Category Archives: Literacy

A Hurricane in My Head

Even though I had absolutely no idea at the time, A Hurricane in my Head was technically born on 7 April 2017. I’d been commissioned to write a poem for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum to celebrate their 25th birthday, as well as becoming one of their #Eureka25 ambassadors. At the time I was living in a warehouse in North London, but as I lay in the garden with a notepad, I was instantly transported back to my childhood in West Yorkshire. The hazy Halifax haven that was Eureka – I’d visited regularly as a kid, and in no time whatsoever, the memories came flooding back.

Eureka 1.pngThose of you who are familiar with my work already will know that most of my output is unashamedly political; recent themes including the working-class Leave vote and the refugee crisis. It’s not particularly explicit or anything, but it certainly isn’t what you’d consider to be child friendly. And yet there I was, pen in hand, writing from my childhood – a celebration of the quirky, colourful, creative paradise that lets your blossoming imagination run wild. I absolutely loved it, and fortunately for me, so did Eureka.

On 19 June 2017, Eureka uploaded the poem to Facebook, and later that day, I was contacted by somebody from Bloomsbury – tentatively asking about a poetry collection for children. Now at this stage, I’d been running poetry workshops for pupils aged 7 upwards for 4 years, but for some reason, I’d never thought about writing poetry for children. It seemed so drastically far away from my “adult” output that I guess I just never considered it to be a possibility.

The message from Bloomsbury planted a seed in my head. I developed a clear idea of what I’d want to achieve with a kids’ poetry collection – challenging gender stereotypes, addressing online bullying, channelling playful rebellion, etc. – and with that, the seed continued growing. 9 months to the day after that first message, I had a meeting with Hannah Rolls, and a year after I’d written the Eureka poem, I was commissioned to write what is now A Hurricane in my Head.

Suddenly, I had to completely remove myself from the increasingly tumultuous political landscape. I’d literally just submitted the manuscript for my ‘Two Little Ducks’ collection, and now my challenge was to write something that an 11-year-old might engage with. The initial terror very quickly subsided to pure excitement, as I wrote poems about homework excuses, pulling a sicky and sulking in the supermarket. The older you get, the more magical your childhood becomes, and even though a lot of people will roll their eyes at me suggesting that 29 is a mature age, it definitely gives you a different take on childhood than what your early 20s would.

I’d been so busy completing ‘Two Little Ducks’ and working on other projects that the bulk of these poems had to be written in a relatively short period of time. By now I was living a house in East London, so my plan of action was to take the short walk to Plashet Park, find a tree, and then write until I simply couldn’t write any more. I’d sit there for a solid 4 or 5 hours at a time, and then come home without the foggiest notion of whether I was writing good quality poetry or not. My partner Maria was extremely supportive, and when I finally had 70 poems ordered and ready to submit, I’d completely transformed as a poet and as a person.

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Seeing the world through a kids’ eyes allows you to appreciate things a lot more. You stop to notice the details, ponder the possibilities, question what’s generally taken as a given and reminisce about rule-breaking and (gently) tackling authority. For tax returns, council tax bills and rental contracts, see cinema dates, sports days and footballs over fences. My “poetic currency” had always been political and cultural references, whereas now it was playful imagination, universal truths and coming-of-age struggles. What’s not to love?!

There are obviously huge differences between my childhood in the ‘90s (cue more eye-rolling from some!) and those who are experiencing childhood now. The main difference being smartphones and social media – I was 12 when I owned my first mobile phone, and the thought of you being able to take pictures or go online with it would’ve been utterly baffling. Same with social media; I guess the equivalent would’ve been forums, but even then, it was nowhere near the same, and barely any kids or teenagers used them.

I can’t imagine how tough it must be, being a kid when everybody has Instagram and Snapchat. It must take fear, insecurity and anxiety to whole new levels. It’s also brought a whole new dimension to bullying, manipulation and vulnerability, which breaks my heart. I do regularly reference technology and social media in this collection – hence the tongue-in-cheek strapline “poems for when your phone dies” – but I also hope that it gives the readers a chance to appreciate life away from a screen, and concentrate on the things that really matter. Friendships, ambitions, whatever family you happen to have, if any. And most importantly, your imagination.

