Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Holiday Ideas to Stimulate Children & Reduce Screen Time

In Australia our schools have just closed for the Summer holidays. After over two years of Covid isolation, lock downs and disrupted lives, life is just starting to return to normal. As we enter holiday periods with our children and grandchildren it's helpful to plan a little. While some children might go to summer camps, or holidays with families, there will be plenty of time either at home or away for children to become bored. Hopefully, the solution is NOT just to simply increase their screen time.

Today I'm making the traditional family Christmas pudding with one of my granddaughters. Always a special treat which I once did with one of my daughters. I hope that my readers all have their own traditions that you look forward to each year. If not start some with your children or grandchildren.

But the holidays in summer are usually long, so it's good to think ahead about things you might do with your children and perhaps grandchildren. If Christmas falls in winter as it does in the US and other northern hemisphere nations, then outdoor activities will be hard. But there are plenty of things to be done inside that are stimulating and fun.

I've also written a number of posts in the past about things to do in the holidays with kids (here), as well as simple travel games to fill the time on trips with your children (here). There is also a post on Planning With Kids that offers '20 Great Holiday or Travel Activities for Kids (5-15)'. To maintain some balance you might also find my post on 'Boredom is still good for children!' to be helpful.

In this post I thought I'd revisit some of the ideas and add a few more. There is no better way to stimulate your children's minds and prepare them for another year of school in 2023.

My criteria for choosing these holiday activities are that they:

  • Stimulate creativity
  • Encourage exploration and discovery
  • Involve using their hands as well as their minds
  • Encourage interaction between you and your children
  • Foster literacy development 
  • Increase their knowledge
  • Keep them interested
Encourage your children to make a film 

1. Use a simple animation app to get them started - This sounds a big deal but it's not with the right app. I wrote a post about some wonderful apps for digital story telling a few years ago (HERE). One of my favourites is 'Puppet Pals. For one thing, it's VERY easy to use. Your children will work it out in minutes. Puppet Pals is available as a free app for the iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad. Most apps are available for other devices as well. It's essentially a simple way to create an animated movie using 'cut-out' themed characters and a variety of backdrops and scenes to create an animated 'puppet' play.

There is a free version that comes with Wild West backgrounds and actors.  However, you can also purchase different themes for as little as $US0.99 or the 'Director's Cut' in which you can access all the themes for $US2.99. These allow you to obtain a range of additional scenarios and characters based on themes such as monsters, space, pirates, arthropod armada, Christmas and so on. You can even make your backdrops and characters.

It's a very simple app to use that provides very easy storyboarding. You can record dialogue, move characters around, create some simple effects, change backdrops and settings and characters. While ideally, before creating the animation, the writer/producer prepares plot summaries and story ideas, but I've seen my grandchildren make excellent animations on their first take. One I've used used is the 'Arthropod Armada' theme from 'Director's Cut'. 

Puppet Pals is a wonderful resource for supporting story telling, writing, language development, creativity, and problem solving, while at the same time introducing them to film making and animation. I could see myself using a smartboard to collaboratively develop a story with my class before introducing individuals and groups to this smart little app.

Books with a difference

2. Pick some special books they haven't seen - try to borrow or buy at least 2 books for each child. Based on their interests try to choose books they'll enjoy, not simply books you'd like them to read. Opportunity shops, book exchanges and libraries are also a great place to start looking for some cheap second hand books. I have another post on book exchanges, op shops and web exchange sites here. Alternatively, take them to your local library to choose some.

3. Use Books as a creative stimulus - While the sheer joy of the book is usually enough, sometimes books can stimulate many wonderful creative activities. For example:

After reading Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things are" go outside and dramatise it. Let one child be Max and let others take turns at being the wild things. Make a boat out of bits of wood, or even have a go at making one out of a large cardboard box (or several).

After reading Jeannie Baker's book "Where the Forest Meets the Sea" (a book about the Daintree Rainforest in which all the pictures are collage), encourage them to make a collage out of natural materials (and maybe some wool, straws etc to supplement) in response to Baker's pictures. Or read a second book and have them use collage in response.

After reading Graeme Base's "The Waterhole" get them to paint the waterhole (they can draw the animals, cut them out and paste them around the waterhole).

4. Dramatisation - Dramatisation is an excellent way to respond to a book. If you have a dress-up box all the better. Let your children either re-tell the story through dramatisation or improvise. Get involved to help set the pattern for turn taking etc. I play a mean wolf, and an even better Grandma!


5. Diaries and journals - Introduce older children to diaries or holiday journals. Make this fun, not a school activity. Some might prefer to just make it a scrapbook by pasting in tickets, leaves they collect, food wrappers etc. But you can also show them how to create a travel diary.

6. A holiday blog - Tech savvy mums and dads might encourage their children to write online. Why not set up a family blog that can be read by friends and relatives (even if only for two weeks). You could use this as part of a trip away, or just use it at home. Older children could set up the blog themselves and all family members could contribute. Let them have access to a digital camera and a scanner and the sky is the limit. See my post on 'Children as bloggers' (here).

