Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why does dining table conversation matter & what does it teach?

Have you ever observed other people at restaurants? I'm afraid I can't help but notice the behaviour of other people at times when I dine out. In the last five years I've noticed that when people under the age of 35 eat out, they usually do so with their smart phones on the table or in their hands. I've witnessed tables of 4-6 people with every person looking at devices; sometimes sharing photos, links or Facebook posts, but often doing emails, checking their own status on varied social media and generally playing with the technology. While it's a worry to see adults having trouble sustaining a face-to-face conversation, it may at least in part, reflect the general loss of the practice of sharing meals and talking at the dining room.

Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

We know already from social research that the family dinner is increasingly a curious practice from an earlier age. Reports suggest that as many as 10% to 20% of families never eat together, and most rarely eat together as a unit without a wide range of distractions such as television, eating standing up, at the kitchen bench and so on. Does this matter? I think it does. Not because I think all families should resemble the Waltons, but because I think we're losing the ability to listen to, ask questions of, and show genuine interest in the lives of other people. Our children are also missing out on many life lessons and key social practices that are vital for any community.

Let me offer 6 good reasons why a shared meal is something to protect:

1. The dining table is one of the few places that families sit down together and share things about their lives. The dining room table is a place where family members can let their guard down, and where previously unknown facts about school, friends, worries, hopes and frustrations can come to the surface.

2. The shared meal is also a place and time where children learn basic lessons about sharing, turn taking, avoiding gluttony, showing thoughtfulness, kindness to the one preparing the meal, nutrition and even food science. There will be challenges - tears about food not eaten, parents feeling like nags at times, the hard work of persisting with basic manners and so on - but they will learn many things that will help to shape their character.

3. Children learn how to ask questions of one another, and how to listen to the answers of others with patience, respect and kindness. Virtually all societies throughout the centuries have relied on the sharing of a meal as a key way to form children and build shared communities of varied kinds.

4. The dining table also trains children to listen and comprehend the conversations of others. At times a vibrant dinner table conversation will require children to keep in mind the comments of several people before framing their own responses. It also helps them to learn how to structure an argument, offer a point of view with politeness and humility, learn how to disagree calmly, and so on.

5. The dining room table also helps children to learn how to negotiate turn taking, how to be patient in conversations, when to speak and when to be quiet. They also learn what it means to be tactful and what others think it means to be rude and inconsiderate.

6. Finally, it is a place where relationships can be strained and strengthened. To be honest whether the conversation goes in a positive, or a negative direction, there is much to be learned about life.

Some quick suggestions for dining together

1. Try to remove all distractions other than people - switch the TV off, don't allow children to read at the table, switch off devices, let phones go to message banks and so on. While none of us can manage this all the time, and there can be wonderful dinner conversations over the sharing of a newspaper, a book, a YouTube video and so on, in families I think this should be avoided as much as possible.

2. If you're a parent think about some things to share and maybe make sure that everyone has a turn to share something about their day. Don't force this all the time, sometimes richer conversation can emerge without structure.

3. Be deliberate at times in the way you try to teach your children some basic social graces around turn taking, listening well, avoiding ridicule, showing kindness and so on.

4. Vary the way you share meals together and aim for a minimum number of meals together. Eat out together if you can afford it in places where talking is easy, or maybe just eat outdoors (BBQs, picnics etc). Invite guests to share meals with you, a visitor changes everything and can enrich the experience as well as introducing complexities that children need to learn to handle.

The reality is that in our fast paced world this isn't easy. You might need to set modest goals for eating together. For most families breakfast is an impossibility (and let's face it most teenagers can't communicate before 10.00am), and lunch through the week is at work and school. This leaves dinners and a few more options at weekend. At best most families will struggle to have more than a few meals together each week, but it's important to try. Families are all different of course and I have to say that for one of my daughters eating breakfast with her each day at 6.00am before rushing for an early train to university was a special time. And of course, all meals with toddlers are critical. They can be challenging and yet they are rich and important times.   

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Readers' Theatre: A great way to build fluency, expression & comprehension

What is Readers' Theatre?
Photo courtesy ''
Readers' Theatre is a simple method that presents literature in a dramatic form.  Essentially, it involves oral dramatic reading in groups of one kind or another. You need nothing more than some scripts and a few basic hints about the implementation of the strategy. You can adapt the scripts from published stories or can obtain many scripts in book form, as reusable masters or simply by downloading hundreds that are free online (more on this below).

