Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher

Reading at the coal face


It’s been a roller-coaster, this penultimate week before the holidays. The children and I have been full of emotions, some joyous and some more frustrating. Mostly we are all plain exhausted!

One of the more noteworthy moments came at story time. The referendum has revealed some interesting attitudes in our children and wider community and so I had been looking for a way to tackle these. A colleague recommended two books, The Journey, by Francesca Sanna, and The Island, by Armin Greder.

The Journey

The Journey is a beautifully told tale of a family whose life is engulfed by war, so they have to leave and go to another country. We talked about what that might feel like, linking it to our own experiences of journeys and migration. Most of my children have family born somewhere else, or were born in a different country themselves, so it was easy for them to relate to. At the end of the book, there’s a lovely connection made between birds and people who migrate, and we are left hoping the little girl and her family find a better life in their new country.

51MfWj7HYfL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Straight afterwards, we began The Island, a much darker story. A stranger is found washed up on the beach and the text explores how the islanders treat someone who is not like them. The children’s reactions were incredible.

“But he must be cold, with no clothes.”
“He’s just hungry, he’s trying to talk to them.”
“Why are they locking him up? He hasn’t done anything wrong!”
“Why are they telling bad stories about him?”
“They’re treating him like an animal!”
“Miss, that’s what some people say about the Romanians that live round here.”


We got to the point in the story where the islanders have tied the man up and are waving their pitchforks at him threateningly. How must he feel? Is he scared? What will happen next? Are they going to kill him?

At that moment, the bell rang for lunch, and the children sent up a great wail. “Noooo! Don’t stop! Don’t close the book!” But I did, and we are left on tenterhooks until Monday.


A brilliant article by Frank Cottrell Boyce in The Guardian, makes this observation about reading:

Hockney gave him this astounding image. Think of it, he says, the sun pours down its energy onto the surface of the planet for millennia. The leaves soak up the energy. The trees fall and turn to coal. Coal is solid sunlight, the stored memory of millions of uninhabited summers. Then one day, in Coalbrookdale, someone opens a hole in the ground and all that stored energy comes pouring out and is consumed in furnaces, engines, motors.

When we – teachers, parents, carers, friends – read to our children, I believe that’s what we’re doing. Laying down strata of fuel, fuel studded with fossils and treasures.

This perfectly describes what I’ve been trying to achieve with my children all year. I have begged and cajoled my way into filling up our bookshelves with new, exciting reads. I have scoured Amazon for the best, most high quality texts I can find to stimulate our thinking, learning and enjoyment. I have worked really hard to find funny, interesting, engaging books to match the individual interests of my most reluctant readers.  We’ve laughed and cried and been impatient for the next chapter together as we’ve read. And it has paid off, big time. At the end of the year, when we are tired and frazzled, this little community of children gathered round me and found refuge, challenge and transformation in two stories. All I had to do was open the pages and read, and they were right there. Hooked. They were making connections with their world and the narrative world; noticing the difference between their values and the values of the characters; empathising and evaluating; reflecting on the attitudes and behaviours of their own community through the story.

We’ll finish the book next week. I was going to ask the children to create some pieces of work in response to the text, but I have been challenged by Cottrell Boyce’s idea that reading to children, laying down this strata of fuel for them, is an act of generosity. He argues that if we ask for anything back, we burn the fuel off too soon. It’s an interesting thought. In school, we don’t always have the luxury of just leaving the text to do it’s own work, and I’m not sure I would always want to. But this week, I can. We will read the rest of the story and discuss whatever comes up. Then I will leave it with them, another layer of ‘solid sunlight,’ stored energy, full of treasure and fossils, ready for when they need it most.



2 thoughts on “Reading at the coal face

  1. Pingback: Do the Voices – Reading Aloud in the Primary Classroom – Herts for Learning

  2. Pingback: Becoming readers | Primary Musings

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