Speak, listen, challenge and inspire

So last Saturday the alarm went off early ready for a 7:30am pick up. Why up so early? Well it was Northern Rocks. A day where 500 primary, secondary and FE teachers gather at Leeds Beckett university in the name of becoming better teachers. The wealth and experience in the speakers was something to behold and definitely made workshop choices rather difficult.

As the day progressed certain messages were coming out. Similar themes were popping up in the sessions I had selected to attend. Themes that resonated loudly with my own experiences and teaching practice, especially this year.

The First theme: The quality and use of speaking and listening.

This was present in all of the workshops I attended. The need for children have a language rich environment in order to describe the world around them. I have always felt that speaking and listening needs to have a greater emphasis in the curriculum, especially further up. In EYFS the children learn through play and discussion; however this gets lost as children get older and the focus shifts to reading and writing. But as Ros Wilson said in her session, ‘If the children can’t say it then they can’t write it’ – how true! Mary Myatt backed this up totally asking, ‘Why do we privilege writing and reading before speaking and listening?’ In answer to her question; I have absolutely no idea. Children need to hear vocabulary in order to extend it. They need to understand language, the meaning of words and the subtle shades they have in meaning in order for them to express themselves eloquently. Also they need this in order to be skilled readers and have the ability to play with language structures as a writer.

As a year 6 teacher, I know that without the exposure to wide, rich and high level vocabulary children will not cope with the current assessment system as it stands. They need access to quality texts which will challenge and deepen their understanding of language in order to tackle the reading paper. They need to have almost swallowed a thesaurus in one sense in order to tackle some of the synonym and antonym questions that appear on the grammar paper. If we don’t allow our children to develop their use of language then we really are setting them up to fail.

The second theme: Challenge, challenge, challenge!

The age old argument – coverage vs depth of learning. For me personally I would always go for depth of learning. I would rather my children left with a solid understanding in a few of areas than a vague idea pitted with misconceptions in lots areas. If I am going to teach it, I am going to do it right, I am going to do it and the children justice. At the start of his talk Alex Quigley said, ‘In trying to fix everything, we struggle to fix anything.’ And I must say he has an excellent point. Things need to be embedded well in order to have an impact.

Mary Myatt talked a lot about high challenge with low threat. It was interesting to hear her talk about how we should pitch high and un-pick concepts through discussion. This really struck a chord with me as it is how I have worked all year. I have taken on some very challenging texts with my class this year and they have excelled way beyond my expectations. Why? Because I gave them the opportunity to. This year I have covered both Frankenstein and Macbeth with my class. Some of the discussions I have held in my classroom have been incredibly advanced for year 6, to the point where my TA shared a picture of some of the GCSE questions her daughter is doing and they are some of the questions I have posed to my own class. How is Macbeth manipulated? Who has the power in the Macbeths relationship? How are women portrayed by William Shakespeare in the play? My class have handled these conversations brilliantly, with children of all abilities offering insightful and thoughtful contributions.

The third theme: Inspire!

I want to inspire the children I teach. I want them to be immersed totally in what they are doing. Why? Well simply because I want them to enjoy learning and also I have always found that if the pupils are ‘feeling it’ then outcomes are much better as they have a greater investment in it.

Tim Taylor’s session hit the nail on the head with this totally. His session was both engaging and inspiring and was definitely something I will do in my class next year. I have used aspects of mantle of the expert this year in order to hook  my children in and it has worked perfectly. Using something as simple as a few pictures in order to raise questions and spark discussion is well worth doing. It inspires, develops vocabulary and deepens the learning.

Ros Wilson said, ‘An inspirational teacher will make a mediocre curriculum inspirational.’ I am curriculum leader at my school and more than anything I want to make sure that our curriculum inspires our children. On Monday I will be delivering staff inset on the new curriculum maps I have developed for the next academic year. I will talk to staff about how they can tie in and link subjects together to create a holistic approach in order to deepen the learning and give it greater purpose. I also want to talk about those magic hooks.  Those simple and effective bits and pieces we can set up in our rooms in order to wow the children.

I came away from Northern Rocks this year feeling very differently to how I have other conferences. I came away reassured by what I was doing. I had more confidence in the direction I am going and want to continue to go in. On another note it was also great to see and talk ‘in real life’ to the many teachers and practitioners I engage with on Twitter. So thank you Debra and the team. It was a great day and here’s to next year!

