Friday, 19 August 2016

We LOVE Reading (for pleasure!)

It is an educational truth universally acknowledged that reading is of paramount importance to a child's success throughout their school years and beyond.  For that reason, we have worked hard over recent years to get children reading and to help them to enjoy it.  Here are some of the things we have done to raise the profile of reading and encourage children to do it and enjoy it.

Independent Reading Books - Recommending and buying
As in most schools, all our pupils have a book which they are reading independently.  In Y4, that is normally a short chapter book, perhaps with a few pictures.  We are always talking about which books children are reading, recommending them other books similar to those they've enjoyed and eyeing opportunities to buy new books for them to read.  Many boys last year enjoyed reading a Hank Zipzer book which someone picked up from the library van.  A few this year loved it too so we bought them the whole set.  Once children started reading them, the love for Hank Zipzer spread like wildfire and I'm not sure there are many boys in my class who haven't read at least one of them.  I find that once particularly vocal members of the class get hooked in a series, it is very easy to persuade their wide circle of friends to read those books as well.  Boys have particularly enjoyed the Time Hunters, Jack Stalwart, Football Academy, Foul Play and Percy Jackson series this year. Many conversations about these books have encouraged more children to read and enjoy them. 

Movie Books for Class Readers
Each half-term, we read a book which has a movie.  I read this to children at different points during the day.  It is protected time and the aim is to finish the book in six weeks.  We finished every single one this year.  The only way to do that is to value highly the time spent on it and prioritise it.  At the end of the half term, we sit down together as a year group and watch the movie.  This leads to interesting discussions about the comparisons between the books and the movies, particularly the choices made in the movie of Matilda.  

Reading Areas and Bookshelves - Beg, borrow, steal!
Every primary school (hopefully) has a dedicated reading area and most classrooms will have one bookshelf or reading corner each.  These are vital when it comes to encouraging children to love reading.  However, it is the texts on the bookshelves rather than the aesthetics of the area which make a real difference to children's enjoyment of reading.  This year, our reading coordinator organised two book fairs to generate the maximum possible profit for teachers to use to fill their bookshelves. These have allowed us to buy appropriate texts for our year group shelves using this list which was compiled from teachers' suggestions.  As a year four teacher, I am always going to other classrooms to find books that some of my pupils would love to read.  The look on a child's face is priceless when you tell them you "stole" the book from a year five or six bookshelf just because they might like it.  That alone is often motivation enough for them to start reading the book.   

Our Favourite Books
Each year, we read our favourite (children's) book to our classes.  That gives us the chance to share our passions for a book with them and discuss reasons why we think it's the best.  I read my class Scribbleboy by Philip Ridley; here's why I love it

Book Bingo
This is an idea I had during a frustrating moderation meeting.  We started handing out Book Bingo activities and giving children a star for completing 4-in-a-row.  At the end of the year, we held a big raffle with all the stars put into a bucket and children chosen to win prizes.  I thought this would be something relatively boring for children but they were completely inspired by it and, as you can see from the stars on our display boards, many rose to the challenge.  One child even created a Book Bingo photo montage of him completing one of the grids. 

Blue Book Bingo photo montage. Image used with parent's permission.

Author Visits / Giving Books Away
Nothing inspires reading and writing more than a visit from an author, especially one whose books you are reading together.  We combined budgets through year groups and the English curriculum and invited the wonderful Caroline Lawrence to come to visit us and share her expertise.  When her books were really cheap in sets, we gave each child one and she graciously signed every one.
Book Amnesties
This year, we have started something new to ensure our bookshelves are always full.  We discovered that some families had many books belonging to the school at home but were too embarrassed to return them as there were sometimes up to ten books.  To solve this, some of our school council set up a table on the playground for a week before and after school.  This became our Book Amnesty table, where parents and pupils could return books that belong to the school or certain teachers with no questions asked.  During our first amnesty, hundreds of books were returned to the school but many families donated old books to the school as well.  The school council then decided which year group each book should be returned to.  This has become a regular occurrence which helps us make sure we have a big selection of stories for our children to choose from.  

Take The Time To Talk - know your kids and know the books
If a child was struggling to know what to read, I would do one (or some) of the following. 
 - recommend a book based on their likes/dislikes
 - give them 2 appropriate books and suggest they read the first chapter of each and choose one (or we'll find a different one)
 - go the library or another classroom together and find some books similar to those they've enjoyed
 - suggest a child who is similar in their likes and ability to talk to the child about books they'd recommend
 - ask a child they admire or one of their friends to recommend some books to try
 - compose an email to staff members (with the child) to request a specific book and then buy it from our budget if no one had it.
Making time for such conversations isn't easy but the long-term benefits far outweigh any short-term minutes lost.  Generally, I encourage kids to "try before you buy" and I never force them to finish a book.  Discussing which books everyone is reading together is important too; we do this for the register sometimes.  Also, engaging parents in their child's choice of books is a powerful way of helping pupils enjoy reading. This is something I'm hoping to explore further this coming year.  Watch this space...

