Sunday, January 31, 2010

'My School' Website: A blunt and inadequate instrument

Declaring my conflicts of interest

I had hoped to avoid commenting on the 'My School' website released in Australia on Friday, because I figure that no matter what I say about it, lots of people reading the blog will disagree. But when one of the readers of the blog (Jo) asked for my opinion I thought that I should say something. As well, the publishing of league tables of the 'best' and 'worst' schools made me quite angry. My apologies to international readers of the blog for this more parochial topic, but I'm sure that some of you will have had similar models for national assessment in your countries

Let me first declare some background that some might see as conflicts of interest:
  • I was an academic adviser to the first comprehensive national literacy assessment in this country in the late 1990s (the National English Literacy Survey) that was ultimately foundational to the current testing that informs the site.
  • I spent 10 years as a primary school teacher and have a strong interest in assessment.
  • My two daughters went to the closest public schools to our homes and my only school-aged grandchildren are currently attending the closest public school to their home.
I am a strong supporter of public education but I respect the right of parents who choose to send their children to private schools. The comments that follow are not motivated by self-interest, nor am I captive to any interest group, I'm simply concerned about the site.

A few givens about schools and families

1. Teachers vary in ability and at times after 30+ years in the classroom the odd teacher wishes they were elsewhere (as in all occupations), BUT I've rarely met a teacher who wasn't doing their best to help children learn.

2. My own family literacy research over a period of 15 years (see my website for more details HERE) demonstrated many things, but the most self-evident of the findings was that in spite of the varied resources, education and life experience of parents, that it is difficult to find a parent who doesn't want the best for their children.

3. Australia has one of the finest school education systems in the world. The international data speaks for itself. The results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have shown over the last decade that Australia is consistently one of the highest achieving school systems in the world. Overall literacy achievements have remained in the top 6 in the world, mathematical ability has been in the top 12 and scientific knowledge in the top 3. While we have ongoing underachievement by Indigenous students, overall performance on international comparisons is outstanding.

4. Parents want to know how well their children are doing at school, not just in terms of their effort and ability, but how they compare with other children. This has led some parents and parent advocates to be critical at times of school assessment practices and the feedback given to parents.

5. Teachers know that basic skills tests can only ever sample a limited range of the things that are taught at school and that they fail to measure many other things that they see as fundamental to judging the success of schooling.

6. The majority of children no longer go to the closest school to their homes. Instead, they attend varied schools: near parent's place of work; where after school care is provided; that are private; that are selective and so on. Hence, parents today make choices about where they should send their precious children and feel the need for information that makes comparison possible.

What's right about the 'My School' website?

1. The website is an attempt to satisfy the demands of parents for data on how well their children's school performs relative to other schools.

2. It is simple and attempts to make comparisons between schools that serve comparable communities. The latter relies on a measure of socio-economic advantage based on census districts associated with schools, that considers 16 variables that may influence educational outcomes, including measures of income, the proportion of non-English speaking background, employment and educational attainment.

3. It is a response to a public call for greater accountability and transparency in school reporting on standards.

4. It offers measures across a broad range of academic areas.

5. It offers some basic comparative information on enrolments, student attendance and promises to eventually provide data on funding levels.

What's wrong with the site?

1. The implicit assumption that you can measure school performance, and hence teacher competence, using this blunt instrument, is incorrect and grossly unfair to teachers. The test data offer an assessment of school cohorts in a range of academic skills and competencies that can be tested using a mass assessment programme.

2. While the site is able to show which student groups perform best on the above skills and competencies, it is unable to identify fairly why this is occurring. For example, I looked at one school that seemed to have outstanding results for year 3 but whose results for year 5 were average. Does this drop off reflect the quality of the teachers in tear 4 and 5? Or some quirky difference in the demographic over time? Perhaps a new private school nearby had attracted some of the best students after year three? No doubt, teachers and parents in the community could suggest some reasons for this drop in achievement. I also considered one of the elite schools that the newspapers declared one of the stars. Interestingly, in spite of very high achievement, the growth from year 7 to year 9 was limited in reading. What does this show? No value-added by the year 8 teachers? The reality is that the data need to be interpreted with material extraneous to the site.

