Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Book Review: 'The Dog Runner' by Bren MacDibble

The fact that I read this review copy just over a year of it being published is testatment to the fact that I loved Bren MacDibble's last book so much that I knew I had to keep this on my TBR&R (To Be Read and Reviewed) pile until I had the time to give it the attention I suspected it might deserve.

I'm glad I kept it there on the shelf, ready for such a moment: the moment being lockdown during a worldwide pandemic straight after I'd read Jack London's 'The Call of the Wild' (Goodreads review here). It's funny how things conspire together - I think I may have read this book very differently had we not been a couple of months into COVID-19 restrictions.

You see, 'The Dog Runner' is set in Australia in the near future following the spread of a fungus which has killed pretty much all plant life, but crops in particular. People in cities are struggling to survive and the best hope is out in the country where fewer people are competing for resources. Ella and her half-brother, Emery, head out on a treacherous journey in the hope of making it to Emery's mum's house. They leave behind their dad who is searching for Ella's mum after she was designated as a key worker and drafted who-knows-where to work for 8 months.

Picking up on key themes from 'How To Bee', MacDibble once again excels as she tells a tale laced with environmental and family themes. It is no mistake that readers of this will close the book with thoughts and questions in their heads: Should I begin to learn how to survive without all the things I currently take for granted? Do I need to learn how to grow my own food? What does family really mean? Who would I want to be with if I was in a similar situation?

If you've read post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction before, or indeed films within these genres, then you'll have a pretty good idea of the kind of plot line you'll find in 'The Dog Runner'. Two kids on the run, fighting for survival against both the elements and potential enemies, placing all their hope and energies into reaching a place where they think they will be safe the the forseeable future. The Australian setting, the dog team, the nature of the disaster that has become the world and the family scenarios are the context in which the adventure unfolds.

But this certainly isn't a depressing book. It is full of light and beautiful moments between the characters, and between them and their dogs. Seeds of hope are sewn throughout the book - indeed, there are some positive plot twists where ordinarily you might expect events which plunge the protagonists further into the pit - and, ultimately it is not all doom and gloom in the end.

The real beauty of the book is that there is a message of hope for the reader - the events of the book are something that we can perhaps avoid, and if not, can be prepared for. It celebrates togetherness and collaboration and it encourages responsibility when it comes to food. On this second point, the story could germinate further exploration of where the food we rely on for life comes from and how it is produced, and what are alternatives might be if we want to live more sustainably.

All in all, a cracking adventure with plenty of tension and a novel setting for the action to take place. 'The Dog Runner' is an ideal introduction to a genre which is popular for teens and adults, but less so for younger readers. Suitable for children aged 10+.

Friday, 22 May 2020

What will we do to best support the mental and emotional wellbeing of children on the reopening of schools?


My colleague Yasemin Cevik asked me to join this Teachmeet but unfortunately I had to decline her offer. Instead I wrote a quick answer to the question that is up for debate. I tried to take one particular angle, expecting that other speakers would pick up on other aspects of the answer to this question. It's about Bradford but it goes for all children:

“What will we do to best support the mental and emotional wellbeing of Bradford’s children on the reopening of schools?”

I think the key word here is ‘best’ as it acknowledges that there is no perfect way to do this – we can only do our best. As teachers we often strive for perfection – it’s because we care so much – but perfection is unattainable.

That sounds pretty pessimistic but if we want mental and emotional wellbeing for Bradford’s children then we need to pay a lot of mind to the mental and emotional wellbeing of Bradford’s education workers.

‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’, goes the saying. And it is true for this situation that we find ourselves in. Teachers who are striving for perfection and setting themselves unattainable goals are not going to experience good mental and emotional wellbeing. And, once we have more children back in (the word ‘reopening’ is incorrect – we have been open the whole time), teachers, co-teachers, leaders and other school staff are going to need to be emotionally strong and resilient so that the children have the chance of experiencing the same.

Yes, there are plenty of things we can do directly for the children: a Recovery Curriculum, as written about by Barry Carpenter (1), covers most of what school staff need to think about in terms of emotional wellbeing, and we must take care of all the logistics of keeping the school a safe place to be so as to curb the spread of virus (2). But in doing all of these things, the school staff who are responding to this unprecedented situation put their own mental health on the line.

This must be a key concern for school leaders, and for those who wish to be a supportive colleague regardless of their position. We are all in this together and everyone involved will need support. Headteachers will benefit from an appreciative word from a recently qualified teacher. Regular check-ins from a more experienced teacher will be essential for trainee teachers. Mentors and coaches will need to cast aside their regular agenda in order to focus on how their mentees and coaches are coping with the changes in policy and practice. A little encouraging message from colleagues will be a balm to the soul of members of SLT, working away in the background on the nitty gritty of wider opening.

My point is this: we can all help each other to weather this storm and as we help each other, we will be best placed to help the children. Kindness is essential at this time. Yes, kindness to ourselves – get your sleep, eat well (but don’t forgo all treats), exercise, watch your favourite series, get outside, keep in touch with family – but kindness to each other, too.

Empathy will be key. Never suppose you know how someone is feeling – although we are experiencing the same pandemic, we are not all experiencing the pandemic in the same way. Take the time to find out how people have felt during all its different stages, and make sure you know where they’re at presently. Don’t assume to know based on your own experience. This goes for staff and for children.

Much of the time when we open schools to more children should be spent in this exploratory manner. With adults it might be more obvious, with children it could be more subtle. Make time for discussions which allow children to air their views – do this in different group sizes, or 1-to-1 if necessary. Allow your story reading to flow into conversations about how the characters’ experiences mirror the children’s own thoughts and feelings. Make time for collaborative activities (they can still be socially distanced if you want to go for that), team quizzes and games and other activities where children connect with one another mentally and emotionally. Whatever the activity, allow people the chance to share, and be sensitive to their needs as they do.

We can best support the mental and emotional wellbeing of Bradford’s children on the reopening of schools by taking care of the members of staff who will be taking care of them and by knowing and taking into account of each individual’s experience of the last couple of months. Empathy and kindness will be king upon wider opening – any school who attempts anything other than this will take a hit in the years to come, both in staff and pupil wellbeing.
______________________________________________________________________________

1. Carpenter, R: A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and life for our children and schools post pandemic (https://www.ssatuk.co.uk/blog/a-recovery-curriculum-loss-and-life-for-our-children-and-schools-post-pandemic/)
2. Gov.uk: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-implementing-protective-measures-in-education-and-childcare-settings)

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Book Review: Mohinder's War by Bali Rai

I love a historical novel set in World War Two so when I saw that Bali Rai had written another (read my review of his excellent Now Or Never - A Dunkirk Story) I jumped at the chance of reading and reviewing it.

Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar.

The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life:

'We are all family,' he said. 'Every man, woman and child on this earth. I believe that all of creation is one whole. We are bound together, each of us, by invisible links, and all are equally important.'

