Friday, 26 July 2019

The End of the Odyssey

With a final goodbye the Who Let the Gods Out saga comes to an end and what a journey it has been. One of loss and heartache as much as joy and laughter I feel. Hard to read in places - perhaps more for adults than children - but a romping good tale that will entertain readers for many years yet to come I have no doubt. 

Maz Evans deciding there would be four significant parts to her story was a masterstroke. Firstly, it meant people were almost signing up for the long haul by reading book 1. But secondly and perhaps more importantly, there aren’t really any other quadrilogies .... fourologies .... quadbooks? I dunno what the word is, perhaps there isn’t one. But you know what I mean, a series told over four separate books. And essentially I guess the question is, did it work. In short, yes, definitely. 

The final instalment Against All Gods very much has the fee of tying everything together right from the off and it wastes no time in reminding you with crunching realisation of our young hero’s loss. 

Elliot is a broken shell much like his long absent father and the question that rolls the start of the book along for the opening 5 chapters or so is, will he get his mum back. Interestingly and perhaps deliberately on the part of Evans, I cared more about that than bad boy Thanatos’ attempt to take over the world. 

That for me is the beauty of this series and ironically is an aspect I actually think would be partially lost on the children reading these books. The heartbreaking relationships in the Hooper household, the well meaning but largely vacuous Call Me Graham, the tyrannical Mr Boil. All this tied up in a brown paper bag with a stamp reading good intentions. Because for me that’s largely what this series has been about, good intentions in the face of well, life. 

Elliot faces challenges and questions that no young mind should have to tackle and although ‘helped’ along the way by Virgo - who is actually not in this book as much as the others interestingly - he has to make many decisions himself. This decisions and quandaries very strongly echo elements of Harry Potter and the idea of the greater good but there are parts as in Beyond the Odyssey that I found hard to read. 

This instalment is chocker with character, with as many different accents and manners of speaking as there are regulations in the zodiac council.  This I must admit I found a tad full on (sorry) i kept trying to read it in the way the accent said and found I was losing my train of thought but that’s probably my own failure at accents more than anything. 

The book steams along picking up pace, heroes and some fist pumping moments. It is a tale of loss but a tale of friendship, family and finding purpose. One that keeps you thinking after you put it down and one that much like Kate Saunders’ Land of Neverendingsmakes you feel like the author must have first hand experience of the heart ache described in the text. 

I will always maintain that for me these books are best used in Years 5,6 and even 7. The vocab, the incredible depth of Greek history and religion that is examined and even the subject matter I think very much leans itself more to Upper KS2. 

This final instalment is no different. You follow Elliot, Zeus and the clan through trials and tribulations and this wonderfully crafted world is told with such ease and certainty that you can tell Evans has been working on it for a very long time now. She knows her characters, she knows her reader and she has produced a rare gem in this four part saga that I know will be a cornerstone of classroom book corners for many years to come. 

Monday, 27 August 2018

Understanding Vocabulary? What does that mean?

Vocabulary. It needs to be taught, it needs to be explained and it needs to be used, but how do we do it? How do we avoid simply stating what a word means like a fully animated Google simply spouting out the derivation of each word and the related antonyms and synonyms? How can we give the children the tools to work out meanings for themselves? Like most areas of learning, creating a natural and inherent interest is the start for me. If children love words and love using them it will trickle through each aspect of their work and developing this skill is how I attempt to begin each school year. Hopefully some of these activities may be useful for you too.

1.    Give me a word. Now believe it or not I started doing this after watching the 1990s movie The Krays (bear with me). In one particular scene the twins are asked by their imposing school master for a good word, a wonderful word. The word chosen is ‘crocodile’ the teacher rolls it around his mouth and finally declares it acceptable. Now in my own classroom this is not done in such a menacing way, however it really works. Each day the children select a wonderful word from their reading, a word that sounds interesting or funny even just a word they haven’t come across before. We have had ramshackle, bulbous, kerfuffle, mystic and my personal favourite reverberate. When each one is shared we savour the word, we say it long, we say it slow, we say it high pitched and low and the children love it. We discuss what it means, how it is used and why it’s effective. They leave each day having discussed 5 or 6 words in detail and most remember them. Note this is done outside of any English or Reading lesson.

