#52books2017 – March

14. Kate Dicamillo – Raymie Nightingale

Rather than writing a short review, it’d be much better to read Martin Galway’s blog where you can see what he made of it. As I said to him, sometimes I worry that an inflated expectation of a book (or anything at all) can too often end in disappointment.

This is not the case here.

15. Sara Pennypacker – Pax

The story starts with Peter and Pax (Peter’s pet fox) being forcibly separated by Peter’s father.

As a result, Peter runs away, meeting one of my favourite characters of all the books I’ve read so far. Vola comes across as blunt, stoic and no-nonsense. Her layers are gradually peeled away as she teaches Peter more than he’d ever expect.

Meanwhile Pax is busy learning how to be a fox, something he struggles with – however, he does understand the value of trust and friendship.

Set against the backdrop of impending war, the story is ultimately one of two individuals finding themselves whist trying to find one another.

16. Lisa Thompson – The Goldfish Boy

This reminded me a lot of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, featuring as it does a boy who struggles with the normality of the outside world. The main protagonist, Matthew, suffers with OCD, so much so that he seldom goes outside, instead watching the world go by from his bedroom window.

When a toddler on Matthew’s street goes missing, Matthew thinks he has the answers. He inevitably gets to the bottom of things thanks to some surprising help, and the source of his OCD is finally revealed – the last chapter is a bit of a tear-jerker.

17. Ross Mackenzie – The Nowhere Emporium

This is all adventure from the word go. Daniel stumbles across a shop – the Nowhere Emporium – that nobody else can see, meaning Daniel has something that others don’t.

Daniel is trained by Mr Silver, the owner, and becomes able to explore more of the labyrinthine Emporium, a place where rooms can be created based on your wildest dreams and desires.

Daniel repeatedly loses and gains Mr Silver’s trust but does befriend his daughter Ellie. The two of them work together to quickly deduce that Mr Silver is in trouble and work together to try and save him, the Emporium, and themselves.

The story is rich in language and would certainly be one a year 5 or 6 class would enjoy.

18. Kate Dicamillo – The Magician’s Elephant

A short-ish story based around a boy who wants to find his sister, and is told he can by following the elephant. So he does.

This is a playful book, full of dry humour and amusing conversations between an interesting cast of characters.


Talk for Writing in Y6

I’ve encountered a few comments recently about Talk for Writing around whether (or how) T4W works in year 6. I thought this might be useful for one or two people.

Talk for Writing is split into three parts, on which there is more here.

This 6 week block was based on Tales of Fear (fiction) and Reports (non-fiction).

Tale of Fear: Imitation

We shared the short version of our story ‘Jack‘ with the children, and the first week saw them mapping and learning the text.

The trick here was to encourage them to internalise some language, but particularly to look at sentence structure. This was talked about as we learned the text, but looked at more deeply when we shared the longer version – the children were able to give reasons for longer, more complex sentence structures which were then followed by short, dramatic changes.

This discussion around sentence structure allowed us to develop the children’s understanding of a wider range of punctuation as well. From here, a toolkit was made (to my mind, a toolkit is what could be included, not what has to be included – as per success criteria). The toolkit has the tools used in the learned text (e.g. repetition) alongside a directly-lifted example, as well as, if possible, the impact it has.

Reading around the text

Spotting tricks

Initial toolkit

When the children engaged in reading as a reader activities, they were quick to notice that things were deliberately hidden from the reader, and questions were raised about whether the creak was a ghost/spirit, a noise made by Jack’s dad as he went to work, or simply Jack’s imagination running wild. This is easily my favourite part of the unit as the children have so many ideas about the story and really get their teeth into it.


After our analysis of the text, we boxed up (see picture below) the story so that we could then plan our own. Some children will innovate through simple substitution – the creak might be replaced by a shadow, for instance – while others might write from a different point of view, or even attempt to write a prequel or sequel to the learned text.

Boxing up based on the imitation text

Throughout this week, I model my planning process, writing part-by-part. Here is a perfect opportunity to wean the children away from five paragraphs, which a lot of them will get stuck with, and on to a deeper understanding of what a paragraph is and does, or how one sentence is allowed to act as a paragraph. There is a lot of modelled and shared writing here – I write part of the story before the lesson, the children analyse it (I drop in deliberate spelling mistakes or SPAG targets from that week), and then we write the next part together, all the while talking about vocabulary, impact of sentence structure and referring back to the toolkit.

Annotated version of my text, written with the children

The children then wrote their own stories innovated from the text.

