Monday, February 23, 2015

8 Wonderful New Books with the Theme of War

The theme of 'war' is a very common one whether in adult books or those for children and young adults. Typically, these books focus on the impact of war on children's lives and families. As many nations around the world remember various key centenary dates relating to World War I there seem to be many new and varied books addressing this theme for children. What I like about the collection of books that have come across my desk in recent months is the complexity of the stories that a told and the effort to apply new lenses to an old theme. I have reviewed them below in appropriate age order. The novels are particularly rich and challenging.

1. 'Anzac Ted' by Belinda Landsberry (Exisle Publishing)

'Anzac Ted's a scary bear
and I can tell you why.
He's missing bits, his tummy splits,
he only has one eye'

That's how this beautifully illustrated book begins. A battered old teddy, that never wins a prize in the best toy competitions at school and frightens all the kids. But this bear has a secret. No one 'knows my Anzac's woes or just how brave he is.' Like the narrator's Grandpa, Anzac Ted is very old (100 this year in fact) and he made it through two wars as a mascot.

This is a lovely picture book for children aged 4-6 years that will allow very young children to access just as little of the Anzac legend.

2. 'One Minute's Silence' by David Metzenthen & illustrated by Michael Camilleri (Allen & Unwin)

This non-fiction, it is a moving and powerful story about the meaning of Remembrance Day drawing on the ANZAC and Turkish battle at Gallipoli. It is based on true events, but is written in a way that encourages the reader to imagine sprinting up the beach in Gallipoli in 1915 with the fierce fighting Diggers. The reader is also encouraged to imagine standing beside the brave battling Turks as they defended their homeland from the cliffs above.

In the silence that follows a war long gone, the hope is that you might see what the soldiers saw, and feel a little of what the soldiers felt. And if you try, you might just be able to imagine the enemy, and see that he was not so different from 'his' enemy. The purpose is to challenge us to imagine, remember and honour soldiers on both sides of the conflict. All are heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives for their countries.

This is a very moving and powerful reflection on the meaning of Remembrance Day, which is brought to life by Michael Camilleri's incredible pencil drawings. Each double page spread is wonderful. One of my favourites is one that depicts the engineering, physics and impact of a bullet. I found this to be quite dramatic and challenging.

Readers aged 7-10 will enjoy this book.

3. 'The Afghanistan Pup' by Mark Wilson (Lothian Children's Books)

'The Afghanistan Pup' is book 4 in the Children in War Quartet by fabulous author and illustrator Mark Wilson. It is the story of an abandoned pup, a young girl in Afghanistan who just wants to go to school, and an Australian Soldier. It is a story of unexpected friendship, sacrifice, and finding hope in the strangest places.

The puppy is found abandoned by a little girl, Kinah. The backdrop and setting is the war in Afghanistan. When Kinah's school is bombed the dog is alone again until an Australian soldier rescues it. You'll need to read the book to find out how these stories are woven together.

Mark Wilson uses his wonderful art and well-chosen words to tell a great story with power. His illustrative work includes newspaper clippings, and varied beautiful images that are stunning. This is a special book that children aged 7-10 will enjoy.

4. 'War Brothers: The Graphic Novel' by Sharon E. McKay and illustrated by Daniel Lafrance (Walker)

This graphic novel has been adapted from the book 'War Brothers' written by Sharon McKay and published by Puffin in Canada in 2008. In its earlier form as a novel, it won the Arthur Ellis award for Juvenile fiction. This is a different kind of war. It is an evil war in the name of religion. It is not faith that drives these rebels; it is ideology and a quest for power. This is a fictional story based on real interviews in Uganda. While the graphic novel tells of unimaginable cruelty and violence, it is also a message of hope, courage, family and friendship. This is a war where rebels steal boys and girls from farms in Uganda driven by a militant named Joseph Kony who has terrorised parts of central Africa for almost 20 years. Young boys are forced to kill or be killed, and girls serve as slaves and 'wives'.