2.     Knock it off. As the name suggests this focuses on the removal of prefixes and suffixes. I provide a list of words the class are unfamiliar with and ask them to eliminate the prefix or the suffix to come up with a host of root words. They have to be unfamiliar otherwise they will do it instantly and making it a timed exercise increases the competitiveness, words like ungoverned work well as there is a prefix and suffix. This can be extended by asking the children to challenge their partner with words they have found in their own reading.

3.       Say it how it is. During reading lessons we will take a sentence with unfamiliar vocabulary and I will change the unknown word for an option of 3. Generally they will be similar. For example the sentence ‘slowly the broken figure rose from his slumber’ the word slumber will be unfamiliar for some ‘slowly the broken figure rose from his bed/sleep/coffin. I will then teach the skills of replacement, rereading the sentence with each of the words being used. Children then explain to each other which sounds the most likely. We will discuss what has happened earlier in the book and what happens next and will also look at what we already know about the character. Once this has been practised enough you can start removing the options and start asking the children to come up with their own replacement. This stage will only work if you are embedding quality vocabulary into your day to day life in school otherwise your class may simply not have the range of words to choose from.

4.       The Language of Today. Very simply this focusses on modernising language. I have found the best way to do this is through speeches rather than stories. Churchill works well but if possible go back even further. Lots of the Native American chiefs made some wonderful speeches and challenging your children to rewrite them using contemporary language is a great way to test their understanding of what they have read.

5.       Collection race. Display a root word the class are familiar with, phone for example. Then challenge them to come up with as many different words that use the root word phone as they can in one minute. Some may only come up with telephone but others may know gramophone and lots will kick themselves when you mention homophone. This leads to a great discussion about what the prefixes themselves may mean. We then write out our new words and split them, explaining in writing what the prefix or suffix means and that the root word remains the same.

6.       Can you help? During reading time if my children come across an unfamiliar word they will post it note the page, unless it drastically throws them off understanding the story they won’t spent much time trying to deduce it’s meaning. Instead they will come back to it later, examine the word and try to work out what it is saying, if they can’t this post it note is then moved to the edge of their table at the start of the next reading session and I know that they need some help, we solve it together, often with little prompting from myself.

With the new curriculum, if we can still call it that, the promotion of high quality language and the understanding of what it means has arguably never been more important. As much as children using creative language is important, we also need to teach them not to be scared of language that they don’t actually know. We need to provide them with the tools to dissect this language, to manipulate it to suit them and to put themselves in a position that they will be able to at least attempt to deduce its meaning.  I attended CPD last year that said we must give children confidence in maths to make the numbers work for them, to remember they are in charge and the numbers are within their control. Vocabulary is no different.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Judge a book by it's cover - well kind of

Never judge a book by its cover. That’s what we were all told growing up. But we do. We all do, at least to some degree. The internet is awash with different book shops or bloggers painstakingly wrapping books up in brown paper (some even then tying it up with string) and writing some teasing adjectives on the front. The idea being that readers should pick a book purely based on its content rather than its colours or design. I can see why they do it, the mystery and excitement about not knowing what you’re getting for example. However I don’t think that we should be so quick to disregard the wonderful covers, well thought out and crafted blurbs and the often beautiful designs of the books that we see on our shelves today. They are integral to our understanding of a text and are a first taste of what's to come and they should be treated with such reverence.  

Let’s take a look at some.

Wonder by R.J.Palacio

Now I would argue that this cover dramatically increased my interest and intrigue and made me want to read the book. The wonderful design is quirky, different and genuinely did make me wonder. Now that is not to say that I wouldn’t have picked up a book about a young boy with a facial disfigurement entering school for the first time but the bright colour blue standing in contrast against the child like drawing made me pick it up. The clever missive at the top ‘you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.’ Gives a perfect hint at the tone of the book and certainly pushed it higher up my to be read pile.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

As a child I would’ve picked this book up in a heartbeat and spent just as long perusing the glorious cover and map enclosed on the half dust jacket as I would’ve done flicking through the pages. Perhaps more if I am being brutally honest. This is a glorious cover; it feels sturdy, has gold lining that reflects and glints in the light and has an air ship! An actual air ship! Set against a city of houses similar to our own I genuinely think this is one of my favourite covers and it would be a travesty to cover it up. The images whet the appetite, they draw the reader into the world they long to enter and for me, and they made me feel like I belonged there.

Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling

I have to include a Potter and for me this is one of the best. More importantly with a series like this however is that children hunt for these books, they want this particular book, the next in the series, another step along the path. Hiding these covers does them a disservice. Yes you could add some teasing words, magic, mystery, friends. However that could be a whole host of books and yes I do know that’s almost the point. I am old enough to remember the Harry Potter buzz, in fact I was a child during peak Potter-mania and the cover reveal was one of the key components of this. It was part of the excitement of each year just like the Coca Cola advert being shown in the build up to Christmas. The image of the burning phoenix rising from the flames is iconic, matched perfectly with the deep yellow and Griffindor red, the cover screams read me. And of course tens of millions did. 

When I teach reading we spend at least one lesson simply discussing the cover of a book. The value in it is immeasurable. The need for that discussion and the total reliance on inference skills has led to some of the best book talk I have experienced as a teacher. Valuing this talk and valuing the covers that we are so often treated to is a facet of reading that I worry is merely given a passing nod at the moment. Picture books artwork is heralded and rightly so, so can we please show some love to the humble book cover. 

Here are some of my other favourites. What are yours?

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Where have all the parents gone?

Creative and imaginative plot - check.
Absent or ill parent or parents - check.
Guardian with almost omnipotent power - check.
Child or children with little regard for rules, safety or society - check.

From Treasure Island to Harry Potter this basic structure has driven a huge proportion of our most loved children’s books. It has melted into every genre and has become the stand out literary device, especially in books that are targeted at Key Stage 2 and above. It’s easy to see why, Blyton’s Famous Five masterpieces for example were essentially the same story over and over. By changing the setting, the villain and the mystery, Blyton could retain the same independence of her central characters. Parents have sent them out the house, parents are away working etc. Fast forward half a century and as the world has got smaller and children are more aware of threats or at least perceived threats, this has shifted to deceased parents, jailed parents or even parents with terminal or critical illnesses.

Let me be clear, this is not a criticism of such writing. I have championed many of the books that do this and will continue to. Rather this is a recognition of how hard it is to create an original idea in a much saturated structure. So why the appeal? Magical Thinking is a psychological theory in which a person believes that their own thoughts, feelings, wishes or desires can influence the external world. This is partly why I believe this absent parent, knowledgable guardian structure works so well. Magical Thinking is particularly prevalent in children, the idea that there small decisions can have a huge impact on a myriad of events. Their superstitions can impact their world, think not letting your foot dangle over the bed in case the monster grabs it. However in much of the literature they read this is the case (not the monster, the mind set).


Now it is true that Harry Potter (apologies for the HP example but 99% of people know it) doesn’t just rely on his ‘Magical Mind’ - no pun intended. Rather he actively goes out and engages with indeed alters his environment. He creates the changes, he makes the waves. However this is not the case for our children. Many of our children engage in pretend play. This allows them to take on the roles of the characters they read about and attribute their own actions to perceived results. Admittedly this fades as children get older and indeed there is a sphere of psychology that aligns the Magical Thinking in adults with mental illness.

However, there is still the internalising of what you would do, how you would react in a characters position. Undoubtedly the draw of books structured in this way - which when you think about it, is many of them - is the freedom the child is granted. Worth noting that applications to boarding schools rocketed after the release of Potter. Freedom that provides the reader with escapism from their own perhaps perceived tyrannical parents. Yet they don’t need to be fully free they still want security, step in the all knowing guardian. Whether that is Zeus in Who Let the Gods Out? Harriet Culpepper in Brightstorm, the stag in The Last Wild or indeed the treadmill of characters in Harry Potter that seek to protect him until they each shuffle off and he is left alone; it is worth noting however he is 17 and essentially an adult at this point. Indeed a character like Magpie from Sky Chasers whilst not appearing to have a guardian clearly does, when push comes to shove she needs the Montgolfier brothers to get her out of a tight spot she simply wouldn’t have been able to without them, they feed her, dress her and protect her. But also give her the freedom to essentially do what she wants. A child’s dream no?

