Wednesday, 24 February 2021

(School) Work is Wellbeing

School work, and work, is, or at least can be, a positive contributor to a child or adult's wellbeing.

Often, when wellbeing is spoken of, it is referred to implicitly as some kind of antithesis to working: you can either be doing something which constitutes work (whether that be your day job, life admin, being a parent etc) or something which constitutes wellbeing (insert your own personal example here).

But, as always, the dichotomy is false and unhelpful. If I were to draw Venn diagram to represent work and wellbeing, there should be an intersection: a place where the two meet in the middle.

And this should be true for adults and children alike.

Theory from Deci and Ryan suggests that threeinnate needs must be met in order for humans to achieve a sense of wellbeing: competence, autonomy and relatedness.

All of these needs can be met in the work or school environment.

The need to feel competent

When an adult feels like they have a purpose, that they are useful and that they are doing something worthwhile, this need has a better chance of being met. Work is one such environment where it is possible to feel these things. Of course, work isn’t the only place – lots of people undertake other projects and pursuits which can meet this need as well.

When a child’s work is correctly pitched, and when they know they are learning new things and getting better at things they could already do, this need to feel competent will be met.

The need to feel autonomous

Work has the potential to provide adults with a sense of autonomy – not in all jobs admittedly, but certainly for many teachers there is the chance to plan and teach lessons the way you want them, for example. Again, many of an adult’s other pursuits can also provide the feeling of autonomy.

One of the important aspects of learning is that children are brought to a point where they can practise what they are learning independently. Many schools’ pedagogy takes into consideration the idea that children can have an element of choice in their learning, particularly in the earlier years.

The need to feel relatedness

Being at work provides so many opportunities for relatedness – of course, it does depend on how well you get on with your colleagues. Often in schools there are plenty of opportunities for collaborative work which relies heavily on relationships so it isn’t just the fact that we see people at work, but that we work with people at work, too.

Whether children work collaboratively in school or not, being at school, as with the adults, provides great social opportunities. Even the fact that children are together in a classroom, learning the same things, can engender a feeling of relatedness through the shared experience they are having.

Hopefully, just those brief examples are a reminder that, in the same way that quality first teaching is part of a school’s safeguarding offer, work and school work is part of a school’s wellbeing offer to the staff and children.

When considering the return of all staff and children into physical school buildings on the 8th of March we are right to think about their wellbeing. However, we must not forget that part of what will engender wellbeing in staff and children is the work that they do.

Wellbeing isn’t only served by lovely experiences, mindful colouring, off-timetable teaching and the like; wellbeing is more holistic than that. And I know that you know that – my point is just to remind you that it is OK to prioritise work for both staff and children, and that work in and of itself isn’t always detrimental to a person’s wellbeing.

Work is good for us – we are built to work in one way or another – and if we have a healthy relationship with work, it can actually serve to improve our wellbeing.

And, if any of us, staff or children, are suffering as a result of work, then the above three innate needs can be used to diagnose where changes might be made to the work that we are doing. The answer isn’t simply no work or less work; the answer really is better work – work which better helps to meet our innate needs.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Book Review: 'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang has already done its thing in the US, and now the excellent folk at Knights Of have brought it to the UK. As such it's already been reviewed plenty of times and has racked up 18,000 ratings on goodreads.com, averaging at 4.41 - all entirely deserved.

'Front Desk', a middle grade novel based partially on the author's own real life experiences as a child pairs the scariness of the immigrant experience with the optimism of a child. In parts the events are very bleak as systemic inequalities are exposed, albeit through the eyes of a young teenager who still has the power to hope for more. Indeed, Mia does more than just hope and this is a story of proactivity and camaraderie, one which celebrates the power and necessity of diversity.

Despite gut-punch moments - when Mia's parents receive the hospital bill after her mum is robbed and beaten, for example - 'Front Desk' is a joyful story, the reader always buoyed by Mia's resilience and fortitude. Her work ethic and ability to problem-solve are inspiring and, although tough to read, children will cheer Mia along through every adversity that she overcomes.

