July 01, 2012

The Final Entry – Closing Thoughts

So here we are. The very last entry to this blog, which has all been about the writing rather than the reading - and of course which is ironically all about reading.

I have just finished PP4, and it has been great - honestly, the best time of the course (if not my career). I have been teaching in Year 2, in a very challenging (behaviour-wise) class, full of remarkable and intriguing pupils who I got to know a great deal. I will miss them, and judging by the cards, hugs and tears on the last day I suspect they may miss me, at least for a little time.

But anyway, how to sum it all up?

In terms of reading a few highlights stand out. One is Kate's teaching, who I think is generally recognised by the student mob as possibly the best tutor and teacher we've had this year. So many great ideas which work in practice have come out of the seminars, one of which got me a job. I've drawn on the ideas again and again in my teaching, and they've usually given life to what can easily become a rather predictable and dull lesson plan. And the range of texts I've read as a result has been an equal delight - Marcus Sedgwick's 'The Dark Horse' was a soaring highlight, but there were many others which are now sitting on my shelves. So thank you Kate.

In the classroom, the other big highlight has been the creative responses the literature have inspired - I've adored every drama activity I've taught, which have always been closely tied to a good book. And it is always striking how much children, no matter how challenging their behaviour is, love to listen to a good story. I had my last class hypnotized by 'The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch' by Ronda Armitage - and it bought back all sorts of memories of reading it when I was a child. As I was leaving, we were in the process of creating their own Lighthouse Keeper story and turning it into a stop-motion animation. Quite possibly the best activity I never taught.

Another thought - on all the placements most pupils had some time to read independantly, usually as a default activity when nothing else was going on. But sadly, this often seemed to relegate it to a default time-filler kind of activity. It does make me want to engage more in the personal reading of my pupils when it's going to be my classroom - which will be the next classroom I step into now, scarily. Hopefully I can find ways of bringing in pupils' preferences of reading into my lessons - but I'll let you know if I figure out how to do that in practice... But one thing's for sure - my reading area is going to be better than the three classes I've taught in so far!

There have been so many highlights, so many great texts, most of which are mentioned on this blog. This summer I'll probably be reading more Terry Pratchett again, but I'll also be continuing to hunt for good books for my Year 4's next year.

My last thought is the most pressing one - I have been struck what a privilege it is to be a teacher. The relationships with the kids have been extraordinary. I finish this course and this blog with the realisation that a teacher and a pupil sharing a book is about as perfect way to make a living as there could be.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

April 12, 2012

Teaching Poetry

In slight contrast to my scarce experience of reading poetry, teaching poetry has become a surprisingly common occurance - I have taught poetry on both placements and used it as my lesson of choice for job interview lessons (one of which got me one!).  I thoroughly enjoyed teaching it - it lends itself well to active participation and I delved into performance poetry both times - and encouraging spoken and written responses which don't have to follow the rules in quite the same way as other writing does.

Having said that, pupils generally didn't get that much exposure to poetry.  Both the units were taught were short, bespoke and relatively uncommon - and pupils started out sceptical (but soon came round).  I didn't see much evidence of poetry having a particularly valued place in the classroom - I didn't see a poem on the wall or a poetry book in the hands of a pupil.  If poetry was in the class library (which was sparse) it wasn't picked up.

But it did turn around when the teaching of poetry got into gear.  On my first placement I started with 'The Sea' by James Reeves, which we performed with great gusto, and then moved on to 'The Magic Box' by Kit Wright.  The latter became the inspiration for the pupils' writing, where we composed a class poem of what we would want to put into the box - written on little cards and placed in my very own (home made!) Magic Box!  I'd insert a picture but this blog is being incredibly annoying today and doesn't want to play.  Anyway.

PP3 covered rainforest poetry, looking at 'Over in the Jungle' by Marianne Berkes and 'The Rainforest Doesn't Talk' by Edie Bakker.  Again, we used the former for performance - culminating in a performance, with music, for the class assembly - and the latter for written outcomes where pupils produced polished versions of their own rainforest poetry.  Engagement in all these activities, in both schools, was very good - pupils enjoyed the active and performance elements a great deal.  Writing was more mixed - some pupils clearly struggled and felt writing poetry was too complex for them to do well - though some bloomed and were proud to do a great job.

