Monday, February 23, 2015

8 Wonderful New Books with the Theme of War

The theme of 'war' is a very common one whether in adult books or those for children and young adults. Typically, these books focus on the impact of war on children's lives and families. As many nations around the world remember various key centenary dates relating to World War I there seem to be many new and varied books addressing this theme for children. What I like about the collection of books that have come across my desk in recent months is the complexity of the stories that a told and the effort to apply new lenses to an old theme. I have reviewed them below in appropriate age order. The novels are particularly rich and challenging.

1. 'Anzac Ted' by Belinda Landsberry (Exisle Publishing)

'Anzac Ted's a scary bear
and I can tell you why.
He's missing bits, his tummy splits,
he only has one eye'

That's how this beautifully illustrated book begins. A battered old teddy, that never wins a prize in the best toy competitions at school and frightens all the kids. But this bear has a secret. No one 'knows my Anzac's woes or just how brave he is.' Like the narrator's Grandpa, Anzac Ted is very old (100 this year in fact) and he made it through two wars as a mascot.

This is a lovely picture book for children aged 4-6 years that will allow very young children to access just as little of the Anzac legend.

2. 'One Minute's Silence' by David Metzenthen & illustrated by Michael Camilleri (Allen & Unwin)

This non-fiction, it is a moving and powerful story about the meaning of Remembrance Day drawing on the ANZAC and Turkish battle at Gallipoli. It is based on true events, but is written in a way that encourages the reader to imagine sprinting up the beach in Gallipoli in 1915 with the fierce fighting Diggers. The reader is also encouraged to imagine standing beside the brave battling Turks as they defended their homeland from the cliffs above.

In the silence that follows a war long gone, the hope is that you might see what the soldiers saw, and feel a little of what the soldiers felt. And if you try, you might just be able to imagine the enemy, and see that he was not so different from 'his' enemy. The purpose is to challenge us to imagine, remember and honour soldiers on both sides of the conflict. All are heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives for their countries.

This is a very moving and powerful reflection on the meaning of Remembrance Day, which is brought to life by Michael Camilleri's incredible pencil drawings. Each double page spread is wonderful. One of my favourites is one that depicts the engineering, physics and impact of a bullet. I found this to be quite dramatic and challenging.

Readers aged 7-10 will enjoy this book.


3. 'The Afghanistan Pup' by Mark Wilson (Lothian Children's Books)

'The Afghanistan Pup' is book 4 in the Children in War Quartet by fabulous author and illustrator Mark Wilson. It is the story of an abandoned pup, a young girl in Afghanistan who just wants to go to school, and an Australian Soldier. It is a story of unexpected friendship, sacrifice, and finding hope in the strangest places.

The puppy is found abandoned by a little girl, Kinah. The backdrop and setting is the war in Afghanistan. When Kinah's school is bombed the dog is alone again until an Australian soldier rescues it. You'll need to read the book to find out how these stories are woven together.

Mark Wilson uses his wonderful art and well-chosen words to tell a great story with power. His illustrative work includes newspaper clippings, and varied beautiful images that are stunning. This is a special book that children aged 7-10 will enjoy.

4. 'War Brothers: The Graphic Novel' by Sharon E. McKay and illustrated by Daniel Lafrance (Walker)

This graphic novel has been adapted from the book 'War Brothers' written by Sharon McKay and published by Puffin in Canada in 2008. In its earlier form as a novel, it won the Arthur Ellis award for Juvenile fiction. This is a different kind of war. It is an evil war in the name of religion. It is not faith that drives these rebels; it is ideology and a quest for power. This is a fictional story based on real interviews in Uganda. While the graphic novel tells of unimaginable cruelty and violence, it is also a message of hope, courage, family and friendship. This is a war where rebels steal boys and girls from farms in Uganda driven by a militant named Joseph Kony who has terrorised parts of central Africa for almost 20 years. Young boys are forced to kill or be killed, and girls serve as slaves and 'wives'.

While the book is in a form that readers as young as 10-12 could read, its content is confronting means that for me, it is a piece of adolescent fiction. The illustrations are very effective. The darkly washed watercolours seem appropriate for an equally dark tale. It is a difficult story to read, but it offers an important caution against the excesses of ideology and religious extremism, and the failure of governments and nations to act quickly in the face of this type of evil. Suitable for readers 12+.

