10 February 2009

New year, new resolution!

Welcome back to westword and the second year of the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project.

I was a bad blogger last year, and I am determined to update westword far more regularly in 2009. I will be adding posts soon about some of the highlights of 2008, and will also start listing forthcoming events and plans for the project.

I also plan to use this blog as a bit of a resource hub. In the past few months I have finally got myself organised with google reader, and have now added more than one hundred blogs, most of which deal with children’s and youth literature, literacy, publishing and related topics. (Also I am also now on Twitter, using my personal blog name (misrule_au) and am using it to post links to articles I have read of interest (as well as other bits and pieces of sense and nonsense). But I will also be putting those links here, starting with this post.

First of all is this interesting article  from new Zealand about a new approach to literacy that is having enormous success, especially with Maori students:

In the first South Auckland study, involving seven schools, each child’s reading leapt ahead by an entire year. The technique also pushed far more children into the average or above categories – 40% made these top slots before the study started, and in three years that jumped to 70%. Maori children again did particularly well. The second group of seven different schools showed similar results.

The article doesn’t go into enormous detail about the program, but it’s been written up in Reading Research Quarterly, which I was able to access through ProQuest via Blacktown Library’s database.

Over in England, the battle is on to save the school library. Spearheaded by authors Philip Pullman, Alan Gibbons and the wonderful Michael Rosen, the campaign is against closures of school libraries as well as changing their name (and focus away from books) to “learning resource centre”. Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of the brilliant Millions, has also had his say on the matter:

Mr Cottrell Boyce said: “When I visit many schools, I see a big, fat, glaring, expensive anti-reading for pleasure signal.

“It stands where the library used to stand and it’s called the learning resource centre. To turn your library into a learning resource centre, you generally have to chuck out a bunch of valuable, durable assets – books – and replace them with sub-prime computers which will quickly date.”

From time to time I hear people say similar things are happening in Australian school libraries: can anyone comment? Are our school libraries in danger of refocusing away from books? Are we losing teacher-librarians from our schools? Please add your thoughts to the comment section. (Ditto public libraries, by the way—are we losing specialist children’s and youth services staff from our public libraries? We need to be really vigilant that we protect our libraries and the specialist support they offer young readers.)

Speaking of supporting young readers, and of the delightful Mr Rosen, read this article about Michael Rosen working in a school in Wales to encourage a love of reading. The BBC has made a TV show out of it (here’s the link, but we can’t watch the video outside of the UK), a la Jamie’s School Dinners. What do you reckon the chances are the ABC will screen it here? Should we start a campaign?

(And before I forget, I found this when I was looking for links to Frank Cottrell Boyce. Liverpool, where he lives, did one of those whole city reads the same book things with Millions. Isn’t this fantastic? If we did a Sydney Reads (or even a Western Sydney Reads), what book would you choose? And if you’re looking for resources to accompany Millions, don’t forget this official site from the publisher, which also happens to be very entertaining.)

Also from the UK is this rather scathing assessment of the way secondary school crush creativity, especially in boys. This is author Joe Craig speaking:


I’ve visited over 200 schools in the last couple of years, which means I must have run workshops for over 40,000 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 13. By the time the students reach Year 8, I can predict almost word for word what their story ideas will be, from any given starting point. Even if they think they’re being subversive, in fact especially when they think that, the older the student is, the more predictable the ideas.

The biggest change comes in Year 7, which statistically is also when there’s the biggest drop off in reading – especially in boys. Now, it perhaps seems obvious that the withering of originality is greatly caused by reading less. But I think it’s also the other way round: they read less because their creative spark is consistently doused. Their connection with stories, with ideas and imagination, is stifled by the school environment. If the fun has gone from stories, why read?

I imagine if I were still in the English classroom that I’d be a bit affronted by this article, but I actually suspect there be more than a grain of truth to it. We hear stories from time to time of boy students getting into trouble for things they have written—I think it’s partly teachers’ reasonable concerns about their legal responsibilities to report potential threats or child endangerment, but I do think that Craig is spot on when he suggests that boys’ “wacky ideas” need to be celebrated. Girls’ too, for that matter. (The stuff this article raises about gender as it pertains to reading, writing and classroom practice are, I think, fascinating.)

