Hi-tech and a magic box of tricks for learning
It's a perfect winter's day and flashing signs are warning that there's a high risk of deer on the main road.
Strathgarve Primary is 25 miles north of Inverness, on the road to Ullapool. Travelling through this breathtaking Highland landscape, you might think schools so far north could be a bit remote from the educational cutting edge. But you'd be wrong - teachers and pupils from other schools come to learn about what pupils are doing here and in nearby Marybank Primary.
Robert Quigley, 35, is the head of both schools. It's Friday morning and on Monday an inspector calls - let's hope the scenery works some magic on him or her, too.
"ICT is definitely my thing," says Mr Quigley, who pitched the benefits of blogging to teachers at a recent Highland Learning Festival at Dingwall Academy.
Even the nursery has a blog at Strathgarve Primary, and earlier this year the Care Commission commended it for giving parents a window into their children's early learning and encouraging them to make postings.
"The blog is such a useful tool for letting parents see what is happening in school immediately, rather than having to wait for parents' night or open houses."
"We have created all our blogs through edublog, which is a free online site that allows you to create blogs, so it's an educational site as well. Children create the posts to put on to the blog and they are the ones who approve comments by people from all over the world. The biggest benefit to the blogging is that we have had fantastic feedback in the way of comments that have been left," says Mr Quigley, as he powers up the computer to show the site.
He has been trained to ambassador level in internet safety and now delivers training, so his pupils have also been given appropriate guidance. We look at examples of their writing and a slideshow of their artwork with examples of comments posted by parents and classmates, and even aunties in Australia.
The site has had some 100 hits a month since its launch a year ago, and the pupils love the cluster map showing all the countries where visitors live. They can't all be aunties.
The information here is the same as you would find on a school website, with links to parent council meetings and those vital weather alerts. The difference is that parents can respond with posts about that video clip of the Burns Night ceilidh or the recipes for making play dough in the nursery area.
Mr Quigley also helped develop the Highland Reading Blog, set up as part of the Highland Literacy Project in line with the authority's new learning and teaching policy to encourage active learning. On the blog, children throughout Highland can submit book reviews and post comments on reviews.
In a year, there have been 4,672 hits - including one from the novelist Anne Fine, who responded to a review of one of her books and wrote a comment. The reviewers were from Marybank School, just a few miles down the road, where some earnest six-year-olds share their blogging experiences.
"If you write comments a lot, then you get blogger of the week," says Louise McCarthy, P2. It's a pity the inspector isn't coming here next week, because Louise is giving her school the educational equivalent of a Michelin star.
"I write about how much fun the school is and how much I like the teachers because they teach us such brilliant stuff," she says with a smile that could light up the Highlands.
One of the teachers behind the "brilliant stuff" is Sue Bate, who shows the box of tricks that apparently makes learning here such fun.
There are masks and finger puppets and Talking Tins, miniature recorders which children pass between each other, recording questions and answers about the books they've been reading.
"Rather than writing, it's speaking and listening," says Miss Bate. "The children have to use the text in books to find the questions and the answers and then record them on the Talking Tins."
The children have been re-telling traditional fairy stories and performing them using finger puppets and masks. They use newspapers to search for particular letters, sounds and words.
"We're trying to make the learning active and fun and interesting, and for the children to work independently in groups on different tasks," says Miss Bate, who described this as "literacy without worksheets" at the Learning Festival. "We're trying to get away from worksheets and skills and drills, which is very boring and trying to make it more relevant to children," she says.
A few miles further south at Dingwall Primary and everyone's smiling here too as it's Fruity Friday.
"If we take fruit into school, we're allowed to dress down in normal clothes we'd wear after school," explains Sam Gunn, 11.
"And it applies to teachers too," says depute head Sandra Nesbitt. Staff here are also working hard to make learning fun - and children have been using the software package Comic Life to create their own comic strips online.