The one off lessons I did for interviews I think proved to me once and for all the engaging nature of poetry.  The two lessons I taught, one on using a kennings poem approach to build a class Olympic poem, and the other being a chopped up fish poem for the class to reconstruct together (complete with Origami fish and 'swimming' round the classroom to find their rhyme) - were great.  Pupils may be unsure when they start but again and again, poetry seems to grab them - and I just know it's going to have a big place in my classroom next year.

Reading Poetry

Poetry. I have to admit, at the start of this course I was a bit... sceptical. Poetry has never really grabbed me, most poems seeming to me being very convoluted descriptions of quite simple things, with structures and styles which, while no doubt very clever, were more about technique over impact. But I have to admit... I'm starting to change my mind.

Perhaps my scepticism came from the fact that I can't really remember any poetry from my schooldays - not a single example leaps to mind. The best I can do is what I know I would have read during those years - A.A. Milne (The more it snows, tiddely-pom) and I've probably read Roald Dahl's 'Revolting Rhymes' though I don't remember a word of it. But - and ah, this is where it gets interesting - one of my most endless passions is music. Music has become such a huge part of my life that it I practically breathe it, and a huge part of the fascination comes from the poetry of the lyrics. So I don't have favourite poets, but my god, I have favourite lyricists.

So who have I got? Well, there has to be Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd fame – ‘Hey bartender, what is wrong with me? Why am I so out of breath? The captain said, excuse me ma'am, this species has amused itself to death...’

David Bowie of course – ‘Steely resolve is falling from me; my poor soul all bruised passivity. All your regrets ride rough-shod over me; I'm so glad that we're strangers when we meet.’

And the other MASSIVE influence on me is one Finnish poet and songwriter, Tuomas Holopainen who pens symphonic metal masterpieces with Nightwish, and whose songs feature poetry epics - ‘Sing what you can't say, forget what you can't play, hasten to drown into beautiful eyes. Walk within my poetry, this dying music - my loveletter to nobody’.

And one more - of a darker and more intriguing nature - the disturbed genius of Rammstein, Till Lindemann, whose guttural German poetry has hooked me far beyond my comprehension to actually understand the words. I fell in love with the rhythm of the language, and that I think is pure poetry -

Ein kleiner Mensch stirbt nur zum Schein

wollte ganz alleine sein

das kleine Herz stand still für Stunden

so hat man es für tot befunden

es wird verscharrt in nassem Sand

mit einer Spieluhr in der Hand.

But anyway, sorry, yes - this is supposed to be about child friendly isn't it?!

I do have an oddly good memory for song lyrics (but not for poetry), and there is something about being able to reel off lines of text with a sense of performance. My performance of Syd Barrett's 'Effervescing Elephant' at my Dad's 60th leaps to mind! And I think it is a little joy which children should engage with - because it really helps you fall for the sheer joy of language for its own sake. Wrapping your tongue around some of the phrases - hearing the rolling rrrrrrrrrrRRR's in German or being able to say 'kuolema tekee taiteilijan' in Finnish is all part of falling for language in itself. I think the merit of immersion in poetry is that you want to express yourself more fully as a result - it can only inspire greater spoken and written outcomes for children.

Anyway, I'm halfway through this epic poetry study task - the next bit is less me quoting song lyrics and more about the teaching again. Probably for the best.

Reflection on PP3 – Promoting Reading for Purpose and Pleasure

Well, here we are again... it is quite some time since last I wrote here, and it has been an extraordinarily busy time, with PP3 now done, a job worked out for September and it is only now that I am catching up with where the hell I am.  But it's 'reflection' time again, so here we go with my thoughts on PP3...