7. Start a family joke or riddle book - Maybe offer them some jokes as models ("Knock, knock", "Why did the centipede cross the road"....) etc.


8. Structured Craft ideas - simple beadwork, noodle craft, mask making, making plaster moulds (and painting them), anything for young children that requires paper tearing, gluing, glitter, stickers, works well.

9. Unstructured creative craft - Stock up when you go to the supermarket with simple materials like paper plates (good for masks), brown paper bags, sticky tape, glue, cotton balls, tooth picks, paper cupcake holders, straws (cutting up and threading), noodles (for threading).

Creative Play

I've written a number of previous posts on play (here) but planning for play is important. While you can say to your children go outside and 'play', doing some simple planning at times will lead to more stimulating play times.

10. Dress-up box - If you don't have one take the kids to an Op shop to start one. You might even pick up some gems like old helmets, hats, belts (you can cut them down), handbags etc.

11. Water play
 - This is hard in cold weather, but maybe you could make bath-time special for young children with extra bubbles, different stuff to take into it. In warmer weather give them a bucket of water and some things to scoop, sieve etc - obviously only UNDER SUPERVISION. Above, it's pick on Grandad day!

12. Play dough - You can buy cheap coloured modelling clay but home-made playdough works well. My wife 'Carmen's can't fail' recipe is 1 tablespoon of oil, 1 cup of plain flour, 0.5 cup of cooking salt, 2 tablespoons Cream of Tartar, 1 cup of water, colouring. Mix together and put in a saucepan on medium heat until it binds together, stirring all the time. Fold together by hand. If you keep it in a sealed plastic bag it will last for ages in or  outside the fridge.

There are endless things to do with play dough. Try to move beyond just cutting out shapes (which kids still love). Encourage them to make a house, a farmyard, a bed, and an aquarium. Use some plastic animals with the play dough or small plastic people. If you don't mind tossing the play dough out you can let them use sticks, plants etc to make simple dioramas. Kids will create complex stories as they manipulate the play dough.

The blanket cubby!
13. Build a cubby house - No not with wood, just use a table, some chairs, wardrobes (hitch the blankets into the top of the doors, some pegs and sheets and blankets. By draping them over other objects you should be able to create a special space (about 2x2 metres is enough for three small kids). Try to get at least 1.5 metres of height. Have the kids 'help' and then get them to collect some special things to have in the cubby. Use a toy box for a table, some cushions to sit on. I used to let my grandchildren have my cheap transistor radio from my shed (lots of fun). Some will enjoy a tea set; others will collect animals and toys. If you're up to it, climb in as well and read some stories. They'll like the edges tucked in to cut out light so you might need a torch. I've seen a cubby of this kind amuse kids for half a day. Then of course for the adventurous you can share some snack food as well. You can even build a cubby inside! See my post on cubbies (here).

Above: A 'house' one of my grandchildren made (with help) from a box I saved

Indoor and back yard fun

14. Treasure hunts - Write the clues on paper using words and pictures depending on ages and make the treasure worthwhile (chocolate, a coupon for an ice cream in the kitchen etc). For something a little more challenging why not try a map with grid references (see picture opposite).

15. Cooking - Kids love cooking with their mothers or fathers. Do simple stuff. Nicole (Planning With Kids) has lots of great ideas for cooking with kids on her site. Don't forget to make it a language activity as well by getting them to follow the recipes.

16. Insect scavenger hunt - Try an insect scavenger hunt (one of my grandchildren's favourite activities). You'll be surprised just how many you can find. You'll need to be careful turning rocks over and digging around, but even in Australia it's low risk if you supervise. Place a pile of bricks in a damp place and then let the kids help you to uncover them a few days later - watch the critters scurry. We always enjoy a good snail race afterwards!

A few basics hints
  • Have a strategy for the holidays - map out a timetable (post it on the wall) and try to plan a few significant events and think through the general structure of each day.
  • If you have younger children still at home, being joined by school kids on holidays, try to think about how you will cope with all their interests and think about varying daily routines a little.
  • Pace yourself - don't use all your best ideas in the first few days (you'll wear them and yourself out and you'll struggle to keep up the variation later).
  • Expect bad weather - think about some ideas that will work in rainy weather as well. It's called the "Law of Holidays" - expect lots of wet weather and a day or two of sick kids.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Sharing the Stories & Songs of Christmas

Storytelling is a central part of what it means to be human. Holidays often create the perfect context for storytelling. They create 'space' to spend time with family and friends in varied contexts, and each offer opportunities to share stories and yarns.  

In Australia, schools have their longest break of about 6 weeks in Dec-Jan as we approach Christmas. This is a time when we also celebrate the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago. 

It's a time for holidays, religious observance for some, special food, music and in many cases, the exchange of gifts. Even if you don't have any religious conviction, most people look forward to holiday seasons as a special time to catch up with family and friends. But hopefully many teachers and parents will consider the deeper meaning of Christmas.