When you’re a kid, you presume that all adults know exactly what they’re doing in life. They’re grown-ups; they not only stick to the rules, but they impose them as well, and 9781472963505they always have reasons and answers for things, and they make things happen and they sort things out. What you certainly don’t realise is that we’re basically just kids in older bodies – we generally have a fairly good idea of what we’re doing and why, but a lot of the reasons and answers are either guesses or fabrications, and really all we want to do, deep down, is just be a kid again. Every adult that I know has a hurricane in their head, and if this collection helps to calm things down a bit, even for a short while, then I’ll have done my job. Happy reading…

 

Matt Abbott is a spoken word artist, activist and nationally acclaimed writer and performer. His debut children’s poetry collection, A Hurricane in My Head, is available now.

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Saved by a Writer from the Past, or How I Learned to Love Widsith the Poet

Whenever I write a new story, I often seem to reach a point where inspiration dries up and I get stuck. It’s almost as if a voice in my head says over and over again, ‘Why are you writing this rubbish? And what makes you think you’re any good at writing stories anyway?’ I like to think it’s an essential part of the creative process, the temporary triumph of the self-doubt that surrounds any attempt to create something. Get through this, I tell myself, and everything will be fine. But that doesn’t always make it any easier to deal with.

The dreaded moment came early with Winter of the Wolves, my latest Flashback. I had already written two Flashbacks – Revolt Against the Romans, the story of Caractacus’s rebellion in first-century Roman Britain, and Attack of the Vikings, a tale of action and adventure set in the west of Scotland in the Viking Age. I also had a good idea for the new book. It was going to be about the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, seen through the eyes of a young boy, an orphan who is taken in by a chief of the Angles. I was keen to make the Beowulf story part of the plot too. I’m a huge fan of the poem, and I wanted to come up with a suggestion for how it might have been brought to these shores.

As usual I did plenty of research and came up with an outline. I wrote a decent chapter one, moved on to chapter two… and then found myself grinding to a halt. The words stopped coming, the characters wouldn’t speak or do anything interesting, the story refused to come to life. But I didn’t panic. I’d been in the same position many times before, and so I tried the things that have helped in the past – taking a break, reading my notes again, thinking about the characters from a different angle. Doing more research also sometimes helps – it might be that I haven’t immersed myself in the period enough.

That’s what did the trick this time. With Beowulf in mind, I looked up lots of other Anglo-Saxon poetry, and came across a poem I’d forgotten about. In The Traveller’s Song we meet Widsith, an Anglo-Saxon poet of the sixth century, and he tells us of all the royal courts he’s visited, and the important kings and chiefs and warriors he has impressed with his poems and songs. Widsith is a great character – he’s vain and boastful, and the poem reads like a glorious promotional leaflet aimed at getting him more work. At any rate, it really spoke to me across the centuries, perhaps because I’m a freelance writer too. I’ve certainly met a few writers like Widsith, and I have a feeling he never got stuck.

So I put Widsith into my story as an old blind scop – that’s the Anglo-Saxon word for a poet – who becomes a friend and mentor to my central character, Oslaf. Poets were greatly respected in early Anglo-Saxon culture, as praise-singers for warrior chiefs, but also as guardians of the tribe’s history. Widsith quickly became a very important figure in Oslaf’s story, and to a large extent the plot only works because of him. While I was writing the story I kind of felt that Widsith was looking after me too. It was almost as if I had a co-writer  I could turn to – ‘What do you think of this bit, Widsith?’ I put a quote from his poem at the beginning of the book, but really his name should be on the title page as well.

The rest of the story came fairly easily after that, although for me that means inching ahead at a rate of about 500 words a day. But you get a feel for how well a story is 9781472953780.jpgprogressing, and I knew this one was going to be all right. I’m not usually boastful about  what I do, but I’ve decided to emulate Widsith and say that I think Winter of the Wolves is one of the best stories I’ve written. I certainly enjoyed writing it enormously, and I think the cover (by Illustrator Rob Ball) is brilliant. If you want to find out more about Widsith there’s an excellent Wikipedia article about his poem. I’m thinking of starting a Widsith Fan Club – after all, I really do owe him a favour!

 

Tony Bradman is an award-winning author who has been involved in children’s books for 35 years. His latest novel, Winter of the Wolves, is out now!