5. 'Emilio' by Sophie Masson (Allen & Unwin)

This is the fourth book in the popular 'Through My Eyes' series of adolescent fiction. It is a moving novel about one child's life in the middle of the drug war in Mexico. This of course is a different kind of war. Not a war fought over territory in the traditional sense but one that centres on control of places and the trafficking of drugs.

The central character, Emilio Garcia Lopez, starts out on an ordinary school day. That evening a knock on the door changes everything. The arrival of his police-officer cousin Juanita, flanked by a tall man in the uniform of the Federal Police, turns his normal day into the beginning of a long nightmare. Unidentified criminals, who appear to know a great deal about her and have mistaken her for a wealthy businesswoman, have kidnapped Emilio's mother in broad daylight from a hotel carpark. This is a dark novel that is engaging and challenging. Suitable for mature readers aged 13+.




6. 'Zafir' by Prue Mason (Allen & Unwin)

This is the sixth book in the 'Through My Eyes' series from Allen & Unwin that once again challenges adolescent readers to consider the struggles of people living in contemporary conflict zones. Zafir moves from Dubai to a comfortable life in Homs, Syria, where things are different. One day when he sees a body thrown from a moving car and no-one stops, he knows that things have changed in this country. He hears his parents arguing over the future of the nation and one day his father, a doctor, is arrested for helping a protester who was campaigning for revolution. His mother heads to Damascus to try to find out where his father is being held, Zafir stays with his grandmother - until her house is bombed.

With his father in prison, his mother absent, his grandmother ill and not a friend left in the city, Zafir must stay with his Uncle Ghazi. But that too becomes dangerous as the city becomes more and more besieged. This challenging book about a boy trapped in the middle of a civil war in Syria, draws the reader in as we contemplate with Zafir the possibility that he might not survive long enough to be reunited with his parents. This is an excellent end to a wonderful series of books. Suitable for readers aged 12+.

7. 'To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War' by David McRobbie (Allen & Unwin)

This is another gripping tale from one of my favourite authors of historical fiction.  It is the story of a teenager who ends up as a deck boy on navy ships, learning the ropes, fitting in with the crew, and facing wartime action in World War II.

The boys had been trained for emergencies. They had to know how to launch a lifeboat and to know where the life jackets were stored. But they were hardly prepared for the horrors before them. What an exploding torpedo do? And how will the ship and its crew behave when it sinks under you. No-one was able to prepare them for the blackness of night, or the horror of battle.

It is 1940, war rages and there is nothing to keep Adam Chisholm aged 15 years at home. So he joins Britain's Merchant Navy. His first ship takes him on a stormy Atlantic convoy where he faces seasickness, submarines, and shipwreck. In his remarkable sea journeys, Adam meets enemies face to face, and makes friends—some for a lifetime. The book includes a seven-page glossary of nautical terms and features WWII memorabilia throughout.

This is a very readable book that will keep readers aged 12+ engaged. It is beautifully written as with all of McRobbie's books.  It tells the story of war time battles that shows how men of honour and courage experience war. The book describes life at sea with great detail. This feature of McRobbie's books invites the reader to 'become' part of the action and adventure. A great read.

8. 'Hope in a Ballet Show: Orphaned By War, Saved by Ballet' by Michaela & Elaine DePrince (Faber & Faber)

This is the true story of a young girl who grows up in war-torn Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince.  She witnesses atrocities that no child ever should. Rebels kill her father and her mother dies of famine. She is then sent to an orphanage, is mistreated and witnesses the brutal murder of her favourite teacher. But her life takes a turn for the better when after raising five children of her own Elaine DePrince travels to Sierra Leone to adopt an orphan living in a difficult place.

For Michaela her dream of being a ballet dancer was implanted in her when one day a wind blew a magazine through the orphanage that she was living in. Michaela picks it up and sees a beautiful image of a young woman dancing. She thinks to herself, one day I want to be that happy. And so a dream is born.
Elaine DePrince and her husband adopt Michaela and her best friend and Michaela is able to take dance lessons for the first time. But her life in the USA isn't without its problems. The world of ballet that she finds is a racist one, and Michaela has to fight for a place amongst the ballet elite, hearing the words "America's not ready for a black girl ballerina".

Today, Michaela is an international ballet star, dancing for The Dutch National Ballet at the age of 19. This is a heart-breaking and yet inspiring autobiography by a teenager who shows us, that there is always hope where there is a dream, and the means and love to support you as you search for it.


