Finding the Good Ones. Part 1 – Horrors of War.

A while ago I posted a blog about reading paintings and a couple of weeks ago I wrote about my findings with whole class guided reading. Following these a few people have been in contact with me regarding which paintings are useful for supporting the development of reading skills.

This is by no means a definitive list, as that would be endless. This is more a list of paintings that I have used and found interesting to use in the classroom along these lines. I will not put these into one post but over several posts grouped according to theme/ genre or way they could be used etc. This will be a very much a work in progress and will build over time. I will try where I can to add to this each week but it’s a start, so here goes…..

First World War

Over the Top by John Nash.

Image result for Over the top Nash

This painting shows the1/28th Battalion, The London Regiment in an attack on 30th December 1917 as they climb out of the trenches. Some soldiers have been killed already and lie dead. Others kneel in the snow while the rest march hunched through no mans land. There are many areas that could be explored in this painting including looking at the physicality of the soldiers. The way that Nash has chosen paint them, some with shoulders hunched, others kneeling in the snow, and what this might tell us about them. From this the children could explore some of the individual soldiers in terms of building stories for them and thought tracking them in the setting.

The Field of Passchendaele by Paul Nash.

Image result for The field of passchendaele

This landscape is a way to explore themes and moods within an image. It could be used to look at what has happened to the scene – why is the landscape scarred? What would the landscape have looked like before – what clues are there? The use of colour is also significant in this image and could be used as a way of looking at how authors develop mood and atmosphere though the choice of weather which could  eventually lead into work on pathetic fallacy.

The Menin Road by Paul Nash.

Related image

This landscape contains two figures in the centre of the scene and two smaller figures in the distance.  It is interesting to look at the proportion of the figures in the setting in relation to the landscape and what this might mean? It is also good to zoom in and focus on the two central figures, the way they are positioned – what that tells us about what they are doing and how they might feel about the situation that are in. There are clues in the painting as to what this area might have looked like previously which could be good to explore with the children.

Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Image result for gassed john singer sargent

This painting shows the aftermath of a mustard gas attack. There are many areas to explore within this painting. Key questions might include, what has happened? How do you know? Why are the men being led around? What do you notice about their bandages? What does this tell us? Why are some of the men clutching their heads?

Second World War

Preparations for D-Day by Richard Eurich

Image result for Preparations for D'Day Eurich

This painting focuses on the preparations made for the D-Day landings. I have used this image with children and talked about what it shows. Yes it shows an aspect of war but is there a battle taking place at present? How do they know? What has the painter shown? It might be interesting to compare this image with one which shows a battle in progress to see how the two are different.

Tube Shelter Perspective by Henry MooreImage result for Henry Moore WW2

This is just one of many drawings which are worth looking at when exploring the Blitz. Pink and Green sleepers would be another drawing to look at and explore what is happening and what it tells us about the conditions during the Blitz. Why are the people so cramped together? Where are they? What are they doing? What would it have been like there?


At Sea on an LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) by Edward Ardizzone

Image result for At Sea on an LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) by Edward Ardizzone

This image has an interesting perspective which is worth discussing with the children. Who is the observer? What position do they think the observer might be in? Also why does the image appear to be at an angle – what might this tell us? There are many groups and individuals which are good to examine in this drawing – what are the men doing? Are all the men in groups? Why might this be?


Other conflicts

Scotland For Ever! 1881 by Lady Butler

Image result for Scotland for ever 1881

This shows a very different kind of battle and would be useful to use alongside the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade in order for the children to see and understand how battles used to be fought. It would be worth examining what the role of the man in the front and centre of the painting would be and why the artist might have chosen to do this.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8th August 1588 by Philippe-Jacques de LoutherbourgImage result for Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8th August 1588 by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg

There are many elements in this that could be interesting to explore which link to reading. Why would the artist choose to paint the sea in such a way? What are the men in the smaller boats doing? Why? What has happened? Which direction do you think the attack is coming from? What evidence is there to support this?

Themes and topics I plan to cover over the next few weeks will include, The Tudors, The Vikings and The Victorians.


The Holes in Whole Class Guided Reading

I am very much at the beginning of my journey into whole class guided reading and I am definitely finding my way as I go. I am using this approach in combination with reading VIPERS from Literacy shed.

