Friday, 2 August 2019

Misguided Reading (6 Questions To Ask When Planning A Reading 'Lesson')


How should we teach reading? What do we even mean by 'reading'? Decoding? Comprehension? Both? Is it more than that?

Scarborough's Reading Rope - image from EEF's 'Improving Literacy In KS2'

Scarborough's Reading Rope breaks things down a little more and, if nothing else, serves to show that there is quite a lot going on when one picks up a book to read.

If the above 8 headings (background knowledge; vocabulary; language structures etc) were all the necessary components of being able to read, is it the case that if we teach them all, children would be able to read? If so, how explicitly do they need to be taught? Can some of them be developed unwittingly in a language-rich, book-rich environment? Do teachers and schools really have a chance if a child isn't being brought up in such an environment?

So many questions, and given the range of advice that exists about reading instruction, I'm not sure we have the answers - at least not readily. Indeed, the 'reading wars' have been raging for years (although they focus less on comprehension) - just how exactly should we teach children to be able to read so that they can read words and understand their meaning as a whole?

My personal experience is that this is something that depends heavily on context. During my own career I have taught classes of children who have needed very little reading instruction and vice versa - I am judging this simply on their ability to understand what they have read. A cursory analysis of  the differences between these classes reveals that it appears to me to be the children who have been brought up in a language-rich, book-rich environment who, by the time they are 10 or 11, can read exceptionally well and don't need teaching how to comprehend what they have read. Of course, some children will have been brought up in such an environment and still need help with their reading.

Why does context matter? Well, for the purposes of this blog post, it matters because what one teacher in one classroom in one school somewhere does, might not work for another teacher somewhere else.

For example, a reading lesson consisting of asking children to complete two pages of mixed written comprehension questions might work with children who can already decode, comprehend and encode, but it is questionable as to how much they will have actually learned during that lesson. A lesson like this might have the appearance of being successful in one setting but, share those resources online with a teacher in a different context and they might not experience the same levels of apparent success. The children in the second teacher's class might need teaching some strategies before they can access such an activity.

And what does said activity amount to in reality? Just another test. Weighing the pig won't make it fatter - it's just that weighing it also won't make it any lighter either: if a child can read already, then these kinds of activity might do no harm. But we must be clear: this practice of repeatedly giving children comprehension activities composed of mixed question types is not really teaching children much. However, perhaps the stress, or boredom, of constantly being weighed might start to have negative consequences for the pig: children are potentially put off reading if their main experience of it is repetitive comprehension activities.

So, if weighing the pig doesn't make it fatter, what does? Feeding it. But with what should we feed them with? What should we teach them in order to help them to read words and understand what they mean as a whole?

Is it as simple as Michael Rosen suggests? Is it just a case of sharing books with children and talking about them? I've seen first-hand anecdotal evidence which certainly suggests that 'Children are made readers on the laps of their parents' (Emilie Buchwald). My own children, taught very well to decode using phonics at school, also appear to be excellent comprehenders - they have grown up around family members who read an awful lot, have had models of high quality speech, have partaken in a wide variety of experiences, have broad vocabularies and spend a good deal of their own time reading or being read to. Give them a two-page comprehension activity and they'd probably ace it. However, as already mentioned, this certainly won't be the case for every child brought up in such a way.

But what should schools do when they receive children who haven't had the privilege of a language-rich, book-rich and knowledge-rich upbringing, or those for whom that hasn't quite led to them being excellent readers? Downloading someone else's comprehension sheets and making children spend half an hour doing them isn't going to help them to become better readers. Should we teachers be trying to 'fill the gap' - to do the things that some children experience at home before they've ever even set foot in a school? Or is it too late once they're in school? Does the school-based approach need to be different?

As I said before: so many questions - questions I won't answer in this blog post. But I will leave you with something practical, in the spirit of this blog post, it'll be in the form of some questions to ask yourself when preparing a reading lesson:

Does this activity promote practice of existing skills or is it teaching them new strategies? Sometimes you will want to do some practising, other times you will want to teach them something new - how to ask questions of what they are readin, how to summarise what they have read, for example.

Does this activity help children to understand the text better or does it help them to understand a strategy better? Again, on some days you will just want to do activities that help children to gain a really good understanding of the passage; other days you might want to focus on teaching and practising a strategy such as inference making or visualising what has been described in the text.

Does this activity promote an enjoyment of reading? I tentatively include his question, and provide some clarification: I do not mean Is this activity fun? Reading is nearly always enjoyable when one understands what is being read. A reading task therefore can be enjoyable if it focuses on developing understanding of previously unknown word meanings which then helps he children to understand what hey have read. Anything that makes a child feel a sense of success will probably also be enjoyable for them. If they feel like it's pointless, repetitive or way too difficult, they lose that motivating sense of achievement.

Does the activity require silent completion or dialogic collaboration? I would suggest at the first option is reserved for testing - occasionally necessary; the second option should be key to a reading lesson. Teachers should be reading aloud, modelling their thoughts, demonstrating strategies, explaining word etymology and so on, and children should be joining in with this. Although the act of reading is usually a very private thing, a reading lesson will need to be the opposite if the children are to learn anything in it. A lesson can legitimately feature a set of printed out questions that require a written answer but should never consist of this alone - such activities will need surrounding with plenty of decent talk. And it's that book talk that will make the lesson enjoyable.

Do the children need any new prior knowledge (of the world or of words) before they access is text? Reading sessions can be derailed instantly if the children don't know enough about what they are reading to be able to understand it. Spending some time previously learning new stuff (could be by reading a non-fiction text) will help a following lesson to go much more smoothly - comprehension, including inference-making, relies on prior (or background) knowledge. Of course, some fiction texts (historical novels, for example) can be great ways for children to learn new things about a subject.