During the course of the story, as result of key events (desparately trying to avoid spoilers here but there is treachery), their friendship develops into something much more resembling a father/daughter relationship - an interesting, rarely explored dynamic between two unrelated characters. This aspect of the story is executed particularly well with some genuinely lovely moments between Joelle and Mohinder, resulting in a very ultimate act of commitment and love (again, trying to avoid spoilers).

I would advise caution when choosing to give or read this book to children - it actually contains some quite starkly violent scenes, ones which in the context may not have been out of the ordinary, but which could be shocking to children living in a time and place of peace. Seeing as the action focuses not on warfare between soldiers, but civilian acts of resistance and episodes of violence against civilians, this less familiar territory should be carefully trodden. Having said that, with the right adult guide, the content of this book would be suitable for 11+ children who have some historical understanding of the time period.

That aside, this is a heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery and derring-do. Joelle and Mohinder use their wits to work together, defying all odds in their bid to escape France to the safety of Britain. With an exciting climax sure to ignite the imaginations of young readers, this is a fantastic adventure story which provides a much-needed window into a World War which has, to greater or lesser extent, been whitewashed: Bali Rai's latest book is a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

'Mohinder's War' will be available on 11/6/2020 and is part of Bloomsbury's Flashbacks series.

Friday, 15 May 2020

From @TeachPrimary Magazine: Sounds Like A Plan

"Enjoyment and engagement of learning can, and should be, intrinsic: the act of learning is enjoyable and engaging, providing that you are actually learning."

Read my latest article for Teach Primary Magazine for free online, pages 50 and 51:

https://aplimages.s3.amazonaws.com/_tp/2020/0515-NewIssue/TP-14.4.pdf?utm_source=TPNewsletter&utm_medium=20200515&utm_campaign=Issue11

"Imagine a way of working that was not only more responsive to children’s needs, but was also better for teacher wellbeing. If there was such a way, surely we’d all want to be doing it? I’d like to suggest it is possible; that by planning learning sequences and designing lessons flexibly we can provide for individual needs without it being a huge burden on our time and energy.

In order to ensure that our planning and teaching doesn’t impact negatively on our wellbeing, we have to find an efficient way to work. And in order for something to be efficient, it usually needs to be simple. However, teaching can often be overcomplicated by myriad solutions for how to engage children, manage behaviour, include technology, make links to other subjects, and so on."

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

#DailyWritingChallenge: Achieving Unity Through Harmony And The Recognition of Individuality

Unity

Unity = oneness.

An undivided entity seen as complete in itself.

How often are we, within our schools, really united? How often do we play together as a team?

Often we can all be siloed away, doing our own thing, perhaps acting in smaller teams but never as a whole.

We all play our different parts, but just like a body, we should be acting together for a common purpose.

At the root of a united staff team will be unity of vision. Often we talk about clarity when we consider vision, but clarity isn't enough. Yes, our common goals must be clear, but they must also become the goals of each of the smaller units within the united whole. Not until there is a unity of vision will there be a pulling together of those sudivided units into a whole new super-unit.

However, this isn't as simple as just brainwashing every person to believe in the same thing as the school leaders. Even if that was done, you wouldn't end up with a team of people all thinking and believing the same thing. Why? Because each individual has their own starting point: an experienced teacher with years of opinion-forming under their belt will not need the same input as an NQT who is ready to be moulded.

No, you see, even if the aim is to become a team, you can't make a team by treating everyone the same. Although it is oneness we are trying to achieve, we can't remove the individual from the picture. Leaders must celebrate individuality and uniqueness; the skills and expertise that each member of staff has. They must also acknowledge the weaknesses as well as the strengths.

Harmony

It's almost a paradox: to get everyone singing off the same hymn sheet for the benefit of the school and the children, leaders need to give each member of staff a different hymn sheet. For choir leaders, this is not an unknown thing: the person singing tenor will read a completely different line of music to the one singing bass;  there will be another line for the soprano, another for the alto, and so on. Each singer needs something slightly different - often each line will be on the same sheet of music, but the singer knows which bit is for them.

In the above scenario, someone who had very little experience of music, when told that the singers were all going to sing something different, would understandably expect dischord. If it was an unskilled arranger who had put together the piece of music, perhaps they'd be right. But with a skillful arranger, one who knows which notes sound sweet together, and which ones clash - someone with all the necessary music theory - a beautiful, harmonic, euphonious sound will be the product.

The school leader as arranger knows each member of the team, knows that they want to achieve unity, but knows that each one will need a slightly different approach to development in order for them to pull together with others into a single, harmonious unit.

This has implications for the CPD opportunties that school leaders provide: the one-size-fits-all approach won't cut it. Does everyone need to attend the same training sessions? Should everyone's one-to-one be focused on coaching, or should some be recieving mentoring? Do others need peer-to-peer support whilst some recieve the attentions of a leader? Who is it that needs help at the planning stage, and who could do with support in the classroom?

Skilled leaders will have this overview of their staff, and will treat them as individuals, and in return will benefit from a united team - a body of different parts which work together to allow the whole to function. Such leaders will not only arrange for each member of staff to have a bespoke hymn sheet, but will also then conduct the choir, orchestrating great movements which fill the corridors and classrooms with the pleasing and harmonious sound of learning.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

#DailyWritingChallenge: Patience (In School Leadership)

I wanted to quote someone like Yoda to begin this post, but having just watched the first 6 Star Wars films, I know now that there is no point where he actually says 'Have patience my young padawan' despite this having become a fairly well-known maxim. I'm certainly going to avoid quoting Take That and on this occasion will refrain from googling 'famous quotes about patience'. Actually, over the years, my go-to place for encouragement regarding patience is the Bible, which has a lot to say about the matter.

First of all, it encourages patience a lot. It also says that patience is an attribute of true love. But it is to the 'wisdom literature' that I would take myself today:

A person’s wisdom yields patience;
it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.
- Proverbs 19:11 (NIV)

Through patience a ruler can be persuaded,
and a gentle tongue can break a bone.
- Proverbs 25:15 (NIV)

The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
and patience is better than pride.
- Ecclesiastes 7:8 (NIV)

Being patient is one of my enduring battles - it most certainly does not come naturally to me. Compounded by the fact that I am a perfectionist, I often want everything right away - and it better be just right, too.

This impacts in all areas of life, albeit in different outworkings. At home, I'm more likely to allow my impatience to seep out in frustration and anger. At work, as a school leader, I am more restrained: I attempt to mask it for the sake of professionalism, but impatience then eats away at me internally.

When you are a leader, you actually rely a lot on other people. Whilst they may look to you for leadership, you look to them to follow. And, for many reasons, people don't always follow. Or sometimes they don't follow in just the way you want them to. Or sometimes they follow so much that it seems like there is very little independent thought.

In schools, there are daily opportunities for leaders to exercise patience: with children who are struggling with a concept; with parents upset by a decision that has been made; with teachers working hard to improve their practice; with fellow leaders you don't always see eye to eye with; with the time it takes to feed all the children at lunchtime; with colleagues who are finding it difficult to work together - the list could go on.

But I come back to those proverbs above.

