Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Do we listen to children, but never really 'hear' them?

I've had a paper on my study floor for several years in my pile of papers loosely categorized as those ‘I must read some day’. Many times, I've picked up a photocopied extract from a book titled ‘The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination’. The book was written by psychiatrist Dr Robert Coles. Each time I would skim a few paragraphs and think, "now why did I place this paper from a psychiatrist here to read"? I was flipping through the pile again this week when I saw the Coles extract once more. I read a few pages and finally realized why I’d kept it.


Coles' work needs to be read by teachers, parents, doctors, psychiatrists and politicians. As I finally did read it completely, one key aspect of his work resonated strongly with many of my own instincts about nurturing and understanding our students at school. We often fail to truly listen to the stories our children want to tell us, about who they are, and what matters most to them. Instead, we more often observe and draw conclusions based on their behavior, the things we’ve listened for, and responses to our questions.


Coles unpacks the lessons he was to learn about knowing and understanding his troubled patients. One of the simplest, yet most profound lessons, was simply that patients - and I would add students at school - want to tell their stories. But often we fail to listen, and instead begin to ask questions about the things WE want to know, not what they are trying to share. At the feet of a good teacher, Coles realized his patients were telling him the stories they thought he wanted to hear, and refraining from those things that mattered most to them. He began to realize that if he failed to listen to things other than what we were looking for, they would stop sharing the things that mattered most to them. These 'hidden' things of course include their challenges, hidden pain, life frustrations, hopes and fears. As teachers, I suspect we often miss the stories that offer an insight into who our students really are.



As I read Coles' work, I could see special significance for teachers who try to understand their students. I suspect our school students always carry round stories to which we barely listen. If these are shared, they tend to interrupt the flow of our plans for the day. Students arrive at school usually full of life and keen to tell others about the stories that matter to them. Stories about the things happening in their lives. But do we listen? If we don’t we lose so much. For in the comments they make, and the stories they try to share, we gain insight into the things that matter most to them, not to mention their fears and hopes.


In my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I say much about story, but Coles’ work has reminded me that we need to amplify the importance of storytelling in our classrooms even more. Children are born to be story tellers. If given opportunities they will share stories in class, walking into school in lines, at group tables with other students, at sport, while waiting in assemblies, or simply waiting at the school gate to go home. Some teachers might see the buzz of such conversations and stories as unimportant chatter. But if only we would listen I suspect sometimes we might just hear children speaking of the fears, phobias and hopes that impact on their lives.



Robert Coles was taught by his mentor Dr Ludwig something critical about not missing opportunities to listen.


The people who come to see us bring their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly.


While we might be teachers, not psychiatrists, I wonder how often we miss such stories and opportunities? Whether our students' comments and stories are happy, sad, important or just great memories, do we give them opportunities to share them? And if they do, do we actually listen?


I share a number of stories in my book about teaching moments when I have gained great insights into my students in the cracks of classroom and school life. One of them concerns a ‘non-talker’ I met in a Kindergarten classroom where I was teaching part-time. As a researcher, I visited classrooms regularly in a country town to explore using writing as a means to encourage young writers to express themselves. On one occasion, I took over a Kindergarten classroom (5-year-olds in a primary school). I handed out blank books and asked them: “tell me a story in these writing books.” I stressed that they were to choose anything that was important or special to them.



One little girl finished her work and shared her story with me. She had left her seat and come to me excited and keen to read what she had written, much of it was invented spelling, but she read her work with pride. When the School Principal dropped in on this particular morning (no doubt to check on the visiting researcher), I asked the little girl to share the story with her. She did so and returned to her desk. The Principal was aghast. When she spoke to me later, she shared that the little girl “didn’t speak”, and had said nothing to her teacher in the first 8 weeks of school. In fact, she had been tagged in a “non-speakers” group so they could monitor her progress.


I also shared a story in my book about an African American student I taught in an Indianapolis Elementary school in the 1980s while a visiting Professor at Indiana University. Chanda was not my most cooperative student. She rarely completed tasks, and often didn’t even start. One morning as she dropped her bag on the desk, the contents fell out, including a bundle of paper with writing on the many sheets. I asked her what she was writing? To which she replied:


“Nothing, sir.”


I gently prodded a little more and said, "what are you writing about". She responded, "not much Sir". I had the good sense to say, “I’d love to see your writing.” She reluctantly pushed a sheet across the table and said, “It’s just music, sir, just bin writin music.”


I began to read her quite poetic and rhythmical writing, and discovered that there were a dozen or more examples like the first that I picked up. Yes, it was music! Chanda went on to share that she had been writing music at home for some time and it was one of her passions.


I could go on to share many other stories of students who would wander into my classroom in the morning before classes for a chat. I always listened and they shared many things. Some seemingly banal, others profound, some disturbing, but all offered insight into aspects of their lives and a sense of who they were as people.



