Monday, March 31, 2008

The challenges of choosing books for children

I have written previously about the importance of reading to and with your children. In the previous post I talked a little about the need to help children choose varied books that match their interests and reading levels. There are many issues to consider:
  • is the book at the right reading level;
  • will my child (or children if you're a teacher) enjoy it;
  • is the content appropriate developmentally?
The task of helping children to choose appropriate books is common to parents, teachers and librarians. A recent article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post Question for the ages: What books when? discusses some of the challenges that teachers and librarians face every day just choosing books to read to their classes.

In an age where children are often introduced to ideas at younger and younger ages - something I see as problematic - just how do you make wise choices? For example, is the book too violent? Does the child need to be introduced to that life issue (e.g death, war) at this age? And how do I match my professional judgment as a teacher against the rights of parents? Is it a book that the children can handle emotionally?

Parents at Green Acres School in Rockville (USA) complained when the teacher read the book "From Slave Ships to the Freedom Road" by Julius Lester to third-graders. The book tells the story of African Americans and is a popular book acclaimed for its historical accuracy.

It begins like this: "They took the sick and the dead and they dropped them into the sea like empty wine barrels. But wine barrels did not have beating hearts, crying eyes, and screaming mouths. . . . No one knows how many millions died. Except the sharks."

Such a graphic opening would certainly raise lots of questions; including moral questions. Is it appropriate for 3rd graders. My quick reaction is maybe, it depends on the 3rd graders. However, if parents don't like it then teachers have no choice but to respect their views on this and to talk with them about it and to perhaps try another book.

The National Council of English Teachers (USA) has issued guidelines to help teachers make wise choices. But this is not an easy task for teachers. Some of the helpful comments within the guidelines include:
  • There should be balance in the books chosen.
  • They need to be age appropriate (language and concepts that children can understand) - this will include consideration of the complexity of the plot, abstractness of the language, familiarity of vocabulary, and clarity of syntax.
  • The children should be able to relate to the content - there needs to be some connection between their life and that portrayed (this might be as basic as the age of the main characters).
Our children need to be introduced to a wide variety of books, the challenge is to help them to make good choices. As part of this we need to model how we make choices as well and explain to them why. This is an important task when supporting young readers which parents and teachers need to consider carefully.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Author focus: Dr Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss and sometimes Theo LeSieg) was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel, often sang her children to sleep "chanting" rhymes. Theodor (Ted) gives credit to his mother for his ability to create the rhymes that made him famous.

Theodor left Springfield to attend Dartmouth College, where he became editor-in-chief of the Jack-O-Lantern, Dartmouth's humour magazine. It was here that he began signing his work as "Seuss" which was both his middle name and his mother's maiden name.

When he finished his course at Dartmouth his father inquired as to what he was going to do with his life. His father was keen for him to become a university professor and paid for him to attend Oxford University. One day in class he sat next to Helen Palmer and she saw him doodling. She suggested that he become a cartoonist rather than a professor. He took her advice and they were later married.

The Cartoonist

When he returned to the USA he began a career as a cartoonist. The Saturday Evening Post and other publications published some of his early pieces, but the bulk of Theodor’s early career was devoted to creating advertising campaigns for Standard Oil, which he did for more than 15 years. His first major product to be marketed was "Flit" fly spray, and it has been suggested that he created the first advertisement that ever used humour to sell this product.

He pursued a very successful career as a cartoonist and in advertising before trying to publish his first children’s book. Interestingly, many of his early sketches published in newspapers resemble the characters that eventually found their way into his books. For example, Horton-like elephants, nizzard-like birds and yertle-like turtles.

The children's author

It took him 27 attempts before a publisher took his first book -
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Vanguard Press eventually published it. The story is about a young boy named Marco who as he wanders down the street sees a horse and cart that suddenly through his eyes appears to take on some special qualities. A horse and cart becomes a chariot pulled by a zebra, then a chariot pulled by a reindeer, then a sled pulled by an elephant and so on. The images have the characteristic Seuss colour, sharp lines and simplicity of language and structure. The language is rich, repetitive and rhythmic. His style never moved far from this wonderful recipe but the trademark of his work was the wonderful and inventive way he used language, rhyme and repetition. It has been suggested that his work contributed words to our lexicon for the first time. For example, he used the word "nerd" before anyone else (as a nonsense word) and eventually it found its way into our language as a way to describe someone with quirky personality who is bright and somewhat eccentric.

Perhaps his most famous book is
The Cat in the Hat. Houghton Mifflin had asked Ted to write and illustrate a children's primer using only 225 "new-reader" vocabulary words. He was never a fan of basal readers and so this was his non-boring attempt at a limited vocabulary book.