Have I (the teacher) read and understood the text and the questions and answers I intend to ask? When I've seen reading lessons go off the boil, it's usually because teachers haven't asked themselves this question during their preparation. Downloading someone else's comprehension sheets can easily lead to teachers not being able to answer the questions themselves and then getting into a right fluster in front of the children. Although a good reading lesson will nearly always follow a tangent or two, it's best to know where you're going in general: pre-empt the questions the children might ask, the words they might not know, and so on. Plan out what you will model, which questions you will ask and definitions you will give.

What other experiences of reading do the children in my class get? The timetabled reading lesson shouldn't be all that children get. They need to discuss vocabulary and read across the curriculum. They will benefit from a physical environment which celebrates reading. Adults who have read the books on the shelves and can discuss them with children will really boost their engagement with books and reading. If a lesson is the only time children experience reading then they may believe that reading only belongs in that slot on the timetable.

Perhaps by asking the above questions during lesson planning sessions, reading lessons might develop a little more focus and direction. By preparing in this way a lesson might end up being more guided than misguided.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

3 Children's Books To Celebrate The 50th Anniversary Of The Moon Landing

With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission's successful moon landing, it's no surprise that authors, illustrators and publishers have been hard at work producing some amazing non-fiction books by way of celebration. Whilst there are many children's books already available on the subject, it's always nice to welcome new ones into the fold, especially given that current design trends favour beautiful illustrations over stock photography. So, here are my three current favourites on the topic:

Balloon To The Moon by Gill Arbuthnott and Christopher Nielsen

Anyone who is familiar with Big Picture Press books will have some idea of what to expect: a large format, hardback book which couples easy-to-read but insightful information with the very best of illustrations. In this case its the retro-styled images of Christopher Nielsen which evoke an age gone by: the era of the great space race. The vintage drawings might remind an older reader of a time when astronauts were just the fantasy of sci-fi comics - younger readers will simply delight in the colourful depictions of a wealth of scientific and historic facts and stories.

'Balloon To The Moon' also cleverly employs a countdown to the moment when man finally stepped foot on the moon: it begins with chapter 10, running all the way through to chapters 3, 2, 1 and then Lift-Off, Lunar Orbit and Re-Entry. Along the way, Gill Arbuthnott tells the story of everything that had to happen before Neil Armstrong could step out of that lunar landing module and utter his immortal words. Filled with facts and figures, this book provides accessible, bite-size chunks of space travel history - children of all ages will learn something from this stellar publication.


'Where Once We Stood' by Christopher Riley and Martin Impey

New publishing house Harbour Moon Publishing are making a great first step with this visual feast of a book. Illustrator Martin Impey's pencil drawings and watercolour paintings take centre stage in this pleasingly large-scale paperback book. This isn't just a book with one or two pictures in it; every one of its 128 pages features multiple, largely monochrome but highly evocative, images. This book certainly is a visual treat - even if the text were ignored one could spend a great deal of time exploring its pages, wondering at one of the world's greatest dreams come true.

But there is text in this book too, and film producer, director and writer Christopher Riley presents the real-life conversations of the Apollo astronauts alongside urgent, present tense narrative. This combination makes for compelling reading - readers, helped along by the illustrations, will easily imagine that they are there with the astronauts, or in the control room, at least. Featuring the voices of astronauts from all 6 successful Apollo moon landings, this book might take a younger reader a while to make their way through as they savour both the text and the pictures. That's not to say there is too much, rather that this book is something unique, being unlike other non-fiction books, and therefore necessitating a different kind of reading. 'Where Once We Stood' is the kind of book that will be taken off the shelf time and time again and is an absolute must for any space-loving child or classroom where space is being taught about - you won't find anything else like this out there.


Neil Armstrong: First Man On The Moon by Alex Woolf (with Illustrations by Luisa Uribe, George Ermos and Nina Jones)

The latest in Stripes' Trailblazers series, Alex Woolf's biography of Neil Armstrong, presented in a novel-sized paperback, is the perfect thing for KS2 readers who want to know more about one of the world's most famous men. Stepping right back into his childhood and following Armstrong's life through to his last days, the story of how one man became the astronaut to first step foot on the moon is told compellingly yet simply - I can't imagine a reader wanting to even put this down.

The main story is interspersed with fact files, illustrations and other asides which, far from interrupting the flow of the narrative, add to it and provide a greater level of insight than one might expect from a book like this. Young readers will not only close the book more knowledgeable about one of the greatest feats of mankind, they will also leave feeling inspired by the level of commitment and hard work that Neil Armstrong demonstrated throughout his life - Woolf surreptitiously draws life lessons out of Armstrong's story, giving the book another dimension altogether. The book finishes nicely with a word on the legacy of both Armstrong and the Apollo missions, encouraging readers to look ahead to how 'spaceship earth' might be protected in the future.

That's all for now, but watch this space for more space-themed children's books - I have a whole shelf's-worth that I'd love to share with you! Here's a sneak peek of some of them:

Planning For Learning Sequences (Instead Of Planning Lessons)

My latest for HWRK magazine is a really important piece. We teachers spend far too much time thinking about lessons as little hour-long chunks of time - instead we should be thinking about learning sequences and saving ourselves some time.



https://www.hwrkmagazine.co.uk/

To download the full magazine and to read the article, click here: https://www.hwrkmagazine.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/HWRK-Issue08-Summer2019.pdf

Monday, 22 July 2019

History Key Questions To Ask When Learning About An Event or Period


Recently I posted a whole set of questions to ask when learning about a place in Geography (http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2019/06/geography-key-questions-place-national-curriculum.html). Here are the History versions. They are based on the KS2 History National Curriculum and, yes, there's an acronym: CHESTER.

So here are the CHESTER questions which you can ask whenever a new historical period or event is studied - ask these questions over the course of a unit:

Characteristics:

What were people’s lives like during this historical period?
What was/were society/culture/economy/military/religion/politics like during this historical period?
What else do I want/need to know about this historical period?

