Sunday, 22 December 2019

Book Review: 'The Star Outside My Window' by Onjali Q. Rauf

As an adult reader, I found this book a difficult one to read - difficult but compelling, yet strangely heartwarming. However, what is apparent to grown ups will certainly be less so for younger readers - the age range the book is really intended for.

The difficult thing about it is that the clues are all there as to what Aniyah and Noah have been through prior to the events in the story. I remember saying when Lisa Thompson's 'The Light Jar' was published that I hadn't encountered themes of domestic violence in a children's book before - in The Star Outside My Window it is a much more central theme.

In its plot, there are definite reminders of Onjali's previous book 'The Boy At The Back Of The Class' - a group of optmistic children hatch a hare-brained, heart-filled scheme to ensure that justice is done. Aniyah, Noah and their new foster brothers Ben and Travis, run away on Halloween and head to London to gate-crash the naming ceremony of a brand new star which is travelling closer to earth than any other star has before.

With the scientific element of the story being quite fantastical, and the terrible realities of domestic violence being ever present, a balance is created. Aniyah's love of astronomy brings another dimension too - there are plenty of great factoids scattered throughout the story. But it is the narrator's voice which really sets this story firmly in place as appropriate for the intended age group despite its upsetting premise. The child's point of view which Rauf adopts, and carries off so well (as she also did in her first book), makes for a gentle and palatable yet serious treatment of the subject matter.

Books which tackle ideas about what happens after death are usually problematic: more often than not, they push one particular, definite idea or another - beliefs which definitely wouldn't align with everyone's way of thinking, therefore alienating potential readers. In 'The Star Outside My Window' a new precendent is set: all it portrays is one child's own rationalisation of what they think has happened to their mum - an idea forged in the furnaces of grief and the only thing that makes sense to them at the time. The author pushes no religious or secular beliefs, she just tells the story of one little girl, struggling to come to terms with what has happened.

And whilst the bulk of this review has focused on the deep and meaningfuls of this book, it really must be said that it is a rip-roaring, heart-in-mouth adventure too - will they really make it all the way to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich from Waverley Village in Oxfordshire in time without being caught? The odds are stacked against them but you'll cheer repeatedly as they thwart well-meaning citizens who only want to keep them safe, and you'll laugh as squirrels - yes, squirrels! - pretty much save the day in the nick of time.

This certainly is one of 2019's must-read books, but perhaps one that parents and teachers might want to exercise caution with. To help with potential upset, and to promote growth of empathy, the book actually contains a few helpful sections pre- and postscript about the nature of the story and domestic abuse, as well as information for how to get help if aspects of the story ring true for its readers - a thoughtful and essential addition to this brave new book.

Orion Children's Books - 3rd October 2019 - Price: £6.99 - ISBN-13: 9781510105140

Monday, 2 December 2019

Including Word Etymology On Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge Organisers, Key Fact Sheets, 100% Sheets - whatever you call them - are de rigueur right now, and for good reason: they help both teachers and children with teaching and learning. For teachers, they are a good guide as to what they need to teach (and the act of creating them can be a very clarifying process). For children, it's a one stop shop for what they need to know, and is the starting point for using various methods of retrieval practice to learn the information that their teachers think they need to know.

One of the great realisations (it's more of a blindingly obvious reawakening) of the last few years, is that having a good vocabulary is key to understanding pretty much anything and that we must help children explicitly to develop their vocabulary.

If you don't know what a word means on its own, then how can you tell what it means in a sentence? And if you don't know what a sentence is trying to get across, how can you understand a whole paragraph? And if you can't work out what a paragraph mea... you get the picture: vocabulary is really important.

Often, when teaching a unit of work, in geography, or history say, there is a lot of terminology that is necessary to the explanation, but which itself is complex to explain. As a result, many teachers employing Knowledge Organisers and the like have taken to including key vocabulary too: words which will help children understand and talk about the concepts and facts they are learning.

But developing one's vocabulary isn't always easy. But, as Alex Quigley wrote, 'Etymology is a goldmine of an opportunity (too often missed) for teachers of every subject discipline'. He goes on to say that 'The stories that underpin our language can often illuminate the ideas and meanings we seek to communicate' - sounds good, right? Note the use of that word 'story' - our minds privilege story, and we learn stuff well if it is presented in story form. And what is etymology if it is not the story of a word? A story which can help us learn the meaning of that word.

