In the Spring term 2015, I was asked to work with a group of able readers at St Anne’s Catholic Primary School in Crumpsall, Manchester. All six pupils were top level 5 readers and their class teacher wanted to ensure that they were appropriately challenged in guided reading.
After speaking to their teacher, I wanted to meet the girls (Sadie, Joyce, Amy, Renae, Lucy and Lauren) there and then and needed a book to inspire them. I knew I had the perfect tool as I had six copies of ‘My sister lives on the mantelpiece,’ by Annabel Pitcher in the car!
I began reading the opening chapter to them:
‘My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. Mum and Dad wanted a cremation and to sprinkle the ashes in the sea. That’s what Jasmine told me anyway. She remembers more than I do. I was only five when it happened. Jasmine was ten. She was Rose’s twin. Still is according to Mum and Dad.’
They were all completely enthralled by this opening and their ideas about what had happened showed a mixture of childish imagination and an inferred mature response.
I continued reading an extract from the middle of the book:
‘Jas told me the day started off fine and it was sunny but cold and you could see your breath like cigarette smoke. I was throwing bits of bread onto the ground and laughing when the pigeons tried to catch them. Jas and Rose were running through the birds making them twirl into the sky and Mum was laughing but dad said ‘Stop that girls’. Mum said They’re not doing any harm but Jas ran back to Dad ‘cos she hated getting in trouble. Rose was not as good. In fact she was quite bad and according to Jas she was naughty at school, but no one seems to remember that now she is all dead and perfect. Jas held Dad’s hand as he shouted Rose, get back here but Mum just said Oh, leave her be and giggled when Rose spun on the spot, throwing her head back. Birds swirled all around her and Mum yelled Spin faster and then there was a bang and Rose was blown to bits.
They found out later it was a terrorist attack. Bombs had been planted in fifteen bins all around London and they had been fixed to go off at the same time on September 9th.’
I knew immediately that this was a delightful task to accept since all of the pupils thrived from reading high quality texts and were already familiar with a ‘book club’ discussion style through additional booster sessions from their class teacher. I gave each pupil a copy of the book to read in their own time and visited them over the next half term to discuss characters, plot and themes. Little did we know at this point our impromptu meeting would lead to such a special treat from Annabel Pitcher!
I was keen to use this book as a vehicle to teach the skills involved in the reading and writing journey: read; comprehend; analyse; plan; draft; write; edit; proofread and read aloud. These skills are outlined in the English national curriculum from year 1 to year 6. Any high quality text can be used to teach these skills from picture books to non-fiction, playscripts to poetry and novels to song lyrics.
So, I set the girls a challenging task, to produce a scrap book style response to the novel.
I gave them some guidelines:
Holiday Writing Opportunities (the pupils completed most of their books over their Easter holiday!)
Quotations such as,’ Why do you cry so, child? Because I have no say of what my family do in the land of the living…’ Joyce I was incredibly surprised and moved by their scrapbooks when I visited after the Easter holidays. Some of their responses included:
- Similes and metaphors for ‘Roses are red – like blood drip, drip, dripping from a place where agony settled’ Joyce
- Poetry – ‘I wish I had a wand’ Lauren
- A decorated urn inscribed with ‘My darling sister Rose, In this urn is my sister, An urn full of ash, She was in the wrong place at the wrong time and gone in a flash’ Lucy
- ‘3 things I need to do to improve my life (Dad) – Be more supportive to my children, Drink less and Get a job’ Sadie
- Personality awards! The person who misses Mum the most. The nominees are: Dad, Jamie, Jas and Roger. The winner is Jamie! For the constant thoughts about his mother and his longing desire that she was present in their lives’ Sadie
- Remember section – Treasure family moments and memories, Don’t go spinning in a flock of pigeons’ Amy
- Poems with different points of view – ‘As I watch her creep towards my grave I am filled with joy but confused.’ Renae
Here are some more examples of their work:
So, how does using a novel to teach English work?
- Choose a book that you, the teacher LOVE. Your enthusiasm will filter through to the pupils in your class
- Read the book before you read it with the pupils. This may seem obvious, but in order for your questions to fulfill the level of difficulty required for the 2016 reading tests, you will need to know your book inside out
- Be prepared to be flexible – writing activities that you planned when reading the book may not be the ones you actually ask the pupils to do
- Be open-minded when setting writing tasks. Ask pupils to write a diary entry for ANY character. Creative pupils might write in role as a minor character; a character only referred to by name once in the book or as an animal or object. Pupils’ writing is far more interesting to mark if there are many different diaries rather than 30 from the same character. This allows pupils to really consider audience and purpose as they can adapt how they write as a 9 year old boy, a middle-aged woman or a tabby cat!
- Expect the unexpected – you will be amazed and inspired by our pupils’ imaginations. Take risks and try new tasks
- Read aloud to pupils – they do not have to read. This ensures that the text is read fluently, with expression and at a good pace. We want pupils to enjoy reading.
The icing on this cake was that staff at Madeleine Lindley arranged for the girls’ scrapbooks to be sent to the author Annabel Pitcher who very kindly wrote individual cards to Sadie, Joyce, Amy, Renae, Lauren and Lucy. They were on top of the world when they received personalised cards from a ‘real author’.
I have recommended ‘My sister lives on the mantlepiece’ to a huge number of schools and have received many testimonials that support the impact it has had on both boys’ and girls’ reading and writing progress. However, I would recommend you read the book first as there are some references to bad language – a letter home to parents explaining the merits of the book before reading it can resolve this!
Choose a book, a book that you love, let it do the bulk of the work for you…
Maddy Barnes, August 2015