1. Sharing story through songs & music

Storytelling, is at the very centre of most Christmas gatherings. And music has a special place in our 'storytelling'. Whether religious or secular, music and storytelling are often intertwined. 
As a child, I grew up in a house where music was sung and played often. This included lots of popular ballads, country, blues and pop. When we went for our annual holidays at the Lake Macquarie, singing was never far from our gatherings. On hot summer afternoons at my grandparents’ home at Wangi Wangi we would swim. But after it, we would end up with community singing on the front verandah of my grandparents' house. My father would take his accordion onto the verandah and ask my mother or sister Dianne to sing. Like a magnet, people would emerge from their tents to join in the celebration. At times 50-80 people would come out of their tents and caravans to join us in my grandparents front yard.

Above: My parents performing in a community concert

As well, as traditional Christmas carols like "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night" they would sing popular music that usually had a strong sense of story.

2. Some examples of books to share with a Christmas theme

Books about Christian traditions have been the focus of hundreds of different titles some are closely centred on the Christian message, others not so much. But the Bible's account of the baby Jesus born in a manger in a humble barn is at the very centre of Christmas celebrations for many.

In our schools during the Christmas season, we often share stories with our students that have a Christmas theme. As a teacher I always found time for the sharing of the Christmas story as well as some stories with a 'twist' like the Dr Seuss classic Could the Grinch who hated Christmas 'steal it' so that it couldn't occur? This classic and well known Dr Seuss book, takes a different look at the meaning of Christmas.
'The Jolly Christmas Postman' by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

"It's Christmas Eve and the Jolly Postman is delivering greetings to various fairy-tale characters - there's a card for Baby Bear, a game appropriately called 'Beware' for Red Riding Hood from Mr Wolf, a get-well jigsaw for hospitalised Humpty Dumpty and three more surprise envelopes containing letters, cards, etc." 
'The Christmas Rose' by Wendy Blaxland & illustrated by Lucy Hennessy
is a beautifully told story that traces elements of the story of the birth of Jesus.

The fields near Bethlehem are filled with great joy when angels appear telling of the birth of a very special baby. Madelon’s uncle, his men, and the magnificent kings riding on camels all have gifts for the Saviour. But Madelon has nothing. What could she possibly give him? This version of the Christmas story uses the efforts of a small child to follow others to see the Christ Child. A beautiful illustration of those who would spend great effort to come and adore Him.

The rich and evocative oil paintings by fine artist Lucy Hennessy are stunning and in their muted softness leaves the reader to imagine the scene in all of its mystery and richness.

'The Christmas Promise'
by Alison Mitchell and illustrated by Catalina Echeverri

This wonderful retelling of the Christmas story is brought to us by the highly successful team that has brought us a whole series of children's stories based on the Bible. It tells of how God kept His promise to send a new King.

A long, long time ago so long that it's hard to imagine God promised a new King. He wasn't any ordinary king, like the ones we see on TV or in books. He would be different. He would be a new King; a rescuing King; a forever King! 

I love the books in this series titled "Tell the Truth". Like all of the books in the series, it tells the Christmas story in a simple way that children can grasp, while remaining true to the Bible's narrative. The book will help preschool children discover how the Bible explains how God kept His Christmas Promise.

The wonderful illustrations by Catalina Echeverri are also faithful and consistent with the Bible-centered story-telling of Alison Mitchell. Together, they make this a book that both parents and children will love.

'The Nativity' by Julie Vivas is a wonderful book. The story is close to the Bible narrative and the illustrations as you'd expect from Julie Vivas are superb.

'The Christmas Book', written and illustrated by Dick Bruna. Bruna's delightful and simple telling of the nativity story is special. He manages to tell the greatest story ever told with his typical simplicity. This one is suitable even for preschool children.

'Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale' by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Jason Cockcroft

That cold winter's night, 
beneath the star's light... 
...a Little One came for the world. 

First kind Ox welcomes Old Dog, then Stray Cat, Small Mouse, Tired Donkey, and finally the baby Jesus into his stable on the first Christmas night. Delightful story that tells of the momentous event.

'A Baby Born in Bethlehem', Martha Whitmore Hickman's retelling is based on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. It begins with the revelation to Mary that she will have a child who will be the son of God and ends with the visit of the Wise Men. The text emphasizes the joy of Jesus' birth. Giulliano Ferri's pencil and watercolour illustrations contribute to making this a great book for four to eight year olds.

'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' by Barbara Robinsion . This book tells the story of how one of the "worst Kids" in the world finds out about the real Christmas story for the first time as he takes part in the church Christmas pageant. The story itself is very funny but it also manages to communicate the Christian message accurately.

'The Baby Who Changed the World' by Sheryl Ann Crawford, Sonya Wilson (Illustrator). In this imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, the animals get together and discuss the approaching arrival of a new baby that some say will grow up to be a strong and powerful King. When Mary and Joseph enter the picture and the events of the true Christmas story unfold!

'The Christmas Story: According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke from the King James Version' by Gennadii Spirin (Illustrator). This telling of the Christmas story begins with Mary's meeting with the angel Gabriel then proceeds to the birth of baby Jesus in a stable, the visit of the shepherds and the three wise men. Spirin's Orthodox Christian faith is reflected in the wonderful art that makes this a special retelling of the story of Jesus (although not all will find the images match their idea of what Jesus might have looked like).
3. Sharing family anecdotes & stories that enrich children's knowledge of the past (BUT avoid controversial topics!).

