The benefits of planning for concern… creating long term dividend.

Planning for concern

In co-constructing an island kingdom, we captured the interest of the children in my class. It was their island and they have taken ownership of the stories that are told on it. The paranoid Queen captured their attention and they wanted to find out what she would do. They were motivated by the intrigue that had been created and they wanted to know what the Queen would do and what stories would be told.

The aim is to discuss the nature of obedience. Should you obey a Queen whose decrees are based on paranoia and mistrust or does the lack of obedience fuel that mistrust. In order to do this we need to create concern and investment in the Queen. In order to build tension we now need to portray the Queen in a much better light. We need to see why the Queen is so paranoid.

Creating long term dividend.

The process of developing the Kingdom and the Queen has created a long-term dividend. The detailed and forensic planning process, discussion with colleagues and constant reflection and critique has led to a long-lasting series of learning opportunities which we can draw upon without needing to hook the children in. We can now tell stories about anyone on the island. We can invent stories in this fictional world that help us explore other concepts in our own lives, we can use the Kingdom for all kinds of writing opportunities outside of the fiction. The scene is set, the main characters and their motivations are understood, the problem has been explored. Now we can explore the rich history and tapestry of the fictional world we have created.

Story structure, tension and a build your own adventure.

One of the stories we have already told is that of a group of smugglers who are smuggling arms and gunpowder into the island in order to make an attempt on the Queen’s life. In order to tell this story we went back to the island and drew upon the map human geography – buildings, settlements and other human features. We then talked about what happened in these places and the lives of the people involved. Three boys had created a smithy – a weapons factory as they described it. We talked about where they got their raw materials from and I deliberately refuted their suggestions. I did this for too reasons. Mainly it was because they would need to come up with an authentic way of getting iron and gunpowder on a small island kingdom with a paranoid Queen at the helm and secondly because I wanted to explore cause and effect with the class. If the Queen know you had gunpowder, what would she do? If the Queen knew you were making weapons, what would she do? Eventually they came up with the idea that they were smuggling these things into the island via a boat and a contact they had with a smuggler from another Kingdom. We then spent time as a class investigating their plan and we decoded a coded message from a smuggler which revealed the rough location and timing of the next shipment. Unfortunately for the smugglers, this message had fallen into the hands of the Queen’s guard who then presented their findings to the Queen. We then set up a drama session where we had two groups of people, the Queen’s confidants and a band of smugglers. I explained that we were going to tell the story of the smugglers and their attempt to get gunpowder and weapons onto the island. They went off into their groups and briefly discussed what they thought would happen in their story.

I then explained that there would be three ‘voices’ that I would use. The voice of the facilitator who agreed with the children the ‘givens’ of the fictional world. I told them that we were governed by the laws of the real world and so no fantasy element could enter the story or nothing ‘out of this world’. We agreed some other ‘facts’ about our story so we all knew the boundaries in which we would be working. This conversation was a facilitated one where we could all contribute and agree the facts of the story. I then talked about the narrator voice whose job would be to move the story on when it was needed. Finally I introduced the idea that I might have to step into the story and assume a character if it were required. I would have three voices with the learning: facilitator, narrator and character.

To begin, the Queen stood and decreed what she wanted her guards to do in order to capture the smugglers. She said ‘I want you to take a boat to the Southern ocean and search for Smyth (the incoming smuggler)

I began the narration…

The Queen’s guards rushed away to the quay. Readying the boat to sail, they clambered in and began their treacherous journey in search of a smuggler that they didn’t really know existed. The ocean was empty and nothing could be seen anywhere. The guards kept their eyes peeled, looking for any sort of movement around them.

They paused at this point and relaxed because the next paragraph in the story was about the smugglers.

The gang of smugglers slipped through the late evening darkness towards the rendezvous point, not knowing whether Smyth would be there or not. The lookouts high on the cliffs kept their binoculars trained on the ocean, looking for Smyth but also the Queen’s guards. Slowly the gang tiptoed towards the shore. There was no sign on Smyth.

And here it hit me… so we stopped and I asked the children what they thought was going to happen next. The Queen’s guards thought that they were going to catch Smyth the smuggler and the smugglers thought they were going to get their goods. So I asked, would that make a good story and they said ‘no, it would be boring’. So now we talked about story structure, we had the setting and the characters, we had the problem and we were taking steps towards the resolution but the resolution needed tension and intrigue and no side could completely win, that would be boring. There had to be a cost to both groups of children and they understood this and began coming up with ideas.