One of Robert Coles’ great insights while working with adult traumatized psychiatric patients, was that all people deep down are story tellers and want to tell their stories to someone who will listen. Sadly, he found that if people do share something of our lives, but they sense others aren't interested, then they stop and withdraw into telling us what they think we wish to hear.


As an elementary school teacher and later as a university lecturer, I found that our students do want to share some of their life story if they have a relationship of trust with you. Their sharing of personal stories often happens within the classroom in the ‘cracks’ of the school day. But it also happens as we walk in lines to school sport, as they unpacked their bags at the start of the school day, or as they prepare to go home. I loved playground duty as a young teacher, because this was another less formal place where children would come up and talk about the things important to them.


As I write in ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’: “The role of teachers and schools is to nurture, inspire, form, and influence for the good the children God gives” us. Assisting their formation as people is a foundational part of education. To have any right or opportunity to do this we must create contexts where they are willing to tell their stories. And when they do, we must listen carefully so that we might just come to a deeper understanding of who they really are, and what their hopes for the future might just be.

Friday, 26 November 2021

Identity, faith & imagination: Who am I?

Who am I? I suspect the answer for many people the honest answer is “it depends”. If a stranger was to walk up to you and say “Hi, I’m Frank, who are you”, how would you respond? You’d most likely start with your name. What follows is a type of social ‘dance’, as we reveal things about ourselves in order to present a certain persona. For a total stranger, your answer would probably be short, not giving too much away too quickly. The person’s gender and appearance might also shape your response, and what you will share. Our identity reflects many things, but what we share with others is always a representation of who we believe we are, or the person we wish to project that we are. In reality, only God knows us as we are, for he sees all, and knows all about us.


One of the great challenges within the school is that our students are constantly seeking to present themselves to the world in a particular way. Most people invest a lot of energy trying to project an image of who we think we are, or would like to be. We live in an age, where increasingly, people of all ages embrace varied media to build an identity, and present it to the world using Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Twitter and so on.

This reality begs the question, can anyone truly know us? Probably not, for we tend to withhold information from others. The one exception is God, who of course does know us as we truly are. As King David reveals in his famous Psalm 139:

1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.

However, we can’t know our students or children as God does, but as teachers and parents, we need to get below the surface representations our students project each day, to understand who they truly are. As I wrote in my book ‘Education and Pedagogy for Life’, when our students arrive in our schools and classrooms, they don’t come as clean slates. They come with memories and hopes, and of course ‘baggage’ of all kinds. If a child has been subject to a domineering parent, or perhaps a level of poverty and trauma in the household, they will be positioned differently in the classroom and school community than the child from a stable and privileged past. They will also have a different sense of identity that reflects their lived experience.


Our students’ knowledge of the world and their place within it, are distilled from a
limitless array of experiences, stories, and memories. How can we help them to grow and mature in their understanding of self, and to develop secure and positive self-concepts? And it seems the imagination plays a part.

Ricoeur suggests “the imagination generates new metaphors for synthesizing disparate aspects of reality that burst conventional assumptions about the nature of things.” The imagination is not an alternative to perception but an important part of it. In a sense, our perceptions of who we are can be shaped in part by our imaginations.


Let me offer an example from my life. There were a number of moments in my childhood when specific events helped me to ‘imagine’ myself as someone other than who I thought I was, the second child, living in the shadow of my sister, who always seemed to be the favourite. But a simple event when I was about 10 years old helped to shift my attention away from who I wasn’t towards who I might just be one day become.


The memory, will seem somewhat trivial, but it had a long-term impact. Our household received a delivery of coal which was to be shared with a neighbour. The load was dumped in our driveway, and my father and the neighbour were moving half of the load by wheelbarrow next door. I was watching and my Dad and he said, “Here son, have a shovel”. I took the shovel and began moving the coal to give my Dad a break. But I continued for quite a while. Our neighbor turned to my Dad and said “Struth Henry, the boy shovels like a man”.

Why do I recall that event with such vivid clarity? Because it helped me to understand something about myself. I had an inner determination, energy and strength that I had demonstrated not just to others but also to myself. Such memories might seem inconsequential, but they represent life moments when the imagination and real life events collide and help us to see ourselves a little differently.

In my book, I share a variety of vignettes and stories that all to some extent seek to show the connection between identity, imagination and life. I also challenge teachers to think less about compliance and more about observation and formation. These communities of practice that we create as teachers really matter! Let me end with a quote from my 'Pedagogy & Education For Life' p.132:

“The distance between teacher and student is little more than a relational artefact. A classroom where there is compliance, where students do their work and perhaps even achieve highly, is not necessarily a transformative classroom…. Are we providing the relational contexts that are speaking into our students’ lives… Imagination is central to how our student minds are engaged, hopes are formed, aspirations are primed, friendships are conceived, and supported… Imagination also plays a key role in connecting who our students are, who they wish to become, and what is critical to their sense of belonging.”

