Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The critical place of play, creativity and fantasy: Key quote 2

I announced back in April that I was going to do a series on key educational quotes. I managed just one, then got distracted. The format was to be: state the quote; describe the person; offer a response. Here’s the second key quote in the series.

Key Quote

What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out (John Holt, 1981)

John Holt

John Holt was born on 14th April, 1923 in New York City and died on the 14th September, 1985. He was the eldest of three children, and grew up mainly in the New England area of the USA. He taught in private schools before writing his first book, ‘How Children Fail’ (1964). This book and his second book ‘How Children Learn’ (1967), have sold over 1.5 million copies and have been translated into fourteen languages.

He was a visiting lecturer for education departments at Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley. However, he sought reform to education not through academia, but instead through his many books on educational theory and practice (see list of his publications here). He eventually concluded that schools were beyond reform and turned his attention to the value of homeschooling. He started an influential magazine called ‘Growing Without Schooling’ in 1977, which was the USA’s first homeschooling magazine.

The quote is taken from his only book about homeschooling, ‘Teach Your Own’ (1981). The book was later revised by Holt’s colleague, Patrick Farenga, and published again in 2003.

A quick response

Readers of this blog know that the importance of play (see here), creativity (see here), experience-based learning (see here) and fantasy (see my many posts on literature) are important to me. Holt is playing my tune; well almost. I haven’t given up on schools, and I see a more significant role for teachers than I think he did. While I share his frustration with the regimentation of schooling and the at times narrowness of curricula, schools have played a critical role in offering mass education to all children. I see a key role for adults as teachers not just as people who provide learning environments and get out of the way. I also believe that as teachers and parents we need to know where we want children to go as learners. Adults play key roles as teachers. Let me give an example (paraphrasing part of my book ‘Pathways to Literacy') that focuses simply on how adults can support readers. As children develop as readers they need the support of teachers and parents who not only expect them to learn, and provide good learning environments, but who also actively encourage and support them as learners. We do this in varied ways, including:
  • providing information and knowledge that our students do not have;
  • listening to them as they share personal discoveries about learning;
  • suggesting strategies that other successful readers use;
  • sharing insights, successes, problems, pain, and joy experienced in reading and writing;
  • supporting them when their best efforts are not up to their normal standards;
  • introducing new language forms, new authors, new uses for reading, alternative writing styles, new language, new writing topics, new purposes for writing and new audiences; and
  • demonstrating real and purposeful reading and writing.
Holt was an influential thinker whose ideas on the structuring of stimulating learning environments was a significant challenge to educators throughout the world. There is still much to learn from him about education in the school, home and community.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How to listen to children reading - Part 2

I wrote a post on how to listen to children reading last year (here), but I've been inspired to write a second post on the subject by a somewhat quirky video on BBC News (here). It features a teacher Sarah Ellis who has her class read to her shaggy dog Charlie instead of another student. There is some logic to her creative thinking, dogs won't criticise, the kids can stroke their fur while they read and be relaxed and experience reading as a pleasurable and unstressed experience. Parents have known instinctively that to sit their child on their lap, or to hold them close as books are read together is a positive thing to do. This of course is not so easy in the classroom. So while I'd hope that the joy that comes from books can be the key motivator, and that we could train children and parent helpers to be even better listeners than dogs, I know where she's coming from. There have been many young readers demoralised by the comments of a listener while they are reading, and the stress of performing in front of others.

Learning from Charlie the dog

The video story reminded me of an awful experience that I had thirty years ago when teaching children with reading difficulties. I was actually employed by a major education authority in our state as a consultant advising teachers on how to teach literacy. The first day I visited one of my new schools the principal said to me (almost gleefully), "I know just the thing for you to do. Help us with poor Allan. He's in grade 6 but reads like a grade 2 child, we've tried everything with him but nothing works."

