Sunday, April 02, 2006

Developing real literacy : Margaret Mahy

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I once read an article by Mem Fox, an Australian children’s author, who was talking about the phonics versus whole language debate. She said that those arguing were missing the point. The key to a child learning to read was the relationship between the learner and the helper. If positive respectful relationships were in place then of course she would go with a whole language approach.

To my way of thinking the key to develop powerful readers is to begin with each learners own experiences and identity and, through these, to help each learner develop a sense of ‘voice’ and of themselves as learners.

All learning is about developing a sense of personal competence and power but all too often technical process of being able to read is seen as an end in itself.

And it is just not good enough to acknowledge a students experience, or to simply provide experiences to write about, just to get them to write something for them to later read. If they are ever to really appreciate the power of story telling, or reading to learn something, then they must tell their own stories and learn about things they are interested in.

Margaret Mahy, one of New Zealand’s most accomplished children’s writers, in her biography written by Tessa Duder, says we are not changed by experiences as common wisdom has it. What changes us are the stories we tell about our experiences. ‘Unless we have formed our lives into story, structured it with words, we can’t contemplate the meaning of our lived experience’ This is done by turning the raw material of our life into stories, and in the process, ‘it can be creatively transformed and given meaning’.

Teachers by valuing this approach can help all their students, develop a sense of self, realize the power of story telling and develop ‘real’ material for the individual student, and their classmates, to read.

The best way into reading is to tap the emotions, the sensory impressions and the insights that emerge from the experiences, real or remembered, of each individual learner. From these powerful stories can be written, or scribed, to become the basis of first reading .When students read other books written for them they will be able to comprehend that they too are authors – authors of their own lives.

Many parents write out, or share orally, such real or imagined stories of their children well before the students come to school – appreciating such activities are more valuable than resorting to flash cards and phonics.

Student centred teachers, if they really value personalized learning, ought to have rooms full of students' stories, questions and ideas. Struggling readers need sensitive adults who after lots of talking and sharing can scribe out, or help students write out, their own stories to read. If this were to be done the emphasis needs to be on developing the students identity as writers and not just to get then to read something; artistic expression could be part of the process.

Teachers need to see their students as professional 'meaning makers' with lots of exciting stories and ideas to share and to develop their classroom into learning communities. Kids would then grow into reading, and all other areas of learning, as a natural process of self discovery.


Anonymous said...

Margaret Mahy has just been awarded the prestigious 2006 Hans Christian Anderson Award for her contribution to children's literature. I think I would follow her advice - and Mem Fox.

Anonymous said...

My class of Year One children and I have just finished making our first books. Topic;their own choice, length of book; their own choice.
I was inspired to do this by a visit to a workshop on the Gavin Bishop book "The House That Jack Built".
Making and reading their own books is not a new idea ... but some of the best ideas have been around for ages!

Bruce said...

In New Zealnd the two people I would associate with students writing about their own life experiences would be Sylvia Ashton Warner and Elwyn Richardson, both in the 1950s.

For me Elwyn was the greatest influence and his book 'In The Early World' is to this day inspirational. Elwyn also made great use of the immediate environment of the chidren he taught and 'his' students work covered a full range of expressive areas. His book is still available from the NZCER.

The early 'language experience' teachers of the 60/70s, motivated by such pioneer teachers, aslo helped students write wonderful things - I am not sure the same quality of student writing exists today. Maybe I am wrong but I don't see it?

Quality writing and artistic expression was a real feature of schools in our area ( Taranaki) up until very recent times. It is hard to keep up creative energy and implement and assess imposed curriculums as well.

Anonymous said...

A lot of teachers could be creative if it weren't for all the 'proving it' nonsense that goes on these days.

We are dying waiting for courageous leadership at levels to show up, including the classroom teacher!!

Bruce said...

Just been sent a quote by Albert Einstein from a friend of mine which seems pertinent:

'I am enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge.Knowledge is limited.Imagination encircles the world'.

We need more artistic teaching - learning is an act of faith not evidence to prove something!

I have also read that knowledge, these 'post modern' days, ought to be seen as verb - something you use to create more learning. All too often, in schools, knowledge is something you get ( or are given) like as consumer good.