Saturday, 30 October 2021

Revisiting the Imagination: A gift to help us find true 'life'

In the past week, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the imagination. It's a topic I've been exploring for over 30 years. I've just uploaded a post on another blog 'Literacy, Families and Learning' concerning how children access and help make sense of their world through stories. I've been writing my literacy blog since 2007, and it was and still is for a very broad audience of teachers, parents, librarians, literacy and Literature fanatics. Readers of the blog come from many nations. The majority are not Christians, and probably not people of faith at all; although a number from the Middle East, are believers in God. 


As I wrote the content I posted yesterday, I was reminded, that there is still much suspicion of the imagination and the power of stories in some religious circles. But, as well there is just as much suspicion of it pedagogically, the way we teach and encourage it in practice. There is also great misunderstanding of how it can be used as we learn; even amongst people of no faith! And yet, as I wrote in 'Pedagogy and Education for Life: A Christian Reframing of Teaching, Learning and Formation', God who himself is imaginative, made us as "creatures who can use our imaginations to understand his purposes for us" (p.122).


The imagination is not something that people of faith should find problematic. No, it is a gift from God! In my book, I quote another very helpful book by Veith and Ristuccia, titled 'Imagination Redeemed' which has much to which I say Amen! People of faith must reclaim the imagination at creation for the good purposes of our God. It isn't to be feared, except when used for ungodly purposes. We were gifted with the imagination to enhance our communication with one another, as we express our sense of wonder and surprise in those ‘aha’ moments of life, but also to communicate with one another (as does the novelist) to surprise and challenge us to look beyond ourselves to the one who made us, and all that was for our good. 


As I write in my book, the imagination is as an "intellectual activity of the mind that connects prior and new knowledge and experiences with our grasping after the unknown. It is part of the way we make sense of and respond to our world, but it also helps us to ponder the world beyond" (p.122).


If you are a teacher, or have your own children, you should not be afraid to stimulate their imaginations. Nor, should you see it as mere frippery; just something to encourage only after the 'real' study or work is done. No! The imagination is a gift of God to be embraced and used as we seek to know him and his plans for our lives. Never, of course as a way to dismiss what he teaches in his word; it is another way that he has gifted us. As my colleague (and namesake) Trevor Hart writes in 'Between the Image and the Word' in quoting Richard Kearney, the imagination is pervasive "a feature of our existence". 


Hart argues that the imagination is a critical part of our humanity, with many connections to the mundane and everyday activities of life. It can involve mental activities like “expecting, planning, exploring, fearing, hoping, believing, remembering, recognizing, analyzing, empathizing, loving, conjecturing, fantasizing, pretending,” as well as the more specialized creative activities of life that also reflect our ability to imagine. These include of course, language, art, literature, music, and invention.


In my literacy post published yesterday, I explored in detail the topic of Intertextuality, which in is in essence means, the interconnection between texts written and read. Such connections might affirm ideas, offer us new insights, or help us to grasp the depth of meaning of something in those “aha” moments, when another text challenges, inspires, or perhaps even create dissension. As Christian parents or teachers this might raise worries and concerns, but we must not fear the imagination. Instead as creative beings ourselves, we need to engage and discuss our imaginative interpretations and insights so they are accessible for evaluation, testing and the discerning of ultimate truth.

Thursday, 12 August 2021

The Importance of ‘Hope’ to Developing Resilience

The word resilience is a buzz word that people in all walks of life use frequently. This has certainly been the case in schools as COVID-19 has led to enforced home-schooling and disrupted lives. But what do we mean by resilience, and how do we identify and develop it in our children? In the midst of this pandemic I’ve been wondering, might people’s understanding of resilience be too limited?


The Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “being able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.” But is it a natural and innate human quality, or can we develop, strengthen or even lose it? Does the resilient person simply develop more positive attitudes, and apply themselves well to the tasks at hand? Or perhaps, do they ‘grow’ and achieve a “positive mindset” to quote a common but vague expression? I want to suggest that in all such discussions, the place of “hope” is often overlooked.


Paul’s Letter to the Roman’s in the Bible is just one place where we are reminded that with hope, all things are possible. Paul encouraged the church and its people to offer themselves in love as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-8). He also urged acceptance for the weak and strong in faith (Rom 14) and that the strong in faith were to bear with the failings of others (Rom 15:7). But sitting atop all of these qualities he stressed there should be hope! We are to “overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13). 

The Bible and even secular sources, show that ‘true’ resilience requires hope. But what we actually place our hope in is also critical. In the midst of a pandemic, trusting in your own health, fitness, or even young age, is not the answer. The type of hope the Apostle Paul talks about is more than just wishful think, or “hoping for the best”. No, this is a certain hope, one based on an understanding that God, can be trusted, and that we can have a confident hope in our future (Heb. 6:9-12). 


