2019 was an eventful year. It started in Chennai, India with my parents and took me on a journey to festivals and conferences across the world.
I was in Houston to participate in Texas Book Festival, then at SCBWI Europolitan Conference as a keynote speaker and had a quick stopover in Dubai for the Emirates Festival. Each festival gave me different perspectives on reading, stories and more. I met children from many different backgrounds, writers with aspirations and passion to tell new stories and although journeys are tiring and routine-breaking, they bring new energy into the writing.
I had six new books come out in 2019, that I’ve been working since 2017 and 2018. They were all different and challenged me in new ways.
I took on new challenges like writing a theatre show that I performed with a wonderful friend. I was part of a theatre devising group and we performed to an audience of five. I was briefly on BBC talking about diversity in children’s books.
I visited many schools, met with teachers and librarians across the world, told stories, inspired new tales with young people of all ages.
2020 is gearing up to be a busy year too. I can already reveal the cover of two new books that I wrote which will be published. Here is a quick glimpse – I’ll be posting more info soon. Watch this space.
While fake news, nationalism and climate crisis threatens goodwill and existence of our planet, this is a time for stories – to imagine a better life, to mine for wisdom from lessons learnt in the past and sculpt a new world for our future generations.
I wish you all a wonderful 2020 in which hope reigns despair and acceptance wins over hatred.
The Summer Reading Challenge to libraries is what Christmas is to retail. All consuming, incredibly busy, and feeling like it will never end. Fortunately for library staff, we don’t get a soundtrack on repeat while we do it.
For full disclosure it should also be noted that it’s incredibly fun. The premise of the challenge brings smiles – Reading for Pleasure. Reading for pleasure while also being bribed with stickers and activities along the way, and then receiving a medal and certificate after reading 6 books. Frankly, wouldn’t we all like to occasionally be given stickers and medals for doing something we like to do.
One of the wonderful things about the challenge is that reading for pleasure is at the heart of everything. This isn’t the time for book lists and “shoulds”. If the child likes to read books about fairies, then they should read books about fairies. Do they like Beast Quest? Beast Quest it is. Some children feel that the challenge isn’t for them as they don’t like stories. That’s fine.
Do they like Star Wars, or learning to code, or Minecraft, or dinosaurs? Reading non-fiction counts too. It’s still reading for fun.
Children (or adults for that matter) shouldn’t
be ashamed of what they like to read.
If it’s fiction or non-fiction. If it’s seen as too young to be read at their age. If they prefer to read a paper-based book or an e-book, or maybe even listen to one as an audiobook. If they enjoy it, why should it matter to anyone else.
The Summer Reading Challenge is here to encourage that joy.
Some children will be reading over the holiday’s anyway, but for some reading has become a chore where reading and fun are mutually exclusive things. That’s where doing outreach and going into schools (or community centres for those who are home schooled) helps. It’s easy to get a child who’s already in the library to read a book for fun with the promise of stickers (and some of them are even SMELLY STICKERS – ooohhhhh!).
The hard part is getting children into the library in the first place. Their parents might not be library users so they’ve never had access to such a range of books. They might have developed the attitude that reading is boring or hard, and there are far more exciting things to do. Whatever the reason, the Summer Reading Challenge is here to try and remind them that reading can be joyful and exciting.
They just have to find the right book for them.
My favourite part of the challenge is the outreach we do beforehand (and seeing the proud smiles when the children get their very own medal). When I first joined the library and heard that we did school assemblies to encourage the children to take part in the challenge, I will admit, my mouth did go a little dry. As it did the first time I stood in front of 900 children at one of our bigger assemblies. Now though, I love it.
I love getting the children cheering about books. I love getting them so excited (sorry teachers) about joining up that when the end of the day comes and their parents ask how their day was, they tell them they want to go to the library. I love when they come into the library and proudly tell me that I went to their school and made books sound like fun.
We do our assemblies in pairs and the biggest tip I give anyone learning to do them is to remember that children love it when you mess up! If you do the assembly as flawlessly as you planned then you can go away knowing you’ve done a good job. If you drop something, forget what you’re saying, have IT problems, or even have a poster fall on your head, then the children will laugh and experience it as a pantomime (and yes, I have had all of these things happen to me. I was told by multiple children at a later date in the library that the poster falling on my head was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Yes, they are laughing at you, but it’s not personal, it’s pantomime).
