Where will the key take you?

After a week full of wet play, timetable disruptions and just about everything else that could affect the quality of work in my classroom I finally managed to get some high quality suspense writing out of my class on Friday. Our first writing unit this year has been looking at how to create tension and suspense in writing with guidance being provided by the suspense toolkit from talk for writing. Thursday was supposed to be the day when the pupil’s combined all of the skills we had worked on to create brilliantly detailed writing that was full of suspense, diverse vocabulary and be completed to such a high standard that I would practically explode with pride. Instead it was a lesson where I questioned if I was good enough to do the job, if anyone had actually listened to me and whether I had forgotten how to teach. Friday morning came and as I finished looking at their work my plan of editing and improving the writing in our lesson seemed formulaic and irrelevant. I could already tell that most of them would just ask to rewrite it, several children would tell me they couldn’t possibly improve their work (even though it would likely be the weakest) and I would finish the week moaning for the entirety of my PPA.

In all honesty I still didn’t know what to do by the time the children had already entered my classroom and with my English lesson due to start at 9:15 because of a tennis session I turned to my trusty selection of graphic novels in a desperate search for inspiration. After finding out my TA still had the book at home that I thought would serve best I had to explore my lesser used texts. My saving grace came in the form of Locke and Key: Small World (sadly it contains the word whore so I don’t feel comfortable sharing it with the class) which is full of gothic imagery and horror themes that lend themselves well to writing a suspenseful piece. However I actually chose an alternative cover from the bonus content at the back of the book because it was simple and open ended but would create excellent discussion, which in theory would benefit their writing. I chose to give each pair an image of a key which had a house on it.

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We started talking about what the key could be for, ideas such as new worlds, treasure chests, churches, secret passages and even cities hidden in the clouds where offered. Next the discussion turned to where the key could be discovered, suggestions ranged from the beach, hidden in a picture frame, the sea bed and simply the floor. This was where my input ended, the requirements were outlined quickly and then the class was set on their way to creating the best suspenseful writing they could. They were only asked to write two paragraphs, the first one would involve them finding the key and in the second they would use the key and start to experience something strange. By ending the work here it set them up for an easy cliffhanger.

Immediately I could tell the work was going to be a huge improvement on the previous days attempts. Every child was earnestly trying to use the full range of their vocabulary, sentence sizes were being varied appropriately and most importantly events were being drip fed rather than everything happening in about two lines (trust me this happened a lot on the Thursday.) The room felt more positive, energy levels were noticeably higher and even those who normally struggle were enthused. As a teacher I could feel a difference in myself and it was one of those lessons where you realise why we do this job in the first place, to see children trying to miss break time to work and begging for a whole day of writing was inspiring, it was also a stark contrast to the previous day when the same children celebrated the end of their lesson because they had enough of me asking for more.

Reading through the work during my PPA in the afternoon was enjoyable and looking at the two pieces of work side by side showed dramatic improvements. I know everything shouldn’t always come back to evidence but at the same time having such easily irrefutable evidence that the work had been improved was pleasing. Below are some the best examples  I found, none were perfect and everyone had room to improve but these demonstrated that the skills we had practiced were being applied.

‘It was weird there was no one here. As I turned to leave, the door slammed shut, then it clicked. Suddenly there was a voice “You’re not leaving.”

‘When I opened the creaky door, I saw a big room with yellow walls and light brown floorboards, the whole room was empty except for one thing. A picture on the wall. Whilst holding the picture to examine it the back fell out and a little golden key tingled on the floor. Later that night, I was laying in bed trying to get to sleep. I heard something. A noise. It was coming from the locked room next door.’

‘It was a normal day, normal town, a normal life and normal neighbours. But today was different. The sun was sleeping and the moon was awake, a storm was striking what seemed to be only my house. Strange. Strange indeed.’

‘Opening the box, my life flashed before my eyes. It was over … ‘

‘ Every time I said those words the key glistened again and again. Then I saw it. In the walls I saw a little shudder. I touched the walls, it all happened again…’

‘I felt the sudden urge to go in, but a voice softly called my name, several voices actually. They warned me to go back, their voices synchronised. How could I turn back now? I paced towards the church disobediently, but something stopped me in my tracks. Something was in my freezing hand. Something cold, something smooth, something hard…’

Each of these is from a different child and there were other excellent examples that I haven’t included as well. I know they aren’t perfect but this post isn’t just about the quality of work produced. It’s also to remind us that sometimes as teachers we can over complicate things, we get in our own heads and make it harder for us and the pupils. In an age of evidence, data, standards, non negotiables and every other buzz word flying round staff rooms across the country, it is easy to forget that sometimes we need to make a task as simple as possible and let the pupils lead the way with it. I can admit that anyone observing me on Thursday would have wondered why I was allowed near a year six classroom, it wasn’t good enough. Yet one day later with less planning and preparation I felt the most enthused I had so far with my class, because I did less and let them do more. The lesson wasn’t revolutionary, many people have used a picture as a writing stimulus before me. But the success a simple, open ended image can yield is the key message I want to pass on. Sometimes the simplest ideas produce the best results.