Other relevant links

The Power and Place of Historical Narrative (HERE)
Historical fiction (HERE)





Thursday, February 12, 2015

Making Homework More Relevant and Useful for Learning

The vexed question 'Is homework useful?' is never far from conversations between parents about school, or between teachers when discussing parents. Like every teacher I have felt the pressure of parents wanting their children to do more homework. In spite of this I have never been a fan of most of the homework I see in the primary years of schooling (age 5 to 12 years). Yes, homework does have a place, but not the exalted place that many parents want to give it.

Why you might ask? 


1. Because the vast majority of homework is banal and features drill of things that contribute little to the areas in which we want children to learn. Memorising spelling lists is a case in point (see my previous post HERE) with little contribution being made to the ability to write well.

2. Because school homework is often a substitute for things that are more critical to children's development. For example, play (posts HERE), discovery learning and problem solving (posts HERE), creative expression in varied forms and (dare I say it, rest at day's end), conversation with adults and other children.

3. Because it allows society at large to fill the school day with other things that parents have failed to teach their children and simply shift curriculum work to the category of homework, which has to be packaged in bundles that children can complete largely undirected (see #1).

4. Because it reinforces narrow definitions of learning, curriculum and assessment. Homework ends up being a type of test of that which should be learned at school, and this in the name of practice.

In short, school becomes squeezed by the imperative to test children's learning for public assessment (see related posts HERE), and the hours after school end up being used for largely non-directed and repetitive tasks that help children to pass tests delivered at school.

Is there an alternative? Yes!

Step 1 - Ensure that any after school time whether at home with a parent or carer or in after school care is spent well. Set high standards.

Step 2 - Control access to the things that distract children from rich learning and exploration. I'm thinking of course about 'screen' time (limit daily screen time), computers, gaming and television. But you may need to limit other things (that have merit and are useful) and become obsessive and shut out other options for learning.

Above: Screen time needs to be controlled, but it can also be a key tool for learning

Step 3 - Apply some simple tests for any after school 'homework'. Does it develop new knowledge and skills? Does it expand repertoires for learning - discovery, imaginative recreation, dialogue, observation etc? Is it enjoyable and challenging?

Step 4 - Make sure that you know what your children are doing, that you monitor it, and that you show genuine interest in what they are doing. 

What might post school time look like?

Hopefully time after school will have a level of planning (kids you need to do X, Y, & Z). Make sure that set agendas like sporting practice, music etc don't shut out everything else.

Start with down time - let them rest, talk to other people about their day, feed them, let them have some time to choose what they do (within predetermined limits).

Incorporate varied activities - some time outside to run around in an unstructured self-directed way; a time for exploration and discovery (this can include reading, viewing, hands on activities like craft drawing, construction etc); a time for school directed homework (I'd limit this in the primary years to no more than five times their age, i.e. thirty minutes aged 6, fifty minutes aged 10 etc); self-directed reading (e.g. HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE); family down time to chat and hang out.

Above: A different type of 'homework'

I understand that the complexity and varied nature of family life will always make after school time 'messy'. But we need to ask ourselves, how messy is it? What negative impact is the messiness having on family life and learning? What can I do to change things?

One thing I am certain of, the solution to the messiness isn't simply to ask schools to set more banal tasks, disconnected from 'real' learning which we police with minimal supervision.

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Other posts

Other posts that address creativity, imagination and play (HERE)

Other posts that address homework alternatives (HERE)


Monday, February 2, 2015

Oral & Repeated Reading is Important and Can be Fun

1. Oral reading is important. Why? 
  • It's an important skill for life
  • It helps teachers and parents to observe and make 'visible' children's reading processes
  • It helps to develop reading fluency and support vocabulary development
  • It can help us to assess reading progress and diagnose difficulties
I've written about oral reading before covering a variety of topics, including:

How to listen to children reading (HERE & HERE),
The importance of reading to and with children (HERE), and
Readers' Theatre (HERE).

Teachers have known for a long time that oral reading can be a valuable instructional method, but sadly, for many children reading around the group (or worse still the class) kills interest and motivation. But we know from research that 'repeated readings' can improve fluency and ability (e.g. Stoddart & others 1993, Rasinski 1990, Rasinski & Hoffman 2003). So how can we move beyond 'round robin' reading and embrace more creative and enjoyable approaches to oral reading?

In this post I want to offer some suggestions for how teachers and parents can make oral reading more effective, as well as enjoyable and even fun!