Readers Theatre allows repeated reading without monotony and boredom. We have known for some time that repeated reading improves fluency and comprehension. The work of LaBerge & Samuels (1974) on automaticity in reading was one of the earliest studies to present evidence for its effectiveness, but in recent times Young & Rasinski, (2009) and Vasinda & McLeod (2011) have reminded us of the benefits in helpful papers. Many teachers have found that the research is backed up with results in their classrooms. As a strategy it can be used regularly on a weekly basis (e.g. one day per week) or it can be used intensively for a block of 8-10 weeks. Teachers' experiences reflect the research findings that suggest that just 10 weeks of Readers' Theatre can lead to significant gains in reading fluency and comprehension.

Key Elements of the Strategy
#1 - Readers' Theatre does not require any props or costumes, although sometimes children will enjoy having one item to identify their part, such as a hat or simple object or piece of clothing.

#2 - Children can sit in a circle facing one another, sit on stools facing an audience, or secure their script on a clipboard and hold it in one hand allowing them to move their body and make basic gestures as they read dramatically.

#3 - Make sure that all participants have their own script that clearly identifies their character. You might also allow them to underline, add phrase marks, or circle punctuation as appropriate. You can allow children to share a character or you can have multiple narrators to allow greater participation.

#4 - Try to have varied parts, some more demanding, and others less demanding. This allows children of varying abilities (and even ages) to participate together.

#5 - Encourage children to practise their parts before trying to perform as a group.

#6 - A good pattern to use in introducing Readers' Theatre is to spread it over a week. On day 1 hand out the scripts to all children and explain how it works. Some teachers have the whole class working on the same material, but my preference is to see 2-3 groups used, allowing children of varying abilities to be 'stretched'. On day 2 take the groups one at a time for turns reading the script. This is effectively just round robin reading to help familiarise them with the script and story line. On days 3 and 4 allocate characters and practice. Allow children to try different parts in lesson 3 before making final choices. On day 5 perform the plays by each group for the whole class.

#7 - If you need more guidance Laurie Henry has four excellent lesson plans that show how Readers' Theatre can be introduced for the first time (here).

#8 - Don't forget that while literature is most commonly used for Readers' Theatre that poetry, history and biography also work well.

Readers' Theatre Scripts

As I said above, there are many resource books that contain scripts, but there are also hundreds of scripts available FREE and online. Here are some of the best resource sites:  

'Dr Young's Website' with almost 200 scripts (HERE)
'Teaching Heart' has a section on 'Reader's Theater Scripts and Plays' (HERE)
'Aaron Shepard's Free Scripts' (HERE)
'Timeless Teacher' site (HERE)
Some quirky science scripts on 'Adrian Bruce's Free Educational Resources' site (HERE)
'Stories to Grow By' Scripts (HERE)

One of the largest collections of Reader's Theatre scripts is at 'Dr Young's Website' where you'll find almost 200 scripts ready to use at school or at home. Some are simple like 'The Three Billy-Goats Gruff', while other are more complex like 'Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes'. There are some wonderful scripts here including 'Bad Case of Stripes', and classics like 'Chicken Little', 'Cinderella', 'Hansel and Gretel' and the 'Magic Porridge Pot'. Great scripts for children aged 6-10 years.

Aaron Shepard also has some good general tips on Readers' Theatre, including scripting, staging and reading (HERE).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Growing Preschool Writers & Learners: 12 Basics

Many parents ask me what they need to do to help their preschool children to become writers. They see this as one of the keys to success in school. Most start by asking some specific questions. Should I:
"Make sure they know their sounds before schools?"
"Teach them the letter names?"
"Teach them to write their name?"
"Make sure they can write neatly?"
"Teach them to read some simple words?"
"Teach them about numbers?"
These are all legitimate questions, but they side step the real writing 'basics' in the preschool years. If you want your child to succeed at school and in the workplace, and be able to use writing as creative people who solve problems, adapt to varied situations, feed varied life interests and become lifelong learners, then here are the things you want them to be able to do by the time they are five and head off to school. Ask yourself about the following areas of learning.

