Showing posts with label empathy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label empathy. Show all posts

Monday, 23 September 2019

Book review: 'The Boy With The Butterfly Mind' by Victoria Williamson

Family politics are never easy. Especially not when you're a kid with ADHD.

Family politics are never easy. Especially not when you're a kid who is trying everything, including being absolutely perfect, to make things how they used to be.

When Jamie and Elin's parents get together, and Jamie has to move in with Elin, things do not look good. With step-siblings, American boyfriends, new schools, changes in medication and school bullies to contend with, things get (realistically) messy. In 'The Boy With The Butterfly Mind' Victoria Williamson turns her forensic but empathetic lens on life for children when their parents split up. Those who haven't experienced it will get a glimpse into the lives of those who have, and those readers whose parents have split will be quietly glad to see themselves represented in the pages of a book.

Williamson manages to convey the agony of having to live with all the complications of medical conditions and broken families with enough sensitive humour to keep the reader wondering how things will all resolve. Will Jamie and Elin ever learn to get along? Will therapy and medicine help the children through their confusion and anger? How does friendship figure in such a tense family situation? Through a sequence of immersive set pieces the story romps along, not always joyfully, but always full of heart, driven by the well-painted characters and the believable plot lines.

Joining Lisa Thompson's 'The Day I Was Erased' and Stewart Foster's 'Check Mates' and 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong', this book serves as an insight for children and adult readers alike into the potential reasons behind the actions of children who at school get labelled as 'the naughty kid'. It's not often that other children are given reason to empathise with these children making this an important read for youngsters. Although fiction, this story serves as a powerful illustration of how acceptance and understanding can help others to manage the impact of their experiences and medical conditions.

Employing a dual narrative technique, with each chapter alternating between Jamie and Elin's point of view, 'The Boy With The Butterfly Mind', is a moving and compelling read. Capable of triggering an emotional response, Victoria Williamson's latest book is a brilliant follow-up to her debut novel 'Fox Girl And The White Gazelle', giving her fans something else equally as brilliant to get their teeth, and hearts, into.

https://discoverkelpies.co.uk/books/uncategorized/boy-with-the-butterfly-mind-2/

Monday, 10 June 2019

Empathy: A Superpower by Sita Brahmachari

"Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own: how they would cope in a crisis, if they were a refugee, or had just lost someone they loved. Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy.

Empathy Day is catching fire because in these divided times, our partners share our belief that empathy is a beacon of hope. Story-based strategies offer a concrete way of helping us understand each other better."

- Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of EmpathyLab

Now here's Sita Brahmachari to tell us more about her experience of Empathy Day and of writing books which develop empathy in their readers: 

For Empathy Lab last year I worked in Sheffield Libraries and met families at Empathy cafés. We read from my stories 'Worry Angels' (Barrington Stoke) and 'Tender Earth' (Macmillan Children’s Books) and I held Empathy workshops with young people including those from Beck School in Sheffield.

We explored joining hands together, meeting new people and building empathy within the community. Many wonderful interactions were formed and afterwards a young family sent me a letter (left). When I first met Tanisha and Nawzad and their mother the girls had silky hair down to their calves. At the second meeting the girls had cut their hair and sent it to children with cancer who needed children’s downy hair for their wigs. They said after the workshop they wanted to do something that meant a lot to them. They were so proud of their empathetic action telling me that their hair would grow and they were happy to think that a child they would never meet would find some comfort from their healthy hair.

As with all truly empathetic actions their kindness and generosity moved me. In my forthcoming story ‘Where The River Runs Gold’ (Orion Books) Shifa (meaning healing in Arabic) cuts her hair too in an act of empathy towards her family. Feelings of empathy once seeded grow more empathy.

Empathy is the golden treasure to be discovered in fiction and in life and I think of it as the superpower that can be quietly ignited in the minds and hearts of readers as they discover characters in worlds they may not yet have travelled to, or indeed may never, in reality, have access to. I believe that stories can open children’s empathy portals and offer them a life-long exploration of what it is to be human.

At a recent event at Shropshire Book Award with wonderful authors and human rights activists Liz Laird and Beverly Naidoo a student asked a question that was hard to answer: How do you write such humane books?