2. Making it fun and enjoyable

Above: Bec reads to her day-old sister
How can we make repeated or oral reading fun? Here are some key elements to help achieve this.

1. Choose appropriate material for your children - use graded material at varied levels; favourite passages from books the class has heard or read (e.g. Roald Dahl or Dr Seuss books work); jokes & riddles; poetry or songs that they know; speeches and famous quotes.
2. Ensure that students are reading at their appropriate level.
3. Use varied strategies and avoid simply reading around the group.

3. Some alternative strategies

Most of the ideas that follow can be found in a great article by Mary Ann Cahill and Anne E. Gregory published in 'The Reading Teacher' a couple of years ago. Here is their description of oral reading in a US 2nd grade classroom they had worked in:

'One pair is rolling dice and using different voices to read; a small group is reading to small, plastic animals on their desks; three students are wearing masks while reading; and another pair is using little, red-beamed flashlights to shine on each word as they read.'
What are some simple novel ways to help children remain motivated and enjoy oral reading?

Above: Evie reads to her pet cat
1. Read to prepare for performance - By this I mean, putting exciting material in children's hands, letting them practice and then asking them to share it with a group or the class (e.g. read a favourite section from a book, read a song, silly poem etc).
2. Try Readers' Theatre - I've written about this before (HERE). Obtain some free scripts and let your children have fun reading together in small groups to present the scripts to others.
3. Read to someone or something - This might seem strange, but some teachers get their children to read not to other people but to other 'things'. A number of classes in the UK and the US have had children read regularly to a school dog (read more HERE) with great success and benefits. Some creative teachers have had their children read to plastic dinosaurs (!), a favourite doll etc.
4. Some turn it into a game such as 'Reading Dice' - This involves getting children to discuss the different voices a character could have for a reading extract; they then write 6 of them on the board and giving them the numbers 1-6. They then have children work in pairs or groups to take turns, roll the dice and use the voice that matches the number.
5. Newsreader or media presenter - Teachers have a microphone (it can be a fake one) and ask children in pairs to conduct an interview for an appropriate extract.
6. Reading Masks - the children practice reading passages using the voice and persona of the mask they are wearing (these can be animals, super heroes etc).
7. Use songs for reading - The use of songs has the added advantage that the rhythm, sound repetition, melody etc can be used to support reading (see my recent post on this topic HERE)

Summing up

Oral reading is a valuable instructional tool and has been neglected of late. It has also been misused for many years with the effect that some children have found it less than rewarding. But it can and should be enjoyable and fun. I'd love to hear of your own experiences with oral reading. Do you have any great ideas? Post a comment. 

A useful reference

Mary Ann Cahill & Anne E. Gregory (2011). Putting the fun back into fluency instruction, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp 127-131.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Starting School: Is there a perfect age?

One of my daughter's on her 1st day
I last wrote about this topic in January 2014 when one of my grandchildren was starting school for the first time. In Australia most of our schools are returning next week and many children will start school for the first time.  I can't remember my first day at school, but I can still remember the mix of emotions that my wife and I experienced when we sent our two daughters off for their first day of formal schooling (this was some time ago).

The starting age in Australia varies from state to state. In NSW any child may commence school if they turn five years on or before the 31st July in that year, but they must start no later than six years of age. In other states the ages and rules vary so it can be a bit confusing.

In other countries we see similar diversity. In Finland children start formal schooling in the year in which they turn seven. In Germany it is six, in Britain five and in the USA it varies (like Australia) from state to state.

So is there a best starting age? If there is, few education systems seem to agree on what it is. "Should my child start school at five even though... (fill the blank)?" is one of the most common questions I hear from parents. The short answer I give is "it all depends". Yes, children need to have reached a certain minimum stage of physical, intellectual and emotional development to cope with school, but variations from four and a half to six years don’t seem to make huge differences to most children’s long term academic achievement.

It would seem that there is little evidence for a universal perfect age for starting school. In reality, we need to make individual assessments for each child. Here are some things to consider if your child has reached an age at which he/she can officially commence formal schooling. Please note that these questions don't all apply to children with disabilities. In such cases parents have to consider many things when making a decision about the right time to start school.

