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Posts Tagged ‘The Age’

By the time I finished reading an article in last week’s Age which reported on students’ completion of their English exam, their first formal exam in the annual final school year VCE Examinations, I felt sick and totally grief stricken!

The title of the hard copy newspaper, set the mood of the article:  Relief and thoughts of book burning follow the exam. (The Age. October 29, 2015, p12) While reporting on students’ response to the English exam was the article’s major emphasis, tucked into the article was the students’ response to seeing the English exam over and done with:

Anger boiled over at some schools, with one student burning his Death of a Salesman book, and posting the image on Facebook.

Really?!

The online version of this report garnered an altered title: Whether ’tis nobler to recycle or burn one’s books – the big post-VCE English question, but still bred the same feelings within me. Reporting on the same incident, the text was softened and somewhat less specific:

Anger boiled over at other schools, where students posted images of burning VCE papers and books.

Both the hard copy and online articles started with the same lead line stating that the school captain of a Melbourne school was “tossing up whether she should recycle her VCE English books or burn them.”

The question: ‘Would you ever read it (the studied texts) again?’ was posed to a few students (see 2.03 minutes into the video at the top of the online article). While one student commented that it was good to examine books in depth and gain a better perspective of what the author was aiming to say, the common response from other students  was no – they’d never pick up the book again with one student adding:

I’ll probably never touch them ever again,” he said. “I’m pretty sick of them, to be honest. I’m pretty glad to be done.”

My response:

Heartbreaking!

Burning books?  Never wanting to touch books studied again?  Discouraging the exploration of underlying messages and meanings shared by authors? Turning students off reading for life?  Is this the end goal of our English and Library classes?

I can see some head shaking in response to the veracity of my words though.  Some of you may well be commenting that these are the actions and response of only a few students or that the quoted words of students in these articles are merely their light-hearted response to the joy of finishing their much dreaded final English exam. 

But hang on …. is this really the case?

It was a few years ago when I had a Year 11 class in the school library for a Wider Reading session that I experienced one of those jaw dropping moments that stay with you for life.

With my characteristic enthusiasm to inspire and motivate a love of reading among this testy bunch of teenagers, I held up the first of the pile of books I’d assembled on the desk in front of me, sure as anything that this one would ‘hook’ them in!  To my horror, a collective groan emanated from the class as they saw the cover of Brian Caswell’s “Only the Heart”.  Unable to restrain myself, I proclaimed the brilliance of this novel.   No, they collectively responded.  That was our class text last year.  Engaging with them to suss out why they really disliked it, the answer was plain and simple.   The book had been ‘hashed to death’ with requirements to analyze, discuss and respond to exam questions.  Quite simply, this bunch of teenagers told me quite honestly that they never wanted to see or hear about this book or author ever again.   I was devastated and saddened to think that they had been so cruelly turned off not just one great book, but an accomplished and talented author.

Over the years, I’ve had lots of ‘heart-to-heart’ chats with senior students about books and reading habits.  Many have expressed their dislike of class texts and the inherent requirement to analyze texts to death.  Many of my chats have been with reluctant readers, who openly confide that they just don’t like reading.  Teasing out the reasons for their disinterest has almost always come down to their experience of being required to read specific books that they have found boring and then having to spend copious amounts of time – often a full term – analyzing, discussing and handing in written reports.

These conversations always leave me feeling bereft.

I’ve spoken with English teachers often about this issue, but always have the same facts thrown at me: students need to study class texts over an extended period of time so as to hone their analytical skills, their critical thinking skills and their appreciation of the classics. This ‘full stop kind’ of response invariably allows no openings to my pleas to  incorporate additional or alternate opportunities aimed at inspiring students to read, read and read some more – just for the joy of it!

Yes, I’ve also faced the argument that I’m not an English teacher who has an allocated number of periods a week within which to teach a curriculum and ensure that students complete inherent required assessments.  I’ve also been reminded that I’m a Teacher Librarian who has lots of time to spend dreaming up, creating and staging a range of enticing literary activities.

