All posts for the month February, 2012

Pride, Prejudice and Perseverance

Published February 19, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

I am currently reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I am finding it really hard going.  When I downloaded it a couple of weeks ago I was sure the biggest challenge would be wrestling with the eReader, but I really am struggling with the language, and it’s making me appreciate how hard persevering is for our emerging readers.  I know the story – having read it as a set text in my Advanced English class in high school, but even then I found it quite hard to access.  I remember my classmates being really excited when the teacher announced that we’d be studying it.  For some reason it had never been mentioned in my household.  I come from an Anglo, university educated, literature loving family and if we’d studied Tolkien or Steinbeck that year I’m sure I would have had an easier time of it.

My just turned 4-year-old daughter thinks she’s a big Harry Potter fan, though I’d like to point out she has never seen any of the movies.  She’s seen the ads, looked at the covers of books and listened when myself and the older cousins discuss which spell we’d choose if we only got one, and I can just imagine how she’ll react when she’s finally allowed to read the books and watch the movies herself.  In a sense she is already immersed in the world of Harry Potter and if she’s ever lucky enough to read it as a set text I’m sure she’ll be able to consider it on many levels.

But consider the child who has never heard of the text you’re exploring.  Consider the child who has not grown up in a world where magic and dragons are taken for granted, for whom hours of repetitive drill and practise style studying is the norm rather than imaginative play in green cloaks.  For these children it can seem quite odd to read a book for “pleasure”.  They can be so interested in getting the answer right, as I was age 17 (not sarcastic, I was actually a TOTAL nerd), that it can take all the enjoyment out of the activity.  Which is a real shame because now and then I understand enough of  the language to think Jane Austin was writing for our pleasure.

I am torn between thinking maybe I was just not mature enough to understand the themes when I first read Austin, but then I think how wonderful it would have been for me to connect with Eliza Bennet all those years ago.  I can really relate to Merike Hardy’s comment that it must have been groundbreaking in its day.  And even now I can relate to Mrs Bennet and her concern for her daughters at the prospect of being left homeless and penniless unless well-wed.

So what can we do to make our set texts more accessible?

  1. Remember that our students do come from a culture, even if it’s different to our own.  Listen and learn from them, and hope to show a connection between a universal theme of the text and something that is relevant to them.
  2. Present the story in various ways.  Romeo and Juliet for example has an excellent soundtrack in the form of the Baz Luhrmann film.  Have the students listen to songs which relate to the scenes in the story and discuss the emotions.
  3. Before reading, pose certain questions in everyday language.  How would your mum feel if she had 5 daughters, no money and the only hope for their future was to marry a man with money?    How would you feel if everyone in your family expect you to take up the same career as they did, but you really wanted to try something completely different? I think the girls of today would pretty much feel the same way as Lizzie.
  4. Let children read a summary, or watch the film before reading.  Lots of teachers think this is spoiling it, but this is not so.  Let’s take the example of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings again.  Many of us do not realise how exposed we already were the story before we ever picked up the book and read it for ourselves.  To even up the playing field it is only sensible to allow all the children to get a sense of what makes the story great before digging in and analysing it deeply.
  5. Use Fan-Fiction or fan made videos on You-Tube.  I recently went to see One Man Lord of The Rings.  The great thing about fan-created work is that they are all about interpretation, they are often more accessible and can be a lot of fun.



Put the Wow into Writing with Artifact Boxes

Published February 14, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

Artifact Boxes are a great interactive strategy that you can use to engage your students. Basically you collect a whole lot of artifacts that are related to a particular book, and put them in a box. Simple, right. This takes quite while and I’ve just started my collection so it’s not nearly as impressive as some I’ve seen. Perhaps TL or teacher networks could get together and share their collections to ease the burden of collecting and storing them.

Bring out the artifacts and let the kids have a play with them when you are introducing a new book. Let them have a think about how the artifacts will pop up in the story – just like you predict from the cover.

