More Than Wallpaper

‘More than just wallpaper’, is my aim for displays in my school. They should be interesting, they should be interactive and they should serve a purpose. The point of this blog post is to collect together all of the pictures I’ve come across in person or online that meet those criteria. I’ve previously shared my ideas for creating a number rich environment around school, these are for any and all subject. I hope the following are useful in someway and would be delighted if anyone reading this was to share more pictures of interesting and interactive displays with me through the hashtag #morethanwallpaper.

 

    

Taskmaster in the Classroom

 If you have found your way to this blog because of Alex Horne, then hello and welcome. I am James, a deputy head and class teacher in West Sussex. Now, on with the post…

We wanted to improve the way our children communicate with each other and my Head suggested this could be achieved by doing some team building challenges. It didn’t take my mind long to turn to Taskmaster. Taskmaster is a British TV programme which has just completed its 8th series.  5 comedians are set tasks by Greg Davies (the Taskmaster) and his sidekick Alex Horne (the creator of the show) and much hilarity ensues.  And so, we held Taskmaster Week.

These sort of tasks appealed to me because of their random and varied nature, meaning that all children can access them and anyone could win. Those who did the best at each challenge were the ones who communicated the clearly and persevered, and sometimes they were just lucky.

My ideas for the tasks came mostly straight from the show and the brain of Alex Horne, but they needed to adapted to make them all team tasks, suitable for children, safe and relevant to our setting. I then put them into 5 categories: Challenge Tasks which take between 5 and 30 minutes; Physical Tasks for our PE lesson; Quick Tasks to be completed in under 5 minutes; Long Term Tasks to be completed over the week and scored on the final day; and End of the Day Tasks which the children are to complete over night.

Challenge Tasks
  1. Scavenger Hunt
  2. Paint a picture – blindfolded
  3. Take an impressive photograph
  4. Throw a tea bag into a mug from the furthest distance
  5. Get an egg as high as possible, without breaking it
  6. What is Mr Blake-Lobb’s age in minutes?
  7. As a team, build the highest tower on the field. You have ten minutes starting from now.
  8. Memorise the Highwayman poem
  9. Set a task for another group
  10. Draw an upside down self-portrait using crayons
  11. Make the most juice from these fruits
  12. Make the best picture, using only this toilet roll.
  13. Unveil a new handshake
  14. Make something spin for the longest period of time
  15. Make the best paper aeroplane. Furthest flight wins.
Physical Tasks
  1. Score a goal with a shopping bag, each team member must kick the bag at least twice
  2. CONNECTED TASK – Make the shopping bag as heavy as possible in ten minutes. It must then hang, unassisted, for one minute
  3. Make the most impressive throw of something, into something
  4. Do the most brilliant thing on a gym mat
  5. While holding hands, kick a rugby ball from the round house to the year 6 table
  6. Move the pallet as far as possible. You have 3 minutes. Go.
Quick Tasks
  1. Guess the number on Mr Blake-Lobb’s left arm.
  2. Vote for the team you wish to receive 5 points. If you vote for your own team and don’t win, then you will lose 2 points
  3. Write the lowest unique number on a whiteboard
  4. Stand up for 100 seconds
Long Term Tasks
  1. Bring me someone who was born on the 28th May 2011
  2. Surprise Mr Allen
  3. Impress Mr Wood
  4. Make Mrs Humphreys say ‘bubbles’. You cannot use the word ‘bubbles’
  5. Make Mrs Rowe laugh out loud. You must not touch her.
  6. As a team, stage a performance of a nursery rhyme
  7. Write a perform a song about this week
End of the Day Tasks
  1. Bring in a book to read to a younger child
  2. Tweet a joke to Penguins class, 1st joke wins (Bonus for best joke)
  3. Wear the most unusual hat to school tomorrow
Rules

We also needed to set a few ground rules before we embarked on the week:

  • Be ready, respectful and safe at all times
  • The Taskmaster’s decision is final
  • Points can be taken away
  • Do not put yourself or others in danger
  • You may ask The Taskmaster any question you like: questions asked publicly will be answered publicly; questions asked privately will be answered privately; but he does not have to answer the question
  • If you move something, put it back
  • If you make a mess, clean it up
  • Bonus points can be won
  • Do not argue with The Taskmaster, your team mates, or members of other teams
  • Any team member leaving the room must sign out
  • Always knock before entering a classroom and wait for a response
DAY 1

We carefully went through the rules, emphasising the need to be ready, respectful and safe at all times, then got on with the tasks. First up was a scavenger hunt, 18 items to find from all over the school. On a safeguarding note, each group had a sign out sheet, so if they left the room they had to specify where they were going. Groups had a point deduction if this was forgotten.