I know there have been lots of blogs already on whole class guided reading and here is yet another one (sorry if I repeat things that have already been said). As I am writing this it is more of an opportunity for me to reflect on the last half term, to look at what’s working and what isn’t. If others find my ramblings useful then that’s a bonus. So here goes.

What is working

  • A shared class investment in a text.

My class are utterly hooked into our whole class guided reading text (Holes). It is great to discuss it on a whole class level and share that love of a good book with not just a group but everyone. Also my guided reading sessions are now 40 – 45 minutes meaning we can get much more immersed in the text in a session.

  • Exposure to high level text.

Those children who have had prior low attainment are exposed to high level quality texts. This doesn’t always happen with group guided reading as the books that are chosen might be closer matched to their ‘level’ for want of a better word. However, in the safety of whole class shared read and discussion they are able to access more challenging texts which previously they might not have had the opportunity to. For me in year 6, this is vital, especially as children need to be able to have the resilience to tackle high challenge texts in order to sit the reading paper.

  • Challenge and peer support

I have noticed that with whole class guided read the level of challenge alters totally. Questions that you might have only posed to children with previous high attainment are accessible for all. Children are able to share and talk about their ideas, learning from each other. I have been particularly pleased with some children who have made some excellent progress in able to answer higher order questions. As Mary Myatt talked about – it’s that teach to your highers and unpack through talk for the rest. It definitely works!

  • Question focus

This is more about VIPERS from the Literacy Shed than whole class reading. I am finding this strategy incredibly useful, again especially in 6. The acronym is easy for the children to use and each covers one of the domains for reading.







I started the year identifying these question types to the children. However, I have now stripped this right back. Now as part of the sessions the children need to identify the VIPER. This is in order to prepare them for their SATs. They need to be able to identify the question type in order for them to understand what kind of answer is required. So far I have seen a

huge impact in this area.

  • Fluency

I know that this has been unpopular among some and I understand why totally. However, I don’t have enough hours in the day to listen to children read to me 1:1, therefore whole class guided reading is a great opportunity for some to read aloud daily, even for a short time. I have built this up over time very slowly so that those children who feel less confident are now asking to read aloud on a regular basis. Their ability to speak to the whole class loudly and clearly has improved, as has their fluency. Children who don’t want to read aloud to the whole class don’t have to – they are picked up at other points for reading aloud with additional adults.

What’s not working and what I am doing to fix it.

  • Prior Lower attainment groups.

Children with prior low attainment have struggled decoding these higher challenge texts. They need regular practice at reading texts matched to their needs. So I have put additional guided reading slots in for these children as interventions for them to work in smaller groups in order to address gaps.


I have focused on three main question types with the VIPERS as these are the questions that traditionally form the majority of the SATs paper – vocab, inference and retrieval. For this I have had to split my class slightly in order to focus on key areas as some children need more work on retrieval or inference. We read as a whole class in order for all to access the text. When focusing on question types I have had to split the class. For example, children who still need strategies on working on retrieval will work with me whilst the rest of the class might look at higher order inference. I don’t want the children to miss out on opportunities to look at high order inference so at the end of the session we will discuss these high order questions, where I will model answers and children will self-assess/ edit their answers. Other ways I have done this is giving those children with previous high attainment questions on summarising or explaining linked to author intent while the rest have opportunities to consolidate vocab, inference or retrieval strategies.

Further steps forward for this half term

  • Using paintings to further develop inference and summarising skills

I did a lot of work on this a while ago. For those children who need to develop their inference skills further I want to put an intervention in place which uses paintings to make simple inferences. This is a much less threatening way than using a large chunk of text but does the same job. I also find paintings are good for summarising by identifying key themes and messages within them. This half term I am going to add an additional 30 minute session which focuses on these skills but in a different approach. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

So that’s it. The positives are definitely outweighing the negatives so far. But I am constantly reviewing approaches and making little tweaks here and there. Let’s see how this half term goes.

Paint it…whatever colour you like!

Painting is probably one of the most accessible art forms in Primary schools other than drawing despite the fact that getting painting right can be incredibly complex. Do we really engage the children in exploring how paint can be applied, how subtleties in colour can be explored or is it more of a “ok paint this here are your brushes?”