Why the Golden Horsemen Came Riding

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Baghdad and the Middle East except that an author there had written the 1001 Nights, or the Arabian Nights as my Year 4 teacher used to call it. It’s a wonderful anthology of fairytales that has filled the heads of many a child with the notion of flying carpets, thieves hidden in wooden barrels, genies and magic lamps. I received the Bancroft Classics edition for my eighth birthday, which I re-read endlessly. No author was credited with the work on the front cover but I hardly noticed. I devoured the Sinbad films on telly too, especially the Ray Harryhousen versions which had incredible special effects. But of the real Baghdad, I remained mostly ignorant.

In my teenage years, the Middle East started to feature on the news, but nearly always shown in a bad light. Uprisings and terror attacks flickered across the television screens. News reports showed tanks lumbering across deserts, flat-roofed houses being blown up, grim-faced youths hijacking planes. Not surprisingly I never connected those images with the magical lands of ‘Open Sesame’ and delicious lakoum.

Fast forward a few decades and I am doing an author visit at a school in Bradford where I lived for over ten years. Most of the children were of Pakistani and Indian origin. It was a warm day and we were eating our lunch out in the playground. We got to talking about our most cherished wishes. One boy said in a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

It turned out the boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. It brought images of a magical Middle East flooding back into my head. Not the clichéd magic of genies and flying carpets, but the enchantment of real life still tied to the land and the seasons.

I started reading up on life in Middle Eastern countries, now and in the past and I fell for its charm all over again. Baghdad especially drew my interest. Based around the ‘beyt al Hikma’, meaning ‘house of knowledge’, a world-famous library built in the 9th century, it established itself as a world leader in the arts, science and innovation.

As I started sharing my discoveries in my talks to schools, I learnt that most children, even those of Muslim heritage, were unaware of Baghdad’s glorious heyday, of its massive contribution to the worlds of science, mathematics, medicine, poetry and translation. Without its scholars and their mentors, including the powerful caliphs who built the libraries and schools, much of the writings of the ancient world would now be lost forever.

9781472955999.jpgToday the Golden Age of Islam is part of the National Curriculum in KS2. It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the real history of a culture we in the West so often overlook. My book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was written to accompany the subject. Like my other works for Bloomsbury Education, it’s a rollicking adventure but it is also packed with information and insight into the culture and the period. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is bestselling historical fiction author Saviour Pirotta’s latest novel. Out now!

How Our School Implemented a Growth Mindset

The snowflake generation is a phrase that was mentioned to me over coffee by a friend recently, ‘a generation that just melts,’ they said, ‘any sign of a problem and they are done’. When I was introducing growth mindset to the school, it was at the time this would have perfectly described a large group of children. The mere mention of writing a report brought a few to tears, an open-ended maths problem increased the need to empty the bladder for lots.

Before I began the process, I noticed groups of children who wanted the success instantly and the concept of hard work or grit was completely alien. However, I also knew a couple of displays about how the brain worked wasn’t going to resonate with these deep-seated thoughts, and it wasn’t just the pupils. The concept of accepting that something is hard and it’s ok, the very nature of resilience and working positively to achieve something was also not embedded in the thoughts of the staff.

Many colleagues ask me how to get this ethos in a school – the answer is it takes work and relentlessness; you have to continually lead it and model it and never let it go! As a team we worked hard on mistakes and learning from them. In assembly we looked at mistakes, identifying them and learning from them.

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All adults around the school made mistakes and didn’t giggle or try to cover them up– instead they celebrated them and made them a teaching point. Even our office staff were encouraged to identify them and talk about them in front of the children! In each classroom, a mistake mountain was introduced; a place to celebrate mistakes. There was a massive shift in language from all the adults; they were enthusiastic about identifying their mistakes and very keen to show them off!

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In the beginning, children were incredibly dubious to have their mistake displayed for others to learn from. They were very possessive over the eraser, the thought of not having one made some of them come out in a nervous sweat. After a few weeks of this particular growth mindset thread, they were not worried and wanted to identify mistakes rather than cover them up! The curriculum is child-led in the main which allows for investigation and more importantly, mistakes. We are continually giving children the opportunity to make them and learn from them, and this in turn builds their resilience.

