Monday, 20 March 2017

On the TES Blog: Why Every Primary Should Be Using Bar Modelling – And Six Steps To Make It A Success

As a primary maths coordinator, it's been difficult to escape the lure of bar modelling: it's in every new publication, on all the maths blogs and at every coordinator's meeting. And so, when the time was right for my school, I succumbed.

Bar modelling, for the uninitiated, is not a method of calculation. Instead, it is a way of representing problems pictorially: from simple addition, through to finding percentages of amounts, all the way to complex multi-step problems involving ratio and proportion. Bar models can be used to pictorially represent arithmetic problems, as well as reasoning problems written with a context.

For a worked example of bar modelling and 6 steps to ensure introducing bar modelling is successful, read on at the TES blog:

Monday, 13 March 2017

Book Review: 'The Night Spinner' by Abi Elphinstone

Ask a child what 'The Night Spinner' by Abi Elphinstone is about and they will speak of magic and monsters, adventure and action. But those are just plot features. Beneath all that, this is a book about far more.

In actual fact, this book is about loyalty, kindness, bravery, resilience - all those things we're attempting to teach our children through well-intentioned school display boards and PSHCE lessons. Where these attempts might not have long-term impact, a book like this, in the right hands, really could.

Aimed at Key Stage Two children, this rip-roaring adventure, where dull moments are banished, is the perfect vehicle for many-a lesson on those personality traits that we all agree are essential for our children to possess. As an adult, it's difficult to see where the reality of the story ends and metaphor begins: one of the book's main villains is a dead ringer for depression as she steadily drains the lead character, Molly, of all hope, leaving her feeling increasingly unable to go on with her quest. Throughout the book Molly, aided by a colourful array of characters, learns how better to deal with her feelings of self-doubt and becomes a case study in how to overcome adversity through perseverance. There is so much for children to learn about themselves as the thrilling story unfolds.

It's becoming increasingly popular for a female protagonist to be associated with action and adventure stories but Abi Elphinstone's trilogy is a welcome addition to the growing canon of books fronted by strong female leads. The fact that Molly Pecksniff - who doesn't flinch at jumping from a bridge onto a moving train with her wildcat - is a girl, certainly does not make this a book for girls. Whilst it is important that girls have such a positive role model, its also crucial that boys are presented with a character who really challenges gender stereotypes. Books like this have the power to change minds and shape thinking.

For all of this, 'The Night Spinner' and its two preceding volumes thoroughly deserve a prominent place on the shelves of our libraries and schools. Not that they will stay on the shelf for long!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Using Simple Bar Modelling Techniques To Solve Multi-Step SATs Problems

Bar Modelling is taking the primary maths world by storm. The 2014 curriculum appears, despite initial unhappiness, to be achieving a shift in the way maths is taught. Its three main aims of reasoning, problem solving and fluency have encouraged teachers to seek further ways to encourage conceptual understanding, rather than just teaching tricks or rules. So teachers have looked towards the countries who apparently churn out mastery-level mathematicians by the thousands for inspiration - that or some savvy publishers have decided to capitalise on the desire of teachers to teach the 'why' rather than the 'how'.

Click here to read more about bar modelling and the solution I came up with:

Friday, 3 March 2017

On Why I'll Still Be Dressing Up For World Book Day And The Power Of Books

There has been increasing dissent over World Book Day and its staple activity: dressing up as a book character (although I heard of one school whose children had to come dress up as an adjective!). Does it really encourage children to read, or to become true readers? Can a one-off event really 'get' children to read?

There are plenty of other initiatives out there too that are intended to encourage children to engage in reading. Extreme reading photograph competitions, reading reward programmes, author visits, library trips, decorated reading corner contests, book lucky dips, sleepovers, literary lunches and all manner of other events and programmes - all are carried out in the name of promoting reading for pleasure and creating life-long readers. 