Paint is a wonderful medium to use and offers endless possibilities. Here are some simple ideas which can be used in the classroom to support the development of children’s painting.

  1. Colour mixing

When I say colour mixing I mean going beyond the mixing of two primary colours to make a secondary colour. I am talking about what happens to the shade of green you get depending on the amount of blue you add or the shade of brown you get depending on the amount of red you add. This requires a methodical approach and could be set up like an investigation – how many different greens can you make? The children will need a mixing palette and primary colours plus black and white. The children can start with a base colour and see what happens as they gradually add another primary colour bit by bit painting a colour swatch in their sketchbook each time. This might require the teacher modelling how little paint is needed in order for the colour to change.


2. Thick or thin

Watercolour paint will behave very differently to acrylic paints and will create very different effects. This is about giving the children different types of paint and letting them see how they behave. How watercolours will blend and merge together, what happens when you use water colour on a dry surface and what happens when it is used on a wet surface. How acrylic paint can be applied with a palette knife to create texture and depth

3. Change the consistency.

This is more about play and how you might change the consistency of the paint. General purpose poster paint is perfect for this. Give the children a range of things that could be added to the paint to change it and then how it changes the way it would be applied to a surface.  PVA glue, sand, flour, woodshavings, shaving foam etc. could be great starters for exploring this.

4. Change the surface

Paint will behave differently depending on the surface it is being applied to. Give the children squares of different materials with different surfaces for them to experiment with how the paint will behave with them. Sandpaper, anaglypta wallpaper, newspaper, cartridge paper, fabric such as calico or hessian and corrugated card are all good for this. To extend this you could get the children to investigate what happens if they put wax crayon down and then paint over it or how paint will behave depending on if the surface is wet or dry. The possibilities are endless for this.

5. Mark Making

This is about the children seeing that a range of marks and effects can be achieved to create texture using just a paint brush. The children are to have black and white paint and see how many different marks they can make with the brush. What happens when they use a dry brush, what happens when they stipple, or twist the brush or use it at an angle? Also what happens when they combine the paint – use is thickly or thinly? What happens if they use the stick part of the brush to scratch into the paint? They can also experiment with different types of brush and different size brushes. Each time the children create a new mark they should annotate their sketchbooks explaining how they made the mark using the correct vocabulary.

6. Mix it up

Children need to learn that you can paint and make marks with more than just paint brushes and understand how these tools behave and work with the paint. For this provide the children with a range of tools such as palette knives, forks, sponges. You could even get the children to collect different types of foliage and some sticks and make some natural paint brushes. The children can then experiment with how these materials can apply paint or even take paint away from a surface to create different effects.

7. Stepping away

Children are quite used to sitting or standing at their table painting a picture at quite close range. Why not put paper on the walls and ask the children to paint standing up, holding a paintbrush further up and at arm’s length. The way that they will paint and the marks/ lines they will make will be very different to those they are used to. This might be easier in small groups due to space and ensuring any mess is kept to a minimum.

8. Change the scale

Scale is always interesting with children I find. How many times do we see a tiny drawing in the centre of a large piece of paper? I know I do a lot. Large scale drawing and painting can be challenging and also require being rather brave. Why not give the children large paper and large brushes to paint with to create an observational painting to start with. Using large decorating type brushes will force them into creating thicker marks which will dictate the size of their painting.

9. Take it outside

This requires a very understanding caretaker and an open minded head teacher.  Some really interesting effects can be created depending on the surface that is painted on and also by the weather. Why not take the children outside and ask them to use water soluble poster paint to paint onto the bark of trees, the playground floor or even a wall. Each day the children can go out and take photographs of their painting as it changes. What happens to the paintings on the ground and how they wear as they are walked on? What happens to the paintings as the sun fades them or the rain starts to wash them away?

  1. Make your own.

There are so many natural materials that could be used to paint with when mixed with other materials. Why not try making your own oil paints with turmeric and oil or paprika and oil. You could even use vegetables and fruits such as blueberries, beetroot, raspberries, carrot juice etc to mix with water to make your own watercolours.