 

 

Postcards with Click

On Wednesday I was greeted by a classroom full of children who had a range of emotions about being sent back to school and being made to put up with me for the next academic year. It was only as I watched them rush to their friends to help settle their nerves that I realised my class was made up of children from four different classes. Moving to a 5/6 mix has meant not that many of my pupils actually know each other and this has led to apprehension from some of them, while others are relishing the chance to get a fresh start. Immediately I started thinking how I could help them to feel at ease, relax some fears and hopefully inspire a few of them to feel a greater sense of confidence in the room. A book which sprung immediately to my mind to help with this was Click by Kayla Miller, a story centered around a girl who has friends but doesn’t seem to quite fit into a specific group or have a best friend to lean on. Looking around my class I could already pick out three or four children who were clearly feeling the same and I’m sure there were several others I hadn’t spotted.

Thursday’s English lesson was treated like a normal lesson, wasting time on introductory exercises seemed daft. Each child was given a sheet which had three panels from Click cut out and stuck in the middle which showed the main character (Olive) in clear emotional distress and suffering from a friendship crisis. Working in pairs the children were asked to write down as many words as they could that described how Olive would be feeling about being left out at school. Following this I heard answers from all pairs and created a list on the board. Each pair was then given a thesaurus and asked to find more powerful ways to describe Olive’s feelings, particular focus was drawn to the words  sad, lonely and different which we felt were weak compared to their other choices. While the pairs were rifling through their thesaurus I worked my way round the class to help them with word selection or to establish whether they had found an alternative that would make sense. The natural discussions occurring in the pairs was fantastic to hear, lots of them had started to work out that you can’t just take any option given in a thesaurus and apply it.WIN_20190906_14_19_39_Pro

Example of a sheet completed by a pupil, their initial ideas are at the top and then their findings from the thesaurus are at the bottom.

After about fifteen minutes we compiled a second list of words on the board and compared them to our original ideas. There was a noticeable improvement in the power and emotion of the language they had discovered in the thesaurus which we discussed together. Lonely, sad and different were now being replaced with words like isolated, perplexed, bewildered, disconnected, and neglected.

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Due to the important discussions about word choice, meaning and suitability this task ended up taking the whole lesson which wasn’t my original plan but rushing it would have lessened the impact of it significantly. On Friday after a quick recap the children begun to write a postcard from the perspective of Olive. We made up a scenario in which Olive had a good friend who lived far away and she was writing to her to explain her friendship struggles at school. I decided to ask them for a postcard so no children would feel pressured or daunted about how much they had to write and could focus on writing five or six high quality sentences. The first draft was written in their book and before writing it up in neat on a postcard template they were asked to go through and polish their work either with me or their partner.

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For the second part of the task they were asked to write a reply from Olive’s friend. This allowed us to talk about offering positive advice and encouraging people to potentially step out of their comfort zone. At this point a lot of answers were forthcoming because many of the children are in this exact position in my class, a lot of them have been separated from their friends and they aren’t quite sure where they fit in yet. Again the draft was written in their book before being edited and then finally transferred onto a postcard template in neat. This ended up being finished in the afternoon because many of the class were trying to produce the very best work they could but I couldn’t complain about this in the slightest as their desire to create quality writing that represented their best work on only our third day was fantastic to watch.

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An added bonus of the task was several children asked if they could borrow the book, one child read it all on Thursday and it barely had time to hit the shelf before someone else had already borrowed it. Click is a brilliant story that accurately resembles situations that lots of children go through during school, I highly recommend it for any class from year 4 upwards. Using it in class allowed us to have lots of fantastic discussions about empathy, friendships, language and the power of reading.

Dialogue

As the threat of moderation looms ever closer it has been a frantic post SATS period in year 6. However this week we still managed to find a way to use some comics to help develop several skills and produce high quality work. Good quality dialogue was lacking in books for both classes, so it was decided that we would be re-writing comic strips and then turning them into written dialogue in their books.