I accepted the challenge, met Allan and began visiting him on a weekly basis for an hour at a time. I left things for his teacher to do in between my visits. I assessed his reading on my first visit and found that Allan was like a number of children I'd taught, he thought reading was just about decoding. Listening to him reading was a painful process. He laboured over every word. When I assessed his word recognition and knowledge of phonics I found that it was quite reasonable, but when he read out loud he fell apart. I conducted a miscue analysis (see my previous post here) that showed me that Allan relied almost entirely on decoding skills and that he used meaning-based and syntactical strategies much less. Interestingly, the principal and his teacher assumed that his problems were due to poor decoding; and yet, my assessment showed that this was almost his only strategy for reading and that he had sufficient decoding skills. Effective reading requires the well-orchestrated use of all three major strategies, not the over-use of just one. My conclusion was that he was using one strategy, that he hated reading, and that (not surprisingly) he felt a failure at it.

A strategy for Allan - 'Pause Prompt Praise'

Over a period of about eight weeks I introduced Allan to a daily reading program that involved some word recognition work but it largely involved using 'Pause Prompt Praise'. While I wouldn't use this as the major strategy for every child, because Allan was under-using semantic and syntactic strategies he needed to be encourage to read for meaning, not just to get the words right. 'Pause Prompt Praise' is perfect for this because the only mistakes corrected during the reading are those that get in the way of meaning. When Allan made a mistake we used this simple technique:

PAUSE - After the reader makes a mistake you pause for about 3 seconds and say nothing, this allows time for self-correction.

PROMPT - If the reader doesn't self-correct either give him the word or offer a prompt (e.g. give him the sound that he is struggling with; help him to sound it out; get him to re-read the sentence)

PRAISE - Encourage the reader by praising the fact that he has finished the page, had a go at a difficult word, had no or few errors, read fluently, and seemed to understand what it was about.

When this method was used with Allan he made wonderful progress, and after about 6 weeks because we were both proud of his progress, I arranged for Allan to read to the principal. He started reading, and made a basic syntactic error on a word in the first sentence (e.g. 'the' for 'to') which did not change the meaning. The principal corrected him. He made a second error a few words later that again made no difference to the meaning. He corrected him. Within the space of a few sentences Allan was reading just as he had on week one. If only he'd been reading to a shaggy dog!

The key point of this post

Of course, the main point of this post isn't to argue for more dogs at school. Nor is it to argue that we need to accept imprecise reading; we do want children to read accurately. Allan needed more time to become more confident as a reader. He had made some progress at the effective orchestration of multiple reading strategies and unfortunately he wasn't quite ready for the stress of reading to the principal. But even as an adult, when we are learning anything we don't cope well with being constantly corrected. My point is that the way we listen to children reading matters. Reading is a difficult and unnatural activity that some children find hard. The things we correct, how we do it, the additional comments we make, and how we make them matters a great deal. Here are some basic 'Dos' and 'Don'ts' similar to those I wrote in my first post on this topic.
  • Don't make unfavourable comparisons between the child you're listening to and another child. Avoid statements like "How come Jason can read that word but you can't?"
  • Don't feel that you need to correct every error, or teach every sound that a child seems to struggle with. Listening to a child read is not just an accuracy test. Besides, if the child struggles on more than 5 words on a page then the book is too hard for them (see 'Five Finger Test' in my previous post).
  • Don't ridicule a child as they read (even your own).
  • Don't make the sessions too long (10-15 minutes is ideal). It's better to have two short sessions each day than one that is too long.
  • DO relax - try to make it fun and enjoyable for you and the child. The experience should strengthen your relationship, not weaken it.
  • DO choose a good time & place - choose a good time when the child is fresh and you are feeling patient and perhaps less stressed. If as a parent it has to be after school give your child something to eat and drink and let them relax or play for a while first. And make sure you choose a quiet place without distractions.
  • DO select books carefully - choose the books well. Hopefully the book will be at the right level, and the child will enjoy it. If the books are boring speak to the child's teacher and try to substitute another book.
  • DO encourage the child and praise them - the purpose of the reading session is to help, encourage and build confidence, not test, frustrate and shatter confidence.
  • DO talk about the book first - read the title, look at the book, ask if he or she has read it before, ask what they think it's about etc. Maybe even read the first page for your child.
  • DO let the child hold the book (it's more natural and gives them a sense of being in charge).
  • DO talk about the book after reading (not as a test, just as a chat).
  • DO show patience, progress can be slow.
  • DO help them as they read but don't labour any teaching moment.
Further Help