I hope these ideas give you ways in which you could take painting forward in your classrooms and happy painting!

Reading Paintings

Before you say how can you read something that has no words, hear me out. Paintings can offer a wealth of possibilities for children to develop some of the skills that they need for reading by in less threatening way, especially for those reluctant readers. Now, don’t get me wrong I am not about to say stop reading texts and just use paintings instead, that would be stupid. But I am saying change it up a bit, find a balance. Using paintings in a guided reading session, an English or History lesson could give children the opportunity to develop and use skills in a different context.

So how do I go about reading a painting?

  1. Look at it.

Children all need a copy of the painting. This doesn’t have to be very big as a larger version could be shared on the board for the children to see also. Ask the children to identify what they can see in the painting. What is it a painting of basically – this is an easy way of developing summarising skills.

  1. Express an opinion

Ask the children to make a comment on their feelings towards the painting. What they like and don’t like. This can be very simple for younger children – ‘I don’t like the colours.’ Where as you would push older or more able children to extend their answers explaining why – ‘I don’t like the use of colour because it creates an intense atmosphere, as though something bad is going to happen or has happened.’ The children here are developing their ability to go beyond a simple answer and express their opinions using inference or evidence from the painting.

  1. Identify the themes

This requires the children to understand what the painting is about. What the artist was trying to communicate. It also requires the children to explain their reasoning using evidence from the painting itself, much like the children are required to do with a text. I approach this by giving the children a bank of around 20 words. Some of the words will be linked to the paintings, others won’t be as specific or obvious. The level of vocabulary could also be differentiated with some more adventurous words for more able children and simpler vocabulary for others.  The children are to choose 5 words which they think represent the themes, messages and ideas in the painting the best. They are to then write an explanation for each with reference to the painting.

Image result for work ford madox brown

Ford Madox Brown – Work

poverty chaotic work busy
wealth discrimination inequality desperate
poor hard life desperate
 old diverse rich Victorian

4. Give it a title.

I like to look at paintings as without telling them what they are called. A great way of seeing how well the children have understood the messages in a painting is by asking them to give it a title. So if they had painted it, what could they have called it? For this I ask them to use no more than 10 words. The range of responses from this have been phenomenal and it is so interesting to hear what the children come up with.

  1. Making simple inferences.

By now the children should be very familiar with the painting and have had chance to really look at it. The next step is to use the things they can see to read between the lines. To begin to make simple inferences about the painting.

Image result for the shiner rockwell

Norman Rockwell –  The Shiner

Observation – A girl is sat on a bench with a black eye and a cut knee outside an office which says Principal on the door. The door is open with two people inside who are looking outside at her.

Inferences –

The Girl has been in a fight with someone.

The people in the office are talking about her. It’s the Principal and the girl’s mother.

The girl is not sorry for what she has done as she is smiling.

Her mother is angry with her from the expression on her face.

The man sat behind the desk is the Principal

The open filing cabinet contains a file about the girl’s previous behaviours.

  1. Inside outside.

The children can also begin to explore the idea of the internal dialogue that we have inside us and how we don’t always say what we think for whatever reason. For this the children can imagine that they are the people within the paintings (if there is a number of people I would focus on a couple of key figures)and begin to write sentences which explore what the person is thinking or feeling about the situation and what they might actually say, either to another person in the painting or to someone else.

  1. Build a dialogue

This is more of a writing activity than a reading one, however it does require that the children have a level of understanding between the people in the painting and what is going on. They need to have been able to identify any themes, have made inferences and understand any body language that would give them clues as to what the people would say to each other.

These are a range of activities I have used with children in my class to support reading skills. I know there is a lot to go on here and I have spread these tasks over a number of sessions. An integral part of these sessions are the discussions had in order to unpick and support children’s thinking further.

There are a number of paintings that could be used for any work along these lines. Picasso’s blue period is great for exploring relationships; paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and William Powell Frith are all good starting points too, especially for looking at life during the Victorian era. Gassed by John Singer Sargent and Over the Top by John Nash offer great insights into exploring the First World War. Norman Rockwell is appealing as some of his paintings have an interesting twist and are more of a documentary on society. As long as the painting tells some sort of story you are good to go.

