by Janice Nussey, Year 5 Teacher at Bassingbourn Primary School
‘Children need frequent, regular and sustained opportunities to talk together about books.’
As teachers, we recognise this universal truth, yet in the classroom it becomes increasingly difficult to captivate all the children in the atmosphere, language, characters and subtle twists and turns of a book. Time slips away from us, the demands of the curriculum dictates bursts of disjointed writing and the creativity and confidence of the children slowly slips away under the burden of a mountain of grammar, statutory assessments and lack of independence. Joining the Power of Pictures course has had a huge impact on my teaching practice and our whole school approach to English.
Spending time at the CLPE was a delight in itself: a library stacked high with beautiful books, walls illustrated by authors who had visited and a building full of enthusiastic, child-focussed individuals whose sole aim is to promote and encourage good teaching practice and the love of reading in children.
During the first workshop, Charlotte Hacking introduced many ideas through the scrutiny of a series of challenging, beautifully illustrated picture books – examining the metaphors, motifs, themes, characters and development of illustrated stories. Alexis Deacon led an exploration of ‘Croc and Bird’ using elements from the planning sequences on the CLPE website. We examined stills, sequences and vignettes, discussed the language of pictures, drew crocodiles, created characters and relationships from simple beginnings and were inspired to write lengthy pieces on the actions and feelings of Croc and Bird. Sitting with author-illustrators, sharing observations with Alexis, Ed Vere and fellow teachers was a real privilege and we all left itching to get started in the classroom.
The translation of this workshop and input into the classroom was nothing short of stunning. In a year 5 class, we studied ‘Croc and Bird’. In the first session, children had a selection of eggs to draw or paint in any medium they chose, depicting careful detail, then completing a picture of a whole egg, then preparing a colourful setting for the egg to sit in. The results were diverse and unique to each child. The freedom of choice alone meant this activity was approached with relish by the entire class. The children gradually fell silent as they concentrated on the task. The sort of dialogue that eludes us, in a clamour of ideas, urgent answers or silent tasks began – a structured discussion of the possible inhabitant of the eggs: which animals lay eggs? Where eggs are incubated? How eggs are fertilised? The children bounced ideas around, listening to each other, speaking in turns, examining, discussing and eventually leading their own learning. As adults, we joined the activity and quietly listened to the gentle conversations as each student contributed to this whole class exploration, whilst focussing intently on their creations. We decided as a group to break the eggs in the afternoon and the cross-curricular opportunities opened up as we observed the albumen, chalaza, nucleus, yolk and air pocket in the eggs. We labelled diagrams, talked about fertilisation, human eggs and embryos and completed superb investigations and writing in our science books.
A double page spread of the first picture in ‘Croc and Bird’ greeted the children in the next session. Two eggs. They discussed possible relationships, settings, creatures, weather, alien atmospheres and their excitement built. Eventually, they each chose a sentence that the author may have used to go with the illustration. The offers were diverse. Each word carefully chosen, fitting with their own ideas about the picture. A clamour of appreciation resounded around the room, when the sentence Alexis Deacon chose for this page was finally revealed.
The rest of the sequence of teaching continued in the same vein. The book was accessible and stimulating for the entire group. We drew crocodiles together, each different to the next: ‘My Croc is kind of ‘meow’,’ commented one child, ‘Mine is ‘roar’,’ observed another. The classroom walls were covered in their notes, stills from the book, crocodile drawings, eggs sitting in wonderfully diverse settings and examples of writing we had included along the way. Character and setting descriptions, dialogue interwoven in narrative, instructions, scientific diagrams, explanations - and as we reached the double page spread, of all the parrots and all the crocodiles, the children gasped in horror in realisation of the predicament of Croc and Bird. The children flew into lengthy writing about how the characters both felt, predictions of what might happen next and an overall desperation to find out what would happen.
The final reading of ‘Croc and Bird’ was magical.
Our journey did not end there. We visited Alexis Deacon at the Story Centre in Stratford and the day was a huge adventure for the children, from visiting the Olympic Park, climbing the AcelorMittal Orbit, building dams, exploring the Story Centre and meeting the author of ‘Croc and Bird’. It was a privilege for everyone to learn to create and illustrate characters in such an intimate setting. Alexis inspired the children and gave them all confidence to complete their own illustrated books. His input was invaluable as he led a practical and inclusive workshop. On our return to school, each child produced individual illustrated books: creating story sketches, moving ideas around, approaching the story from the starting point of illustration, getting to know their characters through close examination and drawing rather than desperately trying to drum up ideas on a ‘story mountain’.
Our approach to English changed as we searched for picture books to suit units of work, beginning with the language of pictures and their power to promote interest, enthusiasm, discussion and writing. The project showed me how the picturebook goes beyond the simple, stand-alone visual stimulus of ‘picture of the day’ writing activity or Chris Van Allsberg illustrations. The immersive build-up of themes, characters, settings, relationships, ideas and observation is crucial to the understanding of the children to write confidently, explore vocabulary and be totally absorbed in their tasks. For boys who find writing difficult, there were no barriers to their learning as they eagerly completed written pieces, desperate to get their ideas down, supported by their own understanding and scrutiny of accessible texts.
As a school, we have incorporated Power of Pictures throughout every year group, following shared training and using the CLPE recommended texts as a starting point. The outcomes promise to be extraordinary and the confidence of the staff to draw and paint themselves is growing. Our guided reading sessions begin with the study of illustrations, before looking at the written word. The Power of Pictures project is one of the truly helpful tools in our armoury, as we endeavour to teach a generation who read little and spend less time partaking in structured dialogue, some beginning school barely talking at all, in the face of computer games and endless screens.
Thank you CLPE for giving us time in the classroom to observe closely and have frequent, regular and sustained opportunities to talk together about books.
Janice Nussey is a Year 5 teacher at Bassingbourn primary school. Janice took part in the Power of Pictures research programme in 2018-19. She talks about her experience on the programme, and how this impacted children across her school.