Innovated writing: sticking fairly closely to the original text, developing own language and voice while also playing with structure

Peer feedback with reference to the toolkit


Simply put, this is the part where the children plan and write their own stories independently.

As a stimulus, we read the opening chapters of A Monster Calls, The Graveyard Book and Where Monsters Lie; we shared picture books where fear is an active element, such as The Dark (Lemony Snicket), The Watertower and The Viewer (both Gary Crew); watched videos such as Alma and Road’s End; and also did a short burst piece of writing using two clips – the first was personifying fear and the second was somebody trying to conquer theirs. We looked for the physical manifestations of fear as well as how it might feel – vocabulary such as oppressive, suffocating and paralysing were developed from this short session, which led to a short burst piece of writing.

An invented tale of fear – this writer did not reveal what was scaring the narrator, nor what happened to them – the class were desperate for more

The best part of this week is the sharing of the texts – children take turns to read aloud to their small group and we hear the familiar moans of ‘oooh, it can’t finish there!’ and ‘I want to know what happens next’. The constant sharing of one another’s texts gives greater value to the children’s writing and also encourages and maintains a high standard.

Developing language

Reports – Imitation

We wrote a short report on fears so that we could link easily to our fiction text. As with the imitation week for the fiction work, we learned the text, looking particularly at the vocabulary, punctuation and sentence structure. We really wanted the children to develop a formal voice within their writing throughout this unit, so the imitation week was important in developing vocabulary and an understanding of the active and passive voice.

Looking carefully at new and unknown vocabulary

Explaining writer choices

Once more, we devised a toolkit of the features we found and showcased them with working examples.


Some of the children were keen to write about their own fears, or fears they had heard of, but others went a bit further, bringing in books about different phobias. We shared these as a class and then set about planning our own report, this time on unusual fears. We looked at how the imitation text was structured, which the children decided was thus: define the fear, explain its causes, share symptoms then report on medical advice. Therefore, that’s how we planned.

Shared planning (before boxing up)

A simple boxing up ahead of innovation

I wrote my own text, introducing fears of broccoli, a loss of mobile phone signal and the rain, and the children seemed to really enjoyed helping me with this before writing their own too. Again, we did a lot of modelled and shared writing here, always considering what made our writing formal and what made it less so. I was pleasantly surprised to hear children explaining that the use of the second person was ‘too chatty – it’s just like you’re talking to your mate and you don’t sound like an expert’.

My annotated innovation – the pink writing is what the children have edited for me

Developing a formal tone

This child finds punctuation tricky, but here they are using complex, deliberately-structured complex sentences to show formality


As before, the children planned and wrote their own reports, some using their own passions and interests; others using our topic week as a starting point.

Over the six weeks, we had covered the vast majority of the English writing curriculum, as well as parts of the reading curriculum.

Other notes

  • We have separate reading and grammar lessons which are tailored to support each week’s learning. For example, we did short burst sessions on using colons during our grammar session of report writing (week 2), and in week 1 of the same block read lots of different report-based texts.
  • It is vital that you write your own text first – don’t just write it cold. Know what you want to write, but be prepared to let the children tweak it. Explain your choices throughout.
  • Ensure the children have enough time to plan carefully, and if they’re unsure, to plan with you. Poor planning generally equates to poor writing.

Hopefully this has been of some use – it isn’t ground-breaking, nor difficult. What it definitely offers is an easy way to teach vast swathes of the curriculum to year 6.

#52books2017 – February

6. Haruki Murakami – Wind/Pinball

Being a massive Murakami fan, I’d been looking forward to reading this for a while without ever really making it a priority to do so. The two stories are the first he wrote: Hear the Wind Sing lacks much strength in structure for me, but Pinball 1973 shows Murakami finding his writing style. Probably one only for the Murakami aficionados.

7. Lara Williamson – The Boy Who Sailed the World in an Armchair

My class loved Lara’s first book – A Boy Called Hope – and one of the boys in my class lent his copy of this title to me.

Lara writes with humour and heartache in equal measure, and her writing style reminds me of Frank Cottrell-Boyce. A really easy read and a great reflection on modern life.

Further to writing books, Lara is active on Twitter – she has emailed our class and sent messages on several occasions – a great author and lovely lady to boot!

8. Dave Eggers – The Circle

I loved this book. It is set in a frighteningly-near future, one where ‘The Circle’ is an all-encompassing tech company, reaching into everyone’s lives as they use The Circle to pay for things, to check in to places, to connect socially and to generally live.