Next the children were asked to work out my age…in minutes. They all had a go. The closest was 15 million minutes out. Some work to do in maths, but I was impressed by their attitude and approach to the challenge.

They were challenged to come up with their own team name, but it had to include my year 6 colleagues favourite word. There was no way of finding out the favourite word of the teacher, so they had to guess. During lunch time, my colleague put the group names into order and point were allocated. Also over lunchtime, the children set to work on their long term tasks. Fairly quickly, one group persuades another colleague to use the word ‘bubbles’, cunningly following up another kids who got her to say ‘bubble’. They simply walked up behind and said, ‘what if their was more than one?’ A great moment, and a lesson learnt for all. The same group were able to bring me a child born on 28th May 2018. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly they managed to do this.

In the afternoon, they were challenged to learn The Highwayman poem. This, as it turns out, is more of a long term task. We’ll see if and when they get that one done. Next, blindfold drawing. Once completed, the team captains lined them up and I chose the best collections of art work. A interesting array of work, mostly landscapes, pigs, stars and a Christmas tree. I should probably collect them in and submit them for psychological analysis.

The big task this afternoon was simply…build a tower. So they did. See pictures below. It had to be free standing, which wasn’t so easy on a rainy day, and everything had to be put back again afterwards exactly where it came from. Bonus points for the tidiest team.

To end the day, the children began their diary of the week. Reflecting on what was successful or not, how they felt about the tasks, all while using a range of conjunctions obviously.

Finally, I set the children their overnight task of bringing in a book to read to a younger class.

DAY 2

Great news this morning, as most of the children remembered to bring in a book to read to a younger class. More on that later.

Over night we received a messaged from Taskmaster creator Alex Horne, he was interested to see what we had been up to, and explained that the real Taskmaster had agreed to give them 6 points each. This, he explained, was particularly special, as no one ever gets 6 points.  A brilliant and encouraging way to kick off the day.

Next up a quick task, think of the lowest unique number. I specified that it had to be a whole number, greater than 1 (as they started thinking of -48 billion or 0.000000000000001). Maybe I should have let them, but hey, the Taskmaster’s word is final.

Throwing the tea bag from the greatest distance was interesting. Most just stood on the same spot for their attempt, until one girl walked up and dropped it in. ‘That’s cheating’, protested one boy. ‘Why?’ I asked. He didn’t know. Most surprisingly, this technique didn’t catch on! In the TV series, most realised that wetting the tea bag, made it easier to throw, none of the children thought of this. One did ask if they could get a new tea bag as their’s had got wet though. To be fair to them, most weren’t really that familiar with handling tea bags.

‘Guess the number on Mr Blake-Lobb’s arm’, was interesting. Most groups went for two digit numbers. One group went for 238, and got it spot on. You see, I’d written it the day before at the top of a cupboard at the back of the room. One boy noticed this, didn’t say anything, just wiped it off. This morning, I wrote the number up again, this confirmed the child’s suspicions that it was something to do with the tasks. As soon as I revealed the task, he wrote it down. Brilliant.

The ‘perform a nursery rhyme’ task was really interesting. While performing comes very naturally to some children, to others, it is far from their comfort zone. One group was struggling to get one member to join in. They asked me to help. So, we talked about how they could communicate positively in order to make the child, who wasn’t joining in, feel comfortable. I was really impressed and proud of how the team worked together and supported each. They come last in the task, but still got a point because they didn’t give up. They all learnt from it though.

After lunch we went to visit our Reception/Year 1 class to read stories to the younger children. It was a really heart warming moment. Children in my class who struggle with self-belief and confidence, were caring, compassionate and confident with their partners. This is something we will definitely be repeating.

Then we made a piece of art using a toilet roll. One group was struggling, but with a small amount of guidance, were able to communicate positively with each other to resolve their disagreement and understand each others differences. I think they are starting to realise they are learning about themselves, as well as practising a variety of skills over the week.

    

Another quick task next. Stand up for 100 seconds. They all said it was easy, until I pointed out it wasn’t meant to be an endurance task. They had to stand for exactly 100 seconds, and then sit down. We did this one group at a time, and the results we varied. All over shot the 100 seconds. Fifth place were over by 92 seconds. The closest team were over by 12 seconds. Some work on estimating time me thinks.

Our final task of the day was to get an egg as high as possible, without it breaking. I insisted we did this outside as the cleaners wouldn’t thank me for getting egg on the carpet. I gave them 5 minutes to prepare, this included regular time checks and a count down from 10 to 1. Yet, I was still told by the ground who were left standing next to a tower, holding an egg, that they, ‘didn’t have enough time.’ Bizarrely, they still didn’t come last as one group put theirs in a tree. Just really low down. Lessons learnt by all.