At the time of his death on September 24, 1991, Ted had written and illustrated 44 children's books, including such all-time favourites as
Green Eggs and Ham, Oh, the Places You'll Go, Fox in Socks, and one of my favourites, I Wish that I had Duck Feet. I suspect that the latter owes much to his father's hobby of taxidermy that was developed when he was superintendent of the Forest Park Zoo. Apparently, his father would give Theodor left over parts from his efforts and eventually some of these were made into imaginary creatures. He literally had a box of spare parts. This is a story about a child struggling for an identity, wishing that he had this and that so that he could impress Big Bill Brown. If only he had duck feet, antlers, a whale spout and so on, all would be different. But with each scenario he realises that there would be problems with this new identity. Eventually, he concludes "And that is why, I think that I, just wish to be like ME". And all the animal parts are thrown into the bin.

Seuss was very much a social commentator not just a funny cartoonist. His book
How the Grinch Stole Christmas explores whether there might just be more to Christmas than presents, greed and excess. The collection of stories titled Sneetches and other stories explores racial identity, the consequences of people being unprepared to compromise, and fear of the unknown. The Lorax is a commentary on a world that ignores the need for environmental sustainability.

His books have been translated into more than 15 languages, and over 200 million copies have been printed.

Besides the books, his works have provided the source for eleven children's television specials, a Broadway musical and a feature-length motion picture. Other major motion pictures are on the way.

His honours included two Academy awards, two Emmy awards, a Peabody award and the Pulitzer Prize.

The work of Dr Seuss is timeless and will continue to amuse, challenge and teach future generations of children.

For those interested in his art exhibition is currently running in Sydney -
The Secret Art of Dr Seuss. The exhibition is at the Trevor Victor Harvey Gallery in Sydney until the 6th April 2008. While this is not an exhibition of original art it contains limited edition prints and hand-painted cast resin replicas of some of his zany mythical creatures like the "Goo Goo Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast" that were made from the left-over animal parts from his father's taxidermy. Seuss began creating three-dimensional sculptures in the 1930s. What was most unusual about these mixed-media sculptures was the use of real animal parts including beaks, antlers and horns from deceased Forest Park Zoo animals.

The Dr Seuss National Memorial website and the Seussville website were helpful in preparing this post.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The problems with a TV in a child's bedroom

A New York Times article written by Tara Parker-Pope has warned of the problems associated with children having a TV in their bedrooms. Key details from the article include:

• Estimates on how many American children have TVs in their bedrooms vary from 50-70%.
• There is a growing body of evidence to suggest strong associations between excessive TV viewing and numerous health problems (e.g. obesity, smoking etc).
• One study found that a TV in the bedroom increased viewing time by almost nine hours per week (increasing to 30 hours).

A leading professor of paediatrics, Leonard H. Epstein, commented that: “If it’s in the bedroom, the parents don’t even really know what the kids are watching.

Reasons for the negative impact of TV in the bedroom?

The reasons for the impact of TV in the bedroom are still being investigated but the article points to the distraction that they cause from sleep, homework, reading etc.

However, I suspect that the reasons are more subtle than this and could include:

* reduction in the amount of family interaction time (which we know is invaluable);
* reduced physical activity outside the home;
* reduced language interaction with other children and adults (the latter is critical for language development in the preschool years);
* negative impacts on relations with parents and the associated levels of support that parents give.

In other words, I suspect that it is the impact on family relations and use of time that are the critical factors leading to the negative impact of TV in children's bedroom. There will of course be other impacts such as problems caused by uncontrolled viewing of varied television content without discussion and advice from other trusted adults. TV can be a valuable way in which parents build common ground with their children, it should not lead to alienation from them. If it does, then we can expect negative impacts and should do something about it.

Click here to read the full article from the New York Times article

Read my previous posts on problems with TV here and the need for better televison here

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Single sex schools: Why are they becoming popular?

Single sex schools and classes are not new, but in recent times there has been a trend towards more of them in the USA.  In an interesting piece in the New York Times Elizabeth Weil describes the recent growth in this phenomenon and offers some background on the schools and their purposes.  One of the most interesting observations is that boys and girls in these classes seem to enjoy them and benefit from them, and that such classes take on a character of their own that in many ways reflect the differences that some researchers have suggested exist between boys and girls.

The schools in question have been influenced by the work of two writers.  The first is Leonard Sax and his book, "Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences." New York: Doubleday, 2005.  The second is Michael Gurian's book “Boys and Girls Learn Differently!” Jossey-Bass ( 2002).

