EASTER SPECIAL – The Rabbit Problem by Emily Gravett

  During my long and painful years as a secondary school pupil, never did I think that the dry mathematical theories could be presented in a way any more engaging than my slightly unhinged Maths Teacher pretending to be Spider-Man whilst ‘climbing’ a wall drawn on his rotating chalk board! Fibonacci sequences were merely another boring pattern to explore. If only Emily Gravett’s wonderful book had been around at the time….I might have started my picture book evangelical church in my teens!

The premise of the book is that a single field is tracked month by month, along with the rapidly replicating numbers of rabbits in this one field….that no rabbits ever leave, unless it is to go to bunny heaven! This is essential the Fibonacci sequence of numbers but presented in a much more accessible and humorous way than the boring maths text books of old.

The whole text is presented in the form of a calendar, presenting the funny trials and tribulations of rabbits in an increasingly busy field. The bunny so behave in a seasonally appropriate manner in each month…sunbathing in summer, seeking warmth in December etc. This provides lots of rich illustrative details for the children to get lost in to help deepen their interaction with the text. 

   In addition to the Fibonacci element of the story, there are also additional mathematical opportunities to explore. For example, there are ‘mini-books’ within the larger text which talk of carrot prices, rationing supplies and costs. This would provide a wonderful context for further work on the budgeting required to feed and clothe an ever expanding family of young rabbits. 
 Furthermore, the book could provide stimulus for some growing activities in the real world. The children could find out about their local wildlife, the favored food sources and habitat requirements. The children could be challenged to create some rabbit friendly (or other furry animal) planting, calculating the cost of the seeds, maintaining their planting patch, harvesting and even selling any produce that the rabbits haven’t claimed as their own!

The illustrations could even be used to help structure some narrative writing, where the children take a month each in small groups and tell the story of a single rabbit or a group of friends. This could be a fun writing and illustrati task for a special book week or even World Book Day!

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Get Them Writing! The ‘turn up volume’ technique

  Another universally useful technique for developing childrens’ narrative writing is to ‘turn up the volume’. To make the most of this technique, you will want to source some highly detailed illustrations. I, personally, love ‘The Moon in Swampland’ by M.P. Robertson. The book is the tale of what happens when the moon walks the Earth to save a young boy from the evil bogles, only to become trapped herself and the young boy must become her saviour. The images contained within the book are very atmospheric and evocative….in my experience, adults and children alike love spending time drinking in every littl detail; from the rain-soaked village streets to the menacing bogles lurking in the shadows.

To use the ‘turn up volume’ technique, you simply need to display a single image as a stimulus. The children will then be challenged to write three short narrative extracts for the image, but each time they will be ‘turning up the volume’ of one specific descriptive device. For example, they might be asked to ‘turn up’ the audio associated with the image. Therefore, the children would be asked to describe what they can see in the image whilst ensuring that they include lots of descriptive details relating to the sounds they might hear. Subsequently, they can be asked to turn up the volume of the visual details in a new piece of narrative with the same image and finally, turn up the volume of the action for a third piece of narrative writing. Finally, the children can then work individually or in pairs to magpie the most powerful description from each of the three descriptions (audio, visual, action) in order to structure a fourth and final version, which should now contain a balance of audio, visual and action details.

Try it with your favourite picture book, art work or movie freeze-frame and let me know how you get on!

Get them writing! The ‘if objects could speak’ technique.

  There are many schools of thought on how best to engage children with writing and, in my opinion, they all have something valuable to offer but I don’t promote or follow one approach exclusively. I’m more of an educational magpie, picking what works for me from the broad tapestry that is pedagogy.
One of my favoured, context-free techniques is called ‘if objects could speak’. The approach essentially asks the children to look at an image from a story, movie or painting and consider that thoughts and opinions that object might have, given the circumstances it finds itself in and the events it may have witnessed.

A text which works brilliantly with this technique is Rose Blanche, by Ian McEwan; the tale of of a young girl’s experiences of the holocaust during World War II. There are opportunities throughout the text to use ‘if objects could speak’ but a potent example is shown in the image above. Rose returns to the site of a concentration camp to find it deserted and battle damaged. The children she has secretly been feeding has gone and the barbed wire fence that once separated them is now sinking into a tank-mangled mud. To encourage the children to consider an alternative view to that of the main character or to simply to access details that the main character couldn’t have witnessed, I would ask the children to consider what responses the barbed wire fence might give (as the object that is speaking) to the following questions:

– how would it feel physically? i.e cold, wet etc 

– how would it feel emotionally? i.e. Helpless, isolated

– what would it see? i.e destroyed fields

– what would it smell? Gunpowder, death

– what would it hear? Screams of injured soldiers

Once the children have collected their initial ideas from the point of view of their given object, they can then work to improve and develop these ideas into extended narrative; this then provides additional opportunities for the children to explore sentence structure and punctuation. Using the ideas above, the children might extend them as follows:

I see the war ravaged fields of a once beautiful land, as my nostrils are filled with the suffocating stench of gunpowder and death. My ears are filled with the confused bellowing of bewildered soldiers, stumbling through the mud like zombies. 