Historical Links:

How has this historical period influenced other historical periods?
How have other historical periods influenced this historical period?
How does this period/event compare to other historical periods/events (that have already been studied)?

Evidence:

What is the evidence for this historical event?

Significance:

What is significant about this historical event or period?
What were the main achievements of this historical period?
What were the follies of mankind in this historical period?

Timeline:

When did this event occur?
How long did this period last?
What came before and after this historical period?

Elsewhere:

What was going on elsewhere in the world during this historical period?


Response:

What do I think about this historical event?
What do others (past and present) think about this historical event?



You can download a word version of the above here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/key-questions-to-ask-and-answer-during-ks2-history-units-12152665

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Children's Books Reviewed By Children #2

In our house we have recently revamped the bedtime routine to contain A LOT more reading. This was partly out of necessity - the nights are so light that they couldn't go to sleep as early as they do when it is dark. They were also doing some pretty wild stuff pre-bedtime which DID NOT make them at all calm or ready to sleep. The answer: you already know: reading, of course!

As a result, my three children have read a ridiculous number of books and now they have industriously written a whole host of comments about the books for you. Here are the books they've chosen along with a few of their thoughts on them:


When Tyler is sent to summer camp, she can’t resist packing one of her latest science projects – the Hologramaphone 3000. Problem is, some of the phone’s functions have EXTREME side-effects, the kind that can turn your best-friend into a ferocious werewolf!

But when Tyler, Dylan and Ashley band together, there’s no problem that they can’t solve – no matter how big, hairy, and terrifying.

You would definitely so love it! I would probably say ages from 6 -10. Well, maybe. Apart from that, I would still recommend it to friends and family. - A, 7

I liked the part where they sneak into Pipper's office to get Tyler's Hologramaphone 2000 because Courtney and Pipper suddenly come in and Courtney starts talking about how clever she is. There's a really funny bit where Courtney says: "You can't say werewolves are real until you've actually see one." That bit's soooo funny! This book is 10/10 is for 7-13 year-olds. My favourite character is Courtney because she is show-y-off-y and funny. Enjoy! - I, 8


A swimming lesson takes an exciting turn when Fliss is magically whisked away to the Indian Ocean! There she finds a young dolphin in trouble and she knows she has to help. But she’s scared of deep water, and who knows what other animals there might be out there! Can Fliss face her fears and save her new friend?

A beautifully detailed book. I liked the bit where Fliss swam right up to the tiger shark and bopped it on the nose, just to save Spinner. I think Fliss was very brave to swim out of her depths, right next to a whale shark! I liked how welcoming and kind the author made Izad. I also liked how the author explained about the reef and how beautiful it was. I would highly recommend this book to friends and family. I think it was a very good book! It was awesome!  - I, 8

The Flute by Ken Wilson-Max, Illustrated by Catell Ronca (Tiny Owl)

Hear the whisper of the flute and see how it floats like a butterfly or blows like cold, grey wind. Discover how music can make you move and feel!

"I like Tiny Owl - he's a good book owl, isn't he?"

This book is about playing the flute. The flute makes nice noises but the sounds are like colours. It makes me feel like I want to play the flute and make a nice song with it. I like the part at the end where is says 'And a lilac sigh' because it has lots of colours. I like the colours in this book. - J, 5

Click here to watch a video of Ken Wilson Max reading The Flute.

The Bolds' Great Adventure by Julian Clary, Illustrated by David Roberts (Andersen Press)

Fasten your seatbelts - it's a special adventure for World Book Day with Teddington's wildest family! Learn just how our intrepid hyenas managed to get from their African safari park onto the plane and off to their new home in England. It's quite a remarkable, and some would say, unbelievable tale - but there are many laughs along the way! 

The Bolds are Hyenas. One day, the find some safari clothes lying near a river. There they found clothes, keys and passports. So they decided to travel to England. When they get there, they get things so muddled up! Mum poops in the shower, eats a wooden fruit and other bad stuff!

I liked the jokes that Mr. Bold makes up - they are very extremely funny!

This book is all about trying hard and listening and it is very fun.

Thank you for making this book, Julian Clary and David Roberts! - A, 7

The Hideaway Deer by Holly Webb, Illustrated by James Brown (Stripes)

When Lola moves house she can’t help feeling sad to leave her old friends and life behind. She’s always been shy and worries it’ll be hard to make friends at her new school. It’s not all scary, though. Lola loves her new home with its rambling garden and the deer that sometimes wander in through the broken fence.

Then one day she comes across a fawn who seems to be in trouble. Lola is determined to do everything she can to help the terrified little deer, but will she be able to do it on her own?


This book is amazing! It's all about a deer who has lost her mum. Her name is Dapple.

This book is all about growing up, leaving your animal friend and moving places.

I liked the bit when Lola stands in front of her class and talks about freeing the deer. - A, 7

Aunt Amelia by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan)
When Mum and Dad go away for the night, Aunt Amelia comes to look after one very cross little girl and boy. They do NOT want to be looked after and, even worse, Mum has left a list of boring instructions. But Aunt Amelia turns out to be rather different from expected . . . and a LOT more fun!

It's about Aunt Amelia coming to babysit the children. Mum and dad give her a list but they do everything wrong and they have loads of fun! They have fun swinging on trees; they have fun going on Aunt Amelia's back in the pond; they have fun eating loads of ice cream and they have fun eating sweets! At the end, they get ready for mum and dad coming back and they sweep and mop the house. I like everything about this book! - J, 5

My Babysitter Is A Robot by Dave Cousins, Illustrated by Catalina Echeverri (Stripes)

When Grandma creates a robot babysitter for twins Jake and Jess, chaos ensues!

Robin is embarrassing, clumsy and, worst of all, programmed to make them do their homework. They're also pretty sure he thinks their dog is a baby. The twins decide they have to do something before everyone realizes that Robin is a robot. But getting rid of their new babysitter will mean putting aside their sibling squabbles and working together, which might be an even bigger challenge...

