BEDTIME STORIES

A few years ago I wrote a post/rant extolling the virtues of reading with your children from an early age. To that end, I’ve been discussing bedtime stories with colleagues at work recently. Which ones were favourites and which they had less fond memories of.

The link below is a list of bedtime stories recommended by a range of educationalist from a range of experiences and backgrounds. All are also parents who have selected these books that they hold dear and have cherished memories of. The list contains details of the author, person recommending, review and link to buy. If you think there is a glaring omission from the list, get in touch and I’ll add it.

Bedtime Stories recommended by parents and educationalist.

As your kids get older, you’ll move on to chapter books. There are many great ones out there but my absolute favourites are the Mr Gum series from Andy Stanton. They are simply sublimely silly. I’ve also got some thoughts on Roald Dahl books if you care to read more.

Finally…

To finish, a rather personal rant. You may have seen a very popular book called, ‘Where The Wild Things Are’. While I love the artwork in this book, I just can’t bring myself to recommend it due to it’s remarkable lack of full stops. Perhaps it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.

Reasons to write

When do you write? Other than work related? If I’m honest, the answer is not too often. The same applies to the children in school. When I asked the children in my class the same questions, I was pleasantly surprised by the number who said they enjoyed writing stories away from school, but still, it got me wondering when else can children find opportunities to write.

So I made a list.

I shared that list with some children and their parents at parents evening. The idea is to give them some real life reasons for writing so that they have a real reason to practise and develop their skills. The children enjoy the autonomy of writing what they want. In school we often tell the children what to write in terms of genre, topic, audience, purpose, etc. This is just a list of reasons, the children have the freedom to decide which ones they want to do, what they write about and how many times they do it. There is no requirement for the children to bring in or show me the writing they produce. Just practise.

Any other ideas for writing opportunities to add to the list will be gratefully received.

I didn’t just give the list to everyone for two reasons. If it was given to everyone, then I felt it would have been done by the same children who diligently do as they are asked. This is not a problem in itself, any writing is good, right? But I really wanted it to be a challenge that only a few children had so they felt it was special, placing greater value on the writing opportunities for them. I was also worried that the individual ownership and autonomy over the audience and creative process might be diluted if everyone was doing it. We’ll see how that turns out.

Next step

During my research for this list I asked eduTwitter to offer any reasons for writing to add. One deputy head teacher and literacy specialist, Claire Tunnicliffe, shared a great idea about finding out when and where people use writing. Research local businesses and then write to them asking them when and why they use writing. I’ll give this a go next term when we are doing a local area study. Keep it real y’all.

IN-HOUSE OUTDOOR LEARNING

This post has been co-written by myself and Bex Connor, an experienced primary teacher who has worked in all primary year groups and is currently teaching a mixed early years/year 1 class and leading Literacy, Science and Outdoor Learning.

For the last 5 years children at our school have been taking part in Forest Schools activities. Different classes would spend either a whole morning or afternoon session on a Wednesday in a wood near to the school doing all sorts of lovely, engaging and exciting activities, helping them learn new skills and develop teamwork and resilience, amongst other things. Over the year each class would get 3 half terms worth of Forest School-ing. It was great. It was something the children looked forward to. It was something current and prospective parents liked about our school. It was very expensive.

Learning outside is important to our school ethos and the benefits of outdoor education are many and well documented so we didn’t want to stop altogether but we are a small school, with a small budget and we had to come up with another plan.

So with a heavy heart we ended our partnership with Forest Schools and took control of our own outdoor education. And thus, Welly Wednesdays was born. Money still needs to be spent, but a fraction of the amount that was being spent previously, and it’s being spent on our school grounds and developing our own team rather than going to a 3rd party. This means it is sustainable and securing excellent outdoor learning opportunities for children at our school for generations to come.