PS. Thank you Mike for sorting me out with a ticket and thank you to the Goodman’s for letting me hitch a lift x

Something wicked this way comes…

A Primary approach to Macbeth

I have always loved a quality text. Something that has depth, something meaty that both myself and the children can really get into. I love spending weeks on a text, eeking it out right until the end. Leaving little cliff-hangers so the children stay engaged and are left wanting more and I love using one quality text to explore as many other genres as possible.

For me a quality text will last a half term at least if you let it. I know that some would say that this is too long and that the children will get bored, etc., but not necessarily. It’s all about how you approach it. For example we worked on Frankenstein for almost all of spring term and the last thing the children were was bored. They still talk about how great it was now! I am presently on my fourth week of Macbeth and only half way through the text thus far.

But that’s the magic – it’s the fact we are only part way through. Developing those cliff-hangers in my opinion keeps the magic alive. There are other ways of keeping the magic alive too, including hooks, art, and cross genre writing.

The hook

My hook was relatively simple and I set it up whilst the children were in assembly. I wanted to change the atmosphere of my classroom totally. Create an atmosphere that was fitting for the drama and magic that Macbeth contains. I covered a table at the front of my classroom with a tartan blanket. On this I placed a crown, a dagger a blood stained (food colouring) shirt, some story stones my TA had kindly made, some apothecary style jars and lots of electronic tea-lights. When the children entered the classroom was dark, I had also displayed the painting ‘A spate in the Highlands’ by Peter Graham on the board and was playing atmospheric music. From the moment the children walked in they were engaged, they had questions, they were making inferences about the objects and their meaning – looking for links between the items. For me this was job done. I had also prepared a script which I read to them.

‘You are Scottish generals. You have just taken part in a bloody battle. You are exhausted and have been travelling for many days. The weather is foul, thunder rumbled, the rain lashed down and the biting wind howled. On your journey you come across 3 strange women. They are unlike anything you have ever seen. They are wild, withered and sinister.’

This generated many questions and a lengthy discussion where predictions were made. Already I knew the children were invested in the story. I followed this up with a further script.

‘These women stop you. They know who you are. They greet you – Macbeth and Banquo.  ‘All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!’ ‘All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!’ ‘All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.’ You stand shocked at the words these women speak. Finally before they disappear they turn to Banquo and proclaim ‘Lesser than Macbeth and greater, thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.’

Without reading a single piece of text this one hook and short piece of script then generated over a weeks’ worth of work and a great hook into narrative writing.


I will be very honest and tell you that we haven’t actually read any Macbeth whatsoever. We have used the animated tales to follow the story. One of my aims for the unit was for the children to develop understanding of the characters, their motives and the consequences of their actions. I knew that I didn’t need to read text in order for us to achieve this. I wanted discussion to be the focus. For them to base their ideas on what they had seen, what others said and the evidence they had to support it.

These discussions have been invaluable. They have deepened the children’s understanding of the characters, the context of the story and the events that unfold.

Key questions:

How is Macbeth manipulated in the story?


How do Macbeth’s emotions and behaviours change throughout the play?

What are Lady Macbeth’s problems?

How are women portrayed in Macbeth?


For some of these questions we have explored imagery and I have used these as hooks into discussions. These have been images I have found on Pinterest.

The writing

When I decided to embark on Macbeth I knew I needed to get as many writing opportunities out of it as possible as I am in year 6. I also knew I need to keep the children going, keep them keen and engaged and not suck the joy out of writing  and I knew that if anything was going to do that, it was Macbeth.

So far we have written the opening of the story when Macbeth first encounters the witches. This was great for developing mood and atmosphere. We focused particularly on showing not telling your reader how the characters were feeling. We then moved on to writing letters from King Duncan to Macbeth, congratulating him on his victory in battle against the Thane of Cawdor. Our most recent piece of writing has been a newspaper report on the death of the king.

However, we haven’t finished there. We have begun planning agony aunt letters from Lady Macbeth and we are going to write battle cries for the final part of the story when Macbeth goes into battle with Macduff.

When I think about it though, there are further newspaper reports, letters and even diary entries that could come out of this text. It holds endless opportunities. I have set each piece of writing to a section of the text, meaning that parts of the story are revealed as we progress through the unit.