3. The site isn't able to measure what some parents find most important. What does the site tell a parent (or a politician) about the arts? What about creativity and the ability to solve problems? Leadership development? Sport and fitness? Programs for children with learning difficulties? The care and compassion of staff? Emotional well being? Are the children happy in these schools? How open is the school to parental involvement? How approachable are staff members? What is the school budget for professional development, and how does this compare to other schools? In the case of secondary schools, what is youth culture like in the school? What values are shaping my child and what is the school doing to promote the values that I see as important?

Unhelpful responses

There have many unhelpful comments based on the website comparisons, in fact too many to count. However, surely the newspapers that published the 'top of the class' and the 'bottom' in the State, deserve to be criticised strongly. I have spent extended time as a researcher in some of the so-called worst schools and always found children who were seeking to do their best and dedicated teachers. At times, these schools lack resources and struggle in communities where there are a myriad of social problems. In spite of the number of families who struggle to cope with the challenges of life, they were (on the whole) doing the best that they could to ensure that their children had the best education possible. Publishing the names of such schools on a public list as failures is an indictment upon those who are responsible; those who condone it; and those of us who stand by and say nothing to defend them. I applaud the teaching profession for asking serious questions about the way that the My School Website is being used.

However, the teaching profession cannot simply refuse to cooperate in providing public information about the performance of the children in every class. The fact that newspapers have published league tables and many people have bought them, suggests that parents do want to know more about the quality of education in their children's school. The question is, how can schools meet this expectation without using a blunt instrument of the type that we've seen demonstrated? Efforts to improve the quality of the feedback that schools offer to parents is critical. But a key starting point is that such reporting needs to be at the individual child, class and school level. While the aggregating of national and state data is relevant, the type of public league tables that we've seen are unsupportable.

Related Posts

Sydney Morning Herald article (here)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Literary Tapestry of a Nation: Celebrating Australia Day Through Children's Literature

What makes Australia a nation?

Today is Australia Day, the official national day of our nation. It commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, which marked the start of British colonisation. Last year I suggested on this blog that Australia Day was 'A Time for Storytelling and Action'; a time to point to the injustices faced by Indigenous Australians, who archaeologists suggest have been here for 40,000 years. I featured Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins wonderful book 'My Place' as a must read for all children (especially on Australia Day). I still think this is a good idea, but this year I want to suggest other literature options.

It isn't easy to identify what sets us apart as a nation; views differ concerning our distinctive characteristics. A dictionary definition of a nation is "a territory or country as a political entity or a grouping of people who share real or imagined common history, culture, language or ethnic origin, often possessing or seeking its own government". Australia conforms as closely as any nation can to such a tight definition. We are democratically governed, share English as our major language and share a rich (if somewhat diverse) culture and history. We have a heritage as a Christian nation but today we live in a more religiously diverse country than ever before. The reality is that other than Indigenous Australians, the vast majority of us (97%) have come from other lands. True, many of us are second to fifth generation Australians, but all have heritage in other nations.

But the best way to understand a people is in its stories, so I want to suggest that one way to celebrate with our children is by trying to help them understand something of the richness and complexity of what it is to be Australian. Children's books offer a wonderful window on the rich tapestry of people, places, events and cultural practices that make up this nation. There are many facets to our nation, the people who form it and place that is our home; here is just a sample of the books that illustrate some of these many dimensions.

1. Indigenous Australian's stories of our beginnings

Australia's Indigenous people have a rich tradition of storytelling. Stories of the history and culture of their people, handed down in this way through countless generations, stories from the beginnings of their known time, which Indigenous people refer to as the Dreamtime. The 'Stories of the Dreaming' belong to Indigenous people (tribes or nations). Storytellers of these tribes and nations have an obligation to pass the stories down through the generations. While some of these stories are secret, or are seen of such a sacred nature that they are only told to certain people, in the last 30 years many Indigenous Dreamtime stories have been shared through children's books.