The class teacher I had the pleasure of working with on PP3 was superb - I genuinely think so.  She came across as passionate in just about everything she taught, and this included the texts and books we worked with.  It is then perhaps a shame that we did so little reading during my time there - the emphasis on SATS dominated and so English lessons tended to focus on written outcomes, or short bursts of reading comprehension, rather than engaging with a long text.  However, when we did engage with texts - Anne Fine's 'Diary of a Killer Cat' for example, she read with passion and a joy of storytelling - so much so that the plan went out the window of one lesson I was observing and she just read the whole book to them!  She would also occasionally bring in a new book she had found that looked exciting to use - Emily Gravett's 'The Rabbit Problem' was particularly wonderful and I was gutted I left the school before I got the chance to teach with it! 

The children in the class were generally enthusiastic readers - reading their own book was generally the default activity of choice when nothing else was happening, and was always enjoyed.  The classroom was of the wonderfully chaotic type - and for the second time I saw the reading corner being little more than a space filler which was a shame - and displays did help to engage pupils in the key text (but that was empty for the majority of my time there!).  But again, it felt like this had gone on the back burner with SATS pressure looming...

It is then perhaps difficult to pick out some real highlights in terms of reading - which feels a bit of a shame, because the experience was generally so rich.  I think the most exciting part was the pupils were creating their own texts for other children to use - we wrote rainforest poetry which was presented at the class assembly I put together (a huge highlight of the whole thing), and this turned into a poetry book which was passed on to the Year 4 classes.  But I think there is a lesson I'll take from this reflection - I think I need to create more reading highlights for my pupils next time!

January 22, 2012

Storytelling Task

Right, this is another study task (I know! I'd blog about something else, but it all just seems to be study tasks doesn't it?). This looks to be a good one though - all about the importance of storytelling, something close to, I think, everybody's heart.

A few questions to start with:

Why do you think children enjoy listening to stories?

I think a principal reason that listening to stories is important and enjoyable for children is that it removes one big barrier in their enjoyment of story - their ability to read. This allows children to experience stories far beyond what they are capable of reading themselves, and this can be both inspirational in terms of their reading, and also allow them to experience a story to its fullest. A good performance of a story can add to it greatly, giving it even more life and impact. It is, I suspect, also something more deeply important to us - a surprisingly intimate experience which people can share in for a little while.

What skills do you think are involved in telling a story well?

Enthusiasm and commitment to the story above all, I suspect. Stories deserve to be read by someone who cares for them, who will do them justice and draw the reader in as much as they are able. A range of silly voices undoubtedly helps (and the only accents I can do are Pirate and Dudley, so I suspect I need some practice here). Good pace, brisk, but with just the right amount of silence are also important. And you have to enjoy it - else, why would anyone else?

What value is there for children in listening to stories... and telling stories themselves?

My first answer covered some of this - the experience of story is a fantastic one, and listening adds to this. But to build on that, I think there is a big creative element in listening to stories - from the imagining of characters, places and happenings, to that wonderful feeling you sometimes get to want to creatively respond to a story. This, I think, is why reading and writing are so closely entwined - experiencing story makes you want to create stories - and this has to be something to be encouraged. The satisfaction of telling stories themselves, whether their own or other people's, helps add to this sense of ownership of a story - and then it's yours to keep and respond to however you want to.

A little grandiose a theory perhaps, but it is always how I've loved stories the most. Even now I've just read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and am now spending far too much time imagining myself between the black and white tents, staring at the stars... Sorry, back on task...)

OK - the next bit is to pick out some good features of storytelling from 2 videos of stories being read aloud. The task says to pick one out of the two - but I refuse. They were both spectacularly good, and filled me with an overwhelming desire to get a lot better at storytelling myself. Some of the features included:

  • Wide variation in voice, modulating with a range of pitch and volume
  • Use of silence and pauses, varying the pace of the story
  • Use of facial expressions and body language; delivered with a sense of genuine commitment to the story and the emotion being conveyed
  • A cheerful, and active, engaging persona - I got very drawn in to both stories very quickly from their sheer enthusiasm for it
  • A range of voices and sounds to develop the characters and the situations - the acting on display was scarily good!
  • Knowing the story inside out - both readers were delivering the story from memory (or appeared to be)
  • Finally - all of the above is used, selected and drawn upon to reinforce the meaning of the story - drawing attention to specific words or phrases, heightening the drama and emotion. It really is something of an art form, I realise now...