My first post on 'How to listen to children reading' with some extra strategies and ideas (here)

'The importance of reading to and with your child' (here)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Key Themes in Children's Literature - Problem Solving

Many children love to solve problems. Children's authors are smart enough to work this out and tap into this interest as one of many ways to engage children with books. There are many forms of problem solving that authors have used. In this post I'll outline a few examples.

1. Solving mysteries by cracking codes or using deductive logic

This is one of my favourite forms of literature-based problem solving because in cracking codes, the reader is being invited to use varied problem solving skills. The contemporary master of this genre is Graeme Base. While some of his books also fit into some of the other categories that follow, my favourite examples are where he requires the reader to use language codes and deductive logic to work out an important part of the storyline. His latest wonderful example is 'Enigma: A magical Mystery'. In this multi-layered story Bertie Badger helps his grandpa (alias 'Gadzooks the Great') to solve the mystery of what has happened to his top hat, cape, wand and magic bunny rabbit, which have all been stolen. While at the narrative level, Bertie resolves the problem with a special new type of magic show with the delinquent rabbit; the reader is left to solve the mystery of what happened to all the objects throughout the story. Who stole them and where were they hidden? Only by cracking a code, using it to decipher a new language and searching the illustrations page by page, can the reader solve this additional layer to the mystery.

Another example of this genre is Graeme Base's 'Eleventh Hour: A curious Mystery'. When Horace turns eleven, he plans a birthday party at a grand house. He invites eleven friends and makes an eleven-course feast to be eaten at eleven o'clock, but only after playing eleven games. But when it's time to eat the feast, it has vanished. The reader is invited to turn back the pages, and look at each picture for clues to solve the mystery. Who is the guilty one?

2. Mathematical puzzles and problems

There are many examples of books that also use maths or basic physics to encourage engagement.

a) Counting puzzles - Some authors embed the need for repetitive counting as part of the book. Peter Pavey's wonderful book 'One Dragon's Dream' is typical. While it is essentially a counting book, on each page a new number is introduced. But by adding a mass of creative detail he encourages the reader to look closely at every page. The complexity of the objects increases from page to page with every item there in the quantity that corresponds to the number in focus.

One dragon had a dream
that two turkeys teased him
three tigers told him off
and four frogs seized him

Children love to enjoy the rhythym and language as they inspect each page to make sure that they can find, for example on the page for the number '4', each of the four frogs, four trees, four penguins, four bottles and so on.

b) Physics and logic - Other books encourage the reader to solve a basic physics problem. Pamela Allen invites her readers to consider why the water is flooding the floor in 'Mr Archimedes' Bath' as each animal hops into his bath. Mr Archimedes climbs in with a goat, a wombat and a kangaroo. In amazement he observes that the water continues to rise and eventually ends up on the floor.

"Can anyone tell me where all this water came from?"

And of course eventually, "Eureka!" he cracks the mystery. He exclaims with joy:

"We make the water go up."
Another wonderful example of this type of book is Rod Clements' 'Counting on Frank' in which Frank spends his life trying to solve problems to do with area and capacity. Frank speculates about many things. How many dogs identical to his own would it take to fill his room? How many of his Dad could he squeeze into a television? How long it would take to fill his entire bathroom at bath time? Frank one day puts these skills to a very practical use with a good outcome.

3. Solving a real life problems

Some stories simply encourage the reader to consider how to solve a practical problem. In Ronda and David Armitage's 'The Lighthouse keeper's Lunch', Mrs Grinling has a big problem. Each day as she sends her husband's lunch along a flying fox from her home to the lighthouse, some pesky seagulls steal the food that she has carefully packed. How will she keep them away?

