Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Promoting Reading Cultures’ 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?

Book Covers: The Good, Bad, the Ugly & How to Sell Them to Fussy Students?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  I’ve said it countless times to students, usually as I have attempted to entice a reluctant reader to take a chance on something that I know will be worthwhile.  Each time I say it I feel like I need a slap.  I mean, irrespective of my recommendation, students will do exactly that.  I’m guilty of it too. Alice in Wonderland

A few months ago I was scanning the book shelves of my school library when a particular title caught my eye.  Incidentally the book was a hard copy version of A. G. Howard’s Splintered.  The cover has the most amazing cover art featuring a head shot of the blond heroine of the story; her face interwoven creatively with creepy crawlies.  It was a gorgeous example of a front cover and one that I could not ignore.  I picked it up and started to turn the pages.  The inside artwork was similarly delectable, the pages were of a beautiful quality.  Victim to clever marketing on behalf of the publisher, I just had to read it.  As it happens, the story was enjoyable, yet paled in comparison to the promise of its packaging.

Young and old alike, we are all manipulated by a book’s packaging.  Its cover art, blurb and even the quality of the paper (especially how it feels and even smells), the font size and type, the choice to integrate graphic headers into the story or even illustrations, has an impact on whether or not we will choose to read what is inside.  For many, the amount of white space (or lack thereof) will potentially deter a reluctant reader.  Even as we move towards reading books in digital format, the cover artwork still has a massive influence upon our choice to read a particular title.  Accordingly, when a publisher gets it wrong it can spell disaster for what is otherwise a worthy piece of literature.

A simple solution for educators is to ensure that our libraries are stocked with titles that possess crisp new books with fresh cover art.  We know that even the classics need to be replaced periodically with versions that are packaged in a more contemporary manner.  Students are intuitively quite savvy when it comes to marketing.  After all they have been targeted by the adevertising machine since birth.  They are particularly sensitive to trends in graphic design and will immediately dismiss anything which looks like it has passed its ‘used by’ date.   However, in the real world it is not always possible to ensure that all the books in our libraries are suitably appealing.  Budget constraints make it tricky to purchase the new titles that are being released, let alone allow us to replace the classics with newer versions.  The question emerges what can educators (and librarians) do to counteract this natural inclination?

Librarians have a whole gamut of strategies that they employ to entice kids to read books they would normally pass over.  Personally I don’t think there is one strategy that works better than another.  Rather it is persistence with a range of approaches that wins in the end.  Some of the obvious tactics include displays of books grouped by author, theme or genre.  I have observed one librarian cash in on the trend for all things retro by using this as the theme for a display; although I am not sure if it was successful.  In a similar manner, using library time to provide book talks that promote older titles alongside the newer acquisitions can be useful, along with getting real authors to speak to students about their books and their writing.

In most schools exist a small minority of avid readers who seem to be less susceptible to the condition in question.  Identifying these students in your community allows you to exploit them as a solution for the problem in question.  You might employ such a reader to review such titles and get them to share their reviews with students.  Reviews might be delivered in a Book Club setting or in a reading blog online.  You might even ask students to prepare a special sleeve to fit over a great title with an unappealing cover.  The sleeve might include a personal student appraisal of the merits of the book in question.  You could do something similar using brown paper bags (although they might not have a great longevity).

Certainly there is a place for discussing book covers in the English classroom.  A great activity that many educators employ is to evaluate a range of covers for a given title across the years, before you commence reading.  This works really well when you are dealing with a classic (try Robert C O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet) and the activity is made simple with google.   Students should be able to identify the covers that they find appealing and suggest why this is the case.  For a bit of fun, you might even get students to try and organise a series of covers in the order of release.  For more recent publications, especially those with worldwide distribution, you might assess how the same book is marketed to different readers in different countries.  However discussing book covers need not just be a topic explored in the English classroom.  You might also engage your Art/Design teacher to explore this in their lessons from a design angle.

It is a dreadful shame that for the sake of a dated cover, students are lured away from what might  otherwise be an enriching read.  Certainly, our role as literacy educators must be one of developing critical thinking in our students.  Only then will they be able to effectively identify what is otherwise simply clever marketing with what is true quality.

How do you deal with the problem of promoting great books with dated book covers in your classroom?  Share your thoughts and ideas with us.  We’d love to hear from you.

Tanya Grech Welden

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Book Trailers in the Classroom: Enhancing Student Engagement with Texts

Book trailers have been around for a while but it is only in the last 18 months that they have started to catch on in the world of YA fiction.  When I saw my first book trailer about three years ago, I was captivated.  My mind started exploding with possibilities for using them in the classroom.  I was a little disappointed to see (even 12 months ago) that they were being used somewhat sporadically by children’s and YA publishers.  However, I have noticed a slight increase in their use in the last 6 months (especially with Australian publishers), which can only be good news for Aussie teachers and their students.

