the shelf by some who assume its going to be too girly, but this real-world fantasy is far from it - it's a thrilling adventure which I would have no qualms about reading with, or recommending to, anyone (including boys). Sometimes books can really be a very pleasant surprise - 'The Girl Who Thought Her Mother Was A Mermaid' is very much one of those books.

Book Review: 'Once Upon A Wild Wood' by Chris Riddell

There are many, many retellings and rehashings of popular traditional fairy tales, but this isn't one of them. Children who love fairy tales will love this but they will enjoy it in its own right. And that's because Chris Riddell, with his own inimitable sophisticated and dry humour, has told a new story, albeit with a whole host of favourite characters.

Know a child who's stuck on their favourite Disney princesses, and only ever wants to read those quite terrible picture book versions of the movies? This book could very well be the book that turns them onto some reading material of a little higher quality. The writing is wonderful, with seemingly more text than the average picture book, and, as is usual with Riddell, it never seems like he is talking down to his younger readers - he treats them in a grown-up way and gives them opportunities to think about new words and new concepts.

Existing fans of Riddell's books for younger readers, such as the Ottoline books, will recognise the style of storytelling and the kind of characters that are portrayed. The story's protagonist is a young girl, vastly more sensible and practical than the traditional Little Red Riding Hood, prone to solving problems but also demonstrating kindness and thoughtfulness - a great role model, in other words.

The illustrations, it really goes without saying, are incredible: the sort children pore over and return to again and again. Amusing details and such accurately drawn facial expressions provide excellent opportunities, along with the text and the plot, for adults and children to discuss the book at great length, making this a perfect book for parents or teachers to share.

Children will love spotting their favourite fairy tale characters, and may even be introduced to new ones, giving opportunity to explore classic tales which Disney haven't yet (to my knowledge) got their hands on. Rather like the Ahlbergs did with The Jolly Postman and Each Peach Pear Plum, Chris Riddell has brought new life to old stories and characters in this fantastically illustrated new tale.