That evening Mr and Mrs Grinling decided on a plan to baffle the seagulls.

"Tomorrow I shall tie the napkin to the basket," said Mrs Grinling.

Similarly in 'Alexander's Outing', Pamela Allen invites her readers to work out how Alexander (a duck) can be extracted from a hole that he falls down as he roams around the city. The solution? Just think about water and ducks. How would you get him out of the deep hole?

4. Spot the inconsistencies or hidden details

This is an even more basic form of problem solving. Sometimes it involves hunting for details, usually in the pictures (sometimes in the language). This in effect helps children to want to turn the page, to predict what will come next, to anticipate. These are foundational strategies for reading comprehension (see my post on comprehension here).

A good example is Janet and Allan Ahlberg's 'Each Peach Pear Plum'. The story works at multiple levels. There is a simple narrative line throughout that involves the reader going on a journey of discovery; a type of 'I Spy' adventure through a land of familiar nursery rhyme characters. The Ahlbergs have relied on children's knowledge of common rhymes and stories ('The Three Bears', 'Cinderella', 'Bye Baby Bunting' etc) and played with connections between the characters, rhymes and stories (a simple use of intertextuality). The book ends with everyone together at a picnic in the forest. The back cover blurb makes the intent of the book clear:
In this book
with your little eye
take a look
and play 'I spy'
Another variation is the quest for hidden details in a book. Probably the most famous example of this is Martin Handford's book 'Where's Wally?' (or 'Where's Waldo?' in the USA) that led to a series of books that have been popular for over 20 years. The books consist of a series of complex full-page illustrations with hundreds of tiny people doing many things. The aim in each book is to find Wally which is always difficult as he is well hidden. Wally always dresses in a red and white striped shirt and beanie (hat). He carries a wooden walking stick and wears glasses. Readers are also invited to find items that Wally loses in each scene, including his walking stick, backpack, binoculars, books, camping equipment and his shoes.

A different variation on this type involves the author/illustrator inserting things that don't make sense, that simply don't match reality. 'Wacky Wednesday' by Theo LeSeig (Dr. Seuss) is a classic example where on every page the young reader scans the page to find the crazy things that are happening. As they hunt for the next weird thing that are practising basic visual recognition skills as well as having heightened engagement to simply persist with the reading and to want to turn the page.

The benefit of these books

The great benefit of books that focus on problem solving or logic is that they offer another way to engage children with books. As well, they teach many language concepts, reinforce basic mathematics and science and encourage inquisitiveness and creativity. Teachers will find that books in this thematic area are wonderful springboards for other learning, including artistic expression, drama and writing. For example:

Children will love creating their own 'Where's Billy?' or 'Where's Skye?' books.
They will have fun creating their own 'Wacky Wednesday' (or Tuesday!) books.
The will spend hours working out Graeme Base's codes and then after decoding the examples in a book like 'Enigma: A magical Mystery' will enjoy creating their own code and writing secret messages.
They might like to come up with other solutions for Mrs Grinling to solve the problem of the seagulls.

There are endless possibilities that spring from books of this type. One final thing. Boys love these books so they offer yet one more way to heighten their interest in books and reading.

Related links

Remembering Literature on World Maths Day (here)

Previous posts on Key Themes in Children's Literature (here)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Children's Book Council Awards 2009 - Shortlist

The awards have now been announced - Read my full review HERE

The Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) has announced its shortlist of books for final judging in the 2009 Children's Literature Awards. It is a very strong list with some of Australia's long standing and successful writers and illustrators, alongside some of the rising stars in the field. For me there are a few highlights worthy of note prior to the judging.

Shaun Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia is a remarkable work from a remarkably talented illustrator. It is an anthology of fifteen very short illustrated stories. Each is about a strange situation or event that occurs in suburbia - a visit from a nut-sized foreign exchange student, a sea creature on someone’s front lawn, a new room discovered in a family home, a sinister machine installed in a park, a wise buffalo that lives in a vacant lot. Central to each story is how ordinary people react to and make sense of the incidents.