To round the day off I set the class their End of the Day task. Tomorrow they should all come to school, wearing the most unusual hats. I can’t wait to see what happens.

DAY 3

We had a brilliant start to the day when 22 children arrived wearing an array of unusual hats. I’m not sure quite what their parents are making of all this, but we’re having a whole lot of fun in class.

Today’s opening task was to make the best paper plane. Best being the one which flew the furthest. Very straightforward.

Next up, ‘take the most impressive photograph’. They all went their separate ways, to different parts of the school, but all came back with pictures of themselves. The most impressive, was the group who had photo of three children performing handstands.

After lunch was Taskmaster PE. The children had to do something brilliant on 2 gym mats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most interpreted the brilliant thing as being something to do with gymnastics. I was presented with a range of flips, crabs, rolls, etc. One group though acted out a scene from a football match, with the winning goal being celebrated with a back flip. Brilliant.

Then, they had to make the most impressive throw of something, into something. They could get anything they wanted, but all chose to raid the PE cupboard. Logical, given that we were in the sport’s hall. A great range of throws followed. One group held bean bags in their toes, performed a handstand and flung it at the target hoop. Unfortunately, they all missed. Impressive throwing though. The winner turned out to be a (lucky?) trick shot. They threw a basketball at a bucket, missed, bounced it off the floor and wall and then it bounced back in. Impressive or lucky?

Lots more chat about positive communication and that people tend to respond better when you speak to them nicely.

The ‘End of the Day’ task was to tweet a joke to our class twitter feed. Funniest wins.

It dawned on me today that if much easier to be the Taskmaster, when there is a clear order of winners. When it’s subjective, it’s trickier, as their teacher, to explain why one piece of art is more creative or impressive than the another.  I need to get over that, but worth considering when devising tasks. Also, the children find it much easier to grasp what is required in the tasks with a straightforward outcome (biggest, tallest, furthest, etc) rather than those tasks where they need to be more creative in their thinking.

Final day tomorrow, lots to wrap up, a big range of tasks ahead, all to play for.

DAY 4

The final day and a chance to round off a whole bunch of tasks which have been ongoing for a few days. Over night we received a few jokes from members of the class and a few from our other Twitter followers. I tested them out on the class and the one they laughed at the most was…

– Doctor, doctor, I feel like a dog.

– Ok, just hop up on the couch and I will take a look at you.

– I can’t, I’m not allowed on the furniture

Next each group had to nominate a group to give 5 points to. If they voted for their own group and did not win, they were deducted 5 points. 3 groups voted for one house and one group voted for themselves. Interesting discussion and reasoning took place.

After that we all went outside. Each group had to join hands and kick a rugby ball the length of the field. Those that fell over or broke the link of hands had to restart. I was expecting carnage, but actually, it all went rather well. Only two groups had to restart, which was a relief as the field was quite muddy, so they didn’t get too dirty.

Then I gave the children some time to complete the ‘Long Term Tasks’. All failed to surprise my colleague, which was disappointing. My Head Teacher was impressed by the maths work of one child and another’s knowledge of tectonic plates. Another colleague was made to laugh out loud by one group, made to smile by another, but not so much as a snigger was caused by the others. The make Christmas silhouette for the window task was a great way to get festive, well it was for the two groups who did a brilliant job of it, two had less artistic merit, while the other explained that they didn’t have enough time. This was a complaint made on two occasions by the same group even though they had the same amount of time as the other groups, and in this case, 4 days!

Some made a valiant effort at learning The Highwayman poem, but if I’m honest, a 17 stanza poem might have been a bit optimistic on my part. It was based on the task of learning the names of every member of an Australian Rules Football team. I thought I’d try an link it to the curriculum and our topic. Definitely over stretched on that one.

The final ‘Long Term Task’ was to write a song about the week. I will forever regret saying that they could use instruments, but there you go. Lyrically, they were pretty good, and some reflected on how they had enjoyed the week and what they had learned. The singing was pretty good as well.

When they had to unveil a new handshake, I was back in the tricky place of being presented with 5 equally awesome creations and having to decide between them.

The final outside task was to score a goal with a plastic bag. Tricky on a windy afternoon. Each team member had to kick the bag at least twice before scoring. One team took a football with them, discretely so others didn’t spot it, and when I said ‘go’, they popped the ball in the bag and made light work of the task.

What I didn’t tell them, was that they needed the bag for the next task. They needed to make the bag as heavy as possible without it breaking. One group had a pretty large tear in their bag, but still managed over 4kg in the bag. The winning group had over 6kg. That seemed pretty good to me.