Writing is the area people talk to me about the most, an area which requires resilience by the bucketload! Once children are established with the concept of mistake making, it makes it easier to embed a marking policy.

The marking policy means that all mistakes are identified and we don’t shy away from it – we face it. Every one is picked up and children are given time to learn from this – this is important learning time and is valued by everyone. In the younger year groups, no backwards k is let go or the odd escapee capital letter in a sentence, they are highlighted in yellow and children are expected to amend it.Blog 3

As a school, the children and adults identified the attributes of a learning hero – everyone loves a superhero cape! The main points were perseverance, hard work and after this period of transition – mistakes! The children really think now that learning from your mistakes makes you a learning hero. This is impact and should be celebrated. Every half term a group of learning heroes are nominated by staff and children. We also nominate adults, children need to know that just because you can drive a car doesn’t mean you stop making mistakes – we all do it and they need to see all people around them learning from them.

Anyone who can identify a mistake and learn from it is a hero in my eyes! Give our children the tools to do it!

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As a HT I make mistakes every day – I share most of them with my team and learn from most of them – be an ambassador for it. I made the mistake of forgetting my rollers were in when I stopped for petrol on the way home from a school WW2 dress up day! We all make them – embrace it. Happy mistake making!

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Nikki Willis is a Headteacher and lead on Teaching and Learning. She is also an Early Years teacher and a trainer for Brentwood Collaborative Partnership schools. Her latest book Growth Mindset is out now. Follow her on Twitter at @chooselearning and Instagram Hellolearning.

 

Poetry in Unexpected Places

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 2016, there was a collective gasp from the literary establishment. While some critics leapt to the defence of the Nobel committee’s decision, others devoted reams of newsprint to the inevitable question: ‘Can song lyrics be poetry?’

Back in 2008, the renowned poet Simon Armitage had spoken for many when he confidently asserted that ‘songwriters are not poets’, going on to say that ‘songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted clichés and mixed metaphors’ (and this was in an article in which he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. Rather than saying that songs were bad per se, he was suggesting that we take them on their own merits).

It is true to say that few children are exposed to much of what many people would consider true ‘poetry’. ‘Poetry’ can so often be seen as something ‘difficult’, and certainly when I was at school a number of teachers analysed the joy out of it, so that what should have been an enriching experience became a dull one. Syllabuses these days focus less on dead white males than they used to, but nonetheless the notion of ‘poetry’ has, in some circles at least, retained that rather elitist veneer.

But what children are exposed to are songs and rhymes, ranging from skipping rhymes in the playground to the latest rap lyrics (and it is worth noting that Seamus Heaney, himself studied on many school courses, praised the ‘verbal energy’ of rap artist Eminem). Take one of the playground rhymes I learned as a child (chanted while throwing balls against a wall):

‘Please, Miss, my mother, Miss,
Forgot to tell you this, Miss,
That I, Miss, won’t, Miss,
Be in school tomorrow, Miss’.

Doggerel? Perhaps. And yet there’s a lot to learn from it. That repeated use of ‘Miss’, providing the verse with its rhythm. The ‘this, Miss’ – two rhyming words jostling against each other within a line, marking both a rhythmic change and one in the rhyme structure. Or how about the skipping rhyme:

‘On the mountain stands a lady,
Who she is I do not know.
All she wants is gold and silver
All she wants is a nice young man.
All right, [girl’s name], I’ll tell your mother,
Kissing [boy’s name] round the corner!
How many kisses did she give him?
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty…’

Not much poetry in there, you might think, and it’s true it wouldn’t win any prizes (not least because of the appalling sexism of ‘all she wants is a nice young man’, although in its defence we also sang ‘all he wants is a nice young girl’ on the few occasions when the boys joined in).  And yet the words have a strong beat, and the abrupt change in rhythm in the fourth line is one worth noting.