The art

Anyone who knows me will say I can’t do anything without adding a bit of art in. For Macbeth we have focused on architecture, looking at a range of castles and the art work of John Piper which have led to some beautiful lanterns and will hopefully extend into some clay work.

I love this deep immersion into a text. It becomes the focus in my classroom, to the point where it is almost an obsession. The learning is deeper and has more purpose. There are so many amazing texts out there that offer these holistic approaches. It’s just about finding them and unlocking their potential.

Draw, draw and draw some more!

Being able to draw is a skill. Like any other area of the curriculum children need time to develop  and practice basic skills. We wouldn’t expect children’s writing to get any better without them having any experiences of writing and drawing is exactly the same.

Here are ten simple drawing activities that can be used in the classroom to support and develop children’s drawing skills.

  1. Quick one minute sketch.

Place the object in front of the children. Give them 1 minute only to draw it; time this strictly. All need to start and finish at the same time. Some children will say they have finished before the time – encourage them to look further at the item and begin to look at shading, texture and any other added details. These drawings are always a useful starting point and I recommend using this, along with exercise 2 and 3 as warm ups to drawing. Often with this drawing the children will draw what they think they can see. Their brain will fill in the gaps of what they ‘know’ the object looks like.

  1. Swap hands.

This frees up the ‘I can’t draw’ attitude and forces concentration and control. This works best again with a strict time frame. This could be a minute or longer. I would not recommend doing this for a sustained time. It is about freeing up the flow of drawing. Also some children will get frustrated by the fact it won’t look ‘perfect’. However, if you model this with the children and they all see the drawings look different, it can be quite good fun. The children might need to slow down their drawing in order to have greater control.

  1. Look, look again… just keep looking.

One of my favourite drawing activities to do with a class, but one of the most challenging as it takes a great deal of self-control and discipline. This again is best as a warm up activity and works well with a time limit. For this the children are forced to look at the object they are drawing. This makes them see it for what it really looks like as they are not allowed to look at their paper other than to place their pencil (or whatever) on their page. They are only to look at the object. Some children will desperately want to look down at their page as it’s a natural reaction but again its great fun. This does take practice as you will get some children who in a bid not to be caught looking at their page will stare you out in a ‘look I am not looking at my page way’ rather than looking at the object.

  1. Mix it up. 

Children need to learn that different drawing materials will produce a different kind of line. They will not be able to control the materials in the same way so will have to alter the way that they draw in order to produce the desired effect. It is interesting to give the children a range of drawing materials and ask them to draw the same object (again forcing them to look) and get them to draw it but using different materials. Materials I would suggest are pencil, biro, fine liner, charcoal and a graphite stick. They should soon realise that the biro will behave in a similar way to a pencil and you can build up areas of light and dark. They should realise that they will have to up the size of their drawing with the graphite and that the fine liner felt tip will produce a very flat solid line.

  1. Nature’s tools

Who says that the children have to draw with something that is found in the art cupboard purchased from YPO (other suppliers are also available)? Why not take the children outside and get them to collect a variety of sticks, you want a variety of lengths and thicknesses. These can be dipped in Indian ink and used to create some really interesting and beautiful drawings.

  1. Make it big.

Many children really find drawing on a large scale quite a challenge. We have all seen those tiny drawings in the centre of a page which need a magnifying glass to see the details. This activity will encourage the children to experiment and push the boundaries of scale. You will need large paper for this; the best way to do this is to join large A2 sheets together with masking tape. Tie a graphite stick to a stick and then get them to stand and draw on the paper holding the stick at length. The paper could be pinned to a wall or on the floor (shoes off). This activity would be best carried out in smaller groups than the whole class.

  1. Working in negative.

This activity makes the children realise that every line, every mark needs to be considered. It needs to have thought and purpose. For this the children will draw on white paper with a candle or a white oil pastel. They will complete their drawings without being able to see the finished result. Once they are happy they and have considered shape, form, texture and tone the drawings are painted with a colour wash – this could be tea, thinned down paint, watercolour or even inks. This can produce some very beautiful effects especially when a wash of tea is combined with drips of ink.

  1. Make your mark 

This is about experimenting with different types of line and how they can create texture and tone. Like activity number 4 a range of materials are needed. However, rather than drawing an object the children experiment with making different marks on the page and working out what you can do with the materials – e.g. cross hatching, turning the graphite on its side, holding the pencil in different places etc.