Is my child physically ready? 
  • Do they have the motor skills typical of the average starting aged child? Can they walk, run, jump, throw things, dress themselves (few can tie shoelaces – that’s why we have Velcro! And Kindergarten teachers are good at it anyway). Can they tear paper, apply some stickers, hold crayons and pencils and use them (even if not that well)?
  • Can they feed themselves and will they cope with a new degree of independence?
  • How big is your child? Very tall children often struggle if held back when they eventually go to school. And very small children might struggle if they go early.
  • Are they toilet trained and independent in many areas of self care?
Is my child emotionally ready?
  • Is your child able to cope with separation? Going to school should not be the first time the child has been out of the sight of parents or the primary caregivers.
  • Have they had at least some experience relating to other children? Can they share, communicate, show some control of anger and frustration?
  • If your child is keen to go to school there’s a strong chance that they are emotionally ready.
  • Can they communicate their emotions (frustration, fear, anger, affection etc)?
Is your child intellectually ready?

This is tougher, but in general you would expect that your child can:
  • Concentrate on activities for extended periods of time (say at least 10-15 minutes on one activity). This might include being able to listen to a story, engage in 10 minutes  of screen time without being easily distracted, sustaining attention on a game or activity that they like.
  • Hold crayons and show some interest in making marks or scribble (the early stages of writing - see my post on this topic here), show some interest in print and symbols (e.g. “what does that say Mum?”), complete basic puzzles (maybe 30-50 pieces), try to write their name, count to five, recognise some letters.
  • Use language sufficient to communicate with other children and the teacher?
  • Show some interest in learning. This can show itself in many ways such as inquisitiveness, exploration, and observation of things around them.
Ultimately, parents need to make this decision based on what they know about their child. There are some other things worth considering:
  • What is the school like? Do you know the teachers and do you have confidence that they will be able to understand your child and help them to find their feet at school?
  • What are your family circumstances like? If you have another sibling just one year younger you might want to make sure that you don’t have them going off to school at the same time.
  • What was the experience that you had as parents? Did you go to school early or late and what was the impact on you? Given the common gene pool this is a useful consideration.
  • What are your personal circumstances? Is there major upheaval in the family or some major change coming in the next 12 months (e.g. moving to another area)? If so, holding your child back might be justified.
I find today that there is greater anxiety about starting age than ever before. Unfortunately, much of this is caused by parents worrying unduly about children being successful at school. I have parents who ask me (for example) is it okay that their child can't read yet, even though they are only four. This is ridiculous of course; most don't start reading until they get to school. Others ask if holding their child back a year will disadvantage them compared to others. Overall, if you consider the needs of your child and the broad range of capabilities I've outlined above, I think you'll make a good decision. If you get it wrong, the evidence is that generally children will cope and adapt over time, and that there are few long-term problems for most children.

An interesting postscript to this matter is that Finland that does well in OECD international school assessments as measured by PISA surveys. It was second in the latest rankings for reading, and yet, the starting age in Finland is seven!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Book is Not Dead! 6 reasons why the paper book is still loved

An article in the latest edition of the Financial Times has shared some startling data about book sales in the last year. While the hype for the last three years has been that paper book sales will continue to dive at the expense of eBooks, and that book stores and traditional publishers face extinction, these views might well have been premature. Indeed, they might even be wrong!


Here are some of the highlights of the article:

1. Publishers and book chains in the US, UK and Australia have all celebrated some of their strongest sales figures for some time with rises of up to 5% in December.
2. The number of paper books sold rose in the US by 2.4% in 2014 to 635,000,000 copies.
3. The growth in eBooks stalled in the US and UK with fewer electronic book readers being sold.
4. Sales of adolescent and young adult fiction rose by 12% in 2014, while adult fiction fell by 8%.
5. A recent Nielsen Book Sale survey found that teenagers prefer paper books.
6. A Deloitte study suggests that paper books will account for 80% of global book sales this year and would continue to outsell electronic books for the foreseeable future.

My own work with children also suggests that the hype that electronic book apps created 2-3 years ago has waned a little, as the novelty has worn off and readers rediscover the power of narrative and the tactile benefits of paper. This might also relate to the discovery that interactivity can ultimately distract from story, not just enrich it. Other trends seem to suggest an increased interest in graphic novels and comics (see HERE and HERE).

6 Reasons Why Paper Books Still Work!

1. They're easy! They don't need power, and can be mistreated. You can take them to the beach! Simply try throwing your tablet towards the bed and missing it! Or accidentally sitting it.
2. They're always there. If you've been buying picture books online for years as I have, take note of the number of apps that no longer work.
3. While novels on readers are easy enough to use, many picture book apps take time to navigate and the interactivity can be distracting.
4. There is something gloriously good about the tactile experience of curling up with a book, or reading to your child with a paper book.
5. Books are a visible presence that reminds us that they're there! I'm embarrassed to say how many books I've bought online and still haven't opened (true I have book piles too!). I can't trip over them or simply see them reminding me of their presence as I walk into the room. A room with books invites the reader to enter new worlds.
6. In professional reading, paper books offer a more natural opportunity (for most) to make marginal notes, use post it notes etc.