While the book is in a form that readers as young as 10-12 could read, its content is confronting means that for me, it is a piece of adolescent fiction. The illustrations are very effective. The darkly washed watercolours seem appropriate for an equally dark tale. It is a difficult story to read, but it offers an important caution against the excesses of ideology and religious extremism, and the failure of governments and nations to act quickly in the face of this type of evil. Suitable for readers 12+.

5. 'Emilio' by Sophie Masson (Allen & Unwin)

This is the fourth book in the popular 'Through My Eyes' series of adolescent fiction. It is a moving novel about one child's life in the middle of the drug war in Mexico. This of course is a different kind of war. Not a war fought over territory in the traditional sense but one that centres on control of places and the trafficking of drugs.

The central character, Emilio Garcia Lopez, starts out on an ordinary school day. That evening a knock on the door changes everything. The arrival of his police-officer cousin Juanita, flanked by a tall man in the uniform of the Federal Police, turns his normal day into the beginning of a long nightmare. Unidentified criminals, who appear to know a great deal about her and have mistaken her for a wealthy businesswoman, have kidnapped Emilio's mother in broad daylight from a hotel carpark. This is a dark novel that is engaging and challenging. Suitable for mature readers aged 13+.

6. 'Zafir' by Prue Mason (Allen & Unwin)

This is the sixth book in the 'Through My Eyes' series from Allen & Unwin that once again challenges adolescent readers to consider the struggles of people living in contemporary conflict zones. Zafir moves from Dubai to a comfortable life in Homs, Syria, where things are different. One day when he sees a body thrown from a moving car and no-one stops, he knows that things have changed in this country. He hears his parents arguing over the future of the nation and one day his father, a doctor, is arrested for helping a protester who was campaigning for revolution. His mother heads to Damascus to try to find out where his father is being held, Zafir stays with his grandmother - until her house is bombed.

With his father in prison, his mother absent, his grandmother ill and not a friend left in the city, Zafir must stay with his Uncle Ghazi. But that too becomes dangerous as the city becomes more and more besieged. This challenging book about a boy trapped in the middle of a civil war in Syria, draws the reader in as we contemplate with Zafir the possibility that he might not survive long enough to be reunited with his parents. This is an excellent end to a wonderful series of books. Suitable for readers aged 12+.

7. 'To Brave the Seas: A Boy at War' by David McRobbie (Allen & Unwin)

This is another gripping tale from one of my favourite authors of historical fiction.  It is the story of a teenager who ends up as a deck boy on navy ships, learning the ropes, fitting in with the crew, and facing wartime action in World War II.

The boys had been trained for emergencies. They had to know how to launch a lifeboat and to know where the life jackets were stored. But they were hardly prepared for the horrors before them. What an exploding torpedo do? And how will the ship and its crew behave when it sinks under you. No-one was able to prepare them for the blackness of night, or the horror of battle.

It is 1940, war rages and there is nothing to keep Adam Chisholm aged 15 years at home. So he joins Britain's Merchant Navy. His first ship takes him on a stormy Atlantic convoy where he faces seasickness, submarines, and shipwreck. In his remarkable sea journeys, Adam meets enemies face to face, and makes friends—some for a lifetime. The book includes a seven-page glossary of nautical terms and features WWII memorabilia throughout.

This is a very readable book that will keep readers aged 12+ engaged. It is beautifully written as with all of McRobbie's books.  It tells the story of war time battles that shows how men of honour and courage experience war. The book describes life at sea with great detail. This feature of McRobbie's books invites the reader to 'become' part of the action and adventure. A great read.

8. 'Hope in a Ballet Show: Orphaned By War, Saved by Ballet' by Michaela & Elaine DePrince (Faber & Faber)

This is the true story of a young girl who grows up in war-torn Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince.  She witnesses atrocities that no child ever should. Rebels kill her father and her mother dies of famine. She is then sent to an orphanage, is mistreated and witnesses the brutal murder of her favourite teacher. But her life takes a turn for the better when after raising five children of her own Elaine DePrince travels to Sierra Leone to adopt an orphan living in a difficult place.

