Book blog No2 Pax by Sarah Pennypacker

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I’m going to put it straight out there,  this is a fantastic book. I have already said on twitter that Pax is one of the best books that I read last year (It was the best book till I read Raymie Nightingale). I would go so far to say is it should be an instant classic.

Pax is a story about a boy and his pet fox and the unbreakable bond between them. The best children’s stories are  little bit dark, and in this book there are whispers of violence, loss and death. Yet the it is also utterly and unashamedly about love and this makes the  tale both powerful, emotional and ultimately redemptive. That it does this without resorting to sentimentality is an achievement in itselfThe story is set in the context of an ongoing war  which whilst being fictional could at the same time  be any historical or contemporary war.  Pax,  is the story of a  12-year-old boy and his pet fox.  It begins with betrayal as the boy’s father forces him to abandon the fox and then takes on a quest structure as the two friends embark on a fraught journey to find each other and make things right.

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Elements of the book are not an easy read. Bad things happen and the book doesn’t shy away from them. Pennypacker uses alternate chapters between Peter, a young boy whose father leaves to fight in the war, and his fox Pax,  who must learn to adapt in the wild in order to survive.

The chapters written from Pax’s point of view are insightful and provide an animal’s perspective of humans and war. Pennypacker worked with a number of experts on fox’s behaviour and this is evident in how she he helps us understand their world.

While Pax learns to negotiate the complications of surviving in the wild and relating to other foxes. Peter’s epic journey is complicated when he breaks his leg and is forced to rely on Vola an eccentric woman and war veteran fighting her own demons.

Both characters grow tougher and wilder as the story progresses and this really lends the story a coming of age feel. The balance of the chapter structure works wonderfully and drive the narrative forward relentlessly.

 

Pennypacker’s use of language is dense and complex. ( Upper KS2 teachers it will challenge and then some.) It is also absolutely wonderful. I have included a brief sample just to whet your appetite.

“The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. By the vibrations, he learned also that the road had grown coarser. He stretched up from his boy’s lap and sniffed at threads of scent leaking in through the window, which told him they were now traveling into woodlands. The sharp odours of pine — wood, bark, cones, and needles — slivered through the air like blades, but beneath that, the fox recognized softer clover and wild garlic and ferns, and also a hundred things he had never encountered before but that smelled green and urgent.

The boy sensed something now, too. He pulled his pet back to him and gripped his baseball glove more tightly.

The boy’s anxiety surprised the fox. The few times they had traveled in the car before, the boy had been calm or even excited. The fox nudged his muzzle into the glove’s webbing, although he hated the leather smell. His boy always laughed when he did this. He would close the glove around his pet’s head, play-wrestling, and in this way the fox would distract him.

But today the boy lifted his pet and buried his face in the fox’s white ruff, pressing hard.

It was then that the fox realized his boy was crying. He twisted around to study his face to be sure. Yes, crying — although without a sound, something the fox had never known him to do. The boy hadn’t shed tears for a very long time, but the fox remembered: always before he had cried out, as if to demand that attention be paid to the curious occurrence of salty water streaming from his eyes.”

From PAX by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen.

Pax is as much a powerful tale of the costs of war as it is a story of boy and fox, It offers insights into the impact that the barbarity of war has on humans and animals alike. Pax is ultimately a compelling and heartrending coming of age story. I have to say I cried quite a bit.

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A special mention must go out to the illustrations by Jon Klassen, award-winning creator of the picture book hat trilogy (I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat, and We Found A Hatif you haven’t read them, find them and  read them now!), his artwork magically captures the tone and feel of the book: charming, homespun and emotional.

There are moments of darkness, loss and the graphic brutal reality of war which for me would place it firmly for Year 6 and Year 7 pupils or older. (10+) I would recommend reading the book before using with a class, then you can make informed judgements about suitability.

Themes :- Friendship, loyalty, pacifism, war, environmentalism, redemption, coming of age

 

Pax discussion Guide from Sarah Pennypacker’s website

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book blog No1 The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

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“Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there lived a dark and stormy girl.”

Firstly I Think this book should be being talked or thought about as a book for sharing in our classrooms. It is an absolutely thrilling piece that at turns plays with and shocks the reader and ultimately becomes the fairytale that the opening sentence alludes to.