Further Reading (about reading!)
You may be interested to read this post about how teachers at The Wellington Academy have raised the profile of reading in their secondary setting.  
Also, Rhoda (a friend and former colleague) has written this post about what she'll be doing this year to enhance engagement with reading. 
Finally, this post was written with KS1 children in mind and has some more ideas for encouraging kids to read.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Mixing It Up - Mixed Ability Grouping in my Primary Classroom

I have a confession to make. It's one I've made before on this blog and something I don't mind reminding people of time and again.  It's also important to remind myself repeatedly because I learned a lot from this big mistake I made as an NQT.

When I started teaching, I was obsessed with ability groups. 

How were groups organised?
In my NQT year, I had ability groups for maths, writing and reading so pupils moved between different tables for these lessons.  At first, these groups remained the same for half a term then they were changed based on assessments.  Children would be disheartened and parents would enquire if their child went from Rectangles to Circles. Equally, celebrations were had when they went 'up' from Rowling to Blyton.  

Very soon, I decided this wasn't working and that my groups should be more flexible.  For the next year, I changed maths groups each week, abandoned writing groups and kept reading groups the same; after all, it's impossible to do guided reading with 5 different books with flexible groups.  The move from Guided Reading to whole-class reading lessons allowed me to abandon reading groups. 

Why change the strategy?
Although it felt like I was doing some really important things, in reality having ability groups was damaging for many reasons.  Without realising it, I was cultivating an ethos of fixed mindsets.  The children knew where they stood in the class and equally that was where they stood in my mind - very little movement or opportunities for them to go beyond where I'd placed them.  Their tasks and activities were set at the right level for their table and they completed them.  However there was no real personalised challenge.  I was putting a ceiling on children's learning.  

Also, the children and their parents were acutely focused on the groups rather than the learning of the subject.  This had negative consequences on children's self esteem in return for no learning gains.  Having to change ability groups every week or six weeks meant I was creating unnecessary workload for myself. Within a week of being at my new school, I had completely abandoned all ability groups. 

How does it work now?
Children sit at mixed ability tables for all subjects.  Sometimes I specify who children sit next to in the groups and, occasionally, I've insisted they sit boy/girl/boy/girl; although this is for behavioural reasons.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, we plan our lessons in a top-down format.  We consider what will stretch our children who come to the lesson with the highest starting point and then plan to support the rest of the class to aim as high as they can within the same learning objective.  Instead of prescribing which level of support children have, they are able to choose what they would like to complete.  This means that all children are challenged and there is a greater motivation for them because they have had an element of choice.  

I often use my three-tiered tray set to help organise this but sometimes the options for the activity are just displayed on the board or discussed as a class.  If there are resources to support children to aim high (word lists, writing frames, 100 squares etc), they are placed in the trays corresponding to their level of difficulty.  Children know where they can go for more support or more challenge and, as much as possible, I try to ensure children can aim higher throughout the lesson if they are confident.  

When children are completing activities, I use my time in a variety of ways.  Firstly, I could be using my little Ikea stool to move around the class and support various children as and when they require some help.  Early on in the year, children learn to ask for help when they know they're stuck rather than expect me to come straight to them.  This is especially important for the children with the lower starting points.  In ability groups, they are often very used to having adult support immediately.  In mixed ability groups, they must become more in control of their learning and understanding, particularly recognising when they are stuck.  

Secondly, I could be targeting specific children who I have recognised that may require support in the lesson.  I would aim for them, using my trusty stool, and ensure I address any misconceptions or questions.  Alternatively, I may have decided to work with a specific group - it could be children who struggled in the last lesson, pupils completing the hardest task which requires further input or announcing my help for children to come and go as they please.  In my classroom, I have a small carpet area which I use for these quick interventions.  Sometimes children bring their book and a pencil; other times they bring a whiteboard and a pen.  My aim in these times is to ensure children become confident enough to return to their working place as soon as possible but sometimes children choose work with me on the carpet for the whole lesson.  Providing they are challenging themselves and working hard, I am happy for them to complete the activity wherever.  