Well, yes, I guess that’s correct.  A big part of my job as a Teacher Librarian is indeed to inspire a love of reading.  And that’s just what I do and will continue to do for as long as I work as a Teacher Librarian!  I make no apologies for this!

I’m passionate in my belief that reading is a core skill which underlines all educational achievement.  We need to ensure that we inspire students to read, to read anything and everything they possibly can.  We need to ensure that students leave our classes and schools with an embedded love, desire and appreciation of just how much reading can bring to their lives – forever.  Reading does not just fit into English or Library periods, but is a skill which extends across all aspects and subjects of the curriculum.

As a Teacher Librarian I constantly grapple with the issue of engaging students with literature.  Over the years, I’ve devised many an alternate approach to put books into the hands of students in my school.   Many of these alternate approaches were incorporated into Literary Festivals I organized at one school.  I have also blogged, written and presented about some of the many activities, programs and events I have organized over the years in my library sessions.  If interested, have a read of this post: Engaging readers: Tried and tested ideas that work!

Perhaps it’s time for all of us – secondary school English teachers and Teacher Librarians alike – to step back and take a look at the nature of our program content and question whether what we are doing is encouraging or discouraging our students to become lifelong readers.

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It was some years ago, after undergoing a fairly major operation that I found myself, doped to the gills with pain killers, totally unable to pick up any of the enticing books I’d brought with me to the hospital. None of them caught my interest and in any case I was sleepy and completely unable to concentrate.

Then it happened! One book somehow slipped into my hands. It spoke to me, inspired me and made me realize that my despondent state was not as bad as the experiences of the character I was reading about. I finally felt connected and inspired and yes ….. the book, I discovered with some joy, brought me hope and a great deal of pleasure. This book was a key to my return to the ‘land of the living’ and re-established within me the joy of reading. The book was given to me by my work colleague, another Teacher Librarian.

It is this experience I often reflect upon when faced with those occasions of feeling “out of it”, hit by a bad run, or totally preoccupied with “stuff”, so-much-so that my ability to concentrate on reading is dead, buried and gone. How easy it is for each of us who work with books, to suss out the kind of book that is ‘just right’ for our library patrons.

So when I read an article a couple of months ago in The Age: Bibliotherapy a novel approach to helping readers treat literary indecision I was intrigued. Before I’d gotten too far into the article though, skepticism started creeping into my mind. By the time I got to the end of the article though, I was soon saying out loud to myself ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ‘Is this for real?!’

To put it mildly, I was blown away by the idea that a new profession had evolved from the tools of the trade normally associated with those working in libraries and book shops. I was also bowled over by the idea that these kinds of services, normally provided at no cost, were being charged for and that consumers were ready to part with money for the kind of information being offered.

Thanks perhaps to a recent article in The New Yorker: Can reading make you happier?, which has most probably fanned interest in yet another ‘alternate therapy’, two Melbourne Bibliotherapists have expanded their trade by taking on overseas clients via Skype. With interest piqued, three sessions presented by this pair at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival were sold out. It is interesting to note that one of the Melbourne Bibliotherapists, a former genetic counsellor, trained at the British School of Life with Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud, the person quoted extensively in The New Yorker article.

The process, I gleaned from both articles, seems fairly straightforward. Clients complete a questionnaire prior to meeting the Bibliotherapist. Questions asked, hinge around a person’s reading habits:

  • What kinds of books do you like?
  • What books did you read as a child?
  • What are your interests/passions?
  • What would you like to try? (Presumably life pursuits)
  • When do you read? Daily? Weekends? Holidays?
  • Do you buy or borrow books?
  • What is preoccupying you at the moment?

