Tag Archives: literacy

Horror at Ruthvenfield Primary School!

ruthvenfield primary school book writing workshop ruthvenfield's portal to the nineteenth 19th century author john bray perthshire scotlandOver the past few months, I’ve been working on an exciting new project with pupils from Ruthvenfield Primary School. Pupils from their p6/7 class have worked long and hard to create their very own book titled ‘Ruthvenfield’s Portal to the 19th century’.

I didn’t want to post about it until it was all ready. There can be a lot of changes to a book even after a first draft is completed so I felt that it was best to wait until they were ready to share their creation.

I just got back from a wee event they put on today in the forest that features in chapters three and four of their book. (I even got a wee thankyou from the kids written in sticks in some eco-art they worked on this afternoon).

Now that the book is here I’m so glad to finally get the chance to share what we’ve been up to.

More than a one-off workshop

One of Ruthvenfield’s pupils read one of my books (‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘) and his mum suggested to the headteacher (Sarah Burke) that she get in touch. Initially, I was happy to put on an ordinary book talk for World Book Day but Mrs Burke asked me if I would like to do a workshop as well.

I’ve always wanted to try something a bit different when it comes to workshops. I thought that it would be good to have the pupils themselves put in all of the work; creating their own book from start to finish, illustrating, editing, and marketing it. As far as I could see this was the best way to let them feel invested in their work.

This sharing of the workload also helped them demonstrate excellent teamwork. The project was a little ambitious, as it tied in a creative writing project, with young enterprise components, as well as a degree of community engagement/PR/marketing elements. I knew from the start that we were asking a lot of the pupils but they seemed up for it.

Exceeds Expectations

The pupils put together something fantastic. They’ve surprised me often, not that I had low expectations, it’s more that I knew this would be a challenge and they’ve met that challenge and gone above and beyond.

I left as many decisions as I could in the hands of the pupils. During our initial workshop, we listed genres and subjects on the board (nominated by the pupils) and they voted for their favourite; a horror story, focussing on relationships (both enemies and friends), set in their own school.

From this moment on they seemed extremely connected to their book (once the writing itself began one pupil, off ill, even logged in to the shared editing system and worked on his chapter). Miss MacKenzie (the p6/7 teacher) noted that they were all highly motivated to make their book as good as it could be.

About the book

I had the enjoyable task of looking over their work and offering editorial comments. It is genuinely a fun (and scary) read. It follows a group of classmates as they are flung into another time with a set of tasks to complete. If they fail they will never be allowed to return to their own time.

It’s a unique story with a perspective on primary-school aged children that is both enlightening and very honest (because it’s written by primary school children). The book was divvied up with chapters written by small groups of pupils.

Despite the shared workload, they had a structured book plan and character maps for their main characters so the overall tone of the book is coherant and makes for an accessible read. I’m probably biased but I strongly suggest you get hold of a copy.

Copies are available from the school at the end of the day tomorrow (27th June), or from Fun Junction in Perth and Crieff. Priced at £4, it’s a great summer read for anyone aged eight and up.

For Teachers/Group Leaders/Educators (Obligatory Self-promotion)

This was a new take on my usual school visits but one that I feel went very well. If you would like to run something with your own class/group please get in touch.

The full writing task from the first workshop to a finished, printed, book should take around two months. If you would like to have a finished book completed in time for the Christmas holidays I’d recommend getting started soon after the beginning of the Autumn term.

I still have dates available for initial workshops in September and I’m happy to discuss additional details and requirements. You can reach me by e-mailing: jackreusenbooks@hotmail.com

All the best, John

 

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The One Day One Book Challenge

Do you always wish you had more time to read? Do you wish your kids would find reading more enjoyable? Either way you may benefit from a one day one book challenge.

Here are the basics.

