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Team Waitangi: Teaching against the grain in West London

Team Waitangi, a group of West London teachers, dress up as the cast of Cinderella

Ngā mihi o te Kirihimete, West London

Team Waitangi got its name five years ago, just before Christmas. I was teaching what the Brits call infants – 4 to 7 years old, specifically Year 1 or 1st Grade – in a deprived suburban corner of West London. Our staff were pretty diverse, with teachers from New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. The school served a diverse community, too: most kids were from families that didn’t speak English at home, new migrants who had come to us from Somalia, Iraq, Sri Lanka. Celebrations like Ramadan and Diwali were more important to our kids than, say, Easter. Even more than usual, this meant I did as much listening as talking, as much learning as teaching.

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How To Draw An Alien Invasion

Louie Stowell and Freya Harrison's HOW TO DRAW AN ALIEN INVASION

How to Draw An Alien Invasion, by Louie Stowell and Freya Harrison, is in the Guardian children’s books section this month.

Louie and Freya also created the words and pictures for Usborne’s Write and Draw Your Own Comics, on which I was a consultant. Find out how to get your hands on Write and Draw Your Own Comics here.

Guest Post: Santhoshi Chander, “A Love Letter to Parkes”

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I was trying to find the words to look back on an eventful season with Parkes Shire Libraries, culminating in this year’s Australian national award for innovation in library youth services. I could have talked about how the country stereotypes have yielded to reveal a town of tough and funny and mad and passionate people. I could have recounted how all the amazing things we’ve done were really about a community that was ready for change, and a bunch of smart librarians who recognised that fact, and who drafted in an outsider to provoke and support and sustain that change.

Instead, I wanted the last word to come from someone else. One of our local writers, but one who – like me – came to Parkes a stranger and a foreigner. 

Santhoshi Chander of the town writers’ group Author-rised kindly allowed me to share her thoughts about the experience of finding a new home out in the Aussie regions. “Ex-city-slicker” San divides her time between Sydney and Parkes.

A Country Fling, or
A Love Letter to Parkes

It seemed from the beginning the stakes were against us. I’m not claiming our story has Romeo and Juliet status. But in our own way, we started as star crossed lovers.

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Reader-in-Residence article in SCAN Magazine

Parkes High School’s teacher librarian Tracy Dawson has an article in the latest SCAN magazine about the Reader-in-Residence role which I held in Parkes across late 2013 and early 2014.

The role was designed to link the school and wider community in a celebration of storytelling, literacy, and culture in all its forms. Events included teen publishing workshops, our biggest ever zombie roleplay, urban myth writing, and the inaugural Central West Comics Fest, which will be returning in 2015. I also mentored high school students, led sessions for the Parkes writers’ group, and worked with the school’s special needs unit.

Tracy gives a teacher’s perspective on how trying new things, pushing boundaries, and reaching out to a wider community also yielded great benefits to students at the high school. You can also read her guest posts on this site about Auckland’s XXUnmasked project and the work of a teacher librarian.

SCAN magazine is a refereed journal published by the New South Wales Department of Education, focussed “on the interaction between information in a digital age and effective student learning.” You have to subscribe for recent issues, but the archive is publicly available – I’ll let readers know when the current issue moves into the free archive.

“You ate my battleship???” – Pub librarianship and tabletop games

Last night, the team at Parkes Library headed to the Railway Hotel for an evening of drinks, dining, and tabletop games.

After chatting with ABC Central West about the project, we invited residents from across the region to drop in and try their hand at some of the games we’ve been developing this year. People could take on the challenge of the Tabletop Superheroes adventure we devised for Fun Palaces 2014:

Library users Jake and Kellie brought in their own home-made game for people to try – it was beautifully made and fiendishly difficult.

There was also a new game, Battle Pizzas, which set pub patrons against one another in a game of wits. The prize? Dinner itself.

You can read more about Battle Pizzas, and download instructions, at the Parkes Dog-Eared website.

You can also download the Tabletop Superheroes adventure, which can be remixed under a Creative Commons licence.

We played the games in the pub but they’re designed for all ages; we think they’d work just as well in schools, libraries, or the comfort of your own home. Give them a go. Have fun!

Write and Draw Your Own Comics

Usborne Write and Draw Your Own Comics by Louie Stowell

Earlier this year, I was a consultant on Write and Draw Your Own Comics, a book created by the talented Louie Stowell, plus a range of brilliant artists, for the children’s publisher Usborne. I’m very pleased to announce that Write and Draw Your Own Comics is now available for purchase. In the UK, you can pick up a copy from Amazon or other outlets; in Australia and New Zealand try Booktopia, Dymocks, and Paperplus.

