Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The teaching of Handwriting

I'm currently teaching handwriting to two different classes, Year 3/4 and Year 5/6.  Not quite satisfied that I was doing this in the best way I did a little research and came up with the post that follows.  I'm now planning my handwriting lessons for the rest of term, and am much more confident that the children will actually be improving their handwriting.

The Teaching of Handwriting – A progressive approach
The purpose of teaching handwriting is to enable children to communicate effectively in writing.  Their writing will be legible (easy to read), fluent (they can write reasonably quickly with a good flow) and comfortably (children who have not learned to handwrite properly or who employ poor posture often find writing painful as they become quite stiff).
The teaching of handwriting is often provided as a whole class activity, with children assiduously copying letters, joins or words from the board and repeating.  It is true that handwriting can only be achieved by regular practice.  It is also true, however, that children enter school with differing handwriting readiness.  Their motor skills both gross and fine are at different stages, and therefore their readiness to pick up a pencil and begin making marks and then letters will all be at different stages.  It is as important with handwriting as it is with reading that we take each child from their own starting point and provide the relevant practice to enable them to achieve success and to progress at their own pace.  Here then is a progression chart for handwriting (the first two stages are concurrent).  In your class, whatever the age group, assess the handwriting skills level of each child, group those on a similar level together for handwriting work, and provide the relevant activities to enable them to progress to the next level.  While in some classes the children may all be at a similar level, in others it will become clear that there are children attempting to join their handwriting who have still not mastered letter formation, or who are not yet forming their letters in a uniform size.  In younger classes you may have some children who still do not have the physical readiness for writing, and who are not yet ready for letter formation, certainly not trying to write on lined paper.  In handwriting lessons, while the copying and practice is very important, it is equally important for the Teacher or a Teaching Assistant to give direction and feedback on letter formation, sitting position, evenness of script, achieving smooth flow, and pencil grip.
Contrary to popular opinion, the advent of the tablet, the smart phone and the computer has not replaced the need for fluent, neat handwriting and this life skill needs to be taught with care and attention.  Children leaving primary school must be able to write without thinking about it, so that they can concentrate on the content of their writing.  Research also demonstrates that children with neat handwriting tend to feel better about their writing and are more motivated to write, and are also better at spelling.  Every child should be supported to develop good handwriting.

Activities to support progress
Developing core strength and stability, bilateral co-ordination, sensory perception, hand and finger dexterity – core strength and stability are required to develop posture and coordination; bilateral co-ordination allows the child to cross the body successfully; sensory perception allows the brain and fingers to communicate effectively about textures and pressures; hand and finger dexterity involves the ability to hold and manipulate objects of different sizes.
Curl-ups, balance along a ‘tight-rope’ line along the ground, walking up and down stairs.  ‘Simon says’ using left and right, rolling and catching and then gently throwing and catching a ball, touching left toes with right hand etc. Feely bag, tactile play, being able to press gently or hard into balls of playdough.  Picking up and holding small objects, two or three objects at a time.  Finger dancing.  Rolling and releasing dice.  Cutting things up with scissors, moving on to accurately cutting out shapes.
Mark Making (these two stages run concurrently as children will be beginning to make marks while still developing their physical readiness).
Provide tools in a wide range of thicknesses as the child is developing their dexterity, they will be able to choose thick or thin brushes, crayons and pencils.  Provide sand trays to trace in, large sheets of paper and paper with widely spaced lines or squares.  Provide vertical or sloped writing surfaces as well as horizontal.  Trace large scale shapes and patterns.
Pre-handwriting patterns.  These establish the correct pull and push movements for all the shapes which make up the letters.
Teach correct pencil grip (sometime between age 4 and 6), and establish a good table height and sitting position for writing.  Trace over shapes and patterns.  These can start at quite large scale and then gradually become smaller and finer.  Patterns will include waves, circles, vertical and horizontal lines and circles. 
Letter formation – letters should be taught in groups based on the shape, rather than in alphabetical order.  Once the letter shape and how to form it has been established the children move through these stages as their fine motor skills develop.
Tracing over and forming letters with plasticine or playdough, in sand or salt trays, with whipped cream, on large pieces of plain paper.  Lower case letters (plus capital for their name), then numbers, then upper case letters.
Tracing over and copying letters on widely spaced lines.
Tracing over and copying letters on narrower lines.
Letter joins – a child is ready to start joining their writing when they are consistently forming their letters correctly, positioning them correctly on the line and maintaining a uniform size
Teach and practice each of the four main join types one at a time.  Diagonal join e.g. a-i, a-r, u-n, i-r, i-g, m-a, a-d; upper horizontal join, e.g. o-u, o-v, v-i, w-i, w-o, o-n, o-x; lower join to tall letter, e.g. a-b, u-l, i-t, t-h, b-l, l-l, l-k, e-b; higher join to tall letter, e.g. o-l, r-t, o-b, r-k, w-l; special joins f-f, f-t.  Break letters z (before) and g, j, q, y, and x (after)
Join whole words together.  It can be helpful here for the children to practice handwriting with their spelling words, developing two skills in one.
Developing fluency and style – Children can be encouraged to slope their handwriting slightly and to develop their own handwriting style.
Copying poems or making neater copies of their work for presentation.
Some key points in handwriting:
·         Pencils must be sharp
·         Short pencils (below 8cm) should be discarded.
·         Sit up properly with chair upright (not rocking).
·         Writing surface can be tilted to the left (right handers) or right (left handers) but by no more than 45 degrees.  The non-dominant hand should be on the table in a supportive position.
·         A clutter free table is best.
·         Left handed children should always sit on the left side of the desk

