Sunday, 9 May 2021

Children's Books Reading Round-Up: March - April 2021

 A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I've been a bit behind on this one as it has been around since June last year. In fact, I've had a copy sitting on my shelf for a while and my daughter had already read it and enjoyed it. Oh, and everyone else on Twitter had been raving about it and Elle McNicoll only went and won the 2021 Blue Peter award for best story with this amazing little book. It tells the story of Addie, an autistic girl who decides to campaign to have a memorial to women who were tried and executed as witches in her Scottish village. In the so-called witches she finds a kinship - perhaps they were just different and were persecuted for it? With lots of eye-opening moments, Elle McNicoll portrays what life can be like for several different neurodiverse children and young adults (one of Addie's big sisters is autistic too), celebrating what Addie is capable of because of how deeply she cares. On a personal note, I found Addie's parents to be inspirational - something for me to aspire to!

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Read By My LKS2 Daughter book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/read-by-my-lks2-daughter

The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (Pushkin Press)

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one as on the surface it looks like a story for very young children (KS1) - and it is, but it has depth and beauty that will have something to say to readers of all ages. It reminded me a lot of My Dad's A Birdman by David Almond - which is a very good thing in my books. Olive's mum, an adult reader will surmise from the outset, has passed away, and her dad is grieving. In fact, he is grieving so much that his grief is the size of an elephant - an elephant that Olive sees following her dad around everywhere he goes. Olive decides that she can and must help her dad to become happier again - a huge undertaking for a child - and thankfully her granddad steps in to help her to achieve this, pointing out that she can't manage the task alone. Together, they work to bring some moments of happiness in to her dad's life. No spoilers, but the ending is lovely and very satisfying as an adult who was concerned for Olive's wellbeing throughout the story.

The Elephant by Carnavas can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve (David Fickling Books)

I battled against myself with this one - with a publishing date of September I felt that I shouldn't read it until nearer the time. But, being a massive Philip Reeve fan, I couldn't leave it sitting on the shelf any longer. Was I disappointed? Why would I be? This is Philip Reeve and he is a master storyteller! Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep is very different to his previous series of books (Mortal Engines, Fever Crumb, Railhead etc) as it isn't futuristic/post-apocalyptic sci-fi - this time its folksy fantasy set possibly in Edwardian times, but on a remote island in a fictional archipelago of the United Kingdom. There are too, in this story, some aspects of horror, slightly reminiscent of some of H.P. Lovecraft's creations - not the racist bits but the mysterious submerged kingdoms, the strange beings that frequent the shores of the island, and the eerie sense of disquiet that surrounds so much of the action. Having said that, there is a great warmth to this story which is essentially an exploration of what it means to belong to a family as Reeve weaves his cast of richly developed characters into the plot. Given that Philip said himself that things have changed since the proof copy and that the final thing will include a map and chapter header illustrations, I might just have to read it again when everyone else can get their hands on it too.

Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, Illustrated by Anna Höglund, Translated by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press)

Can You Whistle, Johanna? was chosen as a short read whilst in between books, not wanting to commit myself to anything longer, and I'm really glad I did. Apparently, this book is a bit of a hit in Sweden where a televised version is shown every year, and I think I can see why. Despite the deception (a boy is persuaded by his friend to find himself a grandfather at a local retirement home) this is such a heartwarming story of intergenerational friendship. Berra meets Old Ned and, along with Ulf, they become great friends, sharing experiences and memories, and essentially enriching one another's lives. With a refreshing openness and honesty, this book tackles aging and death alongside its message that fun, fulfilling life is for people of all ages but that we must enable one another to achieve it.

Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark can be found on my Children's Fiction 2021 book list  on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Animal Farm by George Orwell, Illustrated by Chris Mould (Faber)

Obviously a book that's been around some time, and one I've read, or had read to me, before. This year it was republished by Faber, only this time chock-full of Chris Mould's lively illustrations. Is it a children's book? Apparently so, and of course it can be read entirely without any political interpretations, however, as an adult I certainly enjoyed it on a new level, trying to match events to my scant knowledge of the Russian Revolution but also pondering the UK's current political landscape too. Chris Mould's illustrations certainly bring this much closer to being a book that today's children might pick up and enjoy, particularly those who are familiar with his illustrations of, say, Matt Haig's books or his version of Ted Hughes' The Iron Man. Energetic in style, the images do a brilliant job of mirroring the descent of the farm's utopian veneer, with Mould particularly nailing the facial expressions and body language of the animal subjects. I'm really glad I re-read this this year, and I'm really thankful for the new version - Chris really makes this new version a visual treat. 