The final scores were incredibly close. Sycamore 95, Maple 94, Birch 91, Oak 75 and Willow 74. I had about making one of the tasks to make a trophy you’d want to win. But, in the end went for a certificate.

Final thoughts…

As the week went on I found it increasingly difficult to score the more subjective tasks, especially when the children all rose to the challenge and did their best. The other element that I found tricky was the timing. How long to allow for each task (this become pretty pupil led) and how long to reflect on what we’d learnt from tasks before moving on, or simply making them come thick and fast.

I will definitely do this again next year, possibly during the first week of term to establish these  positive relationships and considerate ways of communicating. In the mean time we will build on the successes of the week in class and look forward to the next series on TV.

A Number Rich Learning Environment

At a conference I attended earlier this, Professor Stephen Heppell spoke of the importance of the environment which we teach and learn in. I wrote about the changes I made to my class as a result, in my previous post, ‘Improving our Learning Space‘.  One thing that he mentioned which I hadn’t done much about up to this point was the importance of creating a number rich learning environment. The vast majority of display boards in school have writing on, some display art work, but very few include numbers or maths in general.

So I have begun a mission to make the environment in my classroom and across the school more number rich (or should that be increasingly number rich?) The premise is fairly simple, the more present and visible numbers and mathematics are, the more relevant and familiar they will be to all of us.

A quick search of Pinterest will show you steps and stairs (what’s the difference?) from all over the world with numbers on them. So I did that. We’ve only got 8 stairs in the school though, which is not a lot, but alongside the numbers I added the Numicon image, a dice and the number written in Italian. We learn Italian in our school, so that’s not as random as it may otherwise seem. Also on Pinterest you’ll see loads of images of angles drawn on the floor beneath doors in the style of a protractor. I like it. I’ve not done it yet, so you’ll not see a picture of it below.

Drawing a scale up the side of a wall was a very simple thing to do, but has proved to be the one change that has caused the most engagement from the children. Several times a day I walk down the corridor and see children discussing and comparing heights. Thinking and talking about numbers. Real, relevant numbers.

I’ve put up a few chalkboards around the school in the last few months. Putting weekly number problems on them has been an effective way of encouraging numbers being discussed away from the classroom. It’s quite fun as well and a great way to get children to explain their reasoning and persevere.

Professor Heppell is a great advocate of writing on windows with chalk pens (specifically the Edding 4090 limo colour pens). I took this idea and added a hundred square (with different coloured odd and even numbers) and a multiplication grid (with different coloured square numbers). Then Professor Heppell came into my class and explained, it should be the children who are writing on the window. So we got on with that as well.

While in the class, Professor Heppell suggested an easy way of increasing the number of numbers would be to put numbers on the backs of the chairs. So I did that. The next day I began intergrating them into my practice: ‘Stand up if your chair is an odd number’; ‘go to lunch if your chair is a prime number’; ‘Sit down if your chair is a multiple of 7’…and so on. It’s been fun so far and ensures everyone is thinking and engaged.

I’ve put up a few sign posts around school as well. They have the distance to landmarks, near and far, in miles and kilometres. You could use these to order and compare, or calculate conversions, or double, or divide, or apply to whatever maths problems you want really.

Next up…I’m mulling over putting a large Venn diagram somewhere, I’d like to do a grid somewhere for life size coordinates, a massive bar model or two and I must put a floor protractor down somewhere.

Roald Dahl Books – here’s what I’m thinking

Bedtime stories have had a distinctly Roald Dahl theme this year. My son and I have been working our way through his catalogue of  children’s books and it’s been wonderful revisiting these magical stories from my own childhood. It’s great to be able to share these classics with such rich characters, plots and memories.

Fantastic Mr Fox

Brief. Exciting. But, how is Mr Fox the hero of this story? He steals from the farmers (who are spun to be evil, extreme, disgusting characters) with no sign of remorse. His actions lead to his family’s lives being put in danger and all the other animals going without food for a long period of time. He does put that bit right in the end, with a bit more of the good old stealing.

All of that said, I enjoyed the book, as did my son, and thus began a journey of discovery into the world of Roald Dahl.

The BFG

Sweet, lovely, fantasy tale of a girl who hangs out with a giant and they end up saving the world with a little help from the Queen of England. Great stuff.

The nature of bedtime stories is that they tend to happen towards the end of the day and this made reading the book a bit tricky. I was tired and the BFG himself speaks in a most peculiarly grammatically confused manner.  Reading his dialogue was hard work and I’m not entirely sure it made all that much sense to be honest.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Awesome. Exactly what I remembered it to be. An absolute classic.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

Awful. A couple of random, unconnected stories about a space hotel and some shrinking grandparents. The difficult follow up book was a poor relation. A singular blot on Dahl’s landscape.

