Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Building Resilience’ Category

Book Review: “The Elephant” by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2017)

The ElephantOlive’s Dad is sad.  In fact, she can’t remember a time when he wasn’t this way, carrying a sadness that is so great that Olive can only imagine it as a heavy grey elephant.  With the assistance of her best friend Arthur and her grandfather, Olive is determined to chase away her father’s elephant and bring joy and light into all their lives.

Told in sparse, aching prose, The Elephant while primarily targeted at younger children, will speak to a broad audience on universal themes focusing on grief, loss and the heavy cloud that is depression.   Younger, more capable readers will appreciate the accessible language that is pleasantly interspersed with appealing images.  While the subject matter of this story is inherently dark the overwhelming message is one of hope.  That said, this is a story best used selectively (and cautiously) in the classroom with it best placed as a text for sharing in small intimate groups.

In many ways The Elephant needs to come with a warning. I’m talking of the kind of warning that alerts poor, unsuspecting parents to a need for Kleenex and the strong likelihood that you will fall apart at some point while reading this book to your child.  I don’t say this to be a negative Nancy.  In fact, it serves to highlight the success of what Peter Carnavas has achieved in this deceptively simple and captivating story.  The Elephant is a timeless and memorable tale that will deeply move and delight readers of all ages.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Too Many Friends” by Kathryn Apel, University of Queensland Press (2017)

Too Many Friends Cover

Quite a few years ago, a close friend of mine recounted what she had learned that day in her university tutorial. As a pre-service Early Childhood educator, they had been learning about the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of children.  “You must remember what it is like to hug trees again,” her lecturer had told her, “smell dirt, taste bark”.  It was an idea that has remained with me since.  The idea that, as teachers we must always be attuned to the way that children perceive things.  In essence, get down to their level and attempt to experience the world through their eyes.   Kathryn Apel’s verse novel Too Many Friends reminded me of this, or, more precisely she allowed me to recall the challenges I experienced navigating the complexity of childhood friendships.

Tahnee has lots of friends.  She is one of these precious souls who, naturally inclusive by nature, appreciates the giftedness of those around her, valuing them for their talents while forgiving them where they fall short.  It is a demeanour that, while ensuring that she has a constant stream of playmates, often leads to heartache and complications in the schoolyard.  You see, when Tahnee reaches out to Lucy, the new (and rather shy and withdrawn) girl, she is drawn into a direct conflict with close friend Roxie, who, feels displaced by what she perceives as rejection.

Written in simple verse Apel draws her readers into the world of the playground.   It is a place where small things matter, where harsh words are often spoken and hearts are broken.  Too Many Friends captures the purity of our first friendships that are, so often, tarnished with bullying.   With strong thematic appeal for readers in the lower to middle years of primary school, the story will be enjoyed by confident readers independently.  Similarly, the story will certainly be embraced by teachers for group sharing, ticking many boxes and encouraging discussion in the area of resilience education and bullying prevention.

Tanya Grech Welden

Riding the Crest of Change: Why my Son Needs to Start High School in Year 7

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Tanya Grech Welden is a mother of three, writer and secondary English teacher.  Her career has taken her to Liverpool (UK), Port Augusta and back to her home town of Adelaide where she has taught in primary, tertiary and secondary schools.  She is a passionate advocate for literacy and likes to dabble in business marketing and fiction writing for adolescents. 

As a teacher and a mother it is well known that I have some fairly strong opinions about the decision of CESA to implement the integration of year 7 into secondary settings.  The State Minister for Education, Susan Close insists that “there is no evidence that where a 12 year old is educated makes much difference, if any difference at all.”  Clearly the current government is choosing to ignore the continual slide in academic performance of students in this state as reflected in NAPLAN.  Some would think that this is evidence enough.  Now while I personally don’t place too much faith in NAPLAN, if you speak to many teachers (both primary and secondary), they will identify a growing concern about the ability of primary teachers to deliver a curriculum that meets the social, academic and emotional needs of early adolescents.  It also follows that, the phasing in of the National Curriculum has exacerbated the effect of this tenfold and was probably the final straw for Catholic Education who then decided to throw caution to the wind and make the transition (with or without the support of the State government).