  1. Grid it

This activity is about composition and understanding space. We have all seen sketchbooks or pieces of paper where there is one small drawing right in the centre of the page and then they turn over and do the same on the next page. For this the children are to create different sections to draw in on their page using making tape. Some areas might be larger or smaller than others or even different shapes. The only stipulation is that their drawings fill each section. This helps them to see how a series of drawings can work together on one page and how best to arrange/compose a series of drawings.

  1. Change the surface

Who said that drawings have to be done on white paper? If anything drawing on a piece of perfect white paper is rather scary. Why not experiment with drawing on different papers and different surfaces. Cartridge paper is different to draw on than photocopier paper and will react to the drawing materials differently. Try drawing on newspaper, pages out of an old book, envelopes (the blue patterned inside is especially lovely), wall paper (anaglypta , lining paper), sandpaper, brown parcel paper and hand-made paper. The children could even bring in materials that they would like to try drawing on.

These are all very simple ideas which need very limited resourcing and are relatively easy to set up. So go on, have a go. Get your drawing on.

When the magic happens

Sometimes you have those magic moments in the classroom when everything comes together perfectly and something beautiful is created. Something so beautiful that you can only hope to create anything quite so magical ever again; and even if you did pull off something half as successful again you would be a very happy teacher.

Recently I have had one those moments. This moment actually lasted a term, yes there were peaks and troughs – the magic wasn’t there are all of time, but as I reflect back now as a whole it was quite a term.

And what was it that made the magic – it was quite simply a book. A book that challenged thinking, addressed initial misconceptions, explored characterisation, pathetic fallacy and the art of great story telling. The book was Frankenstein. In my 12 years of teaching I have had moments of magic but seldom has anything rivalled this. It was a pleasure to see all the children in my class hang on to every word as I read them the story. To hear their cries of disappointment when I put the book down – leaving it on a cliff-hanger. It gripped them in a way I never imagined it would. The added bonus of such immersion in a story was that their writing has exceeded my expectations.

So what did we do?

The hooks

My first hook started with my learning environment. I would like to point out I am not in any way suggesting everyone should do this, I do it because I love it and it’s important to me and my teaching. During the last day of the autumn term my class saw me painting glass jars with black paint and sticking labels to them. Many questions were asked. The intrigue had begun.

Before we started to read we created a hook. We always knew we wanted to hook the children in with something dramatic, something that left them with more questions than answers. The hook was simple but effective.

‘You are on a ship in the artic (pictures of the landscape displayed on the board). Your ship is surrounded by ice. The landscape is bleak and harsh. You see a man travelling at speed on a sledge pulled by dogs. The speed the man is travelling at is phenomenal. However as the figure draws closer you realise he must be around 8ft tall – who is this mysterious creature and what is he doing in such a hostile environment? The following morning you hear shouting out on deck. You walk out of your cabin to see the men pointing to a man on the ice. He is a wretch of a man, barely alive. You realise this man can’t possibly be the same figure as the one you saw the previous night. This man is dying. With him he carries a bag.’

This was the script read to the children; in addition to this I had purchased a small brown leather suitcase. I had filled it with objects or photographs representing objects that the man had in his possession. These included bread, a notebook, a map, paintings of a boy and a woman and surgical equipment. Discussions were then held in groups about who the man was what the objects told us about him and led us to wonder why these two ‘men’ were in the Arctic and how they could possibly be linked.

This simple staging of the hook did exactly what we wanted it to. The children wanted to know more. They wanted answers.

We continued to use hooks at different parts of the story in order to refocus the children or symbolise a shift in the story. The first hook was linked to Captain Robert Walton’s story. A very different hook would be needed for Victor’s story.

The hook into Victor’s story came later. It did not come before he started to tell Walton his story, but came when he had left his home in Geneva and travelled to Ingolstadt.

‘You are newspaper reporters and you have been sent to report on a gruesome crime. There have been a number of grave robberies in the area over the past few weeks. Graves have been left desecrated and items have been stolen. At this most recent atrocity the perpetrator was disturbed as he left some equipment behind. He left a shovel and a leather bag containing surgical equipment and a notebook.’

Again more questions, some possible answers and finally a link. A possible clue…

Our final hook took us away from the story of Frankenstein a little. It was used just before we read the monsters story. We watched the video ‘Little Freak’ on Literacy Shed. It fitted perfectly and set the tone for the monsters story wonderfully.

