Tuesday, March 27, 2012

12 Great Books for Boys Revisited

This is a repeat of one of my most popular posts in the last 12 months. It picks up on a common theme, how do we get boys to read good books? If you're a reader of this blog you know how I feel about the importance of literature as an important part of the reading diet of boys. In just my second post on this blog back in 2007 I wrote on this topic (here). Reading literature, or having literature read to you as a child is an essential foundation for learning and life.
Literature teaches us about the world
Literature helps us to understand the past, the present and contemplate the future
Literature teaches us how narrative works
Literature helps us to learn about ourselves and deal with the issues of life
Literature helps us to understand how language works
Literature expands our world and expands our minds
Literature stimulates the imagination and creativity
I've also written previously about the importance of picture books, and eventually, the need for children to move on to chapter books. But don't be in too big of a hurry to do this (read my post on this HERE). When you do start to encourage children to start reading chapter books, parents and teachers will read them to the children. Later you will share the reading with them and eventually the child will take over completely. In practical terms, chapter books offer children:
  • More complex narrative forms and plot development
  • Richer and more complex language
  • New areas of knowledge about their world and the human condition
  • Different literary devices
  • They train your children to be able to sustain longer periods of reading
As well as the above, chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your shared knowledge and experience within the family or the classroom, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them.

In this post I review a dozen great books for sharing with boys. There is great benefit in fathers sharing these books with their sons, but they can also be experienced with mothers, grandparents and teachers. These are not meant to be the 12 first chapter books but rather books that I know will work with boys at different ages. I have other posts about boys (here) and fathers (here) on this blog. 

Great Books for Boys

1. 'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)

This is one of my favourite Roald Dahl books. It is a collection of stories from his childhood that draw forth all of the emotions. Some of the short stories are hilariously funny and offer an illuminating insight into the childhood that shaped this wonderful writer. The tales include the Great Mouse Plot that brings undone the dastardly Mrs Pratchett who owns the local lolly shop. But there are also the recollections of a wonderful day in Norway, a visit to a doctor for a 'surprise' tonsillectomy in the days before anaesthetic.
"It won't take two seconds", the doctor said. He spoke gently, and I was seduced  by his voice. Like an ass, I opened my mouth. The tiny blade flashed in the bright light and disappeared into my mouth....
Any boy will love these stories that all keep you turning the page. Suitable for boys aged 7-12 years. 

2. 'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)

'Prince Caspian' is the 4th book in the 'The Chronicles of Narnia'. While you could read virtually all of the Narnia books to most boys, this one has special appeal. The Pevensie children are back in the land of Narnia but something is wrong. The glorious castle is in ruins and everywhere they look it is silent and empty. A Dwarf arrives and they learn of the fate of Narnia. Civil war is destroying the land under his father King Miraz. Brave Prince Caspian with the guidance of Aslan takes up the challenge to save Narnia and restore freedom and happiness.  Boys aged 8-12 will love this book (and others in the Narnia Chronicles).  

3. 'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)

The Hobbit is a fantasy published to wide acclaim in 1937. The full (but rarely used) title is 'The Hobbit, or There and Back Again'. It is set in a time "between the Dawn of Faerie and the Dominion of Men". A company of dwarves set out on a quest to gain gold that is guarded by a dragon. Bilbo Baggins, an unambitious Hobbit, is a reluctant partner who shows great resourcefulness along the way as giant spiders and evil goblins are encountered. Bilbo's episodic journey covers many territories as each chapter introduces specific creatures of Tolkien's Wilderland. The book led Tolkien to write 'The Lord of the Rings' as a sequel but this became an even more ambitious project.

It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. This is more demanding but bright boys aged 8-12 will love this book, of course younger boys will generally need you to read it with them.

4. 'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)

This was the first book in a series of five books that boys aged 7-12 just love.

To the villagers of Rin the boy Rowan is a timid weakling, the most disappointing child ever. Yet, incredibly, it is his help they need when the stream that flows from the top of the Mountain dries up. Without its water, their precious bukshah herd will die, and Rin will be doomed.

The six strongest villagers must brave the unknown terrors of the Mountain to discover the answer to the riddle. And Rowan, the unwanted seventh member of the group, must go with them. The witch Sheba's prophecy is like a riddle, a riddle Rowan must solve if he is to find out the secret of the Mountain and save his home.

