Whole school book study: David Almond & Levi Pinfold's The Dam

    Published: 05 March 2020
    The Dam
    Text © 2018 David Almond, Illustration © 2018 Levi Pinfold, From THE DAM written by David Almond and illustrated by Levi Pinfold, Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5HJ, www.walker.co.uk


    Not everything happens as quickly as often gets dictated when it comes to education.  Some things take time. One such thing would include the work of Hare Street Community Primary School in Harlow and their commitment to revising and refining their annual, whole school book study/Love that Book project.  The school has recently been awarded Outstanding in their latest inspection under the new Ofsted EIF.  You can read the Ofsted report here, including its reference to our shared Love that Book work.




    This strand of work got off to a very strong, feel-good start back in 2017. You can read more in the appropriately titled blog Celebrating Primary Writing: Love That Book and Run With It.  Here, the focus was Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray's Zeraffa Giraffa, a gift of a book that just keeps on giving.  Having hosted Jane at last year's Love That Book conference, we are delighted that Dianne will be joining us this year.  You can find out more and book a place here

    The following year, the school worked on Joe Todd Stanton's The Secret of Black Rock.  An associated blog explored how this exciting work was factored into ongoing staff development - once again a collaborative piece of work in which I had the privilege to work with colleagues to establish internal models of peer-to-peer development through exploratory shared lesson design/delivery.  The focus that year was very much on technical aspects of writing, carefully handled so that these elements served the writer, their writing, and by extension their reader. Grammar kept firmly, skillfully in its place.


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    For 2019, the school chose the muted beauty of David Almond and Levi Pinfold's  immensely rich book, The Dam.  It makes sense here to outline the annual "shape" of Hare Street's work:

    • Sometime around summer the school's SLT provide the brief.  Essentially this remains the same: a book that can work, with the right support and complementary texts/instruction, from Nursery to Year 6.  A curriculum focus (this year, music, hence the Northumbrian folk scene-inspired The Dam). To add another twist of choice-complexity, the text has to lend itself to a whole school trip that everyone is supported to attend.  The trip cannot be to somewhere that has been the site of a recent, previous visit. This aspect is trickier than it sounds. The trip is a shared experience, and a vehicle that brings the talk and thought around the book to (real) life. 
    • Across autumn, I (or, in the case of Zeraffa Giraffa, my colleague Penny Slater) begin to explore possibilities, anticipate difficulties, and develop ideas to support the richest possible exploration of the book, identifying how this can be used to support the development of dialogue, reading, writing, art, and any (truly) relevant and appropriate links to wider learning.
    • That last bullet point underpins a whole day of input across the school's January return-to-work INSET.  I cannot lie; this is possibly the best way that I am able to imagine returning to work after the Christmas break. We read the book together – at normal place – and then a slow read, and then begin to explore its full potential for deeper learning.


    • The school allows plenty of time for ideas to form, take provisional shape, be shared, perhaps challenged and perhaps re-shaped, and turned into plans - the whole of spring and sometimes more. Not everything happens as quickly as often gets dictated when it comes to education. 
    • In the summer term, the project comes to life. Love That Book Units are developed and delivered across the school, and these may vary in scope and duration, according to age, phase, and a consideration that occasionally seems to be in danger of dying out in teaching and learning: what feels right.  Instinct.  Hard to measure - but hopefully still the preserve and privilege of good quality, experience- and evidence-informed teaching.
    • Productive opportunities (not forced) to form links across the curriculum are explored and deployed where properly appropriate.  This year, for example, learning in music included real-life research of the musicians referred to in the book, ukulele lessons supported by external music teachers, folk dancing… Perhaps best of all, or at least most charmingly incongruous given our historic (and current socio-politico-economical) designation as a London "overspill", the sight and sound of our children writing Northumbrian folk lyrics, is a curious thing of what some might call ‘cultural capital’ beauty. In art, found objects from nature informed a range of craft work. As always, this work culminates in ambitious school performances to parents, supported by local treasure Livewire Theatre, again based on the book, and finally the mounting of displays that remain up year-round as celebration and reminder of this focused blast of building a community of engaged reader-writers. 


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    For my part, this year’s input moved on from technical concerns and looked more closely at crafting, and the use of peer reading, and our own internal reading voices to consider how our ideas were metered out.  Essentially, we looked at two different kinds of challenge and then some application of what we had learned.