Children can be taught to be self-critical and even pedantic with their handwriting.  When working with a group, expect them to copy EXACTLY, and nothing less, as this will avoid any poor habits being deemed as acceptable.  As long as the work is pitched correctly for their ability and motor control then they will be able to succeed and will look with pride on their improved writing.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

On being a working mum

Over the last six years I have had increasing admiration for my mum and dad, my sisters and all working parents out there.  

Hubby and I made the decision that I would be a stay-at-home-mum.  We wanted me to be there for the children in those early years.  It worked well.  I enjoyed being with the children, we played, went for walks, went swimming, made stuff, played with friends, baked and had a great time.  In the last year before they went to school they started attending pre-school, to build more structure into their day and get used to being with other children and adults.

Throughout all this I was watching my sisters.  My younger sister has taken maternity leave and gone right back to work full-time.  She's worked full-time continuously and her two children are now eight and six.  My elder sister has four children, currently aged 7 (almost 8!), five, three and six months.  She worked full time initially after the first baby, then on moving to Devon went part time, and continued working part time as babies number 2 and 3 were added to the family, and then started up her own freelance business from home, adding number 4 to the brood.  I have for some time thought these two were superwomen.  While I spent my days playing, making stuff and having a great time, they were out at work, but they still also managed to incorporate time for and with the children, the mountains of laundry, getting packed lunches sorted, and birthday cakes and birthday parties, juggling child-care, nurseries, sports days, looking after the children when they were poorly, filling in the slips at the bottom of letters.  I take my hat off to them.
Image result for supermum

I tried working from home myself for a while (as regular followers will know), while Bug was at pre-school two days each week.  I did okay.  I earned a little bit of money, but not enough to call a living.  There was too much else to do: PTA, voluntary stuff for the pre-school committee or the Scouts, walking the dog, getting the groceries, doing the laundry and housework and getting some exercise.

I'm now two weeks into my REAL WORKING MUM journey (even though I'm only working 2.5 days per week at the moment) back as a Primary School Teacher.  I'll pat myself on the back because I'm doing okay.  The children have clean and ironed uniform to wear.  They have packed lunches when they are supposed to and letters do seem to be getting signed and returned on time (so far).  We have dinner on the table each evening.  I'm also managing to keep up with my own workload of planning and marking that happens outside of school hours (as well as continuing with freelance writing commitments and a couple of craft orders on Etsy and Folksy).  I've forgotten the Forest School clothes once, and forgot to leave their booster seats for the person picking them up another time.  I've yet to see how I'm going to manage to leave school promptly at 4.45pm after a staff meeting, drive for 20 minutes, pick the children up, drive for 20 minutes (if the traffic into Hereford is clear!!!!), and get them changed for a 5.30pm swimming lesson.  This is going to take a minor miracle to achieve successfully week after week.  I do have a pile of letters next to me from school and Beavers waiting to be read, noted in the calendar, signed and returned.  I'm conscious that I haven't heard the readers at school that I'm supposed to hear on a Friday, and that I haven't put up my French display yet.
Image result for supermum
It hasn't always been perfect or easy these last few years as a Stay-at-Home-Mum, but I've had a ball, it has definitely been worth it and I wouldn't change it for the world.  