Matilda

My son’s favourite Roald Dahl book. We found ourselves really rooting for Matilda and Miss Honey. But it’s the less positive characters which make this book so special. Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchbull are so ridiculous, horrendous and mean the reader is glad when they get their comeuppance. The film version went down very well also.

James and the Giant Peach

A classic tale of boy whose parents die having to live with his evil aunties, a giant peach grows in their garden, boy goes inside the peach, meets a bunch of giant insects and arachnids and they all go off on an adventure together. I really enjoyed the characters in this one, but it was longer than I remembered which is probably not a good sign!

Danny the Champion of the World

My mum will tell you that when I was growing up I loved this book, I read it and listened to it on cassette on numerous occasions. The truth is, the first time I read the book was this year, to my son. My mum is thinking of my brother, I’ve told her this and she maintains that she is correct. She is not. The good news is that my brother was correct to enjoy this book, it’s now my favourite Roald Dahl book. A touching story of a father and son breaking the law together for larks and to beat ‘the man’. I love the warmth and affection in the story in the relationship between Danny and his father. It makes me long for his childhood of simple pleasures and wish for it for my own children.

George’s Marvellous Medicine

Evil grandma gets what’s coming to her when her grandson makes his own medicine using ANYTHING he can get his hands on (including poison). I obviously can’t condone poisoning ones grandparents, but part of the skill of Dahl’s writing is that he makes it ok as she is such a ghastly character. I really enjoyed the character of Mr Killy Kranky, his house gets destroyed, his mother-in-law has been poisoned by his reckless son, she subsequently disappears – but all the while he is focused on the potential business opportunities. Great stuff.

The Twits

Funny. Gruesome. Silly. The Twits are a disgusting couple who don’t like each other very much, but hate everyone and everything else in the world even more. As with Matilda, these characters are so horrible, you don’t mind that they come to a rather unfortunate (if well deserved) end. The animal cruelty aspect, and subsequent revenge of said animals, makes the reader feel particularly strongly against the Twits and glad of their demise.

The Magic Finger

Another new one on me. As this is a short story, you don’t get the same character development and description as you do in his other books. The main character (and possessor of the magic finger) doesn’t even get a name, she is simply known as the girl. It’s a fun book  with the morality of hunting for pleasure at the heart of it. This makes it a rich teaching resource for class discussion, and the ending lends itself well to writing a story similar to that which has just been read.

The Great Mouse Plot

A short, autobiographical story, about Dahl’s school days. As such, it’s rather different to his other stories, and not one my sone or I will remember fondly for years to come. Interesting to look at if you’re teaching about life in Britain in the 20th century. A good comparison between now and the days of the cane.

The Witches

My 5 year old son always chooses which book we read next and he had been putting this one off. The idea of it seemed to worry him a bit. He had no need to worry. Some of the themes have the potential to scare younger children, but, most of it didn’t bother him at all, or the boy in the story for that matter. When the boy is turned into a mouse by a room full of witches, he seems pretty cool with it all. A great lesson in making the most of a bad lot, and a fun adventure story.

We’ve still got a few more to read in our collection (Esio Trot, The Giraffe, Pelly and Me, The Enormous Crocodile and Boy), and probably a few more we need to buy. I will add my thoughts on these as and when we read them. My son and I have thoroughly enjoyed our adventures with Roald Dahl and recommend to begin that journey yourself – no matter how old you are.

Homework 101

We’ve had much debate for years in education about the worth of homework. Should we set it in KS1 and KS2? What homework is of value? What about the children who don’t do it?

As an SLT at my school we agreed that regular reading at home is paramount. Beyond that, practise of key maths and writing skills can certainly also be of use. But what we really wanted to do was encourage the children to have a range of experiences away from school with their families to enrich their lives, hopefully become better citizens, but above all, make memories.

From there we created The Sidlesham101. This is a list of activities, experiences and deeds which we hope all of the children in our school will attempt at some stage before they leave us at the end of year 6. These activities are designed to be particularly relevant to our local area, although many can be replicated elsewhere.

We began by asking the parents and children for their suggestions and were delighted with their responses. Loads of ideas were shared, which were very specific to our local area and really captured the collective imagination.

Now the list has been shared with the children and parents, we will see how they respond in practical terms. We have a display to share photos and testimonies in school and a #TheSidlesham101 hashtag on Twitter. If you like the idea and want to have a go at some of the activities or want to start your own list, please do use the # so we can see what you’ve been up to.

