Tag Archives: literacy

School visits

apple-256261_1920I think we may now have officially hit the point where all local school children have returned from their holidays (or thereabouts). In light of this I thought I’d put out a quick reminder to any teachers reading about school visits. I’m available for book talks and writing workshops and I currently have a fairly clear calendar (though it is starting to fill up with other things).

I’ve never charged for school visits but I do normally bring along books for sale at a special price (I’ll figure out pricing long in advance of a visit to leave teachers time to get information out).

In the past I’ve hosted book talks for whole schools, for individual classes, and for middle-sized groups sorted by age. I’m also happy to spend a little more time with older children who might want to learn more about the writing process in a workshop setting.

If you think you’d be interested please get in touch. For those who want to do a more focussed book talk I can provide class copies of the Fey flame to give you/ your students a chance to read it in advance (either to review it or to let pupils get to know about the books before I come along).

If you are interested in arranging something please get in touch by e-mail (click this link) or by messaging below. I hope to hear from you soon,

All the best, John

Staying on target

wpid-training_dummy_500.jpgToday I passed 12,000 words of ‘Thea’s Quest’. Chapter six is done and I’m close enough to my word-count target to feel fairly comfortable. It was a hard slog today (wrote almost 4,000 words) but I really feel like it was worth it.

It’s a lot of fun experimenting with what Thea will do in different situations, it’s telling me so much more about who she really is and what the tone of the other books in her series will have.

As I said in my previous post, I won’t have much time for blog posting during all the other writing madness this month but when things go right it’s nice to share. Hope you’re all well, and as always thanks for reading (and for stopping by). All the best, John

Why I refused to read Harry Potter

no harry potter restriction circleIt’s not as bad as it sounds, please read on to find out more. I was first told about the boy wizard in high school, it would have been about 2000/2001, and I point-blank refused to read it. I even laughed at friends who were recommending it. You see the problem was that Harry Potter was a kid’s book, and seventeen year old John was no child.

I had my mind set on becoming an author and was sure that truly engaging writing (the kind that I could learn from) could only be found in books aimed at adults. I read magical realist authors like Rushdie, de Berniere, and Garcia Marquez. I also Immersed myself in classic literature and edgy new work. In short I thought of children’s literature as something of an oxymoron. Instead I was simply a moron.

Reality hit me at Stirling Uni in 2002 when I headed down to the MacRobert Cinema to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a friend. The film left so much unsaid, so many questions unanswered, that I borrowed copies of the first two books from her to catch up with what was going on. Then I borrowed another (you know, just to see what happened next), and then another. Then I ran out.

On the 22nd of June the following year I was queueing outside a Waterstones in Aberdeen at midnight. I patiently waited for them to open the doors and release copies of ‘the Order of the Phoenix’ to the street-load of waiting children dressed as witches and wizards (I wished I had come in costume too).

A good book transports you to another world, or offers a view of our own that you might not have considered. It opens up questions and makes you think, and if you’re lucky it takes you for an adventure. Magical realists can do that, classical literature can do that, gritty ground-breaking new fiction can do that, and (unbeknownst to my seventeen year old self) so too can a good children’s book do all of these things.

We can get stuck in a rut when it comes to what we read, fixating on just one genre, but we miss out by doing that. As students, a bunch of us traded favourite books, we all had widely different tastes and we decided we might benefit by shaking things up a little. To be honest I don’t think I’ll ever be a full horror, crime, or thriller convert (though I still like to jump into a good horror book as the nights start to draw in) but that wasn’t really the point of our experiment. Our wee book-swap gave me an insight into what qualities made these types of book so appealing to so many people, it made me realise just how hard it can be to pin down just exactly what counts as ‘good writing’.

I still cringe at the thought of how condescending I must have sounded as a teenager and I apologise to Adam for dismissing what truly was an amazing find, and I also thank Vikki for allowing me to see how rich and enjoyable children’s literature can be (even for adults).

Are there any ‘children’s books’ that you’ve found particularly engaging? Do you avoid popular authors because you think they’re somehow less remarkable because of their popularity? Feel free to have a chat about it in the comments below, or over at the facebook page or twitter account. As always, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

What Reading can do for you

Read for 1 minute or less a day with your children and they may end up in the bottom tenth percentile! (But should you care?)

I’ve seen this graphic (or something very similar) floating around the internet recently. While I agree with the idea that reading with your children is a good thing, I’m not sure if I agree with the hefty role being given to word volume, or the assumption that parents only care about test scores. It’s part of the growing inclination of so many to try and quantify childhood learning.