Furthermore it is naturally to be expected that children want to read about children. Adults tend to read about adults. However if there was a clear and coherent trend in adult literature focussed on, abandoned, deceased, ill or dead children, we would perhaps find it a little unnerving. So what does that mean for us educators?

Well firstly it can be a challenge. I looked at my bookshelf searching for something to give a child with severe attachment disorder that struggles to separate emotions, it was hard. I know this is an extreme case but I’m regularly contacted by tweeters who need books that don’t have a dead, absent or ill parent. These are a much harder find than you would think. We must know our books well, better than ever, I would argue. We must be conscious of the fact that there is every chance a 9 year old has never come into contact with death. The book you hand them may be the first time the pain and raw absence is portrayed in a way they can imagine. That is a responsibility if we think about that for amount, we as educators may be the person to introduce a child to the idea of death. If we want our children to be comfortable to discuss their emotions, if we are going to drive mental health to the forefront then we must acknowledge that many of our books may make for hard reading for our children. We must be prepared to have those discussions and teach our children that it’s ok to feel for characters in a book, to be immersed but to also recognise that if reading something makes them uncomfortable it’s ok to walk away from it, come back to it later or indeed to not.

A child is still in the throws of Magical Thinking and it is much harder for them to see the lines between reality and fiction than it is for adults. I salute authors and their wonderful books. I am not criticising here or negating the talent that it takes to write such material. I just wonder if there’s another or an additional way and what the current trends mean for the teachers in our classrooms and parents in our homes.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Runes Unriddled

'Alva was running. Running so fast the wind whistled in her ears and the braids in her bright red hair lashed against her face. She was like a wolf . . .
Author Dr Janina Ramirez has many accomplishments, a medievalist and cultural historian she is currently a course director at Oxford University and is a regular on BBC history programmes. Here however, is her first foray into the world of children's literature. Supported by wonderful, insightful and historically accurate illustrations by David Wyatt this is sure to be a staple of many bookshelves for years to come.
Ramirez has woven a tale that would rival the very norns that she writes about in Riddle in the Runes. Set in snow swept Kilsgard our main character, the headstrong Alva, is thrown into a world of mystery and intrigue when her family are woken in the dead of night. Her Uncle Magnus, is a close adviser of the village Jarl and his expertise and logic are needed when two strangers appear and rumours of treasure begin to swirl like the snowflakes that blanket this story. However Alva is a keen investigator herself and with the able assistance of her wolf Fenrir she endeavours to help her uncle unwind the web that is becoming more tangled with each passing moment. The mystery threatens to destabilise Kilsgard and it is imperative that Alva and Magnus solve the puzzle that has appeared before them. Through their investigations they begin to realise that the intriguing plot seems to have been delivered to them by Alva's own father, long missing since venturing overseas with a Viking party. Will Alva and Magnus solve the puzzle in time? Will they understand what the runes are trying to tell them? Will Alva ever see her Father again? The Gods only know.
This is a very intriguing story, the characters and plot reveal new details with each chapter and the language, design, illustrations and action lends the book to perfectly sit upon the bookshelves of Years 3 and 4. There is the right amount of Norse subject knowledge woven into this to make it perfect for any classes using Vikings as a topic next year, shorter daylight hours, myths and legends, village structure, trading and raiding are all hinted at without any becoming a focus. With gentle nods to the Norse gods throughout the reader isn’t overwhelmed with the intricacies of Scandinavian customs. An explanation of runes, a Viking glossary and a hint at Alva’s next adventure are all included at the back of the book and lend themselves hugely to being used in class for your own adaptation. If Ramirez didn’t do that on purpose then it is a great coincidence. Whilst older children will still find undeniable enjoyment in the pages of Riddle in the Runes the book itself seems to scream out to the 7, 8 and 9 year olds out there.
I devoured this book, my own passion for Viking history did mean I was a little nervous to open the bright yellow cover however I was more than pleasantly surprised. Whilst shying away from the obvious stereotypes of Viking culture the story is very much that a Viking tale, a sage worthy of sharing round fires in dark winters or between parent and child at bed time. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Check Your Grammar!