The first practical suggestion we get is that patience can be developed by wisely overlooking things. Obviously, wisdom is the key here - we can't go about school overlooking everything - some things need addressing, but we can be selective in this, and we can prioritise. Not everything needs sorting now - some things can wait, others are more pressing. By shelving some concerns for a later date, we can focus on doing fewer things better, feel like we are achieving something, and not feel so impatient. By doing this we reduce the number of things we are impatient for, and therefore reduce the overall feeling of impatience making it a more manageable emotion.

The second thing we could learn is that by maintaining a gentle tongue, we are more likely to remain patient. Elsewhere in the Bible it says the tongue is like a rudder: the things we say determine our direction. If we find it easier to manage what we say, then we might be able to control our patience. Having in mind to always speak politely, courteously, slowly, with thought and with a mind to the feelings of others can actually help us to be more patient with other people. Firstly, they will detect less of our impatience, and most likely our own words will have a soothing affect on our own feelings. I know that I can control the things I say better than the things I feel inside, so that seems like a logical starting point.

The third is both a reminder to stay humble (humility being the opposite of pride) and to remember, in a sense, that we will get there in the end.

Impatience, particularly with others, stems, in part, from pride - the belief that we could do it better, or that our way is right. It also comes from selfishness - believing that the best outcome for us is that something happens right away. C.S. Lewis wrote 'Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.' - being a leader is not about us, it's about them - the people we lead. We must think more about them and their needs, than we do our own. Why are we impatient - because we want results now. Why might results now be impossible? Because we depend on others to get results for us. And those people have an intricate mass of interwoven needs - we have to think of them, and how we can help them, before we can even think about the results we desire from them.

Then, to finish, we are reminded that we will get there in the end. With diligence we will. With impatience we won't. Impatience never speeds up the arrival of a good thing, and if it does, then that good thing is usually marred. There are very few quick routes to children grasping concepts, parents coming round to your point of view, teachers becoming consistently great, convincing fellow leaders of something, getting all the children through the canteen, mending fractured relationships between colleagues. If we impatiently employed quick-fixes in all the above scenarios, they would soon fall apart again.

The end will be better than the beginning and we have to fall back and rest on that truth as school leaders, knowing that if we patiently plod away (and plodding is how it will sometimes feel) we will get there in the end.

@thatboycanteach on The Well Teacher Podcast

Teacher and author Jamie Thom invited me onto his podcast to discuss all things teacher wellbeing - I had a great time chatting to him and would like to thank him for the opportunity! Listen in below:

From: http://www.slowteaching.co.uk/2020/05/11/take-control-work-life-balance/

LISTEN ON APPLE PODCASTS | LISTEN ON SPOTIFY | LISTEN ON GOOGLE PODCAST



One thing I know I have been notoriously bad at in my teaching career has been finding a balance. I have always struggled with switching off from the all-consuming nature of teaching, and in proactively managing work demands.

This week’s episode of ‘The Well Teacher Podcast’ is for anyone else who has struggled with this perfectionism strand that haunts so many teachers. Aidan Severs, who writes the very popular thatboycanteach.co.uk blog has made teacher wellbeing one of his major focusses as a deputy head and a writer.

In this episode we unpick how to step away from technology and become a digital minimalist, we explore how minimalism could be applied to teaching in general, examine what it takes to say no and push back on the demands of teaching and discover why Aidan will no longer be teaching lessons dressed as an elephant.

If that isn’t a reason to listen, I don’t know what is! It is an episode packed full of practical and easy to implement tips, I hope you find it helpful!

Sunday, 10 May 2020

#DailyWritingChallenge: Dreams

This blog post doesn't really belong here, but here it is anyway.

Hannah Wilson's #DailyWritingChallenge theme for Friday was 'Dreams' and this is a version of the strange dream I had last night:

He is late down again. I call up for him, as usual. He comes down, dragging his blanket with him, yawning and rubbing his eyes – like a just-woken child from a cartoon. The full cliché. The sight of him simultaneously annoys me and fills me with an overwhelming feeling of utter devotion.

It is just me and him now. Inseparable, others say. But there is a greater truth to it than that. There is no choice in the matter. He is there with me, and we have grown to like it that way.

I sit at the table, writing. Writing is my way of making sense of this world and these things that have happened. He drags himself to the bench and sits down. It’s what I wanted. I can’t stand him staying in bed, lazily. I can’t stand being down here on my own.

Today is the day – we can’t stay here longer, really. I think through our itinerary – always worrying that I’ve got a time wrong, that connections will be missed, that the destination won’t be everything I’ve built it up to be.

We’re all packed and ready to go. I take a last look around – I’ve been taking last looks around for a week now, thinking of all that I will miss about this place. About the memories that cling to the furniture and haunt the dusty corners. He isn’t there in all the memories, but I’m the one who tells the stories round here so if I want him there, he is.

Walking to the station, dragging bags behind me, I lose myself in daydreams. Daydreams of how we’ll thrive and prosper in the new place. Of how we will find friends, family even. Of how we’ll be taken care of.

Sitting back in the rough, prickly seats of the train gives me chance to write again. He sits next to me wittering on about what he sees out of the window and asking a million questions. All the things he wants to know about everything and nothing. Are we there yet? Can we have the snacks now?

Later on, we arrive. I slump down on the bed, exhausted. The bags left strewn around.

I get up to unpack – there are drawers and a wardrobe. I tell him to do his too because if I didn’t his stuff would stay in bags forever. He unzips the holdall I’ve been humping around for him all day, opens it up and begins to pull out his things. Except they’re not his things. They’re mine, and they’re useless. All the things I knew to leave behind. The things that wouldn’t be useful here. What’s more, they are the things that would drag me back, time and time again, to the old times.

I snatch up the bag, pulling item after item out of the bag. I fling them across the room, not caring where they land. “Where are your clothes?” I scream. “What do you expect to wear?” I ask. He stands there, not saying anything, voiceless.

I turn away, snatch up my journal and begin scribbling away, my pen scratching across the page, ink blotching and faltering. How could he be so stupid? Why did he do this to me? Doesn’t he know that if it wasn’t for me he wouldn’t even be here?

And when I turn around again, calmed by my scrawling, he is gone. And I know he isn’t coming back. I know I’ve written him out, that in my anger I’ve severed the ties that bound us. Those comforting cords that formed my safety net.

I also know that trying to bring him back into my life is fruitless – miracles don’t happen anymore. He was real to me and it was a real life that was lost. Just because I am the author of it all doesn’t mean that I can defy the laws of nature.

I am alone now, and it was my own anger, my own lack of love that made it that way. My fault. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say – and it might be true. Certainly, the one who wields either should be exceedingly careful: violent and regretful actions can be executed by both.

However, should I have had only a sword, I would still have him. He’d still be here and I wouldn’t be all alone again.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Being A Reading Teacher 2020


Back in the summer of 2016 I blogged about how I'd become a Reading Teacher (with a capital R and T, as Teresa Cremin says). I reflected on how prior to that year, and therefore for quite a huge chunk of my career as a teacher, I had not even been able to class myself as a reader, let alone a Reading Teacher. I went on to outline the benefits of being a Reading Teacher that I had experienced in the 8 months since I had taken up reading again.