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to read this one before publishing this blog post - my reading of late has been taken up more with books about how to better parent an autistic child. However, a lovely rainy Saturday during which my children were miraculously entertained by magnetic balls and screens meant that I got the chance to read the second half of this in one go. And I have to say I was absolutely bowled over by this book. Cora, the main character, is autistic, and this fact is absolutely integral to the plot, this is not just a book about an autistic person. It's actually a sophisticated sci-fi, unnervingly oh-so-slightly dystopian story during which the reader will gain a whole load of insight into what being neurodiverse might be like. Not only is Cora autistic, but Adrien, her best friend, has ADHD. Show Us Who You Are is almost completely different to A Kind Of Spark (although there are some similarities, the main one being the MC's desire and ability to stand up for what is right), marking Elle McNicoll out as a superbly skilled writer, and if she wasn't already, one to watch as she continues to write and publish. In this book she achieves deeper depths and higher heights, smashing the mould of the growing trend for diverse, representative books which focus mostly on highlighting the plight of a marginalised group. Here we have a book that truly shows that diverse characters can and should be seen in any role in any genre and that actually the story is all the better for it. I actually can't praise this book enough.

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll can be found on my Children's Fiction - Reading For Empathy book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-reading-for-empathy

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith, illustrated by Chris King (Barrington Stoke)

Pete, Krish and Nancy appear once more in another short but action-packed adventure from Dan Smith. This was another book I picked up knowing I had I would be able to take in the whole story in a short time. School residential stories have an evergreen appeal and they are ripe for a bit of spookiness. Very quickly Dan Smith evokes the necessary aura for a midnight exploration to go badly wrong. With nods this time to comic book capers (I'm thinking Captain America and The Incredible Hulk), The Beast of Harwood Forest taps into some WW2 vibes whilst ensuring that those Stranger Things vibes continue to resonate throughout. Without wanting to give too much away, this high interest/low level reader has a super-satisfying ending - it really is a marvel that a story can be told so well over so few pages. Helping with this are Chris King’s perfect illustrations which, as you can see from the cover, are spot on for the comic book vibes. Inside the pictures are greyscale and Chris works with tone so well that they suit the spooky content to a tee - I am so glad the publishers choose to have these books illustrated. Barrington Stoke books are a must-have for every library, and its books like these that showcase perfectly what they set out to achieve (which you can read more about here).

The Beast of Harwood Forest by Dan Smith can be found on my Children's Fiction - Supernatural & Spooky Tales book list on Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-supernatural-spooky-tales

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

The True Purpose of Year 6

What is the true purpose of year 6?

Whilst writing a blog post about how the true purpose of year 6 isn't preparing for year 7, I got to asking the the above question.

This year and last, due to Covid, year 6 children and teachers have had what has historically dominated their year taken from them: the year 6 SATs. Except that's not what they're called, is it? They're actually KS2 tests which take place in year 6 and therefore their tyranny over the final year of primary school is unjust.

And so, with no further discussion, we will write off preparing for and conducting SATs as being the true purpose of year 6.

If you've read my previous blog posts regarding transition to secondary school you'll also know that I also reject the notion of year 6's true purpose being a year of preparation for year 7.

So, if it isn't about SATs and it isn't about transition, what is the true purpose of year 6? Here are just a few thoughts to answer the question:

  1. Teaching new content - first and foremost let's not forget that year 6 has its own curriculum, and it isn't exactly light on content. The main focus of year 6 should be ensuring that their learning journey continues. The fact that there are no SATs this academic year means that this learning can be focused on the curriculum rather than the test content, and should ensure that the learning continues right to the end of the year and that there is no post-SATs slump.
  2. Consolidating previous content - and before new content can be taught, the reality for year 6 teachers is that previous content must be recapped, retaught and in some cases taught for the first time before they can teach the year 6 curriculum. Much of this content will be essential as they move forward beyond year 6 so it is an important part of the year.
  3. Closure - for children in primary schools (as opposed to middle or all-through schools) year 6 is their last year of a 6-8 year journey, often completed all within the same school. Year 6 is a good year for rounding off the primary experience on a high, not only consolidating curriculum content but some of the other 'soft' skills that they have been developing during their time in primary. It's a time when some children say goodbye to childhood friends as they go their separate ways and so some relationships need that closure too.
  4. Reaching the top - there is something about being the oldest in the school that is almost a rite of passage. And with great power comes great responsibility - children who have been part of school life for several years have an important role to play. Year 6 children of great use when it comes to showing people round, tidying away the nursery toys and being playground buddies to younger children, and this responsibility is good for them too, developing them into more than just arithmetic and grammar machines and providing them with some real life skills.
  5. Maturity - year 6 is a natural time for children to navigate their changing bodies, emotions and relationships whilst in a more familiar, safe setting. It's also a great time for children to be treated as those who are more mature - familiar adults who have seen them grow up are often able to have enhanced relationships with these children as they see them as who they really are: vastly developed human beings, as compared to how they were back in the early years.
  6. Being the best - this is similar to the last two points, but brings in the idea of independence and autonomy as well. As mentioned in point 2, children have already learned a lot during their time at primary school and year 6 is a great opportunity to use and apply all that they have learned, having the responsibility released to them as much as is possible. Year 6 is a great time for children to feel like they can give their all to every project, every piece of work and every opportunity - it is this spirit of independence that will set them in such good stead for secondary school (although they will need to learn to transfer this independence to other areas of school life once in year 7).
Finally, I am most interested in your views on the true purpose of year 6 - I would love to add to this blog post with ideas from others because I am certain there are more aspects of year 6 which could be considered as part of the year group's true purpose.