Sounds familiar?

The plot follows a new employee, Mae Holland, as she travels deeper and deeper into The Circle’s, erm, inner circle, as the tech becomes ever-so-slightly more intrusive.

9 and 10. Gary Crew – Memorial / Caleb 

I love Gary Crew’s picture books and managed to pick these two books for next to nothing. Memorial is a sombre affair about keeping memories of war alive, and is co-written by Shaun Tan. Caleb is a longer story, showing a great change in character as the mysterious, insect-obsessed Caleb enters the narrator’s life, causes a bit of a commotion then strangely disappears.

11. Neil Gaiman – The Day I Swapped My Father for Two Goldfish

As literal a title as you’ll find – almost a fairy tale and an easy structure for younger children to follow. A boy trades his dad for two goldfish and then has to retrace his steps to get him back. A nice, straight-forward comment on family life.

12. Alex Wheatle – Crongton Knights

I read this purely on the basis that I could share it with my class. Sadly, I don’t think I can, despite it being an excellent novel, following the troubled life of McKay, whose father has been lying about something and whose older brother is getting further and further into trouble. It reminded me a little of a modern-day Stand By Me.

A great narrative but the language and some of the content would be unsuitable for my year 6 class.

13. G.R. Gemin – Sweet Pizza

Joe has one mission: to stop his mum selling the cafe that so many locals depend on – or at least, used to. A thoughtful and heart-warming story that shows the strength and love a community can create.

#52books2017 – January

I’ve loved the 52 books challenge – it has directed me back towards my neglected book collection, though my wallet is beginning to moan a little.

1. Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere

If wanted to read more of Gaiman’s work for a while, particularly after loving The Graveyard Book, so started here. It is set initially in today’s London, with main protagonist Richard finding his way into a mysterious (and initially confusing) underworld, meeting characters such as Door and the Hunter who help guide him in his new surroundings. It took me a while to get into it but ended up being very enjoyable – a tale of friendship, adventure and coming-of-age.

2. A.F. Harrold – The Imaginary

I loved this book. It’s a story about Amanda and her imaginary friend, Rudger, who end up in more trouble than they realise when they cross paths with the bewitching Mr Bunting. Emily Gravett’s illustrations add to the tale; I can’t wait to read this with my class.

3. John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

Having bought my headteacher A Monster Calls for Christmas, she insisted I read this as it was also sad and so I’d therefore like it. I enjoyed it. It was an easy read – very straightforward to follow and what happened was quite obvious. Not as moving as A Monster Calls but a well-written insight into the suffering illness can bring.

4. Brian Bilston – You Took The Last Bus Home 

A Christmas gift from my wife as I’d become slightly obsessed with Bilston’s Twitter output. Christmas Day mainly consisted of my surprise recitals, and I’ve since shared Refugees and Frisbee with my class. The collection is generally humour-based but so many poems are written in such a clever way. Made me love poetry again, while simultaneously making me jealous.

5. Polly Ho-Yen – Where Monsters Lie

I was delighted to pick this up in Oxfam for £1.99. I loved The Boy in the Tower and didn’t know Ho-Yen had a follow-up. Similar themes are apparent, such as mysterious, unexplained happenings (which remain deliberately left unexplained throughout), friendships and disappearances. Not as strong as the debut novel – I felt there wasn’t as much tension – but a good read nonetheless.

That’s it for now. Five down, 47 to go. I’ve got a pile of ‘to-read’ books taller than I am (which might not be saying much). I’m enjoying reading more and am (coincidentally?) sleeping much better too.

Reflecting on writing 

We have been spending a lot of time reflecting on our choices, explaining our methods and expanding on our thoughts in maths recently. It made me wonder why we don’t do the same when writing.

Over the last week we have been writing fantasy stories, set in far-off distant kingdoms, under the sea, inside volcanoes and, erm, on a football pitch (we talked about this). The children have enjoyed this but some have found it hard, particularly as writing fantasy stories relies heavily on creating a whole new world, and, ideally, a new fantastic point of view.

So the children have been busily imagining predators and prey, hunters and faeries, merbabies and Giders (a gorilla crossed with a spider),  and as such have been trying to do the old ‘paint a picture’ thing – something they realise is more important than ever as nobody has actually ever visited their land other than themselves, in their heads.

We’ve encouraged the children to explain why they have chosen certain words or phrases in order to write more deliberately and effectively. Some examples are below.