It makes sense then that many parents are asking what is the difference between educating a year 7 (or 12 year old) in primary school or high school?  Is there even a difference in what can be offered in these settings?  The simple answer is yes, there is a difference and that difference is massive.  In order understand this one must first appreciate the ways in which primary and secondary teachers are trained.  Primary teachers, while being experts in pedagogy, are trained as generalist teachers.  In other words, most primary teachers teach across all learning areas, from Numeracy to Literacy and everything in between.  The mind boggles as to the diversity of content that they manage and as such they are experts in the art of integration.  Secondary teachers on the other hand are specialists.  That is to say that they will most often have an undergraduate degree with a major in one or two learning areas (Maths & Science or English & Humanities) along with an additional qualification in the field of education.  These differences while having an impact on the amount of knowledge teachers bring to the classroom, also alters the way in which specific subjects are approached.

Currently too many students in South Australia are commencing high school with large gaps in learning.

For South Australian students in year 7 this suddenly became increasing significant with the phasing in of the National Curriculum a few years ago.  Prior to this South Australian schools existed happily within their own little ‘bubbles’.  While we knew that our interstate counterparts commenced high school at year 7 (aside from some erratic grumbling about the challenge for the occasional student moving between states), we didn’t really think too much about what other states were doing.  The National Curriculum landed in teachers’ ‘pigeon-holes’ along with the assumption that the year 7 curriculum would be taught in a secondary context by a specialist teacher.  For primary teachers of year 7 this presented two main challenges.  Firstly, how they might go about teaching a subject effectively without the resourcing and facilities normally available to students in high schools.  Secondly, these same teachers had to deal with the reality that the curriculum assumed they had an undergraduate degree (and understanding of) every subject area.  The latter, remembering that our primary teachers are generalist teachers, was frankly unreasonable and requires nothing short of superhuman abilities.  Secondary teachers, particularly those in the middle years, bear the brunt of the inevitable failure of this when they inherit these students in year 8.  Currently too many students in South Australia are commencing high school with large gaps in learning.  While some of this missed content can be pushed aside, the skills and fundamentals must be mastered before teachers can move on with more sophisticated concepts.  This inevitably leads to time spent in ‘catch up’ with gaps continuing to appear well into high school.  These gaps might be what we are starting to see in our NAPLAN results.

Of course, even understanding the curriculum side of things parents will still ask, “How will my child cope with the demands of high school as a 12 year old?”  As a mother of three I understand these concerns.  After all, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the social and emotional well-being of our children.  While each child is unique, and individual experiences will vary, most 12 year-olds will cope well with the demands of secondary school.  It is important to remember that the rest of Australia has been doing this for a long time as have our counterparts in the United Kingdom and in other places across the globe.  In fact, in many schools across this state students from R-12 already share campuses and in these situations students not only survive but thrive.  Furthermore, there is a strong argument to suggest that the social and emotional needs of 12 year-olds are more akin to 14, 16 and 18 year-olds than 5 or 8 year-olds.  I witnessed this level of mismatched needs first-hand while working as an Assistant Principal of a Catholic primary school in Adelaide’s east.  Here I observed the daily struggles of primary principals as they tried to make sense of the ‘teenage’ behaviours exhibited by students in their schools.  Make no mistake, year 7’s were as ill fitted to this context as I was (A high school teacher trying to lead 5 year-olds in Godly play).

While the move of our year 7’s to high school comes with some degree of apprehension, it is no doubt the preferable option for enhancing the educational outcomes of students in this state.  In light of the reality that, for the time being, year 7’s will continue to be funded as primary students, one can only applaud Catholic Education SA for their move which, while not only brave, is undertaken without financial assistance from the current state government.

* To view Channel 9’s coverage of the story click here.


Book Review: Jo-Kin Vs Lord Terra – Super Space Kids 2, by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2016)

Jo-Kin Book 2 Cover

I have a lot of admiration for writers of middle grade fiction and chapter books.  As a writer of YA fiction I easily draw from memories from my own time as an adolescent and integrate these experiences into my work.  It does help being a secondary teacher too.  Unfortunately, I don’t recall so well what I liked to read as an 8 year old, or indeed what I was like at this time.  So far as writing middle grade books, I wouldn’t know where to begin.  It probably makes sense then, that I choose to review very few books of this genre and, when I do, I like to get the second opinion of my target audience.  Such was the case last year when set about reviewing Jo-Kin Battles the IT.  My initial reaction to the story was lukewarm (to say the least).  It didn’t speak to me at all which, to my surprise, was not the case with my son.  He loved it.  Tyrrell had successfully managed to harness that mysterious thing that ten year old boys love.  Such a thing, in my eyes is a massive achievement.  This said; it seems that Tyrrell is on a roll, because she has done it again.

