Category Archives: Education

Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if the can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.

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Blast Off!

It’d be easy to believe an event like Sheila Kanani’s about how to become an astronaut, aimed at young children, wouldn’t be of interest to an adult. And that’s where you’d be wrong.

Sheila Kanani

I have no wish to change careers and travel to Mars, unlike some of the children in the audience, but just hearing about what it could be like and what you need to learn, was Very Interesting. I knew Sheila does a lot of outreach in her job for the Royal Astronomical Society, but I hadn’t paused to consider what it might entail. Or that she’d be so good at it.

Chaired by Sarah Broadley, the session offered tables for the children to play at astronaut training with oven gloves, long colourful strips of rubber, pink rulers, headphones, Russian codes. And scissors. There were not enough tables, so more had to be found. The balance between the sexes was good, and you could tell these were young human beings who’d thought about space and travelling to Mars.

In real life you have to be at least 27, speak Russian and have a good idea of what to do when your helicopter is crashing. And if you make it all the way, you have to go to the toilet using a tube contraption thing, and for those of you who have wished upon shooting stars, you might not want to know that it could have been astronaut poo entering the atmosphere.

Before the hands-on play, we’d turned a water melon into Jupiter, with poor little Mercury represented by a peppercorn. Earth is a cherry tomato.

Sheila Kanani

Sheila, whose favourite planet is Saturn, wants to make people more enthusiastic about space science. She asked if anyone felt that it was a waste of money to invest in space research. One or two did, and they were gently told maybe they were in the wrong tent…

So, for anyone who wants to be a space vet – for the animals in space – or any of the other jobs ‘up there’ you know what to do. Start with Sheila’s book How To Be An Astronaut, and then get to work on your dexterity while wearing oven gloves.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

The Dangerous Lives of the Jacobites

The Jacobites used to get a mention in stuff the young witch watched on television. She had no idea then – or until much more recently – who they really were. Good? Bad? Or depends on who you are?

The latter, I’d say. Now I’ve read the story by Linda Strachan, about a Jacobite family in 1745, I feel I know a lot more, even if my head is reeling a bit from all the information.

Linda Strachan and Darren Gate, The Dangerous Lives of the Jacobites

I like the story about Rob and Aggie, and about fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie. It’s as I usually say; it helps to understand history when you meet and get to know and like some of the people who were involved at the time.

It’s also useful to have facts to help with that understanding. However, I felt there was too much. I got lost among the Kings and all the rest of them. There were also several risings, and most of the old battles I’ve heard of appear in this book. But I do feel I’ve got the gist of what some Jacobites were like.

Illustrated by Darren Gate, you can see what kind of clothes they wore and what sort of house people like Rob and Aggie lived in. There’s a menu, as an example of what they had to eat. I reckon this kind of book will work very well in a classroom, helping to explain history.

For instance, for all the mentions I’ve come across in my life of Bonnie Prince Charlie, I had no idea he was ‘Italian.’ And in a way it’s a bit sad with all these princes who wanted to lay claim to thrones and who fought and sometimes died, and all for what? On the other hand, unlike today’s leaders, it seems they actually experienced the cold and the mud and the dangers. Just like their followers did.

Getting to know them

My most recent book cull made me think. You can look at reading in different ways.

I’ve often envied those who came to Harry Potter once he was all here; with no need to wait for ten years before being able to finish the series of books. But then, we who did wait, had ample time to read and wait and think and do other things.

Back in 2003 – and how long ago that seems now! – Offspring’s secondary school library started its Author of the Term project. Our first one was Adèle Geras. Then came Tim Bowler and after him, Linda Newbery. After them it is a blur and I can no longer recall who came or when.

I had barely read anything by Adèle when she came. (I’d probably hurriedly read a short book to enlighten myself a little.) But afterwards, well, I read them ‘all.’ Because I wanted to and I could. I had the time to cover her backlist, as well as everything new that came my way. What a treat! And how lovely it was.

With Tim I had read a little more. After all, I was the one who suggested him and who ‘forced’ Tim to agree to come. But there was still room for improvement and I did have a few of his books to catch up on. And then, again, the new ones.

Finally, I am almost certain I’d not read any of Linda’s many books. But she spoke so well about her writing that no sooner had she left than I started working my way through ‘all’ her books. I especially liked her war books, of which there were quite a few. And before long I also tackled Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, for the simple reason that if Linda had been inspired by it, it had to be good. Which it was.

I can no longer do this. Occasionally I have read someone’s books extra fast, before an interview, perhaps. But that was also some time ago. No more. Anyway, reading too fast is a waste of a good book, and if it isn’t all that good, then why bother?

It was a luxury, getting to know someone both as a person and reading what they’d written.

(And although I mostly bought copies of my own, I had the good luck to be helping out in the school library, with instant access to the books by Adèle, Tim and Linda. That’s why we need libraries.)

First Names with Malala

Happy 22nd Birthday, Malala! And Happy Malala Day, too.

When I discovered David Fickling Books’ new series First Names, I was quite excited. They sounded good and I hoped someone would send me one or two. This latest one is about Malala, and that is the only reason I read it, and am reviewing it here. She, and her quest for education for girls, is important enough for me to overlook the fact I was a bit disappointed.

