Category Archives: Reading

Unicorns, Centaurs and Pegasus: why are we still fascinated by magical horses?

For much of recent human history, horses were a vital part of our daily lives: essential on farms, for transport and communication, and in battle.

But for most of us, nowadays, horses are almost irrelevant economically and horse-riding is a hobby for a small number of people. Most of us will go days, weeks, even months – especially if we live in a city – without seeing a horse. Yet horses are still a vital and passionately beloved element of our stories and culture.

Many 21st century children will never ride a pony, most will never groom or muck out a horse, but they still love stories about them, and particularly stories about magical and mythical horses.

I know this because when I ask classes of kids about their favourite magical creatures, unicorns almost always top the list, usually followed by winged horses and centaurs (and kelpies, if I’m in a Scottish school) mixed in with dragons and werewolves.

Why is that? Why do horses still appear so regularly in our stories and our imaginations and why do horses lend themselves so well to being given magical attributes?

Is it because of their beauty? Their size, strength and speed? Is it because of their mix of gentleness (a horse’s lips taking an apple off your palm) and potential danger (you don’t want a horse standing on your foot, and you really don’t want a startled horse to kick you)?

Is it that they can plausibly play such a wide variety of roles in stories – wise guide, essential transport, symbol of wealth and power, friend and companion or threat galloping towards you – because they have played so many roles in our history.

Is it because the horse’s importance in many cultures, for much of our history, means they have starring roles in a vast variety of folktales, myths and legends from all over the world? (I tell horse stories from Persia, Ukraine, Gambia, Russia, Australia, Tibet, Greece … and sometimes even Scotland.)

Is it all the vivid ways that storytellers in the past have added little bits of memorable magic to horses: the horn of a unicorn, the wings of Pegasus, the shapeshifting mystery of a kelpie? Are we all dazzled by the amazing and lasting pictures those magical additions leave in our imaginations?

Is it because of the unique relationship between rider and horse, and their dependence on each other? (In many of the ‘horse and hero’ legends I tell, the way the rider treats the horse reveals their character and whether they really are a hero or a bully.)

Is it because a horse, magical or not, can plausibly be a genuine and multi-faceted character in a story, not just a plot point or a magical MacGuffin? (My favourite magical horses as a child were Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis – talking horses who aren’t just modes of transport, weapons or possessions, but characters with goals, moments of heroism, and distinct voices. Those Narnian horses are the protagonists in the story just as much as the two human children.)

Is it that horses are a powerful symbol of freedom, of escape, of traveling the world? We might use buses or bikes now, but the horse’s four fast powerful legs still carry that promise of adventure and freedom.

Despite all the research I’ve done into horse lore and mythology, and all the time I’ve spent discussing magical horses with children, I still don’t have a definitive answer to why we love magical horses. Perhaps they mean something different to each of us…

But I am sure that I’ll be discussing fiery, winged, shapeshifting, horned, talking and ghostly horses with kids again next term. Because whenever I say ‘magical animal’, the horse, in all its mythical and folklore forms, is the animal that leaps straight into their imaginations.

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I’m also sure that no matter how many wonderful magical horses there are in traditional tales, a class full of 10 year olds can always come up with a few new ideas to invent their own 21st century story-horses (laser eyes? snake’s tail? cat’s paws? time-travelling?) and to imagine their own unique adventures.

And I’m sure that even though real horses are no longer part of many of our daily lives, magical horses will star in our stories for generations.

 

Lari Don is a Scottish children’s author and storyteller. Her book, Horse of Fire, gathers her favourite ‘magical horse’ folktales myths and legends from all over the world, and is out in paperback now.

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.

 

 

Just Be Yourself

I am a writer. I see the world differently and this causes me to document my experiences. But as a teen growing up in a Caribbean family in Birmingham, I wasn’t always so sure of my identity.

When I went to secondary school, being eager to learn was seen as “acting white”. I listened to Evanescence, Linkin Park and Nickelback. I enjoyed fish and chips and chilli con carne which weren’t exactly Caribbean food. On Saturdays my mum or even my Nan, who lived with us for a short time, would fill a pot with tropical vegetables and meat. They made “Saturday soup,” which was something I didn’t really enjoy and to this day still don’t. At school it was all about Nelly, Ashanti and of course Beyoncé. I was obsessed with Busted and was subsequently devastated when they broke up. My cousin introduced me to manga which I loved.

