Stop dumbing it down – a message to authors of children’s fiction

One of the lovely roles I have is as an occasional book reviewer for ALEA and it’s a job I love. Every now and then, I get sent some books to read and the pile is very diverse in age range, topic and genre.

Sometimes, I get some absolute gems. Picture books that are well crafted with rich language and evocative illustrations, holding you on the page. Short stories which artfully build up in a limited amount of words and often leave you wanting more. Novels with great characters (and not so noble characters) which you can identify with and walk alongside.

However I have noticed, both in this role and in my general obsession of reading young people’s literature, that the diet being served up for children is not always rich and high quality. In particular, I’ve recently read quite a few shorter novels, pitched at the grade 2-6 market which are the literary equivalent of burger and fries – quick to produce, quicker to read but with no substance. Stories without quality storylines or themes. Characters who are shallow and 2 dimensional. Even worse, Australian authors who feel the need to write as if they are American, borrowing colloquialisms and stereotypes from their culture. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that books embracing American culture are bad or that I don’t enjoy them, just that I’d rather see Australian culture celebrated and reflected in books that purport to be Australian).

Most importantly, what I’m seeing is books completely bereft of the rich language of literature. For some reason, it appears that many authors feel the need to ‘dumb it down’, particularly for this age group and I don’t understand why. Picture books generally have a fantastic array of language – why, as children get older, should this disappear? I vividly remember reading all sorts of literature as a child – The Railway Children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Heidi (read to me as a 4 year old), even Les Miserables when I was in Year 7 (thanks to my older sister studying it at University). I didn’t always understand all of the words or sentiments but that was part of the mystery, challenge and, dare I say it, fun of reading. It became a problem to solve, a secret to uncover and a world to explore. It also gave me a plethora of new words to try to fit into dinner time conversation (usually incorrectly) and surprise my parents with.

So, authors, I implore you. Don’t be tempted to turn your ability to craft rich and amazing tales into a mass produced, assembly line of fast food books. Young people need to be surrounded by quality literature which lets them explore and experience their world in all its richness and diversity, from the safety of a comfortable reading spot.

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what is learning for?

I attended an event at Bastow this week titled ‘What is learning for?’ with Valerie Hannon of the UK-based Innovation unit. It was another great opportunity to have my brain stretched in different ways, with some aspects resonating and others making me question my own thoughts and beliefs.

Valerie spoke about the sort of future our learners will face – one with environmental challenges, diverse populations and change in concept about employment being amongst the issues. And how well are educational systems and society as a whole preparing learners for life in this world?

These are all things I think about a lot, particularly doing the Bastow course ‘Leading Schools in the Digital Age’. However I’ve never thought about a very large idea Valerie introduced – that the future will not just be of a different degree to change we’ve experienced in the past but of a completely different kind. This is an idea referred to in Al Gore’s ‘The Future‘ which is very much on my reading list after attending this event.

Valerie presented 4 levels of learning challenges for our educational systems and, indeed, for society:

  • planetary/global: with obvious implications around access to and management of resources as well as global citizenship
  • national/local: reinventing democracy, lifelong learning for all & sharing workplaces with robot workers
  • interpersonal: developing empathy, caring for those beyond our families, developing positive sexual identities
  • intrapersonal: responsibility for self including our health, fitness, mental wellbeing and self-knowledge

As part of our final Bastow assignment, a team from our school are considering change that we can implement in our school and I really like the framework of these 4 levels to help guide some of our thinking.

I’m sure I’ll have more blog posts to follow on this – just wanted to get out my initial thoughts before it got lost in the general fog!

leading. digitally.

I was fortunate enough today to hear Eric Sheninger, author of Digital Leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times. While I think I would have enjoyed hearing Eric at any stage in my career, coming towards the end of my Bastow ‘Leading schools in the digital age’ course, the timing is perfect. As I listened to his journey in leadership at New Milford High School, pieces I had been pondering over for a long time fell into place and questions that had been simmering were answered.

So what were my key take away messages?

If you want others to live it, live it yourself.
This seems pretty obvious but it’s something that I’ve been reminded of and how powerful and motivating it is. Particularly in leadership, what you do is so much more powerful than what you say, especially if the two don’t match. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the last few months of this course – I always try to be a positive role model to other staff (and students) but can I do more? Think differently? Am I modelling taking risks? Being innovative? My own personal and professional life is embedded in the richness that the digital world has to offer but do I model this enough for staff and students, letting them in to see the view from my window?

No excuse or barrier is insurmountable.
I’m not someone who easily gives up but the combination of Eric’s talk and the Bastow interactions have made me think differently and push the bar higher. There were things that I wasn’t thinking as barriers, just as ‘givens’ – timetables, subject boundaries – that I had to work with. I’m starting to see that, as long as your purpose is clear, the path can be creatively managed around an array of obstacles, regardless of who put them there or how long they’ve been in residence.