This is a very UK-centric post, for which I don’t apologise—I think it’s important we keep track of what’s happening with our colleagues, and with education and books and authors and so on around the world. Having said that, I popped over to the Sydney Morning Herald to see if there were any articles of interest in their Education section, and I got a “page not found” message. Humph.

More soon!


7 July 2008

Youth writing group—Blacktown

Filed under: libraries,writing,young writers — westword @ 8:51 pm

Young writers in Years 8-10 are invited to join a new creative writing group, to be held over six weeks in Term 3 at Max Webber Library in Blacktown.

The workshops, to be led by local writer Glenda Guest, are free, but we do ask that the young people dedicate themselves to attending every week. The group is limited in size, and bookings will be taken on a first come basis.

Details on the information flyer, which you can download here: youth-writing-group

1 July 2008

Planning in progress

I am busy at the moment putting together some programs that I want to pilot in the second half of this year—which, of course, is already upon us! How did that happen?

There is, I was pleased to discover, a decent amount of money in my program budget, which will allow me to run some substantial pilots at no cost to the sorganisations who may be involved. I have a few program ideas I am working on, involving writers and illustrators of books for young people—graphic novels and “make a book” programs are two potential programs—and designed to run one day/session per week over a number of weeks, rather than a one-off workshop. It’s engagement over time we’re aiming for with the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Program, for what the good folk at The Song Room call sustained outcomes.

Next step—well, one step of many to come—is to identify the schools, libraries, community groups, perhaps even TAFE courses (for a skills development component where relevant) to work with on these pilot projects. I have a few ideas about how to go about this: working with education department consultants, putting out for expressions of interest, taking enquiries through this blog…

Once we’ve worked on these pilot programs, the idea is to “package” them so that other groups across the region (and state) can take them up.

I’m also working with the curator and cultural advisor on the Penrith Regional Gallery‘s Strictly Samoan program. Depending on funding, we’re hoping to work with three schools in the Penrith area which have significant numbers of Samoan students on a storytelling and writing project. The schools for this project have already been identified, so stay tuned as to how this project will develop. (Similarly, I’m hoping to get up a writing project associated with two arts and historical exhibitions coming up in Parramatta later this year.)

So, busy days, and exciting prospects—and yet there’s lots more it’s still too early to report on!  So bookmark or subscribe to the blog, and I’ll keep you posted.

7 May 2008

Recent events

Filed under: books,children's lit,illustration,libraries,western sydney,writing — westword @ 11:47 pm

Apologies for not updating the westword blog sooner, but I was in Melbourne for the Children’s Book Council of Australia conference last week, so very busy (and tired!).

I have two events in the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project to report, both developed in partnership with the Blacktown City Library.

First of all was a visit by the Western Australian author-illustrator (and husband and wife) team, Mark Greenwood and Frané Lessac. Mark and Frané have together created a beautiful new picture book, Simpson and His Donkey, published by Walker Books Australia, and we were lucky enough to host them on their only day in Sydney (Monday April 28).

Mark and Frané led two “Make a Picture Storybook” workshops for Year 5 and 6 students, demonstrating how they research, write and illustrate their books. We had more than 40 young people in the workshops, and they were all enthralled and inspired by Mark and Frané’s presentation—and the work they produced was stunning.

Frané demonstrates how to draw Simpson’s donkey.

Mark talks about researching and writing Simpson and His Donkey.

Some examples of the wonderful work produced by the young people at the picture book workshop.

The second event to report on was the presentation of the library’s Youth Week creative writing competition. YA author Melina Marchetta selected the competition winners, and she was guest speaker at the presentation on the evening of Monday 5 May. Melina spoke “writer to writer” to the audience, speaking about her books and her creative process—and she read a section from her forth-coming novel Finnikan of the Rock. It was a fantastic opportunity for the young writers to hear from one of our finest novelists for young people, and there were some really thoughtful and intelligent questions asked, particularly from parents interested in encouraging their children’s creativity.

Melina Marchetta speaks at the Youth Week Creative Writing competition.

It’s been wonderful to host events with such gifted creators of books for young readers so early in the western Sydney project. There’ll be more to come, so stay tuned!

27 April 2008

Meet Melina Marchetta—Free Event

Filed under: libraries,western sydney,writing,ya lit,young writers — westword @ 10:23 pm

Melina Marchetta, award-winning author of Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca and On the Jellicoe Road, will be at the Blacktown City Library on the evening of Monday May 5. Download the information flyer here and the schools’ booking form here.