George, Misfit‘s main character, is mocked for liking different things and in some ways, so was I.

Growing up, I was aware that there were rules about being cool and fitting in that I didn’t understand or couldn’t be bothered to follow. While my family weren’t as harsh as George’s, I was aware of my difference. I was the eldest, but all my younger siblings knew what was “in” and knew how to “act”. I didn’t use many slang words like “rinsed,” “packed” and “blud”. George also finds himself straddling two different worlds. He is at grammar school but finds himself going to the local secondary school. He sees how difficult it is to present yourself in two different environments which is a challenge a lot of young people face.

My three reasons for writing Misfit are….

  • To encourage those “misfits” to be themselves. I questioned why I didn’t fit in for years, now I’m glad I stand out. More than anything, I’m hearing how cool it is to be a geek, or to indulge in alternative entertainment. Suddenly my pastimes are considered interesting. The message of the book is to explore your differences and learn to accept them.
  • To help others accept that different people have different likes and interests, especially when it deviates from your community. Whether the message is that we shouldn’t like reading or rock music because they aren’t part of our culture; we need to accept that our interests can vary.
  • To remind young people that bullying is never ok, regardless of the source. Bullying occurs within George’s family, and freedom came with acceptance. While there are many ways to deal with bullying, you may feel as though you don’t belong for a long time. Something I have found out for myself.

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The message of the book overall is: be yourself.

It isn’t about whether you act the same way as your peers, it’s about finding out who you are and accepting that. It’s about conquering your fears, standing out and being proud of how unique you are. We’re all different and while we might be encouraged to fit in, it strikes me that writing a book counts as standing out.

 

Misfit, Kimberly Redway‘s debut novel, is out now. Part of the Bloomsbury High/Low series, it is ideal for readers aged 11+ with a reading age of 9+.

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.

Igniting Dylan’s Writing

Dylan doesn’t like writing. His teacher makes him write and then he has to go back and correct mistakes. So, he tries to write as little as possible. He can’t wait to be “finished”. And she makes him “do spellings”. This is difficult for Dylan because he doesn’t talk or read much at home, so he doesn’t encounter as many words as his peers. He doesn’t know what half the words mean, anyway. His latest piece of writing is about 18th Century smugglers, whatever that means. There’s a smuggler museum in his home town of Hastings but Dylan has never been. In fact, he’s never been to the beach, even though it’s only 3 miles away. So, his writing about smugglers lacks context and understanding. Dylan is like many pupils, who associate writing with failure, doing corrections and feeling pretty miserable about themselves.

Dylan is burdened with all sorts of labels at his school, but perhaps the best label would be that he is an able pupil who, at this stage, hasn’t had the same opportunities as his label-free friends. In my experience as a teacher, consultant, headteacher and writing moderator, there are plenty of Dylans out there. If we’re not careful, their experience of writing in the formative years will restrict their progress and overall prospects. Which is inexcusable – because the Dylans of the world have the same potential as anyone in their class.

What does Dylan need? He needs his teacher to look at things a different way. Rather than getting Dylan to launch headlong into writing and then take a soul-destroying look back at things he’s done wrong, the teacher needs to deliver teaching sequences which support Dylan to build up a piece of writing, layer upon layer, with the skills of writing, reading, spelling, talking and listening embedded within. Dylan, like any pupil, needs to make mistakes (or how will he learn anything new?) but he needs to make them as part of a journey through word-level activities, into reading tasks, through drafting “messy” writing by exploring different writing choices, into edited and polished writing – which he can review proudly.

I’ve been working with Dylans for many years and have used my experience to create a sequence containing all the key ingredients for brilliant writing – the WRITER sequence. My new book – Igniting Children’s Writing contains 50 tried-and-tested activities, organised into the sequence, to get pupils thinking brilliantly about their writing.

Take Dylan’s Smugglers piece. Imagine if, over a couple of weeks, he experienced the following sequence:

Work on Words: Dylan gets to read paintings of smugglers, explore maps and talk about the history of smuggling in Hastings. He doesn’t realise it, but by talking about what smugglers wore, their dastardly deeds and where they did them, Dylan is practising all sorts of grammar and encountering new vocabulary. He might even get to go to the Smuggler Museum – and see the sea! The words he’s encountering are displayed on the wall, so he’s already learning to spell them correctly.

