You may not have heard the tale of Black Rock, as laid out in great visual detail in Joe Todd-Stanton's The Secret of Black Rock, one of a number of Joe's graphic novels for children, published by Flying Eye Books. It's a tale of high drama and intrigue, set on coast and sea, and featuring a foolhardy protagonist going by the name of Erin. It's a deceptively simple story with plenty of thematic depth for exploration, and it is currently making its presence felt across Hare Street Community Primary School in Harlow.
You might recall Hare Street; it was the subject of an earlier blog on whole school book studies, and was the focus of a presentation on National Curriculum implementation at last year's UKLA National Conference. Here's a visual reminder and a link to refresh your memory of the earlier work, based on Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray's beautifully written, beautifully illustrated mini-masterpiece, Zeraffa Giraffa:
That blog was a moment of catharsis, a dash to the open door of summer after a year of more statutory assessment writing shenanigans than most of us might care to remember. It was a celebration of a school, its staff, and above all, its children, in short, the school community. It was also a celebration of the power of writing and of talk, of art, of science, PE, geography. The book was a virus and resistance was futile. It didn't end there. After the blog was released, we received the letter pictured below:
This came all the way from South Africa, from the author herself. Some children from Harlow in Essex had made waves around the world, and the ripples had reached the most wonderful audience member imaginable. I am born, raised, and continue to live in Harlow. In fact I am fiercely loyal to it. You may need to bear this in mind if I wax too lyrical about the school. That said, please know that I am talking from a position of understanding when I say that a letter like this from the author of a book, read and loved across the school, meant a great deal to the school community. I should probably add at this point that we are absolutely thrilled to have legendary illustrator, Jane Ray, join us for a discussion of her work at our imminent, destined-to-be-life-affirming conference.
The work on Zeraffa was a roaring success, underpinned by a school trip, assemblies, application of themed elements in other curriculum areas, and some strikingly innovative Learning Council work. This latter aspect alone warrants a blog, and I shall be speaking, and sharing videos, about this at our conference (for more details, please follow the link embedded in the graphic at the foot of this blog). In fact, this Love That Book unit was a lightning rod for the school, a galvanising site of learning that not only served to bolster literacy, but also brought together the collaborative work that the school had undertaken with me in implementing the newly prescribed learning of the then new national curriculum. The table below indicates some of the earlier work carried out across the school in a sort of lesson study-lite programme of working in trios.
This programme of joint planning / teaching /reflection and refinement had taken place across the preceding year. It was a powerful piece of work, designed to remove any doubts around new terms and concepts, facilitate peer-to-peer support and illuminate the range of pitch reflected in the new requirements. More importantly it helped to keep (good) grammar instruction, deliberate sentence practice, and the like in their rightful, critical place in underpinning and supporting confident writing. Quite importantly, but far from a given in the heady, early days of the reforms to the curriculum and statutory assessment, it helped to promote, and in many senses protect, writing that was readable and that you would want to read.
I will be talking more about this programme of CPD, which continues to this day in the form of sustained self-development work, and informs the pedagogic/content design and delivery culture of the school, at our conference. It's something I talked about at UKLA and will again at a forthcoming conference for the Canons Park Teaching School Alliance. I have a feeling I might be talking about it all the more in the next couple of years. If nothing else, I will just say that in all the inevitable increased volume of articles, blogs, think pieces and consultation documents relating to curriculum, if we are keeping enactment in mind, we need to be talking about the humans involved. Words on a page are reliant on humans if they are to have anything meaningful to say. I'll end this particular line of thinking with a slide from the conference workshop:
The shared mission of the whole school book study has come to be a focal point for the school in its planning calendar. It provides a collaborative space for cross-year and phase progression and to develop complementary but suitably different practice. Achievement is very high, particularly so given the school's context, a fact recognised by the DfE in writing. A recent Ofsted inspection also confirmed the school's positive view of its curricular strengths. All this affirmation and a letter from Dianne Hofmeyr. What more could we want? Well, more of the similar. The Love That Book approach is now an annual event. The school arranges for one of our team to deliver their January inset, in which we thoroughly explore the book, draw out all the thematic elements relevant to the school, and identify a rich range of language learning opportunities that the book offers. Penny Slater took the reins with Zeraffa in 2017; I took them with The Secret of Black Rock in 2018, and again this year with a thrilling exploration of the riches of David Almond and Levi Pinfold's extraordinary The Dam. Here the focus will be on memory, community, and music. Watch this space. It is going to fill up with exciting things. Following the inset, teachers have several months for ideas to take shape so that they are properly refined and developed by the time that summer rolls into view. This in itself is incredibly helpful.
Here are just some of the ideas from this year's work on Secret of Black Rock, that might fuel some rich thought, talk, and writing across your school.
I'll close with some of the work from 2018 inspired by the book. An abundance of work will be shared at the conference, together with videos, case study, teacher insights and surveys, pupil voice. We are thrilled that Joe Todd-Stanton himself is joining us for our workshop at the conference and will be signing books. We are just as thrilled to be joined by two members of the Hare Street team who have played key roles in getting the initiative off the ground. There is so much to talk about: the whole school trips that open up all kinds of new thinking; the school production developed with a local theatre group (shout out to Livewire); and much more besides. We have just an hour. It is going to be packed.