Grammar, editing and proof-reading. One area of English teaching that I have always struggled to make engaging, fun, exciting and if I am being honest, truly useful. That’s not to say the skill isn’t. It certainly is, I just worry that my teaching of it isn’t as effective as my teaching of creative writing for example. Whilst scrolling TwitterEd the other evening I stumbled upon a Secondary English teacher who was using dictation from classic authors to give his children a bank of writing styles and a wealth of good sentence structure etc. And I had a light bulb moment so to speak. Couldn’t I do a similar thing to improve my classes editing and proof reading skills. So I had a go.

Now I will be honest I am lucky that I work in a school that I am trusted to roll the dice on a new idea and see what happens and this could’ve flopped. In fact it did. A couple of times. This in itself was brilliant. My class and I sat down and discussed together how we could make this better and this is what happened.

Idea 1: I read out a piece of text and insisted the children used no grammar at all, no full stops or capital letters. Nothing. They were then given ten lives (another idea pinched from the unknown twitter guru). With ten minutes to use they had to go through and using purple pens add in where they felt punctuation was needed. Upon completion of this, I read through the text telling them where the grammar should be. For every incorrect or missed piece they lost a life. This worked, to a degree. It was too abstract, my slower writers struggled to keep up and it was too difficult to see what were intended corrections and where children had written in ones they had got wrong.

Idea 2: Same thing however now children were to write on every other line. This left a space for them to then write their own corrected version above. This made it clearer to follow and easier for them to check their own work. I also typed up the text onto the IWB and revealed it line by line so they only had one line to consider at a time. Furthermore, I highlighted exactly where the punctuation should’ve been used. Better but we still needed to make subsequent corrections clearer.

Idea 3: Same as above however now when we went through the answers the children added in anything they missed using coloured pencil. This was I can see how much of the editing they have got right and what particular punctuation features they missed.

And without being arrogant, it was great. Genuinely one of the best grammar lessons I have ever taught for the following reasons;

1.    I was able to introduce my whole class to extracts of Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll, Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy and The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien in an hour lesson
2.     We were able to analyse for every single piece of grammar why it was there, why it was needed and what its job was. In one instance a child said ‘it needs a comma because it is two adjectives next to each other’. However in this example the second adjective was in fact acting as a noun. A brilliant teaching point it would’ve taken me much longer to have picked up in other ways.

3.     The element of competitiveness (the lives) makes them close read the entire passage. On occasion I threw in a curve ball by telling them how many corrections they should be making and they reacted with fervor.  

4.    I have a list of specific grammar points that when children are proof reading their own work I can point to and say, you struggled with these issues last time so take a closer look.

5.    It was a real wake up call to some of my children who view themselves as the ‘better’ writers. Many struggled and I genuinely think that they will take the editing and proof reading process more seriously in future.

All of this was done in an hour but it only took that long because we were discussing how to improve the process. It could easily be done in 20 minute sessions. I genuinely feel it will improve my class’ ability to proof read their extended writing no end.

Monday, 16 July 2018

A Peculiar Tale

Gritty Victorian London has always been one of my favourite places. Weird I know. But I love it. The suspense, the darkness, the suspicion and intrigue. It is perfect for a wonderful mystery story and this is exactly what The Peculiars offers up. 

Our story begins locked in a cage at the end of a wind swept pier with a young girl named Sheba. However, Sheba isn’t a ‘normal’ girl. She is part wolf and her thick hair and slanted eyes draw in paying punters who come to look at her and her friend, a two headed sheep! 

Rescued from her cage and sold to a side show in London, Sheba is thrown in with a Samurai woman, a giant of a man and a crowd of other misfits that make up The Peculiars. When one of Sheba’s visitors goes missing upon the banks of The Thames a story begins to unravel that leads to The Great Expedition and trouble! 

I adored this story, it’s fast paced and a quick and easy read but is full of wonderful characterisation and setting description. It’s easy to see how author Kieran Larwood also brought us the wonders of Podkin! 

If you’ve not read this, do! Simple as that. And if you’re studying the Victorians I would argue it’s unmissable. The writing opportunities are so vast it makes my head hurt.