My Babysitter Is A Robot is so good! This story is all about a robot who is very strict. I liked it when they were at the school fair and Robin did knock down the coconuts because the children found out that the coconuts were glued on! I also liked the part when they put salt in the sugar bowl for Olivia's party buns! - A, 7

Star Friends: Moonlight Mischief by Linda Chapman, Illustrated by Lucy Fleming (Stripes)

When the residents of Westcombe enter the Best Kept Village competition, they appear to have a helping hand – someone has tidied the village overnight! No one knows who has mowed the lawns and painted the fences but the town is looking neater than ever. Then pets and toys start to go missing. The villagers are upset and worried, and the Star Friends suspect that dark magic is involved. They're going to have to use all of their skills to solve this latest mystery...

In Star Friends: Moonlight Mischief someone's doing dark magic! There are shades in dolls and the dolls come alive! First, they do a good thing, then bad, good, bad.

This book is all about dark magic, powerful girls and trying hard.

I really liked it when they were having to fight the shades. Oh, the book is so good! - A, 7

The Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler, Illustrated by Steven Lenton (Simon & Schuster)

Welcome to The Nothing to See Here Hotel! A hotel for magical creatures, where weird is normal for Frankie Banister and his parents who run the hotel.

When a goblin messenger arrives at The Nothing to See Here Hotel, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince Grogbah, Frankie and his family rush into action to get ready for their important guest. But it soon becomes obvious that the Banister family are going to have their work cut out with the demanding prince and his never-ending entourage, especially when it turns out the rude little prince is hiding a secret..

I liked the bit where Mrs V gobbles Grogbah up in her sleep. I also like how the Molar Sisters speak - 'Thith ith amathing!' - they speak like that because they have lost so many teeth! It's good when the pirates come and have a fight with the goblins! It turns out that Grogbah has the encrusted diamond aaaaaaaaaaaaall along! This book is 10/10 and is for 7s and over. My favourite character is Nancy because she is a very calm, lovely spider. This book is amazing. - I, 8

Action Stan by Elaine Wickson, Illustrated by Chris Judge (OUP Oxford)

Stan and his little brother Fred are off on a school trip to an outdoor adventure camp. Stan has been asked to keep an eye on Fred and his friends while they're away . . . what could possibly go wrong!?
Packed full of infographics, charts, and diagrams, this hilarious and visually-exciting book will have huge appeal for young readers.

Charts - WOW! I liked the bit where Stan joins the dogs and he wears all the funny clothes. This book is definitely 10/10 and I'd say it's for 8-13 year olds. My favourite character is Maddies because she is dressed in black and the only streak of colour is purple in her hair. She chews bubblegum and stands up for her sister Billie. I also like the bits where calls Jess Alaska. - I, 8

The Travels of Ermine: Trouble in New York by Jennifer Gray, Illustrated by Elisa Paganelli (Usborne)

Meet Ermine. She may be small but she’s on a BIG journey around the world.

Ermine the Determined is off to explore NEW YORK.

She can’t wait to visit Central Park Zoo, ride in a yellow taxi, and zoooom to the top of the Rockefeller building!

But when her suitcase is switched, Ermine finds some robbers are hot on her tail…

I really like how Barry does his burps and tummy rumbles - they're so funny! Also, all the time in the book Barry and Harry are trying to get the diamond all along and Ermine doesn't even know!

I like the accidental trick where Ermine scatters nails on the floor and puts glue on the floor. She also puts chili sauce on the hotdog and fizzymints in the Coca-Cola. I think think this book should be for 7-10s and it's definitely a 10/10! Enjoy! - I, 8

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Questions I Asked Myself When Writing Check Mates by Stewart Foster


I asked Stewart Foster to let us inside the mind of an author at work. One thing that potentially hinders us when we create their own writing is that they don't know the questions to ask themselves as they write. If a writer isn't asking these kinds of questions they could miss out on really ensuring their writing connects with its audience and fulfils its purpose. So, see what Stewart thought about whilst he wrote 'Check Mates' and use his questions as inspiration for your own as you write.

1. Is the beginning quick enough to hold readers attention? My answer to this is to go to dialogue as soon as I can.

2. Will the reader engage with the characters? This is not the same as ‘like’. Again, the answer is to go to dialogue. I find it the best way to ‘hear’ my characters.

3. Do I have Felix’s voice right? The funny thing about this, as with all my books, is that I only knew I had it right when I was no longer conscious of doing it.

4. Was Granddad too much of the perceived stereotypical German. The answer in the first draft was yes, so I dumbed down his accent, and simply had a key phrase ‘I am thinking…’ which I found endearing and quite funny.

5. Was I just writing a series of activities that I found funny, but didn’t move the story forward? Answer, yes, a little. So, I cut out the Go-Karting and car cleaning chapters. Maybe they will see light one day, as I really did like the Go-Karts, but as they say, ‘you have to kill your darlings.’

6. Was the Stasi section too much of an info-dump? I’m terrible about this when I think I spot it in other books, but the truth is, I’m a terrible reader, so I’m no judge at all. In this case I had my daughter read it, and she said it was fine.

7. After the ‘Fall out between Felix’s friend, Jake, and Granddad, how do I get them to make up, without having three chapters of people apologising? This was probably the bit I got most stuck on, and it stopped me for a few days. Then suddenly it came to me, and as with most writing problems, one solution can often solve three things. So, my favourite chapter in Check Mates is the scene with the chess board, under the tree.

8. Am I making it too sad? In order to address this, I broke a rule and went back and read a few chapters (I never go back and read as I write). Luckily, and perhaps vainly, I found myself laughing at my own jokes. Well someone has to! But this meant I knew it was a good balance of sadness and humour.

9. This wasn’t so much a question, as a problem, and that was how to avoid the clichĂ© ending. Luckily the ending came to me when I was out cycling, and to be honest, the ending even surprised me. Of course, I can’t tell you it, as….well, it would spoil the fun!