    First and foremost, how to support the youngest children in understanding and responding to some of the books more mature themes: memory, loss, displaced communities, the complexity of physical change in geographical locales. That’s a tall order.  As in previous years, I looked to complementary texts to help scaffold the children’s deeper comprehension of Almond and Pinfold’s themes and images. Of particular help was A House That Once Was by Julia Fogliano, illustrated by Lane Smith.  Here, the simpler concept helped us along the way.  Two children, exploring the woods, stumble on an abandoned house.  The children and the house – the present tense of the book – are represented in a technique something like pointillism. Dots make out tentative characters, dwellings and artefacts.  As the children pick up found objects, a bottle say, they conjure up images of possible past occupants, rendered in vivid, fully realised images.  The imagined lives of the past are clearer, more tangible, than the ghost-like explorers of the present. This exploration helped our younger learners to appreciate how the music of the community could come to live on in earth, and air, and water of Kielder, even after its musicians had moved on, and the dam had done its work of turning valley into lake. You can read more about A House… here.


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    The other challenge was to explore how we might support children to vary the rhythms of their writing.  We wanted the work to sing and to engage, just as the music might. In more prosaic terms, we wanted the children to make their readers think and feel and, in a sense, to be led by the writing in terms of how they, as readers, in turn, would “perform” a reading either in their heads or out loud. Could we make our writing come to life in the kinds of way that the best storytelling would bring to life the tale of Kathryn and Mick, and the folk musicians that they had celebrated? Here I shared a planning technique that I have been developing that supports the children in gathering ideas, and exploring which of these might be mentioned and which of these might be lingered on.  And in this lingering, how we might bring the world we hold in our heads to life in the minds of our readers.  Again a complementary book proved helpful. Where My Wellies Take Me by Clare and Michael Morpurgo, somewhat like The Dam, is essentially a prose/poetry-based recount of a walk, in which local surroundings and the associations they conjure are described, literally and figuratively, for the reader.  One of my favourite passages takes a small group of birds and a blossom tree as its focus.  Simple – but the sort of content that might often get overlooked in pursuit of a plot or, less happily, the end of ‘a task’. Where my Wellies…provided a rich model of the movement between moving forwards and stopping to snatch a still image of the world. Tempting to start talking Ted Hughes at this point, but we must move on.


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    The Dam, in turn, provided a stimulus to put this last aspect of our work into practice. Its first double page provides a widescreen vision of the valley itself, ready to support talk and thought and preparation for some scene-setting.  Immediately after this, we have a page of smaller images, fragments of the whole, capturing individual points of interest – a family of industrious field mice; birds of prey; flowers; petals in hand; petals dropping to the ground.  Small but powerful details that make the whole all the more tangible, and three dimensional.  For want of a less crude label, we called this variously our “Argos catalogue” or “chocolate box” of points of interest to linger on.  This provided our children with a means to practise constructing sequences and paragraphs of sentences that moved from statements necessary to move forward and provide reader-orientation, to close-up description that captured the essence of the place, as conceived by the writer.  Going by the outcomes seen, this work has led to some of the most thoughtfully reflective writing – writing characterised by observation and deep thought – that we have yet seen. It seems wrong to pick phases given the quality of work across the school, but the work on complementary book exploration certainly seemed to pay off in EYFS and KS1.


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    As we might expect, the final outcomes varied across the school and reflected the individual interests of the  children and their teachers. If you were to visit today you would see variously descriptive work, poetry, folk lyrics, prose, persuasion (“Come enjoy the music of…”); non-fiction exploring the creation of the lake and what might lie beneath its surface...  In Year 6, David Almond’s Harry Miller’s Run was used as the inspiration for an invented chapter in which the events of the Dam are rendered as a story shared by Harry Miller to his young, captive audience. Perhaps my favourite ‘moment’ amongst the displayed work is pictured below.  The words of one tentative writer, finding his feet in more sense that one, capturing his classmates and in turn inspiring their own work.  Motivation in action across several dimensions.


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    Memories text


    Music text


    What of the future? This year’s project looks set to be as exciting as ever.  Given my love of Sydney Smith’s work, I cannot wait to see what comes from our shared, in-depth exploration of Small in the City.  As before a slow-read opened up collective insights and challenges that have deepened my already deep appreciation of the book. We will start to see the flowers of that early spring term work next term.

    So, in summary: a term to choose the book; a day to explore it collectively with some outside help, and consider a range of core planning ideas; a term to develop plans around it. Not everything happens as fast as might seem to be dictated when it comes to education. 


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    With sincere thanks to Hare Street Community Primary School for the shared learning, motivation and the wonderful work it has led to. We are delighted that two members of the Hare Street team will be delivering a workshop at our summer conference (details below).

    Thanks, too, to David Almond and Levi Pinfold for the inspiration here and elsewhere.


    Primary English Conference: Love That Book 2020 - Inspiring Reading and Writing though Quality Literature - 3rd July 2020

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