Some of my favourite Indigenous Dreamtime stories have been passed down to all Australian children through the storytelling and wonderful art of Dick Roughsey (1924-1985) or Goobalathaldin to use his tribal name, from the island of Langu-narnji in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. His first picture book 'The Giant Devil Dingo' received wide acclaim for the richness of the storytelling, the distinctiveness of his painted illustrations with their vibrant colours, fascinating detail, and the integration of art and word. One of my favourite works by Roughsey is 'The Rainbow Serpent' first published in 1975 and still available. It won the Children's Book Council Australia award for best picture book in 1976.

2. Bush & Country Traditions

From the beginnings of European settlement, one of the great challenges in this country was to tame the land and enable white Australians to survive. This has left rich bush traditions and distinctive country life. Most Australians can't imagine an Australia without small country towns, farming on a large scale, struggles with fire, drought and flood and traditional bush tales, ballads and poetry. Our famous song 'Waltzing Matilda' is reflective of this, as is to some extent our national anthem, 'Advance Australia Fair'. You can share this with children in a wonderful picture book form that features well-known Australian art as the illustrations (here).

a) Bush traditions

There are many places to go for a sample of Australia great bush ballads and poetry, but on Australia Day I have to mention works by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. Both are writers whose work for adults and children still has the same appeal over a century after their first publication. They capture something of the toughness of early life, the character of the people and the larrikin spirit and determination of Australians. A couple of my favourites picture books for children are 'A Bush Christening' (Quentin Hole's illustrated version is wonderful) and 'Mulga Bill's Bicycle' by A.B. Paterson (illustrated by Kilmeny & Deborah Niland) and 'The Loaded Dog', by Henry Lawson. The illustrated version I have is out of print but available on the web, but there are many versions of the story, and even the plain text version is still exciting enough for most children to enjoy. You can even find it on the Internet (here). It's a wonderful tale about Dave Regan, Jim Bentley and Andy Page who are trying their luck on the 19th century goldfields of the NSW Central Tablelands. As a break from mining, fishing in the creek was a good past-time. But being the lazy type, Dave decides to see if he can shortcut the process with some dynamite in a local waterhole with unexpected consequences.

b) Country life

The Australian countryside still serves as a wonderful setting for many good examples of Australian literature. This includes the delightful picture book 'Hector and Maggie' by Andrew and Janet McLean, a fun story about a cattle dog and a rooster who tussle for control of the farmyard. More complex novels for older children include Libby Hathorn's 'Thunderwith', which tells the story of a girl named Lara who is coping with her mother's death while living with her father on a remote property in the rainforest of northern New South Wales. Another favourite is Colin Thiele's classic 'Sun on the Stubble'. The latter is a story about a 14-year-old boy from a German immigrant family growing up in a small farming community in South Australia during the 1930s. Life for Bruno can be hard but it also offers him rich opportunities for many adventures and fun.

3. The contribution of other nations to what makes Australia special

Australia today cannot be understood without an appreciation of the contribution that the many immigrants have made to our country. While the first White settlers (convicts and eventually free men) were British, as likewise were most of the immigrants in the 19th Century, this was changed by two waves of immigration following each of the world wars. The inflow that followed World War II saw the most dramatic diversification of Australia's population as large numbers of mainly Southern European immigrants came to Australia's cities and countryside. Greek and Italian immigrants came in greatest numbers but all other European nations were represented. As a result, Australia saw rapid growth, expansion of our cities and the enrichment of our way of life in varied ways - food, clothing, art, theatre, music, sport, language and so on. Since the 1970s we have also seen a steady flow of immigrants from other parts of the world, namely South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Australia's children's literature has reflected this changing face of the nation. This is seen in the characters and stories of the many children trying to live in a new country, or in a country that is not the country of their parent's birth. These stories often deal with struggles, challenges and triumphs as children cope with a new world. One of my favourite examples for older readers is 'Looking for Alibrandi' by Melina Marchetta. Josephine Alibrandi is a second generation Italian Australian completing her last year of high school. She is the School Vice-Captain of St Martha's in Sydney but has to overcome the narrow mindedness and tensions caused by racial and cultural differences.