The Writing

One text – so much writing and even now as I am reflecting on what we did I am thinking of new directions we could take the writing if we were to do it again.

We wrote letters from Robert Walton to his sister. We wrote newspaper reports on the spate of grave robberies that took place and wrote diary entries as Victor when he was carrying out his experiments.  We wrote agony aunt letters from Victor pleading for advice on what he should do after the death of his brother William and the conviction of Justine for his murder and finally we wrote the creature’s story.

Children who had struggled with writing or lacked motivation with writing had found a voice. Those that were gifted writers already excelled further. Weekly they were compelled to write. It compelled them to tell the story of Frankenstein but in their words.

The art

The art was a bonus – a Friday afternoon need to do something purposeful, engaging and yet free. We all know the pressures year 6 teachers feel and art is a subject that falls to the bottom of the pile when results are on the line.

We stuck with the theme of Frankenstein and focused on the idea of death and decay. In a moment of what my class would call madness I was struck with the idea that we would look at and study mould. So we did!

The Bonus bits

The bonus bits were the conversations that we had. First of all challenging the misconception that Frankenstein was a green monster with bolts in his neck that walked around with his arms stretched out in front of him. Moving on to what a monster really was and whether the creature was born or made a monster.

These conversations led to a level of understanding and connection with the characters that I could only have imagined.

What I suppose I am trying to say with this post is that magic can be found and made in something incredibly simple. Know your class and what will excite them, then think about how you can make that even more extraordinary. Explore the endless possibilities that it could give you in your classroom. Think about how you can immerse them so deeply into the learning that it drives them and in the end they drive it. It turns them into artists, writers or whatever they want to be.


Write like a writer

I am a teacher. I have a passion for the arts. Using creativity and encouraging a passion for the arts is an important part of my teaching. I am also a year 6 teacher. I am well aware that the arts and year 6 are essentially two antonyms. They set warning lights and alarms off everywhere, although they really shouldn’t.

This year hasn’t been my first year 6 experience. I last taught year 6 in 2009 and escaped relatively unscathed. This year I was thrown back into the year 6 maelstrom with the responsibility of getting writing up to the expected standard in my class and what a challenge that is. At this point I would like to clarify the obvious – yes it is my responsibility to get writing up to ARE, as it is any teacher’s. However I class share and I teach English and my partner teaches Maths (brilliantly I might add). Anyway, I digress.

When I embarked on this journey into year 6 I had the firm opinion that the interim assessment framework was ridiculous. We are now into the start of April and nothing whatsoever has happened to change my opinion. If anything it’s made me more convinced my opinion is an accurate one. Don’t get me wrong I have no issue with the fact that the children need to have a good grasp of punctuation and grammar in order to be successful writers. It’s part of the package. My issue with it is that it’s ridiculously prescriptive. Some of its statements also range from the ludicrously simple (prepositional phrases) to just pointless (passive voice).

When I teach writing my aim is always for my children to develop a love of writing and to be able to write like a writer. To develop the ability to communicate effectively with their reader using the devices they feel say what they want to say best. If they can say it perfectly in a simple sentence then that’s what they should use. Sitting down writing this I am not concerned with how many modal verbs I have; whether I have used fronted adverbials, subordinating conjunction; or even whether I have used a semicolon. I can’t imagine many other blogging teachers or professional authors do this either. However when I sit and write a model text example for the children to look at I spend ten minutes scratching my head trying to desperately get in a colon for my more able children working towards greater depth.

I am fortunate to have some excellent writers in my class. They think about their reader. They write in a way that hooks you in and transports you into their story. They think about the vocabulary they use, every word chosen for impact. They think about the structure – using short sentences to create tension and repetition to add drama. They are greater depth writers because they write like writers. They write as well as some published authors. I cannot give them higher praise than that. However they won’t get greater depth. They might not even get ARE. Why? Because they write for their reader, not to complete a tick list of grammatical structures.

This makes me incredibly sad. Again I want to reiterate I am not in any way saying the teaching of grammar and spelling is not important – it is. It’s fundamental. However, knowing which structures to use to communicate meaning and understanding how to manipulate these structures to suit the genre of writing is what makes a writer. That’s what we should be assessing. Can the children communicate their ideas succinctly in a range of genres using appropriate features? If the answer is yes then they are writers. They are at the expected standard. I have done my job.