Jo-Kin VS Lord Terra, follows on where book 2 left off.  Our hero Josh Atkins, fresh from saving the world against the IT, is back to his life as a normal kid living with his parents and attending school.  However, as Josh himself explains, the situation has him ‘lying low’.  He is, moving through life incognito while hoping that his planet saving skills won’t be required again.   However, this is not to be with Josh required immediately for an urgent mission to save the Junior Space Kids Team from the clutches of the evil Lord Terra.

Jo-Kin VS Lord Terra, is a highly accessible read for students, especially boys, in the middle years of primary school.  Following on from the first book, Tyrrell continues to develop themes of resilience, problem-solving, team work and overcoming self-doubt.   Tyrrell has not only constructed an appealing story for children of this age, but everything, from the language,  font size, to the quality and quantity of the images, has been selected with care and an acute awareness of the intended audience.  However, it is her understanding of the ‘obsessions’ of children in this age group, which left me wondering if Tyrrell is in fact a ten year old boy simple masquerading as an adult!

I commend this book, and its predecessor, as a valuable addition to the school library.   I anticipate that as the series continues to grow in number it may fulfil its potential and join the likes of Jennings and Andy Griffiths as ‘go-to’ staples for boys in the reading lesson.

Tanya Grech Welden

PS For resources and other cool stuff to support reading of this book click here.

Book Review: “Ask Me Anything (Heartfelt Answers to 65 Anonymous Questions from Teenage Girls)” by Rebecca Sparrow, University of Queensland Press (2015)

askMy life, as the mother of a gorgeous 12 year old girl, is a challenging one, bringing with it more than its share of ups and downs. Sometimes, it seems, the pair of us are caught in the middle of a hormonal hurricane. Powerful and utterly volatile, I can almost feel myself holding my breath at times with the gravity of it. However, most of the time I feel blessed and in tremendous awe at the amazing person that my daughter is growing into. I also feel pretty thankful for the fact that, in these challenges, she is surrounded by an army of female nurturers; grandmothers, aunts and older female cousins. Indeed, women are not in short supply in my family. It is heartening to know that through all the ups and downs of adolescence she has a cache of women that she can go to for encouragement and advice.
Whilst the above situation is ideal, too often this is not the reality for many young girls growing into womanhood in 2015. For a range of reasons, too numerous to address here, many teenage girls can find themselves walking through this stage of their lives alone, or without advisors who really have their best interests at heart. Rebecca Sparrow’s lovely little book Ask Me Anything addresses this gap perfectly. As a notable columnist, Sparrow, found herself frequently speaking to large groups of high school students on the topics of writing, resilience and relationships. In the process of this she would invite the students to “ask me anything”, along with an invitation to write the questions down anonymously. Questions collected through this form the foundation for the book, with advice grouped under the following headings; Friendship, Life, Love and Family.
While the concept of such a book is not ground breaking (I recall reading similar type books when I was growing up in the late 80’s), there always exists a need for quality resilience focused books, to replace those which have since become outdated. Sparrow’s book is indeed a book of great quality that will resonate effectively with this emerging generation of young women. As a critic of books for children and young adults I constantly ask the question, why does a book work, or indeed, why does it fail? In many cases, as with this one, success can be found in the presence of a relatable voice. Sparrow deserves huge ticks for this. While being careful not to mimic the voice of her audience, she has adopted the measured rhetoric of the older, but definitely cooler, aunt. This voice is always sincere, frequently compassionate and never condescending. It is a voice that doesn’t pretend to be the fountain of all knowledge. In fact, she sometimes refers questions to others, those with specialist knowledge in these areas. Most importantly, the voice in this book is one which believes in the abilities of the young people, both to make to make right choices and to make a difference in the world.
Many books of this kind dedicate large chapters specifically to issues of sexuality. While Sparrow does not shy away from such questions, the strength of this book is in how she addresses the messy, often all-encompassing issues related to friendships and fitting in. Sparrow provides sensible answers to the questions which dominate the majority of the social landscape of classrooms on a daily basis. I only wish this book was around when I was growing up, perhaps then, I wouldn’t have minded that I wasn’t in the popular group, leaving me in a better space to actually enjoy my high school experience.
As a reviewer my book shelves were long ago groaning under the weight of too many books. It follows then that most of the books I read I pass on to my school library. I couldn’t bring myself to do this with this one. It is too special. Instead, I placed it into my daughter’s hands with the simple message, “keep it close, you’ll be needing it often.”