Children designed characters, wrote the story and drew pictures, which they could then scan in, adding sound effects and speech bubbles where they could type in the dialogue.
Jodie Ferguson, 11, and Sam helped Mrs Nesbitt with a presentation about the software for the Highland Learning Festival. Jodie says: "I thought it was really easy to use and exciting and fun, because all you have to do is drag and drop pictures on to it and it comes out."
They make it look easy, and show the speech bubbles where you can type in comic-style dialogue like "Kerpow!" and "Gadzooks!"
It's enough to make you wish you were back in Primary 7.
Everyone aboard for emotional literacy
Back at school after Highland Council's Learning Festival, the head of Raigmore Primary has been fielding emails about her presentation.
Highland teachers want to hear more from Moira Leslie after her talk on her school's journey to emotional literacy. Pupils call it "growing up from the inside".
By popular demand, Mrs Leslie gave a dozen back-to-back sessions during the two-day festival, organised by the council to highlight Curriculum for Excellence and showcase good practice. More than 2,000 teachers from across the Highlands attended 130 seminars at Dingwall Academy. Now they want to visit Raigmore and are asking for reading lists. There's already talk of another session to respond to their interest.
Sitting in her office with playground noise beyond, Mrs Leslie says concern about pupils with parents in the armed forces encouraged the school to embark on this journey more than three years ago (TES, November 28, 2008).
"We have a lot of children from armed forces families in the school and so families would be leaving regularly. We noticed some children coped better than others with the moving," says Mrs Leslie.
Soldiers serving in the Black Watch have recently been returning to this community from Afghanistan. It's a tremendously exciting time for their children at this school, who must have felt anxious during a high-profile conflict far from home.
Service families may have inspired the impetus for change here, but the shift in priorities is geared for every child, regardless of background, and it's producing results.
"What we are hoping is that children will be able to recognise their own feelings without allowing them to swamp them or influence their relationships with other people," says the Highland headteacher.
The janitor and clerical staff are also on board, with teachers and a group of parents, learning more about how to identify and manage their own feelings and developing greater sensitivity to others.
School begins each morning with an "emotional check-in" to find out how everyone is feeling and an upbeat song to get everyone in the mood for work. "That emotional check-in is extremely powerful, because it then allows the children to say, `OK, I'm in school now, I can leave my worries.' It could be `My granny's gone to hospital and I am a bit worried' or `My daddy's working away from home' or `Mummy's gone to have her baby today and I am really excited about it'," says Mrs Leslie.
When this is repeated with a three-minute check-in after lunch and breaks, social objectives like sharing are set and children are encouraged to be aware of others' needs.
"So when they come back in, they will say `John was really good because he was sharing his game with someone' or `Katie was on her own so I went across to play with her.'"
Before going home, children relax. Younger pupils stretch out on the floor for deep-breathing exercises, older ones stay in their chairs. Everyone thinks of something they've achieved that day, whether it's maths or eating all their cabbage. Children arrive home with something to smile about.
Discussions are under way now about developing emotional literacy education for secondary pupils.
"Some people think emotional literacy is a bit airy-fairy, that it's only for schools where there are behaviour issues or high-tariff children who can't cope with mainstream. It's not. It's about nourishing every single member of staff and every pupil in the school," says Mrs Leslie.
"We believe here that investing in the pupils as human beings - as opposed to just pupils - is a real investment in them. There were fears with some of our colleagues that if you invested time in dealing with emotions, it would somehow take away from the pupils' academic achievement. Actually, the opposite happens."
There's a strong staff ethos in this school and the headteacher believes that apparently minor changes are producing powerful results for children: "More positive attitudes about themselves, more confidence in sharing their feelings and being open with us, and therefore more confidence in actually not letting their feelings swamp them."
As we prepare to head out into darkening afternoon skies, Mrs Leslie has an afterthought:
"Don't go away with the idea everything is rosy in Raigmore Primary - we still have our moments," she smiles.