Or take the lyrics from Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by Your Grace’. I can’t pretend I know much about rap music – my main exposure comes from one of the characters in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty who is an aspiring rapper, and his lyrics are very clever (perhaps unsurprising given that they’re in fact written by a prize-winning novelist whose brother is himself a rapper). But here’s Stormzy with some blinding half-rhymes in Blinded by Your Grace:

On the main stage runnin’ ’round topless
I phone Flipz and I tell him that we got this
This is God’s plan, they can never stop this
Like wait right there, could you stop my verse?
You saved this kid and I’m not your first
It’s not by blood and it’s not by birth
But oh my God what a God I serve

Can we not, when learning poetry, note this and learn from this too? The ‘topless’ juxtaposed with ‘got this’ and ‘stop this’ in the next lines? That repeated use of ‘God’ that punctuates the final line that I’ve quoted?

Whether or not such examples are ‘poetry’, is, for me, something of a moot point. Rather than arguing over genre divisions, perhaps we are better off seeing the potential for poetic learning in so much of the ‘verbal energy’, to use Heaney’s phrase, which surrounds us on an everyday basis. Maybe what we should be doing is using children’s lived experiences – through songs, through rap, through rhymes – as a springboard from which to discover other uses of language (while at the same time not falling into the trap of making value judgements about which linguistics usages are ‘better’).

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Bob Dylan famously dithered over accepting the Nobel prize, in part because of his own doubts about whether he deserved it. Perhaps this could be summed up by the oft-quoted (and presumably anonymous) lines ‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

But maybe all of us, even young children, can say the same.

‘I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it’.

Precisely.

 

Elli Woollard is a writer of picture books, young fiction and poetry. Her new poetry book for younger children, Perfectly Peculiar Pets, publishes on 21st March 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

 

Back to School English Planning – for Mastery

For many primary school teachers, planning sequences of English lessons – and specifically writing lessons – is one of the toughest jobs on the to-do list; not just in advance of the new term but all year round. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because there is so much to think about when planning for writing, including spelling, handwriting, grammar and vocabulary as well as writing for purpose – all of which are under constant scrutiny by senior leadership teams, not least because achieving and maintaining strong writing outcomes is a constant challenge for many schools.

Where do you start? Good learning is based on practice – but not just any practice. Repeatedly practicing bad habits, which I did on the golf course for years, can actually make you worse. Expertise writer Anders Ericsson says we need a very purposeful and focused ‘deliberate practice’ which is “all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal”.

I suggest that our long-term aim for developing writers in primary school is mastery learning that can be applied to a wide range of contexts with independence and fluency. The baby steps are the curriculum skills children are expected to acquire in each year group. Not just age-related expectations but also the skills that underpin them. Of course, children have different starting points in any given year group. There are skills that should be in place that simply aren’t, and focused practice on these is an important part of their journey.

So, the baby steps to be taken are a mixture of skills addressed through whole-class teaching, and those that individual children need to practise in their writing to remove barriers to their own progress. This means teachers need to be very organized on two fronts: a) sequencing units of learning so that they follow a logical skills progression, and b) ensuring children are always aware of their own next steps (through personal targets). Learning that lasts needs to build incrementally on what children already know and understand, and so the sequence of learning needs to be driven by skills and not, for example, by genre or texts shared in a random order. To make maximum progress during this sequence, each child not only needs to work on the whole-class objective but also to take ownership of personal targets: they need be aware of what successful writing looks like for them in any given task and act on precise feedback as they practise.

Effective writing is, of course, more than the sum of its parts. Skills shouldn’t be taught in isolation but as the means to producing the sort of writing that people want to read. We need children to want to write and have something to say. The skill demanded of teachers is to create an engaging context for writing, often using quality texts, and getting children thinking and talking about ideas and themes that are somehow relevant to their own lives or at least interesting. If we want children to learn more deeply then we have to get them to think more deeply and the ideal vehicle for depth of thought is talk.

Those first minutes, when staring at a blank planning template awaiting inspiration, are hugely important. The first decisions you make will likely frame the sort of teaching and learning diet your class will receive. To avoid getting bogged down in all the detail, or re-using plans that don’t quite do what you need anymore, I suggest getting systematic. Use the following planning pyramid to drive those early decisions:

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Make the corners of this pyramid work and, as you get used to it, you will find that you can quickly get a skeleton unit plan together. Allow the next skills in a logical progression to drive the process, and then think about context. What could your chosen text or other stimulus get your children thinking and talking about? What writing outcome(s) could provide the perfect vehicle for the ideas generated and practise of the focus skills?