We have to blur the lines.
This definitely isn’t new – I’ve felt for a long time that the lines between ‘school’ and ‘other life’ were far too straight and solid. That many students, who have spent their weekends teaching themselves to weave loombands or play Minecraft via YouTube experts, turn their brains off at 9am on a Monday when school starts. If I’ve known that for a long time, what’s new? I feel like the momentum is there for change, from all directions and it’s time that we all agree that the lines have to blur. Or, preferably, disappear completely. School doesn’t have to involve students sitting in straight lines listening to an all-knowing teacher. Because learning certainly doesn’t involve that.

What is my moral purpose?

As part of the Bastow course that I’m currently doing, we were asked today to articulate our moral purpose. The reason we get out of bed and go to work each day. And, surprisingly, I actually found this really hard to do.

I say often enough that I have 3 passions in life – teaching, travelling and running – and am lucky enough that the first pays for the other two. Why do I teach? I’ve certainly done lots of other jobs and know that there are easier ways to make a living so why do I stick with this one? Having come to teaching later in life, it was definitely a conscious choice so I would have thought I would clearly know why I do it.

imageThis was my first attempt today and it’s definitely a work in progress. The word ‘connect’ is very important to me as it speaks volumes about the relationships which I believe are so crucial to learning. ‘Making a difference’ sounds so cliched and it’s not exactly what I want to say – it’s more about wanting to help learners achieve their dreams and encourage them to dream bigger. The last part – ‘all learners’ – was trying to encapsulate the fact that, while I don’t have a class of my own, I interact with a wide group of learners each day. My purpose is to build relationships with and help all of those learners develop, regardless of whether they are staff or student.

So, as I said, it’s a work in progress. However I think this is something I really need to be able to articulate and have as my mantra so it is worth the work. Any thoughts to help me on my way?

Still here

I have been a very sporadic blog author, particularly during the last 12 months. At least, I’ve been sporadic on this blog. My running blog has been coming along very well, if you’re interested 🙂

I started this blog to be a reflective space as well as an area for discussion and debate and it has variously been both of those. Initially, while teaching ICT, it helped me get out into the virtual world and mingle although took a backseat to the sheer volume of work required when I came out of the classroom and into my Leading Teacher role. This year is no different. While I’m still very passionate about both Literacy and 21st Century Learning, I’m also a little shell shocked at the moment with the general ‘aaaargh’ that hits at the start of the year. Perhaps when I feel more on top of things, I’ll blog more? At least that’s a positive way of looking at it – I believe there will come a point when I do actually feel more on top of things.

Also, having just been accepted into the Bastow ‘Leading schools in a digital age’ course, I’m hoping that will be the thing to kick me back to blogging/sharing/participating in the online ed. tech world which I have enjoyed and gained so much from in the past. Here’s to new adventures!

Screen it

I’ll admit, initially I did it for selfish reasons.

I started a movie club at school during lunchtimes last year for students from Prep to Grade 6. I wanted them to have opportunities to develop skills, explore their creativity and build qualities such as resilience and persistence. But mostly, I found it hard to completely let go of my previous ICT teaching role and I wanted to have an excuse to continue to tinker with technology teaching.

The premise of movie club was for students to create movies to enter in the ACMI Screen It competition and I had assumed it would ignite interest in some of our Grade 3 – 6 students. What I wasn’t expecting was the response from our Prep to Grade 2 students who were really keen, full of ideas and very motivated to create movies. To start with, we played with stop motion animation and green screens, getting to grips with the benefits and limitations of each. Then it was time for the serious business.

Over the course of 3 terms last year, a small but determined group of Grade 1-2 students storyboarded, scripted then acted and, after all that effort, produced 2mins 44secs of brilliance. It’s not quite Oscar material but I’m really proud of what they produced. More importantly, I’m in awe of their persistence in pushing me to turn up every lunchtime as the competition deadline got closer. And of their organisation in ensuring that costumes & sets were completed and at school on the right day, without any intervention from me.

Most importantly, it changed my thinking about what students are capable of producing at all ages and stages of learning. Never again will I doubt that younger students are just as able to produce high quality and innovative work as older students.

When has your thinking been challenged about what students are capable of?

Digital dandelions: Exploring and interacting with diverse digital texts in primary classrooms

I’m presenting today at the ALEA conference in Brisbane on the topic of using digital texts in primary classrooms. If you’re interested, here is the Prezi and supporting notes that go along with the presentation. A proper blog post will definitely follow 🙂

Prezi

 

List of digital texts that could be used in primary classrooms