Tracy Dawson of Parkes High School Library has already linked Write and Draw Your Own Comics to the Aussie curriculum, too – click the link in the tweet below to find out more.

Neill Cameron’s How To Make Awesome Comics goes together with Louie’s book, to quote Grease, “like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong”. You can get it from Neill’s own site and the Book Depository might be your best bet for international orders. You can also get a taste of Neill’s approach to visual literacy via the worksheets which he kindly shared on this very site.

How To Make Awesome Comics by Neill Cameron

Give both Louie and Neill’s books to a child for Christmas, and you will be remembered forever, as shoobop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom.

More exciting comics news – advanced level comic bookery!

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

Further exciting comics news! Nick SousanisUnflattening, “an experiment in visual thinking”, weaves together allusions, allegories, and visual references in an extended comic-book essay on how we perceive and engage with the world. Unflattening is out in March next year, so bookmark the Unflattening product page at Harvard University Press and be ready to place an order. There’s really nothing quite like it. In the meantime, you can also go check out Nick’s website, Spin, Weave, and Cut.

Chang chang changitty chang shoobop. That’s the way it should be….

Debbie Gould at Parkes Fun Palace: Making Games with the Currajong Disability Group

Debbie Gould is one of the librarians I work with in Parkes, New South Wales. She creates and delivers library programmes for the Currajong Disability Group. Currajong clients are people who require some degree of care. They are diverse in ability, with some who are nonverbal, some needing 24/7 care, and others who have learning disabilities. Debbie created a game for Parkes’ Fun Palace last month and was then able to share it with her clients in the group on one of their weekly visits.

Here’s Debbie talking about her work with the Currajong group, and how she brings Parkes’ philosophy of fun and open-ended learning to library users with disabilities.

This image is licensed by Parkes Shire Library under a CC 4.0 BY-NC-ND licence

This image is licensed by Parkes Shire Library under a CC 4.0 BY-NC-ND licence

At Parkes Library, we believe that libraries are about so much more than books and shelves. Our job is helping our whole community to learn, explore, and have fun on their own terms.

I started working with the Currajong Disability group at the start of 2012. I’ve been doing it for almost three years now, but the clients change and so I’m always adapting my programme to suit them.

In the early days, it was trial and error. I wasn’t concerned about not being able to relate to the clients, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to provide a programme that worked for everyone, all the time. I wanted all the clients to enjoy their library time. As the weeks passed, I could see that the group did enjoy themselves. Their needs were met even though I was experimenting as I went along, finding out what was going to work best. That was part of the experience!

Building a relationship with the clients took time. It was important to watch and listen as well as present to the group. Clients have different ability levels, and my sessions had to take that into consideration.

In the group, we explore books and stories as well as practical and playful activities. I have found that the world of my clients is very factual. The world of fiction relies on imagination and a sense of “let’s pretend” which can be difficult for my clients. Concepts such as animal characters in books taking on human characteristics aren’t always understood. Quite often clients don’t get the punch line at the end of a story because it isn’t a “real” experience.

Clients work better with non-fiction and real life activities, where as many of the senses can be engaged as possible. Simple science experiments and activities are often popular. Each session I try to incorporate sight, hearing, touch, smell. Taste is explored sometimes but I have to be mindful that not all clients are able to take food by mouth and some have special dietary needs.

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When I designed a game for Parkes’ Fun Palace weekend, I chose to make a maze based on old sideshow games. Players had to drop a ping-pong ball into a slot and try to land on a high score. Age and ability was not a hindrance to playing the game I created. I saw the joy people had playing it at the Fun Palace, and knew that my clients would have a good time with it.

Watching the Currajong group play my game was interesting. They all interacted with it in different ways, but they were all excited to see the end result. They loved the mystery of just where the ball would land. Each of them played their own version of the game – even if it wasn’t quite what I’d intended, they still achieved the goal of landing a score with the ping pong ball.

Relationships are key to making this group work. Without a solid relationship between clients, carers, and the library, our sessions would not be successful. There is no way a programme could run and meet the goals set if the presenter was not mindful of the clients and their needs.

All relationships take time to develop; they need genuine interest, concern, and respect. A little bit of yourself has to be given in each session you present. If it isn’t, then you aren’t presenting effectively. Working with disabled adults is a privilege and it has been exciting to see each client share a bit of their personality in the sessions. The joy and reward from the sessions is priceless and being able to expand the world the clients live in is amazing.