  • Commit: Set aside 6 to 8 hours within one single day for reading.
  • No distractions. I recommend a Sunday or a day during the holidays. I will be doing mine of Christmas Eve, which in Iceland is called ‘Jolabokaflod’ or “The Christmas Book Flood”, where people give each other books as presents and you spend the rest of the day reading. Seems a good time to go for it. (You can add the event to your Google Calendar now)
  • Don’t go crazy: Pick a book that you can realistically finish at a normal reading pace (Standard middle-grade fiction length would work well for a family reading aloud together, otherwise an individual, or group of individual readers, should get through a novel-length book in the same amount of time). May I recommend ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ (if you haven’t already read it)
  • Share the Load: If reading aloud, be open to sharing the load. Invite friends/family young and old to read what they can out aloud too.
  • Keep it Fresh: The book must be new to everyone involved. (Again, may I recommend ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ or even ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ if you’ve already read the first book 😉 )
  • This aint ‘fight club’ (OPTIONAL): Tell everyone. Share your progress and experiences on Twitter or Facebook with #onedayonebook

How do you know this is doable?

I’m not claiming extensive knowledge so use your own judgement. Here’s where I got my numbers from.

I read to my kids at a rate of about thirty to forty pages an hour (we get through an average chapter in about half and hour). I figure I could keep this up in one individual day for four to six non-continuous hours (I’ll need breaks). This should let us get up to two-hundred and forty pages read in one day (once we count in breaks for tea, food, fresh air etc.).

With this rate in mind we’ll be avoiding Harry Potter (both because of length but also because most of the family have read all the Harry Potter Books already). As much as I love them, most of the books in the series are very long and probably aren’t suitable for this challenge. If you have a few ready volunteers though you could always give it a go (just watch you don’t lose your voice).

I have no idea if anyone else has tried this, or whether this is a ‘thing’ already. If it is and you can point me in the right direction I’ll be sure to credit the right people here.

Go forth and Read

All I have left to say is I hope you decide to join in. There’s no specific date fixed for this but it would be great to hear how people get on via Twitter. If you decide to join in on Christmas Eve with me I guess we’ll all be in on it together (which is always good at that time of year).

Please also feel free to pop in any suggestions you have for suitable books (also using #onedayonebook).

I hope you enjoy your day of reading,

All the best, John

 

P.S During my own search, I did come across an event called ‘One Book One Day’. During the course of this event a whole school chooses to read a single title throughout the school day. Staff and pupils are all reading the same thing which should lead to discussions about the book as they go. This sounds like a great idea, just think how good it is when you meet someone reading the same thing as you at the same time and then multiply that by a whole school. Definitely one for teachers to think about. You can find out more information here.

P.P.S: Also hastag readabookaday https://twitter.com/hashtag/readabookaday?src=hash

George’s marvelous medicine

For over a year I’ve struggled to get my eldest to read independently. To be honest that’s not entirely true as he’d happily jump into reading Star Wars encyclopaedias at the drop of a hat. However, with the encyclopaedias he’d put them back down after a page or two.It was pretty clear that we needed to track down a book that really spoke to him.

With p4 and the step up in reading it brings on the horizon I realised that he’d need to get more accustomed to longer stretches of reading than he had before. I hunted for books that would pique his interest but every time we simply find another story for me to read to him and his brother (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing).

We hunted and hunted, I trailed him through a serious number of bookshops over the past few months. Then, about a month ago we took a trip to Glasgow, walked in to Waterstones, and with the promise of a comfy seat and a chocolate he finally reached a decision; George’s Marvellous Medicine.

Picking the book in person had its own charm to it and I think the setting definitely helped. However, the general idea of a boy messing with a grouchy granny seemed to catch him straight away.

It was a favourite of mine when I was his age but I’d forgotten how good it was. George is precocious and empathetic, and also a bit of a chancer. To be honest I think it was a good match for my son’s personality. On top of this the granny (the recipient of the medicine) is a whole new character once you look at her from an adult’s perspective.

My son read the first few chapters aloud but he’s starting to just grab his book, curl up, and read. Last night he skipped bedtime story and just brought the book into bed with him to read by torchlight. The book geek in me couldn’t be happier, but on top of this I know that what he’s doing will make the change in reading level this year all the easier to keep up with.