Another wonderful thing about holiday seasons is that you have time to sit with our children and share the events of the year, and perhaps those we shared with family and friends in years past. "Can you remember the time when we egged Mr Smith's car"? These build children's knowledge of the family and the world, as well as their own ability to share stories. "Tell us the story about the time you got lost in the bush Dad". 
"What was it like going to school when you were a kid Mum?" "What was the funniest thing that happened at school this year"? "Tell us another story Grandad from when you were a kid". As you share your own stories as parents, you help to build family traditions, as well as teaching them how to tell stories themselves.

4. Engage your children in preparations 

Having time to do things with your children as you prepare for a time like Christmas will often create those 'spaces' where things can be shared as we make the preparations. Get your children to help decorate the Christmas tree. This isn't just for fun or to fill in time, it allows space and time to share stories and for your children to become better storytellers themselves. 
In the case of parents, you might share stories of the type "I remember when...". "Do you know where this Christmas decoration came from?" "Do you remember when you made this silver star"? Or perhaps, while you're getting your children to help make some decorations you can simply share jokes and anecdotes, or reminisce. 
A special time in our home is decorating the tree each year with decorations that our children made over 30 years ago! Looking at precious decorations is a great story telling event. "Do you remember who made this?" "Did you know that this decoration was on my mother's tree". Stories will flow!

5. Get children involved in using 'procedural texts'

One of our family's most treasured traditions is the making of the Christmas pudding. As a child, my grandparents involved my sister and me in this activity. This was always one of our special family events at Christmas. I implemented the same tradition with my daughters, and more recently, my grandchildren. As well as the fun we have as we prepare for the cooking, we have to follow the recipe, share stories, and lick the bowls. This is a great language event as stories and anecdotes just flow.

6. Involve your children in the making of presents, cards and gifts

Some of my favourite presents as a parent have been the gifts that my children and grandchildren made for me. It's fun to involve children as we make preparations for the exchange of gifts. This might be making yummy food, lollies or snacks to share with neighbours. Once again, there are recipes to follow, stories to tell, gift labels to write, and much more. Card making is just one fun non-food way to link literacy activities to holiday seasons. As well, children might make a book to give to their grandparents or their teacher. Making items for family and friends to hang on their tree is a great literacy activity already mentioned above.

Summing up

Literacy and storytelling are implicated in pretty much all aspects of life. Holiday seasons are just one context that offer opportunities to ground storytelling in 'real' life. As we engage with our children every day, there are numerous ways that the stories we share can help to build their knowledge and their proficiency as users of language whether in spoken or written form. As well, we can develop a shared history that binds family members together.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Realigning Education & Career Expectations in Schools and Families

It's difficult to write a post like this one without appearing that I'm being (at least indirectly) critical of teachers, and parents. As a former teacher, I'm aware of the challenges in teaching, whether infants, primary or secondary. And as a parent, and more recently a grandparent, I understand how tough parenting can be. All levels of education have their own unique issues in 2022, but there are some issues that are common to all. 


As a teacher, you will be aware that parents tend to be more critical than they once were. Expectations are higher than ever! Every parent feels their child is unique (and of course in one sense they are), and many want them to end up working as brain surgeons, lawyers, engineers or some other high-paying role. Teaching is unfashionable right now partly because everyone talks it down, including teachers.

Many parents will also question what teachers do, even though the teacher is the education and teaching expert, not the parent. It is one of the few professions in the world where almost everyone feels they have the right to question the professionals. And of course, media critics of teaching abound.


As well, school education systems are constantly wanting to test and measure achievement with instruments (i.e. tests) that inform them on how students and schools are being judged. These measures never offer a comprehensive picture of what our students are learning, and always seem to end up producing negative stories in the press. Is there any wonder teachers feel unhappy?


It seems that many people are quick to criticize and slow to acknowledge that teaching and parenting are both challenging roles in the 21st century. What can we do about this situation? I want to suggest that both key parties need to review and reassess their hopes and desires for children. In particular, I think as parents, we need to think carefully about what our students' aptitudes and skills are, and how these might equip them for specific roles in life. At day's end our children can't all be brain surgeons, CEOs, lawyers, doctors or CEOs of their own start-up companies with their unique products and inventions that resulted from their university studies. So how do we set realistic goals and expectations for our children as they enter education? Let me ask a few pointed questions:


1. When your child first entered primary/elementary school, were you already aware of what you expected from education for your child? As well, had you already decided what profession you wished them to pursue?

2. When your child entered the secondary school, had you realigned your expectations much?

3. What factors shaped the above choices? Was one factor your desire to see them do something similar to you as their parents? Or, in some cases, perhaps something quite different and 'better'? And high paying!

4. How closely did you examine your child's natural gifts, abilities and interests in thinking through such decisions?


Why pose these questions?