This is a condensed version of a blog post which originally appeared at Parkes’ site, Dog Eared.

Parkes Library Roundup

My friends and clients at Parkes Library are having a big week on the Internet. I’ve collected some of the various links in this blog post.

Our “Tabletop Superheroes” game devised for October’s Fun Palaces weekend is now available for free download. A remix of Cory Doctorow’s article ‘DMing for your toddler’, it was featured by Cory on BoingBoing. There’s also a blog post about the game at the State Library of New South Wales website.

Over at Library as Incubator, you can read Tracie Mauro and Shellie Buckle’s account of running Australia’s first ever Fun Palace.

Meanwhile at Zoe Toft’s Playing By The Book site, Tracie is interviewed by Zoe about the “Wonder-based library programmes” she creates for children and families. Tracie explains how you can create similar activities at home, school, or your own local library.

The Parkes Library team

This image is licensed by Parkes Shire Library under a CC 4.0 BY-NC-ND licence

The Parkes team are among the most daring and resourceful librarians I’ve ever worked with – no project daunts them, from live action zombies to wading through chocolate pudding swamps. Stay tuned, because there’s much more to come from these amazing Australians.

A quick question about the history of libraries

I’ve done a fair bit of work with libraries over the last few years. Most of it has involved encouraging play of all kinds. I had previously worked with schools and other organisations, but I became convinced of public libraries’ importance after visiting Christchurch in the wake of the 2010 earthquakes. Carolyn Robertson and her team showed, through their actions in that period, that libraries were never more important than in times of grave crisis. When I think about librarianship as a heroic vocation, I think of people like Carolyn, and Penny Carnaby of the National Library of New Zealand, who did their profession proud in a difficult moment.

Carolyn Robertson of Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand

“We understand the word “library” in the widest possible sense.” – Carolyn Robertson, Christchurch City Libraries

When I was at Auckland Libraries last year, I discovered the Public Library Missions agreed by UNESCO and the international library association IFLA back in 1994:

The following key missions which relate to information, literacy, education and culture should be at the core of public library services:

  • creating and strengthening reading habits in children at an early age;
  • supporting both individual and self conducted education as well as formal education at all levels;
  • providing opportunities for personal creative development;
  • stimulating the imagination and creativity of children and young people;
  • promoting awareness of cultural heritage, appreciation of the arts,
  • scientific achievements and innovations;
  • providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts;
  • fostering inter-cultural dialogue and favouring cultural diversity;
  • supporting the oral tradition;
  • ensuring access for citizens to all sorts of community information;
  • providing adequate information services to local enterprises, associations and interest groups;
  • facilitating the development of information and computer literacy skills;
  • supporting and participating in literacy activities and programmes for all age groups, and initiating such activities if necessary.

I think this is an incredibly strong mandate which gives librarians clear freedom to engage in all kinds of play, performance, technological and cultural activity. The missions have been around for twenty years, and yet so many library conferences and professional discussions still revolve around debating what libraries should or should not be doing in the 21st century; so many public discussions about libraries reveal that people still think of them largely as “shelfy”, book-storing institutions.

Part of my eclectic scholarly career was spent as an intellectual historian, so these are the questions that occur to me:

What happened in librarianship in the 1980s/1990s to lay the ground for such a radical, positive, and future-proofed global mission statement?

Why didn’t the missions gain more traction?

What lessons could we learn for today from the history of these missions, and the process that led to their writing?

If you have any answers to my questions, contact me via the comments on this site, or at my Twitter account @drmattfinch.

I’ve written about applying the Public Library Missions to play activities in the library here, and also overthought the nature of librarianship here.

Two of my favourite discussions of librarianship – from actual librarians! – come from Adrienne Hannan on “Strategic Librarianship” and Tracie Mauro on “Wonder-based library programmes”.

Textureless Space and the Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love the author bios on books. Reading a good one is like reading old-time liner notes on records. The texts have an eccentric politeness, their formality spiked with unexpected jabs.

I first noticed this when my mum introduced me to The Day of the Triffids. John Wyndham’s bio on old Penguin paperbacks stated that he “decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as science fiction.” That adjective, that adverb, inflected everything that you read and thought about the man and his words.