It’s a simple book that has been expertly crafted by one of the greatest story tellers I’ve read. Our new challenge will be to find the right book to follow it, but I’ve a feeling that the Roald Dahl back catalogue will keep him occupied for a while.

What were your favourite books when you first started reading? Can you remember any of them still? Let us know in the comments below.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

School visits

apple-256261_1920I think we may now have officially hit the point where all local school children have returned from their holidays (or thereabouts). In light of this I thought I’d put out a quick reminder to any teachers reading about school visits. I’m available for book talks and writing workshops and I currently have a fairly clear calendar (though it is starting to fill up with other things).

I’ve never charged for school visits but I do normally bring along books for sale at a special price (I’ll figure out pricing long in advance of a visit to leave teachers time to get information out).

In the past I’ve hosted book talks for whole schools, for individual classes, and for middle-sized groups sorted by age. I’m also happy to spend a little more time with older children who might want to learn more about the writing process in a workshop setting.

If you think you’d be interested please get in touch. For those who want to do a more focussed book talk I can provide class copies of the Fey flame to give you/ your students a chance to read it in advance (either to review it or to let pupils get to know about the books before I come along).

If you are interested in arranging something please get in touch by e-mail (click this link) or by messaging below. I hope to hear from you soon,

All the best, John

Staying on target

wpid-training_dummy_500.jpgToday I passed 12,000 words of ‘Thea’s Quest’. Chapter six is done and I’m close enough to my word-count target to feel fairly comfortable. It was a hard slog today (wrote almost 4,000 words) but I really feel like it was worth it.

It’s a lot of fun experimenting with what Thea will do in different situations, it’s telling me so much more about who she really is and what the tone of the other books in her series will have.

As I said in my previous post, I won’t have much time for blog posting during all the other writing madness this month but when things go right it’s nice to share. Hope you’re all well, and as always thanks for reading (and for stopping by). All the best, John

Why I refused to read Harry Potter

no harry potter restriction circleIt’s not as bad as it sounds, please read on to find out more. I was first told about the boy wizard in high school, it would have been about 2000/2001, and I point-blank refused to read it. I even laughed at friends who were recommending it. You see the problem was that Harry Potter was a kid’s book, and seventeen year old John was no child.

I had my mind set on becoming an author and was sure that truly engaging writing (the kind that I could learn from) could only be found in books aimed at adults. I read magical realist authors like Rushdie, de Berniere, and Garcia Marquez. I also Immersed myself in classic literature and edgy new work. In short I thought of children’s literature as something of an oxymoron. Instead I was simply a moron.

Reality hit me at Stirling Uni in 2002 when I headed down to the MacRobert Cinema to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a friend. The film left so much unsaid, so many questions unanswered, that I borrowed copies of the first two books from her to catch up with what was going on. Then I borrowed another (you know, just to see what happened next), and then another. Then I ran out.

On the 22nd of June the following year I was queueing outside a Waterstones in Aberdeen at midnight. I patiently waited for them to open the doors and release copies of ‘the Order of the Phoenix’ to the street-load of waiting children dressed as witches and wizards (I wished I had come in costume too).

A good book transports you to another world, or offers a view of our own that you might not have considered. It opens up questions and makes you think, and if you’re lucky it takes you for an adventure. Magical realists can do that, classical literature can do that, gritty ground-breaking new fiction can do that, and (unbeknownst to my seventeen year old self) so too can a good children’s book do all of these things.

We can get stuck in a rut when it comes to what we read, fixating on just one genre, but we miss out by doing that. As students, a bunch of us traded favourite books, we all had widely different tastes and we decided we might benefit by shaking things up a little. To be honest I don’t think I’ll ever be a full horror, crime, or thriller convert (though I still like to jump into a good horror book as the nights start to draw in) but that wasn’t really the point of our experiment. Our wee book-swap gave me an insight into what qualities made these types of book so appealing to so many people, it made me realise just how hard it can be to pin down just exactly what counts as ‘good writing’.

