Thursday 21 December 2017


One of the (many) things I love about being a school librarian is working with small groups of students on a variety of projects - it’s a real chance to get to know them better. This often took the format of reading groups and I would run several of these throughout the year, and I also set up and managed an HPQ project with Year 9 students, so when the teacher with responsibility for the more-able programme asked me if I could “do something” with a group of twelve year 7s (11 year olds) to run on a longer timescale, I jumped at the chance. But the question was … what? I didn’t want to run a basic reading group and knew that if I was going to do this over the whole year I would have to come up with an interesting and challenging programme for them.

I then discovered that the book “Varjak Paw” by S F Said was being performed as an opera at a local theatre and this became my starting point. Although the book was, perhaps, slightly young for the students, it had a lot of themes I could explore and, as I started creating lessons around it, I realised I could extend the activities to make this a cross-curricular project bringing in lots of skills and learning experiences.

This is what I did:

  • All students had a copy of the book to read, we then discussed it using the Carnegie Award criteria looking at the style, plot and characterisation.
  • Visit to the opera (I should add here that I’m qualified to drive a minibus so taking students out on trips was never a problem for me). I was offered a pre-show talk by the artistic team and was the only school to take this up; the students were also asked to provide feedback to the director as this was the first performance. I asked the Head of Drama for input so we could analyse the performance and used similar criteria to that of GCSE students when looking at lighting, sounds, movement, costumes and props.
  • We then compared the book and the production, discussing what had been changed or left out and why.
  • I provided the students with a selection of books that had animals as characters to extend their reading. They all chose something different and discussed their choice with the rest of the group.
  • Each student was given an animal to research using range of books – and I ran a session on research skills. The aim was for students to investigate their animal, find out how they lived, what they ate, etc. I chose slightly unusual animals and ensured I had appropriate resources in the library. Students were also able to research online.
  • Students produced an information poster about their animal using IT skills.
  • The posters together with the books were used for display in the library.
  • Next was a creative writing exercise – students had to write a story (aimed at 9 - 10 year olds) with their animal as the main character using the information they had gathered in their research. There is a lot of information available online about how to write a story plus I had some books in the library on this topic so we had a look at these and discussed our findings. We also looked at different starts to ascertain what makes you want to carry on reading a book.
  • The ensuing session involved a visit by the year 5 class from our feeder school (this was part of a regular programme of visits to the “big” library) – the year 7 students read their stories about animals to them and they made animal masks together. This was also an opportunity for the younger students to explore the library with a year 7 “guide”.
  • We discussed the illustrations by Dave McKean – how they fitted into the story and what they added – using the Greenaway criteria.
  • The illustrations are quite graphic and almost silhouette in style so we undertook an investigation of silhouettes and how they were first used in photography. The next activity was creating posters using a silhouette of their animal against an appropriate landscape-related background using mixed media. Students could also create a silhouette of themselves if they wanted to!
  • Photography is a hobby of mine (I also have an A level in it) so I delivered a workshop on photography, concentrating on architectural structures.
  • We then used this passage from the book - “Stretched out under the open sky, shining like silver in the pre-dawn light, the city was a huge, mad jumble of shapes and sizes. It had tall towers, gleaming steel and glass – but also squat brick houses, dark with chimney smoke. Wide open gardens jostled with narrow alleys; sharp pointy spires topped soft, curved domes; concrete blocks loomed over bright painted billboards. They were all in there together, side by side, each one part of the whole …” – and I got the students to create a personal response to this by taking photos of buildings and making montage to represent this scene.
  • Another library display … using the passage and the resulting montages. It created a lot of interest and comments.
  • We looked at other Dave McKean books and discussed them – and I used them for a library display alongside the students’ comments.
  • I wanted to introduce poetry to the programme so we had a lesson where the students looked in the poetry section of the library for animal poems. They had to choose one that appealed to them – which they read out – and explain why they had chosen it.
  • The cats in “Varjak Paw” are Mesopotamian Blues (a made-up breed) but Mesopotamia was a real place so we investigated where this was and how the history of the area had changed over time … more research skills – this time linking with history!
  • The opera had used a range of original instruments from Mesopotamia and this was our next investigation. What sort of instruments were used, how were they played, what did they sound like? It’s surprising what you can find on YouTube
  • Finally, at the end of the year, we watched Mirrormask – and discussed the film in relation to the plot, themes, audience, lighting, set, etc.

I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas … I could have explored the geography, religion and customs of Mesopotamia; looked at the more mystical side of the book where Varjak was learning about “The Way” and investigated various martial arts and meditation techniques; examined other gothic forms of art; there are also lots of themes in the book around family, friendship and acceptance that we touched on but could have developed further.

All-in-all we had a great time on this project. Students were able to pick up lots of useful skills and enjoyed having something different to explore outside the curriculum. It also made me think about expanding other reading activities – most books lend themselves to something similar, for example, “Mister Creecher” by Chris Priestley is great for exploring medical history and then moving into the science and ethics of organ transplants, and “Fallen Grace” by Mary Hooper allows you to explore Victorian death customs!

You just need to start thinking outside the box.