I was ready to go back to work, and I'm relishing the changes and challenges that come along with that.  I am beginning to feel again that I am about more than laundry, bum-wiping and baking, and to stimulate my grey cells with research, planning fun lessons and real grown-up conversations.  I'm planning to get up to full time after Christmas.

Combining the two is my next adventure, and to those of you superwomen (and men) out there who combine parenting with work without making a complete hash of it - I salute you.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Simple activities for small children - GLOOP

This is probably one of the simplest activities you can set up for your children, though it can get pretty messy.

C found the instructions in his book "50 Science Things to Make and Do", a Christmas gift from one of his aunties.
Product Details
All you need is a large bowl (washing up bowl is great), aprons, cornflour and a little food colouring (optional).

C followed the instructions to make the gloop himself.

Pour two cups of cornflour into the bowl (this was the messiest part in the inkspots house, somehow my children had forgotten how to pour and there was cornflour everywhere, but a dustpan and brush soon put this to rights).

Add a cup of water and a few drops of food colouring.

Mix together with hands.  

Once mixed gloop has some very odd characteristics.  It is made of long thin molecules particles which don't dissolve in water.  When you apply pressure or roll the gloop the particles join together and the gloop acts and feels like a solid.  When allowed to dribble or rest the particles slide over one another and the gloop acts and feels like a liquid.

The children remained engrossed in this weird liquid/solid material for almost an hour, squeezing it, punching it, pouring it, rolling it and then dribbling it through their fingers.

It did splatter across the table, but then goes back to solid form, making it pretty easy to sweep away afterwards.  At the end don't wash down the sink, as it may cause a blockage: either place in your kitchen bin, or allow to dry out to a fine powder, which can be used as a sensory material soil for toy diggers, or can later be rehydrated to make gloop again.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Recipe for a super family holiday

  • a lovely campsite (we enjoyed our stay at Camping and Caravan Club - St Davids)
  • sunshine (a bit of rain is acceptable and, let's face it, in a British climate inevitable)
  • a good tent
  • family
  • time off work and/or school
  • scenery and things to do.

Choose a destination with lovely scenery and activities for your type of holiday.  We chose beaches, cliffs and history.

Now arrive on site, set up your tent with a stunning West-facing view of the sunset.  If possible the best view on the campsite, and set up your home from home:

Go for lovely walks

Visit historic places

Take part in fun activities for the children

Play on the beach

Enjoy some pleasant refreshments.

Spend time with fantastic family.

And there you have it, a wonderful Summer holiday building memories.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Kid's Activity - Junk robots!

I know the term "found materials" is preferred over "junk" these days, but "found material robots" just don't have the same ring about them.

This activity was eagerly anticipated by the children as soon as they saw it on the Holiday Plan, and their imaginations were already fired up and ready to go.  I actually had to do very little.

First we raided the Recycle Bin for any robot components.  We found plastic lids, cardboard boxes and cans.

Next we laid out our chosen materials on the dining table.  C thoughtfully laid out newspaper before we got started, and I fetched scissors, PVA glue and brushes, kitchen foil, and selotape.  The children also fetched their craft boxes and zippy bags (full of pom poms, pipe cleaners, scraps of patterned paper, craft foam, tissue paper, googly eyes and any other craft paraphernalia you care to imagine).

I sat next to them and worked on my own robot.  I tried not to make suggestions, but every now and then gave a commentary on how I was doing something.  For example I mentioned how I was cutting tabs at the ends of my toilet roll tube to make it easier to stick on, and how I was trying to stick the foil on flat before adding the face features.  I also commented on how they were doing things, for example the choice C made about his robot's eyes.  Here's my robot:

Here's C's:  
 I love the hose coming out of the arm.  I think it's so that he can put out fires.  C is delighted with it.  The face features apart from the eyes are done with Sharpie permanent pens.  See how he's done the tabs on the toilet roll tubes too?
 Here's Bug's:
 It's cardboard boxes are still showing through on the front.  This is a design feature apparently.  It is silver on the back, with feathers for a special robotic decoration.
 I note that this one also has a hose.  It also has an important added feature in that the head is removable.  This is a design feature, so that it can get under low furniture or bridges apparently.
After our creative session the children cleared up most of their stuff, and then set about playing an elaborate game of hide and seek with their robots for the rest of the afternoon,

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Absentee Blogger

Hello.  I've been a bit of an absentee blogger just lately haven't I?