Their tables are named after Superheros and the groups are called their Super Groups.  Every 3 or 4 weeks (half of a half term) they change Super Groups and they can earn Super Group points for behaviour, effort, reading at home, getting diaries signed, games etc.   The winning team at the end of the time gets a prize - a box of heroes (get it?!)  - to share.  

Every lesson is different and there is certainly no formula I use to manage mixed-ability groupings.  I organise lessons based on the learning taking place and what I know about the children.  There are some patterns within different subject areas and, having used mixed-ability groups for a while now, it is second nature to ensure all children will be appropriately challenged.  At times, this requires changing the course of a child's learning mid lesson - and those are certainly the most exciting lessons! 

More information:
This post has information about challenging all children.
This post links mixed ability groupings to mindsets
This post goes into further detail about pupil choice in lessons.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A School Year Of Books (Y4)

In preparation for leading an INSET day in a local school about how we teach reading (whole class rather than guided reading), I did something I never do: I went into school during half term!  I popped in to collect the all books we use in year four during our reading lessons throughout the whole school year to show the type of texts we use.  

I couldn't believe what an enormous quantity, quality and variety of texts the children in our classes are being exposed to.  I also couldn't believe how heavy they were to carry!  These are the physical copies we use however we intersperse these with other free texts and one-off print-outs.  

Some of the texts are theme/topic-related books, others are books we read "for pleasure" to our classes and there are other random ones which we link in for specific lessons or objectives.  I've set out below which books fit into which category. 

Class Readers - these are mainly read for fun but we sometimes do one or two reading lessons based on certain passages or chapters. 

Topic/Theme-Related - we use these a lot for our reading lessons while we are learning about the Romans and Egyptians.

Matilda Musical Programme

Thursday, 30 June 2016

10 Reasons Scribbleboy is the Best Kids' Book Ever

It was my favourite book as a child but as I headed into adulthood and into the classroom, I realised that Scribbleboy by Philip Ridley is truly the best kids book ever! I am currently reading it for the fifth time to a class of children and, as in previous years, they actually cheer every time I say we will read some and groan when I say it's time to stop, even when it's playtime or the end of the day!  At playtime today, my class were discussing it and children I taught two years ago said it was the "best book ever".  The boys love it. The girls love it. I love it. 

The plot revolves around a mysterious character called Scribbleboy who, once upon a time, had turned Bailey's new, grey, concrete neighbourhood into a colourful, vibrant environment through his graffiti, known as Scribbles.  When Bailey is invited along to the Scribbleboy fan club, his life becomes a rollercoaster of people, emotions, mysteries and Scribbles.  He meets the local cool kid, the ice-cream maker, disco queen Ma Glamrock, spitting bloke Pa Punkrock and many other fantastic characters including...Scribbleboy himself!

Without giving too much away about the plot, here are 10 reasons why it's the best kids' book ever: 

1) It contains classic cultural references which some children may never have heard of.  They all provide interesting discussion points as we encounter each one.  E.g. Top Gun, VHS, fan clubs, Banksy military language.
2) Mysteries and cliffhangers keep you hooked every step of the way - who IS Scribbleboy?!
3) Examples of Girl Power & Boy Power fill the plot.
4) Real-life issues such as mental health, divorce, unemployment and disability are tackled head on in a wholly appropriate and accessible way for Key Stage 2 children. 
5) The cartoons by Chris Riddell are amazing. We particularly like the first illustration of a Scribble - my class have requested to have some chilled colouring time to bring the pen drawings to life. 
6) It is written in a really cool style.  Philip Ridley breaks all the conventions we've learned in English lessons and he's written a great book to read aloud - different voices are essential in this.  E.g. Unusual prose, audience participation opportunities, rapping, made up words.
7) It's a hugely inspirational story containing normal kids who relish an opportunity. 
8) There is an amazing selection of characters in this book - someone for everyone to relate to and a few bizarre ones to love. 
9) The Scribbleboy Rap towards the end of the book is an unforgettable opportunity for some performance poetry.  We recorded our version last year - you can watch it here.  
10) It has a chase.  Every great story - whether shared in prose or video - contains a chase. Fact! 

If you haven't already read Scribbleboy and fallen under Philip Ridley's spell, make sure you do soon! 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

10 Reasons Monopoly is the Best Educational Board Game Ever

In a previous blog post, I urged parents to play board games with their kids because many help children to practise maths and social skills.  For KS2 children, I believe Monopoly is the best board game to support learning. 