Slow success criteria

I have been using success criteria for a number of years now. It has changed a number of times and I have tried a few approaches. Genre focused success criteria, grammar and punctuation focused success criteria and a combination of the two; sometimes a list of two focused targets, other times a longer list of about six things. I will be totally honest I have never got it quite how I want it. It has always fallen a little short for me in its success. More able children – fine, others less so.

I found that elements of the criteria were missed off totally, other times they were all crammed in the first paragraph which were then forgotten about once the children had got in to the flow of writing. So by the final paragraph…well, you can imagine. Getting the consistency and balance has been tricky. Conversations I’d had with other staff too, told me I wasn’t alone!

However this year, I may have finally found a way! This came about during lesson study. One of the things my colleagues and I wanted to look at was the impact and use of slow writing. We had read about it, dabbled a little but wanted to look a little deeper  in to how it could work. My problem came though, when I was faced with the fact that I was at a different point in the writing phase to my colleague. My children were ready to write an extended piece of writing, totally unsuitable for a slow write.

Slow writing is challenging. It forces children to think about every word, every phrase and every sentence they commit to the page. This would not work for an extended piece of writing. For a start giving them a list of things long enough for an extended piece of writing would be ridiculous as it needs to be short, snappy – no more than  eight items. Also if I had, they would probably still be wrestling with it now.

So instead I thought about what I needed them to think about including and how this could be structured across the piece of writing. This was early into year 6 so I was drip feeding things that they would be assessed on and also hammering the structure and consistency over a piece writing (Note – this is far too scaffolded to work for assessed pieces and end of year 6 expectations) as this was a gap. My success criteria became a slow write, but instead of it working sentence by sentence, it was paragraph by paragraph.

Examples (These were differentiated – children chose the criteria they wanted to use)

Success criteria
P1 Must contain dashes
P2 Must contain semi colon
P3 Must contain fronted adverbial

Must contain word – equipped

P4 Must contain Direct speech
P5 Must contain reported speech

Must contain word – according

P6 Must contain word – disastrous


Success criteria
P1 Must contain a fronted adverbial
P2 Must contain a modal verb

Must contain brackets for parenthesis

P3 Must contain fronted adverbial
P4 Must contain Direct speech
P5 Must contain a colon

Must contain commas in a list

P6 Must contain word a rhetorical question

This approach didn’t overload the children in terms of what I was expecting them to do, however it forced them to think paragraph by paragraph what they needed to include.  Doing this, I noticed the children were far more successful in meeting the criteria and over time developed an awareness of consistency across their writing to ensure they used a variety of structures.

The first example was for a newspaper report. However, it could be developed further by asking children to include an example of passive voice which would fit perfectly with the genre. If the success criteria is based upon GPS it is adaptable for any genre of writing. I found it very useful in autumn term for year 6 to see some of the things they would need to include consistently in their writing. My children also found it more purposeful: for a start they found it far more manageable to use and were able to self-assess their writing in order to edit and improve it far more easily.

I will certainly be experimenting with this again in September with my new class in order to drip feed the year 6 expectations. I will keep you posted on how it goes!

Being a subject leader

Being a subject leader can fall in to two categories. It’s either wildly exciting as you are leading a subject you are passionate about and have expertise in, or you are leading a subject because that was the one that was going spare and everyone needs to have a subject.

The other issue with being a subject lead is priority.  What are the school priorities? Let’s face it, 9 times out of 10 they are always going to be centred around Maths and English. I personally don’t know many schools which have MFL, Music or Art on their SDP. This makes being a SL hard, especially if you are passionate about your subject as these are the ones that get squeezed out. They are also the subjects which raise questions over subject specialism in Primary – however I am not going to get in to that now.

Regardless of your subject, as a subject leader you are the one that has immediate responsibility for the subject. You need to have a strategic overview of what is happening in that area across the whole school. You need to understand what is being taught, how effectively it is being taught and what achievement and attainment looks like. Using this information it is the subject leader’s job to then look at implementing strategies to improve that area of the curriculum. Basically what does it look like and how are you making it better?