Lisa Williamson and Mike Smith, Malala Yousafzai

The style of Terrible Histories, etc, is entertaining, but feels wrong here. I’m unsure what age group these books are intended for, but whether young or older, readers can manage a more serious style of writing.

The jokes wear thin if you stop and consider what’s happening in the lives of real people. I don’t imagine Malala’s parents felt at all in the mood for jokes when their daughter’s life was in danger after she was shot. Yet, there the joke is.

I have learned new facts about Malala, and I probably admire her more now, but I’d have liked a different kind of book. I’m not sure the horror of the Taliban lends itself to cartoons. Yes, it’s great to see how Malala like many older siblings was less than keen to acquire younger brothers. We want to see her as the normal girl she is, or at least was.

Malala was lucky enough to have the right parents, and she has done many great things. We are lucky to have got to know this brave girl and to see how she’s working to educate girls all over the world.

My wish is this book will be read and enjoyed by many, and that the cartoon style Malala will help children understand what happened and what continues to happen in our insane world. I just hope its young readers haven’t been underestimated.

Standing firm

What with the way the world seems to be going, I’ve remembered a couple of events from my semi-distant past.

We had neighbours once, with children. It was before ours went to school, and being a naïve foreigner I knew very little. When it was time for the neighbours’ oldest to move to secondary education, they wanted the school that was perceived to be the best in town. Without paying for their education, that is.

So they did what they had to do and ‘omitted’ ticking the box on the form that showed the boys had attended a catholic primary school. Because back then – and it wasn’t that incredibly long ago – it seems anyone could attend the good state school, except for catholics.

When they were refused places at this school and they checked the application form, it turned out some kind soul at the primary school had ticked the catholic box for them.

They fought the decision, but by the time the authorities had changed their minds, the boys had begun term at the school deemed appropriate for their kind, and decided to stay where they were.

But as I said, it came as a shock to me.

As for speaking up, all the neighbours in our neighbourhood attended a public meeting about some development plans the nearby private school had, in the school’s hall. The chairman spoke at great length, putting the school’s needs and wants out there. After all, they were the private school, and the neighbourhood was just that; just people.

One woman had a question for him, and when he didn’t shut up for long enough, she piped up anyway, saying ‘I just wanted to ask…’

The chairman pointed his finger at her and replied, ‘lady, when I want you to ask, I’ll let you know.’

Which was when everyone stood up and left.

The hottest defence

Yes, we did make it, to the year’s hottest defence. In the midst of a continental heatwave four of us from Scotland sweated our way through the kitchen duties and the astrophysical elements of Daughter’s PhD defence, in those woods on the outskirts of Geneva. Our two guests had not imagined anything like what they found…

Observatoire de Geneve

Dr Son was unable to make it, having some prior date with Daniel Hahn. Which is understandable. Dr Dodo was off to a dark corner of the US. We did, however, have the company of Cousin Riverside and Helen Grant, without whom we would most likely have ended up as two sad puddles on the Observatory floor. I don’t have words to describe how wonderful they were.

But I will obviously do so, anyway.

Serendipitously I had last year’s dress rehearsal to guide me, and as I cleverly managed to have knee issues on the day, I mostly directed the others from my spot in the kitchen, where our multitalented linguist Helen quickly grasped the finer details of the dishwasher instructions from the Observatory’s ‘dinner lady.’

Tables were shifted and food laid out. Riverside opened wine bottles, Helen threw streamers and I blew up the balloons. The Resident IT Consultant did much running and lifting. Daughter lined up her fan – the kind that blows cold air at you – plus her large bottle of Evian and her slides, and even remembered to change out of her ‘pyjamas’ before we trooped into the Aula to hear her talk on planets and stars.

Helen's PhD defence

45 minutes later, the 45 minutes for questions from the six-strong jury grew to over an hour, followed by a half hour of deliberation. We used the time for progressing the wine and nibbles, making sure nothing melted too much.

Helen's PhD defence

Helen's PhD defence

And then it was back to the Aula for the verdict, which was ‘très bien’ which is just as well, as there was no need for any rash action from me. Hands were shaken, the thank you speech was delivered, and so were countless – mostly Moomin – gifts. Unicorn slippers. (I waited until Dr Daughter came upstairs to hand over my flamingo…)

Helen's PhD defence

Helen's PhD defence

Wine was drunk, and much water, and the nibbles were nearly all eaten. There was even some haggis, which people enjoyed. (Presumably because they didn’t understand what it was.) There was chatting.

Eventually we – by which I mean the other three – cleared things away, and then we got into the car to go to Geneva for a post-doctoral dinner at Little India. Dr Daughter guided the Resident IT Consultant past all the roadworks, and then we hopped out, leaving Helen Grant to assist him with finding a parking space!

A very nice meal was had by all who came, including five sixths of the jury and those friends who had not decamped to see the solar eclipse in Chile.

Helen's PhD defence

After all this we were suitably tired. And, er, sweaty beyond belief.

Massive thanks to Helen Grant for doing photography duty as well. And to Riverside for being so calm and well organised.

Helen's PhD defence

(You have to admire their colour coordination!)