Here are 10 reasons why:

1) Compliments to 10 and number bonds - With ten steps along each side of the boards and two dice, children are forever practising these simply but vital mathematical skills.  Encouraging them to jump the steps and count up to the next corner can enhance their speed and fluency. 
2) Multiplication - (utilities) Multiplication skills come in handy when a player must roll a dice and pay 4 or 8 times the amount rolled.  Also, many elements of the game use multiples of £50 (cost of houses around the board / rent on a station).
3) Doubling - Once someone has all of a set, the rent payable is doubled.  In most sets, this amount isn't specified so must be calculated by players. 
4) Adding/subtracting money - One of it's most obvious benefits for children is the understanding of money transactions, including change.  Put a child in charge of being the banker, be patient with them and watch them become faster and more confident with maths.
5) Percentages - When a player is really short of money, they can mortgage a property.  Once they are ready to return it to play, they must pay the banker the mortgage amount plus 10%.  This amount must be calculated by the player. 
6) Multiple Editions - Whether you like Doctor Who, Star Wars, Disney or Minions, there's a Monopoly board for all! 
7) Entrepreneurial skills - When most of the cards have gone, some bartering and negotiating must take place to secure a full set.  Players must decide which sets could be the most profitable as well as considering the cost and benefits of building houses and hotels.  
8) Rent - Quickly, players learn that nothing comes for free.  If you want to stay somewhere, you must pay them rent.  
9) Taxes - The chance and community chest cards help children to begin to understand taxes.  I remember playing as a teenager and adding in a "pension" element to the game too! 
10) Chance - The most important thing that children learn is that, mostly, life is about chance and that you never really know what's around the corner. You just have to adapt and make the most of what you've got.  

Sunday, 5 June 2016

10 Free Websites I Couldn't Teach Without

In this day and age, free websites which save time are worth their symbolic weight in gold.  Here are a few which I use weekly to plan, teach or organise my life!  All are free and most require no login or setup.  Click on the title of the website to visit it - it will open in a new tab.  In no particularly order:

Michael's curriculum website is my one-stop shop for all things new curriculum.  This lays out the whole 2014 UK Primary Curriculum in a simple but easy-to-navigate format.  Whenever my team are considering which objectives we are yet to cover or exactly what we should be teaching, we always make a quick check to this website.  

2) Trello
I have previously written about how discovering Trello has literally changed my life.  As a self-confessed to-do list junkie, this online tool, which syncs across browsers and apps, has meant I can mostly ditch the paper-based lists.  Read all about it here and then sign up and start saving time! 

Rob has created a brilliant site full of short video clips.  These are ideal for inspiring writing and reading activities as well as being a lot of fun for kids.  Clips are organised by genre but are easily searchable.  Rob has also kindly included many curriculum ideas based around the videos.  

If you ever needed any proof that music inspires productivity, just watch my children tidy up with and without this countdown created by Russel.  The Mission Impossible and Star Wars countdowns are our favourites but I also like introducing the children to some other famous pieces of music included for longer countdowns.  

Some may ask why I require two separate timers on this page.  Honestly, I've never really thought about it but I use this site almost daily as well.  It contains a countdown and a stopwatch, can be used in full screen, and it can be inserted into PowerPoint presentations with a simple understanding of Flash and HTML.  I use this to countdown our times tables tests, arithmetic papers and for a silent timer (it simple rings when the time is up).  The stopwatch can be used to time how long it takes to complete various loop cards around the room and get ready for lessons or events, always aiming to beat our previous times.

These maths teaching resources, which originate from the now-extinct 2002 National Numeracy Strategy, may seem quite old-school.  The NNS has since be replaced and archived but these interactive teaching programs can still be used to teach many elements of the 2014 curriculum.  When we start a new unit, I always check here to see if there is a simple, pictorial way of demonstrating the new concept for children.  As well as the interactive hundred and multiplication squares, the Fractions and Thermometer ITPs are particularly useful.  

7) Wibki (Links to my Y4 bookmarks) 
Wibki is an online bookmarking tool which makes it easy to provide links for children to access from various devices.  Websites can be organised into sections (on the left) and Wibki automatically finds the logo to go with each link.  It is completely free to sign up and children just require the URL to access the bookmarks.  Only the teacher with the login details can edit the Wibki page.  I have yet to find a bookmarking tool which does a similar job but better.

8) Pinterest (Links to my pin boards)
If you don't have Pinterest, there's a good chance you're a hoarding teacher; keeping things just in case you may need them later in your career.  Whenever I find a brilliant teaching idea (or recipe!) on the internet, Pinterest is the place I go to save it.  Using virtual pinboards, you can save images and return to them at a more appropriate time - no need to print and file.  I've written about the Wonderful World of Pinterest and how to use it as a primary teacher here.