I'm also delighted to see a few authors back in the list again (for some after quite a break). Notably, Morris Gleitzman listed for 'Then', Emily Rodda for 'The wizard of Rondo', Jackie French, for ‘A Rose for the Anzac boys’ and Bob Graham listed for 'How to Heal a Broken Wing'.

It's also exciting to see Aaron Blabey back again. This remarkable new talent is shortlisted for the second year in a row. His first book 'Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley' won the Picture Book of the Year award in 2008. You can read more about Blabey in my Author Focus on him (here) which I wrote just after the 2008 awards. At the time I commented that his second book 'Sunday Chutney' was even better than the first.

There are also some other interesting combinations of authors and illustrators in the list for 2009, the most notable being highly successful author John Marsden with new rising star Matt Ottley, who team up to produce 'Home and Away'. The story is about an ordinary Australian family who find themselves in the midst of a war, and end up refugees placed in a detention camp. Ottley won the picture book category in 2008 for his controversial graphic novel 'Requiem for a Beast'. You can read my review of his winning book in 2008 here.

The illustrator Stephen Michael King has been shortlisted for three books in two separate categories (quite an achievement) - for 'Leaf' and ‘Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle’ (with
Glenda Millard) in the Early Childhood category and for ‘Perry Angel's Suitcase’ (with Glenda Millard) in the Younger Readers' category. And yes, that means Glenda Millard has two books listed.

The winners and honour books in the various categories will be announced during Book Week (22-28 August).

The full shortlist

1. Older readers (Mature readers)

D. M. Cornish, ‘Monster Blood Tattoo Book Two: Lamplighter’
Anthony Eaton, ‘Into white silence’
Jackie French, ‘A Rose for the Anzac boys
Melina Marchetta, ‘Finnikin of the Rock’
James Moloney, ‘Kill the possum’
Shaun Tan, ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’

2. Younger readers (Independent readers)

Catherine Bateson, ‘The Wish Pony’
Sandy Fussell, ‘Polar Boy’
Morris Gleitzman, ‘Then’
Christine Harris, Ann James (illustrator), ‘Audrey of the Outback’
Glenda Millard, Stephen Michael King (illustrator), ‘Perry Angel's Suitcase’
Emily Rodda, ‘The Wizard of Rondo’

3. Early childhood (Pre-reading to early reading stage)

Bob Graham, ‘How to Heal a Broken Wing
Stephen Michael King, ‘Leaf’
Chris McKimmie, ‘Special Kev’
Glenda Millard, Stephen Michael King (illustrator), ‘Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle’
Rosemary Sullivan, Dee Huxley (illustrator), ‘Tom Tom’
Margaret Wild, Julie Vivas (illustrator), ‘Puffling’

4. Picture Book (Birth to 18 years)

Aaron Blabey, ‘Sunday Chutney’
Kylie Dunstan, ‘Collecting Colour’
Matt Ottley (illustrator) John Marsden (text), ‘John, Home and Away’
Tohby Riddle, ‘Nobody Owns the Moon’
Greg Holfeld (illustrator), Ruth Starke (text), ‘Captain Congo and the Crocodile King’
Colin Thompson, ‘The Big Little Book of Happy Sadness’

5. Eve Pownall (Birth to 18 years – Information books)

Ursula Dubosarsky, Tohby Riddle (illustrator), ‘The Word Spy’
Mark Greenwood, Frané Lessac (illustrator), ‘Simpson and his Donkey’
Lincoln Hall, ‘Alive in the Death Zone’
Catriona Nicholls & Janet Paterson, Rod Waller (illustrator), ‘The Workboot Series - the Story of Chicken in Australia’
Jan Ramage, Ellen Hickman (illustrator), ‘Tuart Dwellers
John Ross & Anna Booth, ‘Every Picture Tells a Story: Adventures in Australian Art’

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Power of Literature - Texts Transform

As I said in my first post in this series on ‘The Power of Literature’ that I grew up in a working class home where there were few books. In fact, there was no television until I was 11 years old. For me, life outside school was made up of sport, exploring the bush, swimming and fishing in the creek, annoying my sister, and playing in the street till dark. I wasn’t read to and I can’t remember more than a couple of books in my house. So when I arrived at school I wasn’t a reader. Later in life I became a reader and came to see how literature can teach (my first post) and also enrich our lives (my second post).