It’s all about the people

Disclaimer – this post contains mild banter and soppiness

After taking a few days to digest and recover from the day (and the evening after) I am jumping on the post #PrimaryRocks LIVE blog bandwagon. Many of the amazing recounts of the day I have seen talked about the CPD that was on offer from a host of wonderful speakers. However, this post won’t do that. So if you want to know what Paul Dix said about fantastic walking or what Michael Tidd said about marking or why the Primary Heads had a carrier bag filled with post it notes you are reading the wrong post.

For me the biggest and best thing about #PrimaryRocks LIVE, both this year and last year is the people. It’s that sense of community that it brings. Something that I haven’t felt to the same extent at other teachmeets or education conferences I have been to. Yes similar faces are there and it’s great to catch up but it is simply not the same.

I have thought about this long and hard: What makes #Primaryrocks different? Is it because I am lucky to be a member of the #PrimaryRocks team (how this happened I have no idea! I am still waiting for them all to realise they were mad to let me get involved) or is it something else? There is no denying the fact that speaking to someone on a daily basis will bring people together as it has with the #PrimaryRocks team. Those of us in Manchester get to catch up during holidays but the LIVE event is really the only time the ten of us are together in one room.

I have come to the conclusion it is the weekly chats that really make #PrimaryRocks a community. The fact that people come together via their laptops, phones and ipads in order to become better teachers. That week in week out teachers leave their endless to do lists (that one is in there for you Brynla!) in order to share good practice and encourage others to question and think about their own pedagogy.

The LIVE event enables those who join the chat to meet face to face. For us to know that @mrlockyer  really  is that funny and does look like Archie from Balamory, that @WatsEd really does love a tweed cap and that even though its March @TeacherStarr will still wear his Christmas jumper. The fact we get to do this with an ice cream, even in not so sunny Manchester is a bonus! Negativity was left at the door and only warmth, the sharing of a common goal and more laughter than you can imagine prevailed throughout the day.

Being part of #PrimaryRocks first through the chat and then as one of the organisers has changed my life. It has reignited my passion for teaching, given me some confidence back, has made me question my practice and showed me ways to make it better. I have made some great friendships. Some of the people I have met through #PrimaryRocks have become some of my best friends: they have been there in good times and in bad and for that I can’t thank them enough. (Gaz, Ang, Bryn, Rich, Jenna, Leah, Rob, Tim and Graham)

Much love, chat Monday and see you next year x

#Paintingstalk – What the Water Gave Me by Frida Kahlo

I found choosing a painting this week incredibly difficult for a number of reasons. The paintings we have had so far have been so rich in possibilities and so varied. Each painting has had its own story for us to unpick so what would be my choice this week? I went backwards and forwards between works by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, stunning works like Autumn Leaves, The Hireling Shepherd and Ophelia. I also considered the monochrome works on MC Escher, the surreal and melancholic paintings by Edvard Munch and one of my favourite paintings Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh.

None of these seemed quite right though. I love them all but they didn’t fit for #paintingstalk , well for me anyway. Then it hit me; Frida Kahlo. Her work tells her amazing story. A story of tragedy, strength and passion. I love her work. It’s so vibrant yet at times melancholy and macabre. I shared her work and her story with some year 6 children recently linked to work on portraits and they were enthralled. Her work captivates and draws you in totally. They are like windows into her life.
In 1925 Kahlo was travelling on a bus which collided with another vehicle. She suffered serious injuries which included a broken spine, a broken collarbone, a broken pelvis, fractures to her legs and a dislocated foot and shoulder. A handrail also pierced though her abdomen leaving her unable to have children. She was 18 years old. These injuries would plague her for the rest of her life and are reflected in many of her paintings.

I love a bath. Baths are healing. They are restorative. A place to lie and relax and feel the water heel whatever aches and pains you have, whether they are physical or mental. Sylvia Plath once said “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” I get it, totally. I think Frida did too.

What the Water Gave Me
In this painting I like to think of her healing herself in the water. Thinking about the her life and the journey she has been on. Each symbol in the painting reflects a chapter of her life and has its own story to tell. Let’s try to read it…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am6rArVPip8 – Florance and the Machine – What the water Gave Me

What makes a good primary sketchbook?