Having said all of the above, I know that we can list many good reasons for eBooks (that's why I'm a fan of both) - they store easy, silverfish aren't a problem, they are cheaper, easier to get, offer countless titles (especially of old books), allow expanded options for publication, they do allow new ways to interact with books and open up the way for new multimodal forms of reading (which I've written on before). But.... the paper book still has a magic that will ensure that it doesn't die.

I'd be particularly be keen to hear from teachers who have been using eBooks with younger readers aged 5-12 years. Picture books and in fact all books for readers 0-6 would seem to be the most resilient to the 'assault' of eBooks. My own observations suggest that there is a drop off in interest with ePicture books once the novelty of 'clever' apps subsides. Your thoughts?

Some of my previous Posts on eBooks HERE


Monday, January 5, 2015

Introducing Writing Workshops for Children


There are many good reasons to implement daily writing workshops in classrooms. Probably most important amongst these is that they offer the opportunity for children to experience writing as process not just as product. That is, to understand that writing is something that has to be worked on if it is to communicate with and engage readers. Young writers need to experience writing as craft, something that requires hard work, revision, research, planning, careful use of language and a sense of purpose and audience. But Katie Wood Ray reminds us in this short video that there is something even more basic that writing workshops offer - the chance to develop writing stamina.



I had the chance to see such 'stamina' demonstrated as part of a research project when team teaching on a Grade 1 class with an outstanding teacher, Inta Gollasch. I spent most of the year in Inta's class observing the literacy behaviour of her children (I have written about this in detail on my book 'Pathways to Literacy'). The language story that follows illustrates a number of other good reasons for having daily writing workshops in classrooms. Inta's approach to writing workshop was simple, she provided:

  • Time each day when children were encouraged to write about topics of their choosing.
  • Folders in which they kept their draft materials and lots of writing materials.
  • Opportunities for the children to share their writing with others when the need arose.
  • Individual teacher conferences for children when needed (but at least weekly).
  • Varied opportunities for the children to publish and share their writing with larger audiences.
  • Help with publishing when the young writers wanted to pit their work into some more permanent form.
On the first day in the classroom I observed a boy named Brock eagerly writing in a "magic cave" constructed as a retreat area.  I stopped to ask how he came up with this idea for his story.  He replied:

"Well, it was like Chlorissa. (She wrote about) that book (The Enchanted Wood) that had children who moved to the country.  I changed it around."

Brock's piece based on the The Enchanted Wood (Blyton, 1939) was primed (at least in part) by the fact that Chlorissa had done this earlier. 

I observed a preoccupation with Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books in Inta’s class.  The teacher had read two of these books ('The Enchanted Wood' & 'The Magic Faraway Tree') in the first 4 weeks of school.  The third ('The Wishing Chair') was read over a two-week period some two months later. 

The teacher's reading of these books had a strong influence upon the writing of children in the classroom.  This showed itself in the students' narrative writing, in playground games, in letter writing and even at home.  In all, ten 'Blyton type' stories were written in this classroom during the year.

Above: Chlorissa's story
Chlorissa's writing that had inspired Brock and others to write their own Faraway Tree stories was begun in June (mid school year in Australia). She was still writing it at the end of the school year (December).  By this time the story was 20 pages long and Chlorissa had stuck each of the pages together to form a scroll, that could stretch almost across the width of the classroom (something she liked to demonstrate at the end of every writing session).

Chlorissa's writing demonstrates what Katie Wood Ray was talking about; daily writing workshops can help children to develop stamina. This is stamina of two kinds, first, the ability just to stick at a task for a long period of time (30 minutes each day). Second, the ability to keep coming back to the same task day after day. This is one of the key skills of the writer, sticking with the writing task - stamina!





But I think the language story also demonstrates a few other things as well:
1. Writing workshops help children to learn about the craft of writing.
2. It offers opportunities for young writers to write for 'real' audiences.
3. The sharing of writing can inspire other young writers.
4. Books are an important source of inspiration for young writers.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

20 Great Travel or Holiday Games

In Australia it is summer and so school is out for 6 weeks across the nation and many families will be heading for the beaches and waterways to enjoy Christmas in a particularly Aussie way. For some this will involve hours of travel as relatives are visited and exquisite coastal locations sought out. This is always a recipe for children getting bored and frustrated with one another - "...are we there yet!". 