I re-read that blog post today, maybe for the first time since 2016. So complete is my transformation that I was shocked to even recall that there was a time when I was not a reader, nor a Reading Teacher.

Back then, I recommended that anyone wanting to develop a reading habit should join Goodreads, and I'd echo that today as it has been a boon to my development as a reader. There's a part of my character that really likes the challenge of trying to read a certain number of books and another part which likes to document my own progress.

Over the years my reading interests have meandered but never waned. Sometimes I read a lot of picture books. Other times I read a string of Middle Grade novels. After that I often get MG fatigue and read something a little more grown up, a little more factual, a little different, at least.

I've tried to read outside of my comfort zone without running roughshod over my rights as a reader. I read what I want (but not when I want - life dictates otherwise) and I follow my fancy: the next book on my TBR pile is not always the next book I read. If I get into Viking-themed children's literature then the next few books might just have to be along those lines too. Invariably this kind of activity causes me to side-step into reading of adult non-fiction related to the subjects and themes of the children's books I've been reading. One book inspires the next in one way or another.

I'm writing this as a reflective and celebratory post, so I am sorry if it comes across as smug and showboaty. But I'm also writing it because in the intervening years I think I have noticed a problem.

I have been fairly vocal about my love for reading, not only on social media but in the schools I have worked at and have worked up a reasonable reputation as someone who loves reading (I won nerdiest teacher award the year I left my previous place and my #shelfie was easy for the children to guess because it contained many children's books). But I think I may have given a false impression: namely that I have always been a reader and that it comes naturally to me. Children and colleagues do not know that I consciously transformed myself into a reader. I suppose I suspect that this makes going from zero to being a full-on reader is unattainable - that in some ways my obsession and fervour is actually a stumbling block to others.

I need to rectify this. I need to be brave enough to share my story - to show that changes can be made to one's habits. I think those who feel like there is no time in life to become a reader might need to hear my experience of how changing habits can make more time for reading. Or perhaps I'm just assuming too much that I can change other people? Even if I don't need to explicitly share these things, I certainly don't want to act in a way that puts other people off finding their own obsession with reading.

Another point of reflection for me is that, since writing, I have become class-less. I now no longer have so many opportunities to speak to children about my love for books. Sure, every day that I sit in the canteen and eat with the children I ask them about the books they are reading and engage with them on the subject. I get down on my knees at the bookshelves when children are choosing books and pick out a few recommendations - some children even know to come and find me for this purpose.

If my school is to be one where Reading Teachers lead in the classroom then the school needs a Reading Deputy to lead it. A Reading Deputy who finds and creates more opportunities in the day to share the book love with the children. If you are a class-less teacher who still manages to do this I'd be very interested to hear from you - Simon Smith and Karl Duke, I'm looking to you guys as I know you are doing fantastic things. But I know that there will be many other SLT members and other non-class-based members of staff who manage to take a lead on reading - please get in touch with your tips and advice for me!

There is a part of me which is satisfied that I managed to bring myself on this journey, regardless of whether or not others join me. But there still remains the desire to share this passion - and it will be this desire, this passion, that wins over the satisfaction of knowing that I myself am a reader. I understand the benefits of reading and I want other people to experience them too - that's no bad thing. So forgive me once more if this post was just some self-congratulatory tosh, but I can't stop talking up reading and trying to get other people on their own journey as readers.

Must dash - there are books to be read.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Book Review: 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission' by David Long

I've read quite a lot of children's non-fiction books about space, and whilst many are excellent, they can usually be put into one of two categories: easy-to-read but fact-light or fact-heavy but harder-to-read. This book, 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission', sits very nicely in the middle: packed with astounding facts but extremely simply written - and that is by no means an insult. To be able to convey such information in such a way that young children (or older ones who struggle with reading) can understand it is a rare skill.

Beginning with a few chapters of background information - the space race, the Apollo 11 moon landings - the book then gets into the real story, one that is less often told to children: that of Apollo 13 (more recently of Tom Hanks film fame). The story contains everything that fiction has and more: the narrative non-fiction writing is woven with straight non-fiction, providing those amazing titbits of information that will make readers gasp aloud and then find someone to tell the fact to. For example, did you know that 'when a spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it is travelling at nearly seven miles a second'? Wow! Perfect for information-hungry young minds.

David Long's story-telling takes a very conversational tone which will make the reader feel like they are talking to someone they are familiar with - an enthusiastic teacher or a knowledgeable relative. (example: You might think the easiest thing would be for them to just turn the rocket around and fly back to Earth, but things are never that simple when you’re this far out in space.) The writing prompts questioning and provokes a level of engagement that other books lack. What's for certain is that this is not a boring book.

The book is brilliantly illustrated by Stefano Tambellini. Some of the illustrations are in the form of diagrams, others depict events from the story - both serve to enhance to the text as well as to break it up, making this 80-pager a far less daunting read. The book is split into super-manageable chapters too and the story is well-paced to ensure that readers are nothing but gripped.

Perfect for KS2 readers, as well as some expert readers in KS1, the book is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 13 mission. This is a perfect time to learn about the bravery of the crew and the initiative taken by NASA staff, ultimately ensuring that no lives were lost - and as your children might be too young to watch the film, 'Survival In Space: The Apollo 13 Mission' by David Long is the perfect resource!

Read the first chapter now on Barrington Stoke's website: https://www.barringtonstoke.co.uk/books/survival-in-space-apollo-13/

https://issuu.com/barringtonstoke/docs/survival_in_space_the_apollo_13_mission_chapter_sa

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Book Review: 'Now or Never - A Dunkirk Story' by Bali Rai

It's hard to write an enthusiastic review about a story so terrible. Terrible because the horrific events which inspired this telling are true. Not terrible because it is told badly - not at all.

The evacuation of Dunkirk took place in the May and June of 1940. It saw the evacuation of over 330,000 troops to Britain as Nazi German forces closed in, however 68,000 men were captured or killed during the operation. Bali Rai's tale of Private Fazal Khan, a member of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, and his journey to Dunkirk is an enlightening but sadenning one. He, his company and their mules, under the leadership of the wonderful Captain Ashdown, trek across France, braving one of the worst winters on record and the constant terror of German airstrikes, not to fight but to flee.

However, despite the awful circumstances of that first year of the second world war, there are incredible moments of light in this brilliant book. The fact that this story is even being told - how men from all over the then British Empire signed up, feeling like they were doing their duty - is a major positive. There's also the flashbacks to a young Fazal's life when lessons he learnt from his grandfather come in handy as he deals with death and destruction at the hands of an enemy. Then, when you are expecting racist antagonism from all quarters, you read of kind, humane characters who accept the Indian soldiers as equals and who treat them with great respect.

There is, however, a realistic depiction of prejudice and discrimination coming from individuals and of systemic racism coming from the British government. Yet, again, there are some lovely moments where Fazal and his best friend Mush get the opportunity to teach the British soldiers a little more about the culture and religion (both are Muslims) giving this story a spiritual backbone that isn't always found in children's books.