Each book is a complete story with a classic quest storyline that has a series of riddling mysteries to be solved by the unlikely hero Rowan.

5. 'Merryl of the Stones' by Brian Caswell (1989)

This is a story of time travel and magic that begins in Sydney with Megan Ellison the only survivor of a car crash that takes the lives of her parents. She wakes to dreams and memories that haunt her and seem to be fragments of a previous life. When she recovers she returns to her native Wales and the home of relatives. She feels strange and alone until she meets Em a bright and rebellious boy with nightmares of his own. Together, they discover Megan's true heritage, a secret gift and a duty to right an ancient wrong with an adventure that spans two millennia. This is a fantasy that boys (as well as girls) aged 9-14 will love.

6. 'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)

Chas McGill has the second-best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth (near Newcastle-on-Tyne in England), but he wants to have the best. As World War II is waged all around them a group of boys build special collections of the fragments of war. His chance comes to achieve his goal when a German plane crashes near his home. A dead German, a broken plane and a fully loaded machine gun; but how would he remove it and add it to his collection? As well, how will he hide it from the Home Guard who find it has disappeared from the plane? 

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've ever read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. This is a wonderful tale of adventure that will stir any boy aged 8-14.

7. 'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)

This story was inspired by the horrific true story of the Batavia. The ship hit Houtman’s Abrolhos Rocks off the West Australian coast on the 4th June 1629. Most of the 260 passengers and crew survived the wreck and landed safely on the barren islands nearby. The captain left the passengers and most of the crew and headed for Java in an open boat to get help. He successfully returned 14 weeks later only to find that 120 men, women and children had been brutally murdered by members of the crew and the passengers. The Captain tried the men, and supervised the hanging of 7 after first cutting off their right hands. He showed mercy to two additional young men found guilty but who were seen as minor 'players', one a 17 year-old boy Jan Pelgrom and the other a soldier, Wouter Loos. The boys were marooned with a small amount of water, food and supplies and left to fend for themselves.

Crew's story based on these true events commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger living with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion and his life changes. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the Batavia responsible with others for the murder of the 120 people. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time. A ring found attached to a severed hand provides a vehicle for regular time slips between his life in 1986 and the events that unfolded when Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom were set adrift in a small boat that gave then an outside chance of survival. I have written a post on this book that provides the historical background to the story (here).

The book was winner of the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers, 1991 and will be well received by boys 10-14 years.

8. 'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)

This is a contemporary story of three foster children Harvey, Carlie and Thomas J. who are moved constantly from one home to another. When they come together in yet another new home, one of trio, Carlie a girl hardened by her experiences, suggests that they were just like 'pinballs'.

"Somebody put in a dime, punched a button, and out we came ready or not...and you don't see pinballs helping each other, do you?"

Carlie is closed to the prospect of significant new relationship with a new foster mother and the other foster children. She is difficult, and is always ready for a fight. But Mrs Mason doesn't give in easily and Carlie eventually discovers something special with the other 'strays' that she has found herself with in her new home. This is a funny shorter book that children aged 7-12 will enjoy.

9. 'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)

Watership Down is the fantasy story of a group of rabbits.  The novel takes its name from the rabbits' destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire in England. These anthropomorphised rabbits live in their natural environment with their own language and culture.  The book tells the story of heroic adventures that the rabbits share as they search for a safe place to establish a new warren.  As they journey through woods and across streams, meadows and cornfields, they overcome many obstacles including their own fears before they reach Watership Down. But all is not well, something important is missing.  How can a warren survive without female rabbits? Something must be done.
This will be enjoyed by bright boys aged 8-12.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1973.

10. 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the story of boyhood adventures growing up in a small town along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the town of "St Petersburg" and inspired by the town of Hannibal (Missouri) where Mark Twain grew up. In the introduction to the story Twain notes that:

"Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture."

Tom is the original boy hero, demonstrating bravado, bad behaviour and boyhood exuberance. Whether he is running away to become a pirate with Huck Fin or being a witness to a murder, adventure (and some troubles) are always close at hand. 

Boys aged 7-12 will love this book. The Walker Books edition illustrated by Robert Ingpen would be a wonderful way for any boy to discover this timeless story. See my review of Ingpen's work HERE.