Tip for library staff – If you do go into schools then warn the teaching staff before the assembly starts that you do actually want the children to make noises (in appropriate sections). Otherwise the staff may shush them when you’ve encouraged the children to respond to you and the children will associate your talk with them getting into trouble. It might also help to learn what the school’s method is to bring quiet, like hands above your head or a clap rhythm. Whatever it is, it’s useful to know that you can bring over-excited children (excited about reading – Woohoo) back to listening to you. Just ask the teaching staff.
Another library staff tip for assemblies – When the assembly has finished and they are filing out, don’t busy yourself too much packing up. Look at the children. Make eye contact with at least some of them. Smile. It really does make a difference. If nothing else it makes them feel seen, feel special (and surely that’s worth it in itself). It also makes them feel more connected to what you’ve just been talking about. If they weren’t sure about taking part before, that may have just tipped the scales.
Once the challenge has started, our library likes to run a variety of activities throughout the school holidays to keep the children wanting to come back once the initial excitement of signing up has waned. This year the Reading Agency who run the Summer Reading Challenge have created a wonderful theme which the children seem to be really enjoying.
Space Chase is the theme for the 20th Summer Reading Challenge which links in with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Naughty aliens have stolen books from the moon library and the Rocket family are on the case to save the books and introduce the wonders of the library to the aliens. It’s a great theme to play with. We create a variety of craft activities that run weekly with the Space Chase theme. We also have endless amounts of colouring in, a treasure hunt around the library, and for the older children activities like our Creative Writing Club. Libraries are fun places.
Reading for pleasure is so important for children and we’re proud to be a small part of it. The library I work in is only reasonably small but we’ve already signed up over 500 children to take part this year and we hope to see many more before the end of the holidays.
If you know of a child between 4-11 then do encourage them to take part in the challenge. There aren’t many things in this world which are free and bring this much joy.
Visit your local library and let the Space Chase begin!
Jane Groves works at Totton Library in Hampshire. When she’s not inflicting books and stickers on children, she can be found working as a Medical Engineer and writing novels for teenagers.
In the first part of this series of blog posts, I talked about how to introduce creative writing in schools in a fun way. Then in the second part I talked about why it’s important to build an imagination muscle and flex it regularly.
In this final part, we will look at how to practice all these ideas in a busy and often assessment filled curriculum. Children will love reading and writing if there is much more of a self-invested motivation. So these are some ideas for both teachers to practice and practice in their classrooms with students.
Practice What You Preach
a) Start (or end) every day / lesson with a related prompt and a writing activity. Whether you’re going to be discussing mountains in a lesson about landforms or about adjectives in an English lesson, you can start with a poem or a story prompt related to the lesson. Get them to write a simple 4-line poem or a 6-line story about an adventure over a mountain using the terms they would have learnt in the previous session.
It’s a great way to revise and apply, improve comprehension because the concepts you taught have to be understood to be thrown and mixed into a story.
b) Start a writing journal – the teacher, the TAs and the students could keep a writing journal where they could write a few lines every day in one of the classes (and draw) to comment on, discuss, share their thoughts on the day or the lessons or their break-time. Whether you are an adult or a child, professional or an amateur writer, a topic or theme or a prompt would help initiate the writing process so they are not staring at a blank page.
c) Start class or school assemblies with word prompts – if the entire school is buzzing about a word – for example – umbrella – every child’s story would be different yet would have been triggered by the word umbrella.
d) Collaborative writing and drawing is a brilliant way to reduce the amount of writing each child has to bear and a great way to promote collaborative working within groups. Discuss stories, get children to work in groups to create a book, draw a cover, do the blurb, get inside writing and illustrations. It’s important that teachers take an active part in these activities to bring a sense of “we’re all in it together.”
e) Display teachers’ and children’s work alongside in classroom and school displays. Choose a topic and let everyone write a story or a poem or draw and pin it up. Be brave – the less children stress about sharing their work, less pressure to write. It increases joy and reduces the fear of criticism. And teachers should lead the way by displaying their work.
In 2018 alone, I’ve done over 200 workshops in schools across the UK and US. Often teachers ask me how to interest children in writing – without them groaning and moaning, whining and whinging.
As part of my school visits or in specialised sessions, I work with teachers to help them bring fun into creative writing in schools.
The first blog post with suggestions and ideas for activities is here.
In this post, let’s look at FLEXING THE IMAGINATION MUSCLE!
Please feel free to try them out in your schools and when it works, do send me photos, emails, tweets to share the news with me.
Like any other skill, tapping into your imagination is a skill that needs to be practiced. We need our brains and creative energy to be agile and supple to take what’s around us or given to us and make them into stories. Humans have been telling stories for millions of years. Good storytellers not only practice dipping into their inner subconscious but also keep their language and cognitive abilities honed and tuned for that one killer story they want to tell.