So, we carried on and the Queen’s guards spotted a boat, pulled alongside and captured the sailor.

But at the same time, in the next narrated paragraph, the boat the smugglers were waiting for arrived at the jetty.

Before we could find out who was on that boat though the focus shifted back to the Queen’s guards who arrested someone (me in role) called Robinson who was shipping grain to the island but was arrested anyway, just in case.

The boat at the jetty, which was a different jetty to the one the guards were looking out for thanks to a cleverly placed coded red herring of a message, did indeed have Smyth on board and the goods were smuggled.

We now had a series of events leading up to a climax where the deal was done and the smugglers escaped. The end of this chapter was how the smugglers and the Queen’s guard would deal with what had happened and plan what would happen next. In the words of a child, the battle was won by the smugglers but we’ll win the war.

In doing this, I had taught story structure and we had discussed how to build tension in a story through paragraphing, repetition and linking paragraphs or ending different paragraphs in a similar way with a twist. All through the voices of facilitator, narrator and character. This time, due to time, we didn’t write it down but we really should have done. Next time we most definately will.


Just to be clear, the planning at the beginning was tough and detailed but now it is quick and easy, probably for two reasons. Firstly, the effort was put into the beginning and the steps into the fiction. Secondly, the children and I are planning the next steps by the way in which the current steps happen, spotting problems and fixing them. As more opportunities for learning present themselves and more questions are asked, the more the planning falls into place. You don’t need to think about how you are going to hook the children into the learning because that has already happened. From the steps into the island I now I need to teach: how rivers start and how they form the landscape, coastal erosion and the creation or arcs, stacks and stumps, co-ordinates and mapping, code writing and breaking, story structure and tension in stories and a bit about Tudor kings and Queens.

Accidental Darkness and Light.

Search for the video called ‘Scarlett’. It’s on the Literacy Shed website. Do it now.

Have you watched it? Good isn’t it?

I used the video this week in my Literacy lessons. I wanted to inspire the children to write but I also wanted them to notice things. One of the things they noticed but I didn’t, to begin with, was the use of darkness and light as a dramatic convention. I had worked out that the colours of red and blue were symbolic but the children talked about the darkness and light being used to help the reader understand when Scarlett was at her least and most hopeful.

What I did specifically do was watch a section of the video (when Scarleet lies on the floor and her mum enters and gives her a tutu) over and over again asking the children how Scarlett and her mother felt and how they knew. As I kept asking the question, I kept getting more and more detailed answers.

‘Notice things’ is a mantra I find myself using a lot more, liked to the writing idea of show, not tell. Notice that a character looks, for a split second, at something that reveals their motivation. Notice when an eyebrow raises and tell me what you think that means. Notice all the ways in which you can tell that a character is sad, happy, frustrated etc. These little ‘notices’ make it in to their writing and it makes the writing so much more engaging. We wrote 3/4 page about 8 seconds of film. It was great.


Thinking about Mantle of the Expert, the teacher considered fronted adverbials.

 Fronted adverbials.

One of the challenges of using a new pedagogy in teaching is finding all the ways in which it can be used to further learning. I was challenged about using Mantle of the Expert techniques in short sessions to meet a learning intention. Firstly, I focused on angles in Maths (see earlier post about the clock) – this time I went for learning to use fronted adverbials starting with -ing words.

At stage-fright we have regularly played the waiting game where participants come and sit on a chair and wait for something without words. The group have to work out from their physicality what it is the person on the chair is waiting for. They then join them and so on. With my class of Year 4 and 5 children, I adapted this to teach fronted adverbials starting with an -ing word.

I placed three chairs next to each other and invited the group to make a circle including the three chairs. Interestingly, I have noticed that the class are much more efficient and careful with moving furniture around the room to create a space for us to work in. I then sat in one of the chairs and pretended to wait for a bus. They were able to work out what I was waiting for and I asked them to articulate how they knew. They told me that I was checking a timetable on the (imaginary) bus stop, checking my watch and leaning forward to look down the road. We then turned those into -ing sentences. Checking his watch, the man peered down the road waiting for the bus.