Sidlesham101

Lifting our Young Voices

The single best thing I have been involved with as a teacher is taking my choir to Young Voices. Everyone involved comes in to school the next day still buzzing with excitement. Very tired, but very excited.

The children have a wonderful experience to perform at an iconic venue, like the O2 Arena, which is pretty cool. Furthermore, they get to perform with professional musicians, singers and dancers of an impressively high standard. This is an experience which will inspire and motivate the children and will live long in the memory. There are some really magical moments where you catch the children staring, open mouthed, as Natalie Williams begins to sing or Urban Strides are dancing. I like to think I can o a pretty good singing assembly, but this is a whole different level of inspiration.

Parents also came back having had an amazing evening of entertainment. This is not your average children’s concert, this is one you will really enjoy and you will get up and dance. Everyone does, you simply can’t help it. My mum and sister recently went to watch my niece at one of this year’s Birmingham shows and phoned me as soon as they came out, both full of excitement about what they had just witnessed.

For the teachers it’s a long day, and I’ve never been more alert than when leaving the O2 in the rain trying to repeatedly count children making sure everyone gets safely back to the coach. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. We sang, we danced, we conquered. All the staff involved loved it, and that cannot be said for every school trip or concert.

The shows are expertly put together by, Musical Director, Craig McLeish, who always meets the challenge of compiling and arranging a collection of songs to appeal to all ages pulling from a range of genres.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of taking your choir to a Young Voices event next year.

  • Go to the teacher’s workshop. It helpful and loads of fun.
  • As well as taking a banner, take some form of head ware that will help your choir stand out. Helpful for getting noticed as the audience enter the arena, also very helpful when leaving the arena safely at the end.
  • Encourage the parents to also have someway of drawing attention to themselves. The children love to know where their parents are and it is not an easy task.
  • Take water bottles to fill up.
  • Rehearse loads. Add your own dance moves.
  • Perfection is great. However, if it is unattainable for you and your choir, make fun the priority. You may not get all of the moves exactly right, but enjoy expressing yourselves through the music. The more fun the children have the more they are likely to be hooked by the performance bug.

What led me to Young Voices?

Music simply isn’t taught as much in schools as it should be. Music is so important for the sole and mind and the fact it gets squeezed out in place of extra SPaG lessons is a travesty. But it does. I know it’s not the only hard done by subject but it’s one I care about immensely so I will bang the literal and figurative drum for music lessons all day long.

The two main reasons, as far as I can tell, for music taking a back seat in modern schools are the congested curriculum and teacher confidence in delivering good quality music lessons. Both of these excuses are able to be overcome with will power and enthusiasm which has helped me increase music participation in my school in whole class lessons, individual tuition, clubs and school productions.

While I feel I’ve had some success in this area, I recognise this to be a national problem. I also fully understand the pressures on teachers to get results in the core subjects of reading, writing, maths and science, so explicit music teaching is not a priority. This being the case, I am always on the look out for opportunities for our children to perform and experience music at it’s best. I has previously written about how we recorded an album with the whole school and the impact it had, making use of ICT to help engagement and also given tips for putting on productions. The search for more new and exciting experiences for our children led me to Young Voices and I am very happy with the experiences I have had with them so far. No doubt I’ll be signing up to do it all again very soon.

Improving our learning space

I was fortunate enough to attend a conference where Professor Stephen Heppell was talking. He was described by Bournemouth University as, “a world expert on contemporary learning, specialising in online education and learning spaces”. Learning spaces were the focus of his talk, and in turn this blog, hence the title.

I was very interested in what he said for two important reasons. Firstly, his suggestions were rooted in educational research with evidence to back up their effectiveness. Secondly, many of his suggestions seemed like exactly the sort of thing I could go back to my classroom and have a go at right away. We work so hard as education professionals that any marginal gains on offer should be snapped up to maximise outcomes. That extra 5% can make all the difference.

Following Prof. Heppell’s presentation, and back at school, I began a conversation with my class about how we could improve our learning environment.

To begin with, we looked at light levels in the classroom. I downloaded a free luxmeter with the aim of measuring the levels of light in our classroom. 500 lux was our target for close work like writing. We found that with the blinds down (which help to regulate the temperature from our large, south-facing windows, as well as eliminating the bright glare) the light levels were well below 200 lux. We opened the blinds. It got hotter. We opened some windows. That was fine.

The real problem was the glare in children’s eyes every time they tried to look up. Certain times of day are better than others, but there are times we have to concede and close the blinds. However, if the children are all reading or writing for anything more than a couple of minutes, we agree it’s best to have the blinds open. This may be more of a problem in the Summer months. We will continue to look at arrangements of tables chairs to see how we can improve.

