Saturday, 4 January 2020

Book Review: 'The Mask Of Aribella' by Anna Hoghton

Choosing the islands and lagoon of Venice for the setting of a magial middle grade escapade was a stroke of genius. The surrealness of such a location makes the events of the story seem entirely plausible: very surely an only-just teenager in that strange place could find out they are a member of a magical order and that actually, they are the one to avert the catastrophe that is looming over the people of Venice.

It's on the eve of Aribella's 13th birthday that, in a fit of rage, she discovers she has the power to conjure fire. Very quickly she is whisked away into an ever-present but invisible parallel world where she discovers there is more to her unique city than meets the eye. But it is clear that not all is well, and is the way with such tales, she finds it is up to her and her new-found friends to save the day.

With the odd hint of certain giants of the genre, albeit with an Italian twist, this story is bound to enchant anyone within just a few pages. The story skims along at a cracking pace, yet, just as with the wooden piles on which Venice is built, there are foundations that run deep - the power of friendship and family, trust and responsibility provide a solid base for this dark tale of good versus evil.

Not only is this a fantasy adventure, it will also have its readers guessing whodunnit-style as to who is really responsible for the sinister goings on. As I read, I mentally drew up my own list of suspects and weighed up their motives, questioning their behaviour and coming to my own conclusions about who is behind the appearance of spectres in the lagoon, the disappearance of all the animals and the too-regular appearance of the Blood Moon. I, of course, was wrong, but that made the ending all the more satisfying - and there was more than one goosebump moments as the elements of the plot came together in the final moments.

A strong start for children's publishing in 2020 and a great introduction to Anna Hoghton, a new voice in children's fiction.

Published by Chicken House · 2nd January 2020 · Paperback · £6.99 · 9+ year olds

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Book Review: 'Empire's End - A Roman Story' by Leila Rasheed

There are over 30 other books in Goodreads' Roman Britain in YA & Middle Grade Fiction Listopia list, some by eminent writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff. So why do we need another book which falls into this (very niche) category?

Well, Leila Rasheed has an important story to tell. Scholastic's Voices series focuses specifically on 'the unsung voices of our past' - in this particular book it's the voice of a young Libyan Roman woman who finds herself at the empire's end - in Britain. She has accompanied her father, a doctor, who is an aide to Septimius Severus, a Roman Emperor originally from Libya, and his powerful and influential Syrian wife, Julia Domna.

Not only do we get a much more diverse cast than in other historical novels, and are allowed to hear the stories of those who history doesn't always like to remember, but we also hear it from the pen of an author who herself grew up in Libya and who describes herself (on her Twitter bio at least) as British-Asian European.

CLPE's Reflecting Realities survey of ethnic representation in UK children's books  found that in 2018 only 4% of children's books published featured a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) main protagonist. The BookTrust Represents research into representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators found that in 2017 less than 6% of book creators were from a BAME background. That's why we need this book.

But this doesn't just fill a void in the market, this is a seriously good book. The gripping and fast-paced story is all carefully interwoven with historical fact: a Roman emperor from Libya did live and die in York, archaeological research has shown that those with black African heritage did live in Britain during the Roman period and that people from all over the Roman provinces ended up marrying each other and having children.

In 'Empire's End' Rasheed imagines how one such character may have ended up in Britain, despite having been born in North Africa. Although slavery is a key theme in the book, it is important that we follow the story of a high status a BAME character - as we've mentioned before, it is these stories that are seldom told. As Camilla's destiny is linked to that of the struggle for power in the Roman Empire, nothing is very certain for her as she travels the world and settles in a place that seems as far from home as she can imagine. The story twists and turns, painting vivid characters and their realities in a human way against the backdrop of one of the Roman Empire's trickiest times.

Young readers will be thrilled to find this combination of qualities in one fairly short story which is bound to hold the attention of even the most flighty of readers. And with this being the fourth book in the series, there is already plenty for readers to go back and discover. A fantastic first read for 2020.