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Book Review: 'The Adventures of Harry Stevenson' by Ali Pye

Adults love to recommend children's books. But what do kids actually think about them? For this review I decided to get my daughter's thoughts as well as give my own. And it only seemed right to let my daughter (who is in year 2) share her thoughts first:

Harry is a guinea pig who is always getting lost. Billy and Harry are best friends who always tell each other everything.

At Billy's birthday party Harry floats away and although he is scared he is determined to get back to Billy.

This book is about friendship, finding your feet and it talks a lot about a football team called 'The Sparky F.C'.

The illustrations of Harry are really cute and they are really interesting to look at.

It is simple enough for 7-11s to read but definitely entertaining.

Harry Stevenson is a really good book and it is very enjoyable to read!

And here's my review:

Harry Stevenson is a guinea pig - of course he is, what else would he be with such a name? Harry lives with Billy and is pretty much his best friend and confidant. In this new book from author and illustrator Ali Pye we get not one, but two of Harry's charming and barmy adventures.

In the first story, Billy and his family move house and in a bizarre twist of fate (or twist of the cage's latch) Harry gets left behind. Of course, he finds his way back but not without severely spooking a dog, having a close shave with a cat and ending up in a box of pizza (which he doesn't even eat as he sticks closely to a proper guinea pig diet).

The second story also sees Harry let loose in the outside, this time in an even more crazy set of circumstances - Ali Pye's illustration of a beat up VW van in hot pursuit of an airborne rodent is one I'd love to have a print of!

Speaking of the illustrations, their screenprint-style of limited, but bright, colour palette are what makes the book immediately appealing - so much so that when my copy arrived it was promptly removed from my shelf and read within a 24 hour period by my 7 year old daughter.

Once the illustrations have hooked in their readers young and old, all will delight in the warmly told stories of a boy and his guinea pig. Pye opens up the mind of a devoted pet and confirms what everyone who keeps an animal secretly hopes - that they completely understand their humans and their complicated lives and love them unconditionally. Harry's mixture of wisdom (when it comes to how Billy must be feeling about loving house, starting a new school and hoping that his football team win) and daftness (when he dreams he's eating spaghetti but is in fact chewing the strings of helium balloons) is quite delightful!

Unlike many books aimed at this age range (I'd say 6-9ish), it's one that will appeal to grown ups as well as children. It's funny without being silly, or rude, and far-fetched in such a heart-warming way that no one could dislike it! It falls into the category of 'great books to introduce children to reading chapter books', of which I've not yet read enough - thanks Ali for writing a good one!

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Book Review: 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' by Christopher Edge

Thinking back on this book there are certain things which I'm really unsure of: when was it actually set? I'd assumed here and now, but as I've thought about the mind-bending events of the story I'm now not so sure. Did some of it occur in the imagination or were there actually slips in time? A book that keeps you thinking long after you've read the last page has got to be a book worth reading.

In fact, the questions it leaves you with really give you no option but to read it again. As someone with a To Be Read pile that takes up an entire bookshelf (and that's just the children's books) re-reading is not usually an option, but in this case I think I'll have to. The knowledge that Christopher Edge has put together one of his playlists to accompany the book is another point in favour of picking up this excellent novel again, especially as it contains The Cure, Paul Weller, Beastie Boys, James, The Kinks... the list goes on.

Charlie and Dizzy are lost in the woods, looking for some strange symbols that they think might be clues as to who lives in the woods - is it spies, or is it monsters? Or is it Old Crony? And Jonny, the school bully, has ended up with them too. But as night falls (or does it?) things begin to get strange. Trippy even. And suddenly the book is kind of a World War 2 novel - but not one like you've ever read before.

The children experience strange things which are genuinely quite scary - nightmares become a kind of questionable reality where neither the characters or the reader can quite understand what is going on. However, Edge has written it cleverly enough for readers to begin to build up a picture of what might be going on - especially those who have some background knowledge of theories about time, Greek mythology and World War 2. But for those who don't know what's going on, nearly all is explained - perhaps that second read-through will reveal all, though?

And it's not just the intrigue of the plot that makes this such a captivating read - the writing itself is so evocative. I would defy anyone not to feel transported to those woods with those children on that night:

"Above our heads comes a sudden hushing of leaves, the treetops swaying with a leathery creak... Beneath the tunnel of leaves, dappled light swirls along the path like reflections on a river, but beyond this, the thick ferns and bushes straggle into shadow."

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon takes a look at how, with the benefit of understanding the bigger picture of life, some things which once seemed so important become trivial - what's the point in being at enmity with those around you when the world holds much greater enemies and threats? But it does the opposite too: if you can change the small things in life, then perhaps you can change the big things too - once one has changed one's own world, maybe they can go on to change things in the wider world.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Book Review: 'Lubna and Pebble' by Wendy Meddour & Daniel Egnéus

There are plenty of books out there that tell the story of how a child befriends an inanimate object, but none are as pertinent or as substantial as 'Lubna and Pebble' by Wendy Meddour & Daniel EgnĂ©us.

The title page gives the adult reader a good idea of the story's context: a beautiful illustration of a boat, laden with passengers, Arabic script on its hull, is seen from below the waves as sunlight pierces the water's surface. The boat is painted with flowers - this is a story of hope, yet it is the story of a small girl running from the certain horrors (never explicit) of her home land. Children will need to read the story to understand all that this image depicts.

Lubna and her Daddy are searching for safety. But where are her brothers? And where is her mother? And how will she and her father weather the winter in the camp? Pebble will help. And Daddy. Young children will identify with Lubna as she speaks to her pebble but the surprise they find in her not having a cuddly toy to provide solace will spark conversations, allowing empathy and understanding to grow.