11. 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)

Charles Wallace Murry goes searching through a 'wrinkle in time' for his lost father, and finds himself on an evil planet where a huge pulsating brain known as IT enslaves all life.  The story tells of how Charles, his sister Meg and his friend Calvin find and rescue his father. All the while they are accompanied by a trio of guardian angels - Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. This is an exciting science fiction fantasy thriller.  This is a story that will be enjoyed by boys aged 8-14 years.

Winner of the Newbery Medal 1963. 

12. 'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)

This is the story of life in a Dutch village and the relationship between people and the natural world. Lina Sendak is one of six school children in the small fishing village of Shora. She writes an essay at school and asks why there are no storks in their village when other places are famous for nesting storks on buildings. The teacher in their small school encourages them to find out. They discover that the roofs on the village's homes are pitched so steeply that the storks cannot find space to nest on the sharp ridges. The solution is to place a wagon wheel on each roof ridge giving storks a place to nest. The task of finding a wagon wheel in the tiny village proves difficult, and the children meet several interesting personalities during their search. This simple, yet compelling story teaches that if people think and ask why, that they might just solve their problems.

This book won the 1955 Newbery Medal and is suitable for boys aged 7-12 years.

Some related links
'Making Reading Exciting for Boys' (here)
'Why 'cross-section' and diagrammatic books work with boys' (here)
'Ten great non-fiction books for boys aged 5-12 years' (here)
'Make and Do Books:Engaging readers in different ways' (here)
Getting Younger Readers into Chapter Books (here)
The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Supporting comprehension (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Critical Place of Fantasy in Children's Literature

As I've written before on this blog, story and literature have great power to teach, enrich and transform us (see here & here). Stories provide access to other world's and experiences with the potential to change us and deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. Stories help to bind us together as people, whether families, communities, races or even nations. They also offer us insights into the fullness of the human condition. We rejoice in the images and stories of human loyalty, valour, forgiveness, faithfulness, courage, patience, love, devotion, sacrifice and so on. But stories also offer us windows into experiences that are not our own. Experiences of death, cruelty, hatred, betrayal, genocide, murder and so on.  And while it is difficult for us to come face-to-face with the dark side of humanity, story helps to grasp, understand and appreciate life's joys, but also its sorrows and tragedies. It also does more. For through fantasy, myth and legend we are led to contemplate worlds and dimensions well beyond the bounds of earth and the physical. Through the power of human imagination we contemplate the metaphysical; things not yet understood or experienced directly. Mystery and wonders not perhaps thought possible when limited by reason.

There have been many writers, philosophers, mystics and theologians who have observed the relationship between the imagination and reason. To be human is to be a creature that doesn't just reason unemotionally in the light of the available data encountered in life.  From birth we learn from our mistakes as we encounter our world. The first touch of a hot surface gives us data that will shape future actions. We learn to ride our first bike by gathering knowledge and elementary understanding of physics and we practice till we cease to fall. We begin to 'read', observe and learn from the books, images, sounds, tastes and smells of our world to expand minds and apply learning. But we also look beyond ourselves and wonder is the physical reality all that there is? We learn to love as we are loved and imagine a future with expectation and doubts. We are creatures that imagine and hope, not just beings who reason. We attempt to envisage our futures, and imagine if material existence is all that there is. We imagine and make meaning; we don't just 'reason' the world.  Children's authors seem almost intuitively to know this.

C.S. Lewis was one author who thought a great deal about these things and reached the conclusion that imagination and reason are related human qualities. Lewis. like others, argued that imagination is a key to meaning. We derive meaning as we encounter signs within our world - words, images, sounds, tastes, experiences and of course stories. Imagination he saw as ‘the organ of meaning’ and reason as the organ to determine truth or falsehood. Meaning he argued is part of our journey towards determining truth or falsehood. So imagination is no dispensable frippery, able to be encouraged or discouraged on the basis of whim or fancy.  No, it is vital to humanity and its well being.

Some books that tap this need

Some of the most popular children's books in history have been fantasy novels written in the last 100 years. J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' has sold over 150 million copies, J.K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' books have sold over 500 million copies, 'The Chronicles of Narnia' by C.S. Lewis have sold 130 million copies. Of course the trail blazers before these were the likes of 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll,  'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens', the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and of course The Brothers Grimm.  And centuries before these, Homer's 'The Odyssey' and other great Greek myths and legends inspired generations with tales of giants, witches, gods and superheroes. Modern collections like 'Greek Myths' by Ann Turnbull and illustrated by Sarah Young bring these to life for new generations.