However, as a middle-aged researcher I came to an even more startling conclusion one day about my early literacy experiences. While I had limited experience of literature I had been immersed at home in narrative recounts, anecdotes and poetry. Both my father and my grandfather were constant sources of story and poetry. My father (Henry Cairney) was a Scottish Coalminer and Trade Unionist; he shared thousands of anecdotes and stories throughout my childhood. Many of these centred on his childhood living in poor tenement housing in Scotland, his journey by sea to Australia, the battles with his nine brothers, how his mother cared for ten boys alone while her hussband was in Australia establishing a house as a miner for two years. But he also spoke of his prowess on the soccer field, boxing for money during the Great Depression, WWII, the ‘evil of the mine owners’ and the great solidarity of the union movement, the pain of feeling responsible for the death of his little sister the last born of 11, who died at age 2, and marching off from his home pit in the brass band as a 16 year-old to take part in the infamous Rothbury riots of 1929. I loved these stories even after I had heard them over and over again.

My grandfather (on my mother’s side, Alexander Linton) was also of Scottish and English stock, and recited from memory the great poetry of Robbie Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, the literature of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, Sir Walter Scott, and slabs of the Bible (especially Psalms and Proverbs).

For most of my life I thought I’d had no literature and story, but later I was to realise that my world was filled with it. It was also filled with music. 1950s and 60s contemporary music was a big part of our household, with both parents accomplished musicians and singers. Most of the music I heard was in the form of ballads, especially Scottish, Irish and Italian ballads – 'Danny Boy', 'Pedro the Fisherman', 'Ave Maria', 'Hang Down you head Tom Dooley', 'Ciribiribin'. This was yet more rich language and poetry.

The power of storytelling

My conclusion in middle age was that my language and literacy had been enriched by my experience not of literature, in book form, but by oral storytelling and poetry, music and the anecdotes and stories shared with me by my family. My experience is not a singular one, in fact all cultures had oral storytelling before books, and some cultures still rely on oral traditions more than books.

And here’s the main point of this third and final post on the power of literature, and in a sense, it is more a point about narrative than simply literature and books. For while it is possible to learn to read without a rich tradition of books and literature, I would argue that it isn’t possible without a foundation of narrative and story. Why? I’ll let Harold Rosen answer this question:

Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation.

We spend most of our lives telling each other stories. Yes, I know that there are countless language genres with their own structure, purpose, modalities and so on, but we build our relationships with one another, we share our humanity through the stories we tell about our own lives and those that we have heard from others.

That’s what my father and grandfather were doing when I was a kid, that’s what you do in those deep and meaningful conversations late at night with that special person. Our stories of people, places, events, trials, successes, failures, fears, loves, hates, passions, prejudices and so on, are not simply personal memories, once told they become part of a collective memory in which something is shared between father and son, lovers, enemies and friends. Even public narratives become part of us and can change us - Martin Luther King Jr's 'I have a dream' speech, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's sorry speech, President Obama’s campaign launch, Mandela’s letters from prison and eventually his speeches of reconciliation and many other significant orations by great men and women throughout the centuries.

Cherishing literature and story

Literature is the most developed and permanent form of story telling; it lasts and is passed from generation to generation. Great texts have the power to change our lives, to give direction to us and to offer meaning and purpose. Individual texts become part of our textual histories as they pass on timeless knowledge and truth, values and wisdom. Much of the richness of story that has been communicated through the ages, has been distilled into great books. To sum up this series of three posts in just a few words:

Literature has great power to teach, enrich and transform us.

We must value literature and storytelling. In this age of mass and instant communication, where writing and reading more than 160 characters is a challenge for some, we must protect literature and share it with our children and with all future generations of children.