To monitor sound I downloaded an app to record decibel levels, anything above 72 decibels starts to became disruptive according to heppell.net. This is useful to know, and a quantifiable number that can be monitored by the class. However, when it comes to motivating the class to control their volume, they really enjoy trying to stop the balls/emojis/bubbles/eyeballs from moving on bouncyballs.org.

CO2 levels are a little harder to monitor but can be damaging to children’s levels of concentration. The children suggested opening windows during break and lunch times to let more oxygen in. This is a good idea and will have some effect, but as CO2 is a heavy gas, and windows open at head height, the levels will stay at a unhealthy level for much of the day. So they agreed we needed some plants. Green ones. In the few days since this conversation, two plants have been brought in and donated to the class by two different. Not very big ones. But it’s a start, and really proves how keen the children are to create the best possible space for learning they can. One of the plants has even been named. The class are becoming quite attached. We best look after it.

The temperature in our classroom can fluctuate widely during the day as we have high ceilings with very large, south-facing windows down one side (the south-side). However, we can easily manage it by opening windows, closing blinds etc. The target is between 18 and 21 degrees, and sometimes, we manage to hit that temperate for more than 5 minutes at a time.

Professor Heppell also extolled the virtues of the shoe-less classroom. Something I have experienced before, but mostly with a view to improve behaviour. Evidence does suggest that this is indeed the case but there are also many other benefits. The children feel more comfortable and relaxed and in turn perform better. Simple really. The children in my class really enjoyed taking their shoes off and all said they felt more comfortable and relaxed. The problem came when I started to tell my colleagues about it and they explained we couldn’t do that for health and safety reasons, in case the fire alarm went off.  My search for a solution to this problem goes on.

There is much to consider as future refurbishments and renovations are planned over coming years. But in the short term, and with our very limited budget there are a few things I plan to do.

I’ve been really encouraged by the children’s engagement with the ideas around how to make their learning environment better for themselves. They have a real sense of ownership about monitoring our environment and making the necessary changes to improve it. In the coming weeks I plan to introduce light, sound, CO2 and temperature monitors who will track the data and help suggest changes accordingly.

To find out more about Professor Stephen Heppell and his work visit www.heppell.net.

Producing a School Production – Top Tips

Following a recent post about choosing productions to put on in my school I began reflecting on what I’ve learnt over the years of producing, directing, choreographing, etc numerous shows, musicals, plays and concerts.

Here are my tips for putting on a successful production and, hopefully, staying sane at the same time.

  1. Get help. You need costumes, props, dance routines, lighting, sound and staging, not to mention singing and acting practice. This should not be attempted individually by anybody, let alone a full time teacher. Ask for help. I was fortunate enough to have a student teacher with a dancing background one year and this was a great help. I’ve also been lucky enough to make the most of some talented staff members who are both artistically creative and generous with their time. This may not always be the case and should not be taken for granted, but given enough time and a clear role, most people who work in schools will like to help if they can. Failing that, get your Head to ‘assign’ help.
  2. Plan ahead. Get to know the script well before casting. This will avoid giving the confident but tone deaf child a solo you hadn’t spotted. Make some kind of rehearsal schedule so you know what scenes you’ll be working on during each session and who you will need. Identify the big scenes with most of the cast members in to rehearse at Drama Club or such like, it is easier to snatch moments with key cast members to rehearse smaller scenes as the performance date approaches.
  3. Learn the songs. Obviously. But learn them as far in advance of the production as possible so the children can dance and act freely without worrying too much about the lyrics. This also means the whole ensemble will sing loudly, confidently and hopefully tunefully come the big night.
  4. Keep it simple. Well, as simple as you can. No-one watching is expecting a Tony Award winning production. Most parents just want to see their kids say a line or 3 and they are hoping the show isn’t too long! If it’s actually quite funny as well then that’s great. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to deliver something that is perfect because that is impossible. It’s really, really hard work to put on any production, it’s more important that as many children as possible feel they are part of it, have contributed and most important of all, that they have fun doing it. Speaking of which…
  5. Have fun. This is one of the precious few times in school where your children get a chance to perform. For some, it might be the only thing at school that they feel any good at. It can often be the thing they remember most about school in the years to come, so make sure they have a positive experience.

Producing a School Production – Moving to Musicline

When I joined my current school they had a growing reputation for fantastic, memorable and somewhat lavish productions. Famous shows, big, outdoor staging, expensive costumes and hired sound equipment including radio mics for leading cast members.  It all meant for fantastic and enduring performances for the children involved and the audiences alike. I was very impressed with what I saw, and was part of, in my first year we put on ‘The Lion King’ and in my second year it was ‘Footloose’. Doing shows the children had heard of meant there was a buzz about the productions long before any performances.