An author who has contributed a number of interesting novels for younger readers that focus on children growing up in diverse urban communities is Brian Caswell. For example, in his 'Boundary Park Trilogy' for readers aged 7-10, he presents three stories about children who have to negotiate complex worlds and deal with different challenges. 'Mike' tells the story of boy who moves to Boundary Park with his mother only to face bullying. 'Lisdalia' is about a child of Italian heritage who struggles in a class where she is the brightest child. 'Maddie' was been born in Vietnam as Mai Linh and is haunted by the memories of her past.

4. The inspiration of Australia's unrivalled biodiversity

Above: The famous Koorong in South Australia

Australia is a beautiful country with incredibly diverse and unusual flora and fauna. It's hardly surprising that Australia's landscape, its animals and its plant life, have inspired more than just interesting background settings in children's books. In fact, it's difficult to write an Australian children's book without (at the very least) seeing Australia's unique environment and amazing biodiversity as a backdrop.

a) Books that weave together story and the environment

As I wrote in a previous post on Colin Thiele (here), books like his 'Storm Boy' can introduce us to the wonders of the environment, taking us to places we can't easily visit. The Koorong estuary at the mouth of the Murray River is a backdrop to this junior novel about a boy who lives a reclusive life among the sand dunes on the edge of the Southern Ocean. However, the word images that Thiele uses to describe this place and the boy's rescue of a pelican mother who has been shot and her three chicks, bring the wonders of the environment and the narrative together. Another good example is 'Aranea' written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks that tells the story of a day in the life of a backyard spider.

b) Celebrating Australia's outdoor life

Australia is known for its temperate climate that makes outdoor life easy and pleasant. Whether it's our competitiveness in sport or simply our desire to be outside, there are many books that reflect this. 'Terry's Brrrmmm GT' by Ted Greenwood reflects this outdoor life and tells the story of Terry's attempt to win the local billycart derby. Tales of seaside adventures are even more common, with 'Grandpa and Thomas' by Pamela Allen and 'Looking for Crabs' by Bruce Whatley two of my favourites.

c) Characters inspired by the uniqueness of Australia's plants and animals

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human creatures, objects or even concepts. Animals and plants have commonly been attributed human qualities in fables, legends and fairy stories. So it is hardly surprising that Australia's unique flora and fauna would inspire a number of children's books. In fact, some of the earliest children's books to be international successes were books in this category. 'The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill' by Dorothy Wall was published in 1933 and introduced us to a mischievous little koala (Blinky Bill). Blinky has many adventures in the Australian bush and its many creatures, including his adopted sister Nutsy, his kangaroo friend Splodge, Flap the platypus, Mr Wombat and some sinister characters who bring drama.

Other well-known examples in this category are May Gibb's timeless 'The Tales of Sugglepot and Cuddlepie' published in 1918. Two gumnut babies are its main characters who experience many dramas in the Australian bush, as they meet a raft of other characters, including the villains, the Banksia men and Mrs Snake and their hero friend Mr Lizard. Norman Lindsay's classic 'The Magic Pudding' published in 1918 has surely one of the most novel characters, a plum pudding with human qualities, who can be eaten many times. And of course there are more contemporary examples such as Ruth Park's 'Muddle-headed Wombat' and Mem Fox's 'Sail Away: The Ballad of Skip and Nell'.

5. Australians and environmental challenges

Like all people around the world, Australians are becoming more aware of the threats to biodiversity. This is seen in some of our children's literature, with authors seeking to challenge readers to appreciate it and seek to protect it. One of my favourite author/illustrators of this type is Jeannie Baker. Jeannie uses incredible collages made from natural materials to tell the story of the challenges in protecting our environment. One of her best examples of this is 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' that tells the story of a boy and his Dad who spend a day fishing in a lagoon near the famous Daintree Forest in Northern Queensland. This amazing wet tropical rainforest meets the ocean waters of the Great Barrier Reef (the world largest tropical reef) but only 296,000 acres of it remains. The boy and his Dad contemplate its historic past and its possible future - the boy asks as the story concludes, "but will the forest still be here when we come back?"