It all got a bit exciting with two teaching job interviews on two consecutive days, and not having been in front of a class since 2008 - eek!!!  As you can imagine I buckled down and did some homework, catching up on the curriculum changes and reminding myself what I actually used to do.  I didn't get the first job, which was a Full time, year-long post teaching Year 1/2 at my own children's school.  It would have meant teaching C's class.  I didn't get the job, but I was confident that I'd done my best.  The feedback was positive too, which helped a lot!  Basically my exemplar lesson (maths problem solving) let me down, and I agreed with everything the Head said afterwards.  Being a little out of the loop, I had made the mistake of pitching Year 1 at C's level.  Turns out he's pretty bright, so there were some children in there who just couldn't access what I was doing.  Also I could have brought things back together with a better plenary.  The next day I had the second interview, this time for a term-long part-time contract teaching Key Stage 2.  My lesson this time was teaching figurative language writing to Year 5/6.  I got the job!!!!

So the last few weeks were filled with baking for school and pre-school bake sales and PTA stalls, visiting the school I'll be working at, school productions and then the preparations for C's 6th birthday which was on Saturday.

Now we're on holiday.  I'm having a major clear-out of my belongings to get the place tidy and clear my mind of detritus ready for September.  Have you heard of "The Magic Art of Tidying" by Marie Kondo, or the Konmari tidying method?  The book has sold millions and having read it, I can see why, and I'm giving it a try.  We've also been for a bike ride, been swimming, been to the library, been to the skate-board park, and done some cooking and some science experiments.  As well as the very exciting school planning I'm doing ready for September (is it really sad that I'm so very thrilled to be going back to work?), and tidying, I've also had 14 articles commissioned in the last couple of weeks, mostly on various aspects of learning to drive and on various aspects of American Summer Camp.

I'm going to be returning a bit more regularly to update the blog, but possibly with shorter, picture based posts about some of the things we are up to and making - as long as I remember to take the camera out with me each time!  Post about robots should be following in the next couple of days.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Why the i-Scout brand has got it wrong

I'm a Scout, and I'm proud of it.  

In fact, I was delivering Module 1 of the Scout Adult Training Scheme this morning to ten new volunteers in my District.  I like Module 1 - Essential Information.  It's a huge amount of information for new Leaders to take in, but it covers vital stuff - safety, safeguarding, the structure of The Scout Association and... the fundamentals that underpin everything that Scouting stands for.  So as I was driving to this meeting I started to wonder about some of the branding that The Scout Association in the UK has opted for in the last decade.  Most of the branding is fine - there's this one:

and then there are brands for the Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Explorers and Network (which have just been updated, so make sure you're using the correct ones), and then there's this one:

and this is the one I think they've got wrong.  I can see what it's about - it's on-trend, it's snappy, it's great for marketing (you see i-kayak, i-camp etc so it's really selling the adventurous opportunities you get in Scouting), but it's too... well... it's too much "i".  It sends the message, to our young people and to everybody else, that we're about "what Scouting can do for me", and I think that misses a huge chunk of what Scouting is about.

Scouting is about reaching out, and as the World Scout Bureau strap-line has it, creating a better world:

In a world where pupils stab one another in classrooms because of gang rivalry, where kids throw bricks at fire-engines on the street just for a laugh, where a rogue gunman can walk on to a beach and shoot down random strangers because of ideological hatred, and where teenagers blow themselves up in crowded market places to make a point, then there's more need than ever for Scouts to reach out and build bridges in their communities.

"Doing a good turn every day" isn't about the past, it's a relevant part of an everyday attitude where Scouts are a central part of their community, forging links and promoting understanding and tolerance.

The Scout Association knows that.  This year sees the launch of the "Million Hands" initiative, calling on the half-million members of UK Scouting to work on community impact projects.  For several years now the Scout Community Week project has seen young people carrying out projects in their local communities.  Every week around the country Scouts are visiting fire stations, old people's homes and places of worship, are learning about poverty, homelessness and fair trade, and are carrying out litter-picks and pond-clearances and planting community gardens.