For over 18 months, COVID-19 has been a dominant factor shaping lives and opportunities around the world. I suspect that hardly a day goes by for teachers, and parents without talking about coping with life and of course resilience. But where do we go in search of resilience?

It has been instructive to observe governments, schools, hospitals and individuals responding to the challenge, and seeking to control the risks and circumstances of their worlds. I suspect that calling on God to control and end COVID-19, has rarely been a consideration for many. So, from where is hope being sought? Quite simply, from human ingenuity and solutions, led by clever scientists, skilled doctors and governments enforcing controls.


I have pondered whether people of faith, including Christian parents, teachers and leaders, are looking in the same places for encouragement and solutions? I can’t answer this question, but I suspect that even in Christian circles there has been as much fear and self-reliance as outside the church. As I argue in my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' "education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life". As we teach and nurture our students towards 'true' life, we are constantly supporting, encouraging and teaching them to seek the hope that can only be found in God. This hope is vital to their growth in resilience. 


A well-known secular book on resilience, outlines 10 key factors in achieving it. These include:

  • Confronting fears and remaining optimistic.
  • Seeking and accepting support.
  • Imitating 'sturdy' role models.
  • Relying on an 'inner compass'.
  • Embracing religious practices (i.e. believing in something greater than yourself).
  • Accepting what we can't change.
  • Taking care of our bodies and well-being.
  • Seeing bad experiences as an opportunity to grow. 
  • Seeking to improve and change, and
  • Taking personal responsibility for own care.

It is instructive to see that even in key texts for secular audiences, the human need for hope is found not just in one’s self. The need for hope is also seen as a key foundation for the development of resilience in the face of suffering. As we confront the burden of Covid-19, our best response is to encourage one another. Not by lamenting what we have lost, but in faith, seeking to hold onto the hope of the Cross. We must act with urgency to help others to understand that beyond the pandemic and this short life, is an eternal hope that surpasses any number of days on this earth. My encouragement to all at this difficult time, is to seek hope beyond experts and self-help schemes to our God, the author of life and the sustainer of all things.



Steven M. Southwick & Dennis S. Charney, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges’, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2018


Tuesday, 29 June 2021

The Underrated Need for Persistence!

I’m sure that we all know some very bright and successful people. At times in schools the student who is scarily bright or clever in some area, can be intimidating to others. As a parent or teacher, you’ve probably heard comments from children like the following: “Sally (or Sam) is so much better than me?” 

If you’re not the brightest person in a class or a gathering of people, it can be intimidating and frustrating to see others doing things seemingly with ease and little effort.

I've had many conversations with children in varied contexts, where they were decrying their lack of success in some area. It might have been a test or assignment in a subject that isn’t their favourite. Or, it might just be the 200 metres freestyle event at the school swimming carnival. When confidence is lacking, we can hide behind excuses for our lack of success with statements like “I’m just not good enough”, or “she’s just better than me”. In Australia, we have an expression that sums up the response that is often needed for many of these situations – you need to “Have a go”! By this we mean make an effort, don’t give up so easily, persist and give it your best shot.


Success at school, just like success in sport, employment, marriage, or even dog training, requires more than ability, it also requires persistence and effort. 


In my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, my fourth pedagogical principle is ‘Do our practices place sufficient emphasis on work and effort’? Of course, I wasn't assuming that these qualities are sufficient alone. There are many dimensions to 'work' itself. And I think ‘persistence’ is one key aspect that we don’t emphasize enough.


Above: Cliff Young After Winning the Ultra Marathon Aged 61

We have a monument in Australia to a potato farmer and part-time athlete from Beech Forest, Victoria. In the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon in 1983 (over a distance of 875 km), Albert Ernest Clifford "Cliff" Young, at the age of 61, surprised the field. Cliff won the event after training in gumboots chasing his cows around his farm. He wasn’t a fast runner, but he won by denying himself sleep and running while the others were resting. After being well behind early in the race, he slowly gained on them and eventually won by a big margin. His effort was an inspiration to many and offered a great life lesson. You can see a memorial gumboot at Beech Forrest today, that commemorates this remarkable athlete (and farmer).



Above: Gumboot Memorial


I’m reminded of Cliff when I hear children and adults decrying their inability to do specific things. When our students do so, there is often little more we offer can them than encouragement to “have a go”, to “dig deep”, to “stop making excuses”, to “keep at it” and so on.


But what might it look like in our faith-based classrooms to encourage students to persist? I think that most of all, it requires teachers to believe in their students and to challenge them to continue to make their best efforts in any task they find hard. As well, we need to challenge them to not simply make excuses and give up. It is far too easy for children to say, “but I’m just not good at ….”. Persistence is a human quality that can help us to overcome limitations in other areas.