Other excellent examples include 'The Fisherman and the Theefyspray' by Paul Jennings (illustrated by Jane Tanner) that tells of an encounter between a fisherman and a fish of a kind he has never encountered before and which changes him in the process; and Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' that addresses the impact of man on the ocean and its wildlife.

6. Other facets of Aussie life and our Nation

This is a blog post not a book chapter so I'll resist the urge to keep on writing. There are so many other facets to Australian life that I could have found books to illustrate:

Aussie kids love fun - way they demonstrate this is through playground chants, games, jokes and rhymes. For a particularly Aussie touch (that still has many rhymes and chants that other nations will recognise) have fun reading some of June Factor's series of books (here). How could I go past 'All Right Vegemite' and Australia Day?

Aussies love sport - 'The Race' by Christobel Mattingley and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas offers an insight into the Australian desire to achieve in sport.

The everyday struggles of life - Like children everywhere, Australian children have to cope with adversity. We like to see ourselves as being able to cope well. Examples include Robin Klein's 'Boss of the Pool' and John Marsden's 'So Much to Tell You'.

Enough, I could go on and on! Happy Australia Day, and read some books to your children.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Literature as Relational Glue

In my last post on ‘Making Books Come Alive’ Jo responded with a comment that ‘Looking For Crabs’ is a favourite book for her family. She commented, “We can often be heard saying, "There are no crabs at our beach...", after we have been looking for a while. Her family’s comment is an echo of the book which tells of a family outing to a beach where the children look for crabs when it’s too cold to swim, only to be frustrated that they don’t ever seem to find any. But of course, there are crabs hiding everywhere just under their noses, disguised as rocks, hidden amongst the rocks. The book ends with the children leaving the beach saying “There are no crabs at our beach” while the crabs wave from their hiding places.

The comment by Jo indicates something that may be obvious but which is foundational to understanding some of the secrets to building rich literacy environments at home and school. Reading involves social relationships among people - teachers and students, groups of students, parents and children, and between an author and his or her readers. The stories that books communicate teach us new things about our world and language and help to build common ground between people. They contribute to enriching our daily lives together and help to be some of the cultural glue that binds us together as families, class groups, friends and so on.

What Jo’s example demonstrates is that books become an extension of relationships and a means to enrich them and express how we see one another and feel about one another. One of my favourite examples of this at work occurred one night as I tried to encourage my youngest daughter to go to bed (who I think at the time was 5 - see picture opposite). She had asked for some dessert just before bedtime and I’d said no. When I went in to read stories to her she was rubbing her stomach. I asked, “What’s the matter Darlin’?” To which she replied, “I was just thinking of how Wilbur couldn’t sleep, because when your stomach is empty and your mind is full, it's hard to fall asleep." Louise used the words about Wilbur from 'Charlotte’s Web' (E.B. White) as an extension of our relationship. She knew the words would connect with me and make me smile; and perhaps, even get me to change my mind.

Such use of language is not restricted just to families of course. In my book ‘Pathways to Literacy’ I talk about the way you can create classroom environments that do just this. I share how one of my postgraduate students had created an environment like this in her Kindergarten. In Susan Langbien’s classroom, reading and writing were being shared and enjoyed, inside the classroom and in the playground. Reading and writing were often finding their way into the language of the group.

For example, at morning tea Christian began to chant: “Wombat stew, wombat stew, crunchy munchy for my lunchy, wombat stew.” This of course is from the book ‘Wombat Stew’ (Marcia Vaughan, 1984), a book that Susan had shared). Other children soon joined in and pretended their morning teas were lizard’s eyes, a cane toad, mud and slime and a crocodile's tooth. A new and complex 'socially' constituted wombat stew was created. As they played they not only relived the experience of the book, they learned about language.

The playground in Susan's Kindergarten was often the setting for much child initiated drama and dramatic play. Little birds looked for their mothers in the playground as they acted out the plot of ‘Are you my mother?’ (P.D. Eastman, 1960). A group of children became the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the troll,and used a balance beam as their bridge. Another group played 'house' and whenever Genevieve set off for the shops she reminded herself ‘Don't forget the bacon’ (Hutchins, 1976).