Finally, here's my 'personal philosophy about reading and what you would want to communicate to your class about the value and enjoyment of reading'. A personal philosophy? Always a dangerous question for an ameteur philosopher...

Reading, for me, is about its impact. Reading is about what it does to your mind, whether it is in terms of inspiring imagination, developing your own creativity, or helping you to reflect on yourself and your experiences. It is, when all is said and done, personal. No-one can know what version of a story you have in your head, even if it is a story everyone else knows. For that reason, as with music and all the other arts, it is one of the great joys of life - it is almost literally access to your own world limited only by imagination and inclination. It is a joy worth experiencing for its own sake.

How I would communicate this? Like everything a teacher talks, the walk to match it is essential. I would want to read them stories I feel passionate about; I would want to respond to them creatively alongside the children. I think I also wouldn't want to dictate too strongly what they should read or enjoy - who am I to dictate taste? Instead it is about encouraging open mindedness, embracing a wide range of stories and experiences - and encouraging ownership. Lots of work on specific texts sounds great to me - stories which work by themselves, and not just used because they meet a learning objective. Children deserve the best stories, and there are enough good ones to go around.

So there you go. A friend of mine looked at my blog the other day and despaired with how much I'd written. The truth is, it's easier to write more than less. So apologies for that!

EAL Review: Mabel's Magical Garden

OK - for this task we've had to take a look at someone else's blog and come up with a few thoughts on their EAL task. I have been paired with Natalie Hodgkiss, and her task based on Mabel's Magical Garden by Paula Metcalf - which is over here: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/nataliehodgkiss/entry/eal_english_self-study/

What strikes me most about Natalie's choice of text, and the tasks coming from it, is that they are full of ambition. The text is multi-layered and contains lots of features which make it a good text in various contexts, with its range of language, familiar and challenging vocabulary, PSHE type themes and cross curricular links. Having this kind of high ambition for EAL learners is very important I think.

This is balanced by some well thought out tasks which would have the EAL learner working closely alongside the rest of the class, and supported by them through shared and group reading, writing, speaking and listening. The regular speaking out loud sounds like it would be very engaging, as does the final writing of the story in groups. Hopefully this would generate some good talk between the pupils and, if the EAL learner was well involved, would help to scaffold their learning in terms of helping them to build up their ideas for the story.

Good to see an approach to EAL which doesn't 'dumb-down' the learning experience for them - thanks Natalie!

January 12, 2012

EAL Task: Free Fall

This a fairly long (and more formal than usual) post for my English EAL Study Task. Enjoy!

Free Fall

This task is focused on teaching pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) – something which I was fortunate enough to experience extensively first hand on my last placement, where this was the case for all but 2 pupils in my class. I’d like to introduce you to Free Fall by David Wiesner, a beautiful picture book which I observed being used to support learning in Year 4 literacy during a topic on imaginary worlds.

This is a particularly useful book to use in an EAL heavy context as it has no words at all – instead the powerful story is driven by images, leaving the teacher free to introduce an appropriate level of vocabulary to support the individual pupil. In a class of widely varying standard of English, this makes it a great text to differentiate from.

The book tells the tale of a boy falling asleep and dreaming his way through an imaginary world. Each double page slowly transforms the images from one thing to another, the pictures blending from a chess board to a castle, a castle to a forest, a forest to an ocean and so on… It is a beautifully drawn book, and concludes with the scenery melting back into his bed – and him waking to see the chess set, the toy castle, the fish in a bowl around his bed. As so much in the story is left unsaid, there is a great deal of room for personal interpretation and so it would hopefully draw on a pupil’s prior experiences, as well as introduce them to new experiences (the forest, ocean, and Western notions of a castle may well be unfamiliar to a pupil just arrived from Africa, for example).