I then invited the group, when they were ready, to come and sit on a chair and wait for something. The power of this was in the use of ‘sitting’ and ‘waiting’, giving the children the -ing starters if they needed them. I told them that although the chairs were together they were in separate worlds. The reason for having three chairs was to have more involvement and more chance of children guessing what was going on but they weren’t linked in any other way. The children had to guess what the child was sitting and waiting for using and -ing starter.

After a while of doing this and reinforcing the grammar required, we moved on to doing the same thing with whiteboards where they had to write a sentence. We then shared and talked about the punctuation required and worked on ‘hearing’ where the comma should go in the sentence.

The next day I told the children that they were going to repeat and extend what they had done before but this time they were going to work in their books. I asked them if they felt comfortable working on the floor or did they want to work at tables. They chose tables and so we organised the room into a short of horseshoe shape with a performance space, with the three chairs at the front.

I invited a child to come and sit and wait for something. A girl did and, as she sat, she looked really pensive and worried. The children worked out that she was waiting for something to happen that she was worried about. We speculated about what this might be but I also took the opportunity of asking the children what it was about her posture and movements that made her nervous. We then established that she was waiting outside the principal’s office and so the class wrote an -ing sentence about this. ‘Waiting nervously, Patricia (not her real name) sat outside the Principal’s office. Realising the power of ‘noticing’ I asked the children to continue describing the girl noting all the things that made her nervous. This had the added bonus of adding noun phrases and really deliberate and delicate description to their work and practicing the skills of ‘show, not tell’ when writing. If every sentence started with an -ing starter, we’d have some poor writing on our hands.

We then talked about what might happen and we decided that the Principal would come out of the office. We added a principal in and we talked about how to add more tension. We had the Principal make deliberate foot steps towards the door. As the child chosen to be the Principal did this, Patricia noticeably tensed up so I stopped the action and we added the -ing sentence about the Principal and the affect that had on Patricia. ‘Hearing the footsteps of the formidable Principal, Patricia sat up still, her body tensing.’ Then ‘Opening the door menacingly, the Principal beckoned Patricia in’.

The children then realised that the chairs were in the wrong place and they needed to move to be like an office. I asked which chair was the Principal’s and they couldn’t really tell me because they were both the same. They noted that the Principal’s chair should be different and somehow more grander and important so we replaced the chair with the teacher’s chair. The Principal then invited Patricia to sit down and the class talked about what the Principal could do to make Patricia more tense; pace around the room, lean over her, tut noisily etc.

At each step the children were adding to their description. The lesson was about 40 minutes and the story had advanced from sitting outside the Principal’s office to sitting inside the Principal’s office but the majority of the children had written 3/4 page in their books. We commented on how little had happened v how much they had written to show that building tension happened through fronted adverbials and deliberate and detailed description of the setting, body and actions of the characters in the story.

Finally, we reflected on the learning intention and I asked them to count how many -ing sentences they had written over the course of the lesson and whether or not they felt they could do it in their free writing. We used the ‘I can island’, where the children draw a boat and a desert island with waves of sea between them and place themselves somewhere on this continuum, depending on how successful they have been The island means success, the boat means they don’t think they have started their learning journey and floundering around in the sea means they are learning! They also number themselves 1-5 to show confidence. Some children noted that they had written a lot but not really met the learning intention as they had gone on ahead of the action in front of them and written a story; others felt that they had only really copied the modelled -ing sentences and needed more practice.

All of the children wrote more than they would have normally in the given time. This was a real bonus. Even those who didn’t meet the learning intention wrote sentences of detailed description and action about the scenario. The main reflection on these sessions was the deliberately slow pace of the action (in the story) and how the children wrote about what they noticed (the clenched worried fists, the anxious face, the deliberate steps of the Principal – the pacing around the room). All these things enhanced the tension in their writing. This was something that I first noticed when I saw Tim Taylor lead a session at Oakwood Infant school in Hartley Wintney where a subject was approaching the King’s castle to petition him to help remove a troll from under a bridge. As a group we spent 20 minutes describing the subjects walk up to the castle. It was careful, deliberate and had modelled language in it, as did this lesson about waiting. Another reflection is how naturally I am beginning to hand over control of what happens in lessons to the children. They arranged the room, chose the storyline, noticed the small things that Patricia did to show worry and they self-assessed and reviewed their own work. All I did is verbally model the style of sentence I was looking for and write it on the board for children to use.

We never did find out what Patricia had done.

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