In a review of Sax's book Stephanie Trudeaux suggests that Dr. Leonard Sax, challenges the assertion that characteristics associated with each gender have been socially constructed. Using a scientific approach, along with research from the past two decades, Sax argues that gender differences are biologically programmed. Sax asserts "that for the past three decades, the influence of social and cognitive factors on gender traits has been systematically over estimated while innate factors have been neglected” (p. 253). The author further suggests that ignoring these hardwired gender differences, and opting for a gender-neutral child-rearing philosophy, “has done substantial harm over the past thirty years” (p. 7). As an example, he calls to attention the increased number of boys being given behavior-modifying drugs, and the increased number of girls being given antidepressants.

Sax stresses that although it is important to chip away at gender stereotypes, we should also recognize variances in how girls and boys develop. By understanding the unique qualities of each gender, we can better accommodate the different needs of boys and girls, with regard to the way they are raised, disciplined and educated. Sax suggests that single-sex education may help accommodate these gender differences. However, he does not believe that single-sex education is the only solution. He states that, “For at least some children in some circumstances, single sex activities offer unique opportunities and may even serve to ‘inoculate’ girls and boys against some of the societal ailments that now threaten children and teenagers” (p. 9). He writes, “Coed schools tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, where as single-sex schools can break down gender stereotypes” (p. 243).

This book is worth the consideration of parents and teachers.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Better education outcomes for Indigenous students

On Wednesday 13th February the Australian Parliament finally offered an apology to Indigenous Australians (HT to Jason Goroncy for posting the full text of the apology and speech by the Prime Minister). Prime Minister Rudd's delivery of the apology to the Australian Parliament can be viewed here.

This simple action is seen by many as an important first step in reconciliation and the addressing of inequities faced by Indigenous Australians. My personal hope is that the apology by the parliament will be shared by many Australians, and will lead to positive action that will make a difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians.

Much has written about the reasons for this apology, especially the Stolen Generation. Non-Australians readers of this blog can find out more about this by reading the Bringing them Home report which was the result of a national inquiry into the practice initiated by the Australian government to remove many young Aboriginal children from their families between 1910 and 1970. Now that the long awaited apology has been delivered, it is time for action. It is encouraging that the Federal government has already flagged housing, education and health as critical areas for action. As an educator let me share some thoughts about educational inequity in this country.

Australia has one of the best school systems in the world. In a major OECD assessment project Australia has been ranked equal-sixth in reading. The assessment project is called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It is an internationally standardised assessment that is administered to 15-year-olds in schools. The survey has been conducted in 2000, 2003, 2006 and will be conducted again in 2009. A total of 57 countries participated in 2006 and 62 will take part in the survey in 2009. I have been a member of the national advisory committee since its inception. The tests are typically administered to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each country.

Dr Sue Thomson is the national project manager for PISA in Australia and recently offered the following comments on the performance of Indigenous Australian students in the Age Newspaper:

"Australia's lowest-performing students are most likely to come from indigenous communities, geographically remote areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds. About 40% of indigenous students, 23% of students from the lowest category of socioeconomic status, and 27% of students from remote schools are not meeting a proficiency level in science that the OECD deems necessary to participate fully in a 21st-century workforce and society."

In relation to literacy and numeracy, the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy published in 2000 by the Commonwealth Department of Education Science and Training concluded that:

"Seven out of every ten Indigenous students in Year 3 are below the national literacy standard, compared to just three out of ten for other Australians. On average, Indigenous students miss out on up to one day of schooling every week, compared to around just three days every term for other Australian students. This means Indigenous students are, on average, missing out on more than a year of primary school and more than a year of secondary school. It is not surprising then that some 18% of Australia’s ‘at risk’ youth are Indigenous. Improving the educational opportunities and achievements of Indigenous Australians is an urgent national priority."

While more recent reports suggest there has been some slight improvement, the proportion of Indigenous students achieving accepted benchmarks, continues to be below the proportions for non-Indigenous students, with the greatest gap in the Northern Territory and remote regions of Australia. Little has changed in the last 8 years. Something to note from the above quote is the mention of school attendance. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that literacy assessments like PISA and State based basic skills tests largely test school literacy. We shouldn't be surprised when students who miss lots of school don't do as well as students who have good attendance records. And of course you cannot separate under-achievement at school from issues of health, housing, family breakdown and crisis. Hence, it is encouraging that the Federal government intends to work on housing, health and education in parallel. If justice for Indigenous students is to be achieved then concerted efforts by all levels of government as well as interested community agencies will be needed.