Melina will be in Blacktown for the presentation of the Blacktown City Library’s Youth Week Creative Competition. Melina is selecting the winners of the competition, and will be guest speaker at the presentation.

This free all-ages author event is open to everyone, not just people involved with the creative writing competition. Melina will be speaking about her books and the craft of writing. There will be time for a question and answer session and a book signing, and Melina’s books will be on sale courtesy of Readers Bookshop, Westpoint Blacktown.

A reminder: the event is free but bookings are required: call the library on 9839 6677. Schools are welcome to book in multiple students to attend: download the booking form here.

14 April 2008

zine workshop report

Filed under: illustration,western sydney,writing,young writers — westword @ 8:53 pm

The first event in the western Sydney young people’s literature project took place on Saturday—a zine workshop at The Burbs Youth Week Festival. As I’ve mentioned before, the workshop was led by the wonderful young artist Leigh Rigozzi.

The workshop was a bit of an experiment in a way—how would such a workshop work at what was primarily a music festival? Would people know what a zine was? Would anyone turn up?!

Well, they did turn up—although no-one really had heard of zines before—and those who joined in the workshop had a great time. We had probably more than 20 young people (from 7 to 19) join in over three hours or so, and they all thought Leigh was great. Leigh had brought samples of his work, and the common reaction to seeing his fantastic comic-style art was mad!

The idea was that the participants would make a page about their life in western Sydney, featuring text and illustrations. A few of them claimed they were no good at art, but Leigh encouraged and guided them. He also made some cartoons on the spot about the festival, which were brilliant in their wit and observation.

Some of the younger kids wanted to take their pages home, but we got enough to make a modest zine, which we’ll be producing in the coming weeks. (I even contributed a page, despite the fact that, as my dear dad always said (affectionately), if I were a horse, I couldn’t draw a cart…)

So thanks to Aaron and Zack and the “Maccas servers” girls from Liverpool and the Young family and everyone else who joined in. Special thanks to Leigh. We’ll be working with Leigh and other cartoonists, graphic novelists and zinesters in the western Sydney project as time goes on.

Here’s a photo of Leigh with some of Saturday’s zinesters. (Leigh is the one with the beard 😉 ) More photos at my flickr site.

7 April 2008

Upcoming events

Filed under: books,libraries,western sydney,writing,young writers — westword @ 9:00 pm

There are some great events I’ve had a hand in organising coming up in the next few weeks: a zine workshop led by artist Leigh Rigozzi as part of Youth Week, a “make your own storybook” workshop for senior primary school students led by by Frané Lessac and Mark Greenwood and a public event to celebrate Frané and Mark’s new picture book Simpson and His Donkey. Follow the links below for more information, and do join us!

Zine workshop.

Storybook workshop.

Simpson and His Donkey event.

2 April 2008

Recent developments in the western Sydney young people’s literature project

Filed under: teaching,western sydney,writing,ya lit — westword @ 12:16 am

As has been (not so) gently pointed out to me by my colleague, Mike Shuttleworth, at the Centre for Youth Literature in Victoria, I’ve been a bit slack about my blogging lately. So here is a much-needed catch-up on what I’ve been up to with the Western Sydney young people’s literature program in the past few weeks.

I’m pleased to report that I have a number of projects pencilled- and penned-in on the calendar. Coming up in April is a zine workshop at Blacktown Council‘s Youth WeekThe ‘Burbs” festival—April 12 at Blacktown Olympic Park.

Also attached to Youth Week is a creative writing competition for 12-18 year olds, coordinated by Blacktown City Libraries. There’s 700 word limit on entries, which should somehow connect to the Youth Week theme Shout! Share! Live! Unite! I’m thrilled that Melina Marchetta has agreed to judge the finalists in the competition and will speak at the competition’s presentation evening at Blacktown’s Max Webber Library on May 5. I’ll upload the poster tomorrow.

I’m really pleased that we will be hosting the only Sydney appearance of the creators of a new picture book Simpson and His Donkey (one of the first local titles to be released by Walker Books Australia). Illustrator Frané Lessac and writer Mark Greenwood (see their website here) will present 2 “Make Your Own Storybook” workshops for Years 5 and 6 students, and will also be talking about the book to an all-ages audience at a public event at Max Webber Library. Monday April 28—contact the library for booking information in a week or so.