For those who don’t know I have the luxury of working with Jon Biddle, who is brilliant at making these tasks highly enjoyable and highly effective. His decision to use Calvin and Hobbes as a resource was instrumental in capturing the children’s attention in the first lesson and setting them up to succeed for the week. We used three different strips from Calvin and Hobbes that all showed situations the children could easily relate to. Most of the words were erased on the strips and the children had to go through and fill in the speech bubbles with what they thought the characters may be saying at that point, which allowed for lots of discussion about body language and facial expression.

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After completing several of the strips from Calvin and Hobbes, both classes moved on to a blanked out strip from either Rollergirl or Mr Wolf’s Class. Again their first task was to fill in the dialogue with what they thought the characters would be saying. However this time the images had much less action and required the pupils to really think carefully about how they might react and speak in the situation themselves. Having filled in multiple comic strips across the week the classes then explored how to turn these speech bubbles into written dialogue, similar to what they may use in a story. To ensure a successful transition the rules of punctuating speech were recapped and the process was modeled using real text examples to support it.

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For their first attempt at applying the skill both classes used a comic about Calvin and Hobbes sledging down a hill with disastrous consequences. Most found the task difficult at first because they were unsure how to communicate the contrasting manner of the characters, as well as ensuring their delivery was described in enough depth. Following this task the children then chose either their Rollergirl work or the extract from Mr Wolf’s Class and attempted to convert this into written dialogue. Having practice at it the day before allowed them to see where they had gone wrong or address any misconceptions that had arisen. Both of these texts required a greater focus on facial expression, body language and character thoughts, which meant their knowledge of when to use inverted commas was tested more than the previous day. They also needed to use the dialogue effectively to help progress the story because the actions performed didn’t help with this as much as the previous strip when Calvin and Hobbes were sledging down a hill and crashing spectacularly into the snow.

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By the end of the week it was easy to see how much improvement had been made by the children in regards to the quality of their dialogue, how they used dialogue to progress the action and also the detail they used to describe the interaction between characters. Most had moved on from simply saying ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ and started to use more informative language such as ‘exclaimed’ or ‘explained’ as well as using short phrases to explain the exchange. Some of the best examples of these were ‘instead of replying to her fathers words she gave him a glare and looked round to see if anyone had heard’ and ‘a girl muttered underneath her breath … although not everybody could hear her.’ Previously character reactions were often more simplistic and would have probably sounded more like ‘she looked sad’ or ‘she said it quietly.’

Adding this level of description to dialogue had previously been a big weakness for the year group, which often meant they found it hard to use dialogue as a tool to support or further action in their work. Instead dialogue was often used for very basic conversations where characters just seemed to spend their time asking how each other were and saying okay a lot but never actually doing anything or talking about anything relevant. Using comics in this manner has highlighted how easily you can spot gaps in children’s understanding of the rules of speech along with providing ample opportunities to develop their writing of it. The success of it has already informed us that it should be taught in this manner earlier next year in order to improve an often troublesome area as early as possible.

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Padlet

After a few people suggested the idea I have created a padlet full of graphic novels that are suitable for primary schools. It is far from the definitive article so if you have ideas for some I am obviously missing get in touch with me on twitter and I will add them to the list. https://padlet.com/rruddick9zra/73uh2srzpbia

Things have been quiet on here recently with the joys of Sats in my class but hopefully when they are out of the way I will have more time to do some creative work with comics again in my English lessons.

Text marking with Mr Wolf

Over the past few weeks SATS fever has started to sweep year 6 meaning the chance to teach with comic books or try something considered a risk has become a very slim possibility. Although we are trying our very best to keep the curriculum broad and not just turn lessons into revision missions, there are times when you have to focus on the gaps no matter what. However thanks to the work of Wayne Tennent and the technique of text marking that he taught us on a reading course this year I have been able to sneak in some comic based lessons which have also served a SATS based purpose. In a bid to help develop the deeper thinking skills of our year 6 pupils both classes have been working on exploring what a text is truly showing us and what we can read from it. Credit must go to the mighty Jon Biddle who in PPA last week read the fantastic Mr Wolf’s class (buy it for year 4,5 &6 if you don’t have it, great book and they love it) and then said how he planned to use it for some text marking work. Being the resourceful practitioner that I am I stole his idea and did it as well because he said it so therefore it must be a good idea!