On her personal website, Ella Berthoud, gives greater specifics of the questionnaire:

When you book a bibliotherapy session, you will be sent a questionnaire asking you about your reading habits, loves and dislikes. We ask why you read, what you read, when and where you read – who with, or whether you always read alone. Do you ever read aloud, or listen to audiobooks? All your reading habits are explored. We also ask what is going on in your life at the moment – are any major issues coming up? Are you in the middle of a career-change, about to have a baby, moving home, experiencing a break-up, or beginning a new relationship? Are you perhaps retiring, or living alone for the first time? All life situations, whether serious or frivolous, can be illuminated by a good book. We believe that reading the right book at the right time can change your life. Our job is to help you find that book.”

Her business website, The School of Life, expands on the process:

In a consultation with one of our bibliotherapists, you’ll explore your relationship with books so far and be asked to explore new literary directions. Perhaps you’re looking for an author whose style you love so much you will want to devour every word they’ve ever written. Perhaps you’re about to trek across China and need to find ideal travel companions to download onto your kindle. Maybe you’re feeling disconnected from the world and want to listen to the classics of your childhood during your daily commute. Or you’re seeking a change in your life and want to hold the hand of people who’ve been there and done that already.”

If your visit with a Bibliotherapist is in England, you will, after parting with £80.00, have a forty minute consultation face-to face, via phone or on Skype which will further illuminate responses to the questionnaire, and then be prescribed a list of the 8 best books to be read over the next few weeks or months. The list is accompanied with an explanation as to why these books are considered to be the best. A few weeks later, the client is contacted to ask if they would like to come back for another consultation.

The questions asked by Bibliotherapists are eerily similar to those asked by Teacher Librarians working in School Libraries, Librarians working in Public Libraries, and those working in book shops, all of whom have an excellent grasp of literature and regularly make sound book recommendations to their patrons. Indeed, the raison d’être of our profession aims to put the right book into the right hands at the right time. There is of course, no charge for this service. It is a role that we joyfully take on; revelling each and every time we establish that connection between patrons and books.

On sending the link to The Age article to family and friends, as well as current and past work colleagues, the comments and replies received back were interesting. One emphatically stated:

You should write to the author of the article and remind them that librarians are there for more than putting books away on the shelves.”

Another response reminded me that there is many a website today which can aid and assist the needy in their search for the right book. No costs apply of course. I’ve blogged about this previously: What’s a good book to read Miss? and Any more good books Miss?

I’m passionate in my belief of the immeasurable value to be gained from reading. I agree totally with many of the statements made in The New Yorker article:

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain.”

as well as this:

So even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”

I also applaud the engaging video which appears on The School of Life website which I have taken from YouTube:
 

 
Who knows, perhaps in our next career some of us will become Bibliotherapists!

Right now though, I get a real thrill out of encouraging others to read, getting them to discover the joy of reading and yes ….. helping them find the perfect book to meet their mood, interest, need or take them to the next point of discovery in their life.

 

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I came across this nice little statement by Jason Steger in the Spectrum section of last Saturday’s Age:

How children are leading the way

Whatever the difficulties in the international book industry it seems that one area – children’s and Young Adult books – is booming. In Australia last year, according to Nielsen BookScan, the market was worth $294 million, up 12 per cent on 2013, with YA fiction accounting for $50 million of that, an increase of 37 per cent on the previous year. In the US, in the first 10 months of 2014, according to the Association of American Publishers, sales were up 21.6 per cent on the equivalent period in the previous year, while in Britain, the increase in 2014 over 2013 was only 9.1 per cent, but the value up a whopping 35.8 per cent.

So who was it that said that kids in our schools are not reading much?  Fortunately, someone, it seems may have gotten it wrong!!

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Lamenting just a few days ago on this blog about the imminent demise of Borders in the US, I was startled to read just now that Australian bookstores – Borders and Angus & Robertson – have this afternoon been placed into voluntary administration.  While news reports state that this recent move is not related to the US operation, one can’t help wondering.

The implications for the book industry of which we are all a part are of course enormous.

This article in the online edition of The Age tells the story behind the story:

 

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