I still cringe at the thought of how condescending I must have sounded as a teenager and I apologise to Adam for dismissing what truly was an amazing find, and I also thank Vikki for allowing me to see how rich and enjoyable children’s literature can be (even for adults).

Are there any ‘children’s books’ that you’ve found particularly engaging? Do you avoid popular authors because you think they’re somehow less remarkable because of their popularity? Feel free to have a chat about it in the comments below, or over at the facebook page or twitter account. As always, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

What Reading can do for you

Read for 1 minute or less a day with your children and they may end up in the bottom tenth percentile! (But should you care?)

I’ve seen this graphic (or something very similar) floating around the internet recently. While I agree with the idea that reading with your children is a good thing, I’m not sure if I agree with the hefty role being given to word volume, or the assumption that parents only care about test scores. It’s part of the growing inclination of so many to try and quantify childhood learning.

Of course, some skills are more quantifiable than others: vocabulary, memory, the ability to follow instructions (this list is far from exhaustive). In this sense it’s easy to see how an increase in vocabulary and memory might improve test scores. However, there are so many more important skills that reading helps develop than the capacity to have great test scores.

Children who read find themselves exposed to other ways of thinking, other worlds, and other people, in a much more intimate manner than you find in any other medium.

The characters, ideas, plots, scenarios, and places found within the pages of a book do not stay there; they find a home inside your mind. It’s about as close to telepathic communication as we can get.

When a child reads a story where a character loses their memories, they aren’t simply exposed to a vocabulary-building exercise; they have been given access to some fairly complex notions about identity. This might lead them to ask questions about whether we are the sum of our memories, or something more. In essence, books (and perhaps fantasy books in particular) provide simple, digestible ways of thinking about some pretty big questions.

It kind of bothers me to see test scores held up as the pinnacle of childhood achievement. Test scores can be a great way of gauging a child’s engagement with their learning, but I’m a little dubious about regarding these scores as anything more than that. 

A child’s ability to deal with the world outside of school will have a lot more to do with how much they understand, plus a host of skills that are even harder to quantify.

If a child opts for university they may be surprised to discover how important it is to have a collection of skills that go beyond reading speed, vocabulary, and memory (the more testable skill set). 

I used to tutor Philosophy undergraduates at Edinburgh University and it was amazing to see the way that some students (who came in with less than stellar grades in high school) would somehow overtake their higher scoring classmates. Often this hedged on far less tangible/quantifiable skills than memory etc.

We wanted to see students demonstrate an understanding of the nuances of arguments; memorising facts and figures simply wasn’t enough (though it was of course valuable). What’s more the ability to step outside rote learning and think for themselves enables students to create thought provoking and insightful essays. I learned that high test scores aren’t always a clear indicator that someone will perform well, even in an academic environment.

The abilities of a teacher are often assessed based on the test scores of the children they teach, but this can leave little room for some truly vital skills; like bolstered inquisitiveness, social understanding, and the ability to ground ideas within a real-world backdrop. 

Many teachers do a phenomenal job at encouraging these, and many more, traits (I’ve met a good number of these teachers on the various school talks I’ve done) and I’m fairly certain that these essential skills will be hard to locate by looking at where a child falls within the national ‘percentile’.

Of course we should read to our children for twenty minutes a day, longer if you get the time. For some of us it’s part of the ever-shrinking portion of the day in which we can spend time together, without necessarily having to deal with some kind of screen. 

Not only does it allow you and your child to discuss all kinds of topics and issues, but it also gives you a few moments in which to touch base and enjoy spending time together.

Reading, at least in this context, has much more to do with maintaining relationships and learning about the world we share, than it has to do with building vocabularies and assisting in academic scores. 

Reading shouldn’t be marketed as a fast track road to success (even if the numbers suggest it); it’s an activity that opens dialogue, builds relationships, and encourages inquisitive minds. In short reading opens us up to all of the fantastic skills that make us human, it doesn’t just help us test well.

If you have anything to say about any of the issues I’ve touched on in this post please feel free to share your ideas in the comments, or over on social media (here are the Jack Reusen facebook and twitter accounts). Thanks for reading, all the best, John