It is true, however, that some of Mia's solutions rely on dishonesty, and this should be discussed openly with young readers of the book. But, more important should be conversations around the harsh treatment of migrant workers, not only in the US but in the UK also. As well as an enjoyable read, this book could also serve as a call to action for children to find out more about the difficulties that people face when they move to a new country in search of employment. Mia and her family, as well as the 'weeklies' (the almost permanent residents of the motel), put a human face to the issue which will help children to understand and empathise with people in a similar position to that of Mia's family.

'Front Desk' is also a loud celebration of how working together, regardless of ethnicity, financial circumstances or age, should be, could be, the driving force behind society. In a world where so much of the media seems to be divisive and reductive in its messaging, it is a breath of fresh air to read something that gets it so right: with a little kindness, understanding and collaboration, things get done! And with a surprise ending that I didn't see coming, I'm all ready to read the next book 'Three Keys' which Knights Of have published simultaneously.

'Front Desk' is available on bookshop.org and is featured on my Stories From America booklist: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-stories-from-america

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Book Review: 'The Graveyard Riddle' by Lisa Thompson

Ever since reading Lisa Thompson's first book 'The Goldfish Boy' I've been a fan of her ability to draw humour, mystery and real life together into something that children absolutely can't wait to get their hands on. In fact, in our house, she is one of only a few authors who the majority of us have read: Lisa is up there with JK Rowling in terms of how many of us have read her books!

'The Graveyard Riddle' picks up where 'The Goldfish Boy' left off, this time focusing a little more on Melody Bird as the main character. Again, Lisa deftly includes details of life's difficulties as the backdrop to the story: Matthew is still going to therapy for OCD, Melody's parents are splitting up due to a secret her dad has been keeping from them and the house has to be sold, meaning that Melody has to leave her home. Jake is being bullied by their neighbour and teacher and he is struggling with his behaviour at school - elsewhere in the book quite serious mental health issues are tackled too, as well as neglect of children. 

Although this all seems quite heavy, you'll know if you've read her previous books, that the author treats each issue carefully, sensitively, and in a way that children can relate to. In fact, if children have experienced similar things I think they would be comforted by seeing themselves in a book, and children who haven't experienced these things will have the chance to develop empathy for others who have.

But 'The Graveyard Riddle' isn't at all just a vehicle to tackle the above. Over and above that it is just a cracking mystery story, and one which really gets the reader guessing and then second-guessing themselves.

Melody meets Hal hiding out in an old plague house in a part of the graveyard that she's never visited before. Hal brings Melody into his mission: to apprehend the dangerous criminal, Martin Stone, and together they solve riddles and stake out the graveyard, spying on him as he visits. However, when Melody has to let Matthew and Jake in on what's going on, doubts are raised: is Hal really who he says he is? What is he really doing in the plague house?

'The Graveyard Riddle' is a great read for children and adults alike: Lisa is skilled at writing that dual-layer narrative that Disney does so well, ensuring that there is plenty to appeal to all. In fact, one great angle to this story is the interplay between adults and children: something which isn't always present when children are the protagonists.

Full of heart and warmth, this middle grade mystery is an easy and compelling read, perfect for children in Key Stage 2 and certainly not at all unsuitable for Key Stage 3 children either. And if you're a parent looking for a good read aloud, or a teacher wanting to stay in touch with children's literature, then 'The Graveyard Riddle' is the perfect title for you.

The Graveyard Riddle by Lisa Thompson is available on bookshop.org and features on my Read By My UKS2 Daughter list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-uks2-daughter

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Beyond SPaG: Advice For Parents When Writing With Children At Home

Hoping for a more positive response, I tweeted the above after seeing a journalist hunting for authors who were 'surprised/angered by what their children are learning about grammar, English etc during home schooling or how they are being taught to write?'. And positive response I got. By all means, click on the above tweet and explore all the answers at your leisure, or stay here and read a summary of the advice that was shared.

Before launching into the advice though, I think it would be wise to give a bit of context. During partial school closure during lockdown, teachers have been providing a remote learning experience for children who are at home. This remote learning provision, however good, cannot mimic exactly the normal ways of working in a classroom that teachers have developed; it has had to be an adapted provision. As such, it would appear that many teachers have felt that SPaG-based activities have been easier for children to complete at home; the teaching of the creative aspects of writing relying more on teacher interaction.