Enjoying playing with language - Do they know unusual words, enjoy finding out new ones, and play with rhyme and rhythm in language? Do they love telling stories, jokes and generally talking with other people?

Enjoying new stories with others in all their forms - Do they enjoy stories you tell them of your life, stories read to them, or even stories watched with others in the form of film and on television? Can they sustain concentration across a story?

Interest in numbers, letters and words - Do they want to learn about numbers, letters and words (e.g. "Show me what a thousand is Mum")? Do they try to write symbols and even include them in their creative play and drawing?

Creative story making with skills established early
Staying on task and sitting still for up to 30 minutes - Are they able to play alone or with others, complete a task they're interested in, listen to stories, engage in a play situation etc?

An expanding vocabulary - Are they learning new words, trying to invent their own, asking you about words and what they mean?
Learning from experience & support

Enjoying knowledge and the gaining of it - Are they curious about some area of interest (e.g. insects, dragons, horses, pets), and do they have a desire to know more and share it ("Did you know Mum that a stick insect is called a Phasmid, and there are lots of types")?

Possessing a love of books - Are books amongst your child's most special possessions because of the knowledge, stories and wonder that they hold?

Having an emerging knowledge of words, letters and the sounds associated with them - Does your child have some knowledge of letter names, some concepts of print and an interest in knowing how to read and write?

An interest in technology - Do they have a desire to explore their world with computers, and an interest in the knowledge and learning that technology can deliver and how it can expand our world?

An ability to be creative and inventive - Do they draw and make things inspired by a story, TV show, movie or experience? Do they want to dress up and act out characters and experiences, making shops, cubbies under the table, giving names and characters to their dolls and toys, using toys and other objects for creative story telling or re-creation?

Creative play in action, the foundation of imagination & problem solving

An interest in problem solving - Do they try to see how things work, try fixing things that are broken? Do they try to come up with ideas for how the problems of his or her world can be solved ("Mum, if we could knock off three palings on the fence I could make a gate to Cheryl's house")?

The ability to listen to, learn and comprehend - Do they listen to and learn from stories, lifestyle programs, movies, television shows, stories you tell them, recipes and instructions (spoken or pictorial)? 

The above are the real basics that children need to know to become greater writers and learners at school. The problem with them is that you can't just cram in the year before school. These basics are things that take time and effort by parents and preschool teachers. Each requires knowledge of the child, an interest in their learning and interests and the ability to observe our children in order to scaffold their learning. It takes years to create a writer and a learner.

Monday, September 2, 2013

'Welcome to My Country' - A Review & Author Interview

Allen and Unwin recently published a wonderful book called 'Welcome to My Country' by Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, Sarah Wright, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Kate Lloyd. The book is a collaboration between three academics and six Indigenous women from Bawaka and Yirrkala. It is a publication that literally welcomes you to the Country of Laklak Burarrwanga in Arhhem Land Northern Australia. This is a coastal land of crystal clear waters filled with fish, turtle, crab and stingray. The land that adjoins has varied bush fruits, pandanus for weaving, wood for spears, and all that is needed for daily life. But this isn't just a beautiful country, it is a land rich in meaning. This is the place where Laklak Burarrwanga heard great stories, told them to others and learned the great history of her people. These stories were learned from a special library, "a library in the land". This is a library that you cannot destroy.

Laklak's personal story includes her long walk across Arnhem Land as a child, and her people's fight for land rights and the right to have a say in their children's schooling. Laklak and her family are a proud and successful Indigenous community. There are many things to love about this book. First, I love the fact that the book records the richness of the history of the people of this special place in a manner that preserves the voices of the Indigenous women and the authenticity of their stories. The non-Indigenous academics who offered leadership to the project have done what few have done before; they have contributed and led the project, but they haven't attempted to reinterpret or explain for others. Rather, the narrator is always an authentic voice of the people whose stories are being told. Second, I appreciate the richness of the stories and the choices that have been made to introduce the reader to the people and their country. Third, I enjoyed the varied genres used to communicate the story of this country. This place welcomes the reader through story, recount, poetry, exposition, lists, explanation and song. Finally, this is a book that changed the authors. The writing of the book and the collaboration between these eight women has enriched their lives. And of course, good writing should always do this. What a wonderful work!

