Small Successes

Sometimes it does not take much for us to feel good about what we do! I will set the context…

Our Year 11 English classes, along with every other year level, have a wide reading-style assessment piece embedded within their course. This means that in some cases, they have to discuss their reading habits, what they have read or the various styles and genres or authors they like. It is really about the reading process, rather than a form of book review. As part of this, I speak to the classes, doing a form of book talk which promotes various novels, books, graphic novels, whatever they focus is.

I had this one particular Year 11 class the other day and was talking about how some of them may like certain books not for their content but for their size, i.e. the smaller the better. One boy started laughing with his mates, as if to agree. I showed them Love, Ghosts and Nose Hair (Herrick)  and how brief it was. (If you are not familiar, it is a verse novel.)

To cut a long story short, the boy proclaimed that he never read anything but if he had to, that was the one for him. I mentioned that it was a verse novel but it was not written like the poetry they may have studied in the past.

That was on the Thursday (I think). Monday, he returned to the library, proudly waving the book and saying that it was in fact the first book he had ever finished. How happy was I? He wanted some more like that, but not in the verse novel format. I showed him a few and suggested he take his time, select one and to my surprise, he wanted to take them both! I think they were Swerve (Gwynne) and one of Marcus Zusak’s early novels. From what I hear, he has been reading them as well so we will see what comes of this.

The message here? There is a book for everyone and all it takes is that one book to maybe push the reluctant reader over the edge set them on the reading journey that we all know and love. It just may take a while to find that one book! I hope he continues!

Graphic Novels, Aug 09

It has been a weekend of graphic novels. For some reason, there just happened to be three all lined up in my bag on Friday afternoon so I was compelled to finish them.

Skim is the most problematic. It describes a young girl’s journey through a high school year and is full of questions about self-identity, love and friendship. She experiments with wicca, smoking, affection for a teacher, her parents/separation issues, suicide…The list goes on. It is done in a black/white/grey style with a first-person style of narration intertwined with diary entries. Some of the language is certainly “adult”; it is certainly not a comic. I enjoyed it immensely.

Drawn in a similar black-and-white style but with less nuance is Pendragon, the first adaptation of D.J. Machale’s novel. The novel was very enjoyable and I would love to find the time to read the rest of them. The graphic novel is very close to the original text and will appeal to the same audience, mainly young boys, I feel. I did not like the illustrations as much as those in Skim but they are in keeping with the fast-paced nature of the storyline. There is not time to spend sitting around marvelling at the drawings. We must keep reading and following the adventures of Bobby and his uncle.

Finally, 100 Girls is the first installment in what I presume is a series of science-fiction adventure graphic novels. This is full-colour and each frame leaps off the page with action. The layout is what I would call “modern”, with frames of different sizes sometimes staggered around the pages. Some frames are full-page, some have slabs of white space, some are diagonal. Sylvia is maybe thirteen but has the physical capabilities of a superhero. She wonders why strangers want to abduct her but only until she is rescued by someone who looks almost exactly like her! What is going on here, you might wonder? Anyone familiar with Dark Angel, Maximum Ride, Heroes, X-Men and the like will immediately realise that evil government agencies are at work, plotting with scientists and corporations to clone young people for some vaguely military purpose. The girls rebel, naturally, and this creates the tension. It is very enjoyable and I wish that the other books were here so I could read them! Some of the action is graphic (no pun intended) and shows once again that these are not simple comics to give to young children. They are complex texts and worth looking at in more detail.

Audio books are not reading!

Really? How interesting…

A few weeks ago I posted an entry regarding the various merits or otherwise of audio books. Were they the same as reading, per se? Was it the same experience? Is one better than another?

I came out of a discussion with some staff about the purposes of reading. Why do we make some students read when they so obviously hate it? Is the physical act of turning the pages a necessity if all we want them to do is describe the plot or write from a character’s perspective? Could some students achieve the same result by listening to the book?

In the past we have tended to associate the listening post with students who were not fully independent readers. Maybe that is a carry-over from my time at primary school! We still have a wide range of audio books (or books on cassette/CD) but where are they located? In Learning Support, mainly!

A colleague conducted a small task with his Year 9 students regarding audio books and, with his permission, I am happy to post some of their responses here:

“Audio books put me to sleep.”
“I would rather read than listen to someone read to me.”
“It depends on the person who listens; if you have a (sic) active imagination but you are a poor reader, they’d be great for you to absorb literature.”
“They don’t give (people) a chance to discover new words.”
“I won’t listen to (them); I’ll stare into space and miss out on chapters.”
“I think audio books rock! You don’t have to use your eyes.”
They “aren’t even proper books, you’re listening; by reading you interpret the book in your own way.”
“I would lose concentration with a voice talking all the time. I would just tune out and not even listen.”
“Audio books are useless. If you’re going to read, read properly.”
“People who read out loud read too slow for me so it REALLY annoys me.”
“If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, the book can say it for you.”
“I think that people who hate reading would be more likely to listen to them.”
“I think they are good, especially for people who are dyslexic or blind. They deserve to enjoy the experience too.”