Put a comment below or send me a tweet on Twitter and I'll add some ideas below!

From @HRWK_Magazine: What Should I Do If a Child Has Finished Their Work?


https://hwrkmagazine.co.uk/archives/4182

A common question, but countless potential solutions. I explore how to use time effectively when a student has finished their work earlier than anticipated.

You all recognise the scene: a line of children stretching from your desk to the classroom door and then doubling back on itself, snaking its way between desks and chairs, children waiting patiently (alright, not always patiently) to have their work seen and to receive their next instruction. To be honest, many of you will have solved the problem of the eternal queue, but the question remains:

What should I do if a child has finished their work?

Read on here: https://hwrkmagazine.co.uk/archives/4182

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

True Transition Begins in September

Life begins at 40 (apparently) and transition begins in September.

In our first 40 years, we don't think to ourselves that we are preparing for the next 40 years. We get on with life and live in the moment (relatively speaking). This living, in most cases, does prepare us for the next years of life (most of us do plan ahead), however the sole purpose of the 40th year is not to ready oneself for the 41st year (although I'm sure there is some mental preparation to do in order to embrace 40). You don't become 40 until you complete your 40th year - I'm not sure anyone spends 39 pretending they are 40.

The above should be true for transition too.

Primary school, done right, should prepare children for secondary school, however it is not the sole purpose. Year 6 might require some mental adjustments in order to be ready for the concept of being in year 7 but it shouldn't be the year where all the actual changes take place. Year 6 should not be year 7 a year early - year 6 has its own purpose too (not SATs and perhaps the true purpose of year 6 is another blog post for another time).

As I've hinted at above, there are aspects of transition that can take place prior to the starting date - the day they walk through the door of their secondary school - and there is quite a lot of information out there already to help year 6 teachers and parents with this (see Emily Weston's blog post, Transition Talks magazine and Liz Stevenson's blog for good examples). After all, it is important that our year 6 children are mentally ready - optimistic, resilient, excited, ready for a challenge - before they arrive at 'big school'.

However, if you're with me so far, we surely must agree that actually the greatest part of transition work must happen once those year 7s are through our doors at the beginning of September (or the end of August for the keen ones).

When I asked both primary and secondary staff on Twitter What would you expect a new y7 child to be able to do independently when they arrive? the answers were many and various:

However, many answers from secondary staff appeared to me to be focused on the expectation that primary children should arrive knowing how to do some very secondary-specific things. Here are some examples:

  • Read and understand a timetable
  • Pack the correct books and equipment for each day
  • Transition between lessons in different rooms in different parts of the school 
  • Have the habit of checking the time themselves and being on time
  • Understanding how to access lunchtime arrangements
  • To know when and when not to ask for help
  • To know when and when not to ask for permission (e.g. to get out of their seat, to take off items of clothing, to go to the toilet)
  • Be used to a different number of break times and lessons
These expectations, focusing on children's ability to organise and manage the school day despite it being very different to what they are used to, were the focus of many answers. Such expectations will vary from school to school and will even vary from teacher to teacher within each secondary school -children go from learning one school's expectations, and one teacher's expectations, to having to learn a new school's expectations plus 15 different teachers' expectations of the above (even where schools have the most consistent approach to routines, systems and expectations there are bound to be personal differences - see some of the other answers in the Twitter thread for examples of this).

Many such expectations were mentioned seemingly as something which could be talked about at primary school during year 6 so that in year 7 they know exactly what to do.