Ros Moriarty, author of 'Listening to Country', expresses her delight in the book this way:
Welcome to My Country is a beautifully warm, inviting experience. As soon as I read 'When the moon goes past you can see its reflection (in the water) like the inside of your heart', I knew this would be a very special read. Being immersed in an 'experience' is the way I would describe this book. It is an enticing journey into the heart of Yolngu life, in all its wonder across the physical, artistic and spiritual world. I love the conversational style - we walk, talk and sit down with family on every page. Lovely. 

In the interview that follows Sarah Wright (the University of Newcastle), Kate Lloyd (Macquarie University), and Sandie Suchet-Pearson (Macquarie University) answer my questions and share their insights into the wonderful collaboration that has led to the creation of this special book. 

The Interview

1. How did this special collaboration with the Yolŋu people come about?

Our research collaboration at Bawaka began in 2006 when we (Sarah Wright, Kate Lloyd, and Sandie Suchet-Pearson who are geographers at Newcastle and Macquarie Universities) formed a partnership with Laklak and her extended family who own and manage the successful tourism business Bawaka Cultural Experiences (BCE). BCE is centered on Bawaka homeland two hours south of Yirrkala in north east Arnhem Land. We were introduced by a mutual friend who asked us whether we would be interested in working collaboratively with some amazing women from Northeast Arnhem Land. Of course, we said yes.

From that initial visit, our relationship has grown. It has been a long-term endeavor where we have learnt to trust and respect each other. All of us are teachers in some way, either at the University, at schools in Arnhem Land or as educators working with visitors who come to learn at Bawaka. As teachers, we share a desire to create and distribute knowledge. For Laklak and the other Yolŋu women in our team, it is really important to teach other people about Yolŋu culture and the complexity of Yolŋu knowledge. This is part of their mission in life and part of Laklak’s responsibilities as Elder and Eldest sister. She sees books and other outputs as a way of communicating Yolŋu knowledge to diverse audiences that include tourists, university students, and the general public. It is also a way of reclaiming knowledge that has been provided to academic researchers but is no longer easily accessible to Yolngu people, and of creating a rich resource for cultural transmission for their children.

We have told other stories with Laklak and her family. In 2008, we published a book on weaving and culture (published by the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Newcastle). The sharing of these stories was made possible by our being women, since in Yolŋu culture basket weaving is women’s business. From the start, our shared womanhood, including our families and children, was an important part of our connection.

This most recent book aims to encourage readers to understand and respect different cultures and is part of the family’s strong desire for non-Indigenous and Indigenous people to learn from each other. As Laklak says in the book:

“I see a boy standing with a spear learning in the bush university, the real life the land and nature. I also see the boy sitting on a rock at Bawaka playing with a computer. This kid can see a wider world, learning through a computer. That is the new generation, mixing the knowledges together. The boys can change over, the boy with the spear can play with the computer and vice versa.”

2. How did your own research team’s collaboration come about?

Our research team is broad. There are the academic researchers Kate, Sarah and Sandie. We were all starting our careers at a similar time and wanted to create a research team that would work collaboratively in a different way from the lone endeavour that you often find in academia. We started working together in 2004. Then we developed our research relationship with Laklak and family in 2006 so our research team became an intercultural team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, and of people working within universities as well as beyond them. Our research team grew to include the four sisters, elders and caretakers for Bawaka country Laklak Burrawanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr - and their daughter, Djawundil Maymuru.

Now we are trying to include Bawaka Country as part of our research team too. For Indigenous people, it is important to take the knowledge and agency of animals, plants, winds and other aspects of Country seriously. It is a world-view that is not human-centric. So we are expanding our thinking to see the ways animals and other aspects of Country are important in our collaboration. 

3. Is there a next step to the project and the desire to tell the story of Laklak and the Yolŋu people?

This book is just one part of a collaborative journey we have been on since 2006 when Laklak asked us to work with them to assist them telling stories to tourists as part of their cultural tourism business. We are all committed to long term collaboration and it has taken us on a lot of twists and turns along the way. We have written, and will continue to write, academic articles together as well as writing books aimed at university students and children. The book has been a long term project and so the next step is for all the authors and their families to go up to Bawaka and celebrate the book and spend time with each other. Laklak says that that this is her last book but who knows…