A variety of opinions, as you would expect, and I note that a topic on OZTL-net lately has been about the loan of these items, i.e. How do we loan the out? How do we protect the copyright owner’s property? How are they stored? What format are they in?

I noticed the other day that we still have some old listening posts in a back room. They have not been used in some time, as far as I can tell. Could we be doing more with them? How do they fit with the concept of personal media players (iPods and the like)? Would students sit around and listen to the one tape, with six or more sets of headphones tethering them to a single access point?

So, to conclude…could there be a place for these in our school libraries? Would people borrow them? How can they be managed? I am keen to try but need to have a bit more thought (or input) about this matter.

This is how you do it, kids!

We have a number of assessment items where students are asked to discuss books and reading and the like. For some reason, some of them struggle. (Actually, the reason is that many of them just do not read or read much!)

Yesterday, the English faculty had one of their regular meetings but the focus this time was on the books that we use in the various year levels. It was great to see people talking about literature, the canon, books, reading patterns and habits and how all of these things impacted on our students. We have a group of fairly active readers and they seem to be growing. But as I have alluded to before, the way we have implemented a wide-reading program has had some issues.

But back to the meeting, where we had a group of adults being passionate about their choices, polite and respectful when it came to listening to others and prepared to consider other options. This is what we want from students when they come to discussing their own reading habits. Maybe we should have video-taped it!

Gone, by Michael Grant

It is the English Head of Department’s fault. The book, Gone, was sitting on her desk and I happened to ask her what she had thought of it. I knew another English teacher had raved about it so I was curious. The she told me that she was considering it for inclusion in the Year 9 English course, even though it was not her cup of tea. Too much action, killing and so on.

I grabbed it, thinking I would have a quick look at it and give her my thoughts. It would not take too long to get some form of opinion, surely? And that is why I was up till midnight last night rushing to finish it. It is a great read with lots of appeal for (probably good) readers who like action mixed with science fiction. It is a lot like Heroes (the TV show) and I was very disappointed to find that , like Heroes, when I got to the  end, I had no answers, as there is a sequel, due in 2010. Comparisons could also be made with Lord of the Flies, Day of the Triffids and other sci-fi texts where people have special powers.

What’s it all about, then? Briefly, something happens in this small American beach town where everyone over the age of 15 just disappears in an instant. One minute they are there, teaching, driving, whatever, and the next they are gone. No blood, no piles of ashes. Just gone. That leaves all of the children in charge and they then struggle with this. Who will be in charge? Sam, the reluctnat hero? Caine, the persuasive rebel from the elite school in the hills? The town bully? And on top of that, some of them have developed supernatural abilities which make them appear like X-Men. How did that happen? Not sure, but it makes for great reading.

The book is not without faults. It is long, over 500 pages and has a very large range of characters. There are some maps but I only discovered those as I finished the book as they are at the end. Putting them at the beginning would have made more sense. Had I more time, I would have drawn a character map to keep track of who was who and where they fit in but there was simply not enough time. Like a Matthew Reilly novel, the pages kept turning themselves over and I had to keep reading.

Highly recommended and it had me from the first few pages. Would a student like it? If they can make it through the first 50 pages or so, I think so. As I said, it is a large book, and I eagerly await the next volume.

Why we do it…

The English Faculty have this Wide Reading Program thing at the moment and it has had some successful moments, like most things. But I thought I would share this one story…

A teacher brought his class in and this particular girl was not keen on reading at all. I had done a presentation to the class on a range of fiction titles, all mainly YA, and she had eventually settled on Wendy Orr’s Peeling the Onion, a novel which I have read, though many years ago.

Peeling the onion

She began to read it in class and left the library grumbling about the choice. The teacher and I looked at each other and probably thought, Oh well, we tried.

A week later and the class is back. The student is at the Circulation Desk and she wants another book, just like the other one! She had loved it, as I thought she might; it is a great book. So I showed her Butterflies, by Susanne Gervay. By this stage she was keen to try it and the next day (today) she is back again with only a few pages to go and wanting another one, similar to the others. What to do?

By this stage, I usually let the students know that I have not actually read every novel in the library and sometimes I just have to go with what others have told me or the blurb on the back! So I did, and she ended up with…I can’t remember! Maybe it was Maureen McCarthy?

The point is that one incident like this may be the thing that this Year 11 girl needed to kickstart her reading life. I hope she continues with it (the reading) and that she will try some other titles from other genres. It was also one of the highlights of my day!

Tape Recorders in the Library

In the past, English students used to borrow portable cassette recorders from within the department. Now they have been relocated to the Resource Centre.

They can be used within the Resource Centre once borrowed from Circulation. Students need to provide their own tapes and make sure that they get the recording done within the breaks.