I've led on reading in a previous school where we did most of the above things - Ofsted noted that 'pupil's achievement in reading is outstanding'. But can such events and initiatives really have such an impact?

I would say yes, with one caveat: that all of the above are truly book-centred. By this I mean that whatever is done in the name of encouraging reading actually involves the opening, and reading of books. If everything is done tokenistically, however, paying lip service to books, taking the name of books in vain, then there will be no impact. But if books are being read, then they are being allowed to do their thing.

You see, books contain power. The power to grab a reader by the scruff of the neck and drag them kicking and screaming into a literary chokehold. Or sometimes they have the power to reach out and take the reluctant reader in a loving embrace, comforting them and whispering sweet lullabies, enchanting them with beautiful words and far-flung worlds. Books have the power to whisk a non-reader away on an unforgettable reading honeymoon that they'll forever seek to replicate as they court book after book after book. Books persuade, they cajole, they seduce, they occupy, they engage - they can be absolutely tyrannical. 

Books contain power and if we can let those covers open and give our children even the smallest of glances, eventually these children will meet their match. And their match will change their lives forever. Of course, the opportunities we provide must be meaningful and some children will require more structure and perseverance than others, but eventually, books can take a hold of anyone.

So if dressing up is what's necessary to allow the innate power of books to prevail, then that is what we must do. If events and initiatives are what it takes to unleash the potential in the books that sit, waiting, on our library or book corner shelves, then fill up your calendar.

But you don't need to wait for those days and weeks in order to marvel at the wonders those pages contain - every day, every lesson is an opportunity to read from those books. Anyone who dislikes dressing up for World Book Day only does so because they really love books and regularly experience the delights of daily reading. They are the ones who hold the secrets of how the power of books can be unleashed every time our children step into their classrooms - so don't dismiss them for their strongly held views, listen to what they are holding up as an alternative... and then do both.

Our question again: how do we 'get' children into reading?

The simple answer?


Reading books. With them. To them. 

Books. Whether that's in front of a class of dubiously-costumed 5-year-olds, in that timetabled reading session or during a topic lesson, the answer is books. Be that a lunchtime book club, a visit  to a book shop, or the coach ride to the museum, the answer is books. Always books.

Only books will 'get' children into reading so use them in abundance, prolifically, and at every opportunity. They will do their thing.

Click here to read more about reading!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Leadership Lessons: Letting Go And Letting Them

"It is not a weakness to allow someone else to take prominence, it is a sign of confidence, strength and, ultimately, good leadership."

World Book Day seems an appropriate time to reflect on reading Richard Adam's children's classic 'Watership Down' which reminded me of a very valuable learning experience I had at Ambition School Leadership’s Teaching Leaders Residential.

Looking for leadership advice from a rabbit

In the book, the group of escaping rabbits are led by Hazel who proves himself to be an excellent leader; one rabbit comments to some others that ‘he must be good or you'd all be dead’. For rabbits whose main aim is to survive, Hazel is the perfect leader. But, as I read, I noticed something incredible.

Click here to continue reading

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Not Just Teachers, But Human Beings Who Teach

"And what do you do?"

"I'm a teacher."

"But, what do you do?"

Have you ever noticed that whenever we're asked that question, we don't answer it truly?

We don't actually respond by stating what we do. We tell them who we are instead. Or at least we tell them that we identify ourselves by our job title, regardless of all the other aspects of our lives that might make up our character: spouse, parent, sibling, sportsperson, hobbyist, believer.

Continue reading on the TES website:

In this article I touch on the subject of teaching as a vocation. The very best thing I have read about vocation is Justin Gray's blog post entitled 'Vocations - Balance and the Art of Happiness'. In it he suggests that teaching is a vocation but it is only one of several vocations that a teacher might have to balance. But don't take my word for it, read it for yourself!

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

The last day of half term: business as usual. I always start the day off with a reading 'session' (somehow can't bring myself to call it a lesson) and that Friday was no exception. Continuing with our reading of Sandi Toksvig's 'Hitler's Canary' and with a focus on linking non-fiction with fiction, I had prepared a text about Judaism.