For reading and writing to assume this important place in the lives of families and classrooms we need to do a few basic things:
1. We need to flood our homes and classrooms with books. You don't have to buy the books, public libraries are a wonderful resource.
2. We need to read these books often and encourage them to read (books will hopefully be amongst their most precious things).
3. Parents and teachers need to be readers themselves and love reading to their children not because they know it’s good for their children, but because it gives them and their children great joy and it stimulates creativity, laughter and inquisitiveness.
4. We need to talk to our children about books – asking questions of them, contributing ideas and insights about them, structuring conversations about them and encouraging our children to respond to the books. Not to test their understanding, but to encourage reflection and appreciation of story and language.

One final comment. While my focus above has been on literature, non-fiction books and online reading can also lead to lots of discussion and dialogue as readers reflect on the things they have been learning, the questions that are provoked and other areas of discovery and learning they might have experienced separate to their experience of the books. Of course this is another post.

Related Posts

My series on 'The Power of Literature' (here)

All my previous posts on children's literature (here)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Making Books Come Alive!

It's the summer school holidays in Australia, and it is hot. So forgive me if this post seems more suitable for summer than a northern hemisphere big freeze. But your turn will come so you can explore these ideas when the weather clears (or I'm sure we could think of some good winter examples).

One of the most wonderful things to do with any book is to try to contextualise it by visiting the setting, or a place that is close to the setting for the book. There are some great reasons for this:
  • It helps young readers gain a stronger sense of the setting and its importance for literature (see my post on 'Visiting the 'real' place in 'My Place' HERE).
  • It helps young writers to see how a place can be represented in words - how do we turn the sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences and even tastes, into written language.
  • It enriches the experience of reading a book and deepens understanding of the book and its content.
  • It enriches other disciplines like geography, history and science (HERE).
If you are a parent on holidays, or a teacher wanting to plan an excursion with a difference, why not make a book come alive with an outing that enriches their knowledge and deepens their reading while teaching them about writing.

I have already written a number of posts that talk about some of these opportunities. I'll mention some of these as well as pointing to some other options that I haven't mentioned before.

1. Books that are situated in clearly identified settings

a) My Place

I wrote a post back in January 2009 (here) about a family excursion to explore part of Sydney that was the setting for the wonderful book 'My Place' (Nadia Wheatley & Donna Rawlins). 'My Place' was published in 1987 for distribution in Australia’s bicentennial year (1988) and makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement (there isn't space to unpack this). It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block (and the surrounding area) and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence, decade by decade, from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my Place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment.

Our excursion as a family around the streets of Tempe and St Peters in Sydney enriched my appreciation of the book and my grandchildren's sense of the place. As well, it gave my grandchildren a great introduction to Australia's history since white settlement in 1788 and it deepened our understanding of the book. The book has been used as the basis of a television series which screened recently in Australia (here).

There are many other wonderful books that are situated in specific places that can be explored after, before or during thew reading of a book. Here are three more.

b) Make Way for Ducklings

Make Way for Ducklings (1941) was written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It tells the story of a pair of mallard ducks that choose a small island in a pond in the Boston Public Garden to lay their eggs and raise their young. The plot traces the mother taking the ducklings for their first major outing. She leads the ducklings ashore and straight to the highway but has trouble (not surprisingly) crossing the busy road. A policeman named Michael who likes feeding peanuts to the Mallards, stops traffic for the family to cross. This wonderful book won the Caldecott Medal in 1942. If you visit the garden today you can view the pond and the island and retrace the steps of the ducklings. There is a statue in the park of the mother and her eight ducklings.

c) Alexander's Outing

'Alexander's Outing' (1993) by Pamela Allen is a wonderful picture book (like McCloskey's) that is set in the centre of a busy city. This time it is Sydney and the beautiful Hyde Park (particularly the Archibald Fountain). Alexander is a duck who lives with his mother and four brothers and sisters in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. Alexander's mother becomes bored and decides to take the family for a walk. Alexander is separated from the family and falls down a deep dark hole.