Not only does learning the etymology of a word help us to understand the one word in question, it also arms us with knowledge which helps us to discover the meaning of other words that share the same root. For example, if children know that the root of the word 'terrain' is the Latin terra meaning 'earth' or 'land', they might be able to discover something of the meaning of the word 'territory', 'terrestrial' or 'terrace'. Further, they might come across the word 'terrarium' and link it to their knowledge of what an aquarium is and come to the understanding that a terrarium is like an aquarium without the water, but with earth in it instead.

Coming back to the Knowledge Organisers: if it contains information you want the children to learn, including word definitions, then why not also include some etymological information which might help the learning to stick as well as provide the basis for future understanding of word meaning?

It's simple enough to do. Here are some examples (click on the images to see them in more detail):



In order to create primary-level information about each word's etymology I usually use a combination of the google dictionary (just google the word + etymology) and etymonline. Using these resources I can usually create a child-friendly version, often opting for the 'deepest' root, usually Germanic, Latin or Greek rather than the various incarnations of the word. Here's an example:



If I were to use this word with a primary child (I probably wouldn't need to), I'd just choose to give the following: from Latin in meaning 'into' and carn- meaning 'flesh'. To get that meaning I also had to click through the link to the page for 'incarnate':



Once that definition were given, we could talk about how 'in flesh' has come to mean 'in human form'. We could also link to Chili Con Carne (meaning 'chili with meat/flesh') and the link to other Latin languages that use carne to mean meat. That's the sort of thing that is much easier to remember because it is a little strange, even though it makes total sense.

Obviously, putting the etymology on the Knowledge Organiser is only step one - what you do with that next is up to you. Certainly, you'd want to begin by teaching more around those words, displaying the words, definitions and etymology in your classroom, playing matching games, having multiple choice quizzes about the word meanings, locating those words in texts, finding other words with the same root words and working out their meanings... there are myriad possibilities.

If vocabulary is the gateway to knowledge learning, and understanding etymology is a path to vocabulary development, then half an hour spent on providing the etymology of your unit of work's key words is probably time well spent - have a go, and I'd love to see some your examples!

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing the teaching of vocabulary and spelling at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

For more on teaching vocabulary, see my TES article 'Why Etymology Boosts Spelling And Vocabulary: https://www.tes.com/news/sats-why-etymology-boosts-vocabulary-and-spelling

For No-Quiz Retrieval Practice Techniques, click here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2018/06/no-quiz-retrieval-practice-techniques.html

For my blog post, Using Mnemonics For Retrieval Practice, follow this link: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2018/07/using-mnemonics-for-retrieval-practice.html

For more information about using Knowledge Organisers in Primary, I've written a short overview and provided links to other educators who have written about their use: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2017/06/using-100-sheets-aka-knowledge.html

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

#Lollies2020: Joshua Seigal - 'I Bet I Can Make You Laugh'


When I was asked to champion one of the books nominated for the Lollies 2020 book awards, there was really only one choice for me: Joshua Seigal's 'I Bet I Can Make You Laugh'. My middle daughter (I have three) is an avid reader (I mean really avid) and, amongst other things, she is partial to both funny books and poetry. So when a copy of Joshua Seigal's 'I Bet I Can Make You Laugh' which I won (and is signed) dropped through our letterbox, she pounced upon it and devoured it.

And it's regularly off the bookshelf for a quick read, which, as avid readers among you will know, often turns into a long read (I'm not complaining). With poems from Joshua himself, as well as a range of other poets such as A.F. Harrold, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Frank Dixon (aged 7), Irene Assiba D'Almeida, Alfred Noyes, Lewis Carroll, Kat Francois, Andy Seed and Jay Hulme, this collection really willmost probably, almost certainly make you laugh - if you're an adult. If you're a child, there's no doubt about it: you will laugh.

And if you don't believe me (and I'm so excited about this), here's a brand new poem from Joshua Seigal to give you a taste of what's to come if you get your hands on a copy of Lollies 2020 nominated book 'I Bet I Can Make You Laugh'. I cheekily asked that he pen something new especially for my blog and here it is: a funny Shakesperean sonnet (go on, count the lines and try reading it in iambic pentameter)!

The Ferocious Commotion

A ferocious commotion’s occurring next door.
It’s like ten thousand buffalo having a fight
It’s as loud as the crash of a rusty chainsaw
and I know it’ll keep me awake half the night.

Like the whistling whoosh of a runaway train,
a ferocious commotion’s occurring next door.
Like a hideous gargoyle yelling in pain,
it’s as loud as a battlefield, loud as a war.

It roars like a lion that’s stepped on a pin.
It clanks like a tank that’s got stuck in the mud.
It shrieks like a shark when you tickle its fin
with a hoot and a honk and a bang and a thud.

