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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Archive for February, 2014

Book Review: My Nanna is a Ninja, by Damon Young

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 26, 2014

My Nanna is a Ninja
I think I may have mentioned before that I’m writing up some poetry units for the Australian Curriculum?  I am beginning to doubt that they will ever be finished, because as fast as I finalise a lesson on the units I’ve done, somebody produces another gorgeous book and of course I have to use it, and so my unit is out of date five minutes after I’ve planned it.

So it is with this fabulous book from Damon Young: My Nanna is a Ninja is hilarious – I can’t wait to use it with my Year 4 poetry class.

Some nannas dress in blue while they bake sweet apple pies.
Some nannas dress in red as they fly about the skies.
Some nannas dress in pink while they jog around the track.
But my nanna is a ninja so she dresses up in black.

(You can download the sample pages that these couplets come from on the UQP site so that you can see the wonderful illustrations by Peter Carnavas.  There are teachers’ notes there too. )

These four nannas defy stereotypes: they are young, or young-at-heart, they are all active and they all express their love for their grandchildren in different ways. The illustrations work with the text to show us a grandma ballooning, riding on wild horses, and otherwise living life to the full.  The ninja grandma sneaks out for midnight feasts, and uses a ninja sword as a satay stick for eating watermelon.

I’m going to use this book to explore rhythm and rhyme, but I don’t think we’ll try to emulate it in our own poems.  Too hard!  We’ll talk about other forms of poetry that we could use to write about grandmothers so that we focus on meaning.  We could try acrostics, maybe haiku, or free verse: the important thing will be to capture the mood of individuality that modern grandmas have, and the special relationship that they have with their grandchildren.

Sometimes, the creativity of Australian picture book authors and illustrators makes a teacher-librarian’s job a real delight …

Author: Damon Young
Title: My Nanna is a Ninja
Illustrated by Peter Carnavas
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2014
ISBN: 9780702250095
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.


Fishpond: My Nanna Is A Ninja
Or direct from UQP.

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Poetry, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Book review: Night Monsters, by Nina Poulos

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 16, 2014

Night MonstersNight Monsters is another of the NLA’s picture books which can be used to teach young children about Australian animals.

Written in rhyming couplets – which also makes the book useful for teaching the Literature component of the Australian Curriculum for English – the story confronts the fears that children have about monsters in the night.  The animals of the bush are scared too, and so Cackle Kookaburra gathers them together so that they can admit their fears and find out what’s causing them:

Cackle Kookaburra sat in a tree
She was glad it was finally light.
For friends had told this wise old bird
Of monsters in the night.

So Cackle called her friends around,
She thought it would be best
To share their tales and find the truth
And put their fears to rest.

Waddle Wombat hears a witch making her teeth go ‘clack’; Rowdy Roo hears hissing; Ernest Echidna is sure that there’s a dinosaur snarling; and Doris Dingo hears growling and grunting that she thinks is a bear (which most Australian children will know couldn’t possibly be, in the Australian bush).  Wallis Wallaby is worried about the beat of a dragon’s wings; Paddle Platypus thinks that a goblin is snoring; and Prunella Possum says she’s seen a giant roaring.  But Cackle Kookaburra knows what’s causing all these spooky noises – it’s Larry Lyrebird, a remarkable mimic!

All’s well that ends well, and the last page of the book features facts about the lyrebird, complete with some images from the NLA’s collection, some of them very early ones from the 18th century.  The rest of the pictures are bright and lively full colour illustrations by Cheryl Westenberg, who also illustrated What’s Dad Doing? which is a very popular book in our school library. (See my review).

The book is produced on high quality paper, with a cover that is more robust and durable than most paperbacks, giving it a longer shelf-life in a school library.

Author: Nina Poulos
Title: Night Monsters
Illustrated by Cheryl Westenberg
Publisher: National Library of Australia (NLA), 2013
ISBN: 9780642278333
Source: review copy courtesy of the NLA

Fishpond: Night Monsters
Or direct from the NLA

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Retirement, and other musings…

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 8, 2014

Teachers in the government system are very rarely publicly acknowledged for the work they do, and nowhere is this more evident when the time comes for retirement.