Of course, while persistence is critical for learning at school, it is even more critical for living a life of faith. Life will be filled with varied challenges for all, whether simple ones like struggling in a school subject, or coping with students who are treating others badly. There are many places in Scripture that offer wisdom and encouragement at such times. For example, Hebrews 10:19-39 reminds us that persistence and perseverance are critical to the life of faith:


“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25). 


These verses first and foremost are about persistence in faith rather than school work, but the need for persistence extends to all of life. And of course, this requires faith in God. The faith-based school must ensure that faith in God is more than a class once a week, it is central to shaping the school community and the lives of our teachers and students.


While our students might need to trust in their ability and their teachers to help them succeed at school, more importantly they must keep all things in perspective, for there is awaiting those who trust in Jesus a prize beyond all others. As the Letter of James, the Apostle to the early Christian church teaches us:


12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12


As a teacher within a faith-based school it is critical that we don’t forget that persistence is a critical aspect of life, whether in relation to the day to day study and the work of our students, or developing a deeper and more dependent faith in God. Encouraging and nurturing faith-based persistence in our students and the school community is a core requirement in the faith-based school.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Honesty & Service: What is the relationship between these traits in the Christian classroom?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of honesty in encouraging our students towards service and support to one another. In particular, I'm interest in the part it might play in challenging others about behaviour, language and even beliefs.



You may recall that I wrote about "Christian Service" as the third key plank in my pedagogy within my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life'. I still believe that modelling and encouraging ‘service’ is a critical principle in biblical Christian education. But I particularly want to reflect or ruminate on the place that ‘honesty’ plays in relation to service within a Christian community. Do we give enough much thought to honesty when discussing Christian service? In recent times, I’ve observed again and again, that people of faith seem afraid to offer a contrary view when brothers and sisters say things that they feel are inappropriate to us and perhaps even unbiblical. Do we avoid the awkward conversations? Or simply go quiet when someone says something with which we don’t agree? Perhaps, we simply change the conversation?


I’m sure that we’ve all observed members of the church, staff in schools and or students in classrooms, expressing views that are unbiblical. Unbiblical ideas might be expressed in post-church conversation, within the workplace, or just as a group of friends sharing life and aspects of faith. Within the school, such ideas might be shared in the playground, during informal class activities like group work, or after school chapel. But what do we do when we hear such words? And what do our students do? Do we simply remain silent to keep the peace, or are we courageous enough to speak the truth in love?

In Ephesians 4 Paul teaches how we are to challenge wrong ideas in order to ensure unity and maturity as we live together as a community of believers. In doing so, he urges us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15a), and to put off “falsehood” and the while as we speak "truthfully" to others (Eph 4:25). Do we seek to do this with our neighbors and Christian friends? Do we encourage our students to do the same? Or, at times is our default to keep quiet, and not challenge wrong and sometimes dangerous ideas. Paul challenges his readers to avoid such passivity, and to speak up, for we are all members of one body (Eph 4:4-6). As such, we must encourage one another and sometimes, even graciously rebuke each other.


I can recall a Christian colleague within a secular university over 30 years ago who had a big impact on my life with some well-chosen honest words. I had been a Christian for just 3 years and was his boss! And yet, after a meeting, in which he and I were the only Christians, he pulled me aside. He said, “Trev, when you said the Vice-chancellor was an idiot in the meeting because of his actions, you weren’t really setting a great example for our colleagues. As Christians, we need to speak the truth at all times, and in particular, we need to be careful how we speak about our boss, and show respect.”


The key illustration here, is not in my words and actions, but in Fred’s honest and wise words which I have never forgotten. His simple response not only strengthened our relationship, but also our combined witness to colleagues. His words set an example for me concerning the need for honesty in Christian community, and I have never forgotten it.  


As teachers, do we sometimes fail to offer wise and honest words to our students at opportune times, words that might encourage them to be different. If we do fail to do this, then we are failing to speak the truth in love as part of our Christian witness and service.


God our Servant King made us to be servants to him, but also to one another. Jesus, of course, is the perfect model of service, having given his life for us (Phil 2:7; Matt 20:25–28). In shepherding and watching over his flock, he was never afraid to speak the truth when it needed to be spoken (1 Pet 5:3).


What might this look like in our classrooms? You might talk to your colleagues about how honest your conversations are with one another, as you serve our God within the school. Do you avoid saying some things for fear that you might upset others? 


Please note, I’m not suggesting that you lecture colleagues about their behavior and lack of godliness, for this could quickly lead to a display of pride and arrogance. Alternatively, we need to ask ourselves, do we often see and hear staff and students saying things that are inappropriate and unhelpful to building communities. Remember, service to one another is a central trait of Christian communities. We need to keep asking ourselves, do I sometimes fail to offer a godly comment when needed with the right motives as Fred did?