What on earth is it? I go exploring
and discover it’s only my grandfather snoring.

www.joshuaseigal.co.uk

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

In Praise Of The Written Lesson Evaluation (And The Motivating Power Of Success)

Remember when, as a trainee, you had to have that pristine file (or two) that contained all your paperwork? I can't even remember what on earth all that junk was, only that I was constantly in trouble with my tutors for not having my file up-to-date.

What I do remember, and resent, was the lesson evaluations that we were supposed to write. Inevitably, after a day full of teaching and an evening full of planning (repeat ad nauseam), they were never filled in whilst the lesson was fresh in my mind.

Well, 13 or so years after finishing my degree I've finally discovered that written evaluations actually can be quite useful.

The other day, after working with a group who had been selected as ones who would potentially struggle with a research and present task, I resorted to writing down some thoughts after a somewhat difficult time with them. Here's exactly what I wrote in my notebook that lunchtime:

Not a Torture, But a Joy (principle of the Kodaly Concept)

Today was not a joy. It was torture for all involved. 'Pulling teeth' was the phrase used by the head who overheard me 'teaching'. I was tortured by the lack of interest and engagement, as were the children (who were tortured by my frustration).

The task - research and present - has been dragging on for a few weeks now. Every session I scaffold the time and activity even more to try to combat the inactivity. But there is no drive, no determination, no will to research and present. It's not, I think, that the ancient civilisation of the Indus Valley means nothing to them, but that reading books, locating information and then preparing to re-present that information does not interest them.

I'm also fairly sure that the children in my group, selected for this very reason, don't know how to carry out such a process. This lack of skill has led to past experiences where they have felt unsuccessful in such a task - I assume. And this lack of feeling of success, I reason, must have led to the lack of desire to make an effort today.

I talk so often of 'lack'. I see that they need to experience success. Must some success be my main goal, then? By what means? What must I jettison in order to gain this success? Must we put something aside, at least for now, in order to gain what they currently lack: success, motivation, confidence.

A tentative yes - I must prioritise their experience of success over what I am currently trying to get out of them. And what is that? The skill of reading for a purpose: gaining knowledge. The skill of writing coherent sentences, paragraphs, texts in order for them to then present it verbally.

What will I give, then? How will I ensure that what I give provides them with something from which they can derive the experience of success, without attributing all the success to me and my provision?

What if I asked them what they wanted? Would that reveal what they are truly motivated to do?

Beyond this particular piece of work, how can learning become a joy rather than a torture for these children?

Next session:

  1. group discussion: ides for the presentation
  2. finish off revision of text - teacher-led/modelled
  3. edit text - shared work
  4. back to organisation of presentation - what needs to be done? Assign roles
  5. children prepare presentation; teacher to provide assistance where needed
4 and 5 rely on 1. 2 and 3 should be inspired by 1. If the children are motivated by their own decisions about the presentation they will hopefully be more motivated to get the script right.

Let's see...

After some more thought (those moments of solitude - in the car, on my bike, in the shower - can always be relied upon for further reflection and inspiration) I decided that I would complete steps 2 and 3 myself, bringing a complete script, informed mostly by their reading and notes, to the next session.

I sat down with the group and showed them the script I'd brought. We read it through. They recognised that the majority of it was their hard-won work and, seeing it all typed up, seemed pleased with what they had, with my help, produced. They fell to assigning parts of the script with gusto and, impressively, no arguments - everyone got the bit they wanted to say (nearly all of them chose to present the information they had researched and contributed to the script - a sign of ownership and pride, I think).

They began to rehearse it, ad-libbing and adding new bits in to make it more of a presentation and less of a standing-up-and-reading-from-a-piece-of-paper affair. Some of them even set about learning their part by heart (which they succeeded in doing). One particular child who often finds it difficult to focus for various, real reasons, took a lead role and did a great job of organising the team. They decided they needed visuals and went off to find some big paper (they agreed to avoid powerpoint as they had previously presented work in this way). They returned with a roll of paper and decided to make a long poster which followed the timeline of the script. Accepting my suggestion, they used some of the research materials I had prepared, cutting out relevant images to display based on the content of the script. They practised - I'll admit it was rowdy at time - and when the day finally came, they presented confidently (even if nerves did lead to very quick speaking) and proudly to their gathered parents.

I'm glad I didn't press on with forcing them to revise and edit the text as a group - I think I made the right decision to finish that bit myself in order to move them onto something that they would get a little more gratification out of. By completing everything I outlined in the last paragraph, the group surely felt motivated by their little successes.

Here's to hoping that next time, buoyed by this experience, they will feel more motivated to complete similar tasks - that is, if I actually decide to inflict that upon them again! Research and present is a little dry...