Then on May 20 I will chair a session on fantasy/speculative fiction at the Max Webber Library as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Panellists are D.M. Cornish (Monster Blood Tattoo), David Kowalski (The Company of the Dead) and Stuart Mayne, editor of Aurealis magazine.

I’ve also been busy with the following:

I was guest speaker at the University of Western Sydney, speaking to post-graduate Secondary English Method students about the western Sydney youth lit project, about engaging their soon-to-be students (they’ll be in the classroom next year) with fiction and about teaching creative writing. A lot to touch on in a two-hour session!

Attended the Australian School Library Assocation‘s NSW conference, which was excellent. I imagine many of the librarians there were challenged and inspired by the keynote speech by Dr Ross Todd, who spoke about the importance of meeting young people at their level in terms of their engagement with technology, social networking and so on. I also attended some terrific workshop sessions looking at Indigenous writing and engaging “reluctant” writers by using the internet to develop creative writing skills. I believe the keynotes and workshops will be available on the ASLA NSW website at some point soon.

I also launched a book at the conference; Samurai Kids: White Crane by Sandy Fussell, illustrated by Rhian Nest James and published by Walker Books Australia. It’s a terrific book, full of adventure and action and some serious philosophical ideas based on the principals of Bushido—the Samurai code. Recommended for “middle school” readers, it’s the first in a planned series of books about the young warriors-in-training of the Cockroach Ryu (school), all of whom have particular personal challenges to face along with the more general challenges involved in their training. (A few more details and comments are available at my personal Misrule blog.)

And the western Sydney young people’s literature project was featured in an article in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald. It’s a lovely article, written by young journalist Josephine Tovey, accompanied in the print version by an equally lovely photo of me with some kids from Tregear Public School in Mount Druitt. Also check out Jo’s opinion piece in today’s Herald about her experience attending a selective high school. It’s a very well argued piece which could well be used as a model for student writing.

That’s it for now. More soon—I promise!

9 March 2008

westword and the HSC

Filed under: HSC,western sydney,writing,young writers — westword @ 10:02 pm

An area I’ve a personal interest in, as an ex-English teacher, is the HSC English Extension 2 module, which requires advanced students to submit a major work. I’ve never taught the “new” HSC, introduced in 2001, but it’s always interested me in its approach to comparative study of texts and the rather belated introduction of the personal project (in the form of a creative writing portfolio) option.

(South Australia, for example, has had a major work as part of its senior English curriculum for a long time, and back in the early 80s, when I was a senior high school student in the ACT, I was able to choose an English class looking at the form of the short story that also required us to submit a creative writing portfolio. I’ve a great admiration for the schooling system in the ACT, which, like several other states, does not have a final external examination like the NSW HSC. It makes me wonder what might battles may be fought (and lost?) if a national curriculum, which will almost certainly involve a version of the HSC, is enforced. But I digress…)

I always enjoyed teaching creative writing when I was in the classroom (even though at the time I didn’t have particular skills or experience in the area), but I was also aware that many of my colleagues did not feel particularly confident in this area. I don’t know that this has changed all that much—English teachers are very well-trained in teaching formal essay writing and in guiding their students’ responses to literature, but creative writing is an area where many feel less confident. I don’t recall it being much a part of my teacher-training, and let’s face it—responding to students’ creative/imaginative work is harder than assessing an essay.

Add to the mix the commonly-held opinion (or so my anecdotal experience of chatting to teachers would suggest) that students often tend to lose a bit of the creative spark when they get to high school. I think that’s partly a product of adolescent self-consciousness as well as the very content-heavy secondary curriculum. (Also the content of the NSW K-6 English syllabus, which some time ago shifted its emphasis from authentic literature and creative writing to non-fiction “text types”.)

I have no doubt that children and teenagers continue to scribble (or these days, type and upload to blogs and MySpace etc) poetry and prose in the privacy of their bedrooms, as they have ever done, but as formal education has become increasingly about academic and vocational outcomes, it’s been harder and harder for teachers and students to carve out a creative niche in the English classroom.

