As the Head of a school which is in a rural area, I am always acutely aware of the opportunities which are open to children in larger conurbations or nearer to the administrative centre of their Local Authority. After getting the job, and discovering what we can’t access and how the school is having to cope on incredibly slow broadband speeds, I took the line that rather than complaining and bemoaning our fate we should always try to give our kids the very best of experiences we can. It is easy to get a chip on your shoulder but we look to make sure that we provide something different and which will fire our kids up as learners.
As part of this, I do take time to look at our curriculum map and explore how we can, in the words of Nigel Tufnel, take it to eleven.
To that aim, we held an AutumnWatch campout for our Year 3/4 children in October 2012 with 85 children camping on the school field overnight to allow them to study the environment in more depth. We have opened up a pop up museum hosting We’ll Meet Again who visited the school to display their two and a half tonnes of Second World War artefacts. The children had two days of input from Paul and Linda Britchford and in the intervening evening with opened the school up to the community in conjunction with the Royal British Legion. We had more than 250 visitors on that night and showed how a school can put on special events which will bring in the community.
In the light of this, I spoke to Paul Hutson of Night Zoo KeeperÂ about working together. I had already met Paul at BETT and then at the wonderful Teachmeet TwistÂ where we started formulating ideas. It took us more than a year to bring everything together but finally on the 16th January we started what were two of the most incredible days I have ever experienced in a school.
The premise of the Night Zoo Keeper is to work with children creating hybrid animals made up of two different animals to help the Night Zoo Keeper. The resources include some lovely stories about animals which include the Time travelling Elephant and the Spying Giraffe. As a Head teacher I was absolutely entranced by a discussion with some Â Year 1 boys who came rushing to my office to tell me all about the Night Zoo Keeper after the first reading of the story. I recorded it and have uploaded onto Audioboo. They are archetypal, excited boys who have come up to Year 1 operating below age related expectations in writing but for whom the work we are doing including NZK has fired them up.
Over the week before the visit of the Zoo keeper, the children drafted and designed their own animals – with all sorts of wonderful moments during this period. I wandered into Year 2 to see what they were doing and found myself in an animated discussion with a wonderful but inflexible boy who informed me that my ‘Rhinorot’ was not going to work as the parrot’s body could not possibly support the weight of a Rhino’s head. He told me that I had to either change it round or make a new animal! I opted for a Paroceros. The boy was then unconvinced that the rhino’s body would be able to look around properly with such a small head. Put bluntly, these are the conversations which remind me why I became a Head Teacher and which tell me that we are developing highly engaged learners and giving them the conditions to make them wonderful writers.
The next stage was for the children to undertake a series of ‘missions’ set for them by the Night Zoo Keeper before he came to the school to work with them. These included creating the list of characters and setting that they were going to use in the story including their hybrid animal.
Next, they moved into art work painting and modelling their animals using clay. Again, this work was a chance for us to demonstrate the very highest of expectations of the children. It was lovely to see some Year 2 children debating whether a piece of sticklebrick would give a clay animal the right texture to show that it had fur.
Once the children had made their clay animals they left them to dry and, later in the sequence, they made environments for the children to live in out of shoe boxes and demonstrated their understanding of ecosystems by talking about what the animal would need in their habitat.
This takes us on to the visit of the Night Zoo Keeper which was the crowning moment of a truly wonderful sequence for the children. Paul Hutson and Buzz Burman, the Creative Director of NZK, arrived at lunchtime on the Thursday in order to set up the evening’s events. We managed to hide them from the children so that it would be even more magical when they met later in the day. I should say that we are incredibly privileged with our school site which is approximately 2 and a half acres and has its own ‘forest’. This gave Paul and Buzz a massive blank canvas to work on. In addition, our wonderful site manager, Mr McKenna, had hired a generator so that we could put arc lamps into the forest. Not to diminish the huge effort put in before the start, let’s skip to the end of the school day.