However, in recent times there has been an explosion of writing for children and young adults that not only embraces fantasy but sub genres of horror, magic, the occult and so on. Some of this writing seems altogether too dark and perhaps an appeal to the darker side of the human condition. This is a question for us to consider. Nevertheless, fantasy in its broadest manifestations stimulates the imagination, creativity and wonder, and we need more, not less of it. As a parent or teacher there are careful responsibilities to be considered here and choices at times to be made.

There are many places to start if you wish to broaden your children's experience of fantasy. My personal preference is to begin with those examples of fantasy tied most closely to the known world before branching out beyond it. Here are a few suggestions.

Fantasy for Younger Children (0-6 years)

For most children under six years, the first experience of fantasy will be via traditional fairy tales and fantasy rooted in the real world. Beatrix Potter's 'Tales of Peter Rabbit' will captivate preschool children from a young age. Roald Dahl's less gruesome tales may be appropriate for some. 'Fantastic Mr Fox', and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' are but two good places to start.  Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' is timeless and authors like Dr Seuss with tales like 'The Lorax' and Bill Peet with illustrated stories like 'Cowardly Clyde' offer a first step from the safety of the known world to others yet imagined. 

E.B. White's 'Charlotte's Web' is a classic that in the most gentle and elegant of ways introduces ideas of death, new life and the metaphysical.

Classics like 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Peter Pan' will also work with children aged as young as 6 years. 

Modern classics like Ted Hughes' wonderful story of 'The Iron Man' will captivate young boys.

All of these and many more examples will stimulate the imagination and lead young readers to imagine 'What if...?'.

Fantasy in the Primary Years (7-11 years)

I have already mentioned J.K. Rowling, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who offer a perfect way to expand the appetite for fantasy amongst readers in the primary years.  But there are many other options for children aged 7-11 years.

Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' is worthy of special attention in this age category. This is of course the pre-cursor to 'Lord of the Rings' and is a masterpiece. It is a magical adventure that appeals to children and adults.  Bilbo Baggins was a hobbit who wanted to be left alone in quiet comfort. But the wizard Gandalf came along with a band of homeless dwarves. Soon Bilbo was drawn into their quest, facing evil orcs, savage wolves, giant spiders, and worse unknown dangers.

Emily Rodda has multiple series for independent readers including the popular 'Rondo', 'Rowan of Rin', 'Deltora Quest' and 'The Three Door' series.

Then of course, there are the historical novels that venture through time-slip to worlds beyond. Books like Brian Caswell's 'Merryll of the Stones', Gary Crew's story of the Batavia in ‘Strange Objects’, Ruth Park's 'Playing Beatie Bow' and many more.

Fantasy for Older Readers (12-14 years)

'The Life Of A Teenage Body-Snatcher' by Doug MacLeod is about sixteen-year-old Thomas Timewell who discovers an occupation and world not previously known to him. Set in England in the 1820s this is NOT a bland horror story. Rather it is a complex tale filled with suspense, humour, action and even some romance.

'The Bartimaeus' Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud is a little darker and tells the story of Nathaniel, a young magician with only one thing on his mind, revenge. Nathaniel is an apprentice to the great magician Underwood and is gradually being schooled in the traditional art of magic.

'Artemis Fowl' by Eoin Colfer has been popular with boys aged 12-14. Artemis is an unusual anti-hero, who while the 'bad guy', is a likable boy-genius criminal. This is darker then Harry Potter but very funny at the same time.

Philip Pulman's 'His Dark' trilogy has also been popular with older readers. 'Northern Lights' (i.e. 'The Golden Compass' in the USA), 'The Subtle Knife' and 'The Amber Spyglass' tell the story of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they wander through a series of Parallel universes against a backdrop of epic events.