The problems with this are several-fold:

  • A conversation, no matter how many times it is had, will never trump experience. The only real experience children will get of the above is once they arrive in year 7.
  • Year 6 teachers are often dealing with children heading off to multiple secondary schools - as a result they can only really speak generically about what their class might be facing come September. 
  • Often, or nearly always as is probably the case, year 6 teachers will not have specific knowledge of the routines, systems and expectations of even just one secondary school.
  • Conversations happen at a minimum 5/6 weeks prior to the children actually setting foot in their secondary school - there is a lot of time to forget during that time, especially since the information is highly theoretical and is attached to no true experience.

Of course, there is more that primary schools could do, beyond a conversation. For example:

  • Transition days provide a chance for children to experience a real day in a secondary school, however on those days very few of the above expectations are in place: they don't have to pack a bag full of particular books, or bring the right equipment, or wear the right uniform, or find their way around the school using a timetable and a map. Perhaps transition days could expect more of the above, however doing that may serve to deep anxieties around starting secondary schools rather than put minds at ease - which I do believe should be one of the main purposes of a transition day in the summer term of year 6.
  • The current trend seems to be that primary schools replicate as much of secondary school as possible during year 6: different teachers, different rooms, timetables, a change in pedagogy or classroom environment. However, with all the best will in the world there are many practical limitations to these efforts (building size, staffing etc) and the net result in reality is still this: they have not yet set foot in a secondary school and have not yet had to do full days, full weeks and full terms in what, to begin with, is an unfamiliar environment with potentially alien routines, systems and expectations. In a primary where children are given something intending to represent a year 7 experience, there are still many aspects of primary life that will not replicate secondary life completely (lunchtimes for example). Besides, I would still argue that this approach is the wrong way round, hence my previous blog post and the title and content of this one.
  • Covid seems to have brought about the production of video material which in some ways does away with the aforementioned issues of parents and year 6 teachers not knowing enough about the particular expectations of each secondary school. Video content available online means that children and parents can learn more about secondary life from the comfort of their own homes. This is a positive move, however, as before, does not replicate fully the lived experience that can only be gained by starting secondary school for real.

The fact is that whilst primary schools can go some way to help year 6 children to be secondary-ready, the real bulk of the transition work needs to be done by secondary schools once the children are in year 7. 

September is the time to introduce the new expectations, systems and routines and the key is to be supportive in how they are introduced, following a gradual release of responsibility model. Expecting the finished article in week 1 of year 7 is unrealistic, and kindness and empathy will be required in how new year 7 children become familiar with the new expectations, systems and routines.

And it won't just be a matter of weeks, either. In order to truly embed much of this new secondary-specific practice, children will need months to acclimatise. As I've mentioned in a previous blog post, schools must be aware of the cognitive load that all the newness will put on the brains of these 11- or just-12-year-olds. I know that even as an adult starting a new job in a new school it has taken me months - terms, even - to get to grips with new expectations, systems and routines, even as a deputy head. In fact, each different part of the year brings slight changes to some of the routines and throughout the year there can be constant subtle changes to get used to.

Those of us who work in secondary schools really need to see year 7 as an entire transition year, and we must treat the children with the necessary care and understanding as they learn the ropes. And, as I've also written before, if the expectations are lowered in terms of such practicalities, there is more chance that expectations can be raised when it comes to the all-important curriculum learning that needs to happen in year 7. Plus, if teachers are less stressed out about whether or not a child has read a timetable correctly, packed the right books or tied their tie correctly because they understand that embedding these things will take time, they will have a happier time of it too - no more annoying year 7s.

More from my blog on transition:

Making Secondary Schools Primary-Ready

Three Characteristics of a Supportive KS3 Curriculum

Working Towards a Middle Phase in an All-Through Academy: Potential Logistical Changes for Years 7 and 8

Click the image below to book free tickets for the TransitionEd conference, which I will be speaking at alongside many other wonderful people:


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Friday, 2 April 2021

Middle Grade Reading Round-Up: February - March 2021

Murder on the Safari Star (Adventures on Trains #3) by M.G. Leonard & Sam Sedgman, Illustrations by Ellie Paganelli (Pan Macmillan)

The third in the series, and I was ready for everything this one had to give. Hal and Uncle Nat once again meet a cast of colourful characters (some of whom you might feel like you know already) in this (dare I say it) enjoyable whodunnit for children. I think it is a fairly brave move to have a murder in a children's book, and the events of the story should rightly raise some discussion points. The book, although an intriguing mystery in an exciting setting (complete with all the animals you'd want from a safari through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia), is a good starting point for discussing good and bad, right and wrong as well as how different people might respond to death. Leonard and Sedgman have really nailed the format in a child-friendly form and those who've kept up with the series will be beginning to be adept at picking up on the clues needed to be sleuthing as they read.