It set me thinking that it’s often hard for authors to talk about their process because to do so there is a temptation to make writing in empathy ink seem much neater and tidier than it ever is. Communication is complex; to truly meet another human being requires time, care and space. As Amy May in ‘Worry Angels’ says: ‘If you have a friend and you don’t share much of the same language you have to put spaces between things when you talk to each other. … I like that space when you can rest. I think if I could have that space with everyone, no matter what language they speak , where I have time to read people’s body language and look in their eyes and time to take in their words, then I wouldn’t worry so much.’ ( p77 ‘Worry Angels’)

In this story Amy May makes friends with Rima who has recently arrived from Syria with her family. Through play, art and observing each other closely Amy May and Rima discover that they have much in common though they come from very different worlds. Amy May discovers something truly precious: ‘When I sit with Rima I understand that most of the things we want to build in the sand are the same’ (p75)

Through my work with Jane Ray at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants in London I know this to be true and when presented with stories that open the empathy portal in them, children recognise it too.

When I think of Amy May’s and Rima’s interaction the words of the late MP Jo Cox are never far from my mind and heart. Amy May’s words echo Jo Cox’s call for unity in a time in which we are seeing unprecedented racially motivated attacks.

Taneisha’s and Nawzad’s empathetic action of hair cutting seems to me to be deeply connected to what writing for young people is all about.

The question How do you write such humane stories? can only be answered when I think of a book in the hands of young readers: the circuit of empathy is only completed when the reader roams in the space that Amy May speaks of and feels deeply enough to allow the story to impact on their lives and interactions.

As I return to Sheffield to spend the day with the children of Beck School on World Empathy Day 2019 I feel the importance of this work in our world today. In a whole school empathy focused day we plan to create a river of golden empathetic words on an art wall at the school… as well as an empathy ‘Graffitree’ like the trees artists paint across a dystopian city where children’s imaginations and storytelling is under threat in ‘Where The River Runs Gold’.

 The narratives we share with young people matter deeply. Golden words hold within them the power to open empathy portals in children’s imaginations and impact on their lives and communities. I’m so happy to be part of Empathy Lab’s children’s book community who understand the need to nurture this golden empathy river.

Although many of Sita's books are suitable for older primary aged children, her book Car Wash Wish is featured in Empathy Lab's 2019 Read For Empathy Guide for young people aged 11-16 which can be accessed here. Click here for the Read For Empathy Guide for primary aged children.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Empathy Day Reading For Empathy Guide 2019

This year's Empathy Day falls on June 11th. Today EmpathyLab has revealed the titles in its Read For Empathy Guide. The day focuses on using books – and talking about them – as a tool to help people understand each other better. As regular readers of my blog will know this is something close to my heart.

Something I was particularly interested to find out about was the selection process for the books included in the guide. Below are the empathy angles used in the judging process. A book that can support Reading for Empathy...:
  • Has powerful characters you care about, whose emotions you feel and which challenge and expand the reader’s own emotional understanding
  • Builds perspective taking – e.g. through different characters’ points of view
  • Gives the reader real insight into other people’s lives and experiences
  • Builds empathy for people in challenging circumstances (e.g. disability, migration, bereavement)
  • Deepens understanding of human experience at other times in history
  • Can help expand young people’s emotional vocabulary/recognition of emotions
  • Motivates the reader to put empathy into action


Having a look down the list of books there are several I have read but plenty more for me to get hold of during the coming months. Here are a few I've read and would like to recommend from the list:

Sweep by Louise Greig, illustrated Júlia Sardà (Egmont Books) - this one I included on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES. It's a great extended but simple metaphor for dealing with anger and other negative emotions - one that children can really connect with. This book, which parents or teachers can share with individuals and groups alike, is certainly worthy of recognition and use at home and in the classroom.

Peace and Me by Ali Winter, illustrated by Mickaël El Fathi (Lantana Publishing) - this is another one I included on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES. It is good to see a non-fiction title on the list - many children prefer reading books such as this. This one focuses on several notable Nobel Peace Prize winners, giving a potted history of who they were and why they won the prize, all accompanied by beautiful illustrations.

The Bubble Boy by Stewart Foster (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books) - whilst one of my favourite #ReadForEmpathy books is Stewart Foster's 'All The Things That Could Go Wrong', 'The Bubble Boy' is another great choice. In it the reader really gets to walk in the shoes of a child confined to a hospital bed - I can't think of many other books that offer this experience to young readers.

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf, illustrated by Pippa Curnick (Orion Children’s Books) - I read this one after I had submitted my list of the best books of 2018 but if I'd read it before I would definitely have included it. Empathy is exemplified by the main character as they embark on an ambitious (if not a little crazy) adventure to try to find the family of a refugee who has started at their school.