I ask questions like these because I have observed for decades that many parents embrace goals for their children very early in life, that aren't necessarily based on an objective assessment of their children's aptitudes and abilities. Recent research in Australia suggests that a majority of parents expected their children to go to university, with 62.8% indicating either Yes, definitely or Yes, probably. As well, fathers who hold trade qualifications are less likely to expect their children to enter higher education. But both mothers and fathers tend to rate boys as being substantially less likely to attend university than girls, and overall parents over-estimate the likelihood of their child entering university. Some of my family members, and many friends always saw me as destined for engineering. I commenced mechanical engineering with Australia's major steel company (BHP) when I left school, but in a few months I tossed this in and pursued teaching as a career! My father was NOT impressed. My experience and that of many others, suggest that we need to think more carefully about the aspirations we have for our children.


                         Image: Aerial photo of the Newcastle Steelworks (c1960s) where I began training and work

In this post, I am composing the post against a backdrop of nail guns being used to build a luxury home near me. The workers are mostly men, who have completed 4 years of high school education followed by a trade course over 2-3 years at a technical college. I suspect that few were very successful at school. They all drive cars much better than mine and the builders I know live in homes (usually with minimal or no debt) that are better than many university educated people can afford. They seem to enjoy and get satisfaction from their time spent on site, with a predictable pattern of 3-4 hours’ work (7.00am till 11.00am), one hour for lunch (or 'smoko' as some call it), and then another 3 hours before they go home and forget about work till the next day.


All parents and teachers are different, but as an informed observer I want to offer a critique of some of the expectations parents and teachers seem to hold, and encourage all readers to answers the following questions.


What do schools seek to equip children for?


If you answered "get to university", "succeed in their final exams", "end up with a good job" etc, I think your response might just be VERY narrow. All schools, and particularly Christian and religious schools of all types, should be seeking to develop the whole child, not be setting expectations on the first day of primary/elementary school for them. Our will always reflect our relationship with the child and our personal aspirations. In my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I point to Doug Blomberg's thoughts on the relationship between teacher and child. He makes a very telling point that has relevance to both teachers and parents when thinking about our hopes and career expectations for children. He states in 'Wisdom and Curriculum' that the task of the school, including faith-based schools is to use curriculum, which he defines as inclusing “the relationship between the teacher and the child” for a central purpose:


"... to create a (school-)world within the world, because it is a selection from and sequencing of an all-but-infinite range of possible experiences. It is a conscious (re-)ordering of the world for the purposes of teaching and learning. The ends to which these processes are directed provide the criteria for the selection and organization of school experience." (Cairney, 2018, p.44)


I underline the final sentence because it speaks to the issues I'm discussing in this post. The expectations of parents are (I suspect) pretty much set before school. While these might change across the years of school life, they do not shift easily, and in some cases never do!


Parents have the primary role in shaping future expectations early in life, but this tends to shift over time, with teachers and other students also playing a role in the development of every child's hopes and dreams for life after school. Teachers must be aware of this and reflect on how they might influence pathways for the good, or perhaps, NOT for the good of the child.


I might do a follow-up post on this topic, but for now I simply leave readers to ponder and perhaps discuss the issues I have raised with others.

Friday, September 23, 2022

What Might Writing & Reading Communities Look Like in Our Classrooms?

One of the signs of a great book is that once it is finished you have a deep desire to tell someone about it, and perhaps even pass the book on to them. I can recall times when I reached the end of a moving novel and I would simply sit quietly, ruminating on the 'journey' I had just completed through the book. And later, there would be a deep urge to tell others about it. After a special book, we might read it again at some later point, or loan it to a friend and revisit the story in conversation with them.

Our classrooms and homes should be places where children read books and want to share their stories with others. This is certainly critical in the primary years of schooling, but so too it is possible and important within high schools. If literature is only read to prepare for exams, it is a sad state of affairs. Our classrooms can and should be 'communities of readers and writers'. But sadly, our students today are more likely to participate in groups in and outside school sharing social media videos like TikTok, talking about or sharing music, fashion, funny photos and so on online. While they are forming or supporting friendships and communities of practice, nonetheless these conversations are often trivial and superficial.

I shared in my book 'Other Worlds: The Endless Possibilities of Literature' stories from three class 'communities'. Classroom communities where literature was part of what bound the students together. One was a kindergarten in the cane fields of Queensland. As their teacher finished 'The Three Little Pigs' (Jacobs, 1969) the children shared their responses. Some repeated words or the details of the story, "the wolf wanted to eat the pigs", "he was a bad wolf", characters were mentioned and so on. Others responded more seriously and thoughtfully. "I've got a big bad wolf and I put him in water", "My big bad wolf got shot with hot rocks". Another said more reflectively, "The wolf got hurt because he tried to hurt the pigs".

I was able to observe a second reading community in a one-teacher school at which I taught many years ago. I had 31 children in a single classroom from Kindergarten (5 year olds) to Grade 6 (12 yr olds). When I arrived at the school I found many reluctant readers, and varied abilities across the grades. I set about flooding the classroom (school!) with books at all levels and with varied content. I was to observe how complex sub groups (or sub communities), developed as children read books and told others about them across grade levels. I also read to them and shared many books that stimulated their interests. 