One of Australia's most prolific writers of fantasy for older readers and adults is Garth Nix. Those of his books suitable for older children include 'The Ragwitch', the six books of 'The Seventh Tower' and 'The Keys to the Kingdom' series. 'The Seventh Tower' sequence of six books follows two children from distinctly different societies in a world blocked from the sun by a magical Veil that leaves the world in complete darkness. His 'Keys to the Kingdom' series chronicles the adventures of a 12 years old asthmatic boy Arthur Penhaligon who is chosen to become the Rightful Heir of the 'House' that is the centre of the universe. The core storyline involves Arthur attempting to defeat the Morrow Days, the criminal trustees of the House.

There are many classic older series that must not be forgotten. One of my favourites is Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series of five books that depict a struggle between forces of good and evil called 'The Light' and 'The Dark'. The series is based on Arthurian legends, Celtic mythology and Norse mythology. 

At the outer edges of this genre are books that take readers to places darker than I would care to go with most readers but which some older readers will find engaging. Books like Neil Gaiman's acclaimed 'The Graveyard Book' come to mind.

A last word

While there has been criticism at times that fantasy is used by authors to push morality and religion (C.S. Lewis was regularly criticised for his Christian allegorical tales of Narnia), it is important to recognise that all fantasy projects beliefs, values, morality and at times deeply religious or spiritual ideas. There is a strong argument for accepting the claim by many that modern fantasy has usurped ancient myths, legend and religiously inspired fantasy and literature. While some who see little meaning and significance in traditional religious tellings of the human story, we must not delude ourselves that non-religious fantasy exists. It doesn't. For all fantasy, in a sense, is religious in that it generally assumes, discusses or promotes a set of beliefs, actions and emotions reflecting at the very least some speculation of an ultimate reality, power, order or being beyond the material world as we know it. As such, parents and teachers have a responsibility to understand the books that their children read and to engage with them as they encounter this rich material.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Enrichment for Gifted & Talented Children

What do I mean by Gifted & Talented?

There was a time when giftedness in children was narrowly defined in terms of intellectual skills and knowledge that could be tested by a narrow range of intelligence tests. However, in recent decades our understanding of giftedness has broadened based on our growing understanding that intelligence can have many manifestations (see for example my post on Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences). And so, while we know some gifted children can demonstrate exceptional abilities across a wide range of capabilities (e.g. memory, language, mathematics, problem solving etc), others are extremely gifted in narrower and more specific ways (e.g. visual arts, music, leadership, sport etc).

The Queensland Government's document 'Framework for Gifted Education' offers a helpful broad definition of giftedness:
Students who are gifted excel, or are capable of excelling, in one or more areas such as 
a) General intelligence,
b) Specific academic studies,
c) Visual and performing arts, Physical ability,
d) Creative thinking,
e) Interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.
Giftedness in a student is commonly characterised by an advanced pace of learning, quality of thinking or capability for remarkably high standards of performance compared to students of the same age. 

In relation to the narrower understanding of general academic giftedness, the following well-known definition by Joseph Renzulli is helpful.

Giftedness consists of an interaction among three basic clusters of human traits:
Above average general abilities
High levels of task commitment
High levels of creativity 

How do I recognise giftedness in my children?

6yr old drawing of Blue Tongue via eyes of a predator
If you live with a gifted child or have one in your class there is a good chance you will begin to recognise a number of characteristics that tend to differentiate them from most children, even most capable children.  While many parents feel their children are gifted purely due to their observations of the pace of their development in the early preschool years, extreme giftedness is much more rare. While some teachers tend to assume that gifted children can take care of themselves and so require less attention, this can be a dangerous assumption. Life for the highly gifted child can be an extremely frustrating, confusing and at times lonely experience if their giftedness isn't identified and supported. If your child demonstrates, to a significantly greater extent, a large number of the following characteristics, they may be gifted and will need support, encouragement and some adaptation by teachers and parents:
  • The ability to invent or create novel or original things, or look at their world in unusual ways. 
  • The desire and ability to investigate their immediate world, to see the unusual and observe things that others don't notice.
  • Extreme curiosity demonstrated by experimentation, investigation and in depth study.
  • Using extended vocabulary, complex sentence structure and varied language forms.
  • Understanding and using imagery and metaphorical language at a young age (often under 5 years).
  • Exploring varied interests often at depth, well beyond their years.
  • Being able to learn rapidly and easily compared to other children.
  • Gaining great pleasure and excitement when they are learning new and difficult things.
  • Outstanding memory demonstrated by encyclopaedic recall.
  • A desire to spend time with older children or adults and to learn with and from them.
  • Being able to cope with the introduction of many new ideas, sometimes simultaneously.
  • Wanting to spend large amounts of time learning about a favourite topic.
  • Capable of generating many solutions to verbal or mathematical problems.
  • Enjoying and seeking out frequent intellectual challenges.
  • Demonstrating unusual imagination that is stimulated easily and sometimes independently.
  • Ability to generate multiple ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Showing preparedness to question assumed knowledge or ways of doing things.
  • Often preferring individual work rather than group work and able to work well independently.
  • Demonstrating a highly mature and unusual sense of humour.
  • Sometimes having expectations of themselves that are too demanding and unrealistic.
  • Demonstrating single-mindedness and extreme determination when pursuing interests.
If you think about the above characteristics it should be easy to see how they might well be misinterpreted by teachers and parents who don't understand giftedness. For example, wanting to work independently could be seen as anti-social, single-mindedness can be seen as self-focussed, questioning the assumed knowledge of the teacher could be seen as rudeness and so on. This is why the gifted need to be understood and supported; they are different.