So if you are new to your subject where do you start? Well…

  1. Look at the position statement for the end of the last academic year. Strengths and weaknesses should have been identified. This will give you something to go on.
  2. Use the weaknesses to make clear smart targets (not too many) on your action plan. I would also ensure that your action plan identifies and links with any whole school priorities that are outlined on the SDP. For example if your school needs to improve in reading, think about how opportunities for reading can be brought into your curriculum area.
  3. Write a vision statement. What do YOU want for YOUR subject? How do you think it should be delivered throughout the school? What is your ethos? Keep it to a couple of paragraphs.
  4. Make sure you have a clear and up to date policy. For some subjects there may be more than one. For example I have both an art policy and a sketchbook policy. Subjects such as English may have three or four policies – reading, writing, handwriting and speaking and listening or talk for writing. For me a good policy should be short (no more than a couple of sides of A4) and state clear expectations for staff.
  5. Throughout the year you can then start to gather evidence to support your action plan. Good pieces of evidence are learning walks, photographs of displays, pupil and staff voice and examples of pupils work. Having examples of pupils work comes in very useful for staff who are new to a year group, new to the school or even making an assessment judgement as they provide an opportunity to moderate and see where work should be pitched. This ensures that you have an adequate progression of learning throughout the school – especially when it comes to skills. Any findings can then be fed back to staff accordingly.
  6. Following this first monitoring cycle, go back to your action plan. I use my action plan like a working document. I highlight, annotate and prioritise as I go along. RAG rating some of these actions might help too. You can then see how your subject is moving forward following the things you have put in place. Most importantly look at impact. What impact are your actions having on the standard of teaching and learning in your subject? These should help to draw out and identify future actions.
  7. This cycle then continues until the end of the academic year when you would write your position statement.


What do you need in your file? (In no particular order)

  1. Policies
  2. Vision statement
  3. Position statements
  4. Action plans
  5. Evidence of monitoring – book looks, planning trawls (if your school does this)
  6. Examples of planning
  7. Examples of children’s work
  8. Pupil voice
  9. Staff voice
  10. Email print offs you have sent regarding your subject area.
  11. Order forms – how you have used your budget.
  12. The curriculum – how your school has put it together, eg. topic allocations for year groups, progression of skills grids etc.
  13. After school group opportunities

You may also want to include:

  1. Lists of more able children in that subject
  2. Links you have made with professionals, museums, galleries etc.
  3. Evidence of any special events or themed weeks/days.

How far could you go?

  1. You could look at setting up themed days or weeks. These can be especially good for those subjects that can be marginalised. Spanish or French weeks/ days could offer opportunities for the whole school to not only learn a language but also learn about culture too. It would be a great opportunity for some cross curricular learning and enrichment.
  2. Parental engagement is another area you could develop. Maybe hold parent workshops for parents to come and see how your subject is taught across the school. Invite parents in to join in lessons too. You might hold competitions for parents and children to enter – especially during themed weeks. Alternatively encourage staff to share examples of work in your subject with parents using apps like seesaw.
  3. The after school club opportunities are endless. You could set up a historical society which reports on famous historical events through a school newspaper. You could have a sewing club which makes puppets which could be sold at school fairs adding an aspect of enterprise.
  4. If you are lucky enough to be close or within reasonable travelling distance to a museum or gallery talk to their learning team. They are desperate to get schools in through the door and will happily talk about setting up workshops for children or staff insets on their collections or with their creative professionals.
  5. If you specialise in the subject you lead, you may also want to look at developing other staff professionally in order to raise standards in your subject. This could involve staff inset, working with staff on their planning or even team teaching a few lessons.

I know that being a class teacher is like spinning plates at the best of times without adding the pressure of leading a subject to the mix. However, you should be given time for this role. Think about what is achievable in the times that you are given. A book look is a big job, however you could ask your TA to nip around school and take photos of any displays that are around school that link to your subject.

Pupil voice could be carried out through a school council group which could collect information on your behalf providing you are clear about what you want to find out. You could stagger the conversations. 10 minutes weekly with a couple of year groups. Whatever you do make it manageable for you and prioritise.

A definite positive that comes with being a subject lead is seeing the impact of what you are doing can have on the whole school. The curriculum is what we make it for our children. You can make it as big as you want to and take it as far as you want to.

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.