However, as staff changed, budgets tightened and I became responsible for the Summer Productions, I felt the burden of responsibility to produce a quality performance, just, with less lofty ambitions. Searching for a show to put on I came across www.musiclinedirect.com. A company who write shows specifically for primary schools. Although their stories are often well known, they do not have the famous named productions that we had used in the past, but that means the rights to put them on are considerably cheaper (like hundreds of pounds cheaper). Conscious that cheaper shows may mean poorer quality I was keen to sample the script and music, these are readily available on their website. The scripts are funny (actually funny to grown ups and everything) and the music is good, not ‘Mercury Prize winning good’, but ‘catchy pop song good’ and the songs are largely easy to sing and learn. This a massive bonus.

So we went for ‘Shakespeare Rocks‘ (well it was Shakespeare’s anniversary that year wasn’t it?). The script and music didn’t disappoint. With speaking roles for over 40 children it was a real ensemble piece. This meant more children had more lines and felt more involved than in previous years. While the songs weren’t previously known to the children, they certainly had a familiar sound to them and some were incredibly catchy.

The following year we went for ‘Robin and the Sherwood Hoodies’ and again the show was fantastic. This year I also invested in the dance routines. These are very simple, but it was just one less thing I had to worry about. We had different groups of children in at lunch times and could just play the clip for their dance and crack on. Simple but effective. All of the moves are well within the children’s capabilities which enables them to focus on doing the simple things well which is important in making a coherent production with a bit of quality.

With both shows we have done the humour shines through. Many jokes the children understood and enjoyed sharing with the audience and more than a few were just for the parents. If you enjoy a cheesy pun, then you’ll love a Musicline production.

One gripe is that Musicline could do something about having more female leading characters. Logistically it would help as I have many more girls than boys auditioning for parts. But more importantly I think it sends the wrong message to our children that males are the heroes of all these stories. To be fair, this is a problem in theatre on the whole, as it is in films, literature and other art forms.

Having found, enjoyed and grown to trust Musicline musicals I look forward to exploring more of their catelogue of productions and seeing what they come up with in the future.

Bridging the reading gap

I have been writing reports and holding parent’s evening of late. I have found myself saying and writing the same sort of things about reading. ‘They would benefit from reading more at home.’ Or words to that effect.

As teachers, particularly in Primary schools, we know reading is important in accessing an awful lot of the curriculum. Building confidence, understanding and enjoyment in learning for the children. It’s also really obvious which children have been read with from an early age. Obvious because they can, you know, read well.

Teachers across all phases and schools all over the country, and probably the World, plan special reading interventions, groups and one to ones for reluctant or struggling readers. These help. A bit. In some cases quite a lot. But, really, some children have got an awful lot of catching up to do. So how do we solve this problem and raise literacy standards? We must encourage all parents to read with their children.

I would like to see a national campaign to make the many benefits of reading with children clear to everyone. Some campaigns are already happening. They just need to be happening, louder.

What can they do? (Nicky Morgan, the DfE, Government in general)

If I had any sway with Nicky Morgan or at the DfE I’d like to see…

  • Glossy, heart-warming adverts on TV showing the simple joy of a bedtime story.
  • Segments on talk radio and daytime television. Politicians being interviewed about reading.
  • Libraries promoted in supermarkets.
  • Books given out on maternity wards and at community centres. Investing heavily in and expanding BookStart.
  • Teachers going to antenatal classes to preach about reading.
  • Oh and stop bloomin’ closing libraries!!!

As a parent myself I find cuddling up on the sofa and reading with my children to be a highlight of my day. In turn, my children associate books with quality time with their parents. They associate books with love.

We should do all can to make this experience possible for all parents. Give parents the confidence and the books to make reading an important and enjoyable part of their relationship with their children.

I understand, those parents who themselves have struggled with their literacy skills may well be reluctant and embarrassed to share their vulnerability with their children. Maybe begin with picture books, something awesome like Tuesday, and discuss what on Earth might be going on. What can be more powerful and inspiring for a child than learning and sharing with their parents?

What can we do? (teachers, people who care about education, parents, humans)

  • Collect and donate books to charities to redistribute to increase children’s book ownership.
  • Hold parents reading workshops.
  • Share the simple message #ReadWithYourKids.
  • Visit parents groups in the early stages of a child’s life and share the message about the power of reading.
  • Share the books that you and your children enjoy.

This is not about class or social standing or wealth. Children’s books can be really cheap. Bundles from carboot sales, jumble sales or charity shops can be an affordable way to fill a book shelf and instil a love of books and reading from a young age. It’s all about sharing some precious time with your children and giving them a very precious gift.