Sketchbooks are amazing things. They offer so many opportunities. They are places to think, research and collect, experiment, reflect, explore and most importantly be free! Sketchbooks offer our children opportunities to express themselves in ways that no other book or piece of paper can. I have a number of sketchbooks. I love working in sketchbooks. I often find that I love the work an artist has done in their sketchbook. It’s far more interesting than the final piece as it documents a journey. They are fascinating things and I could look at them for hours.

However, for the work in these spaces to be successful it must be meaningful. Have provenance, if you like, where the children feel safe and are invested in trying something new, pushing the boundaries of what they think they are capable of. This is where it is important to set up expectations as to what the children are to do in their sketchbooks.

Now before you shout ‘hang on that’s not letting them express themselves freely’ let me explain. It’s setting out opportunities, it’s setting our expectations of what they will achieve not how they will achieve it. Also it acts as a safety net for those who need it. This is where success criteria come in. For example mark making using paint linked to a theme on water would be:

  1. Use each tool at least 3 times.
  2. annotate each experiment to explain what you have done.
  3. Organise your work neatly in rows or columns.
  4. Try to keep your experiments the same size.

So what makes a good sketchbook?

  1. A good primary sketchbook shows a range of materials and processes.

This is all about opportunity. It’s the opportunities you give to your children in order to express themselves and develop skills. Thinking about the process and artist goes though here is key. A good sketchbook will show that the children have had access to a range of materials not just pencil crayon or paint. It will include collage, mixed media, colour mixing, mark making, drawing and designing etc.

  1. A good primary sketchbook shows that some of the work is linked or themed.

This is all about provenance. Making the children invested in what they are going to do in their sketchbook. If you are asking the children to do something that doesn’t link to their experiences or what they are learning the work will reflect that. In my experience linking art to the learning in other subjects to create a holistic curriculum results in the children being enthusiastic, invested, brave and ensures that the work is of a higher standard. If the children see links and are encouraged to make these themselves they are also more likely to take risks. I find that preparing sketchbook pages with pictures and words linked to the topic helps with this too. Especially when the children come to look through their work at a later date.

  1. A good primary sketchbook shows the thinking process.

This is all about the journey. How do we show what we are thinking? Well often this will be the experiments that the children make or the drawings they produce but I think this should be pushed further. It’s encouraging the children to make notes. Explain everything. Explain what they have done, their likes and dislikes, their achievements, their reflections on how to improve their work. These notes and annotations also will greatly support their creation of a final piece of work as they will have a bank of resources to select from.

  1. A good primary sketchbook will show research

This is all about context. This is where you show the children the work of other artists. For them to see the way others have responded to a particular theme. It is imperative that children have opportunities to explore the work of a range of other artists, craftspeople and designers, not to copy their work but to learn how they applied paint, how they mixed colours to create mood etc. This research might include extracts of text or poetry, photographs the children have taken or pieces of material.

  1. A good primary sketchbook is organised.

This is all about whether the children can access the information in their book and use it to inform later work. Creating a theme for pages by preparing them as mentioned earlier will help here, as will dates and titles. I never write LOs in sketchbooks. Waste of time. I would rather the children wrote a quick title to explain what they are doing and then get started. For younger children you might print these out and stick them in. Older children might start to think about the way they write the title. Whether they write it on masking tape or select the font they might use. Presentation expectations come in here too. Handwriting is to be at a high standard and the work well organised. This might be columns, rows, dividing the page in to sections or creating frames to work on with masking tape or different coloured papers. This is NOT about children working on a piece of paper and sticking in their ‘best and neatest’ piece. There should be things that have gone wrong, there should be accidental splashes of paint or water, these are all part of the process.

Sketchbooks are special. They are a safe space to reflect upon the world around you. They are personal. They are fascinating and beautiful things. They offer so many rich opportunities. Go for it – Get your sketchbooks out!

As featured in the first issue of Primed Magazine : https://primedmagazine.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/issue-1-september-2015/

A visual classroom

A new school year beckons and teachers across the land are heading into school in order to set up exciting, engaging learning environments for the young fresh faces that will pour though the doors next week. I love displays. I love planning them, sourcing things to go on them and creating them. I find it therapeutic and also exciting. I also know that I sometimes put unrealistic expectations on myself when it comes to doing displays. It is at this point that this blog is not me saying you should…it is me sharing my approach to display and if you take something from it, great!