How do you get a duck out of a small hole in the ground? Hint - think about water and ducks!

d) Playing Beatie Bow

'Playing Beatie Bow' (1980) by Ruth Park is a novel for 10-14 year olds that once again is set in a precise location that can be explored. This is one of the books that I featured in a post on historical fiction last year (here). When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney. She encounters a strange and different Sydney and finds herself walking the streets of the colony of New South Wales in 1873. Abigail is taken in by the Bow Family who believes that she is a mysterious 'Stranger' who is said in tradition to arrive to save 'The Gift' for future generations of Bows. Abigail remains in this past world to fill her role and in the process falls in love for the first time.

The Rocks is a wonderful area of Sydney right on the harbour where white settlers made their homes in the early days of the colony. The period in which the book is set (1870s) can still be easily imagined as you walk streets that have changed little in the last 150 years.

2. Books that evoke a more generic sense of place

a) Wind in the Willows

I wrote a post about Kenneth Grahame's classic book the 'Wind in the Willows' to mark the centenary of its publication. This wonderful book is read less by children today but deserves our attention. This is rich narrative, with wonderful characters and word choice and sentence structure that is as close to perfect as you can get. But there is more. Here is language that is symphonic, with the rhythms of each sentence and the choice and ordering of words matching exquisitely the settings, situations and atmosphere that Grahame has created. Or perhaps it’s the other way round.

You can also view the wonderful DVD version (HERE), you can see the story in the form of a play in a setting that evokes much of the wistful summer charm of Grahame's book.

While the Cornish village of Lerryn lays claim to being the setting for 'Wind in the Willows' it might just as well have been any one of a number of other small villages or stretches of lazy English rivers like the Thames where Grahame eventually retired after leaving banking, spending his life "messing around in boats" just like Ratty. There are lazy rivers all over the world that resonate and help to evoke the rich experiences that Grahame writes about. In fact, a stroll along many of the creeks that I frequented as a child in Australia with their native She Oaks (a species of Australian Casuarina tree), low flying kingfishers, slow moving water and glimpses of water rats and low flying dragon flies, evokes the same emotions (for me) as Grahame's novel.

Why not find a creek bank, pack a picnic basket and head off with 'Wind in the Willows' and read it to your children this summer (or next summer in the Northern Hemisphere). I can't walk along the banks of an Australian creek on a hot day without hearing the echo of some of Grahame's words (for example):
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing
b) Looking for Crabs

'Looking for Crabs' (1993) by Bruce Whatley could be set on just about any Australian beach and probably plenty of white sand beaches around the world. It is a simple picture book about a family outing and as always the children begin to look for things. But where are the crabs? This amusing story transports you straight to the beach. Reading it after or before a beach outing will enrich the experience and the reading of the book.

c) And lots more

There are many fine examples of children's books of this kind that can be read while visiting other places during holidays. For example:

'Hairy Maclary From Donaldsons Dairy' by Lynley Dodd - find out what a 'Dairy' really is in New Zealand as this little dog and his friends have lots of adventures.
'The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch' by Ronda & David Armitage - what would life be like living in a Lighthouse on any coastal outcrop (watch out for pesky seagulls!).
'Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill' by Dorothy Wall - you probably need to be in Australia to appreciate reading this fantasy about Australia's bush and its animals. Find the Banksia men in Banksia Trees, Gumnut babies on every branch....
'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong - life in a Dutch village and the relationship between people and the natural world
'The Hockey Sweater' by Roch Carrier - gain an insight into ice hockey and cultural life in Canada
'Night of the Moon Jellies' by Mark Shasha - find out about life in coastal New England (USA)

And many more!

3. Books that transport you to specific time periods (as well as places)

I wrote a post last year title 'Making History Come Alive With Literature' (here). I talked about this in detail then, but briefly, my point was that our appreciation and knowledge of history can be enriched by good literature. In keeping with this post, it works in reverse as well. Visiting a place rich in history can enrich your experience of literature.

For example, while visiting Fremantle in Western Australian in September last year I visited, the Western Maritime Museum, specifically, the historic shipwrecks gallery. A central part of this museum is part of the wreck of the Batavia that floundered on uncharted rocks of the Western Australian coast on 4th June 1629. The circumstances surrounding the Batavia and the fate of its crew and passengers have made it the most famous of the early ships to flounder upon Australia’s at times treacherous coast. This is a true story of death, murder, treachery and survival.