The comfort that is afforded Lubna allows her to pass the kindness on when she meets Amir. With illustrations that are rich in imagery and simple but powerful text, even the youngest readers will feel the emotions at play here. Not only should they begin to understand, at an appropriate level, of the plight of other children in the world, they are also shown that kindness costs nothing.

Although there are plenty of picture books out there that aim to open the eyes of more privileged children, there are few which manage to achieve that with this level of simplicity and implicitness. Egnéus' imagery cleverly weaves motifs of hope - glowing light and blooming flora - with a use of colour that speaks to children's hearts. The text nearly always leaves the reader wanting to know more: why did they arrive on the beach at night? Why were Daddy's arms salty? What was the World of Tents? Why did they have to stay in the tent during winter? In this way, Meddour sensitively allows the difficult answers to be discussed between the adult who knows the child reader best, never presuming to be the one who knows how best to tackle the issues.

In a culture of entitlement, books like these are so important for our children. Although this could be read alone, I'd recommend that it is one that adults take the time to read with children. If you are struggling to explain the plight of refugees to your children then this book is a brilliant starting place.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Geography Key Questions To Ask When Learning About A Place

When reviewing and revising our curriculum to ensure better humanities coverage I began to think about how there were potentially missed opportunities for children to be revisiting and re-enforcing geography knowledge and skills.

For example, when children learn about the Ancient Romans, they might learn about Italy, or indeed any of the other places in the Roman Empire. As well as ensuring that children can place the historic period on a timeline and so on, I think it is also worth them knowing about the places where events took place.

I began to think that a common approach to learning about these places might help teachers to provide sufficient and consistent information about them. I decided a set of questions that could be asked and answered whenever a new place was 'discovered' might be a good way to structure this common approach.

The hope is that, with these questions, children will begin to build up a) a good knowledge of the world, and b) a good bank of questions that they might begin to ask more autonomously whenever they come across the mention of place that they do not know much about.

I used the National Curriculum as guidance for the following questions with the intention that NC objectives would be covered multiple times during a child's time in school.

As well as sets of questions, I've also proposed some actions that might be undertaken each time a new place is learned about - one of the main aims of these actions is that children know where in the world each place that is studied is located.

A downloadable version of the below is available for free on TES: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/geography-key-questions-linked-to-ks1-2-national-curriculum-12133248

Thanks must go to Geography Meg on Twitter for inspiring me with her CLOCC acronym.

KS1

When learning about a new place (for example, during non-geography-based units, such as history-based units) always ask and answer these questions:

COWWS:

  • CONTINENT – Which continent is it in?
  • OCEANS AND SEAS – Which oceans or seas are nearby?
  • WEATHER – What is the weather like there? Is it hot or cold there? Is it near the equator or the poles?
  • WHO AND WHAT – Who (people) and what (animals and plants) live there?
  • SEE – What would we see there? What is natural? What has been made by humans?

A pre-populated COWWS grid - a blank
version can be found in the TES download.
When learning about a new place (for example, during non-geography-based units, such as history-based units) always carry out these actions:

• 1st: Locate it on a map of the county/region it is in (and show and discuss, using simple compass directions and locational language, where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location)
• 2nd: Locate it on a map of the country it is in (and show and discuss, using simple compass directions and locational language, where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location)3rd: Locate it on a map of the world (and show where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location)
• Locate it on a globe (and show and discuss, using simple compass directions and locational language, where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location)
• Locate it on a plan perspective or on aerial photographs
• Show images of the place (avoid only showing stereotypical images, especially when studying a whole continent or country)

KS2

When learning about a new place (for example, during non-geography-based units, such as history-based units) always ask and answer these questions:

General questions to ask about location:

HOTCLUB:

  • HEMISPHERE - Which hemisphere(s) is it in?
  • OTHER PLACES - Where is it in relation to other places we have studied or know about, including countries and continents (using 8 points of a compass)?
  • TIMEZONE - Which timezone(s) is it in?
  • CLIMATE - Which climate zone(s) is it in? (Tropical/Dry/Temperate/Continental/Polar)
  • LATITUDE - Where is it in relationship to the main lines of latitude (using 8 points of a compass)? (Arctic Circle/Tropic of Cancer/Equator/Tropic of Capricorn/Antarctic Circle) What is its latitude and longitude?
  • US - Where is it in relation to our village/town/city/county/country?
  • BODIES OF WATER - Which bodies of water are nearby?


A pre-populated HOTCLUB grid - a blank
version can be found in the TES download.
Questions to ask about the location…

…Of a continent:

• Which countries are in this continent?

…Of a country:

• What is the capital city?
• Which major cities are in this country?
• Which other countries are nearby?

…Of a city/town/village:

• Which country is it in?
• Which continent is it in?
• Which other cities/towns/villages are nearby?
• Which county/region is it located in?
• What is its grid reference?
• What are its origins?

General questions to ask about any continent/country/city etc:

Human Geography

• Who lives there?
• Which major landmarks are found here?
• What human-made features are found here?
• How was the land used here now and in the past?
• What types of settlement are found here?
• What kinds of economic activity happen here?
• Which natural resources can be found here?
• What is its population?
• (If studying a country) What do they export and where do they export it to?
• (If studying a country) What do they import and where do they import it from?

Physical Geography

• Which (terrestrial) biomes are found here? (Rain Forest/Deciduous Forest/Desert/Temperate Grassland/Tropical Grassland/ Taiga/Tundra)
• What lives there?
• What is the elevation like?
• Which major rivers and valleys are found here?
• Which major mountains are found here?
• Which natural disasters are known to happen here?

Additional, non-essential questions to ask (a non-exhaustive list):

• What is the place famous for?
• What kind of food is eaten there?
• Which religions are followed there?
• Which famous people are from there?
• What are houses and buildings like there?
• What happened there in the past?
• Which sports are played there?
• What is it like to live there?