This is a frightening story, one which doesn't avoid the horrors of the war. Nor is it gory, thus making it an appropriate read for children in upper key stage 2 and beyond. It is the sort of novel, however, which shouldn't be read lightly - there are serious issues to discuss here and I'd expect most children who read it would want to talk it through during and after reading. This would be ideal as a class read for those studying WW2 at school - especially as it presents a very different perspective of the war. A totally recommended read, just not an easy one.

This book is the first in Scholastic's Voices series. Click here to read my review of  'Empire's End - A Roman Story' by Leila Rasheed, the latest book in the series.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book Review: 'Wink' by Rob Harrell

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience.

Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11.

As main character Ross tells us about the present situation - the treatments and the trials and tribulations of school life and friendships - he intersperses it with flashbacks of the diagnosis, the medical decision-making process and how he shared his news with his family and friends. I'm not sure exactly if the voice that Harrell gives to Ross is realistic, but it certainly is brilliantly hilarious - full of sarcasm, often playing on stereotypical relationships between children and their parents, as well as with their peers at school.

Having said that, pretty much any stereotypes that exist in the story are smashed by the end - the bully, the grumpy old man, the embarassing dad, the scary-looking punk, the popular girl and the stepmum are all allowed to let their true colours shine. In fact, in a book about a boy who is scared about how his public image is affected by his cancer treatment, the focus is more on how he percieves others than one would expect.

The story provides a great case study in how to talk to someone who is going through a tough time. Ross is annoyed in equal measure by the constant questions about how he's doing and the total lack of engagement (as displayed by one of his best friends, Isaac). However, the tightrope is walked perfectly by his other best friend, Abby, who knows him well enough to know when to sit and listen, when to talk and when to challenge Ross for his own selfishness.

Inter-generational friendships abound in 'Wink' too - most notably as Ross gets to know his radiation technician and Jerry, a much older cancer patient who he bumps into every time he's at the clinic. Both storylines are heartwarming, but for different reasons. Frank, the guy who gives Ross his radiation therapy, introduces Ross to music - hard, angry music which speaks right into Ross' life and situation - and eventually becomes Ross' guitar teacher. Jerry, in his gruff old way, provides Ross with the grounding he needs - advice he can take from someone who has been through it.

The whole story ends in riotous, harmonious dischord - a true real life ending. Ross gets to rock out at the school talent contest, showing the real bullies what's what and who's who, sending his best friend Abby off to her new home and gaining a new true friend in the process. It truly is bittersweet.

Recommended for the upper end of the Middle Grade range (so, year 6 to 8 in English money), this is an story is one that needs to be heard. Navigating illness and the potential of death is a tricky topic for children of this age, and one that is dealt with pretty strangely sometimes in popular media. 'Wink' walks the line perfectly and could teach adults and youngsters alike a thing or two about how to come to terms with such difficult issues.

Oh, and there's also really cool comics throughout the book featuring Ross' own character, Batpig!

Wink was published in the UK on 31st March 2020 by Hot Key Press

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Book Review: 'Viper's Daughter' by Michelle Paver

I'll admit from the outset of this review that despite being an avid reader of children's books I'd never read a Chronicles of Ancient Darkness book before, not even 2004's 'Wolf Brother' which kicked off the whole series. Now, after an 11-year hiatus, Michelle Paver is back with 'Viper's Daughter', which, thankfully, I can confirm, works brilliantly as a standalone novel.

I'm often wary of children's books involving magic (although I do read a lot of them) but this one is different. The magic is deeply rooted in a spirituality which pervades all human life in the time period the story is set in - a pre-agricultural Stone Age. And it is spirituality which marks this book out as different to so many novels written for this age range: the idea that strongly-held beliefs could guide someone's life choices to such a degree as they do for those in Torak's world is alien to many children today. Making sense of how humanity interacts with the natural world surrounding it, the 'religion' followed may be fictitious but it could help children to empathise with and understand those who follow modern religions.

But I digress. The acknowledgement, worship and fear of higher forces lends credibility to the magic in this book. Those who are more open to understanding nature are more able to work with it and use it to bring about change - in this sense, the magical ability of some of the book's characters is believable,  and not just convenient to ensure the plot progresses. As for the plot, it's a classic good vs. evil, overthrow the villain type affair - and an exeedingly good one which is set in a vividly-painted world.

As he tracks his 'mate' Renn, Torak's epic journey with Wolf takes him from his native forest into the arctic regions, encountering different clans and a surprising and awesome array of wildlife (including an exciting encounter with a now extinct species) on his way. Despite depicting a very hard way of life, Paver's descriptions of survival in the great outdoors is inspiring. Releasing into a nation of people confined to their homes, this book will surely make the young reader re-assess their current way of living, and at the very least will ready young minds for exploring nature more deeply, either during their daily allowed exercise, or in more depth once the lockdown is over.

Equity between male and female is a surprising theme in the story. And whilst the topic is dealt with in a light-handed way, it is there nontheless - the contrast drawn between the parity and respect that Torak and Renn share and the way that one particular clan treats their womenfolk. And for one character it is a story of emancipation and empowerment - an important storyline for children living in a modern society which still has some way to go before fairness reigns.

Perfect for children in UKS2 and KS3, this is a fantastically unique fantasy story which speaks to heart, mind, body and soul. A story in the vein of the greatest and oldest adventure epics, and importantly, one that raises many pertinent questions for our own life and times. I shall certainly be seeking out the other books in this series, such was the excellence of this one.

Published by Head of Zeus/Zephyr books on 02 April 2020 * 256pp * £7.99 * 9781789542400

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Book Review: 'DustRoad' by Tom Huddleston

This book is so cinematic I ate popcorn as I read it, I kid you not. Every page sees the reader's retinas seared with images so lucid, if not a little hazy from desert dust, that it is impossible not to feel like you are living the action.

And in 'DustRoad', action there is a-plenty. Huddleston, it appears, is a master of the set-piece - something that not many authors these days seem to even deem necessary. In that sense it harks back to the old days of serialised children's stories - the ones that were published a chapter a week and that probably would have been cut if readers lost interest. Whether it's a Mad Max-style car chase, a bull ring event (albeit without any livestock, only crazy cars) or a pirate attack on an ark, within a page or two the action is taken to boiling point by way of razor-sharp writing.

It's not just the action that is written with such precision - descriptions of post-apocolyptic places pull on the memories and ideas we have of cities and landscapes that exist somewhere in the world. Despite being so distorted by a world ravaged by rising water levels and the fall out of humanity, the locations of this all thriller, no filler adventure are as clear as day. It doesn't matter that none of us have ever seen a half-subemerged plexglass globe that acts as a parliament building, you'll know exactly what it looks and feels like when you read about it.

Whilst the first novel in this series, FloodWorld, seemed very bleak and devoid of hope, there is something about this one that seems much more optmistic. Sure, the odds are more than stacked against Kara, Joe and Nate as they travel thousands of miles, often apart from each other, in their attempt to bring about a little more piece in the fractured world they inhabit, but their determined outlook and their wiliness brings them through. Yet, not all is well, not by a long stretch. The book is punctuated by stabs of realism - in such utter brokenness, how could a few kids really make a difference?