A third reading community was a Kindergarten class; which in Australia is the first year of formal schooling for 5 year olds. I was part of the classroom for most of a school year as a co-teacher and researcher. During designated reading times, the students could grab a book and scurry off to one of many reading spaces: a secret cave in one corner; a castle made from cardboard boxes; an area created using the existing walls in one corner, as well as a cupboard for the other 'wall', and streamers hanging from the ceiling through which they entered; and as well, a small library surrounded by shelves filled with children's books.

What was common to each of the above three reading communities was that story was an essential part of the classroom life. Books were shared as a class, in groups and in informal settings. The children read together 'independently', in pairs or groups, and many opportunities were given for response and sharing. Each classroom in different ways demonstrated a number of similar things:

First, all were dynamic reading, writing and learning communities. 

Second, each exemplified how reading, while it can be solitary, is often shared with others, and that in the sharing, the desire to read is enriched and strengthened.

Third, they illustrated David Bloome's argument that "reading involves social relationships among people... including social groups and ways of interacting with others...".

If we want our children to experience reading in all of its forms, and to read literature that enriches their lives, extends their knowledge of the world, and helps them to grow as people, then community building must be a priority. The next time you watch a group of students sitting together with phone in hand sharing the latest video, ponder how the enthusiasm and excitement they are showing looking at phones, can be replicated in relation to books that can teach, inspire and enrich their lives.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Eight Stunning New Picture Books

I typically offer an overview of the Children's Book Council of Australia awards at this time each year, but many of the shortlisted books have been hard to source. So, instead I've reviewed some of the books shortlisted as well as others that publishers have sent me that I think are worthy of review.

1. 'The Boy and the Elephant' by Freya Blackwood

This is a story about a boy with a great imagination. He lives in a busy city where noise, hurry and bustle surrounds everyone. But there is an overgrown lot next to his apartment building, and within the forest of trees he finds a friend. 

No ordinary friend, but an elephant! He sees his elephant among and within the trees, and his 'friendship' brings him comfort and a sense of companionship. But one day the block is sold and the trees are cut down. What can he do about this? The resolution of this great disruption to his life will surprise the reader.

As usual Freya Blackwood's illustrations are wonderful and are done with pencil and oil paints on water colour paper. This superb new book is very worthy of its nomination for the Children's Book Council Australia (CBCA) picture book of the year in 2022.

Freya Blackwood has won many awards including the Kate Greenaway Medal (2009) for her book 'Harry and Hopper'. In 2015 she was awarded three CBCA Book of the Year awards in a single year; an unparalleled achievement. Her book 'The Unwilling Twin' was also shortlisted for Picture Book of the Year in the 2021 CBCA Awards. Freya lives in the beautiful NSW town of Orange (that has lots of trees!).

2. 'Frank's Red Hat' by Sean E. Avery

This is a story about a very special penguin, with a very ordinary name - Frank! But Frank was far from ordinary, he was "full of ideas"! Not all were good of course, so the day he jumped on the ice wearing a knitted red hat, the other penguins were very nervous. A sharp-eyed reader might just spot in the illustration a killer whale, way off in the distance besides an iceberg. And if they do (as well as Frank's friends), they might just hold their breath. Why would he wear a red hat in an iceflow?!

As the other penguins discussed Frank's new hat, it was Neville who suggested that red was a dangerous colour. And all the while the Killer Whale drew closer. Sadly, Neville was right! But Frank survived, unconvinced that his hat had anything to do with the oh so unlucky, Neville!! Perhaps the colour was all wrong? Or was it the style? Were his ideas just ahead of their time? You'll need to read this book to find out. Preferably do this with some children who will just love it.

Stunning illustrations and a beautifully crafted text from Shaun E. Avery. Shaun is a teacher, writer-illustrator, sculptor and designer born in South Africa but living in Perth, Western Australia. He is known to many as the writer-illustrator of the well-loved children’s picture book All Monkeys Love Bananas and his previous picture book, Happy as a Hog Out of Mud.  He is also known internationally as a sculptor who uses CDs and DVDs to create incredible works of art held in many galleries and private collections around the world.

3. 'Ella and the Useless Day' by Meg McKinlay & illustrated by Karen Blair

Ella’s house is full of useless things! Bricks and boxes and plant pots and shoes and more. So, it’s time for Ella and her dad to head to the tip with all the things that are old and broken, too big, or too small, or too something-else-altogether. But who knew? Those holey blankets are just what Mrs Esposito needs and the rusty tricycle is perfect for Mr Montgomery. Will they have anything useless left by the time they reach the tip?

This is a wonderful book from a superb team! Meg McKinlay continues to come up with beautifully crafted and original stories, that always seem to resonate with the real-life experiences of the readers for whom they have been written. What child (or parent) cannot relate to the age-old problem of too much stuff?! And the solution? We need a chuck out day. 

But some funny things happen on the way to the rubbish tip after their cleanup. What is it? You'll have to read this delightful book to find out. Along the way enjoy its wonderful text, but also for the fantastic watercolour illustrations from Karen Blair.   