How do I support a gifted child?

There are two main approaches to meeting the needs of the gifted.

a) Acceleration - This involves allowing students to complete curriculum faster, or to advance through school more rapidly, based on their readiness, motivation and capability. It allows the pace of instruction to be adjusted to meet their needs and, it offers new more appropriate challenges.

b) Enrichment - This involves the modification of the curriculum to allow gifted learners to explore topics in greater depth or breadth, to permit the use of varied skills and generally to promote a higher level of thinking, investigation and exploration. It often involves integration of varied learning areas, creative outcomes and products, and the use of supplementary materials beyond the normal range.

Above drawing by Jacob aged just 4 years after a trip to aquarium. His drawing from the unusual vantage point of the fish shows his of Grandad looking into the pond

While there are classes set up for extremely gifted children and some schools that establish specific groups for gifted and talented children, for most gifted children, the mainstream classroom is where they spend most of their time. Both acceleration and enrichment usually occurs within mainstream schools and at times under the sponsorship of external organisations.

Joseph Renzulli's Triad Model has been influential for schools and parents that have tried to provide enrichment for children. His Enrichment Triad has three types of enrichment:

Type 1 - General Interest/Exploratory Activities. These offer a wide range of experiences, e.g. excursions, guest experts, clubs, special classes etc.

Type 2 - Group Training Activities. These aim to develop thinking skills and include activities that facilitate experimentation, analysis, classification skills, critical thinking and communication. 

Type 3 - Individual & Small Group Investigation and Problem Solving. This type allows children to apply the skills acquired in Type 1 & 2 to real life problems of interest to them. They then present their findings in some form to other, e.g. written reports, video presentation, website, debate, a journal etc.

The reality for many parents of gifted children is that they end up having to make a lot of effort themselves to provide for their gifted child. In future posts I will look at various aspects of how we might support the gifted. In the rest of this post I will suggest a number simple ways to enrich the education of the gifted. While all of these ideas could be seen as relevant for children of average ability, they offer additional opportunities for the gifted.

1. Ensure that the child experiences a rich and stimulating life outside school. 

This could include:

  • Opportunities to play and learn with other gifted children, older children and adults who have similar interests and can stimulate their imagination, offer new experiences, and challenge them with new areas of learning.
  • Lots of first-hand experiences, including visits to museums, zoos, galleries, musical performance and drama, film, outdoor exploration, keeping and studying pets, nature walks, and gardening.
  • Providing opportunities for hobbies that offer depth of new learning, for example, collecting rocks, stamps, chess, photograph, movie making, astronomy, and animation.
  • Introducing them to varied ways to respond to learning or present knowledge (e.g. creative arts, drama, video and audio presentations, public presentations etc).

2. Provide opportunities for children to extend their knowledge in areas of special interest.

This might include:

  • Project-based work.
  • Library research.
  • Digital Storytelling (see my previous post here).
  • Webquests.
  • Learning a musical instrument.
  • Learning a new language.