The teacher will need to ensure that the pupil approaches this book in a rigorous way – as it would be an easy one to flick though! Of course, the language itself will need to be introduced by the teacher depending on the learning objective desired – but can include naming objects (e.g boy, man, fish, tree), using adjectives (e.g. cold, hot, wet, high, large) and verbs (flying, swimming, running) etc. The text would be best used to help the pupil think about story structure, and the pupil should be able to access this even with little or no English. The challenge to find everything by the boy’s bedside (at the end of the story) in the dream sequences is a nice way of helping the pupil think about the intention of the author and story structure.

Below is an example of a teaching sequence based on this book. Following my own experience, I will assume it is the Year 4 unit on imaginary worlds, and I am planning a session for an individual pupil who has some basic vocabulary in English, and is beginning to form simple sentences. The Learning Objective would be ‘to write the structure of an imaginary worlds story’ – linked to the unit for the rest of the class, but differentiating the tasks around Free Fall for my target EAL pupil. The tasks will be broken up using Cummins’ Quadrant:

Quadrant A: Low Cognitive Demand, Context Embedded

Begin with introducing the book to the pupil and read it through together. Help the pupil pick out what is happening in the story and pick out features in the images using known vocabulary. At the end of the book, the teacher shows the pupil that the items around the boy’s bed formed part of his dream – and the teacher asks the pupil to find the other items, flicking through the book, and the teacher introducing the new vocabulary. Emphasis should be placed on the pupil repeating back these words.

Quadrant B: High Cognitive Demand, Context Embedded

The teacher should then ask the pupil to map out the structure of the story, with the aim of listing the fantastical scenes in the order they appear in the book. A writing frame could be provided to support this – and should include a section for a description – the pupil encouraged to make phonically plausible attempts at spelling the new vocabulary, and writing them in simple sentences e.g. the sea is big; the birds are flying fast. The pupil should be encouraged to note how the images roll into one another to create the structure of the story. This task can be undertaken independently or with support, as required.

Quadrant D: High Cognitive Demand, Context Reduced

The teacher then tells the pupil that we are going to plan our own story about a dream world, the same as in Free Fall. Using a large sheet of paper, the pupil should be encouraged to draw out some ideas and how they might link together, using their vocabulary to add descriptive sentences to support their plan. The sections of the visual plan can then be numbered to show the plan for their story.

The following lesson can then build on this, and the pupil can write out their simple story, practicing the new vocabulary in context – and using their story structure.

December 16, 2011

Reflection on PP2: Promoting Reading

It is now mid December, PP2 is done, there are Christmas presents next to my chair and I'm trying to remember what I did when I had this much free time. Perhaps now is the moment to reflect on my PP2 experiences, and coincidentally, there is a study task inviting me to do just that... in relation to how the teacher promoted reading for pleasure and purpose during my time with Year 4.

I honestly don't know how much the class teacher was a committed reader. She certainly read aloud well - the class book was 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' and the excitement in the pupils when she picked up the book was palpable. She was passionate in her reading and in the story, and this was the one single aspect of her practice which leapt out at me in terms of promoting reading. It became a real treat - but it's hard to think of a second example; perhaps becasue the teacher in the class next door was the school's literacy co-ordinator and positively oozed passion for reading. Her excitement in the poetry unit I was teaching was motivating for me, as well as the pupils, and it was her which introduced many of the texts.

There were certainly some good texts, alongside the inevetible but welcome Dahl and 'Where the Wild Things Are'. The highlight was 'Free Fall' - an imaginary worlds picture book, where the images rolled smoothly into one another through the dream it told. A genuinely lovely and ideas-inspring book.

The classroom environment certainly had a nod towards reading - there was a small reading area, but it essentially consisted of a book shelf and it was a mess the entire time I was there. I didn't see it used once - home reading books were given out seperately from a library outside the classroom by the TA. The teacher didn't involve herself much in this process. This feeling was around at school level too - though I'm being harsh as the empty display boards and non-existant main library was due to some major building works around the site at the time.