I got a similar feeling from the author bio of Alice Munro, one of my favourite writers. When I discovered her in my first year at university, the bio included this comment:

I guess that maybe as a writer I’m a kind of anachronism…because I write about places where your roots are, and most people don’t live that kind of life any more. Most writers, probably, the writers who are most in tune with our time, write about places that have no texture because that is where most of us live.

I love that quotation. It is wry and quietly, Canadianly, contrary. At once it marginalises the speaker and humbly suggests that there might be a value in being out of tune with one’s time.

(And is there any better way of positing Alice Munro, of all people, as a science-fiction writer, than to suggest she is out of tune with our time, a fantastic voyager to the lost chronotopes of ordinary life, what she describes as “deep caves painted with kitchen linoleum”?).

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I’ve just finished reading, deals with one of these archetypal “places that have no texture”, white suburban Los Angeles. But the central conceit of Bender’s novel is not the absence of texture which Munro describes. What troubles young Rose Edelstein is texture in excess.

Turning nine years old, Rose develops the power to taste the emotions of the people who make the food she eats. It begins when she detects hidden despair in her mother’s lemon-chocolate cake, but Rose is equally overwhelmed by food in the school cafeteria, her friends’ lunchboxes, or the restaurants she visits. Gradually she becomes able to taste the origins of each individual ingredient. She can read the story behind the apparently “effortless” business of putting food on her plate.

This is timely magic for an age when food production and consumption has come, for many in the developed world, to seem effortless. Supermarket ready meals seem not to have a history, but Rose can detect where the ingredients were grown, and in which factories they were produced, as well as the moods of the people involved in their making.

Bender doesn’t let this become a straightforward search for authenticity. Rose’s mother, the cook whose food triggers the trouble, is on a jittery quest for just such a thing, some deeper and more authentic sense of how to live. She treats Rose’s standoffish brother as a kind of guru, but comically misreads his signals. When he closes his eyes at dinner to avoid eye contact with the family, she thinks it is an unspoken directive to focus on the sense of taste above all others, yet she never detects any of the sensations that bother Rose’s palate. After flitting from one pastime to the next, Rose’s mother devotes herself to woodwork, yet her own daughter’s existence gently mocks the pursuit of traditional craft: Rose finds herself dependent on junk food and industrially produced snacks to survive. (Rose gives a paean to the Dorito: “What is good about a Dorito […] is that I’m not supposed to pay attention to it. As soon as I do, it tastes like every other ordinary chip. But if I stop paying attention, it becomes the most delicious thing in the world.”).

Rose is living in the world Alice Munro imagines, the world without texture, not because the world has been drained of meaning, but because she has become overly sensitised to the inescapable meaning of everything she consumes. Rose’s brother, who begins to disappear intermittently from the family home, faces a similar struggle. He fades away from a world that is too much, not too little.

It’s significant that Lemon Cake is set in Los Angeles, a city whose texture is dictated by the superficial blandness of suburbs and freeways. (A recent LA Review of Books piece on the historic home of sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury captures the complications of LA’s real estate battle between the past, present, and future).

It’s also important that Lemon Cake is set during Rose and her brother’s coming-of-age. As Bender puts it in her entry to Book Club Cookbook, Rose’s talent means that “what is normally one of the most lovely and innocent parts of childhood comes packed with complication.” In my previous discussion about the literature of adolescence, I focussed on a line which appeared first in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then in Doctor Who, articulating the idea that a character, in coming to know who they are, is “still cooking.”

BUFFY: I’m cookie dough.  I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m going to turn out to be.

The magic at the heart of Bender’s novel complicates this metaphor. Cooking is what undermines Rose’s straightforward growth to adulthood. She is an outsider, compared to the “Downhill Girls” she sees coasting their way through their teens,  precisely because of what she tastes. Cooking reveals her mother’s secret sadness, and beyond that a wider, more complex world, with which Rose must learn to live. Rose’s struggle to understand her power leads to companionship, solace, and the truth about a family history of uncanny talents. It also leads to irrevocable loss, and the disappointment that Rose’s father has been unwilling to explore his own inherited abilities, for fear they would make his life a misery.

By the end of the novel, Rose comes to an accommodation with her ability which moderates its worst excesses. She even finds a way to use it for the good of others. Nonetheless, her compromise with the world remains imperfectly satisfying, and therefore “adult”. Rose remains, in a sense, as “out of tune with her time” as Munro. Perhaps we’re not yet done cooking, as we progress from adolescence to adulthood; but sooner or later, Bender seems to say, we will have to sit down to the meal we have prepared.


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