For Michaela her dream of being a ballet dancer was implanted in her when one day a wind blew a magazine through the orphanage that she was living in. Michaela picks it up and sees a beautiful image of a young woman dancing. She thinks to herself, one day I want to be that happy. And so a dream is born.
Elaine DePrince and her husband adopt Michaela and her best friend and Michaela is able to take dance lessons for the first time. But her life in the USA isn't without its problems. The world of ballet that she finds is a racist one, and Michaela has to fight for a place amongst the ballet elite, hearing the words "America's not ready for a black girl ballerina".

Today, Michaela is an international ballet star, dancing for The Dutch National Ballet at the age of 19. This is a heart-breaking and yet inspiring autobiography by a teenager who shows us, that there is always hope where there is a dream, and the means and love to support you as you search for it.

Other relevant links

The Power and Place of Historical Narrative (HERE)
Historical fiction (HERE)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Making Homework More Relevant and Useful for Learning

The vexed question 'Is homework useful?' is never far from conversations between parents about school, or between teachers when discussing parents. Like every teacher I have felt the pressure of parents wanting their children to do more homework. In spite of this I have never been a fan of most of the homework I see in the primary years of schooling (age 5 to 12 years). Yes, homework does have a place, but not the exalted place that many parents want to give it.

Why you might ask? 

1. Because the vast majority of homework is banal and features drill of things that contribute little to the areas in which we want children to learn. Memorising spelling lists is a case in point (see my previous post HERE) with little contribution being made to the ability to write well.

2. Because school homework is often a substitute for things that are more critical to children's development. For example, play (posts HERE), discovery learning and problem solving (posts HERE), creative expression in varied forms and (dare I say it, rest at day's end), conversation with adults and other children.

3. Because it allows society at large to fill the school day with other things that parents have failed to teach their children and simply shift curriculum work to the category of homework, which has to be packaged in bundles that children can complete largely undirected (see #1).

4. Because it reinforces narrow definitions of learning, curriculum and assessment. Homework ends up being a type of test of that which should be learned at school, and this in the name of practice.

In short, school becomes squeezed by the imperative to test children's learning for public assessment (see related posts HERE), and the hours after school end up being used for largely non-directed and repetitive tasks that help children to pass tests delivered at school.

Is there an alternative? Yes!

Step 1 - Ensure that any after school time whether at home with a parent or carer or in after school care is spent well. Set high standards.

Step 2 - Control access to the things that distract children from rich learning and exploration. I'm thinking of course about 'screen' time (limit daily screen time), computers, gaming and television. But you may need to limit other things (that have merit and are useful) and become obsessive and shut out other options for learning.

Above: Screen time needs to be controlled, but it can also be a key tool for learning

Step 3 - Apply some simple tests for any after school 'homework'. Does it develop new knowledge and skills? Does it expand repertoires for learning - discovery, imaginative recreation, dialogue, observation etc? Is it enjoyable and challenging?

Step 4 - Make sure that you know what your children are doing, that you monitor it, and that you show genuine interest in what they are doing. 

What might post school time look like?

Hopefully time after school will have a level of planning (kids you need to do X, Y, & Z). Make sure that set agendas like sporting practice, music etc don't shut out everything else.

Start with down time - let them rest, talk to other people about their day, feed them, let them have some time to choose what they do (within predetermined limits).

Incorporate varied activities - some time outside to run around in an unstructured self-directed way; a time for exploration and discovery (this can include reading, viewing, hands on activities like craft drawing, construction etc); a time for school directed homework (I'd limit this in the primary years to no more than five times their age, i.e. thirty minutes aged 6, fifty minutes aged 10 etc); self-directed reading (e.g. HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE); family down time to chat and hang out.

Above: A different type of 'homework'

I understand that the complexity and varied nature of family life will always make after school time 'messy'. But we need to ask ourselves, how messy is it? What negative impact is the messiness having on family life and learning? What can I do to change things?