So, what this blog post sets out to do is provide you, a parent at home, with ways of working with your child that will help you to help your children with creative writing rather than SPaG-focused English learning. The ideas below should allow you to work with your child in a way that mirrors more closely the work that their teacher would normally do with them at school.

Reading

Many people pointed straight to reading as the first step in helping children to write. Books can inspire children and they provide a model of what a good piece looks like so they make a great starting point. The theme of reading will reoccur throughout the advice under other headings.

Imagining

Children already have great imaginations - the task for parents is to channel this imagination into their writing. People shared ideas about how to prompt children to imagine things to include in their writing:

Inspiring

An extension of imagining is using pre-existing things to generate new imaginative ideas. If it is proving difficult to capture ideas from your child's imagination then they might just need a little prompting and there are innumerable ways to do that, here are just a few:

Experiencing

Further inspiration for writing ideas can come from the experiences that your child has - it could be everyday experiences, remembered experiences or you could do something a little different to prompt their writing. Whilst experiences are limited during lockdown, getting outdoors should provide some inspiration, especially if whilst out you activate their imaginations with some 'what if' type questions e.g. 'What if this tree were the home to an army of ninja spiders?'

Talking

Writing is about the written word but before the written word there was the spoken word. The spoken word is the best starting place as it provides an opportunity to play around with language, revise ideas and collaborate. Make talk an essential step prior to writing.

Imitating

Imitation can come in many forms and children can attempt to imitate all kinds of writing. You could also work on imitating language that children hear via other media forms: audio books and TV shows, for example.
Practising

Not everything has to be a fully-blown story or piece of writing. Short bursts of writing can be a great way to develop children's writing skills and their enjoyment of writing. Keep these fun and inspiring and your child will most likely happily have a go.

Planning

Planning isn't always the most exciting part of the writing process for children, but it can be made more enjoyable. Much of this can be done orally (see the Talking heading) and can be recorded in a number of fun ways (see the Recording heading).

Recording

Once all the ideas have been thought of, there's the sticky issue of the mechanical part of transcribing all the fantastic things that children have come up with. Some of this advice revolves around writing without concern for SPaG, other ideas are to do with where children write and there are even suggestions around transcription-free writing:

Reviewing

Even in school this bit can be difficult for teachers and children - often children need a break after writing before they are ready to return to what they have written, so bear that in mind. However, it should be possible to work through what has been drafted to make improvements.
Celebrating

This is so crucial in the writing process for children - if you want them to write for enjoyment then they need to enjoy what they have written. Seeing other people enjoying their work is a great motivator too so sharing is essential! Send a copy to Granny, read it over Zoom to Uncle, drop a copy round to a neighbour - the options are almost endless and are bound to cheer someone up!
Publishing

Having a purpose for writing is also a motivating factor - one that might be considered right at the very start of the writing process, rather than as an afterthought. If children know their work will be shared, published or entered into a competition even the most reluctant writer can be spurred on in their writing.
Other Resources

Thankfully, this blog post isn't the only source of advice in this arena. Several excellent experts have produced resources to help parents help their children with writing at home:

Supporting Children Writing At Home: https://writing4pleasure.com/supporting-children-writing-at-home/

Three Steps To Writing from SF Said: http://www.sfsaid.com/2017/01/three-steps-to-writing.html

It’s A Kid’s Life – Lockdown by Kerry Gibb: http://kerrygibb.com/its-a-kids-life/kids-life-lockdown/

Writing Prompts from Beverly Writes: https://www.beverleywrites.com/blog

5 Ways to Engage Reluctant Writers with Creativity from Now>Press>Play: https://nowpressplay.co.uk/engage-reluctant-writers-with-creativity/

Homewriting Workshops from the Candlewick Press YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEqVZlLgos-WN7boUH8tsFWNihT745u9u 

Michael Rosen's videos: https://www.michaelrosen.co.uk/videos/