As teachers, we need to add ‘honesty’ to community conversations as a key part of our service to one another. This includes both staff and students. If we do grow in our willingness to speak the truth in love, we will collectively continue to become more Christ like. This in turn will strengthen the collective witness of our school communities.

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Children's Books That Will Make You Think, Laugh & Perhaps Even Cry

This is a cross post from my other blog, Literacy, Families and Learning that is written for a wider educational audience. I thought readers of this blog might also enjoy sharing some of these books with children.

As a regular reviewer of children's literature, I'm never quite sure what books will arrive at my place to review. In this post, I review 7 different and surprising books. Christian readers might come up with varied ways to introduce and share each title. The first could lead you in several directions.

1. 'The Rock From The Sky' by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen has that rare ability to fascinate the youngest of readers, and yet stimulate the mind of the adult with his 'simple' picture books. It's not surprising that 'The Rock From The Sky' (like many of his other works) has been an instant #1 New York Times bestseller! This is another incredible work from the Caldecott Medal winning creator of the hat trilogy and other wonderful books. 

Klassen is a genius of storytelling and art. With just three characters and a rock, he is able to create intrigue, tension, jealousy and fear of the unknown. In a recent video on his website HERE he explains that this book drew much of its inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock he explains understood the difference between shock and suspense. Hitchcock was the master of how to build and use suspense, the unknown, and the unexpected, to engage the reader or viewer. In this 'simple' book Klassen uses the same devices. The story features a mole, a turtle and snake and seeks to take the reader on a journey that slowly builds tension with the reader, and invites us to imagine what might just be coming next.  

Does the young reader have to grapple with an elaborate plot as they experience this book? Not really, but they will experience tension, intrigue, curiosity and a desire to see what will come next. As Turtle greets Mole at a chosen spot the tension begins as Mole feels uneasy about his chosen spot.

"What do you think of my spot?
Actually I have a bad feeling about it.
A bad feeling?

In short, once again Klassen merges visual suspense with wry wit to create a work like no other children's author and illustrator.

2. 'Wombat' by Christopher Cheng & illustrated by Liz Duthie

Far underground, where dirt and tree roots mesh, are tunnels that lead to a burrow, and in this burrow Wombat’s day begins. A story about the life of a wombat, looking at the interesting way these animals build their homes, look after their family and protect themselves from predators. Wombat is a new addition to the Nature Storybooks series from Walker Books, which feature a lyrical narrative and engaging nonfiction combined with stunning artwork to pique the curiosity of young minds

Wombats might seem to be cuddly creatures you could take home, but they tough creatures with sharp teeth that never stop growing, and limbs that can shovel dirt like a mini bulldozer. They can also live for years without drinking water. The book series features a narrative as well as a factual description of life for the wombat.

Follow one of these powerful marsupials through a suspenseful day in Christopher Cheng’s engaging narration, paired with endearing illustrations by Liz Duthie and interspersed with intriguing facts. An endnote provides additional information about wombats for readers curious to learn more.

3. 'Florence & Fox' by Zanni Louise and illustrated by Anna Pignataro

'Florence can't share her toys with Fox today because today is not Sharing Day. In fact, Sharing Day is not for hundreds of days. Fox has never heard of Sharing Day and he has some questions, but luckily Florence has all the answers.'

This is a delightful book that tackles the challenge of every preschool child - as well as parents and teachers - what does it mean to share things? When Fox reaches for the hammer Florence has put down, he is surprised to find out that it isn't 'sharing day' so he can't use it. But the next turned out not to be sharing day either. In fact Florence tells Fox that it isn't for 100 days!

The author and illustrator have a strong friendship that no doubt helps them to have a seamless connection between the words and pictures. Wonderful!

The author Zanni Louise comes from Byron Bay. She has written 16 books for children, including picture books and junior fiction. She has been twice listed in the CBCA Notables.

4. 'The Great Barrier Reef' by Helen Scales & illustrated by Lisa Feng

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the wonders of the world. It has almost 400,000 square kilometers of amazing coral and sea life. It is one of the most complex ecosystems and has global significance. But that's not all!! This wonderful book looks at the science of the world's greatest reef, ships that have floundered here, and the history of human habitation across at least 40,000 years.

This wonderful non-fiction book from Helen Scales and Risk Fend is almost as vibrant and dynamic as the real thing! The artwork illuminate dazzles the reader with the animal inhabitants of the reef and the people who have embraced it as a centerpiece of their cultures. 

This wonderful book in the series from 'Flying Eye Books' will be read and bring joy to readers aged 7-11 years.

5. 'Bootsy Flies at the Robert Eric Big Top Circus' by Richard Unwin & illustrated by Sarah-Leigh Wills

Bootsy is a Cockapoo. That is a Golden Cockapoo, which is a cross between a English Cocker Spaniel and a standard, miniature or Toy Poodle dog. If you didn't know this, don't worry, I didn't either until I came across this delightful book. The book is suited for children aged 3-8 years.

