An imaginative ICT package has pupils bursting with words, says Kevin Berry
Literacy hour and there is a definite buzz. Everyone is eager. Margaret Hewitson's Year 3 and Year 4 children are using the animated book Jack and the Beans Talk, from the Shoo Fly company. Notice the word-play in the title. Anne Curtle, the book's author and Shoo Fly's founder, works with a twinkle in her eye.
The illustrations for Jack and the Beans Talk are simple, but captivating.
The text is written in rhyming couplets and is frequently funny. Jack does not climb down the beanstalk - he abseils.
Margaret Hewitson is the deputy headteacher at Our Lady of Lourdes RC Primary at Shotton Colliery in County Durham. Before using Shoo Fly she had been concerned that the children's language was not as vivid as it should be. Drama also needed a boost. The children had not had enough experience to draw on.
Polly has been chosen to operate the laptop and the whiteboard for everyone's benefit. First she reads a poem from the teacher's handbook:
"I have two little forkies and a little brown taily And a silvery thread is my slithery traily I'm a soft juicy mollusc with a spiral shell that's fittin'
As a curly up bed for my little self to sit in. So come out of your shells I learn, laugh, dance and sing!"
Polly's classmates know what this means. The poem acts as mood-setter and inspiration. Then the children sing a song with some words from the Giant.
His words are sung gruffly and facial expressions are suitably grumpy. The song acts as a reminder of the story.
Today, the children are looking at dilemmas. Book pages are on the whiteboard. Should young Jack take the Giant's gold? Is Jack being a hero or a naughty boy? There is a body of opinion that thinks he is being a thief if he takes the gold. He is a thief, a crook, a burglar. The words come tumbling out and they are being spoken with feeling.
"Ask the Giant if you can take the gold," suggests Cameron Hall, one of the boys in the class. "Tell him why you need it."
The children are asked to ponder and they put on pondering expressions.
There are some beauties.
Then Shannon steps forward to play Jack. She is "hot-seated" and the children act as Jack's conscience - not in the usual manner of Jack walking down a "conscience alley" of children, but sitting in their seats and sharing ideas with an immediate neighbour. Confident and thoughtful suggestions come from all over the room. They are written on work-sheets and some are written on the whiteboard. Shannon makes sure that Jack looks even more puzzled after each suggestion.
"Take the money, Jack, think what you and your mum could do with it."
"Take some of the money, but just enough."
What is so good about Shoo Fly's way with animated books? The children are quick to reply. Fun is the biggest factor, closely followed by rhyming words. Significantly, no one mentions the word "cartoon". This is a book that has come to exciting life.
"The story is written in rhyming couplets and it sounds funny," says Polly.
"Not daft, but properly funny."
Anna Curtle says: "The book is interesting. Things move and I can imagine the characters doing and saying other things. Before we looked at Jack and the Beans Talk I read a book and I didn't find it interesting. I read that same book again, at the weekend, and then I could imagine the characters and I got excited about that story."
Margaret Hewitson is enthusiastic and she is clearly a teacher who is only enthusiastic when there is good reason. The book and its accompanying material have, she says, let her imagination run wild. Her enthusiasm has overcome any fears of using a whiteboard.
"It shouldn't take the place of books, by any manner of means," she adds.
"This is a traditional tale told in a different way to remind them of the traditional tale. The handbook leads you in. You think - 'I could do that and I know what I could after that.' Because of the way it's written it reminds you not to be frightened of drama. It reminds you that you've got to make learning fun.
"You only learn if you are happy and secure," explains Margaret. "If you are frightened of opening your mouth then you learn nothing. You're stunted. I have to provide a safe, secure and relaxed atmosphere and this fun approach gives me that. Fun is the opposite of being worried."
The second animated book from Shoo Fly is Moon- bud- ees (foundation level). The story looks at the Earth and space, and it has a ravishing selection of natural pictures for display on the whiteboard. Children can make fantasy birds and space mobiles, and use the pictures for interactive play. The whiteboard is active rather than just a piece of scenery.
Margaret's class will be looking at stories by Dick King Smith.
"I will say: 'Remember when we did Jack? We talked about other stories that Anne Curtis has written. Can anyone remember the poem Anne Curtis used to introduce Jack and the Beans Talk?' We can make a connection that way. Get out of your shell, the poem says, get rid of your inhibitions!"
* For a one-off payment, unlimited copyright is available for Shoo Fly materials and the company is unconcerned about how the material is used. If someone wants to write new words for the songs or put the words to new music, then Shoo Fly will be delighted.
Shoo Fly's Connected Learning Resource packs contain animated books, a whiteboard library, a resources bank, an audio disc and a handbook for teachers. They are available from Shoo Fly Publishing, The Substation, 40 The Hawthorns, East Boldon NE36 0DP. Cost for each Shoo Fly Connected Learning Resource is pound;345 (with eLearning credits), suitable for Mac and PC Tel: 0191 519 1800 www.shooflypublishing.co.uk
* Shoo Fly's teacher handbooks are deliberately not prescriptive. Ideas such as "conscience alley" and "hot-seating" are not mentioned.
* Margaret Hewitson suggests loading the disc and spending 20 minutes "playing" alone. She is certain anyone will be hooked. The technology is not a problem. She insists: "If I can do it, anyone can." She says, decide on your learning outcomes and look at the handbook.
* Everything in the teacher's handbook is linked to Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidelines and learning strategies. Instructions are clear and foolproof. The manual says: "Be brave." Make up your own links.
* With a drama activity, Margaret adds, give the children time to prepare, then they will feel comfortable.