The Education Department takes no notice at all.  Towards the end of a career they have a shabby little acknowledgement of years of service when they dispatch a form requiring authorisation for a certificate acknowledging 35 or 40 years of service: it doesn’t even come with pre-paid postage, the recipient has to attach a stamp advising them if the certificate is wanted or if they wish to attend the ‘ceremony’ where it is presented.  The ceremony is, of course, after work, and since it consists of strangers also ‘celebrating’ their years of service, it seems a lot like more of the unpaid overtime that teachers routinely do.  Because the department knows absolutely nothing about the work done in the years of service, it falls to the hapless principal to research a few details, adding to her workload for no useful purpose at all since none of the other people attending the ‘ceremony’ are, with the best will in the world,  likely to be genuinely interested.  The proceedings cost the department the price of an A4 piece of paper and minor catering expenses.

When a teacher in a government school retires, there is usually some sort of ceremony at the school, and depending on its resources, there will be some sort of gift and some speeches made.  I have been to some rather shabby functions like this: a multipurpose room at the school jazzed up with a balloon or two and some photos.  There are nibbles brought by the other teachers; and the resident wit usually makes what is thought to be a comic speech.  Very rarely will there be a speech that actually outlines the teacher’s achievements beyond the obvious.  These retirement functions were at their worst in the Kennett years, when the premier eliminated 7000 teaching positions and told parents that it would make no difference to the quality of education.  7000 retirements is a lot, and retirement function fatigue soon set in.  Many of our best teachers left the service without anyone marking their departure at all.

This week, my old mate Alan retired.    On Friday after school, in a hot staff room where I was the only colleague from any of his previous schools, there were generous speeches from senior staff, and it was obvious from the crowd that he was a well-loved member of staff and they were sorry to see him go.   But it was Alan’s inspiring speech that made this a special occasion for me and for everyone else who was present.

I’ve known Alan for more than 25 years, and I’ve always known him to be a wonderful teacher.  We taught together for five years, and have kept in touch with regular social gatherings of staff from that school ever since.  But it was not until Alan rose to say his farewells that I had the opportunity to hear him articulate his reasons for sticking with the job.

It was because he had once heard someone say that the kids who end up in gaol are the ones who can’t read.  Because they can’t read, they can’t get decent jobs and they lack the skills to make a success of their lives.  Alan determined there and then that he would always do his very best to see that any child who came into his care would learn to read properly.

A modest man, Alan admitted that he didn’t always succeed.  But he tried.  He never gave up.  It was his mission in life, and he gave it his best shot.

If the Minister for Education had any idea what the profession has lost in the retirement of my mate Alan, they would have been there with a gold watch, at the very least.

Posted in Opinion | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Book review: Sir Henry Parkes, the Australian Colossus, by Stephen Dando-Collins

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 7, 2014

Sir Henry ParkesAs many school teachers know, the history of Australian Federation is a bit of a dry and dusty topic for students, and it takes a great deal of skill to make it palatable. Which is why I welcome this very readable biography of Henry Parkes a.k.a. ‘The Father of Federation’ because there are plenty of interesting titbits to liven up proceedings in the classroom.

He looks such a miserable old fogey, doesn’t he? It’s probably just the way his shaggy beard grew, but the drooping moustache makes him look positively sour. So it was a considerable surprise to discover that there was more than one young woman who took a fancy to him in his dotage: he had a mistress of long standing who was more than half his age and – aged 73 – Parkes married her very promptly as soon as his long-suffering wife Clarinda died. And gosh! three months after Nellie died he whisked off her nurse, 23-year old Julia Lynch, to the altar!

I lost track of all his children but the bio has a handy family tree to remind me that he fathered 17 children altogether, which is all the more remarkable considering his propensity for getting into debt. How they didn’t all end up in the Poor House or starving in a gutter is a minor miracle. He was absolutely hopeless with money, starting one futile business after another, declaring himself bankrupt half-a-dozen times or so, and finally dying with nothing more than a burial plot to his name. Still, next time I’m in the Blue Mountains near Faulconbridge, I think I might visit to pay my respects, because for all his flaws, this man was the visionary who united the Australian States, and much more besides.

The book begins with some Notable Quotes (sic) from H.P., my favourite of which is this:

On Australians’ Obsession with Sport

‘One danger to a sound and healthy public spirit in Australia is the inordinate appetite for sports and amusements … Man in a civilised state has capacities for something more.’

There’s more to this comment than meets the eye. (It’s from his book, Fifty Years of Australian History, 1892.) Parkes was an entirely self-made man. He emigrated to Australia with little more than hope and a wife (Clarinda), and through hard work, ambition and initiative he rose to become Premier of New South Wales when that was the highest political office in the land. He was self-educated, incredibly hard-working, and had no time for self-indulgence with amusements of any kind. So, reading between the lines, I suspect that he would have wished that there were more people like him at that crucial time in the colony’s history, more people of an ordinary background like his on the parliamentary benches, more people who understood the importance of improving the lot of ordinary people for the wealth of a nation.