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson (Scholastic) - when this was published in January last year I reviewed it here on my blog: "As soon as you hear of Nate's dad leaving and mum's new man Gary you marvel at Lisa Thompson's bravery: tackling a subject like domestic abuse in a story aimed at 9 to 12 year olds? But she does it so beautifully. And it is important that she does - books should tell all stories."  I also included it on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES saying that it "blurs the boundaries between reality, imagination and the supernatural."

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson (Floris Books) - yet another book I included on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES and in my piece for TES on books that take children out of their comfort zone and one which is very possibly my favourite book of 2018. In the review I wrote of it here on my blog I wrote: "'The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle' deserves to be one of 2018's most lauded books. Tackling racism, discrimination and bullying head-on in a book aimed at upper primary children is no mean feat, but Victoria Williamson does it with great sensitivity."



Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman (Penguin) - this classic is one I included in my TES piece 13 books to take pupils out of their comfort zone: "Blackman flips the script on race wars, provoking thought with this painful account of how systemic discrimination ruins lives". I read it for the first time whilst on holiday this summer - I found it so distressing that I had to have a break from it to read something else. I am still steeling myself to read the follow-up books.

Running on Empty by S. E. Durrant (Nosy Crow) - EmpathyLab have included this on their secondary list, but I think it is fine for older primary children too: I included it on my Top Children's Books of 2018 list for TES. AJ, the book's protagonist, navigates life's already difficult roads with the added pressure of worrying about his parents who both have learning difficulties; again, this is not a perspective I've come across before in a children's book.

Boy 87 by Ele Fountain (Pushkin Children’s) - this one features on the secondary list as it is a pretty harrowing telling of a young boy's escape from an African totalitarian regime. With the recent so-called migrant crisis hitting the news this is possibly one of the most important books on the list - if only our right-wing politicians would give it a read.

Follow EmpathyLab on Twitter: @EmpathyLabUK and search the hashtag #ReadforEmpathy for more. Visit their website at www.empathylab.uk.

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Books That Encourage Children To #ReadForEmpathy

Last year for Empathy Day, organised by Empathy Lab UK, I recommended 6 books that encourage children to read for empathy: 'The Unforgotten Coat' by Frank Cottrell Boyce; 'Oranges in No Man's Land' by Elizabeth Laird; 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson; 'My Dad's A Birdman' by David Almond; 'Tall Story' by Candy Gourlay; and 'Noah Barleywater Runs Away' by John Boyne.

Back in October I led a workshop at the Reading Rocks conference entitled 'The More-ness Of Reading'. In it I provided a more extensive list of books that are great for developing empathy as well as whole host of quotes and research explaining why reading for empathy is such a good idea: https://wherereadingrocks.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/the-more-ness-of-reading-by-thatboycanteach/

Since then I've read rather a few more books that easily fall into the category of books that develop empathy in their readers. And with the second Empathy Day taking place on June 12th 2018 it seemed right to produce another list.

Given that my last list contained no non-fiction, I'd like to begin by highlighting a few titles, which, whilst still narratives, tell the stories of real life people.

Coming To England: An Autobiography - Floella Benjamin

Although open and honest about the difficult experiences of a child moving to a new country, this book is written in such a simple way that it is very accessible for young readers - I'd recommend it for emotionally ready year 3 children and upwards. It is fairly hard-hitting - younger readers will definitely benefit from being able to discuss their reading with an adult - but is a great gateway to helping children understand how others feel when they arrive in a strange place where they experience prejudice and hardship. Given that this is a live issue for the UK it is important that children up and down the country understand as they help their new classmates to settle in.

Dear World - Bana Alabed

Another autobiography, this time written by then 8 year old Syrian Bana Alabed. Whilst still in Syria and experiencing firsthand the terrors of civil war in Aleppo Bana took to Twitter in order to share her story - her first tweet read 'I need peace'. As with 'Coming To England' this book is written in a simple way making it accessible to children the same age as Bana and upwards. It is a truly moving account - I admit to crying several times - and is the book I remember more than any others when I consider what I can do to help those fleeing such crises. People who seek refuge in the UK need to be welcomed by open arms, especially the children, and it is books like this that will help our children to resist the racist rhetoric that can be so pervasive and instead show kindness to those who are fleeing their homes.

Malala Yousafzai - Claire Throp

Presented in the usual non-fiction format that you'd typically find in a school library this informative book tells Malala's life story. It's both eye-opening and inspiring, and whilst being an obvious heroine for Muslims and girls there is encouragement to all our young people in the account of Malala's life. As with the previous two books, this volume explains carefully another reason why people might leaving their country in search of another life - to learn about the prejudice and oppression Malala faced from the Taliban in her own country should prompt children to assess their own attitudes towards women and minority groups.

