Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Promoting a Reading Culture’ Category

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 Week: A Mother’s Perspective


In the spirit of all things Book Week, I thought I’d share a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago as a sleep deprived mother of three young kids.  Enjoy a small laugh at my expense.  It is (mostly) all true.

It’s that time of the year again.  The time of year when frazzled mothers’ race to their local Spotlight store, in a frantic dash to gather ammunition to create a last minute Book Week Parade costume.  I was there last Friday.  I was lost somewhere in between the red spandex and the fluorescent beaded goodness-knows-what.  My quest? To locate the appropriate white stretchy fabric to create the perfect Princess Leia costume for my eldest daughter.  As I walked past the ready-made costumes I cursed (probably out loud), “Why couldn’t that bloody kid choose to go as Harry Potter?”  No such luck.  My kids would never be so pedestrian as to select a costume I could purchase on sale at Spotlight.

Sunday afternoon it rained and so I accepted the challenge to manufacture the best Princess Leia costume in the history of Book Week.  I started sewing.  Even my recent purchase of a special needle with a rounded tip couldn’t help me.  Having established early on that this fabric was impossible to unpick, I did manage to construct the main body of the garment.  Everything fell apart when I attached the arms the wrong way out.  Somewhere in between this I could be heard screaming at my middle child (who was screaming at his baby sister), “Stop making such a racket or else . . . or else. . . I’m gonna’ expire and then you won’t get your own flaming costume!”  Master M promptly dissolved into tears and I gave up, defiantly tossing $15 worth of white slinky fabric into the bin.  “I can’t do it!” I told my daughter; “I need to learn to sew a bit better before I will be able to succeed in making a Princess Leia costume.”  I secretly sniggered knowing that by that time it will probably be the X-rated version.

Needless to say they both are going to school with their Book Week costumes tomorrow.  They’ll probably be cold but their spirits will no doubt keep them warm.  In the end Ellen has decided to wear a red dress we bought in Hong Kong.  It is about two sizes too small but I’ll make her wear leggings and she might resemble something from Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. Michael will is going as a jazz piano playing cat from a picture book called Max and the Lost Note.  I’ll need to find some black face paint to create whiskers and a nose (I might even employ permanent texta).   Don’t even ask about the baby.  Thankfully she doesn’t go to school yet as that would definitely tip me over the edge.

Happy Book Week!  My commiserations to those of you undertaking the impossible this week.  Who even knew that you could cook, clean, iron and wash, all in addition to constructing a one metre high cardboard hat while you taxi your progeny to their mid-week basketball game?

Tanya Grech Welden

Strategies to Get Boys (and Girls) Reading: Tip 8

buy booksTip 8: Reward Kids with Books

To my detriment my kids understand too well the weak spot that I have for books.  When we are at the shopping mall my son will always beg to go into the book store.  He knows that his chances of a treat in there are higher than in any other store at our local Westfield.

While I tend to give away the vast majority of books I am given to review, my own children are book hoarders.  I love the glint they each get in their eyes when they have a crisp new book to read, and so, their personal collections keep growing; spilling in fact, from their book shelf to cover every available space in their rooms and everywhere else.  While I could bemoan the mess (and I often am heard to scream ‘Put these books away so I have some space to cook dinner!’), this is a good thing.  After all, as a wise person once said, ‘Books are the only thing that money can buy that will make you richer.’

This brings me to my 8th tip.  Reward kids with books.  In fact, I’m going to extend this to rewarding children with books and anything related to books.  For teachers this translates to book marks and reading related stickers.  It also might mean giving children the special experience to watch the movie version of a book they read and enjoyed, or, attend a book talk of one of their favourite authors.

There was a time once, in the not so distant past, when books were considered a luxury and the few volumes that people owned, were treasured and read, cover to cover, many times.  If you go into any antiquarian bookstore you can find old books, gifted to students as academic prizes, the fact which is recorded on the inside cover with a book-plate.  Do schools still do this?  I suppose in this information rich age, for many communities this is considered unnecessary, as children already have a lot of books.  However, in this country there are still too many homes for which books are noticeable by their absence.

About a year ago I made a commitment.  With three children and an abundance of birthday parties to attend, I would commit to only buying books as gifts.  ‘But Mum’, my eldest daughter said at the time, “. . . we like books but most of our friends can’t stand them.”  I must admit, at first, her statement threw me a little.  How could anyone not get excited by the prospect of a new book?  Of course, as an English teacher, I’ve seen the general apathy towards books from too many of my students.  Irrespective of this, I vowed to honour this commitment.  I just needed to try harder, do some research and select a book appropriate for the given child’s interests.  Since this time I have purchased books for my children’s friends, many of whom are reluctant readers.  Quite often they have approached me later to thank me for the book and tell me how much they enjoyed it.  It seems that even children who express their reluctance to read will appreciate a book if it has been selected for them, based on their personal interests.

Of course buying books can become an expensive activity.  It is the main reason why I have become one of the book depository’s best customers.  As educators with limited resources, we need to think outside the box on this one.  I have one colleague who created laminated bookmarks for her secondary students.  Each of the bookmarks was personalised with images that tapped into the various interests of the students.  No doubt flattered by the extra care and effort taken, the students thought they were awesome.

Tanya Grech Welden

How do you use books (or book related items) as gifts for children? What tips do you have for doing this in a cost effective way?

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