4. Are there other stories to be told from Bawaka country?

There are layers and layers of stories, some too sacred to be shared and so much that still can be told. There are many, many other stories that Laklak and her family are keen and willing to share. You don’t have to just read it from our book, Laklak and her family invite you to come to Bawaka, sit on the beach, have a cup of tea and listen to the stories (for more information see -

The stories will take us where they do. We are constantly surprised! There is a connection between us that endures. In reflecting on our collaboration during our first book we wrote:

“We feel that writing this book has been like creating a basket. We have tried to make sure that the colors go together and that we have woven something big and beautiful that’s full of meaning and knowledge. We’ve made a connection with each other that’s like a thread linking us together. In the same way the baskets are connected we are all connected now. We all have a desire to work together to build understanding between cultures and to help others learn about, and learn from, Yolŋu culture (Burarrwanga et al. 2008, p. 36).

Above image courtesy of

5. How do you hope to see this book used? What has been its impact so far?

We would like to see it used in a range of contexts and we can see it reaching people of all ages. There are stories and messages suitable for young people and we have recently written teaching notes which can be accessed via ( so that the book can be used in primary and secondary schools in all sections of the curriculum including maths, science, English, geography and history. It is also accessible to a broader audience including people working in cutting edge science, to help communicate Indigenous world views, including an Indigenous understanding of mathematics and science. We have had wonderful feedback from a range of people from kids to people working in public health at the University and from those in Indigenous policy setting.

Laklak and her family also recognize the book as important knowledge. At the book launch up in Arnhem Land, Elders and representative from different clans came to pay respect to the book and acknowledge the importance of this written form. That was really important to us all and we hope there will be ongoing positive impacts for the community in Arnhem Land - not least because all of the royalties for the book are going up there!

6. Is there some part of the story of the Yolŋu people that has personally touched each of you? How has hearing the story of this people changed you?

Writing this book has been a journey for all of us. We have learnt so much about and from each other. For example, in working on the text for this book and discussing the tone we wanted to use, Laklak asked us, ‘‘Do you understand? Do you feel it? Because you need to feel it and have emotions about it to write it in the book and for the readers to start understanding it.’’

For us to be able to engage meaningfully with Laklak, her family, and Bawaka, requires a deep emotional investment. The emotional entanglements are fundamental to our work and need to be explicitly acknowledged and foregrounded. Exploring the terrain beyond the words of our research invigorates our reflections and findings, adding other registers for meaning and understanding to be conveyed and developed. To borrow de Carteret’s (2008) metaphor, words from our storytelling encounters become like the thread for patterns in lace: the spaces in between make the patterns visible and more meaningful.

Working with Laklak and her family has fundamentally changed the way we think about ourselves. We have been challenged to see ourselves as deeply connected with each other and with our environment. There is no individual that stands separate from anyone else or from Country. It has taken our initial desire for collaboration to a depth we would never have envisioned when we began.

7. Can you see ways that the stories of the Yolŋu connect with European stories?

Yes, the stories in some ways connect strongly with European stories, though in other ways they teach us quite different messages. One of the main messages of the book is about sustainability and connection. Laklak introduces the reader to some of the Bawaka/Yolŋu relationships that weave everything together and ensure we remain in balance. Through the stories, songs and actions, she shows how these relationships are kept alive. As non-Indigenous people listen to the stories, hopefully they will think about what they mean for them and how they can live in a connected way in any place. The importance of connection and sustainability doesn’t seem to be stressed as strongly in non-Indigenous stories, or certainly not in the same way, though they are themes that have been increasingly important within contemporary Australian children’s literature. In a way, sustainability is a new story for non-Indigenous people, but for Yolŋu, it is fundamental.

There are other similarities and connections between Yolŋu and European stories. For example, the story of Djet tells about a boy who doesn’t share. This concept of sharing and greed is common in European stories too. It is in everything from 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' to episodes on Peppa Pig.

Yolŋu stories, whether about sustainability, sharing or any of the other major themes in the book, emphasize the messages as fundamentally important. They are understood in very deep ways, and are not provided just as entertainment. These are also stories that are animate in the land unlike European stories that are often understood as fiction. Djet, the sea-eagle, is always there with his cries reminding Yolŋu about sharing. It is a real thing, and very alive. 

Thank you to Sarah Wright, Kate Lloyd, and Sandie Suchet-Pearson for taking to time to answer my questions.