This post is a repeat of some earlier posts, but I hope that it will be useful reminder of some great games that will keep children happily content for hours. I've done posts on travel games for children before and now seems a good time for another. So whether you will be in a car, bus or plane, or just stuck inside on a wet day, these games might just help.

Above: Photo courtesy of the Australian Newspaper

I've included a number of games that we played with our children in the car when they were young, some I used when teaching and a few new ones that I'd love to play with my grandchildren. Some of the newer games are adaptations of some activities from a great resource published by Usborne Children's books, '50 things to do on a journey' (here). This resource has a range of written and verbal activities that cover literacy, mathematics and general knowledge. One thing to note about these games is that you don't have to play every one of them competitively. If you do, you might need to handicap older children.


1. Sound word categories

You start this game by agreeing on 3-5 categories (depending on the age of the children and their vocabularies) for which people will have to be able to think of words that belong to them; for example, an insect, flower, person, country, girl's name, action word. Someone chooses a letter (maybe Mum or Dad to make sure that it isn't too hard) that has to be used by everyone and is applied to each category. The fastest person to quickly name their words earns 3 points, the second gets 2 and the third 1. So for the letter 'f' and the three categories insect, country and girl's name you could say fly, France and Fiona. A parent usually acts as the timer.

2. Top 6 (or 10 if your children get to be good at it)

This activity is a variation on the previous 'Sound Word Categories'. You vary it by choosing a category and then seeing if someone can list 6-10 words that fit the category. For example, think of 10 car names, dogs, books, insects, snakes, footballers etc. The person who thinks of the most words in a category wins.


3. Rhyming words

Pick a word that is easy to rhyme with other real words. Each person takes a turn. The winner is the person who is the last one to think of a rhyming word. For example, heat, seat, meat, bleat, sleet, neat, pleat..... If the children are older they can write the words down simultaneously.

4. Don't say yes

This is a slightly harder game but lots of fun. One person has to answer questions and the others get to ask them questions to which the answer is obviously 'yes', but they must answer every question truthfully without saying 'yes'. If they do say 'yes', or can't answer, the turn ends and the person asking the question earns a point. For example, Karen is asked, "Do you like ice-cream"? To which she might answer, "Most people like milk-based products that are cold." The next person in the car asks a question, but it mustn't be simply the same question. For example, they could ask, "Do you like milk-based products in cones?" To which the reply might be, "Some I like to eat in a wafer case."

5. Spotto......

One of our family's favourite games in the car was 'Spotto windmill'. We lived in the country and often drove for 5-6 hours towards the coast. In key areas there were lots of windmills pumping water for stock. But you don't have to use windmills; you can spot billboards, bridges, trees, birds, and animals, almost anything that is common. The game can be concluded in various ways, such as the first to 30, ending it at a specific landmark or just stopping when you're tired of it or you run out of windmills (or whatever).

6. What's your job

This game starts with someone thinking of a job. Others then guess by trying to find out details about what the person does, where they work, they use tools, what skills you need etc. The skill is in asking just the right questions. Does this person work outdoors? Do they drive something? Do they use special tools? Can they work alone? etc. The aim is to see who can get it right. Every person in the car takes it in turns to ask a question and you keep rotating until someone gets it right. That person gets to pick the next job and it all starts over again.

7. Guess my song

Someone picks a song and they have to hum the first line. Everyone in the car has one guess then the person hums an extra line if no-one gets it after the first round. This continues until someone gets the song.

8. Guess the person

One person in the car thinks of a person everyone knows (e.g. a family member, TV star, book character, teacher, cartoon character, famous person), and then everyone takes turns to ask a question about them. Is it a man or a woman? Are they young or old? Does she have black hair? Does he wear glasses? Is she famous?

9. I Spy..

This is a well-known game. It can be varied for young children by simply asking for categories rather than insisting on letter names or sounds. So the variations can include: "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with" 'p' (letter name) or 'p' (sound name) or even, "that is green". The last variation is a good way to involve very young children and the categories can be very varied. "I spy with my little eye a thing that ...." is black...or, a little thing that bites... or, a person who likes coffee... or, a thing the car has to stop at etc.

