Monday, February 16, 2009

Reading is Fun-damental

In Great Britain they have the children's laureate. Doesn't that sound like a fun thing to have? It did to me.

Actually I had no idea what it was but I imagined it was a sort of poet laureate for children. Someone who traveled around to schools reading poetry to children and creating poetry for children. In fact, it isn't tied to poetry.

The children's laureateship was the brainchild of Michael Morpurgo and his friend - and then poet laureate - Ted Hughes, although it was not first endowed until 1999, after Hughes's death. The role, which lasts for two years, is awarded to a children's writer or illustrator to celebrate immense achievement in their field. The long selection process encompasses nominations from all areas of children's writing, along with the opinions of children themselves, before the decision is made by a final selection panel.

Got that? The decision includes the opinions of children. This sounds better and better.

In 2007 Michael Rosen was named children's laureate. Who? Maybe those of you with children know who he is.

The author of over 140 books, Rosen is best known for his collections of humorous verse for children, including You Tell Me, You Can't Catch Me and Quick Let's Get Out of Here. He has written picture books, such as Burping Bertha and Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, and is a familiar voice on radio as the presenter of Radio 4's linguistics programme, Word of Mouth. He is also a vocal critic of the way stories are taught in primary schools for SAT tests.

Did you catch that last sentence? A vocal critic of the way stories are taught in primary schools. What concerns him the most is that students are taught literacy but not the enjoyment of reading books. In fact, they seldom get to read an entire story. They are given excerpts to read and then are tested on comprehension.

He thinks that a child who learns to like reading will be a better student - not just in their school years but all their lives. He says:

Books are low-tech, portable packages of the widest range of human experience, presented in a format which gives time to grasp complex ideas or to spend time in imaginative worlds. Children who "get" the reading thing have the best possible platform for "getting" the trick of school learning, as well as a resource for the rest of their lives.

But, he thinks, schools aren't empowering teachers to teach love of reading. As described in The Guardian:

With teachers under pressure to deliver a "reading curriculum", Rosen said that schools have developed what he dubbed "excerpt-itis", where classes read an extract from a book and are immediately asked questions about it. "It's absolutely pathetic - they don't even tell the whole story," he said.

It sounded a lot like what we call "teaching to the test" and I've had so many teachers complain to me about that.

Rosen is trying to do something about it. He has a new BBC show, a "reality" show, in which he tries to get an elementary school in Cardiff, Wales to "fall in love with literature in just 10 weeks."

The hour-long show, Just Read with Michael Rosen, is due to appear in February. It will see Rosen, author of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy and We're Going on a Bear Hunt, giving staff at the school permission to shake up their timetables in an attempt to get classes reading for fun. Many of the children at the school have few books at home, and have never visited a library.

"This is a chance to engage at the chalk face," said Rosen today, laying into the national curriculum and SATS. "All these initiatives the government has put in place have actually spoilt many children's chance of loving books ... These initiatives are about learning to read - there's virtually nothing at all about enjoying books."

Will he succeed? I guess we'll need someone in Britain to watch the show and let us know. But he seems to understand one essential thing. You have to get the teachers on board. As he wrote in How to Start A Reading Revolution, a blog post he wrote in The Guardian:

I'll say now that it "wasn't about me". It's about the teachers in the school. If you say to teachers, how can we, with the resources we've got here, develop a policy on reading books, then within minutes, people have ideas, make plans, invent activities. It's as if these wellsprings of teachers' creativity have been held in aspic for the last 15 years.

I hope those teachers had fun and I hope the kids had fun too.