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The page in question involved a teacher asking a pupil to say sorry for something that wasn’t really a problem just so they could settle the issue. In predictable fashion the child apologises but doesn’t mean it and didn’t actually care about being sorry whilst the teacher thought he had settled the incident perfectly. We’ve all been there ourselves and will continue to deal with it on a daily basis as long as children exist. We decided to go through and mark all over the text about what they thought the characters were really thinking, why the teacher was settling it this way and what their body language told us about their real intentions. The class picked up on lots of subtle details and nuances that at first glance they had ignored. After marking it we talked about their findings as a class which allowed others to pick up on things they had missed. The discussion ranged from the character saying sorry being sarcastic rather than really meaning it, the teacher being smug even though he hasn’t really settled the issue, turning your back on someone to show them that you don’t actually mean your words and even how rushing off after the teacher has said shows a lack of respect.

The discussion was really productive and plenty of the class had picked up on little facial expressions and clues in the text that others had missed including myself. We followed this task up by looking at three questions based around the text. The questions were based on looking at the text, using a clue from the text and then using their own thoughts about a concept related to the text. The final question was What do you think makes a good teacher? This question required us to discuss all the different areas of life that people teach them in rather than just focusing on teachers at school. Many of the children hadn’t considered just how many different people teach them and how they teach others themselves. This question prompted some interesting discussion which revealed many of them considered a good teacher to be someone who could demonstrate the skills and knowledge required themselves, possessed patience and was kind and caring. Most of the children were adamant that the person teaching needed to know or show how things worked rather than just being people who could tell them what to do. When talking about who the best teachers in their lives were a lot of them recognised their parents or grand parents as people that have taught them a lot along with brothers and sisters. Interestingly some also suggested their parents were the worst teachers because they didn’t have the knowledge or patience to do it properly!

Following on from this task (later in the week) we then looked at another page from the second Mr Wolf’s class book which I felt would address some of the issues we were having as a class. This time we decided just to mark and discuss the text rather than moving onto three questions afterwards. This time we looked at a page where several seemingly innocent lies got out of hand and led to a character believing an old teacher had potentially been abducted by aliens. Working in pairs the class had about 30 minutes to break down the text and explore what was happening and more importantly why it was happening.

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I was surprised by how many didn’t understand what the word ransom meant but this presented a great opportunity to demonstrate how they could use the words around it to establish a potential meaning. About half way through the task after rushing through all the words most of the class started to say they were finished which I knew they were definitely not. Rather than stop there and discuss I simply informed any child who told me that to look further into it and start thinking about more than just the words. After a brief whinge about being made to work harder every group went back to the task and started to pick apart tiny details of the text which led to lots of fantastic paired discussion. Slowly they realised that the page features constantly changing backgrounds which could be related to the way the conversation is going between the two characters. Lots of them picked up on the spotlight on the last panel and the wonky features in the corridor which didn’t fit with the rest of the page. Facial expressions were studied and allowed them to draw conclusions about the intentions of the words as well as answering questions they had about the start of the page. When it came to stopping them many begged for more time as they were engrossed in extracting everything they could.

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To finish we discussed our findings as a class and I teased them towards the idea of fake news and how it is important to be more aware of this than ever. In the previous week I had settled multiple arguments based on children either lying to each other or misreporting events. Their words gathered momentum and got out of hand before thankfully being resolved by the end of the week. This page gave me a great example of this happening and allowed me to draw comparisons to our struggles in class. As a final point of discussion I talked to them about the fake articles that are constantly put up online and the importance of evaluating what you are reading to try and ascertain if it is genuine or not. Quickly I had hands shooting up to tell me about when they had fallen for fake news themselves or examples their parents had shown them being spread on social media. Using the text to get to this point seemed to connect well with them and for those who may struggle to quite understand what I was talking about it gave a concrete example of how a simple joke can quickly get out of hand whether you mean it to or not.

 

 

Formal letter writing using Princeless

This week in English we have been exploring the difference between formal and informal language through the medium of letter writing. Initially many of my students were unfamiliar with the concept but as the week progressed they showed that they could apply the rules consistently when needed. Having finished our planned work by the end of the lesson Thursday I thought Friday presented an excellent opportunity to practice the skill using a different inspiration. After a long deliberation I chose the book Princeless, it’s twist on the classic princess tales that would offer a golden opportunity for the main character to write a letter.