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

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Beware The Reverse-Engineered Curriculum (or The Potential Pitfalls Of Going For Retrieval Practice Pell-Mell)

Aren't Knowledge Organisers brilliant? Isn't Retrieval Practice just the bees knees? As for Powerful Knowledge... sigh - the stuff dreams are made of.

Over the last couple of years, many of us have taken the outcomes of relatively recent research and applied it to the way we teach and we are pleased with how it's going - children are actually learning, retaining and retrieving information, something which, if we're honest, didn't always happen before.

But what seems to me to have happened is that we have found something that actually, reliably works, and we have made our curricula work for it. We've realised that retrieval practice does make a difference and we've begun to design a curriculum which focuses on what can be learned by that method.

Sure, there are other arguments for teaching Powerful Knowledge - it's supposed to ‘enable students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their own experiences’ (Young et al., 2014, p. 7) and for this reason it is often held up as essential for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who we see as needing to be upwardly-mobile socially. Powerful Knowledge is seen to be the answer to closing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Perhaps it isn't even Powerful Knowledge that we're even talking about here, but actually what is known as Declarative Knowledge - facts and information stored in the memory. I'm not sure Powerful Knowledge could be defined so narrowly. Powerful Knowledge is supposed to be more than that.

Whatever terminology we use, the focus on knowledge is potentially narrowing what is taught and how it is taught. And this narrowing is perhaps now coming as a result of the most vaunted method of teaching the knowledge from a knowledge-rich curriculum: retrieval practice. And more specifically, the activity that seems to have become synoymous with retrieval practice: quizzing.

Because retrieval practice works so well, we seem to have searched out the things that best suit the method: the sort of information that can be retrieved and recited e.g. history dates, word definitions, geographic processes, scientific theories and outlines of philosophical concepts, for example.

But is it right to have allowed a certain understanding of the concept of Powerful Knowledge to reduce our curriculum to the identification of exactly which pieces of information we are going to teach, and to the teaching of that information using retrieval practice techniques?

Indeed, possessing Powerful Knowledge, and being able to retrieve it, is supposed to be so much more than rote learning; more than memorising and regurgitating facts. Done right, it should, lead to better understanding and it should improve complex thinking and application skills.

But is an approach to teaching and learning which is satisfied by children who can simply recall information really what's best? The recall of information is not the end of the story. A high score on a (supposedly low stakes) quiz should not mean job done.

Actually, I'd argue, once the facts are memorised, that's when the real teaching and learning begins. Once children know the facts, that's when they can start to use and apply them in various ways. Powerful Knowledge is supposed to allow us to generalise and use what we've learned to think beyond the immediate context.

And don't forget procedural knowledge - how to do things. You can't teach writing, artistic techniques or how to use a tool just by teaching facts. Any time we model something (and this is something we should do a lot in teaching) we are teaching procedural knowledge. This procedural knowledge is separate from 'common sense' knowledge which we gain from everyday life, and therefore lands it more in the realms of Powerful Knowledge. However, the focus on bolstering the curriculum with declarative knowledge has the potential to leave procedural knowledge behind. A balanced approach is needed.

Does your recently-re-written curriculum (all 'i's dotted - intent, implementation and impact) allow the learning to go beyond the retrieval of facts? Or has a child who has learned all the dates on the knowledge organiser and filled in the gaps in the booklet succeeded in all you set out to do? And did that child get the opportunity to do anything else that half term, or did they spend all of their time ensuring they knew all the facts?

If we reverse-engineer the curriculum based on one teaching method which allows one aspect of what might be taught to be taught, then we might not end up with the curriculum we really need.

Those of us involved in curriculum design or review should think carefully about the problems we are trying to solve in order to decide on the criteria we need to set for our curriculum development. We should definitely identify the declarative knowledge we want children to learn - the facts, the information - but we should also be thinking about other kinds of knowledge too.

Things to think about

  • Don't narrow your curriculum down to just the things that can be learned through quizzing. 
  • Think more broadly about how a greater range of retrieval practice techniques can be used to help children learn things from a wider knowledge base than just simple facts and figures. 
  • Ensure that your curriculum really meets the needs of the children in your school and let them be your starting point.

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