"A heartwarming picture book about community, sustainability and how one neighbour’s rubbish is another’s treasure."

4. 'This is my Dad' by Dimity Powell & Nicky Johnston

Leo has a problem. When his teacher announces they are going to have a "Tell Us About Your Dad Day" Leo's heart sank. He knows that he won't have anything to say, because he has never met his Dad. He sits and worries, "how can I celebrate someone I've never met?" Maybe his Mum will have an idea. But she needs to finish her book first, so he decides to search the house for clues. Perhaps in his birthday card collection? But no! He wonders, just who is my Dad, and what is he like?

Eventually, Leo solves the problem himself. His Dad is amazing!! Dad "discovers new galaxies", "scares off spiders" and he can "throw frisbees". He concludes, "my Dad is my everything." A wonderful and heart-warming story that children will love, and those who don't know their Dad's will find helpful.

Dimity Powell says she writes for children because "she would secretly love to be one again." She has had a number of stories shortlisted and awarded, including her digital narrative, 'The Chapel of Unlove' for the Story City App, which was shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards in 2016. Other books by Dimity include 'At the End of Holyrood Lane' (EK Books, 2018), 'The Fix-It Man' (EK Books 2017) and 'Oswald Messweather'.

Nicky Johnston is an educator, speaker and author/illustrator of children’s books. Her style has been described as "whimsical, emotive, soft and expressive." Nicky loves teaching and school visits to share her journey in becoming an author and illustrator. She also loves to show children the process of creating a book using excerpts from her work. Her 16 books include , 'Grandma Forgets' (EK Books, 2017, with Paul Russell), 'Saying Goodbye to Barkley' (EK Books, 2019) and 'Upside-Down Friday' (EK Books, 2021).

5. 'One Book Was All It Took' by Wenda Shurety & illustrated by Amy Calautti

I love this quirky book! Violet is an avid reader, but the trouble is she has devoured (well read!) all the books in her house; except one! But it is propping up a leg on the dining table. She just has to grab it, but when she does lots of things are turned upside down. Just one book was "all it took", to ruin Dad's breakfast and set in play a chain reaction! Dad misses his bus, he can't find a cooking book, Violet needs more books, but where is the library?! There's no library in their town so a letter is sent to the Lord Mayor who is seeking ideas for a new council building... 

This is a delightful picture book that children aged 3-6 will love. Amy Calautti's cartoon-like line and water colour illustrations are a wonderful complement to Wenda Shurety's brilliantly simple story that is exciting and engaging. Together author and illustrator have created a wonderful book that children will want to hear and read many times.   

Wenda Shurety is a children’s author who loves to write stories from the heart about nature, diversity and the magical world of the imagination. Originally from London, she now lives in Brisbane with her husband and daughter.

6. 'Amira's Suitcase' by Vikki Conley & illustrated by Nicky Johnston

The judges who shortlisted this wonderful book for the Children's Book Council of Australia described it this way:

It begins with a tiny seed growing inside a suitcase. With Amira’s care, the tiny seed starts to sprout. Find out what happens when kindness flourishes...Amira’s Suitcase is a gentle, thought-provoking tale about friendship and hope.

This is a simple story about a little girl who plants a seed in one of many empty suitcases in her family’s new home. But as she nurtures this one seed, her friends give her more seeds and all flourish. They decide to plant them outside. The outcome is wonderful!! 

The water colour illustrations of Nicky Johnston are a wonderful contribution to this special book. They capture the children’s excitement as the plants grow. There is great pleasure in this garden. While it all started with a little girl and a single seed, it is to bring joy to a whole community.

7. 'Jetty Jumping' by Andrea Rowe & illustrated by Hannah Sommerville

While Milla’s friends take big, brave jumps off the jetty, Milla stays on the blistering wood, scared of what lurks below. But when Milla accidentally falls off the edge, she discovers the beauty of the deep, dark sea – and her summer changes forever.

'Jetty Jumping' deserves its shortlisting in the 2022 CBCA awards. This is a wonderful book.

It seems Andrea Rowe was fearful of jetties when young, and in particular the cracks between the planks that might lead to the murky depths below. But as she grows up she realizes that the water beneath and the deep sea below, is the best playground of all. Milla was eventually to jump bravely off jetties and swim near the barnacled pylons with her adventurous friends after school.

Andrea Rowe and Hannah Sommerville capture perfectly the challenges of childhood (and the joy of letting go) in this wonderful book that gives an insight into an Australian summer near the sea. Andrea is a writer who lives with her two kids and park ranger husband in a beach shack in the dunes on the Mornington Peninsula. She has a BA in Media Relations and Grad Dip in Crisis and Issues Communications and she's very good at playing scrabble.

Hannah Sommerville is a well-known illustrator who creates enchanting watercolour, gouache and digital illustrations in her studio on the South Coast of NSW. She began illustrating in 2010 after the arrival of her children. Her picture book Digby & Claude, written by Emma Allen, was selected for the CBCA 2019 Notables list.