So here are ways by which teachers can keep the imagination muscles of their children flexed and ready for that day when you want them to write stories, poems and get going with the writing.
Word Association Games – this improves the vocabulary and at the same time can be fun and competitive in class. It can be played in groups or one to one, it can be a great tool not just to improve imagination, but also to build comprehension and spelling skills.
There are many ways to play this game – but my favourites are these two:
The first one – is simply to generate interesting nouns and verbs.
Pick a random word from a hat, from a book, or from around the room.
Now the group should come up with five different related nouns and verbs. If the associated words are not obvious, they should be able to explain why they chose it. Remember, there is nothing right or wrong about their choice – but we are flexing their imagination as to why they associated those words with the added benefit of comprehension.
The second one is a story-starter. Again it can be played individually or in groups
Open the dictionary to a random page, find a noun a
Ask the following questions:
Who owns this?
What does it look like?
Who wants to steal it?
The teams should write down the answers and start their story from here.
2. What-If: This is a great way to trigger the out of box ideas. This technique is also used by most professional writers.
In a classroom setting, you can start off with a prompt – either an image or a physical object or a word.
Here is an example.
What if my Grandma’s chair is a time travelling machine?
Once you have generated a question that has potential, the team should then dig further into the what-if and keep continuing until they see the story emerge.
So continuing from the above what if – here are my next three.
What if she sits and is transported to the Bronze Age?
What if she took my maths homework with her and I need it back?
What if I went after her and had to rescue her from the Bronze Age humans?
Step 1: Have you found the author you want and agreed a date? Great. Now agree details with them on number of sessions, the classes they would visit. Tell them a bit about why you want them to visit and what would benefit your school.
Step 2: At least a month before the author visit, reach out to the author and ask for what activities the class could do before they come. Here are some ideas:
Read the books of the author
Discuss the topics across the curriculum
Inform all teachers, and librarians of the teacher’s visit
Tell the parents about the upcoming visit and encourage them to go to their local libraries and borrow the books.
If the author shares their personalised activities, lesson plans try them out in your classes. For example, I have a website full of activities for my books.
Step 3: Two weeks before the author visit, either for the whole school or for your individual class, set up committees.
A welcome committee – two students who are shy and need support to welcome the author on arrival and thank the author when they leave.
A research committee – an ICT project team that will find out more about the author from their website and other safe sources.
An art committee – a group of children who will either create posters, cards or music (or find songs) to match the books of the author.
Logistics committee – a group that’s responsible for author’s lunch, water and other organising
Book sales committee – a group that will design and create an order form, agree to man the till and create a sales list when done.
Assembly committee – this could be the group of people who normally look after the projector and the assembly computers etc who will assist the author on the day.
Remember the children are improving their literacy, maths, arts and research skills all the while being proud of their committee membership.
Step 4: Order the author’s books for your school library so they arrive before the author arrives. Make sure your librarian is fully aware of the author visit and is part of your organising committee.
Step 5: Are you arranging book sales? Do you know how it will happen? If you’re unsure of this, talk to the author. Many will sell their own books and others would refer you to a local indie bookshop. Bookshops work closely with schools to deliver books to the school and take them back after the sales. Click here to find out if there’s a bookseller local to you.
Step 6: Inform parents a week before the author visit. If your school has a website or newsletter, announce it there. Make sure the order forms have reached the parents.
Step 7: Remind the children and parents the night before the author visit and create a buzz. Get the children to prepare questions for the author. Remember, many authors already have a lot of info o
n their website. Encourage the children to ask something different. Authors love it when they have to think about the answer.
Step 8: On the day, do show the author where the toilets are, staff-room is and how they could make a cup of tea. If you’re providing lunch, explain to the author how that will work and who will be their escort.
Step 9: During the assembly and workshops, be present and engaged. Don’t cut into the author’s time or interrupt them for disciplining the children often. If the children are motivated through the above steps, they would be listening to every word the author utters.
Remember to get your library books signed too. Authors would gladly do so even in their lunch hour or as they wait for children to buy books.
Arranging an author visit is a lot of work. The trick is to delegate much of the preparation to the children, thereby empowering them to be leaders, managers, public speakers and volunteers. Spread the responsibility across all classes and ask for help from other teachers, TAs and even your PTA.
An author visit can bring enormous value not just in reading for pleasure, but in so many ways if you harness its full potential.
A new term will start soon and I wish you and your children many author visits in this brand new year. If you want to find out more about my author visits, please click here.