I feel a bit of a fraud writing this—it’s so long since I’ve been a full-time classroom teacher—so I have felt the need to test my own thoughts on the subject against the real experience of current practitioners. Which brings me to the relevance of this rather long-winded and overly-opinionated post to the real purpose of this blog: the documentation of the western Sydney young people’s literature project (which I am coming to think of, in a much needed shorthand, as the westword project!).

From 2009, the HSC English Prescriptions List will change. Some new books have been added—I’m told this is about 15% of the reading list—and texts that have been on the HSC list for many years have been moved to a different focus of study. Last week, I attended a workshop offered by the English unit of the Curriculum Support Directorate of DET, which looked at the new Prescriptions list and offered resources and support to develop new units of work. I really enjoyed the workshop—it was good to familiarise myself with the HSC English curriculum, but it was also a great opportunity to talk to teachers from western Sydney about how the westword project might develop programs to best support them in their teaching.

All of the teachers I spoke to confirmed that support for the teaching of creative writing would be very welcome. Even standard students have to write a creative piece in their HSC—it’s worth a third of marks for the first paper, itself 40% of their final mark, many students have difficulty preparing, and it seems many teachers don’t feel they can give it adequate time in the classroom. And there’s the afore-mentioned Extension 2, which it seems not all schools can even timetable on a regular basis.

(Compare this to the time allocated to major works in visual arts and design, drama and music. We wouldn’t think of letting HSC students complete these more or less under their own steam. I can’t help but wonder if this comes back to a widely-held assumption that you can’t teach people to write creative pieces—that you’ve either got the talent or you don’t. But as Libby Gleeson pointed out when she was interviewed by Andrew Daddo on 702 ABC Sydney a couple of weeks ago, we teach people how to paint, sing, play a musical instrument, play a sport—why not writing?)

And it’s not just the HSC. We obviously need to lay the groundwork for skills in creative writing in the junior school.

Let me circle back again to another meeting I had recently, with Susanne Gannon from the University of Western Sydney. Susanne teaches Secondary English Method students—those folk who are going to be English teachers, many of them in western Sydney schools. She has a special interest in teaching her students to become good teachers of writing, and her resource booklet for the course is full of fabulous examples of literature across genres. Susanne agreed with my own concerns about teachers’ confidence in teaching creative writing, and we are looking to work together to develop research and practical programs to address this. (Susanne also has some great ideas about nurturing western Sydney writers as an adjunct to her work in pre-service teacher education, but it’s a bit premature to say more about that as yet.)

So, it’s clear that a priority for the westword project will be supporting young writers by supporting their teachers. There are many ways we can approach this, but I do hope that in the long run, we can produce a module/program that we can deliver in such a way (no doubt involving the creative use of technology) to help teachers (ultimately across the state?) to be better teachers of creative writing. And yes, I’ll be looking to involve professional writers in the project.

I’d really like people’s thoughts on this. Please note that I’m aware that there are many teachers out there who are confident and successful teachers of creative writing, but there are many more that, it seems, would really appreciate more resources and direction in this area. So, any comments and ideas will be gratefully received—consultation must be at the core of everything the westword project undertakes.

This has been a long post—thanks for staying with me. But wait—there’s more! (I’ll be brief.)

On a slightly different tack, many of the HSC English modules require students to select their own text to supplement the Prescriptions list for the various modules. I gather that finding appropriate texts outside of the texts commonly studied in schools can be a challenge for the students, their teachers and the librarians that students go to to find a book about X, Y or Z.

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel—I know that HSC English resource lists are being developed by various groups and organisations. What I am wondering is if people think it would be useful if I were to apply my knowledge/extensive reading of contemporary YA fiction to develop reading lists of suitable supplementary texts for various modules, especially the new common area of study, “Belonging”, which seems to lend itself so well to the theme of so many YA novels. (And would such a resource list would be of particular help to Standard students?)

Thanks again, and please leave comments and suggestions.

25 February 2008

Play Now Act Now—creative competition for 16-25 year olds

Filed under: writing,young writers — westword @ 3:10 pm

Play Now Act Now: Party Smart is a creative competition about young people, alcohol and other drugs. There are three categories: click on the link to go to more information about each.

Creative writing

Graphic design

Film and video

The prizes are generous, too. 

Play Now Act Now is a collaboration between NSW Health and Metro Screen.

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