This lack of a real reading atmosphere was a shame - as the children clearly loved any activity where reading was involved. Guided reading sessions, as well as the whole class story, was greeted with excitement all round - and pupils really enjoyed getting into the stories and having creative responses to them. Given that all but two pupils had English as an additional language, this was quite impressive. For that reason I suspect I didn't see the full picture of what the school would usually do (without building works, school trips, class assemblies, and of course, student teachers - all of which interrupted the usual flow of things to a certain extent).

In fact, it's rather making me want to go back and read with them again...

December 01, 2011

Science Task Review – Emil and the Bad Tooth

So. The next job for this blog is for me to review a science investigation e-learning task Prezzie thing. Thankfully I have been given the endlessly enthusiastic and all round genius Lauren Williams' science task to review, so it's certainly no bad thing. I am writing while on placement, in school, while my class teacher is having a formal observation. Not a bad job to keep me busy and out of the way then.

Lauren's epicly titled: ''Emil and the Bad Tooth' (När Emil skalla dra ut Linas tand) by Astrid Lindgren and Björn Berg and 'I want my tooth' by Tony Ross' is a science investigation on tooth erosion for both key stage 1 and 2.

Initially I was slightly concerned that Lauren had some human teeth squirrelled away for her experiment, but of course, no, egg-shells were used to sit in various liquids to test the impact of tooth decay. I genuinely didn't know they had anything in common, let alone calcium phosphate.

A major strength of the Prezzie is the significant amount of initial, and useful, information to put the lesson into practice - L.O.'s, success criteria, key questions and vocabulary. Linking the experiment to both key stages is also a plus, and plenty of room is left to adapt the experiment depending on the year group.

The other impressive element is the presentation of the results themselves - and actually weren't quite what I expected - with the acidity of fruit juice having a bigger impact than the sugar in a Dr Pepper. Ultimately, it lives up to its final quote from Sir William Bragg, as it managed to teach me a thing or two I didn't expect to find out.

So there you go. Thanks Lauren - I better get back to class now...

(A note to Lauren: Hello Lauren. Forgive my pontificating writing style. There doesn't seem to be much I can do about it...)

September 28, 2011

Reflections on PP1 Experience

For our first school placement we were asked to read aloud to a group of children. To be honest - I was a little nervous. To be even more honest - I didn't quite manage it entirely, as the storytime session turned into a guided reading session when the day came. So instead I led a small group in a fifteen minute guided reading session where I read a little, but the kids read a lot more. I'll tease out what I can from this little bit of experience I've had.

The book in question on this occasion was Malorie Blackman's The Monster Crisp-Guzzler, a text chosen by the teacher for the group of seven year 3 children I was working with. We sat together at the table, first reading the chapter together and then discussing aspects of the story and the language we came across. I read only briefly, to start the chapter before I passed it on to several of the other pupils.

The reading aloud was comfortable enough, and I think the pupils were engaged in the story. Passing responsibility for reading aloud helped keep the focus relatively well. However the session livened up considerably when we started to discuss the text together. I asked the pupils to summarise the story back, which they were able to do quite effectively - and many of them could express a favourite character or moment in the story. We then explored a couple of these sections together and what made the writing effective. This was a fantastic part of the session with most of the pupils enthusiastically suggesting ideas, such as word choice and use of exclamation marks, and I encouraged them to think about how the writer consciously made these choices for effect (drawing parallels to the use of music in a film at one point of particular drama). Finally we discussed what might happen next in the story - which quickly turned into what they would do if they discovered their teacher was a crisp-guzzling dragon. They certainly enjoyed that bit!

Overall I felt it had been tremendous fun and I, and most of the pupils, enjoyed it. I didn't have enough chance to define any particular points of improvement for reading out-loud - but my main concern was engaging one girl who hadn't engaged in the session very well. I knew before starting that she had only been in the school for a couple of days, and was still very shy and a little unfamiliar with guided reading - I asked her questions explicitly a couple of times but didn't push it too much. Ensuring all pupils are engaged in this kind of session is my main lesson to come out of the experience - as well as managing the others who are getting perhaps just a little bit overexcited at the idea of feeding their teacher crisps just in case...

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