The Promise: KS2(+) teaching suggestions

The Promise – Nicola Davies & Laura Carlin Walker Books, 2013

Following my last blog I received a number of requests for the planning ideas that I mentioned, based on Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin’s powerful fable The Promise.

Before reading on, you may want to watch Nicola Davies talk about the book, the process of writing it, and at around 3 minutes into the video, the real life inspiration behind it.

The first read of any book is a once-in-a-lifetime event and there is a decision to be made upfront here by the teacher as to how children will first encounter the book:

  • option 1 – read through as you would in any good story time/book sharing session – ideally a pre-rehearsed read-through as you’d want to capture the particular language rhythms of the book and know just when to reveal the accompanying illustrations;
  • option 2 – read through deliberately and slowly – allowing for speculation, discussion, anticipation and reaction as you move through the book.

A simple choice maybe, but an important one. I am going to carry on with this blog on the basis that I am introducing the text in the more deliberately structured way of option 2. That’s how I have always shared it. But each time, I do wonder whether that was the “right” way to do it. Perhaps I should have allowed the children to enjoy the book straight through in the first instance. I should test the idea somehow, but the trouble with first encounters is you can never compare the exact same first experience for the same group of people. Not unless we have a time machine.

I want to keep the rest of this as simple as possible. This is less like my other personal blogs – its reflective only really in that it is a look back at some of the approaches taken in class to seemingly good effect. I want to simply list these now for ease of access:


Reading Aloud

The Promise is beautifully written. Read it aloud to yourself, perhaps a couple of times, and experiment with its phrasing. The book does provide you with direction, but there’s space to shift this emphasis or that. It stands strong as a written text in its own right. Jane Doonan, in her book Looking at Pictures in Picture Books, offers up an incredibly helpful chapter called Close Looking in Context. Here, she acknowledges the limits of what we can glean from the interplay of text and image in a single (even double) encounter:

Quite often I will copy out the text, line by line to reproduce the pattern of how words are arranged on the page, and I doublespace my copy to indicate each turn of the page. This concentrates my attention on the language alone – it’s rhythms and word order and tone.

Looking at Pictures in Picture Books , Jane Doonan, Thimble Press, 1993

Typing up the text of The Promise really highlights the shape of the overall narrative, as well as sections within it. Sequences of short sentences leap out, as do pivotal moments. The use of the word ‘promise’ in two phrases, around the middle of the book provide the key to the dramatic shifts that occur. By transcribing the text, children in KS2 in particular can be supported to gain a deeper insight into the dynamics of the text. Explore the text in sections, using the explicit references to ‘the promise’ and ‘ my promise’ as markers to support children in exploring the ryhthmic shifts that occur across the book. In the latter section, once the promise is being enacted, the writing mirrors the deliberate, systematic honouring of this vow. Then it slows down. Then a rush of excitement as the fruits of the promise come into being across the city, and then more cities. And in that rush, repetitions, flurries of “and…and…and”, and a skip through a series of prepositional phrases marking out the spread of transformation. Reading and re-reading the text will allow children to practise attending to these shifts. Encourage children to reflect on how they might change the tone of their voices across thematic stretches of the book. It really is a great book to read aloud and provides a good workout for aspects of fluency instruction.


Sequencing for effect

Cutting up the transcript may encourage even closer attention to the properties of the words and their potential combination. I have used this approach several times and it works like a charm as the verse-like nature of the book creates space for many plausible arrangements. Caught up in the challenge of re-assembling the book, syntax and punctuation are carefully attended to and evaluated. Try to think carefully about where you cut the text. Line by line would be too challenging and unduly time consuming; cutting in chunks of between 2 and 4 lines generally seems to work well. As children re-assemble, encourage them to keep reading back as they try out sections of the text. What are they looking for in order to judge their best arrangement? How do the words flow? What sound elements work together (for example, alliteration, assonance, repetition, syllable patterns)? Descriptive elements most readily lend themselves to be presented in a range of orders. Reading these aloud, and comparing and contrasting differing outcomes in class will provide your children with a heightened awareness of some of the choices available to them when it comes to crafting their own writing.


Words and Pictures

You may wish to skip the text-only activities above, and dive straight into the book. You can download a PDF full of suggestions for exploring the text in class using the link below. This resource offers a range of prompts to support you in exploring the interplay between illustration and text in individual spreads, or across the book.

I hope that the purely text-based planning suggestions above, and the ideas in the linked PDF provide some possible lines of enquiry with which to more fully appreciate the book with your class. Some activities might be more suitable than others dependent on the focus year group.

Although I have provided some commentary for most of the spreads in the book, it is important to be selective in terms of the aspects that you choose to develop so that reading is not weighed down with endless profound musings at every turn of the page. We’re sowing our own seeds here: opening eyes that bit wider, hinting at possibilities, and addressing some mysteries. The Promise has its own promises to keep: the simple pleasure of reading; the space for individual response and reflection.

As to writing opportunities, there are so many. Having explored the book in depth, it may well be the case that your young readers will be full of inspiration and will have plenty to say in terms of their own writing outcomes. That said, here are some ideas that you may wish to consider:

  • having seen the transformation of the various cityscapes offered in the book, turn to an almost-too-perfect complementary book by Laura Carlin: A World of Your Own. Here the illustrator of The Promise loosely guides her reader through the increasingly inventive ways by which they might reinvent their local environment, taking the everyday and making it unreal. Photography, art equipment, and materials suitable for collage can be used to create all kinds of idealised, fantastical landscapes. Annotations will allow children to experiment with descriptive phrases and these, in turn, could be turned into guides to the local area with a surreal edge, perhaps even the world’s strangest estate agent notices.
  • write contrasting descriptive passages to capture the harder edges of the early scenes of the books, and then the later sections as the trees grow and the city softens.
  • research and report on urban greening; develop this into persuasive letters or speeches on the same topic.
  • build on the dramatic techniques described in the reading discussion prompts PDF, and write in character about the experience of living in the city. Write a follow up that describes life in the newly green city, and reflect on how things have changed;
  • write an eyewitness statement describing the robbery;
  • keep it simple and write some promises to friends, family, and other notable figures. Perhaps turn these into a list poem of solemn promises. Experiment with the inclusion of promises that cannot be kept: I promise that….and I promise that…But I can never promise that…
  • take some of the phrase, sentence, and section structures from the book and experiment with adapting them for different settings and situations. Consider how the tone and atmosphere may need to vary. What word choices will support adaptation?
  • write a retelling of the story in the third person and remember to attempt a cyclical structure;
  • write a plan for retirement for the elderly woman now that she has handed over the responsibility for all of that planting. Where will she go? What will she do? How will she feel? Will she keep in touch with her replacement?

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