Yet difference they do make - a powerful message to the young readers of this book. Joe, Kara and Nate may not be able to save the world in 309 pages, but they can make a sizeable contribution to what this reader hopes will be eventual salvation. But for that, we willhave to wait for book 3... that's assuming this is a trilogy!

The cast our heroes encounter on their way is brilliant too - an unearthly quintumverate of rebellious leaders, a scary but kind dump-dwelling artist, a gang of teenage petrolheads and some seemingly back-from-the-dead meglomanics (not all of whom have retained a full desire for power) all feature in this blockbuster of a novel.

If there's one book I've read this year that needs the Steven Spielberg treatment, it's this one - the hardwork of making it screen-ready has already been done. Recommended for fans of Philip Reeves' Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb sequences as well as for fans of high octane blockbusters.

Give that at the time of writing cinemas are closing and the world seems as dystopian as some of us have ever known it, it's the perfect time to self-isolate with a book that at least reminds us that things could perhaps be worse!

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Book Review: 'Crater Lake' by Jennifer Killick

You, or your child, may want to exercise caution when choosing to read this book.

Let's take the context first: it's a year 6 residential that goes very wrong. If a year 6 child reads this this year they are going to be super upset that because of COVID-19 they are most likely going to miss their summer residential. However, if a year 5 child reads this they will most likely want to avoid next year's residential like the plague. Simultaneously, Montmorency school's outward bound trip to Crater Lake is the stuff of nightmares and dreams come true.

Do you really want a distraught year 6 or a petrified year 5 on your hands?

Secondly, the events are pretty horrifyingly terrible - if this stuff really ever happened there would be no school trips ever again. There would be no amount of risk assessing that could convince a teacher to put children in such danger - forget risk assessing, teachers would need to be succession planning. However, the almost-nonchalant approach to averting crisis that the main character, Lance, takes, is most certainly likely to make any upper key stage 2 reader supremely confident in his or her own ability to casually battle parasitic aliens.

Do you really want to be scared out of ever running a residential again? Do you really want to give a child the confidence to take insanity-level risks?

I'm going to suppose the answers to the above questions are all affirmative and go on with this review.

'Crater Lake' is not one of those books where you wait around for ages for something to happen. Killick makes short work of introducing the characters - after a few pages you feel like you've been at school with the kids for 6 years and it's not long before their coach hits a bloodstained crazy dude who warns them not to go to Crater Lake. Inevitably the tropey evil assistant head pushes on with the visit and the children arrive at the world's weirdest outdoor residential centre.

With bags of humour (seriously) and never a dull moment, Lance guides his friends and the reader on a textbook how-to-evade-crazy-evil-non-humans mission to save year 6 and get out of the place. And this book has heart too: as the friends work together, they discover even more about each other than they ever knew before. As the plot thickens, their insecurities fade and as they trust each other in defeating their enemy together, they trust each other with their life stories. Sounds cheesy, but it isn't - in amongst the sci-fi horror there are brilliant moments of realism that all school children of a certain age will easily identify with.

I would suggest that anyone who wants to tear their way through a rip-roaring adventure story should read this book, but I have an even more specific recommendation: for reluctant readers who are fans of roleplay computer games and action movies, this might just be the book that turns them on to reading forever. Just as Point Horror and Goosebumps recruited swathes of cool kids to reading in the 90s, Jennifer Killick's latest novel could do the same in the 2020s - here's to hoping!

Book Review: 'Talking To The Moon' by S.E. Durrant

A mystery novel for children who don't like mystery novels. Usually, children's books which centre around some sort of mystery to be solved are full of high adventure and often verge on being scary - not for everyone. But 'Talking To The Moon' is different: it takes a family drama, one which many children will relate to and adds a dash of the unknown, enough to keep any reader pondering throughout the book.

Iris is living with her grandma, Mimi, whilst her dad deals with a damp problem in her bedroom at home. She's glad to be out of the house as the two-year-old twins make life very stressful. She loves living with her zany grandma, even if she doesn't really like having to go swimming with her in the sea. However, Iris begins to notice that her grandma's changing behaviour isn't just down to her quirkiness, although she doesn't like to admit it.

The story follows Iris as she tries to discover more about Coral, the girl who is in the photo on the mantlepiece. Joined by her neighbour, the annoying Mason, and in a sequence of happenstance, Iris learns more about what happened to the gap-toothed, red-haired girl who looks just like her.

S.E. Durrant certainly has carved out a style of her own - the simply-written prose, split down into short alluringly-titled chunks, perfectly encapsulates the thought-processes and story-telling ability of a bright child. Characterised by plenty of incidental detail, life for Iris is painted with precision in this compelling but gentle story.

And although this book would be great for children who are sensitive to high jinks escapades of derring-do, it certainly doesn't pull any emotional punches. Once again, S.E. Durrant has written a story full of heart, mind and soul. The pain Iris feels as she navigates family life with a mum who always seems busy and stressed, younger siblings who are never quiet, a lack of meaningful friendships (apart from the one she is trying hard to stop from becoming a friendship) and a grandma who is displaying all the signs of Dementia, is well-communicated, albeit in a sensitive and often humourous way.

'Talking To The Moon' is a great book for developing empathy and for introducing children to literary realism. Given that there are plenty of children's books which fall into a similar category it could also act as a great gateway to a whole range of excellent books. Anyone who has read and enjoyed 'Running On Empty' and/or 'Little Bits of Sky' will definitely enjoy this, as will anyone who loves titles such as 'Wonder', 'The Boy At The Back Of The Class', 'Bubble Boy' or 'Goldfish Boy' (especially seeing as in this one you get a female protagonist!). Perfecct for children in UKS2 and KS3.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Book Review: 'After The War' by Tom Palmer

Tom Palmer's latest run of war-themed stories continues with 'After The War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside' -  a story focusing in on three Polish teenagers who are brought to the safety of the Lake District for recuperation after Europe is liberated in 1945.

The story follows Yossi and his friends Mordecai and Leo as they arrive on the Calgarth Estate beside Lake Windemere and begin to attempt, with the help of a multitude of kind heroes, to rebuild their shattered lives. As they gain in strength and trust they have to make decisions about what to do and where to go next. Yossi lives in hope that the Red Cross will find his father yet life inevitably must move on whilst the search continues.

In this heartwarming tale of true and beautiful friendship, Tom Palmer communicates to a young audience with crystal-clear clarity the atrocities and the fall-out of war. As seen before in his books, he doesn't avoid the harsh realities, nor does he glorify them or play them down. Instead, he says just the right amount for the intended readership - a real skill. And, given the publisher Barrington Stoke's mission to provide credible, yet easy-to-read books for less confident readers, it is remarkable that a book written in a more simplistic style than others in its category has emotional depth beyond that of its peers.

In fact, perhaps the low use of complex language is all a technique to help us to understand Yossi. Here is a teenager who speaks no English, yet finds himself in the middle of the English countryside. Here is a teenager whose life has been devastated and dominated by cruelty beyond words. The narration of the story only serves to help us to know and love the character as he finds the meaning to life once more, as he learns to express himself to those around him and as he finds and understands himself once more.