8. 'Iceberg' by Claire Saxby & illustrated by Jess Racklyeft

An iceberg is born into spring and travels through the seasons before dying in a new spring. A stunning, lyrical story for our times, from renowned picture book creators Claire Saxby and Jess Racklyeft.

In this wonderful book, we follow the path of an iceberg (that is like a living thing) as it shadows the path of penguins trekking across the ice to winter homes. And 'surprisingly' it senses krill stirring underneath the ice. Summer is bringing new life. The iceberg comes across humpback whales and orcas as they gather. The iceberg is shrinking, but when autumn comes with cooling temperatures, the sea changes and it is trapped in the ice for the winter freeze. But of course, spring follows winter and the iceberg drifts into a bay where 'sadly' its life cycle ends. But wait... there's more. Way off in the ocean, another iceberg shears off and everything begins again.

The beautiful text and stunning images bring something new to our telling of this critical cycle of 'birth', 'life', 'death' and 'rebirth'. The book ends with an author's note explaining the effects of climate change on the Arctic and Antarctic regions, as well as a map and a glossary.

'Iceberg' has been short-listed for the 2022 CBCA Picture Book of the Year and also as a Notable Book for the Eve Pownall Award.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Helping our Students to Make Connections between Life and School

I presented a plenary address this week at the Seventh International Literary Juvenilia Conference 2022. The conference explored Juvenilia, that is, youthful writing up to the age of twenty. As part of my plenary address I explored Intertextuality research which was a key focus for me in the 1980s to 1990s. Intertextuality refers to the "relationship between texts" (Kristeva). In my book 'Pathways to Literacy' (Cassell, 1995) I describe it as "the process of interpreting one text by means of another text".

Two people inspired me to explore Intertextuality. First, my dear friend and colleague Margaret Meek from the University of London (who died just two years ago), and Prof. Jerome Harste (Indiana University) who has been a close colleague and friend for almost 40 years. Jerry invited me to come to Indiana University (Bloomington) as a Postdoctoral Fellow in 1984. My purpose was to commence postdoctoral research and writing on Intertextuality.

While at IU, I collaborated with a Grade 5 teacher at an Indianapolis School. Barbara invited me to spend time at her school and assist her as a co-teacher, with a class that at times was challenging. I want to share a story from this classroom, that I also shared at the Juvenilia Conference this week. This student's writing, was to offer me a profound insight into why the task of inspiring our children as readers and writers can be at times challenging.

On an ordinary morning, as I prepared for the school day, I heard the yellow school buses arrive at the entrance, and the rush of students down the corridor shortly just minutes later. Students burst through the door and we did the usual crowd control, as they jostled their way to their seats. Some were shouting to one another, and a few were saying “Hi Sir”. A bolshie young African American named Nora (not her real name) threw her bag onto the desk. It missed, and its contents spilled onto the floor right in front of me. I started to help her pick things up. I grabbed a wad of writing paper with numerous texts that looked like stories.


I was shocked! Norah was a disruptive student and had the ability to spend a whole day without completing any task. She was from a difficult family and lived in a trailer court. It’s no exaggeration to say, she had not produced a single piece of writing in English while I was there. I said to her, “what’s this Norah?” She replied, “Nothin Sir”. I said, “looks like writing to me”. “It’s Nothin Sir, just stuff I do at home.”


I hesitated and said, “can I read some of it?” “No Sir, you won’t like none of it. It’s just stuff.” “Looks like poetry to me”.  “No Sir, just some songs.” I said, “please let me read some.” She replied, “well, maybe just a couple.”


The first untitled ‘song’ that caught my attention was this one ‘:


Lonesome all alone

She waits by the phone

Lonesome all alone

She wants to belong

Lonesome all alone

She listens and hopes

But there is no sound

Just a lonesome hound

Lonesome all alone


Was this great poetry? For this 11 year old child, yes! At home, it seemed Norah was a writer, whereas at school she was mostly a pest, and had not completed a single piece of writing at school. She saw little relevance in her school learning, but found inspiration in writing music stimulated by her own inner hopes and dreams.

I share Norah’s story, because I believe there are many children like her in our schools, for whom the literature of great authors has not been part of their lived experience. As such, the literary seedbeds of their storytelling and writing are different to the students many of us will teach in our schools. She was inspired by popular music at home and moved to write in response to her struggles as a disadvantaged African American.

I want to suggest 4 key ingredients for motivating and engaging our students as learners:


  • First, know your students well. Who are they at home? What are their passions outside school
  • Second, discover the things in life that our students might want to share with others?
  • Third, consider what might unlock the passions and interests of our students leading them to become risk takers, willing to share the things that touch and inspire them most? 
  • Fourth, as teachers we should try to help our children to build a "cauldron of stories" as a reservoir into which they can dip as writers.

The challenge in my talk at the conference was a simple plea. Get to know our students well, and seek to plough the seeds of the love of literature, into the lives of students like Norah, and I suspect many other children within our schools. In this way, we might just be able to help children like Norah (& me when at school) to grow as readers and writers as they connect their lives with the things of school.