Read as a Writer: The class starts to read Moonfleet. Key passages are studied closely and Dylan gets to use different reading skills, such as skimming and scanning for key information and terminology, or thinking about what he learns from the characters based on the things they say and how they speak. He loves the quizzes that the teacher sets after they listen to a scene from the audiobook.

Investigate Writing Choices Together: Dylan hates grammar worksheets (These still have their place, of course – the bin) but now he’s working with pairs and groups to think about the grammar choices a good writer makes. He joins in with some shared writing to practise some of the grammar, which he helps to present to the class.

Try-Out individual Choices: The teacher catches Dylan reading the next chapter of Moonfleet before school. He’s had a good few days and feels ready to draft out his only piece of writing: he’s decided to write a “drop in” scene, featuring an encounter with the ghost of Colonel John “Blackbeard” Mohune. Dylan is hooked by the story of the King’s diamond, which, legend has it, was stolen by Blackbeard. Dylan uses a thinking map to plan his scene and includes key words and phrases. He’s thought of topic sentences of each of his paragraphs. He writes a draft – a first attempt. He’s given the ghost “a burnished, gold locket, which contains the hurriedly-scrawled location of the diamond”. He likes that.

Edit, Perform and Publish: Dylan can’t be finished yet, because everyone in the class has only produced a draft. His partner and the teacher give Dylan some feedback and he’s ready to edit and improve. He tries writing some of his sentences differently. He changes some words. He takes other words out completely because they’re not needed. Because the class is putting together a Smuggler Writing Collection, he makes some final changes and “writes up” in his best handwriting, within the Smuggler border he’s drawn in Art – with maps and lockets and the ghost of Blackbeard.

Review Key Learning: Although he won’t admit it, Dylan is pleased with his writing and he’s asked to review what helped him to write well. He decides that using the Spellzone display, and planning the paragraphs, were the most helpful.

Dylan still says he doesn’t like writing, but secretly, he’s starting to feel the buzz of success and creative pride. He hopes that Mum will see his writing on Parents’ Evening. And he can’t wait to see where that Ghost has hidden the diamond.9781472951588 (1).jpg

Mark McCaughan is an experienced senior leader and local authority consultant. He has taken on whole-school, subject and pastoral leadership throughout three ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted inspections and is currently supporting schools where performance was low in the Reading SATs and using the activities provided in Igniting Children’s Writing to great effect.

Mark loves supporting schools to get pupils thinking brilliantly and can be contacted at mark@mcmlearning.co.uk.

Meet the Author – Jenny Alexander

Welcome Author photo - Jenny Alexanderto the first of our Meet the Author features. We’re thrilled to be able to introduce you to some of our Bloomsbury Education fiction authors and share their thoughts and advice on writing, encouraging children to read and write and how their books can be used in the classroom. Read on to find out more about the brilliant Jenny Alexander. 

What are your five favourite books, and why?
I couldn’t possibly choose! I have eclectic reading tastes, and how can you compare a non-fiction book that gives you a ground-breaking insight with a work of fiction that gives you a few days of sheer escapist pleasure?

If you could be a character from a book who would you be?
One of the reasons I write is because I can create the characters I would like to be for myself, and explore the situations I want to explore through them.

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What inspired you to write The Binding?
The Binding was sparked by an unsettling incident I witnessed in a remote part of Scotland nearly ten years ago. I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird. They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.

‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’
We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.
I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?

Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’ Stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it. I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

What would you want children reading the book to learn from it?
It’s a classic bullying situation, where a powerful, charismatic child is able to dominate the others in a friendship group, using humiliation and exclusion to crush any opposition. I’d like children to think about the importance of sticking up for each other, and the power of the group when they stand up to bullying together.

What advice would you give to teachers and parents wanting to encourage their children to write?
I wrote How to be a Brilliant Writer (A and C Black) to encourage children to write, by dismantling the idea that writing has to be ‘good’ and putting the emphasis where it ought to be, on writing as a wonderful opportunity to discover, develop and share your ideas and experience.

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Jenny Alexander is a popular author of children’s fiction and non-fiction titles. She has written extensively on the theme of bullying and her latest title The Binding examines the subject in the context of isolation, authority, respect and the difficulty of speaking out.

When Jack and his family arrive on a remote Scottish island, the whole summer holiday seems doomed…until they find the den. Soon the children are initiated into a secret society. As the summer goes on Jack realises he will have to sand up to the leader, whatever it costs him.

Find out more about Jenny here and follow her on Twitter @jennyalexander4