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Jo-Kin Battles the IT” by Karen Tyrrell, Karen Tyrrell (2015)

ktyrrell-jokin-cover-promo-web-lgeAs teachers and librarians we can be a judgemental lot. During the process of selecting books for use in the classroom, or to sit on shelves in our libraries, we are sifters. By that I mean we sift through stacks of books in an effort to identify those which serve our own personal agenda. This inevitably means eliminating books for one reason or another. For instance, it may be that the language is too simple, the themes and ideas too one dimensional, the structure too formulaic. During this process we sometimes neglect a certain truth that what appeals to us, as adults, does not always concur with the interests of children.
My ten year old son reminded me of the importance of this a few weeks ago. As often occurs in my household, a novel arrived on my doorstep. Usually, my son pays little attention to this (it is such a common occurrence). However on this day he was drawn to the book like a moth to a flame (I apologise for the weak analogy). “What’s this Mum?” He asked holding up the copy of Karen Tyrrell’s Jo-Kin Battles the IT, “Can I read it?” I must confess, at the time I was bogged down with other books to read, so I told him he could have it now as long as he promised to tell me what he thought of it. Off he scurried to his room, book in hand, where he wasn’t heard from for a few hours. “This is awesome Mum!” he told me later that night. “It’s a page turner. I’m already up to chapter 8.” I nodded my head, told him not to read too late, and stood quietly in the hallway while he continued his reading. What I heard was the beautiful sound of literary engagement. His laughter told me that not only was he enjoying the story, but clearly it was one with characters he could strongly identify with.
Sadly, my reading of the same book was not nearly as enlivened. I found the story a little trite, and at times inane. This middle grade chapter book tells the story of Josh Atkins and Sam Jones, who, after winning a computer contest, are selected for training as Super Space Kids. Following training, they are launched into space where they do battle with the deadly alien IT. While my adult brain did not really love the book, I could immediately see why the story resonated so strongly with my son. Michael, it seems could identify with Josh, who like himself, is obsessed with computer games, and quite frankly, all things best described as being ‘nerdy’. Having snared him with Josh (and let’s face it, corny gags), Tyrrell proceeds to tell a story that empowers children to overcome feelings of self-doubt, as they develop resilience, while understanding the value of team work.
Jo-Kin Battles the IT is a cleanly edited story, typeset in a child-appealing manner, with a scattering of delightful illustrations by Trevor Salter. The story will be appreciated by younger primary students up to grade 4. The ease of language will deem it suitable for independent reading although the story would benefit from a shared class reading where the themes of resilience may be explored in greater depth.
Tanya Grech Welden

For teaching resources related to this title please click here.

Book Review: “Harry Helps Grandpa Remember” words by Karen Tyrrell and illustrations by Aaron Pocock (2015), Digital Future Press

harryOne of my favourite picture books of all time is Mem Fox’s Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge (1984).  The delightful combination of Fox’s scintillating language and Julie Vivas’ inspiring illustrations always manages to bring a tear to my eye.  I mention it here because the subject matter in this book is similar in many ways to that explored in Karen Tyrrell’s recently released picture book, Harry Helps Grandpa.  Harry Hope, like Fox’s young protagonist, tries to make sense of his experience of aging and dementia when he notices his Grandfather struggling to remember things.  Harry makes it his personal mission to devise practical strategies to help him remember.

While not possessing the beautiful language found in Fox’s acclaimed picture book; I did appreciate the directness of Tyrrell’s story.  What she does well is provide a straightforward and frank exploration of an issue that many young children may be presented with in their daily lives.  Tyrrell’s book operates as a wonderful starting point for educators or parents for beginning a discussion on aging and specifically dementia with young children.   The solutions that Harry identifies are practical enough for children to adopt in their real-life relationships with Grandparents in a similar situation.

Aaron Pocock’s illustrations are bright, cheerful and with an abundance of vibrant animals and people, will certainly entice junior primary children to pick up the book.  My only concern was that I felt that his depictions of Grandpa and Nan were somewhat clichéd. There is a contemporary edginess to many of the characters in the story which felt was a little out of step with the greying, braces-wearing Grandpa and bun wearing Nana.   The layout of text and images is appealing to the eye with appropriate fonts and colours selected for heightened emphasis and ease of reading, particularly for the younger reader.

Harry Helps Grandpa Remember is one of a number of books authored by Karen Tyrrell with a primary focus on developing strategies for resilience in young children.  For information related to purchasing this, and others written by Tyrrell, click here.

Tanya Grech Welden

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