Of course, some skills are more quantifiable than others: vocabulary, memory, the ability to follow instructions (this list is far from exhaustive). In this sense it’s easy to see how an increase in vocabulary and memory might improve test scores. However, there are so many more important skills that reading helps develop than the capacity to have great test scores.

Children who read find themselves exposed to other ways of thinking, other worlds, and other people, in a much more intimate manner than you find in any other medium.

The characters, ideas, plots, scenarios, and places found within the pages of a book do not stay there; they find a home inside your mind. It’s about as close to telepathic communication as we can get.

When a child reads a story where a character loses their memories, they aren’t simply exposed to a vocabulary-building exercise; they have been given access to some fairly complex notions about identity. This might lead them to ask questions about whether we are the sum of our memories, or something more. In essence, books (and perhaps fantasy books in particular) provide simple, digestible ways of thinking about some pretty big questions.

It kind of bothers me to see test scores held up as the pinnacle of childhood achievement. Test scores can be a great way of gauging a child’s engagement with their learning, but I’m a little dubious about regarding these scores as anything more than that. 

A child’s ability to deal with the world outside of school will have a lot more to do with how much they understand, plus a host of skills that are even harder to quantify.

If a child opts for university they may be surprised to discover how important it is to have a collection of skills that go beyond reading speed, vocabulary, and memory (the more testable skill set). 

I used to tutor Philosophy undergraduates at Edinburgh University and it was amazing to see the way that some students (who came in with less than stellar grades in high school) would somehow overtake their higher scoring classmates. Often this hedged on far less tangible/quantifiable skills than memory etc.

We wanted to see students demonstrate an understanding of the nuances of arguments; memorising facts and figures simply wasn’t enough (though it was of course valuable). What’s more the ability to step outside rote learning and think for themselves enables students to create thought provoking and insightful essays. I learned that high test scores aren’t always a clear indicator that someone will perform well, even in an academic environment.

The abilities of a teacher are often assessed based on the test scores of the children they teach, but this can leave little room for some truly vital skills; like bolstered inquisitiveness, social understanding, and the ability to ground ideas within a real-world backdrop. 

Many teachers do a phenomenal job at encouraging these, and many more, traits (I’ve met a good number of these teachers on the various school talks I’ve done) and I’m fairly certain that these essential skills will be hard to locate by looking at where a child falls within the national ‘percentile’.

Of course we should read to our children for twenty minutes a day, longer if you get the time. For some of us it’s part of the ever-shrinking portion of the day in which we can spend time together, without necessarily having to deal with some kind of screen. 

Not only does it allow you and your child to discuss all kinds of topics and issues, but it also gives you a few moments in which to touch base and enjoy spending time together.

Reading, at least in this context, has much more to do with maintaining relationships and learning about the world we share, than it has to do with building vocabularies and assisting in academic scores. 

Reading shouldn’t be marketed as a fast track road to success (even if the numbers suggest it); it’s an activity that opens dialogue, builds relationships, and encourages inquisitive minds. In short reading opens us up to all of the fantastic skills that make us human, it doesn’t just help us test well.

If you have anything to say about any of the issues I’ve touched on in this post please feel free to share your ideas in the comments, or over on social media (here are the Jack Reusen facebook and twitter accounts). Thanks for reading, all the best, John

The three Rs

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My teachers were fantastic but there were limits to what we could do in the old curriculum. Things have changed a lot since I was a kid and, though I might be in the minority, I’m happy to see it.

There’s a lot more creative expression and personal engagement between children and their work. I’ve seen this at my son’s school and at my book talk at Our Lady’s in Stirling too. Across the board children are being encouraged to interact with their subjects on a personal level.

Not only are kids producing class demonstrations and talks but they’re also engaging with media via technology which offers a broadening of knowledge of their subject.

I have never been the biggest advocate of ‘three Rs’ learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic). For starters, whoever named the program clearly didn’t know how to spell (it’s r, w, and a, anyone with a basic capacity for anagrams could get ‘RAW’ from that).

Anyway, I think ‘RAW’ should be taught in the way that it’s used, viz. in the act of expressing ideas and investigating the world. Every time a new challenge arises that highlights concepts in maths or English this provides an opportunity for a deeper learning experience with much higher chance of retention.

Probably more important is the function that education is supposed to perform. Most people agree that education is intended to provide a degree of preparation for adult life.

The new skill set needed in the world our children are going to is radically different than it was when I was in school. Presentation and information processing skills are becoming vital components of so many careers, if we tried to teach this on top of the three Rs then they’d be on an eight hour day. Something had to go.

What do you think? Would solely concentrating on the three Rs in this new information orientated world be misguided? or do you stand by the more rigid education methods of the past?