The list of his initiatives is impressive. Most notable is his championing of the rights of women. At a speech in Adelaide in 1892, he said:

We cannot term ourselves a democracy as long as we exclude half the human race from the franchise… I have always favoured women’s franchise, and no one could be a democrat unless he also does so. I admit women’s claim to the franchise because of their common humanity, as intelligent, responsible members of the community. (p. 360)

And even though it doesn’t seem much of a big deal now, he put his beliefs into practice when he could. When the husband of the husband-and-wife team who ran the parliamentary dining-room died, he terminated the advert for a replacement declaring that the widow Agnes Dettman, was perfectly capable of running it on her own. Although unsuccessful, he also tried to have his daughter Menie employed as Australia’s first female journalist.

Among his other achievements, he also introduced the Public Education Act in 1866, requiring for the first time that teachers be properly trained, and was responsible for improvements in nursing standards when he asked Florence Nightingale to send nurse-trainers to the colony.

There were some less edifying aspects to his career. Quite apart from his frequent insolvencies involving astronomical amounts of money, he seems to have been involved in some dubious practices with cheques, and he borrowed huge sums of money when he had no real prospect of ever repaying it. What is remarkable about this is the extent to which his friends and supporters baled him out, time and again, because they recognised his remarkable leadership qualities. What he needed was a good accountant!

With the benefit of a more inclusive age, we can now see also that his acts to limit Chinese immigration were racist, and so was the exclusion of Australia’s indigenous people from the Constitution. (This latter omission is not something that is acknowledged by Dando-Collins, which it should have been.)

It was interesting to learn that elections in this turbulent period of NSW politics were almost constant, and they were not held for all electorates on the same day. This meant that Parkes could stand in one electorate and if he failed to win, he could then stand in another electorate in the next round and get a seat that way. On more than one occasion, after resigning his seat for one reason or another, he declined to stand, but his supporters nominated him in some country seat and he won it notwithstanding. There was also a quaint custom that required anyone appointed to a cabinet position to resign his seat and go back to his electorate for reindorsement. Imagine that today!

I hope schools invest in a copy of this biography: I’ve taken a look at the long, verbose and somewhat confusing entry for Henry Parkes at Wikipedia, and I think that students would be much better off using this book. The author’s style makes light work of a complex career, and it humanises the man as well:

Henry found that he could relax at Helene [their home at Ryde, then a rural outpost of Sydney], although he was only there one day a week at best. Setting up a camp bed in his new Empire office [where he ran his doomed newspaper], he spent six days a week there, only heading to Ryde by steam ferry most Saturday nights, returning to the city on Sunday nights. At Helene he filled his study with the books collected over the years, while outdoors he began to build a collection of birds and animals which would grow more and more exotic over the years. Every Sunday morning during 1855-56, Parkes would go for a tramp through Helene’s bushland, intent on trapping a wallaby to add to his collection. Ryde’s wily wallabies were always much too quick for him, and he would never succeed in catching one. Nonetheless, a wallaby would soon join his collection – in 1856, the master of Regentville, Robert Jamison, son of the late Sir John Jamison, Parkes’ first employer in New South Wales, would give Parkes one as a gift.

As comfortable as Parkes had made himself, and as happy as he had made his family, this new lifestyle was unsustainable. It had been built on a mountain of debt, which only grew larger. In late 1854, just as Parkes had been revelling in his first months in the legislature and planning the relocation to 173 George St and Helene, a recession hit the New South Wales economy, and advertising revenue at the Empire had halved. Yet, instead of tightening the belt, Parkes had thrown the belt away. It was a case of wishful thinking fogging reality, with Parkes seeing what he wanted to see. (p. 113)

The biography is also enjoyable reading for teachers who just want a bit of extra background to liven up their lessons about Federation!

The book includes B&W photos, an index, notes for each chapter, a bibliography and a family tree of Parkes’ wives and children. I would have liked a timeline too.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Author: Stephen Dando-Collins
Title: Sir Henry Parkes, The Australian Colossus
Publisher: Knopf, 2013
ISBN: 9781742757971
Source: Kingston Library


Fishpond:Sir Henry Parkes: The Australian Colossus

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