The skills focus that lesson was scanning the text for answers. The children underlined what they thought would be key words in the questions and, before being allowed to read the text thoroughly ("Sir, what does 'thoroughly' mean?"), had to answer 7 simple retrieval questions about Judaism. They were then allowed to read the text properly to check their answers. A pretty useful exercise. 

I also asked the children to write down three new facts they had learned whilst reading. Sometimes I require them to write down three questions the text makes them ask instead. Either way, it certainly promotes deeper engagement with the text and is an approach that is encouraged for 'EAL' learners (most of the children in my class are 'categorised' as such).

That engagement became apparent when the children began to ask me (font of all knowledge, obviously) questions about what they had read. The text had mentioned Abraham as a figure whom the Jewish people could trace their heritage back to - one boy asked who Abraham was. Thankfully my Old Testament  knowledge isn't too shabby (I am currently reading through Genesis, so that helped) and I was able to give a bit of background information. 

At some point during my explanation (possibly when I (intentionally) mentioned Abraham's first son Ishmael) light bulbs began to blink on - a look of realisation crossed several children's faces. You see, my class - who, bar one pupil (who happened to be absent that day) are from a Muslim background - began to put two and two together: the Abraham of the Torah and the Bible is the Islamic prophet Ibrahim and Ishmael is Ismael, patriarch of Islam! They also recognised the name of Isaac, Abraham's second son, to be one and the same as prophet Ishaq. Although the conversation was entirely unplanned, these were the links that, once the discussion had begun, I hoped they'd make.

So there I was, a Christian, teaching a reading lesson to a class of children from a Muslim background using a text about Judasim, and getting more interest and engagement than any RE lesson I've ever taught before. Without explicitly pushing it at all I could tell some children began to understand the three faiths more as they recognised for themselves the commonalities that exist in their shared heritage. Children were becoming, due to learning about the three faiths in this context, more empathetic.

Not content with one story from Jewish history they then asked about Moses (who has been mentioned as the founder of Judaism). Some of them had seen the film 'The Prince of Egypt' so we're able to contribute; others of them were thrilled to be hearing about the events of Moses' life for the first time ("Oh, so that's why we call it a Moses basket!"). Some children immediately made connections between pharaoh's treatment of the Hebrews and Hitler's treatment of the Jews, and even Trump's very recent 'Muslim ban'. This, as I'm sure you can imagine, was music to my ears: our school deliberately aims to engage children in these issues through the books and texts we read, so - job done!

If by then I wasn't sure that they had engaged fully with the text and the basics of Judaism, all was confirmed with the third main question: "Why's it called the Star of David? Who's David?" Cue the third Jewish history story of the morning - from shepherd boy to king of Israel (via giant slaying episode).

And then we actually got round to reading 'Hitler's Canary'. We read of Rabbi Marcus Melchior and his warning to the Danish Jews and saw his picture in a recent BBC news article. We heard of how the Christians and Jews worked together to remove the Jewish artefacts  from the synagogue so that they wouldn't be destroyed by the Nazis and we all understood very clearly that due to the shared heritage both parties would be interested in preserving these items - that and the fact that religious harmony was in full effect. Just as I had hoped, the reading of the non-fiction text enhanced  their reading of the novel and their understanding of the historical events it is based on. 

We then revelled in the fact that, by working together, Jewish and non-Jewish, the Danes managed to disappear 7000 Jews so effectively that the Nazis actually claimed that it was they who had disappeared them. The children in my class had total empathy having spent the previous 30 minutes being totally engaged in the best RE lesson I've ever taught.

So, and very briefly, a message: a reading lesson is the perfect opportunity to teach any lesson you want. Indeed, any lesson is the perfect opportunity to reinforce and use reading skills. Simple. But just prepare for it to be so much more than just another lesson.