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.


2 June 2008

Author links and other useful stuff

Filed under: authors,books,children's lit,illustration,libraries,schools,ya lit — westword @ 9:17 pm

As I mentioned in my report last week, the teacher-librarians at the network meeting I attended had some really practical suggestions about how they might find this blog useful, which I am starting to follow up on. One of the t-ls was after a convenient link to author sites—a one stop shop, if you will. Lots of authors and illustrator have their own sites, so it can be a simple matter of just googling whoever you’re interested in, but a more comprehensive site would be really useful.

And there is such a site! In fact, there may be several, but one I am familiar with is hosted by the fantastic team at Curriculum Materials Information Services (CMIS) team at the Department of Education and Training in Western Australia. The site is very user-friendly—there’s an alphabetical index, and the author/illustrator sites listed are coded to indicate if they’re Australian (or WA). There’s also a readership level guide for fiction titles.

Following a link to an individual (say, Morris Gleitzman) takes you to a potted summary of their work and major titles, and if they have their own website—voila!—the link is there as well.

The CMIS author/illustrator site also has sections that link to interviews and other useful information about booking authors into schools and so on. And CMIS’s “Focus on Fiction” site has all sorts of other links—to book awards, classroom resources, and links to review journals and so on.

Finally, the CMIS team keep up an excellent blog about children’s and youth literature. They are much more dedicated bloggers than me—they update pretty much every day. I’ve added the link to westword’s blogroll (eyes right→) and I recommend it highly as a hub of news and views of interest to all of us working with young people and their literature.

More links and resources to come, so pop back soon.

22 May 2008

westword has a busy week!

Filed under: Uncategorized — westword @ 11:53 pm

It’s the Sydney Writers’ Festival this week, which makes it a very busy week for me—which paradoxically means I am not going to make it to many Festival events, alas!

The week kicked off for me with the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, held on Monday night at the Art Gallery of NSW. I was thrilled that James Roy won the Ethel Turner prize for young people’s literature for his marvellous collection of inter-related short stories, Town. Town is one of my favourite YA books from 2007, and I’m glad that it has received its due recognition by this award. (Town is also a CBCA Notable Book.)

The Patricia Wrightson prize for children’s literature went to The Peasant Prince, a picture book based on on Li Cunxin‘s Mao’s Last Dancer, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas.

Tuesday night I chaired a Sydney Writers’ Festival session at Max Webber Library in Blacktown. The panel was on speculative fiction, and featured writers D.M. Cornish (Monster Blood Tattoo), David Kowalski (The Company of the Dead—not intended for younger readers, but many teens will enjoy this lengthy and complex alternate history) and editor of Aurealis magazine Stuart Mayne.

I wrote an account of the Premier’s lit awards dinner and the spec fiction panel on my personal blog: follow the links if you’d like to read about both events in more detail.

My days have been busy too. On Tuesday, I attended the Western Sydney region‘s primary principal’s meeting with Terry O’Keefe, the children’s services librarian from Blacktown City Library. Terry spoke about the work of public libraries, the changing nature of young people’s use of libraries and future directions for the way the library might work with and for young people.

It was also an opportunity for me to talk to the principals about the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project, the first time many of them had heard about it. They were very positive and supportive in their response, and gave some good suggestions about how the project might work with their schools.

Terry and I also had the chance to talk together about some joint projects—we’ve got a very exciting idea we hope to get up in Term 4 this year—too soon to publish details, but we’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, I spoke about the project at a teacher librarian’s network meeting (also Western Sydney region). There were about 80 TLs at the meeting, and again, the response was overwhelmingly positive. These, of course, are the people at the coalface of bringing young people and books together, and they had a lot to say on a number of issues: the value of access to arts programs for their students, but also the problems associated with the cost of bringing authors and illustrators into their schools. The affordability and sheer logistical challenges associated with organising excursions. The hole left by the end of the Nestlé Write Around Australia creative writing competition. That an interactive website would be both welcomed and made use of—we all agree that schools and libraries need to embrace Web 2.0 in ways that adhere to principles of child protection and safety, but also reflects young people’s engagement with technology and multi-media.

The teacher librarians also had some really practical suggestions about communication and promotion of events and programs, and were very clear that this blog would be a useful resource and information centre for them, at least until the project has its own website, and I am able to set up better communication systems. I have taken that in board, along with a few specific requests for author resources, which I will be posting here very soon.

Tonight (Thursday) was the launch of the project’s advisory board member (and mover-and-shaker!) Libby Gleeson‘s new novel Mahtab’s Story. This wonderful novel was inspired by the stories of young Afghani refugee women, who Libby met at Holroyd High School, and was launched by the NSW Governor, Professor Marie Bashir.

As we have come to expect, Professor Bashir spoke with great warmth and sincerity about Mahtab’s Story, about the renewed optimism and positivity in Australian public life, and the potential our country now has to have an influential voice in world politics regarding dispossessed and oppressed peoples. She spoke about the quality of Libby’s writing, and the way Mahtab’s Story demolishes stereotypes we in the west may have about Muslim people—women in particular. (Here, she referred to the fictional Mahtab’s admiration for her great-aunt, a doctor, in whose shoes she hopes to tread.)

Libby spoke strongly about the dignity of the young Muslim women she worked with in the research and preparation for her novel, and this was made evident by the speech made by Nahid, the young Afghani woman whose story most informed and influenced the writing of the novel.

But as moving as Libby’s and Professor Bashir’s comments were, the words of the Nahid actually had me in tears.

Nahid, who is now 21, arrived in Australia in September 2001—as she said, the historical, social and political nadir for Muslim Australians. Nahid and her family were held in detention on their arrival—now, after graduating through the intensive language centre and then the mainstream educational program at Holroyd High, Nahid is now studying medical science at the University of Western Sydney.

Nahid said that from her the earliest years of her childhood in Afghanistan, she believed in equality for all people, especially women, and spoke about how she intends to fulfil all her personal goals—not primarily for herself, but for those young Afghani women left behind who at this point in time cannot hope to pursue any kind of formal education.

Such grace, such compassion and empathy.

Mahtab’s Story is, I think, a wonderful example of the aims of the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project, and I recommend it, both as a fine novel and a lucid expression of the true heart of multiculturalism and inclusion in Australia.

Finally, if any westword readers are at a loose end around 7 pm tomorrow night (Friday 23 May), can I suggest you make your way to the Workshop Showroom in St Peters in the inner west to attend the Sydney launch of Leigh Rigozzi and and Benny Walter‘s “Below Tree Level” project. Leigh is the artist who conducted the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature project’s first event—the zine workshop previously blogged here at westword.

More soon—but here’s a photo from the Mahtab’s Story launch:

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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