10. Back to back words

People think of words that begin the way the last word ends. You will need to demonstrate this a few times and it isn't that suitable for children under 6 years. It might go like this: pot, tree, egg, goat, top, pot, turtle, elf, fog, goldfish. You can make the game harder for older children if you like by asking for the words to fit specific single categories like animals, names, places.


11. Who lives there?

This is a great game. Wait till you stop at traffic lights or you are travelling slowly enough to see a house long enough to remember some details. People take turns adding details to describe who might live there. This can be very creative or an accurate set of predictions. Each player builds (plausibly) on the previous person's clues. For example, first person says, "a mother lives there with her three children". The next person says, "the children are aged 3, 7 and 16". The next person says, "their names are, Sue, Pickle and Wobble.". The next says, "Wobble is named after his Dad (Bobble) who is on a round the world yacht trip" etc. When people run out of ideas you start again. You could vary this by choosing a car. The first person might say, "That car has a family of three children and their parents heading for the seaside".

12. Twenty questions

This starts with someone choosing an object, person, place, country etc that others have to identify. The others in the car have a chance to ask questions (maximum of 20 for each thing chosen). The questions are answered with a 'yes' or a 'no'. When someone thinks they know it they can guess. You can score this different ways (or not all). The person whose word is not guessed can score points as can the person who guesses correctly.

13. Memory game

There are many memory games, but a common one involves thinking of things that are in the car (or the boot/trunk), an imaginary backpack, suitcase, the kitchen at home, the beach where you'll visit. The people in the car add an item to a list and the next person must repeat previous details and add their own. People are eliminated when they forget an item. So it could start like this: "In the car we have a radio", to which someone says, "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel", which could become "in the car we have a radio and a steering wheel, plus a pesky sister.....". A parent might write them down as you progress to avoid disputes.

14. Never-ending story

This game has two main forms, a single word version and a sentence version. In the word version people in the car take turns adding to a story one word at a time. It might go like this: "It", "was", "the", "first", "day", "of", "the", "monster's", "summer", "camp"....and so on. The members of the game try to make it impossible to add to the story because the last word is pretty much the last word.

The sentence version is slightly more complex but just as much fun.

15. Word association

This game is a bit trickier but can be handled by children 6+. Someone starts with a word and the next person has to add a word that has an association. Using just nouns and verbs is easiest. The game ends when a word is repeated or someone is stuck. You can have winners and losers if you want but it isn't necessary. Here's how it might go. "Dogs", "bark", "bones", "kennel", "growl", "fleas", "wag", "tail", "scratch" etc.

16. Who am I?

The first player thinks of the name of someone who everyone will know then gives a clue about their identity, for example, Big Bird, a relative, a cartoon character etc. The people in the car then take turns trying to guess who it is. If they get it then they have a turn at choosing the identity. For example, if the player chose 'Bob the Builder' they might start like this: "I fix things".

17. Oh no!

This is a great idea for 3-4 people in a car. Someone starts a story with the words "Oh no!" followed by a simple statement. They might say, "Oh no! There's a spider in my pocket." People then take it in turns to add to the story using "but" as their first word to turn a serious circumstance into a not so serious one, and vice versa. They might add, "But it is only plastic". To which someone might say, "but it has dynamite in it". This continues until the players get sick of it or until everyone agrees that an appropriate ending has been found.

18. Special choices
 

This game requires people to choose between two options and give their reasons. Someone has to come up with the choice. For example, "If I had to choose between snakes or caterpillars" might receive the responses" "I'd choose caterpillars because I'm a robin", or "I'd choose a snake to surprise my teacher" and so on.


Above: Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

19. Twenty-Five
 
The first person chooses a letter or sound at random. Each person then needs to write down (or say) 25 things inside or outside the car that begin with the letter. The game ends either by at the end of set time (say 3 minutes) and the points are tallied. You can score many ways, such as 1 point for every correct word or 1 for each word and 3-5 for each unique word.


20. Teapot 

This game starts with one player picking a verb (action/doing word). The other players in the car then have to ask questions about the verb, but they replace it with the word "teapot." For example, if the word is "swim", the first question asked might be, "Do cars teapot?" Of the course the answer is "No." Players keep asking questions until someone guesses the verb.
'50 Things to do on a journey', Usborne Activity Cards.

'Children's Holiday Activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'.

'Holiday activities: 30 simple ways to stimulate learning'

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 1

'Stimulating language, literature & learning in holidays' - Part 2