Geography Units

If carrying out a geography-specific unit use the majority of the questions from STEEP in addition to the above questions in order to ask more in-depth questions about the place:

• Social
• Technological
• Economic
• Environmental
• Political

(Thanks to Geo Josie on Twitter for STEEP)

When learning about a new place (for example, during non-geography-based units, such as history-based units) always carry out these actions:

• 1st: Locate it on a map of the county/region it is in (and show where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location; lines of latitude; hemispheres)
• 2nd: Locate it on a map of the country it is in (and show where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location; lines of latitude; hemispheres)
• 3rd: Locate it on a map of the world (and show where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location; lines of latitude; hemispheres)
• Use computer mapping (e.g. google maps) to zoom in to and out of the place, discussing location in relation to other known places
• Locate it on a political map (and look at nearby countries and borders)
• Locate it on a physical/topographic map (and look at elevation, mountains, rivers, bodies of water)
• Locate it on a climate map (and look at the colours used to show different climatic areas)
• Locate it on a map with a satellite image overlay
• Locate it on a globe (and show where it is in relation to: other places previously studied; our country; our location; lines of latitude; hemispheres)
• Locate it on an Ordnance Survey map (and identify its grid reference and use symbols to locate local features)
• Show images of the place (avoid only showing stereotypical images, especially when studying a whole continent or country)

Useful resources for preparing information to help children answer HOTCLUB questions:

HEMISPHERE - Which hemisphere(s) is it in?

Use Google: type in ‘ + hemisphere’ e.g. ‘Algeria Hemisphere for the following, or similar:


OTHER PLACES - Where is it in relation to other places we have studied or know about, including countries and continents (using 8 points of a compass)?


https://www.climate-zone.com/ - gives information about where any country is located in relation to nearby places


TIMEZONE - Which timezone(s) is it in?


Use Google: type in ‘ + timezone’ e.g. ‘Madagascar timezone’ for the following, or similar:



https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/personal.html - use this customisable site and the snipping tool to get a snip of clocks showing GMT and any other city in any other time zone e.g.:



https://www.worldatlas.com/ - click on a continent/country; use the ‘time’ tab to find out about timezones


CLIMATE - Which climate zone(s) is it in? (Tropical/Dry/Temperate/Continental/Polar)


Tropical (A)/Dry (B)/Temperate (C)/Continental (D)/Polar (E) are the main 5 classifications in Köppen’s climate classification system. More information can be found at the following sites:


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%B6ppen_climate_classification


https://www.mindat.org/climate.php - use the colours on the map to ascertain climate zone


https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Geography/Climate - some of the terminology here is slightly different to Köppen’s climate classification system but it is useful nonetheless.


LATITUDE - Where is it in relationship to the main lines of latitude (using 8 points of a compass)? (Arctic Circle/Tropic of Cancer/Equator/Tropic of Capricorn/Antarctic Circle) What is its latitude and longitude?


https://www.climate-zone.com/ - gives the geographic coordinates for any country


https://www.worldatlas.com/ - use a world map from this site (or similar) to find and describe a place’s location in relation to the main lines of latitude. This site also gives latitude and longitude of any country and its main cities.

US - Where is it in relation to our village/town/city/county/country? 


Use a map to locate both places and describe position using compass points with reference to the prime meridian (Longitude 0Âș, Greenwich Mean Time) as this runs through the UK e.g. ‘India is to the south east of the prime meridian making it south east of the UK’


Use Google: type in ‘ to distance’ e.g. ‘UK to India distance’ for the following, or similar (add ‘km’ to search to change unit of measurement):



BODIES OF WATER - Which bodies of water are nearby?


Use a map to locate nearby major oceans and seas


Use Google: type in ‘rivers longest’ or similar e.g. ‘rivers France longest’ for the following, or similar:



Generic resources, useful for answering most of the questions:


https://www.climate-zone.com/ - gives official name, capital, area, climate, location, geographic coordinates, comparative area, land boundaries, coastline (length), terrain and elevation extremes for any country.


https://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/flags/flags.htm - flags of the world


https://www.worldatlas.com/ - for each country there are various maps (including physical, outline and location maps), basic information (including area, population, population density, currency, largest cities), history, famous natives, weather, general facts, historical timeline and more.


https://www.mapsofindia.com/worldmap/ - a wide selection of world maps can be found here including physical, political, outline, climate, tectonic plates, world time and religion maps (these maps cannot be downloaded but can be viewed on screen)


https://askabiologist.asu.edu/sites/default/files/resources/articles/biomes/world-biomes-map.gif - a useful map of the world showing biomes closely matched to the biomes selected to use (its accompanying article is useful too for defining the different biome types: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/biomes)


https://www.internetgeography.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/world-map-biomes-.png - a useful map of the world showing biomes closely matched to the biomes selected to use (its accompanying article is useful too for defining the different biome types: https://www.internetgeography.net/topics/what-is-a-biome/)


https://www.britannica.com – use this site to search for information about a place – best for countries, but also works for cities too – information for towns is limited.


https://www.kids-world-travel-guide.com/


https://www.natgeokids.com/


https://tutorful.co.uk/blog/learning-geography-useful-websites-and-resources-that-will-rock-your-world - a huge list of websites and apps to support geography learning

Monday, 10 June 2019

Empathy: A Superpower by Sita Brahmachari

"Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own: how they would cope in a crisis, if they were a refugee, or had just lost someone they loved. Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy.

Empathy Day is catching fire because in these divided times, our partners share our belief that empathy is a beacon of hope. Story-based strategies offer a concrete way of helping us understand each other better."

- Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of EmpathyLab

Now here's Sita Brahmachari to tell us more about her experience of Empathy Day and of writing books which develop empathy in their readers: 

For Empathy Lab last year I worked in Sheffield Libraries and met families at Empathy cafĂ©s. We read from my stories 'Worry Angels' (Barrington Stoke) and 'Tender Earth' (Macmillan Children’s Books) and I held Empathy workshops with young people including those from Beck School in Sheffield.