Scouting isn't all about "i".  Scouting is about looking outside, holding out our hands and trying to make the world we live in a better place.  So I guess ... if that's what Scouting is all about... then i-Scout.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Developing Children's Creative Writing

What is Creative Writing?

Creative writing is difficult to define.  It is the art of making things up; illuminating truths about the world and the people in it in an interesting and attractive way.  Creative writing is original and self- expressive.  Genres of creative writing include poetry, movie or play scripts, song lyrics and novels.

Why is Creative Writing important?

Creative writing develops thinking in children which extends far beyond their writing.  Being able to think creatively means being able to think outside the box and use imagination, which is essential for all types of problem solving.  

Creative writing is also a useful outlet for self-expression – sometimes it’s hard to work your way through a problem, express your feelings, or work out your own morals, but writing it down as a problem for a character to face, or in poetry or song lyrics helps to work it through and get it out.  

Thinking about characters, their motivations and feelings helps to develop empathy.  

Being able to express yourself clearly will lead to a lifetime of clear communication.

How to develop Creative Writing in children.

Most of these activities are for Primary School children, and can be done in class or workshop situations, but there’s nothing to stop them from being adapted and used at home or with younger or older children or even adults.
  • ·       The most important thing to do to develop creativity is to get lots of experience.  It’s difficult to write about a beach on a far-off planet, or a treasure island, if you’ve never been to the seaside or seen the ocean.  It’s difficult to write convincingly about something happening at a football match if you’ve never been to one.  While extensive reading, and watching television and films, can begin to bridge this gap, it’s no substitute for real first-hand experience.  While it’s true that if you lead a cloistered life, you can still write beautiful creative fiction or poetry simply by sticking to what you do know, or by creating something entirely from the realm of fantasy, wide experience gives you a lot more to draw from.
  • ·         Role play helps children to think through how characters might react to different situations, and how dialogue works.  Extended role play helps them to think about what makes a good story – a role play game of mums and dads where they get up, go to work and make dinner is all well and good for a while, but children soon work out that things get a lot more interesting if there is conflict or a problem to solve.
  • ·         Encourage children to describe using all of their senses.  A walk in the woods – what can you hear?  What do you see?  What colours are all around you?  What do you smell?  What does the air taste of?  What do the tree trunks feel like?  What does this peach smell like, taste like, feel like, look like and sound like?
  • ·         Pick any object or phenomenon and come up with as many similes and metaphors as you can.  For example, “this daffodil… is like a patch of summer… is like a beam of sun… is like a smiling face… is a fresh faced child on a spring morning…”  “The wind… is like a toddler tantrum, fierce and loud… is like a rollercoaster ride… is like a bully in the playground…”
  • ·         Start creative journaling.  Regularly open the journal to a new page and write something.  It might be a description of the view outside, a story opening, a descriptive passage about an imaginary character, or a poem.  Anything you like, as long as it’s unique and expressive.
  • ·         Create a character together.  Pick a name at random from the phone book.  How old do you think this person might be?  What’s their ethnic background?  What’s their family situation?  What kind of person are they? What do they look like?
  • ·         Take the previous suggestion to the next level.  Either using a character from a known story, or an invented character – start to think about how they would behave in different situations.  Is their bedroom tidy?  How would they behave at a football match?  Would they make a good friend?  If you lived next door, what would their garden be like?  Would they feed your fish while you were away?
  • ·         Once they can describe a person, an object or a situation using all their senses and some wonderful descriptive adjectives and similes, it’s time to introduce them to ”show, don’t tell”.  Think about their character eating a peach.  We could tell: “He ate a juicy peach”, or we could show: “He bit into the peach, and hurriedly wiped away the sticky juice that dribbled down his chin” which also gives information about the character and how he might be feeling.
  • ·         When you’re reading stories and poems together, stop and think about what description the author or poet has used.  How do they describe the character?  How have they begun the story?  How have they brought it to an end?  Is their dialogue long and descriptive or short and punchy?  How do we know how the character is feeling in this situation?

There is so much to include in this topic, that we’ve only really covered description of place and character, and haven’t even got started on plot development or poem structure, which is going to have to form the basis of a future blog post.  Children are innately creative and imaginative, so developing creative writing is simply about harnessing that, getting them to use what they see around them, and find the words to put it on paper as written art.