The story is set against the background of the yet to happen Russian Revolution and the seeds and shoots of rebellion weave their way through the book ultimately driving the narrative. The fact that children are very much the agents of change in this story ensures it has at it’s core an innocence. The picture drawn is of a society very much of have and have nots, with the have nots beaten down and oppressed. Feodora Petrovich and her mother Marina live in the Russian wilderness, not too far from St Petersburg. Though they’re the only humans for miles, they’re hardly alone – not exactly. The Petrovich family has been “wilding wolves” for centuries – since the days of Peter the Great, in fact.

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Wolf wilding is the exactly that : training tamed wolves (though evidently that is not truly possible) to survive in the wild, without any human interference. Feo and Marina take in wolves who were kidnapped as pups, sold as pets, and subsequently became “dangerous” or “nuisance” animals as they aged. Many of “their” wolves left with a piece of their former owners, literally: fingers, ears, noses.

This life is broken by General Rakov who as the antagonist very much acts as the catalyst for the rest of the story. He imprisons Marina and is hellbent on killing the wolves. The story then settles into becoming a quest as our heroine aided and abetted by motley band  in the form of Black, White, and Gray, her adopted wolf family, Ilya, an unwilling child soldier gone AWOL and Alexei , a fifteen-year-old agitator from a nearby village set about freeing Marina from prison before she is executed.

The real strength of the book is down to Feodora. Feo is a fantastic character – feisty and determined like all the best heroines. She’s part wild herself, and more than a bit wolf. She is more than a little rough around the edges, not at all sure how she should talk to people – but she wins others over through courage, loyalty and her  unwavering moral compass. This is a girl who just does not give up. Her relationship with Ilya is the core of the book and the growing fraternal love between them becomes the rock on which the story is built.

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What really works for me is Rundell’s wonderful use of language (words are not ever wasted) and her ability to tip the story between harsh brutal reality and wild fantasy fairy tale without the story ever missing a beat. The entrance to St Petersburg made me want to stand up and cheer, whilst the language of Ilya’s dancing was truly balletic.

There are moments of pure wonder in this book, bits that made my hair stand on end and bits that had me reaching for the tissues.

The Wolf Wilder is a powerful, magical, heartfelt fairy tale. Combining break-neck action with wonderful literary description, the writing grabs like a wolf might and never let’s go.

As a final note the illustrations by Gelrev Ongbico are phenomenal and really add to the text.

Tygertale’s lovely blog focussed on the illustration.

There are moments of brutality and violence which for me would place it firmly for Year 5/6 pupils. 

Themes:-  right and wrong, freedom, family, strength, bravery, sacrifice, rebellion and rewilding

I have included Bloomsbury’s teacher notes  here

The Wolf Wilder Teachers Notes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SATs…SATs…SATs ( rolling eye and a massive sigh)

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“SATs, huh, good god
What are they good for
Absolutely nothing, Say it again”

                                                                                                         My new Karaoke Anthem.

Actually that’s wrong. Well designed assessment at the end of phases of education should be incredibly useful. Assessment that supports a childs transition from one phase to the next and supports the next teacher or school in getting it right for the pupils. Assessment that clearly passes on information about what a child can and can’t do and the next steps.

Sadly SATs does none of those things. SATs are a measure of schools not pupils, the pupils seem to be the least important aspect of the process. Most secondary schools will say “Well they aren’t there now!” when they look at a pupils SATs results. Undoubtedly that’s true in the same way that if my son had taken his GCSE’s in September he would definitely have not got the grades he got in May.

Many schools feel they are being driven to prep…prep…prep for the test.  Some schools going as far as to say that they’ll be doing weekly SATs tests to parents as if it’s a good thing.  The high stakes nature of the tests is equally driving a narrowing of school curriculum. I firmly believe that if you stop teaching children stuff and narrow your curriculum then actually you’ll damage children’s chances of achieving in the Reading test as it is currently designed.

I applaud Ofsted and Amanda Spielman when they talk about curriculum. I also know as a school in challenging circumstances rightly or wrongly the dice are stacked against us with regards to Ofsted, it is a fact that a greater percentage of schools with challenging catchments are rated  ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees when you’re staring down the barrel of a data shotgun.

Now don’t mistake this for me being anti-SATs or testing because I’m not. Don’t think this is me making excuses for low expectations because I’m not. My school was well above national last year and will be in line this year. We believe children should be Literate and Numerate they are core to what we do in our school.