The other benefit of going ‘in-house’ is giving the teachers autonomy over the planning and delivery of the sessions. Our children are still able to build on practical skills they are taught week on week, but now what they are learning is much more closely linked to our own bespoke curriculum while also ensuring coverage of the national curriculum. In the few months Welly Wednesdays have been taught, we have covered areas of English, maths, DT, science, PE, art, music and geography. Ofsted noted in a November 2018 inspection, ‘Pupils enjoy a broad and balanced curriculum which takes advantage of the school’s rural setting.’

Funding wise we have used some of our Sports Premium funding to train staff as it: increases their confidence, knowledge and skills; engages all pupils in regular physical activity which supports a healthy lifestyle; and increases the profile of Outdoor Adventurous Activities across the school. We’ve also been able to take advantage of a few grants to help us with specific building projects – like making a fence and getting some solar powered lighting for our round house. Our school office (like most schools) receives emails on a semi-regular basis letting us know about various grants and funding opportunities. These are normally for specific reasons and to go towards projects, rather than just offering money for you to spend as you please. However, if you have projects in mind and can evidence how the money will be spent supporting an ongoing scheme, you might just find that no one else had the time to fill in the form and you win your school a bit of extra funding to support your vision. The trick is to make sure that initial email gets forwarded to the right member of staff, preferably one who loves a good form.

We are still developing how we plan and deliver the sessions, but the beauty of having different teachers planning their own sessions, means that the experience is very different for the children as they move through the school.

EYFS sessions are largely about discovery. They focus their learning around a book (e.g. ‘Superworm’) and each week they receive a hook, such as a letter. This letter sets out some of the activities the children may access during the session and also inspires them to write back when they return to the classroom. The benefit of not following the Forest Schools ethos so closely is that the learning can cover the NC more closely. Therefore, EYFS and KS1 have been able to cover seasons, weather and similarities and patterns in the environment. A sample week for EYFS would look like this:

Hook – A large dragonfly made out of pallets and a letter from ‘Superworm’. The letter introduces a Hero Insect – the Dragonfly. This becomes the focus of the week.

Activities – 1. Create a dragonfly using leaves, petals, seeds on the ground. There is an opportunity here to discuss classification of insects and their similarities. 2. Digging in the garden. 3. Sowing seeds in the polytunnel. 4. Creating a bug hotel. 5. A mindfulness area – a selection of books, breathing activites led by an adult, cloud gazing and tree hugging.

In KS2 we’ve been teaching children important life skills. As we continue to develop our outdoor learning provision, we plan to have a curriculum which builds on these skills each year so by the time a child has been with us from Reception to Year 6 they will be to achieve a number of tasks using a great range of skills.

We are very much in the trial stage of our Welly Wednesdays and are trying to get the balance right between covering the curriculum and allowing the children the freedom to explore our environment.

We are blessed with beautiful school grounds, with a range of different areas to take part in a range of different tasks and activities – vegetable patches, a pond, a tree ring, a field, a round house, a green house. While I recognise we are in a fortunate position, I also think that most of what we’ve done can be replicated elsewhere with a bit of imagination. However large or small your school grounds, it’s important to make the most of them and using them to help deliver a broad and balanced curriculum, bespoke to your area and your children’s needs.

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. If you just want the resources and link to a great introduction video then scroll to the bottom of the page. Otherwise, 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 thought 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.

If you do your own Taskmaster activities in school, why not use this video from Alex Horne to introduce it? The password is schooltaskmaster. Enjoy.

Taskmaster 2018 – Powerpoint of tasks

Taskmaster Sign Out Sheet – Word Doc

Taskmaster Scorecard – Word Doc

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 son 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.

The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me

A rather lovely tale of a window cleaning company who don’t require ladders because they comprise of a giraffe, a pelican and a monkey who are assisted by a boy called Billy. I found this story to be really enjoyable. It’s not too long and have a fun plot, so would be great for years 2 to 4, as a model for story writing.

We’ve still got a few more to read in our collection (Esio Trot, 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.