It tells the story of a special circus owner who loves animals and doesn't want them to be caged and forced to perform things that aren't natural for them. But after the clowns have performed and people laugh, the trapeze artists are done, the drummer has played, is there anything else? How can Robert add to his circus a special act? Especially as Prince Charles is coming to a performance with his grandchildren turns up.

It turns out a little Golden Cockapoo just might have some skills that will make the crowds (and the Prince & his grandchildren) cheer. Can something special be added? Read the book to find out just what this little Cockapoo does that brings the crowd to its feet.

This delightful book is from Fun Nature Books new series featuring a lovable Golden Cockapoo. You might also like to read 'Bootsy's Picnic Adventure'. 

6. 'Ernest The Elephant' by Anthony Browne

This delightfully simple story from the legendary Anthony Browne tells the tale of a baby elephant who gets lost in the jungle.  Ernest is a happy and safe baby elephant who walks every day with his mother and the rest of the herd. But he begins to wonder what else might be out there in his world?

His curiosity gets the better of him. He sneaks away from his mother and the herd, and ventures into the jungle. Deeper and deeper he goes and becomes lost. He sees many other animals including a rude gorilla, a weary lion, an impolite hippo and an uncaring crocodile. None of them can or will help him find his way home. Will he ever find the herd? You'll have to read it to find out. 

As usual, the illustrations are brilliant as you'd expect from this Kate Greenaway Medal-winning author-illustrator and former Children's Laureate. It might not bring the belly laughs of some of his other incredible books, but children 1-5 will love hearing it read. As well young and older readers (5-7) will love reading it themselves, and will relate easily to the key themes of the book.

7. 'The Lost Child of Chernobyl' by Helen Bate

This remarkable Graphic Novel might look at first peak like a children's picture book, but you'd be mistaken. This wonderful book is a haunting and challenging fictional retelling of 
the global environmental disaster that occurred in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl in April 1986. It was to have significance for the whole world.

While it is an imaginary story, with imaginary characters, it is inspired by the real events in Chernobyl and disaster that was a great wake up to the world. It begins:

"One April night, people around Chernobyl felt the earth tremble and shake. 
Looking out of their windows, they saw a strange light in the sky."

But what was the ragged creature in fur of a wolf?

On that fateful day in 1986, animals instinctively ran from the danger, families stopped in fear worried about loved ones working in the power station. And all eventually saw the deadly cloud and wondered, what does this all mean? It was to change everything.

We jump to a time nine years later, and forest wolves bring a ragged and dirty child to a house. The child growls like a wolf. The child has been living with wolves in the forbidden nuclear zone. But who is this lost child of Chernobyl? Will Anna and Klara be able to find the child's family after all this time?

This is a challenging and haunting book that all children aged 9-12 should read. Preferably, they will read it with the ability to talk to parents or a teacher.

Helen Bate is an award-wining author, known previously for her book 'Peter in Peril' and 'Me and Mrs Moon'.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Hidden Challenges of School Life

1. School aims and hidden realities


The aims of our schools typically stress that the development of good character in students is central to the purpose of the school. The quotes that follow are taken from school websites. All have as part of their key values the development of "good character and integrity in students". And how do they seek to develop these things? With good "…teaching, example, learning and practice". Schools like parents accept that "good character is not formed automatically; it is developed over time through a sustained process of teaching, example, modelling, learning and practice." Pretty much every school says they offer an educational experience that will develop good character. Most seem to assume that this occurs through intentional development, in order to enable students to take their place in society. But how?


As I argue in my book, this occurs within multiple communities of practice students inhabit. "Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal." This occurs as students interact in everyday life (primarily with other students and teachers). It includes their behaviour and interactions with one another in corridors, on buses, in classrooms, after sporting events, at social events. In fact, just about any situation connected to school life. Of course, much of this is outside the gaze of the teacher, as well as outside their control. It is possible for some students to experience many years of education and be continually, lonely, isolated, misunderstood, and ridiculed; all without teachers having any idea. What’s more, the students’ parents might have no idea either.


In recent decades, our schools have tended to suggest that our youth face opportunities and dangers "unknown to earlier generations". The argument seems to be backed up with comments to the effect that children are "... bombarded with more negative influences through the media and other external sources prevalent in today’s culture than ever before." I want to suggest that such statements, while fine sounding, can at times mask underlying ugliness experienced in previous generations. Many parents and teachers who lived in earlier times had experiences of hidden misogyny, bullying, ridicule, mocking, sexual harassment and so on. As well, like today's youth and children, they experienced it at school, in the home and in the community. Students then and now, have diverse experiences at home, in the community and at school.