You can do writing activities in which students must justify which artifact is the most important in the story, or for the younger kids even describe one and the rest of the class has to guess which object/artifact they’re talking about.

It’s also fun to get together a totally random set of artifacts and have the kids create their own stories based on all or a few of the things in the box.

Here are a couple of sets I have started. See if you can guess which book each are from before you mouse over the picture. All are already mentioned on this blog.

Boys’ Literacy

Published February 13, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

From time to time I have been asked to explain “boys’ literacy”, and how it differs from “girls’ literacy”. I prefer not to talk in black and whites, there are a lot of blurred edges even in an apparently simple categorisation such as male or female.  However there is a significant amount of research on the topic of “boys’ literacy” (disproportionate to the research into helping girls succeed in maths) and there are several strategies which have been identified as particularly successful.

Choices and Contracts:

By providing boys (or the whole class) with a contract and allowing the students themselves to select which activities they choose we are providing choices.  This gives the students responsibility for their own learning, empowers them and can appeal to the mathematically inclined if they have to choose activities up to a given total points value.  See “The Silent One” lesson notes for an example.  It can also be useful to use Bloom’s Taxonomy or HOT Skills as the basis of the contract, with the less complex tasks having a lower point score.

Speaking and Listening (ie Drama)

Research suggests that boys tend to be stronger in the kinesthetic disciplines and need support to develop language skills.  Drama games and activities have been shown to increase participation, engagement and promote linguistic expression.  See the drama games I recently posted under the lesson notes/plans tab for some simple but effective ideas to springboard creativity.  I have also posted a whole creative writing unit which I have found to be very successful with boys.  It incorporates drama, maths and art into the planning stages.

Set Homework/assignments to be due at the start of the week:

Apparently, boys leave things to the last minute.  If homework is set on Monday and due on Friday the boys will leave everything till Thursday night after footy training.  If they have the whole weekend they should be able to do it during the afternoon.  Not sure how accurate this theory is when there are always so many sporting activities and social engagements on the weekend but it makes sense to give the kids 7 days to complete the work, rather than 4 evenings.

Choosing male orientated texts:

I recall a conversation with one of my colleagues from when I worked at Bourke High School in Far West NSW.  He was so impressed with his year 10 class who were responding so well to The Hobbit, when they had been so dismissive of all his previous attempts to engage them with texts.  He just wondered why the girls (who had previously been much more cooperative) had suddenly turned off.  My friend is a brilliant English teacher due largely to his infectious passion for the topic, but he was shocked when I suggested that his beloved Hobbit was “a bit of a boy-book”.  There is much to be said for choosing books in which your students can relate to the characters.  My favourite boy books are the Ranger’s Apprentice Series and the ever expanding collection by Oliver Phommavahn (ie Thai-Riffic and ConNerd).

Read with your children:

By far and away my favourite piece of advice.  Make out like reading is an enjoyable pastime.  In the example I gave above you will notice that The Hobbit was a favourite book of that teacher.  I am sure his boys responded equally well to their teacher’s enthusiasm as they did to JRR Tolkien’s word magic. The quote below is about parents, but is equally relevant to the secondary care givers, and let’s face it, not all parents are confident readers themselves.

Boys and Literacy K-6

Downloaded 8.9.10

“Successful school literacy programs also include parental involvement. Schools can work with parents and carers to show the benefits of parents modelling an interest in reading and writing to their children. Parents involved in classroom reading activities model that they value reading. Boys and girls do not often realise the amount of literacy involved in various jobs and careers. By discussion about the literacy needs of various occupations, parents can increase students’ interest in literacy as they see the real life relevance of literacy skills.

Where schools and parents work together from a common understanding about the gender issues involved in literacy, they can develop programs which are appropriate to the needs of all their students.”

Simple Drama Activities.

Published February 10, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

Creativity: Drama activities

These simple Drama activities are fantastic for engaging students and promoting creativity. They require few or no props at all and can be done in your classroom. To learn more about how incredibly important it is to promote creativity check out The Arts and Australian Education:  Realising Potential by Robin Ewing.  Fascinating stuff.  I hope the policy makers take note, the kids already understand this.  Enjoy and create!

