Entries in school (18)


Three Stars and a Wish

I recently joined Goodreads, and I’ve been finding it a really valuable tool for remembering what I’ve read and thinking about what has and hasn’t worked for me as a reader. When you have a memory like mine, anything that helps you with this stuff is gold.

I’ve settled into the habit of writing a very brief review whenever I finish a book. These aren’t comprehensive reviews; nor are they particularly well written, but they serve their purpose: they help me with my own thought process and record-keeping. The one thing I’m really struggling with is the starring system: I find assigning an appropriate number of stars monumentally difficult.

Goodreads makes it relatively easy, because each star comes with a label: didn’t like it, it was OK, liked it, really liked it, and it was amazing. Without the labels, I’d be at a total loss. The problem is, the stars seem very close together. I gave, for example, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht two stars. I appreciated a lot of the writing, and thought it was a well-plotted and ambitious book. It was far from a favourite of mine though and I found it too emotionally distant to be properly engaging. Shortly after I reviewed it, I gave One Day by David Nicholls one star. I did not respect this book at all; I thought it was easy, manipulative and unimaginatively written: a much worse book that The Tiger’s Wife. So it seemed unfair that they were so closely star-rated. They were not at all in the same category.

At school, we use a ‘three stars and a wish’ system for helping the children to edit each other’s work. The children have to come up with three things they really like about their peer’s writing, and one thing they think could be improved. It’s good for encouraging critical thinking without being too negative, and gives them a big boost when they look back at their own three stars.

I think of ‘three stars and a wish’ when I visit Goodreads to write my reviews. Sometimes I want to rate with three stars (I liked it) but add a note to say ‘but I wish you’d done this differently’ or ‘but I wish this element had been explored more’.  The Tiger’s Wife, for example, wasn’t a bad book; it just left me a little cold.

Perhaps I’ve spent too much time analysing children’s writing with other children. Equally assigning the same number of stars to everything clearly wouldn’t be a helpful rating system. But I certainly find categorising something with a number of stars limiting and a tiny bit stressful. Perhaps I’m just seriously averse to confrontation!

Image from Wikimedia Commons



I’m sitting at a brightly coloured octagonal table with seven other children. We all have lunch boxes; we’re waiting for the school-dinner children at the other end of the dining hall to be served. And then the headmaster, who is sitting at one of the hot-dinner tables, hushes us into a silence punctuated by hungry swallows and yawns, and, in unison, we say: For what we are about to receive, may the lord make us truly thankful. Amen. And we eat. This is the lunchtime ritual. We know it like the backs of our hands.

I was a) a child and b) non-religious at the time, so I didn’t really think about what we said. It was just the thing that came before food. I had an almost Pavlovian response to it. Even now, I can taste chicken spread sandwiches and orange squash when I think of those words. It was all about the anticipation.

While I’m no longer a child, I’m still non-religious, and I haven’t had any cause to say grace since I left that school at the age of 11. But I have come to appreciate its value as an expression and recognition of gratitude, and as a way of slowing down, taking less for granted. It’s still not something I do, but it’s something I’m interested in, something I think would be worth trying.

The Wikipedia entry for grace says, “in many indigenous cultures around the world... the saying of grace does not signify human dominion, but rather recognition of a plant or animal's giving their life...” Grace does not have to be religious. It is possible to observe this ritual without giving thanks to an entity you may not have faith in.

I have a friend who’s in the habit of bowing at meal times. I’m a little too self-conscious to pull this off comfortably, but I love the way he does it: sometimes little more than a gentle nod of the head; sometimes his hands pressed together as though in prayer and that nod towards the person who has cooked the meal. That waiting, that prolonging of anticipation and that thankfulness is a valuable addition to a meal. I should try it.

Image by Albrecht Dürer


I Blame the Armbands

On a Thursday afternoon I have the dubious pleasure of sitting on the edge of a swimming pool shouting encouraging comments at ten year olds as they learn how to swim.

Their swimming teacher is very good, and every time I watch them, I think how much difference your swimming teacher can make to your relationship with water and swimming.

I’m a fairly poor swimmer. I can do a nervous breaststroke that involves keeping my head out of the water (much like a paddling dog) and wincing anytime someone splashes me, but that’s about my limit. And I’m terrified of jumping in.

