Monday, 3 October 2011

No Pens Day Wednesday - guest slot, Jean Gross, Communication Champion

Last week about a quarter of a million children and young people took part in the Hello campaign’s No Pens Day Wednesday, which seems to have really hit the spot with teachers.

I was lucky enough to visit St Joseph’s Primary School in Camden, where overnight a time machine had arrived in the playground. Covered in silver foil and cordoned off, it had a huge clock with backwards numbers, a 0-9 number pad, a Blue Peter-type control console and – best of all- a calendar with Wednesday 28th September marked with a cross and the words ‘St Joseph’s School, Earth’ scrawled across the page.

The local community policewoman came down to check for health and safety, while the children came out in class groups to explore and talk about the machine. The oldest children discussed what year they might want to go back (or forward) to. One girl said 9/11, so ‘We could stop it happening’. A child in a younger class suggested that maybe if you pressed a number on the number pad you would become that age – ‘You’d be six..or nine...’

Others speculated about where the machine might have come from. ‘I think it came from the sky’ (and ‘I think the teachers made it’), while the teachers encouraged speculative language and modelled exciting vocabulary.

Then each class used the time machine as a stimulus for no-pens activities. In Reception the creative areas had been set out with foil and glitter and boxes for the children to use. Older groups planned and made their own robots and time machines in design and technology.

In Year 6 children took part in an extended improvisation about life in the year 3011, when the world was ruled by orang-utans. One activity was group work to plan a talking brochure for a school in this new world. They had to choose a name for their school and its vision statement, then use their bodies to create a still image for the front cover of the prospectus. Later they recorded the images using camera and sound, and went on to work on the inside pages.

In another class I watched a maths lesson. Children worked in groups, each child holding a number on a card. No-one was allowed to show their card to each other. The task was to arrange themselves into a line with their numbers in size order, by asking each other questions – ‘Has your number got three digits?’ and so on.

The day made me very aware of the problems of acoustics in classrooms. Children all talking in groups makes quite a buzz, so they had to focus hard to listen to each other. Many classrooms aren’t designed for talk. Many twenty-first century workplaces are. Interesting?

There’s no doubt the day was full-on for the teachers, without those moments when everyone is writing quietly. But those I spoke to said they loved the day, despite the challenges. So did many other schools across the country, according to some of the Twitter conversations we picked up.

We have been asked if No Pens Day will happen again. Any school that wants to can still take part, of course – many have chosen their own Wednesday (or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday...) later on in the year. The guidance and lesson plans are still available at But I also hope the day will become an annual fixture in the education calendar, to remind us all that communication skills are vital for today’s learners, and that over a million children in the UK have speech, language and communication needs that are often misidentified, misunderstood - or missed altogether.

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