We explored joining hands together, meeting new people and building empathy within the community. Many wonderful interactions were formed and afterwards a young family sent me a letter (left). When I first met Tanisha and Nawzad and their mother the girls had silky hair down to their calves. At the second meeting the girls had cut their hair and sent it to children with cancer who needed children’s downy hair for their wigs. They said after the workshop they wanted to do something that meant a lot to them. They were so proud of their empathetic action telling me that their hair would grow and they were happy to think that a child they would never meet would find some comfort from their healthy hair.

As with all truly empathetic actions their kindness and generosity moved me. In my forthcoming story ‘Where The River Runs Gold’ (Orion Books) Shifa (meaning healing in Arabic) cuts her hair too in an act of empathy towards her family. Feelings of empathy once seeded grow more empathy.

Empathy is the golden treasure to be discovered in fiction and in life and I think of it as the superpower that can be quietly ignited in the minds and hearts of readers as they discover characters in worlds they may not yet have travelled to, or indeed may never, in reality, have access to. I believe that stories can open children’s empathy portals and offer them a life-long exploration of what it is to be human.

At a recent event at Shropshire Book Award with wonderful authors and human rights activists Liz Laird and Beverly Naidoo a student asked a question that was hard to answer: How do you write such humane books?

It set me thinking that it’s often hard for authors to talk about their process because to do so there is a temptation to make writing in empathy ink seem much neater and tidier than it ever is. Communication is complex; to truly meet another human being requires time, care and space. As Amy May in ‘Worry Angels’ says: ‘If you have a friend and you don’t share much of the same language you have to put spaces between things when you talk to each other. … I like that space when you can rest. I think if I could have that space with everyone, no matter what language they speak , where I have time to read people’s body language and look in their eyes and time to take in their words, then I wouldn’t worry so much.’ ( p77 ‘Worry Angels’)

In this story Amy May makes friends with Rima who has recently arrived from Syria with her family. Through play, art and observing each other closely Amy May and Rima discover that they have much in common though they come from very different worlds. Amy May discovers something truly precious: ‘When I sit with Rima I understand that most of the things we want to build in the sand are the same’ (p75)

Through my work with Jane Ray at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants in London I know this to be true and when presented with stories that open the empathy portal in them, children recognise it too.

When I think of Amy May’s and Rima’s interaction the words of the late MP Jo Cox are never far from my mind and heart. Amy May’s words echo Jo Cox’s call for unity in a time in which we are seeing unprecedented racially motivated attacks.

Taneisha’s and Nawzad’s empathetic action of hair cutting seems to me to be deeply connected to what writing for young people is all about.

The question How do you write such humane stories? can only be answered when I think of a book in the hands of young readers: the circuit of empathy is only completed when the reader roams in the space that Amy May speaks of and feels deeply enough to allow the story to impact on their lives and interactions.

As I return to Sheffield to spend the day with the children of Beck School on World Empathy Day 2019 I feel the importance of this work in our world today. In a whole school empathy focused day we plan to create a river of golden empathetic words on an art wall at the school… as well as an empathy ‘Graffitree’ like the trees artists paint across a dystopian city where children’s imaginations and storytelling is under threat in ‘Where The River Runs Gold’.

 The narratives we share with young people matter deeply. Golden words hold within them the power to open empathy portals in children’s imaginations and impact on their lives and communities. I’m so happy to be part of Empathy Lab’s children’s book community who understand the need to nurture this golden empathy river.

Although many of Sita's books are suitable for older primary aged children, her book Car Wash Wish is featured in Empathy Lab's 2019 Read For Empathy Guide for young people aged 11-16 which can be accessed here. Click here for the Read For Empathy Guide for primary aged children.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Cross-Curricular Links in 'The Longest Night Of Charlie Noon' (Blog Post by Christopher Edge)

One of the joys of writing for children is seeing the inspiration that young readers take from a story you have written. I’m often contacted by teachers via Twitter showing me the amazing creations their classes have produced after reading one of my novels and when I visit schools I get to see this inspirational work first-hand, from Möbius strip sculptures inspired by 'The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day' to playground rocket launches straight out of 'The Jamie Drake Equation' and fabulous creative writing where young authors have taken Albie Bright into many more exciting new worlds.

The 'Longest Night of Charlie Noon' is a story about three children who get lost in the woods, and at its heart it’s a mystery story. As Charlie, Dizzy and Johnny make their way through the woods they find strange dangers and impossible puzzles lurking in the shadows, and I hope the excitement and intrigue readers will find in the story will get them reading closely to find the clues they need to solve the mystery. As readers, they can make inference and predictions as they follow Charlie’s path through the woods, with the twists and turns of the story also maybe challenging assumptions they might make and showing them the rewards of close reading.

The puzzles in the story can also be used to help develop children’s problem solving skills. From decoding ciphers to building circuits to create their own Morse code keys, 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' shows how stories can be used to connect subjects across the school curriculum. As Charlie tries to use the stars to find a way out of the woods, links can be made to the topic of ‘Earth and Space’ in the science curriculum and the movement of stars across the night sky, whilst other science topics such as the life cycles of trees, plants and flowers and how fossils are formed are also touched on in the story. Connections could be made to Geography too, with children learning about changing environments and carrying out nature audits in their own local area, whilst there are also links to History too.

As someone who’s never been much of an outdoor type, writing 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' has helped me to connect to the natural world in a way that has fed my imagination. From mentions of 'The Wind in the Willows' to echoes of 'Brendon Chase' by ‘B B’, there are opportunities to make connections with classic works of children’s fiction and nature writing. A vocabulary of the natural world is woven through the story and I hope that young readers take these words and make them their own, enriching their vocabularies and using this wild inspiration to create their own art and stories.

Teaching resources for 'The Longest Night of Charlie Noon' are available from my website (https://www.christopheredge.co.uk/resources) and if you read the book with your class, I’d love to hear about the inspiration they find in the story. And please tell them to keep reading and change the world.