What I am sick of is the sham that has been Assessment for the past 2 years at the end of KS2. I won’t rant about it here I’ve already ranted enough about Writing and the Interim Assessment Framework (ITAF). I won’t use the word cheating with regards to this but I think we can agree not all schools are playing the same game or in some cases even on the same field.  That’s before I even get going on the impact it’s having on writing. Some schools are not even getting the same guidance.

Here are my previous Writing rants.

Writing…Honestly, we need honesty.

#whatawritemess – Independence and honesty.

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This year to add to what can only be described as the absolute shambles that the new SATs have been we have the marking of KS2 SATs, especially the GPS paper.  That many teacher’s and headteachers have spent their valuable weekend time  looking to see if their pupil’s papers have been marked correctly is frankly appalling. The biggest issue is the inconsistency of the marking and the pernickity-ness (I like that word) of the mark scheme.

This is before we even get to the car-crash that will be “2020 SATs and the impossibility of progress” (not keen on the new Harry potter book)

The Independent Assessment review group set up by the NAHT suggested some interesting ways forward both on testing but also on the idea of high-stakes accountability. Sadly I don’t think many have read it. I think its worth a read. Their six guiding principles may give us a start point for getting it right.

Redressing the balance – Assessment Review Group 2017

  1. Assessment is at the core of good teaching and learning
  2. Statutory assessment should be separated from ongoing
    assessment that happens in the classroom
  3. Data from statutory assessment will never tell you the whole
    story of school effectiveness
  4. The statutory assessment system should be accessible to
    pupils of all abilities and recognise their progress
  5. Progress should be valued over attainment in
    statutory assessment
  6. The number of statutory assessments in the primary phase
    should be minimised

So I don’t really have any solutions to this mess but I know we need to stop and rethink. We are currently heading down a blind alley and we need to admit it’s wrong and do something about it.

We need this to be the key question

“How can we make statutory assessment help children on their learning journey?”

It seems sadly the children’s learning part has been completely forgotten.

Perspective…Step back and take another look

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“Here you go
Way too fast
Don’t slow down
Gonna crash
You should watch
Watch your step
Don’t lookout
Gonna break your neck”

Primitives Crash

 

This is a short blog about moments.

Just over a two weeks ago I had a moment. I don’t remember a lot of the moment. I remember a bang. I remember smoke.  Then the next four hours are a blur. There have been tears, lots of tears. There has been an inordinate amount of hugging. Small car vs 40 ton lorry led to only one winner.

It did however make me stop and think. It also did the brilliant thing of putting front and center the important stuff. I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of finding perspective but it definitely has done just that.

So this blog now will unadulteratedly and unashamedly be a little…well…cheesy.

I was lost on a winding road
I thought that life had nothing left to give
Then you came and showed me that just to live
Was the greatest gift of all?
And you showed me

Life is a celebration
And Lord, I’m gonna celebrate
Don’t you know that life is a celebration?
So come on now and celebrate, celebrate
Life is a celebration

 

The moment has led to perspective.

You forget how the job swallows you…At the end of the day it is just a job.

You think yourself invaluable…The place will carry on.

So as I walk back into school. I look at our SATs results with pride not worry. They’re an honest reflection of the children in that cohort. Did they work their socks off…Yes. Could they have done any more…No. Do they still love learning…Yes. We won’t play the game where we just prepare children for tests. Education is bigger than that. That runs through the core of our school and I will fight tooth and nail to defend that.

Walking on the beach with my boys at the weekend after five days of solid rain. Perfect and precious. The sand whipping across in swirling patterns, the roaring and crashing of the waves. The hugs and laughter.

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I have some brill friends on twitter, as a group we created  #PID17. That it trended on twitter that day brought us great joy and smiles. Check out the hashtag it’s rather fab and just very silly. Thanks everyone who joined in you reet made me smile.

Perspective is a precious thing. I’ve been jolted back into mine and it feels as though it’s on a slightly different axis to the one it was on before.

I’d say you need to find a balance but in reality there is no such thing. It is a series of ebbs and flows, pushes and pulls. Managing how you deal with that is key. At some points there is no choice and you have embrace and do the thing that needs doing.  Fighting it creates more stress.

Taking time to intentionally be alone – to sit in silence – is an important and essential part of life. For me, it provides perspective and balance.

Books and reading, strumming badly on a guitar, pretending to surf (really just bobbing about on a board), cooking a chilli… Find your thing… Take your moment.

So give the job your all, then walk out the door and make sure you give life your all too. It is just a job, one of the most important jobs perhaps but it is just a job.

Gotta go I’ve got some balancing to do.