This was an interesting exercise, not least because it shows at least one child is unsure about what a metaphor is, but because after writing these comments, lots of the children went away and changed what they had written. They edited, improved and rewrote. Some children loved their feedback partner’s idea so much that they ‘magpied’ part of it for themselves. Writing improved. Description improved. Children made deliberate choices – and, thanks to the blog, they were writing for the reader, not just the teacher. This has obvious links to reading as we begin to prepare for SATs, as well as developing understanding for the grammar terminology. 

In addition, we (and when I say we, I really mean the children) quickly put together some videos on iMovie using photos, videos and the voiceover option (click here to see these). They were really easy to do and lots of the other children want to do the same when they’ve finished describing the shark that turns a cloud into gold with its death-ray.

Writing is fun, isn’t it?

Header image taken with permission from Sweetie187

Google Cardboard 

This week our school was visited by the Google Expedition team to showcase their new app, which works best with (but can work without) Google Cardboard. 

All you need is a smartphone or iPod touch with the app (free to download) and the Google Cardboard viewers which are available on eBay for around a fiver. 

The staff get to grips

Once every one is on the same Wifi network, all you need to do is become a ‘leader’, while your children would select the option of ‘explorers’. From here, you can take the children on a wide range of virtual tours – we swiftly passed through the Amazon, the Pacific, the Antarctic and Rio de Janeiro. Each scene comes with a selection of notes, almost as a script, that can be used to share information with the children. Click on a hotspot and an arrow appears, directing children to an area you want them to focus on. 

That’s it. It is really simple, appears to be cost-effective – it is also possible to print your own viewers and buy only lenses – and it is a wonderful way to show children parts of the world in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. There are obvious links to a range of topics, but we are especially looking forward to using it to develop writing. 

You can sign up for your own Google Expedition experience here; it’s no hassle to organise and the children (and adults) found it fascinating. The potential here is huge – dive in. 

Read more from our school website here

Digital Leaders – the difference they make

I accidentally stopped blogging about the school’s progress last year, which is a shame because we’ve used programming much more widely, held Raspberry Pi sessions and been invited to talk at events.

I recently sent a link to somebody who was interested in Digital Leaders with a view to helping them start a group up. Turns out it was a post that was over 2 years old. With the introduction of the new DL slow-chat, I thought I’d try and explain a little more about what we have done with DLs over the last few years.


We’ve had interviews with the headteacher, recommendations from the teaching staff and good, old-fashioned badgering on the part of the children. The key is finding out who is really interested – the best way to do this is to talk to the children. Run a lunchtime club where you can play with software and hardware, start a Code Club and spot the regulars, and make sure you get feedback from other teachers about who stands out (not just in terms of ability, but also enthusiasm and interest).


Ensure that the children have a clear idea of what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

We talked to our children about becoming experts: that they might be training staff (they did); they could be leading parents’ meetings (they did that too) and they would be testing and assessing new programs, websites and apps (tick).

Currently, the Digital Leader team have been raising awareness of online safety. They created and conducted questionnaires across KS2 about how the internet is used in our school, and this will be fed into staff training. The children will also be leading activities on Safer Internet Day in February.


I am not the most regular of contributors to the #dlchat community, but I do appreciate it and have picked up lots of good advice and ideas from joining in when I can. This forum allows the sharing of good practice and gives a good idea of what other schools are doing.

From joining in these chats, we were fortunate enough to be invited to a DLKidsmeet, organised by Liz Allton, where Digital Leaders from up and down the country shared their experiences. They were then treated to workshops in Minecraft, Sphero, 3D printing, Kodu and much, much more. More than this, the children were able to present in front of a real and engaged audience – this, to me, was invaluable, and this can be achieved at any level, whether it be in an assembly at school, to a local cluster or at a larger event.


Plan what the children could do over the next year. Invite ideas from them, ask colleagues if they require support in any areas and keep tabs on what is new in computing – then get the DLs to try it!

The Difference

We have had DLs for 3 years now and they are part of the furniture at school. They take responsibility and are proud to be leaders among their peers, while they become mini experts in different areas. They promote computing as a subject, show enthusiasm for the role they carry out and help others throughout the school.

I have seen children grow in confidence so much after becoming a Digital Leader, even it was only for a term, and that alone is worth it. I’m glad we have children who are enthusiastic about their learning – long may it continue.

If you are thinking of starting a Digital Group but feel a little unsure, just go for it, even if it’s only for a trial period. What’s the worst that could happen?