3. Introduce a variety of enrichment activities at regular intervals

While it isn't possible for any teacher or parent to offer individual activities for gifted children there are many wonderful activities that all children will enjoy which can also accommodate the needs of the gifted. The following are some examples of the types of enrichment activities I mean.

a) Story in a Box strategy

This involves placing 5-6 objects in a box that have some relationship to one another. Sometimes I might include a single object that is unrelated, to allow additional creativity. Children are then encouraged to talk about the objects and then create stories that relate to them.  The teacher or parent would usually need to model the process of story creation before asking children to do it.  You might also jointly construct a story or two with children before letting them do it independently. With that proviso, here are just some of the ways I'd suggest you might use the strategy:

1. A group of 5-7 year-olds might explore the objects in a box and try to tell a joint story or simply take turns creating individual stories. You could allow them to supplement the box with a dress-up box if there is a need for children to become specific characters or take on roles.

2. A group of 6-12 year old children might discuss the objects and then prepare a joint monologue to be presented to others (with the objects used as artefacts or aids). Alternatively, a group story or picture book could be produced based on the objects.

3. The box of objects might simply be used to create a digital story (individually or in groups). Have a look at Daniel Meadows' 'Scissors' video to see what might be produced, as wells as my previous post on digital storytelling (here). This approach could also be used with high school children.

You can read a longer post on this topic here.

b) Using a book as the focus for an excursion to its setting

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 that 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 the reading of a book. Here are three more.

c) Offering Stimulating Firsthand experiences

I have written previously about the 'The Language Experience Approach' to literacy on this blog (here). Typically, it occurs when a teacher or parent opportunistically seizes an experience as a basis for learning. Many are basic:
  • The squelch of mud between toes on a wet day in the back yard
  • Running on a sandy beach for the first time
  • Watching a worm wiggle in the palm of a small hand
  • Building a cubby house from boxes in the back yard
  • Watching a bird build its nest in a tree in the playground in spring
  • Doing hand painting
  • Observing chickens as they grow bigger day by day
The experience becomes a focus for discussion and exploration and eventually is recorded as a written text in some way. There is great power in new experiences to enrich learning - seeing new places, doing things for the first time, tasting new food, finding yourself immersed in a significant event - new experiences have a major impact on learning and our use of language to describe these events. Such experiences teach us new things and move us to use language to make sense of the experience and tell others about it.

The approach has four main elements:
  • Sharing an experience
  • Talking about the experience
  • Making some record of the experience (words, pictures, sound recording, photographs, video)
  • Finally, using the recorded experience for further reading, discussion and the stimulation of further writing
d) Using blogging to stimulate children's learning

As a keen blogger I know the various benefits of blogging as I'm sure do the readers of this blog. But how might we make better use of blogging with children? Many teachers have already experimented with blogging for children, as have some parents. Most children don't need to be convinced of the wonder and worth of the Internet, but could we make better use of the Blogosphere?

There seem some obvious reasons for using blogs in the classroom or at home:

1. The act of writing a blog post can lead to significant research and related learning. For example, it is an excellent way to develop web comprehension and research skills.

2. Blogs offer authentic readers and audiences for children. So much classroom writing is simply for the teacher 'as examiner', but blogs offer 'real' readers who will respond as learners and fellow writers. This is powerful.

3. Blogs can offer a means for children of many nationalities to communicate and share their ideas across the globe.

4. Blogging can offer a wonderful means for children to practice a second language.

5. Using blogs as creators as well as consumers highlights the need for children to consider issues such as truth and fiction, privacy, copyright and so on.

You can read a full post on 'Children as Bloggers' here.

e) Using film making and animation

Filmmaking and animation is another wonderful way to enrich the learning of gifted children. I have written a previous post on some varied resources for animation. One of them was 'The Klutz Book of Animation' by John Cassidy and Nicholas Berger. It is excellent aid for young filmmakers. The book provides step by step guidance to primary aged children to make simple animations using a video camera (as simple as a web cam), a computer and a variety of props, objects, plasticine and so on. The publishers provide a number of videos online that teach children the fundamentals of animation and filmmaking (here). At the Klutz site you can download free instructional videos (here), free sound effects (here) and sample videos made by children (here). Below is a sample using the Klutz methodology. This is a great resource for young filmmakers. Steven Spielberg would have loved to have this as a child.

You can read a full post on animation and film making tools for children here.

Summing Up

It is important that truly gifted and talented children be identified and supported. I will return to this topic in future posts.