I believe that teaching that puts children on a road to mastery needs to focus on the process rather than outcomes. My recipe for getting children to where we want them to 9781472949899.jpgbe as writers has some key ingredients. I call these the F STEPS: Feedback, Skills, Talk & Thought, Engagement, Practice, and Sequence. Find out more in my new book, Teaching for Mastery in Writing.

 

Mike Cain is deputy headteacher at St Thomas of Canterbury Primary School, in St Helens, Merseyside. He was a newspaper journalist and corporate communications specialist for 12 years before becoming a primary school teacher.

Let’s Perform!

I began my teaching career as a secondary school English teacher. When my own children were small, I offered to help in a primary school. I worked with two groups of year 6 children preparing them to compete in a local Performing Arts Festival. I rewrote the scenes they were performing and changed the endings to suit the children in the groups. At the time, I just wanted them to enjoy performing. I didn’t feel especially confident about my writing; I had only ever written for myself or designed materials for classroom use.

When the children eventually competed in the Performing Arts Festival, I was thrilled when they won the silver medal. The school was overjoyed too. The following year, they asked me to do more, so I decided we should enter a Monologue category as well. I wrote about 14 during the summer holiday.

I wanted the characters in the monologues to feel real and contemporary. I thought about children in a fix or puzzled about something. I played with real-life situations but also some fantasy ones. I found I could shape and hone the scripts because I was working in school and had the voices of children in my head, as well as my own family at home. I love listening to children chatting to one another and the ways they comment on things that are going on around them. I especially love the humour which children bring to many things. I often chose everyday things. For example, a child is in a classroom gazing out of the window at others running around in the playground but can’t join them because he/she has a broken leg. A child is lost on a school trip in a museum and wonders what to do. A child thinks their guinea pig might be an alien.

Monologues are huge fun for writers because you are moving right inside a character’s head, finding out their beliefs and dilemmas. We entered many local festivals over subsequent years and one festival judge said, “Where can I get these monologues?”. When I explained that they were my own writing he said, “You have to get them published.”

I felt especially proud of engaging lots of year 5 and 6 boys who had initially been more reluctant and seeing children take ownership of the scripts and make them their own. Within 2 years I had added Duologues to the mix. These scenes for two often had crazy scenarios, like a vampire in a doctor’s surgery and the horrified child who is sitting in the waiting room too.

I began running my own arts festival in the school, so more children could get involved, to really develop confidence in speaking and it continues to this day. In a typical year, over 200 children volunteer to take part. Half of year 6 auditioned last year to do a monologue. I added more categories: Own Poem, Poem by Heart, Public Speaking as well as the Monologues and Duologues. Each year I rehearsed and prepared the children from the end of September ready for Heats at the end of November and finals in the first week of December. The school say they have noticed a significant impact on children’s achievement across Literacy. There is a fantastic buzz in school when the festival rehearsals are underway. For the finals, I bring in external judges who give feedback and award medals. Parents and Governors are able to see the performances in a showcase.

Let’s Perform! is the culmination of more than ten years of working with children in 9781472957252.jpgKS2. The book uses scenarios, language and humour that children can really relate to. It is intended as a flexible resource; I have seen the content used in a number of ways and often adapted it myself. Each script has suggestions for performance and creative suggestions for pupils’ own writing. Learning by heart is part of the National Curriculum. Children can learn the poems and scripts by heart and perform them in a festival-type event in school or outside it as I have described. They are not very long; 3-5 minutes is typical.

Alternatively, the scenes can be the starting points for children’s own creative writing or performing. I often lead workshops where we analyse and perform monologues and the children write their own in response. The scenarios in the book lend themselves to story- writing too. Many of the Monologues, Duologues and poems have been used in class assemblies and end-of-year events. The Christmas poems have been performed by large groups of readers and actors in the local parish church. I’m so pleased the book is photocopiable- it makes it easy to give out scripts and create creative projects.

I hope teachers will find it a really useful and enjoyable resource. One teacher friend commented “This is going to be my go-to Friday afternoon book.”

 

Cath Howe is an author and teacher with a real passion for writing and creativity. She has been working with schools for over a decade, running workshops on everything to do with writing and performing. Let’s Perform! is out now!

 

History is All About King What’s-His-Face, Isn’t It?