One thing I am certain of, the solution to the messiness isn't simply to ask schools to set more banal tasks, disconnected from 'real' learning which we police with minimal supervision.

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Other posts

Other posts that address creativity, imagination and play (HERE)

Other posts that address homework alternatives (HERE)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Oral & Repeated Reading is Important and Can be Fun

1. Oral reading is important. Why? 
  • It's an important skill for life
  • It helps teachers and parents to observe and make 'visible' children's reading processes
  • It helps to develop reading fluency and support vocabulary development
  • It can help us to assess reading progress and diagnose difficulties
I've written about oral reading before covering a variety of topics, including:

How to listen to children reading (HERE & HERE),
The importance of reading to and with children (HERE), and
Readers' Theatre (HERE).

Teachers have known for a long time that oral reading can be a valuable instructional method, but sadly, for many children reading around the group (or worse still the class) kills interest and motivation. But we know from research that 'repeated readings' can improve fluency and ability (e.g. Stoddart & others 1993, Rasinski 1990, Rasinski & Hoffman 2003). So how can we move beyond 'round robin' reading and embrace more creative and enjoyable approaches to oral reading?

In this post I want to offer some suggestions for how teachers and parents can make oral reading more effective, as well as enjoyable and even fun!

2. Making it fun and enjoyable

Above: Bec reads to her day-old sister
How can we make repeated or oral reading fun? Here are some key elements to help achieve this.

1. Choose appropriate material for your children - use graded material at varied levels; favourite passages from books the class has heard or read (e.g. Roald Dahl or Dr Seuss books work); jokes & riddles; poetry or songs that they know; speeches and famous quotes.
2. Ensure that students are reading at their appropriate level.
3. Use varied strategies and avoid simply reading around the group.

3. Some alternative strategies

Most of the ideas that follow can be found in a great article by Mary Ann Cahill and Anne E. Gregory published in 'The Reading Teacher' a couple of years ago. Here is their description of oral reading in a US 2nd grade classroom they had worked in:

'One pair is rolling dice and using different voices to read; a small group is reading to small, plastic animals on their desks; three students are wearing masks while reading; and another pair is using little, red-beamed flashlights to shine on each word as they read.'
What are some simple novel ways to help children remain motivated and enjoy oral reading?

Above: Evie reads to her pet cat
1. Read to prepare for performance - By this I mean, putting exciting material in children's hands, letting them practice and then asking them to share it with a group or the class (e.g. read a favourite section from a book, read a song, silly poem etc).
2. Try Readers' Theatre - I've written about this before (HERE). Obtain some free scripts and let your children have fun reading together in small groups to present the scripts to others.
3. Read to someone or something - This might seem strange, but some teachers get their children to read not to other people but to other 'things'. A number of classes in the UK and the US have had children read regularly to a school dog (read more HERE) with great success and benefits. Some creative teachers have had their children read to plastic dinosaurs (!), a favourite doll etc.
4. Some turn it into a game such as 'Reading Dice' - This involves getting children to discuss the different voices a character could have for a reading extract; they then write 6 of them on the board and giving them the numbers 1-6. They then have children work in pairs or groups to take turns, roll the dice and use the voice that matches the number.
5. Newsreader or media presenter - Teachers have a microphone (it can be a fake one) and ask children in pairs to conduct an interview for an appropriate extract.
6. Reading Masks - the children practice reading passages using the voice and persona of the mask they are wearing (these can be animals, super heroes etc).
7. Use songs for reading - The use of songs has the added advantage that the rhythm, sound repetition, melody etc can be used to support reading (see my recent post on this topic HERE)

Summing up

Oral reading is a valuable instructional tool and has been neglected of late. It has also been misused for many years with the effect that some children have found it less than rewarding. But it can and should be enjoyable and fun. I'd love to hear of your own experiences with oral reading. Do you have any great ideas? Post a comment. 

A useful reference

Mary Ann Cahill & Anne E. Gregory (2011). Putting the fun back into fluency instruction, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp 127-131.