There are obviously further potential learning opportunities that extend from this activity, such as different children taking the views of different objects within the same image or story….why might their opinions differ? Which opinion is correct? Is there only one correct view of the events?

Another excellent text within which to use ‘if objects could speak’ is The Invetion of Hugh Cabret by Brian Selznik

  The mysterious automaton that features heavily in the story would be an obvious focus for ‘if objects could speak’, however there are numerous other opportunities such as the opinions of the train station clock, the spare parts in the workshop, the tool kit used by the watchmaker etc.

This is a great technique to use as part of an extended unit of work on narrative writing or simply as a way of generating relevant and engaging ideas for more discrete sentence structure tasks. Whatever you choose to do with it, you are guaranteed to have fun when you let the objects do the talking….imagine what your classroom clock might say or the staff room kettle!?



Multi-book Project! Traditional Tales with a twist!

  The great benefit of working with traditional tales and fairy stories is that the children are usually already experts in the field. This provides a wealth of opportunities to explore narrative story-telling, art and drama. For this multi-book project, I would use ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ by Carol Ann Duffy as the central text; following this, there are many opportunities to branch out to explore other related texts:


– The Tear Thief by Carol Ann Duffy

  

– The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

  

– The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury

  

– Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

  

 

– The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch

  

Central text – The Lost Happy Endings

This is a captivating tale about Jub, keeper of the stories, and her quest to retrieve the lost happy endings to all the stories after they have been stolen by a wicked witch. The children of the world are crying as their are no more happy endings, so Jub must act! The reason for choosing this as a central text is that, during the quest, Jub encounters many of the most familiar fairy tale characters. This offers the opportunity to branch out from the central text, at a later date, whilst maintaining a meaningful, contextualised link for the children’s’ learning.

Setting the scene

To really engage the children with this project, I would employ some good old fashioned awe and wonder! Easily recognisable sections from fairy stories could be copied and cut up. These could be crumpled and then left all around the room for the children to discover, possibly with clues mixed in to lead them to a copy of The Lost Happy Endings. Alternatively, familiar objects from fairy stories could be found around the school; little red riding hood’s cape, goldilock’s porridge, Jack’s magic beans etc.

Possible skills

When studying The Lost Happy Endings, the fact that stories have been broken up into extracts could support focused work on extracts of stories and sentence level skills. For example, the story writing process could be developed gradually by focusing on extract openings, build-ups and resolutions. There is great scope for short burst writing and slow writing, as the children could be asked to write their own narrative for specific sections/pages of Jub’s quest, as she reassembles the lost endings.

The book also lends itself to some excellent character work. The description of the bird-like witch sitting high in a tree, with Jub looking into her nest is spine-tingling. The description of the witch is both breath-taking and grosteque….from experience, children love it, especially the fact that she is smoking a pipe! To extend this, children could be asked to do some character writing focused around other well known traditional tale characters…the witch, Malefiecent, from Sleeping Beauty is a particularly potent character (you could even link in the original and modern Disney film versions as inspiration).

An additional fun task would be for the children to provide each other with their own ‘lost happy endings’ as inspiration for story writing. Each child would write a traditional (or non traditional!) ending to a story on a piece of paper. These would then be mixed up and redistributed to different children, with the challenge of writing the story that came before each particular ‘lost happy ending’.

Related texts

The Tear Thief If you wished to create a short author study through this unit, the use of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘ The Tear Thief’ would be perfect. This beautifully illustrated, heart-breaking story tells the reader about the Tear Thief; a fairy who collects the tears of children. She prizes tears of true sadness – I want reveal the ending here as its is one of those special literary moments that you need to experience for yourself.

Other related texts

All the other texts, identified above, are incredibly fun, alternative takes on the traditional fairy story format. Within the books you will find Tom-Boy princesses, Princes in distress, frightened little wolves and terrifying pigs!

A study of these short, engaging stories would be a great starting point for children to write their own alternative fairy stories…perhaps Little Red could become a wolf-hunter or Granny could become a global manufacturing magnate, as shown in the excellent animated film Hoodwinked!

As an additional branch to this fairy story literary tree, the Story Spinner DVDs and App contain a brilliantly atmospheric oral story which paints a very different, much darker version of Little Red Riding Hood in 3 parts. Each part of told from a different point of view and provides an excellent model for both oral storytelling and powerful narrative for older KS2 children!

I would love to hear what you all make of these traditional tales with a twist and I am sure you will have fun making your own!