9) Top Marks
This website has a plethora of educational games and teaching tools.  Some are hosted on the site and others are links to tried-and-tested activities on other websites.  A few highlights are the Moving Digit Cards (for teaching multiplying and dividing by powers of 10), the Calculation Balance (which has an enormous amount of options to choose from) and the brilliant Hit The Button game (doubles, halves, times tables, square numbers etc)

10) BBC Bitesize Primary
The BBC have an extensive selection of resources based on many subjects and topics.  There are teaching tools, interactive sections and revision games.  If I had to only keep one part of their site, it would have to be the Dance Mat Typing section.  As a child, I learned to type using the Mavis Beacon CD Roms - the free, online BBC lessons follow a very similar pattern and children feel they are making progress very quickly.  

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Looking After Number One - Mental Health May

As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought it was a good opportunity to share some ways in which I've been looking after my own mental health.  Ironically or not, it was a year ago, in May 2015, when I realised a person's mental health is more fragile than I'd ever imagined.  I'd always considered myself to be a fairly strong, extrovert person so it caught me off-guard when I discovered that I'm not invincible.  Thankfully, a strong team of family, friends and colleagues encouraged me to visit my doctor and get some help.  

Since then, I've personally vowed to put my mental health above almost everything else but particularly above work.  All of the following tips have contributed to me having a much better year. 
  • Work email removed from phone - This was one of the first things I did. I'd often check my emails just before beds and then struggle to sleep because of what I'd read.  I now have to physically choose to look at my work emails at a time which suits me rather than have them interrupt my life.  
"Life is full of little interruptions" - Taylor Swift
  • Notifications Off - This was the second thing I did.  I didn't realise quite how much my phone notifications were breaking up my day.  With those interruptions gone, I focus much better on friends, family and work. 
  • Time limits for work - I made it 8pm for me.  I don't always stick to it but I try to stop at 8pm every evening.  It was important to let my team know that, if they need me urgently after that time, they should text me.  
  • Saying "no" - I'd always been a yes person, trying to please everyone I encounter.  Unfortunately, that just wasn't healthy and made me incredibly busy.  It's perfectly OK to say "no" and I'm learning to be OK with that!
"Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy." - Elle Woods (Legally Blonde)
  • Saying "yes" to exercise - I originally thought the best way to help myself would be to stop doing things so I cancelled all my netball and stoolball matches and stopped running.  With hindsight, this was the wrong thing to do.  Exercise is so important and I felt my best when I started playing in a team again. 
  • Removing the guilt - It's so easy, as a teacher, to feel guilty about cutting corners and working less. I like to think that I'm working smarter rather than less hard but the truth is I have literally had to cut things that I used to do for work. This is probably the hardest thing to do...I'm still trying! 
  • Enjoying housework - Never before have I understood how people can enjoy housework.  I found it very theraputic and would often do some ironing in front of the TV to keep my mind busy.  
"There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won't cure...but I don't know many of them." - Sylvia Plath
  • Long, quiet, relaxing baths - I've always hated baths.  By accident, I ended up needing one to help some paint soak so it could be removed from my hands.  Eureka!  Baths are actually really enjoyable.  Add in some lavender baths salts, oil or my favourite bath bomb (who knew they could be so fun?!), a few lavender candles and a Kindle; a perfect recipe for relaxation. 
  • Reading - I've never really been one to read non-fiction but I found myself being inspired once again by Katie Piper's story and message of hope.  Over the summer holidays, I read her book, Things Get Better, which uses her acid-attack experience as a backbone to show that we can all survive life's setbacks.  I also found the daily motivational quotes and commentary in Demi Lovato's book, Staying Strong, useful. 
"It's good to do nothing and rest afterwards." - Spanish Proverb (and my dad!) 
  • Getting a massage - I agree with Sylvia Plath (now) about baths but I'd suggest a hot-stone massage can do the trick too.  My in-laws bought me a voucher for one as a present and I've returned again and again at appropriate times during the school year.  They are so relaxing that I have to have a long rest afterwards at home!! 
I feel this post must come with an important disclaimer.  Firstly, just because any one of these tips worked for me doesn't mean it will improve your own mental health or work-life balance.  Secondly, if you are really struggling with your emotions and wellbeing, your first port-of-call should be your GP who can recommend treatment in an appropriate form.  Finally, as I often say on this blog, those of you who are full-time class teachers with children at home are absolute heroes to me.  I have no idea how you do it and have endless admiration for you.  So many of the things that have helped me would be nigh-impossible with some mini-mes running around! Parents - I salute you.