So, how do I use them in the classroom?  Firstly, I wish I had a book trailer for every book I share in the classroom.  Not because I am not good at selling stories the old fashioned way.  I enjoy the ‘tried and tested’ methods for book promotion such as verbally introducing the book and providing a short informal review, reading the blurb or reading a page or chapter from the given book.  For a teacher, book trailers allow you to engage students in the act of reading without you even opening your mouth.  Book trailers offer another ‘voice’ in the classroom, and though I hate to admit it, for our visual learners, it is one which is far more enticing than anything I can provide.  As I have already alluded to, book trailers don’t replace the other methods for book promotion, they serve to enhance traditional teaching practices.  Used on their own, at best they probably provide only a few moments of entertainment and are quickly forgotten.  Sure, they may encourage some of your more intrinsically motivated students to read the story, but the more reluctant readers will still need you to provide your personal recommendation to help them get off their seat and borrow the book.

I started using book trailers at the beginning of my independent reading lesson in the library and the students responded very positively to them.  I made sure that I had copies of the given title available for borrowing, along with other similar titles and books by the same author.  I rarely share a book trailer for something that I have not read myself.  I am guided by two basic principles; that I should do as I say (that is read and read lots) and that if I am sharing something it is because it is worth reading.  However, not all teachers have the benefit of a weekly reading lesson in the library.  I also experimented with using a trailer as a short filler at the end (or beginning) of a lesson.  Trailers are universally short and most are under 2 minutes.  It is therefore no problem to show a trailer and speak briefly about the title in under 5 minutes.  Similarly, it is also quite useful to share trailers in online groups and class moodles.  Edmodo allows you to do this easily and students can comment immediately on what they have viewed or this might be followed up in class the next day.

Once students have become familiar with book trailers you could even give them the opportunity to prepare a book trailer of their own for something they have read independently.  This is a great way to avoid the traditional book report whilst highlighting the importance of using words succinctly to entertain and entice an audience.  Students have had success using programs such as software installed on their pc or mac but there are some great apps available that can make this even easier.  If you pop onto youtube you will also find many examples of student created book trailers that you can show as text models.

My message is simple, if you locate a book trailer for a great novel, don’t hesitate to use it in the classroom.  If you are a publisher of books for children (especially YA fiction) please create these for every book on your list.  Teachers will use them and they definitely help to promote stories (and ultimately sell them).

by Tanya Grech Welden

Happy Australia Day: The Last Hurrah Before the School Year Begins!


A Happy Australia Day to all my subscribers, page likers and sometimes visitors!

For many educators  Australia Day heralds the opportunity for a final day of celebration (or relaxation) before the official commencement of the 2015 school year (gulp).  I know that many of you have been back at work for a week already, attending meetings, writing lists, preparing subject overviews and lessons, re-imagining tired classrooms into environments to inspire our students and then attending some more meetings!

I love the energy and enthusiasm that comes with this time of year.  This is the time of the year that I like to roll out the ideas that may have been percolating in the back of my mind from the previous year.  The ideas you thought of but shrugged off because you were in the middle of report writing or sorting out the emotional crisis of the year 9 girls…..again.  I remember vividly Australia Day about 15 years ago.  I had recently arrived back from travels abroad (I had spent a year teaching English to Scouse kids in Liverpool UK), and had secured my first Australian teaching position at a Catholic school in Port Augusta. A few weeks earlier,  on a blistering 43 degree day, my partner and I had travelled north from Adelaide.  As we had opened boxes and arranged our tiny kitchenette I pondered the brevity of this new adventure.  Would I succeed?  Would my new students and teachers like me?  Would the program I had prepared work or would it fall flat with a groan and a squeak? Would I ever survive this interminable heat and the very real possibility that I might swallow flies alive and whole?

And so my Australia Day 15 years ago was not spent eating sausages and joining in the festivities at the local beach.  Instead, I spent the day in a bikini (I was thinner back then), writing lesson plans in my hot little flat.  I was determined.  My lessons would be perfect. I was going to be the perfect teacher.  Of course reality rather surpassed my ambition and some of my lessons did fall flat, some of my students would get the better of me, and I would raise my voice.  I was far from perfect.  Yet, on the first day, the day after Australia Day, I vividly recall standing in front of my year 10 English class.  I had 24 students in a hot transportable so run-down it was actually condemned a few years later.  However, I did not bemoan the antiquated blackboard and chalk (no interactive whiteboards or whiteboard) or the ineffective evaporative air conditioner (which I did learn to loathe).  Rather, I looked at my students, and, comparing them to the students I had taught a few months earlier I had a light bulb moment.  They were healthy, they were strong, and they were brown from years of a childhood spent outdoors in safety and freedom.  I was lucky to teach these kids and hopefully I would prove worthy of them.

I loved my time in the bush so much I stayed 6 years.  It was only the birth of our children that made us decide to relocate to Adelaide to be close to our extended families.  However, the memory of those early days of teaching in Port Augusta have stayed with me and I look back with fondness.  Certainly I made many spectacular mistakes during this time but, as often is the case, these errors were balanced out with an energy that is often only seen in beginning teachers.  I often wonder why so many young teachers are reluctant to leave the safety of the metropolitan areas to teach in the bush.  For me this was an unforgettable journey and an experience as dear to me as that which I had abroad.  For all the criticism teachers daily face in this country; I still believe that Australia is a wonderful place to work as an educator and I firmly believe that our teachers are world class.

Is this your first teaching position?  What was your first teaching post like?  What have you done to prepare your classroom for the 2015 school year?  Drop me a line below, I’d love to hear from you.

by Tanya Grech Welden

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