As a student at high school I received my share of criticism, hurtful jibes, and physical attacks due to my weight, clothing, parents, family poverty, hair, and more. All occurred in the cut and thrust of daily school life, including school corridors, on buses, in the gym change rooms, on the sporting fields, just about anywhere. Usually, such challenges were outside the gaze of any teacher. And the point I'm slowly getting to? What students value and how they see themselves, is shaped in the messiness of life, whether inside, or outside the school. It has ever been so.


As I've written many times on this blog "Education is the whole of life of a community, and the experience of its members learning to live this life, from the standpoint of a specific end goal." The behaviour of our students in corridors, on buses, after sporting events, at social events, in fact just about anywhere connected to school life, is often invisible to teachers. As a result, it’s quite possible that for some students the school experience is marked by loneliness, isolation, ridicule and misunderstanding. Of course, life can be the reverse for some children who experience all of the above at home. For such students, school can be a wonderful escape and sanctuary from the pain of life in homes and communities where they might have experienced abuse, oppression and mistreatment.

In every school, on every day, there will be children covering up the challenges and horrors of home life. For these students, school is a sanctuary. But for others, school is a lonely place where they have trouble fitting in and where ridicule and bullying are a constant reality.


What is the role of the teacher in combating the hidden 'ugliness' of life for some?


In ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I offer a number of examples of teachers who managed to more than just 'teach'. They in fact, were people who would oversee multiple communities, that collectively make up schools. Some of these 'communities of practice' are visible to the engaged teacher, others are not. But the good teacher is always observing his or her students to monitor the life of the classroom and school. I write about one such teacher in my book who was the ultimate ‘kidwatcher’.


As a teacher of 32 five year olds, Inta was constantly monitoring student well-being, happiness, focus, and participation in the life of the classroom and school. I asked myself as I taught with her, what was foundational to making her such a great teacher. It became obvious to me that it was her purposes and goals for teaching, and her sense of what mattered most for these children. She had a remarkable focus and intent, and higher-level goals that gave direction to her work.



I met another teacher of this kind in a small regional school withing a small country town in Australia. In a school known for its poor academic standards, Ruby's students skewed the scores of the grade level that she taught. When we went to observe her we discovered something interesting. This teacher knew every child not just as learners but as people. It wasn't just their behaviour that informed her, she sought to get to know them by asking after them, watching them, taking opportunities to speak to their family members etc. She was an exciting teacher who sought to engage her classes in every activity. In a school with below average scores on national tests, her students were well above average. As we observed her we went away saying, this teacher is pretty much the most interesting person in each child's life. 

There were at least three key things that marked the actions of these two fine teachers:

1. Both observed students closely and monitored progress in learning. But as they did this, they also tracked personal development and growth. This was not simply to correct and discipline inappropriate behavior, but rather to help each student to grow.

2. They also used a variety of teaching and learning strategies, not primarily as a counter to boredom and to reduce discipline problems through fun activities, but to engage all learners in varied ways that best suited their learning styles.

3. As well, they spoke to and rebuked the students when necessary to direct them toward higher purposes for learning. In doing so, they were also encouraging patience, self-control, love, kindness, and an interest in how God was at work in their lives as well as their fellow students. This constant monitoring of behaviour, supported the twin goals of learning and also the growth spiritually and emotionally of all students. Both teachers were involved in the lives of their children.


I'm sure that there will be some teachers who read this post and will say, "Trevor, I'm not a social worker, I go to school to teach students mathematics. Parents send their kids here to be educated and do well, then get places in great universities. I just don't have time." If you do think like this, I’m very sorry, for you miss the point that education must do more than just grow children intellectually, they should also help them to grow in character. Christian schools should be wonderful places, where we see students grow in knowledge and personal maturity, and where many go on to do great things. Our schools are always a reflection of the world at large, so we will also observe tragedies like suicide, sexual assault, abuse and failure of varied kinds. Nevertheless, our schools must build special communities of learners that support and grow children in every dimension of life. 


The reality in our world is that there is can be an ugly and hidden side to community life in all schools, just as there can be in families, communities and work places. The role of the Christian teacher is to be present in the school not just as a subject specialist, nor the best teacher of Kindergarten, Grade 6 or whatever. Rather, they are to manage and shape communities of practice where the students and the staff grow together in Christian maturity and faith. Only with such commitment will we observe schools where there is less 'hidden ugliness' and more evidence of God working by his Spirit to transform lives for the good.


As James K. A. Smith argues, education is an “holistic endeavor” with a focus on formation of the child. And of course, the elements of our wholeness extend well beyond our skills and capabilities to bodily health, the mind, desires, and imagination. Teachers and their students all vary in characteristics, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, but the sum of all we are, is seen in our unique identities (see Cairney, ‘Pedagogy & Education for Life’, p. 48). 


The most important characteristic of the great teacher is their ability to see beyond the appearance, gestures and at times contrived language and behavior of our students. They do this in order to tap away and open up students to be honest with you as their teacher, so you can support them and help them to grow in character as they live their daily lives.