I’ve spoken to lots of people and groups over the years and I always ask if anyone in the audience doesn’t like history, a question which is always followed by a forest of raised hands that seem to grow out of the faces below them, all looking bored, snotty or argumentative. And then when I ask exactly why they don’t like history the answers are usually ‘coz it’s boring’ or ‘it has nothing to do with us today’ or ‘it’s just about a load of blokes with power and other blokes who want power’.

Good answers. I used to feel the same, but then one day something stupidly obvious occurred to me…history’s actually about people! Not just rich people with power, but all people. All of us today make up part of what will become the history of our time. We all make it, like house bricks, which when they’re all put together, make a building, sometimes a huge building! King What’s-His-Face, and Queen Thingy-Ma-Bob wouldn’t have got or kept their power without the ordinary people to help them. Kings and Queens and Presidents and Generals are just the bodies who give a name to whichever part of history we’re looking at; most of the real makers of history are people like us.

So, why do I write about Kings and Queens? Because they’re like the key that opens history’s door and shows us exactly what’s inside and also who’s inside. In The First King of England, I talk about Athelstan Cerdinga (what a mighty name), but I also tell of Edwin the shoemaker’s son. Not a person you’ll actually find mentioned in any of the history books, but a character who’s based on the ordinary everyday people who helped to make the history of their time.

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They lived when the Vikings were raiding and pillaging and taking the land from the Anglo-Saxon people who lived on these islands. And when you ask anyone today about these times, if they think about it at all, they believe the Vikings were unstoppable and that the Saxons spent their time running away from these nutters armed with axes. And at the beginning that was mainly true, but then came along a group of men and women who learnt how to fight back. So began a time of powerful people with wonderful names like Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder, Aethelflaed the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Leaders who took back control from the Vikings, but who could only do it with the help of the ordinary people of those times who were just like you and me.

But if you think the Saxon people drove out the Vikings after they’d defeated them, you’d be wrong. The Saxon rulers allowed them to stay as long as they acknowledged them as their rulers too. This was the beginning of the country that would become known as England. A country made up of different peoples from different lands, just as it is today. And King Athelstan Cerdinga was the very first ruler of that new land. Read about him in The First King of England.

 

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark series of historical fantasy novels and winner of the inaugural Watersone’s Children’s Book Prize. Stuart’s newest book, The First King of England, publishes on 6th September.

 

 

And Another Thing…

One of the many joys of being a children’s author is fan mail. From painstaking prose in elegant cursive to almost illegible print (not unlike my own scatty hand), they delight and fascinate and rarely fail to make me smile. Even the ones that pick me up on typos or factual errors (I know now that Viennetta was NOT invented until the 1980s and that you do NOT get Bounty bars in a Mars selection box). Until, a year or so ago, this landed on my doormat.

 

Well, why indeed? I wondered. Or rather, why not? Because, was that actually a rule? And, if so, why? And, oh, hang on, I’ve just done it again.

So I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. And I realised a couple of things:

Firstly, that I’m of a generation that missed out on grammar lessons at school. I say missed out, but, what I really mean is, we weren’t taught the rules, just to read, and then encouraged to write our own stories. And we’ve done okay overall.

But, secondly, that I’m a trained proof and copy editor, and a former government speechwriter and journalist, and not once have I ever pulled anyone up or been pulled up on this. Because, and here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the sense of a sentence. It isn’t grammatically incorrect. What matters is the story. What matters is imagination. What matters is making the words work best. And if that means starting a sentence with an ‘and’, then so be it.

And so I wrote back:

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The letters went viral – a few po-faced people disagreed, but in the main the support from teachers and parents (in the middle of dealing with SATS and the horror that is SPAG) was overwhelming. And so I’ve done it again. And again. And again.

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In It Wasn’t Me, my new Bloomsbury Young Reader, I’ve counted seven in Chapter One alone, not including the dialogue. I may also have used a comma splice. I may even have split an infinitive somewhere. I’ve certainly not ‘displayed my knowledge’ of semi-colons or used a plethora of ‘wow words’. What I have done is used my imagination, in a story that is all about thinking big, and thinking wild, as Alfie blames all his misdemeanors on a gremlin called Dave, whom he claims lives in his sock drawer. Admittedly, Alfie gets his comeuppance for telling big hairy whoppers when Dave appears and causes real mischief and mayhem. But, throughout, we side with him, understanding the urge to tell stories, to break rules, to do it our way. The pay-off being that,Joanna Nadin- Alfie while Alfie fesses up, he doesn’t entirely mend his ways.