I love the concept of swimming; I love how freeing it looks to be able to swim well. In fact, dreaming of it is one of my preferred ways to relax at bedtime. In reality though, I’m very nervous of large expanses of water and my swimming skills leave a lot to be desired.

I was taught to swim with armbands by a lady who walked along the edge of the pool with a long metal rod and occasionally shouted at me about how I needed to kick more. I loathed swimming lessons. The pool was sunk in the middle of a concrete building lined with changing cubicles and there was always a faint smell of urine. We were supposed to change much quicker than I was capable of and the teacher would get cross if we took too long to blow up our armbands. I can still remember the sound the reverse alarm on the school minibus made: the sound that filled me with dread every time I had to go swimming.

The children I take to the pool on a Thursday are taught to get their heads wet and jump in before they even start learning to swim. And there isn’t an armband in sight. Floats, yes. Armbands – those bright, uncomfortable inflatables that make it impossible for you to keep your head under even if you want to – no. They’re taught variety: front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke, picking things up from beneath the water... Actually, I think that happened when I was taught too, but you only got to do most of it once you’d mastered breaststroke... which I didn’t.

Every time I watch the children’s lessons, I think about how much I would like to be able to swim properly. It looks relaxing, freeing – comfortable even – to be able to do it confidently.

So I’ve been thinking I might to try to get myself some adult swimming lessons one of these days... though preferably not at the local pool, where I’m bound to run into lots of children I know, all of whom are vastly superior swimmers to me.

Photo by Chip Smith


A Concert before Lunch

You’ll have noticed the lack of posts round here lately (especially of the non-writing-related variety). This largely correlates with the lack of life I’ve been having as I suddenly find out where my self-discipline’s been hiding and start making up for lost time. My house is a mess too, but we won’t go into that.

I haven’t really being doing anything apart from going to work and spending long evenings at my desk. This is a good thing. But it’s making me antisocial, uncultured, and slightly peculiar... and as such, things to write blogs about are proving few and far between.

So it’s a good job I work in a primary school and occasionally get to go on educational trips.

Today’s was with a year five class to see the London Symphony Orchestra play. This isn’t the first time I’ve realised how lucky we are to live in London or how lucky our children are to get these opportunities.

The concert was aimed at Key Stage Two children and was really well structured to keep them engaged and teach them (and me, who’s generally ignorant of all things music) about the workings of an orchestra.

My overwhelming feeling about it was, as it is at pretty much every music event I attend, one of total admiration.

I can never quite get over how all those individual instruments, by playing all at once, can create such an immense sound. The LSO played excerpts of various well-known pieces for the children, and this really highlighted for me just how amazing it is that this music can be produced.

Watching the musicians work together to produce these magnificent pieces made me admire their discipline, skill and – perhaps more than anything – lack of ego. In order to play in an orchestra, in order to play these amazing pieces of music, the musicians have to give themselves over to the group. No one’s going to say, “Oh, I really thought the fifth violin sounded beautiful tonight.” In an orchestra, a musician is like an ant: only useful as part of the colony. I couldn’t do that (even if I could play an instrument). My ego’s quiet... but it’s there.

My other thought, mixed up with the admiration and the gratitude, was how lovely it must be if your job is to play in a major orchestra. Like anyone who gets to pursue their chosen art form for a living, these people are doing what many people will only ever dream of.

And for me, it was a great way to spend the working day!

Image by Ian Britton



‘Do you want to play with us at playtime?’
‘I can’t – I’ve got a funeral.’ She says it seriously, matter-of-factly.
‘I was invited to the funeral too, but I don’t want to go.’

I am concerned at first. Who did all the children know that died? Why don’t I know about it? Will there be anyone left in the classroom after playtime? Does the office know they’re all going out?

‘Whose funeral is it?’ I ask one of the kids. He doesn’t answer me. I wonder if it’s too sensitive a subject, but he seems unconcerned.

‘Oh, Miss,’ says another child, ‘it’s not a normal funeral.’
‘What is it then?’ I ask.
‘It’s a funeral for Joe’s DS.’
‘For his DS?’
‘Yes – his sister broke the screen so he’s having a funeral for it at playtime. Everyone’s invited…’
‘It’s a long story,’ interrupted another girl, wisely. They nod gravely and walk away.

Right then, I think. The children are holding a funeral at playtime for a Nintendo DS. That’s normal.

Image by Gerdthiele