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In the book Adrienne has been locked in a tower by her father so she can be saved. She decides to break out and go on a mission to free her sisters before the same imprisonment can be placed upon them. After sneaking into her castle she finds her brother who relays the bad news that her sister Appalonia has already been locked away with the meanest guardian in the land protecting her. Adrienne sets off in a bid to free her and ends up in a village where she meets her new companion Bedelia. This part of the story was read to the children who took notes about key character names and events. After note taking the task was laid out, they would have to write a letter from Adrienne to her brother Devin explaining how she was faring in her quest to save their sister. We worked together to identify possible things that may have happened after she left the castle and met Bedelia.

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With ideas gathered and expectations established the class then got on with writing a formal letter to Devin from the perspective of Adrienne. At first they struggled to start off the letter, many found it hard to comprehend how I had read them the story but left them in charge of filling in what happens between leaving and saving her sister. Eventually after a little prompting and a few examples being shared they started to let their imaginations loose and started creating events from this journey. Lots of them described the scenery they had passed or made reference to their new companion Bedelia and how she was helping. Some mentioned the dragon Sparky, the supplies they had gathered or even how far they were from finding Appalonia. Most importantly the majority stuck to the rules of writing a formal letter.

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Contractions were abandoned, paragraphs were used in a more structured manner and vocabulary choices started to become more adventurous. I had banned certain words earlier in the week including ‘alright’, ‘ok’, ‘bad’ etc. which caused trouble for some at first but eventually they started to explore their own vocabularies or use a thesaurus to help them improve the overall tone of their work. Words such as ‘ashamed’, ‘informed’, ‘accompanied’ and ‘menace’ started to make their way into more pupils work and today the variety of vocabulary was the best it had been all week. Below are some of the best sentences created or some are examples from writers who often struggle but excelled during the task:

‘After leaving we finally came across a small village. I told Sparky (the dragon) to hide behind a few trees because I do not think civilians react well to dragons.’

‘I am informing you that I am safe. Since you last saw me at the castle a lot has changed.’

‘We are starting out tomorrow beware I might not make it back. Do not be upset if I do not come back but make me a promise. If I do not come home go and save our sister.’

‘I have great doubt that I will succeed brother but I will never stop fighting.’

‘It is getting dark and I am losing sight so I must say my goodbyes and if I do not make it tell my family I love them. It may not go well.’

A lot of children ended their letter with a warning about their potential fate which showed a good understanding of events that were about to occur. It also gave them a chance to discuss their family relationship at the end of the letter whereas the rest had been recounting the journey and trials ahead. Initially I was skeptical about the task but as we had achieved the goals for the week it seemed a worthy risk. On reflection it worked respectably well but having to read a comic to the class because you only have one copy did make the explanation process problematic at times. Ideally in future I would do something similar using either one page that covered enough content or use a comic that I had multiple copies of so the children could follow along more easily.

 

 

Class recommendations

Recently I’ve had quite a few different people asking me about where to start with graphic novels or what they should look at for their class. In a bid to help with this and not be limited by characters on Twitter here are some of my recommendations based on what has been successful in my school and my classes over the past three years during which I’ve taught years 3/4 , 5 and 6.

The essentials

All of these have been a huge success and serve as the perfect place to start if you want to start improving your selection of graphic novels.

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I cannot recommend these books enough and they all get read continuously in my classes. Anything by Raina Telgemeier is always hugely successful with pupils and Amulet often has a list of people waiting to read the next volume.

Worthy additions

These texts are all worthy additions to a class library but may not be as universally loved in a class like the ones above. You often a group of friends may enjoy them or fans of specific genres/ artistic style.

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Most of these are suitable for all of KS2 but teachers in 3 and 4 should be wary that Nimona and Brave may be a touch too mature for the majority of their readers and are more of a 5/6 text.

Niche texts

The books below are all fantastic texts but I have found them to appeal to limited amounts of pupils often due to their specific genres or very different approach. Axe Cop for example was hugely popular with my year 4 boys but most of the girls in the class told me it was weird and they didn’t like how odd it was. However if you already have a well established library these are good texts to add some diversity with or to appeal to a certain demographic in your class.

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All of the books shown in this post are superb and obviously there will be plenty I have missed as well. This guide is just supposed to give a starting point and some guidance to what can be a daunting format of text. Other texts that deserve an honourable mention and may be perfect for your class are below:

Alex Rider series

Ghostopolis

Drama

Baby-sitters club

Hilo

Geiss

Lumberjanes

John Blake

Artemis Fowl

I hope this is useful for those who read it and if anyone wants to speak to me more about it or tell me about all the absolute must haves I have forgotten to mention then feel free to moan at me on Twitter!