In the museum gift shop I discovered Gary Crew’s adolescent novel ‘Strange Objects’ (1990). Crew's story takes part of the tragedy of the Batavia and tells a story that illuminates this historic event while telling a powerful human story. Visiting the museum, viewing the wreck of the Batavia, travelling along the coats of Western Australia and reading Crew's story all enriched one another. History and place also enriched the literary experience and the reading of the book increasing my appreciation of the historical events.

Of course there are many more books that evoke specific periods of time as well as places. In many cases the book doesn't need to be related to a physical place but it could be. Here are just a few:

'My Hiroshima' by Junko Morimoto - a picture book that offers a real life account of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima through the eyes of a child who stayed home that day sick rather than going to school.
'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall - live through the Blitz bombings in World War II Britain as a group of young boys collect the ultimate war souvenirs as they drop around them.
'Slave Girl: The Diary of Clotee, Virginia, USA 1859' by Patricia McKissack - learn about a 12 year old slave girl living just before the American Civil war who longs for freedom.
'The Thieves of Ostia' by Caroline Lawrence - I visited the ruins of Ostia about 10 years ago (it's incredible!) and wish that I'd read this mystery about Flavia and her friends in the ancient Roman port in the 1st century AD before or just after the trip.

In Conclusion

The above are just examples of the many wonderful ways that linking books with places, experiences or specific time periods can enrich literature, language and learning.

I would love to hear some of your favourite examples.

Related Posts

All my posts on Children's Literature (here)

'Key Themes in Children's Literature' (here)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What rappers can teach us about language

Have you ever taken the time to think about how complex the English language is and how challenging it is for the young and the non-native speaker? Spoken language is tough enough, but reading and writing English are even more tricky. I can remember 25 years ago teaching teachers about literacy and demonstrating the complexity of literacy by using the example of the word 'run' and some of the many alternative meanings - 37 different meanings in fact! Here are some of these meanings in context for the same letters and sounds:

He went for a run
I had to go into the chicken run
He scored a run [that's how we score in cricket]
She had a run in her stocking
His nose began to run
Could you run up to the shop please?
He had the run(s) [sorry, an Australian colloquialism for diarrhoea]
Run you finger under the word
Can I take the car for a run?
The engine seems to run well.

As I shared in a previous post 'English the inventive language' (here), English is also a language that is constantly changing and expanding. I suggested in the post that word "...'play' is important for children's language and literacy development... (we) ...need to encourage creativity and inventiveness... children (need to be) encouraged to experiment and have fun with language." I love playing with words with children and they love it too - inventing words, rhyming words, using words in ambiguous ways and drawing attention to the ambiguity, using words in a different context to show how meaning can vary, using crazy sounds to make invented words and so on.

We need to immerse our children in a rich environment where language is demonstrated in all its complexity, where new words are shared, and where rhyme, rhythm and word play are encouraged. Rappers may well sing about some dark subjects at times, but the way they play with words and sound can teach us some basic lessons about language. Here is a funny example that will amuse, but will hopefully still make its point.

Australian Christiaan van Vuuren contracted tuberculosis while he was in Argentina late last year. He didn't know he had the disease until he returned to Sydney and was diagnosed and then quarantined in a hospital for 23 days. He shot the video below and posted it on YouTube while he was confined. In his words:
"I aint sick in the sense of being sick,
but sick in the sense of being sick sick"

To Sum up
  • Language is constantly changing
  • English is a very adaptable language
  • Playing with language is a common and desirable thing to do with one's language
  • Language play and inventiveness is good for children's language development, creativity, thinking ability, reading and writing
  • We need to immerse our children in a language environment that is rich in spoken language, writing, reading, poetry, rhyme, music, drama, invention and creativity
Related posts

'English the inventive language' (here)
'Key Themes in Children's Literature: Humour' (here)
'20 Fun Language & Thinking Games for Travellers' (here)