With lots of World War Two references, particularly to warplanes, and the trademark sport references (I was pleased to read Yossi's celebration of the bicycle), this is exactly what I wanted from a new Tom Palmer novel. A tale of hope, friendship and altruism that is all too relevant in the current times we are living through.

After the War: From Auschwitz to Ambleside will publish on 7 May 2020 in Barrington Stoke’s middle-grade Conkers series.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Why We Cancelled Our School Residential

Written before the announcement that schools will close to children other than those of key workers. I have also just heard that the council made the call to close the residential centre this afternoon, too.

And what if a child begins to display symptoms of COVID-19 in the middle of the night? I asked myself as I added to my risk assessment for our very imminent residential visit. I’d already imagined a scenario in which we didn’t have enough staff or children on the morning we were due to leave to make the visit viable.

At first the night time scenario seemed like the worst thing that could happen. But then I began to consider what would happen if a child or member of staff began to show symptoms during the day.
A member of staff would have to contact me, wherever I was: down a cave, climbing a gully, trekking though the Dales. Mobile phone reception isn’t exactly forthcoming out in the wilds of North Yorkshire.

I’d have to contact the school – with the same complications as above - who would then need to contact parents. Then what would happen? Would we ask parents to come and collect? Or should I ask the member of staff who had brought a car to take them home? But what if it was more than one child? Should I actually be taking the school minibus so that I could return poorly children to school as quickly as possible?

And what if it was members of staff who came down with something? Would we be left with insufficient ratios to really safeguard the children on an outward bound adventure holiday? Would we call on other staff from school to join us? But what if school had begun to experience staff absences? I didn’t even consider what might have to happen if I – the one who had spent endless hours planning the visit – got ill. Did anyone else know enough about the ins and outs of the residential to be able to run it in my absence?

So many questions. No encouraging answers. In my mind I came to the conclusion that if a child or adult developed a dry cough or a high temperature, I’d have to get them home as quickly as possible, followed swiftly by the rest of the children. If one child had it, then how many others might have been infected during the stay?

The evening after completing a risk assessment which had led me to believe that actually, this residential was quite a risk – one I was not happy to shoulder the burden of, the government upped the ante with their advice. The words ‘non-essential’ were used several times. Although I totally believe in the importance of such an experience for children living in the city, I was pretty sure it fell into the ‘non-essential’ category.

Sir, is the residential still on? I was asked by eager children the following morning. They were aware of the fragility of the chance of it going ahead. I had to give disappointingly non-committal answers – I didn’t want to cause undue upset. I was asked the same question by parents on the gate – some of whom wanted to know when they should start packing, others expressed their own concerns.
But I had found myself at a standstill. I thought I should cancel the trip, but that would risk a financial loss to the school. Should I wait for the venue to cancel, or should I go ahead? I spoke to the deputy of another school who were going to the same venue as us during the same week – he was in the same position.

I came clean with the manager of the venue: we were worried about the risks but didn’t want to lose the money – he was honest with me: they too were waiting for further guidance on school closure as to whether they were going to cancel forthcoming visits. I broached the subject of a postponement and requested potential dates for next academic year for the same cohort of children.

The happy ending to this story is that our trust’s early start date in August meant that we could find an early September slot that no other school would be able to take. All being well, the children will get to experience the great outdoors together for three days, albeit in six months’ time. We are all disappointed that although schools remain open, we won’t get our residential this year but safety comes first. A decision which puts the health and wellbeing of children and staff first is the best decision.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

School Leadership: Hard or Complex?

‘The work that school leaders do is complex.’ – Tom Rees/Ambition Institute

You can say that again!

I’ve been moving up through the hallowed ‘ranks’ of school leadership, for the past 5 or so years and my one word summary of it is that it is hard. Hard and getting harder – the increase being due to increase in responsibility that the move to a more senior position brings.

But Tom Rees’ article for Ambition Institute has made me re-evaluate my one word summary.

Perhaps it’s not so much that it’s hard, more that it is complex. Do I work hard? Yes, I’d like to think so. Do I work hard for excessive amounts of time? No, I’m quite good at managing my workload and know that downtime is essential. But is the work complex? Yes, definitely.

Checking a dictionary definition of the word ‘complex’ confirms the difference between the two words: ‘complex’ means consisting of many different and connected parts, whereas the most fitting suggestions for the word ‘hard’ are difficult to bear; causing suffering and requiring a great deal of endurance or effort.

My timetable belies the complexity: one minute coaching a middle leader, the next co-teaching with another teacher. Half a morning planning with one year group, the rest of the time spent teaching children working at greater depth in maths. A meeting with the science coordinator, an NQT meeting, lesson drop ins, overseeing proceedings in the canteen, gate duty, SLT briefing, reading with year 6 children, catching up with the lunchtime supervisors. And that’s just the regular stuff.

On top of that are the myriad other things that it is my responsibility to be involved in, most of which come with no notice: the oh-I-was-hoping-to-catch-you-about- type conversation on the stairs that turns into a half an hour conversation; the behaviour report that comes through the online system that you have to deal with; the safeguarding issues that arise; the million things you see during a school day that set the mind racing as to potential solutions – the list really could go on and on.

And there are the irregular things too. This week: taking part in business continuity planning in case of school closure.


When you put it like that – the job certainly is hard because it is complex. 


It may well be the case that no one single issue is that difficult to handle – it’s just the old thing of keeping all the plates spinning at once. With all those things spinning around in a brain-bound tornado it is difficult to deal with: the hardness comes as a result of the complexity.


At this juncture, I can offer no solutions to the problem of how hard the job can be as a result of its complexity. But I think there is some comfort to be found in the acceptance of the fact that being a school leader is complex and therefore is difficult (or hard) to do. In fact, it also points to certain logical solutions: when the job is becoming too hard, the complexity might need to be reduced. This reduction might only be temporary and probably driven by prioritisation, but it could be exactly what is needed to make the job, at least for a short time, a little less hard.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Getting Ready For The 2020 KS2 Reading Test

If you're just here for the free resources, then here are the links:

Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12250306

Mark Scheme for Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mark-scheme-for-booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12260913

Booklet 2: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-2-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12257463

However, if you have a little more time, have a read about the thought process that has gone into the resource creation.

But, before you start reading my bit, I can't stress how important it is that you read Penny Slater's blog series of reflections on analysis of the 2019 reading test. It is in 4 parts and it has been the reading of these that has brought me to write this blog post about how I am hoping to prepare for the 2020 test:

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-1

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-2

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-3

https://www.hertsforlearning.co.uk/blog/reflections-analysis-2019-ks2-reading-sats-part-4

One of our main reflections on having given our year 6 children a go at some of the past papers is that stamina is a key skill which needs to be developed.

With this in mind, I looked at the wordage breakdowns that Tim Roach and Penny Slater provided:

Given that 2019's test had the longest reading extracts ever I decided to use its word count as a benchmark for developing some reading comprehension activities that we could use with the children to develop their stamina.