And nor should our young readers and writers. Let them break grammar rules. Let them mis-spell. Let them use capitals in the wrong places. Above all, let them loose their imaginations and fall in love with story itself. The rules and boundaries – the necessary ones – can come later. But for now, words should be playthings. For some of us – the lucky ones – they will remain so forever.

 

Joanna Nadin is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter and special adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, Joanna has written more than 70 books for children and teenagers, including the award-winning Penny Dreadful series, the best-selling Flying Fergus series with Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy.

Her new book, It Wasn’t Me: A Bloomsbury Young Reader, publishes on 18th October 2018.

Top Tips for Living Well and Teaching Well

I’m an English teacher and, put simply, I believe I have the best job in the world. I cannot believe I get paid for what I do. Does that mean the job is easy? Of course not.

I began working in schools in 2009; I’ve been teaching for 8 years. I’ve worked in 3 very different schools and in that time have held many different roles: teaching assistant; behaviour manager; teacher of English; teacher of law, second in English; head of house; lead practitioner; extended SLT, and I’m currently Director of Learning, English at a state school in London. Through experience I can tell you that all of these roles present their own challenges yet provide wonderful job satisfaction. One thing they all have in common is that your job is never done; there will always be something else to do, and if you let it, it can quite easily take all of your time. And I used to let them do just that. I would regularly clock up 65 hours of work a week. Obviously, this wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle so I decided to make some changes which I think may be of use to others.

Prevent work emails coming through your phone. This one decision helped enormously. It meant that I wasn’t tempted to contact colleagues, or worse still, parents, in the evenings. Your working hours should be the only time when emails are being read and sent. I’m happy to report this is now the case for me.

Leave your work at work. I very rarely work at home. Instead, I prepare my working week at work. It means that the minute I leave the school gates, I am free to spend my time as I wish.

Have a mini-weekend. The aim with this is to leave work as early as possible once a week and spend your time doing something you love: go out for dinner, exercise, go to the theatre. Whatever it is you enjoy doing, just do it. You’ll feel refreshed the next day for it.

Prepare your weekly lunches. This has had a huge impact on my diet. I eat so much healthier than I ever have and it doesn’t take long to prepare it all.

Say no if you want to. This is a tough one, but it’s important to realise that if you want to feel like you are doing a job well, you can’t take on everything at once. If you feel like more and more work is being added to your main role, ask if something can be taken away before you accept another task. Take control of your workload and be okay with saying no.

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Make light work of planning. Reuse old lessons. Tweak what you can. Yes, there may have been lots of changes recently, but there’s no need to start from scratch. Work collaboratively with colleagues. Share what you can. There are so many online sharing drives out there; I am indebted to the likes of Freya O’Dell (@fod3) and the #TeamEnglish community who regularly share their resources. I’m still not brave enough to share my own resources, but I’m building up to it!

If you haven’t already done so, stop the madness that is marking. Challenge school leaders who are insisting on a marking policy that has little impact on student progress yet significantly impacts teacher time. Use live marking/feedback. Share whole class feedback. Have mocks externally marked (I’m planning this one for next year).

I’m currently working in a school that considers the wellbeing of its staff important and I’ve never been happier as a teacher. That’s partly due to the wonderful staff and students I work with but also down to an understanding on my part that, as much as I love it, it’s just a job. I go home happy to have made a difference however big or small, but know that there is a life outside of the school gates that is also pretty awesome. And because of that, I’m a better teacher than I’ve ever been.

If you’re struggling with your own workload, maybe it’s time to reflect on what you could change to make things better? It’s worth noting that if it’s the school that’s making you unhappy, leave. Not all schools are the same. Great schools do exist. I work at one.

These are just a few of my tips aimed at making teaching a truly sustainable profession. For more help and guidance, Live Well, Teach Well has over 90 practical ideas to help you maintain a healthy work-life balance and stay positive and focused throughout the school year.

 

Abbie Mann’s debut book is out now!