102 children aged 5, 6 and 7 gathered in the school hall to have their tea and at 4pm the Night Zoo Keeper walked in started talking the children through the work that they would do and began to lead them into his magical kingdom. For those who have not met Paul, he has a wonderfully relaxed manner with the children and they were soon eating out of the palm of his hand. Our Chair of Governors, who came for the evening, could not believe how attentive the children were. (We also have a 70% boys to 30% girls gender split in Year 1)
Paul put together this wonderful PDF of the first night which should give you the flavour of what the children did. The first activity was to talk the children through the story of the Night Zoo Keeper.
We did this in the school hall with the curtains closed so that the children did not realise that it had become dark outside. At one point, we were joined by the Spying giraffe (who you will see in the slides) which caused great excitement amongst the children whilst the Night Zoo Keeper told the children the stories of the Time Travelling Elephant and other magical animals like the Underwater Spaceman. During this session , the children skyped the Head Zoo Keeper who was in the Rainforest of No Return (I was exceptionally nervous about this section as we have a legendarily slow broadband speed in the Fens). I was also interested to see how the children reacted to talking to someone online and whether the magic would retain. There was no need to worry whatsoever as they showed when they roared so loud like lions that they teleported the Head Keeper to the Mountain in the Sky. I won’t spoil the magic of how it was done but the impact on the children’s belief in the whole evening was even stronger.
The children Â then had to apply to be a Night Zoo Keeper before they were allowed to work outside in our own Night Zoo. The time was, by now getting towards 5pm and the children were fired up to right. The hall had a complete buzz of children wanting to become a Zoo Keeper and desperate for Paul to check that their application form was good enough.
Â Before the children were allowed to go outside they had to make sure that they were warmed up and so, helped by some special helpers, the Night Zoo Keeper led some animal aerobics. This fun half hour involved children creating their own aerobic activities based on things like monkeys swinging their arms, a crocodile snapping his jaws and a hyena lying on the floor laughing.
Then we were ready to go outside. By this time it was very dark outside and also very rainy All of the children were equipped with torches, wellies and rain coats and ventured out in groups of 8 with an adult supporting Â them.
Â The children roamed our site, which is completely secure, looking for the
different animal picture which has been posted by Paul and Buzz. They then thought of names for them.
Sometimes, they saw the Spying Giraffe and those who ventured into the small wood next to Key Stage One founded the Night Zoo Keeper
who set the children riddles to solve.
It was truly a magical hour full of squeals, excitement and the sound of sploshing mud!
The culmination of the night was gathering all of the children in our eco area together to listen to a story read by the Night Zoo Keeper. This was a simply wonderful evening as we had more than 120 people gathered in the pitch dark only illuminated by the glow of torches held aloft.
Once the story was completed we went back into school to meet the parents. It was at this stage that I saw the muddy mess that some of our children were carrying around with them!
I went out to meet the parents and warn them that some of their children were very muddy and we would be fully understanding if not all of them were in uniform the next day.
At this point, one of the mums called out to say that if their children having an Â after school event meant a bit of mud then they would be quite happy with that! And so, a group of shattered children trudged with weary grins to bubbly baths.
The next day, the Night Zoo Keeper worked with the children in their classes using a mixture of iPads, Blackberry Playbooks and our laptops. The work undertaken was on the new NZK websiteÂ – this was at a Beta stage when we worked with it but it worked well for the children.
Despite their tiredness, the children were desperate to put in their drawings and use the tech to do it.
Finally,Â we ended the day with a whole school assembly during which the Year 2 children explained what they had done to an audience of more than 350 of their peers.
I write this blog a month after the departure of the Buzz and Paul. The impact of the visit is demonstrable not only in pupil attitudes towards writing but in the assessments which took place in the week before half term. We have seen the lower confidence writers are now much more willing to put pen to paper.
Here are some examples of writing from the week after the visit.
The holding of the event at night gave the children something completely different not only for them but also different from anything their parents would expect from a school. It also backed up our vision of providing out of school activities for all age groups and looking to make sure that our children have access not only to what children in larger conurbations in the east get but actually something even better.
Could we have done it better? There are things I would change and I am sure that Paul has elements which would be altered for future school visits. However, would I do it again or recommend it to other schools? Definitely.
If you are going to have them into your school; you might consider Years 3 and 4 which I know is a decision other schools have made.