It wasn't just the word count that was the issue. Previously, we had no way of checking whether or not the reading materials we were using in reading lessons were of a comparable difficulty to the texts used in the tests.

I used a simple online analysis tool to get some more information: https://datayze.com/readability-analyzer.php

I ran each of the three 2019 reading texts through the tool and got the following information:

The Park:


Fact Sheet: About Bumblebees:


Music Box:


Using this data I set about finding similar suitable texts (in both length and readability) to use for a series of test-like comprehension activities. The aim of these activities is to replicate the length and readability of the second and third texts in the 2019 paper so as to provide around 40-45 minutes' worth of reading and answering questions. So far, at my current school, reading lessons have not provided such practice at such length so in the run up to Easter we have adapted our timetable to allow for longer reading lessons.

To aid me in the creation of these questions I re-made the questions from texts 2 and 3 of the 2019 paper and used these as a template (click the link to download these from TES). I also did a quick analysis of both question types (e.g. short written answer, complete the table, multiple choice tick box etc) and an analysis of the content domain coverage (using the information in the mark scheme):

Fact Sheet: All About Bumblebees:

Content Domains:

2a = 2/19 marks = 11%
2b = 9/19 marks = 47% (2 mark questions)
2c = 6/19 marks = 32%
2d = 3/19 marks = 16% (inferences in NF)
2g = 1/19 marks = 5%

Question types:

Short answer (one line): 14, 17, 18, 21, 26 = 5/15 = 33%
Medium answer (two lines): 19, 22b, 27 = 3/15 = 20%
Complete table: 15, 25 = 2/15 = 13%
Multiple choice tick box: 16, 20, 23 = 3/15 = 20%
Tick table: 22a, 24 = 2/15 = 13%

Music Box:

Content Domains:

2a = 1/17 marks = 6%
2b = 5/17 marks = 29%
2d = 9/17 marks = 53% (3 mark inference questions)
2g = 2/17 marks = 12%

Question types:

Short answer (one line): 31, 34, 35, 36, 38 = 5/12 = 42%
Medium answer (two lines): 28, 30 = 2/12 = 17%
Long answer (3 marks): 39 (32 is also 3 marks) = 1/12 = 8%
Complete table: 32, 33 = 2/12 = 17%
Multiple choice tick box: 29, 37 = 2/12 = 17%

So far I have identified several texts which I have begun to create reading comprehension questions for. With the ones I have created so far I have stuck quite closely to the questions from the 2019 test, however will probably deviate more to bring in more variety as I create more resources.

Here are the texts I have found so far (texts in bold are texts from 2019 test):

Fiction:

Title
Wordage
Ave. Score
Flesch Reading Ease
Jane Eyre
807
3.242
98.05
The Wrong Train
800
3.54
97.29
Armistice Runner
774
3.634
92.19
Music Box
908
4.414
90.64
Louisiana’s Way Home
803
4.436
89.78
The City of Secret Rivers
789
4.53
90.56
Floodworld
896
4.646
90.54
The Park
636
5.342
88.51

Narrative Non-Fiction:
Title
Wordage
Ave. Score
Flesch Reading Ease
Lightning Mary
495
3.52
94.32
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
908
6.066
79.15


Non-Fiction:
Title
Wordage
Ave. Score
Flesch Reading Ease
Human Digestive System
870
5.574
79.7                              
Pets in Cold Weather
650
5.932
83.59
When You Grow Up
700
6.55
84.75
All About Bumblebees
632
6.87
68.48
Henry 8th Wives
748
8.594
70.77
All About The Circular Economy
814 (+diagrams)
8.754
66.51
Dr Jane Goodall Interview
789
8.784
67.47
What is a Bushfire?
657
9.218
64.46
Tutankhamun
649
9.408
61.42


Most texts have been sourced from Nat Geo Kids and LoveReading4Kids.

A note on the Flesch score: The Flesch score uses the number of syllables and sentence lengths to determine the reading ease of the sample. A Flesch score of 60 is taken to be plain English. A score in the range of 60-70 corresponds to 8th/9th grade English level. A score between 50 and 60 corresponds to a 10th/12th grade level. Below 30 is college graduate level. To give you a feel for what the different levels are like, most states require scores from 40 to 50 for insurance documents.

So, looking at the above non-fiction texts, and converting the US grade system to the UK year group system we find that, according to this simple analysis, All About Bumblebees could potentially be a year 9/10 level text, better suited to 13-15 year-olds. However, the Flesch Reading Ease scores are calculated using only number of words, number of sentences and number of syllables in words.

In order to get another idea of readability I also averaged out the scores from the 5 other readability scores that the analyser provides (Gunning Fog Scale Level, Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, SMOG Grade, Dale-Chall Score, Fry Readability Grade Level). None of this is an exact science but I hope it gives a ballpark idea of how difficult the texts should be in order to match the texts in the test.

Interestingly, although the text The Park is shorter, and is in the number one position in the 2019 test, it comes out as being a slightly more difficult text than Music Box. In this instance, we must assume the shortness of the text, combined with simpler questions (a heavier focus on retrieval than inference, for example), makes this an easier part of the test. I think it also shows us that the difficulty of the text based on these scores can vary, therefore the questions we ask must be complex enough (if we are wanting to replicate the difficulty of the test for practice purposes).

When choosing the non-fiction texts I tried to find things that of a similar interest level to the SATS texts - I also wanted to make sure that there was a variety of subject matter and text type. When choosing the fiction texts I tried to find extracts in which something happens - it wasn't just a case of finding a chunk with the right wordage.

With all this in mind, with the texts I currently have, I suggest the following order of use for the resources I intend to create:

Lightning Mary + Human Digestive System = 495 + 870 = 1365 words
Pets in Cold Weather + Jane Eyre = 650 + 807 = 1457 words
When You Grow Up + The Wrong Train = 700 + 800 = 1500 words
Henry 8th Wives + Armistice Runner = 748 + 774 = 1522 words
All About The Circular Economy + Louisiana’s Way Home = 814 + 803 = 1617 words
Dr Jane Goodall Interview + The City of Secret Rivers = 789 + 789 = 1578 words
What is a Bushfire? + Floodworld = 657 + 896 = 1553 words
Tutankhamun + The Girl Who Fell From The Sky = 649 + 908 = 1557 words

A few examples of the texts and questions that can be downloaded on the TES website:

Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12250306

Mark Scheme for Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mark-scheme-for-booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12260913

Booklet 2: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-2-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12257463



Once again, here's the link to download the reading comprehension resources:

Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12250306

Mark Scheme for Booklet 1: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mark-scheme-for-booklet-1-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12260913

Booklet 2: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/booklet-2-year-6-sats-prep-reading-comprehension-based-on-analysis-of-2019-test-12257463

Please do keep checking back on that link as I will keep adding resources as I create them. Even if you don't need to use them as I intend to, hopefully they can be useful beyond my own setting.

Postscript:

I'd just like to make it clear that this isn't the only thing we will be doing in the run-up to SATS - we will still be reading a class novel, doing Reciprocal Reading, Fluency Reads and so on. We will also be soldiering on with teaching the wider curriculum!