Aboriginality in Children’s Literature

Published February 8, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

There are a growing number of excellent children’s texts which celebrate Australia’s proud Indigenous heritage, and it’s great to see that they are being duly recognised in mainstream, as well as Indigenous, literary and educational circles. However, as someone who grew up surrounded by Aboriginal families and having taught in Aboriginal communities I have always been disturbed by the lack of texts in which Aboriginality is as simply one (yes, important) aspect of the character’s identity. This is the one thing that UK children’s literature has over that which we produce here – ethnicity is not the be all and end all of identity.

We have the Dreaming stories, full of bright coloured birds, the wonderful adaptations of songs such as From Little Things Big Things Grow (read/sung weekly in our home at bed time) and those that make up the Magabala Books catalogue. There are also books such as Matt Ottley’s compelling Requiem for a Beast and these are all great in their own way, for their own purpose.

These are the kind of books that we teachers pull out when we are “Doing” Aboriginal stories, or when we want to “include Aboriginal perspectives”, or “engage Aboriginal children”. Personally, I think there is a loooooooong way to go before the majority of teachers even understand Aboriginal “perspectives” in any greater depth than using the pointy end of the paintbrush, but that’s a whole ‘nuther issue.

What I’m longing for, in addition to those mentioned above, are books in which the Indigenous characters are not only there to “speak for Aboriginal Australia” or to educate us on “Aboriginal customs.”

I can remember watching one of our beloved Aussie soaps in the late nineties in which an Aboriginal teacher was employed at the local school. Great, I thought, until I actually started watching the show and realised that the character was there to give us a good lecture about prejudice and racism. I think he lasted about a week and as soon as he had taught all the kids about the “Blue Eyes” experiment he was mysteriously gone. I know it’s probably better than never having had an Indigenous actor/character, but not by much.

Let’s put this another way. I am a female, and proudly so. I like reading books in which there are female characters, but how boring would it be to read a whole book about shaving legs and putting on makeup – both of which are part of female life, no denying it. Books for girls and about girls need to show the characters as real and multifaceted, as do books for and about Indigenous Australians.

There is too much us-ing and them-ing when it comes to Aboriginality in my experience. When the stories and what-nots are trying to teach us a lesson and moralising at us we turn off, we all do. Leave the moral tales to the Ancient Greeks.

The only mainstream children’s author I’ve read who did not make the character’s Aboriginality the entire basis of their identity is Melaina Faranda. Melaina is such a gifted storyteller that she weaves this fact about their heritage into the tale with barely a flicker. It is beautiful and I thank her, and her publishers for doing it this way.

At the end of last year Dr Anita Heiss sent me Twugia Dreaming, an anthology written by gifted and talented Year 7 students in the South Western Sydney Region, and when I say talented I mean just that. The writings are at times moving and always well-constructed, but more than that – they are an insight into what Rachel McKay (Consultant Aboriginal Education, Gifted and Talented) describes as “one of Australia’s most precious resources: our Aboriginal children.”

But I’d like to read sections of this book to the kids I work with now in the leafy suburbs of the Northern Sydney district. How surprised they’d be by the list of books reviewed in Twugia Dreaming, ie Harry Potter, Eclipse and Deltora Quest. I’m sure the Twugia kids are super proud of their Aboriginality, but not one of them reviewed Making Johnny Cakes.

Maybe the kids, our future leaders and voters, would be more inclined to stand up for real changes, like amending the Constitution, to improving the literacy standards and the life expectancy of our first peoples, if they thought of themselves as part of a whole community, not on opposite sides of the fence. There is a significant purpose served by the raft of “Indigenous perspectives” materials currently available but it is unity, not understanding alone that can make a difference.

Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up in a united community such as I did, but through our children’s literature we can aim high and set the standard for the future of our country.

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