'Murder on the Safari Star' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Space Oddity by Christopher Edge, Illustrations by Ben Mantle (Chicken House)

A book about life and the things that matter, all rolled up in a story about a boy who discovers he is part-alien. The last book I read by Edge was The Longest Night of Charlie Noon which I felt was aimed at a slightly older age group than Space Oddity - this new one could easily be managed by 8 or 9-year-olds. Apart from being a twist on the classic abducted-by-aliens narrative from the old days of Sci-fi this book is actually a sweet ode to human creativity. Whilst acknowledging that people have done a lot of damage to our planet, it also celebrates the beautiful things that we have created. Of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' Jake's alien dad says: "...songs... tell us what it means to be alive. This was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard. And a human being had made it. I thought if they were capable of this, then maybe they weren't as primitive as we though they were." Every child who has ever felt embarrassment at how weird their parents can be will relate to this brilliantly-told story.

'Space Oddity' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

Melt by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Press)

Two stories intertwine in the cold, unforgiving Arctic as a subtle message about climate change and human irresponsibility is passed on to the next generation. Bea is a city kid, tired of moving around with her dad's job and suffering bullying at yet another new school. Yutu lives in a remote Arctic village with his grandmother who holds to a simple, traditional way of life. After Yutu decides to try and prove himself as a hunter out on the tundra, and as Bea crash-lands a plane as she flees her father's attackers, they are brought together in the freezing environment and theirs becomes a race for survival. Those who have read and loved Bren MacDibble's books, or Nicola Penfold's 'Where The World Turns Wild' will love this, as will those who have read 'Viper's Daughter' by Michelle Paver ('Melt' is a like a modern-day version). In the mold of a classic adventure story, complete with bad guys but with a truth that must be uncovered rather than a treasure to be discovered, 'Melt' is a testament to friendship, determination and all-important know-how.

'Melt' will be published on 29th April 2021 and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

City of Rust by Gemma Fowler (Chicken House)

Sci-fi again, but set in what I assume to be a post-apocalyptic world, ruined by human wastefulness. So far have humans gone with their refusal to reduce, reuse and recyle, that they have taken to flinging their trash into space. However, the poor of the earth are resourceful, and there's plenty they can do with the rubbish, so long as the Junkers can get it down to them. We meet Railey and Atti, her bio-robotic gecko in Boxville, where they are star drone racers. What they don't know is that they have been training for years - training to save the world from the revenge of those who hate the way of life in the Glass City. Fowler's creations are a treat for the imagination and although Karl James Mountford's cover is absolutely stunning I'd also love to see some artistic representations of the world we are shown in 'City of Rust'. In an original adventure, perfect for fans of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines and Railhead books, Gemma Fowler spins a tale of loyalty, ingenuity and derring-do whilst making an important statement about the potential consequences of materialism.

'City of Rust' is available now and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

The Chessmen Thief by Barbara Henderson (Cranachan Publishing)

Historical fiction - probably my favourite genre. Even more so when it is medieval historical fiction. This, set in Norway, the Hebrides and the Orkney Islands in the 12th century, is a Norse tale after Henry Treece's Viking books for children. 'The Chessmen Thief', an imagined origin story for the famous Lewis Chessmen, paints much of the culture in a positive light, including the influence of Christianity. Henderson paints a vivid picture of life for slave boy Kylan as he pines for his mother whilst plotting and scheming to make his escape. The descriptions of people, place and actions great and small are so evocative of times gone by and it is easy to feel that one is there, among the people, able to smell the sea air and feel the excitement brought about by the creation of these innovative and exquisite pieces of craftsmanship. This book is a fantastic addition to the growing number of titles focused on the Viking age, this one made more rare by not focusing on activity post-1066.

'The Chessmen Thief' will be published on 29th April 2021 and features on my Children's Fiction 2021 list at bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/children-s-fiction-2021

The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke by Kirsty Applebaum (Nosy Crow)

If M. Night Shyamalan wrote middle grade fiction, then he'd write something like 'The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke'. Kirsty Applebaum has already mastered the art of making a reader feel unsettled for the whole duration of a book, and in this one she does it again. Bringing folk tale aesthetics to the modern world, Applebaum spins a supernatural story of life and death. What makes this stand out from some other children's books that might be categorised similarly, is that very little suspension of disbelief is necessary: only does the reader need to allow themselves to accept that Lifelings, people who can prevent others from dying by giving up some of their own life, are indeed real. This brilliantly-spun yarn provokes many moral questions and is a great device to really get children thinking about self-sacrifice and serving others. And once they've read it, get them to think about how clever the title is.

'The Life and Time of Lonny Quicke' will be published on 6th May 2021