For me displays are very personal things, like your classroom. I believe they should reflect you, your professional ethos, the young people that spend their days in that space and the learning that goes on. I want my classroom to make an impact. I want the children to walk in a go ‘wow!’ I want to create excitement and awe about what they are going to learn before a word has been spoken. I want someone to walk in my classroom and know without any shadow of a doubt that the children are learning about Macbeth or Titanic or Ancient Greece.  I also want my classroom to look like my classroom, not like every other primary school classroom across the country; there are those unrealistic expectations again!

But how do I do this? What does my classroom look like?

  1. Working walls

I am a big fan of a working wall. They are useful, immediate, easy to maintain and very flexible. I would only have working walls for Maths and English as my other displays would be more permanent but I will come on to this later. A literacy display might include a copy of the cover of the text, pictures of the setting, characters, key vocabulary, text features and post it notes with comments from the children. In addition I might included story maps, annotated bits of text, shared, guided or modelled writing and character maps to name but a few that I have done in guided sessions or direct teaching.  Working walls should be fluid and changed/updated regularly. I know  displays are time consuming but if these are done with the children it saves a job. Why not occasionally use big pieces of newsprint instead of the interactive whiteboard?  Works just as well and you have a display at the end of it. This also gives you opportunity to model handwriting  and presentation expectations.

  1. Other subject areas

I believe in a holistic approach to the curriculum. I feel that if subjects are linked and tied together within a theme the learning will have greater impact. This also helps when setting up your classroom as your classroom then gives itself over to that theme. My main theme display usually fills an entire wall. It will contain key vocabulary, lots of pictures and key questions. I have often also created a large painting to form part of the display too, but I will discuss that more later. This display also works like a working wall as things are added to the display as the learning develops. Timelines, new questions, photographs of drama, samples of writing, art etc might be added to the display to document the journey that the children have been on. This display is the one that always has the most impact as it is what the subjects feed into, whether it is English, science, history, geography or art. I know that not all subjects will necessarily fit together but I have always kept a separate display area free for this or used my windows.

Backing paper

What’s the big deal about backing paper I hear you say? Well display paper I find can be very garish. The colours are often intensely bright and can give you a headache when you look at them for too long. I am a big fan of black backing paper but this can make for a very dark and dingy classroom. So whats the alternative? Well, I love brown paper (kraft paper YPO) this comes in very large sheets that can cover a whole board. Its neutral and works well for pretty much any theme. Its also a great surface to work into, in the past I have painted on to this to form the background to the display. I have painted lions as part of a theme on Africa, a skull, dagger and crown linked to work on Macbeth, a galleon as work on discovers and explorers and an industrial landscape as part of work on the Victorians. Now I know not everyone thinks they are a ‘skilled’ painter, but there is a way around this. Find a simple image/silhouette on Google, blu-tack paper to the IWB and project image the size you want. Easy and very effective, also guaranteed to be different to anyone else. On a theme on Titanic I printed out passenger lists, tea stained them and used these as backing paper. Simple and effective. Old maps would work brilliantly as display paper, maybe print them off a little bit lighter and off you go! I do think though you should think carefully about your colour palette. Match the colours to whatever the theme is.

Labels and Signs

I always think a mixture of handwritten and printed labels are nice. Again as I have mentioned before handwritten labels give you opportunity to model good handwriting in line with whatever policy is in place at your school. When it comes to titles or signs again a mixture of handwritten and typed work well. Handwritten banners can be very effective, especially when working on historical themes. I have also found an image I like, such as a poppy field and used this to cut letters out from for a theme on World War One. I once used portraits by Hans Holbein for a theme on the Tudors. Luggage labels are great for labels or key vocabulary on displays, especially as these are now  available in a multitude of colours.

Borders, backing and laminating

I rarely use borders, I also rarely mount or back work. I certainly never double back; a waste of time and waste of paper!  At my school we have our own way of backing. We call it the ‘Medlock rip’. Torn edges can look very effective when done carefully, particularly with a historical theme.  When it comes to laminating I will laminate the things I will use again, pictures, vocab, titles etc. English and Maths resources are usually laminated but for theme displays I don’t bother, it saves time and with laminated work you can get a glare so the children can’t see what’s on it anyway.

Like I said earlier I am not suggesting this is how you should set up your classrooms this September but I hope it’s given you some food for thought. Maybe there’s  something you might take away and try.