And now for some fiction:

The Kites Are Flying! - Michael Murpurgo

Set in the West Bank this short story explores how Jewish and Palestinian children live in the shadow of the wall and the war that divides them. Contains such a tingle down the spine moment that this is absolutely essential reading. This is a story that will begin to give children an idea of the unrest that goes on overseas, as well as an idea of how this affects children such as themselves. This is 'The Kite Runner' for children.

Skeleton Tree - Kim Ventrella

Death. A tricky, tricky subject for children's books. From my review: "Ventrella cleverly explores the very real experience of how mixed emotions come into play during the loss of a loved one. The skeleton is funny (there are laugh-out-loud moments) and he brings some light relief to what is otherwise a very sad story... The book may help some children to explore the emotions felt during a bereavement."

The Light Jar - Lisa Thompson

This book tackles a rare subject in children's literature: domestic abuse. From my review: "'The Light Jar' is a book that digs deep into human emotion, validating the gamut of thoughts and feelings that children the world over will feel on a day-to-day basis. And with all the current news of young people's mental health issues, books like these are crucial in normalising and validating the responses our children have to difficult life circumstances; 'The Light Jar' will provide illumination in the darkness of some of its readers' lives."

Sky Song - Abi Elphinstone

From my review: "Sky Song is an important lesson in why tribalism, whilst comfortable, will not save the day - a political message that might give children a starting point to thinking about what their role on the world stage might be. Flint's character provides hope that people can change their ideological views in order to become more mindful of others. The character of his sister Blu, based on Elphinstone's own relative who has Down's Syndrome, is also a possible discussion starter for readers to explore and change their thoughts about those with genetic disorders and resulting learning difficulties."

The Wonderling - Mira Bartok

The Wonderling is an Oliver Twist-style adventure with, er... a twist. It is set in a world inhabited by humans, animals and humanoid mixed-breed creatures - foundlings - who are despised by the others. It focuses on the adventures of one such orphan foundling as he escapes the workhouse in order to discover who he really is. This book is a great starting point for empathising with children of the Victorian era who suffered in poverty but it also has modern parallels to children still living in similar situations all over the world.

How To Bee - Bren MacDibble

This difficult yet compelling read is a great dystopian exploration of the gap that exists between rich and poor and as such would be a good way to help children feel empathy for children and adults les fortunate than themselves. From my review: "The subject of domestic abuse – both physical and emotional, towards adults and children – makes this a tough read in places, particularly for the aforementioned age bracket. I would suggest that this book is better suited to teenage readers for this reason."

The Phantom Lollipop Man - Pamela Butchart

From my review: "Despite this looking like a funny book, it actually tackles quite a serious subject matter – so much so that I actually almost had a little cry at the end... It ends up as an exploration of loneliness and old age and is a gentle reminder to any reader to value all members of society, especially those at risk of becoming marginalised. This aspect of the book makes it fully rounded and a perfect read for anyone in lower key stage two..."

The Fox Girl And The White Gazelle - Victoria Williamson

Featuring a Syrian refugee and a girl experiencing severe domestic issues this book is a must-read for upper key stage two children. From my review: "This is a book that I wish every child would read. Politically and socially our children need to be living the out the story in this book if the world is going to have any sort of peaceful future. The book's dual message that differences ought to be celebrated and common ground should be sought is too important for this generation to miss out on. Books such as this are a safe space in which to explore the everyday issues that children might face - we must get these books into their hands."

The Mystery Of The Colour Thief - Ewa Jozefkowich

This is book about how a child deals with the illness of a parent. It also features a positive-thinking wheelchair user and a whole lot of kindness and hope. From my review: "In this beautifully-written story debut author Ewa Jozefkowicz deftly explores issues that young children may well come up against in real life. 'The Mystery of the Colour Thief' will bring comfort to those with similar experiences to those portrayed and will help those who haven't to be that little bit more understanding of those who have."

Illegal - Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano

As Andrew Donkin explains in his guest blog post for me: "We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place." From my review: "Rather than seeking to cash in, as the media did for a while, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano seek to humanise the stories from the news reports. Human beings respond well to narratives and by telling the story of Ebo and Kwame, two brothers attempting to make it from Africa to Europe, the creators of 'Illegal' succeed in making real two of the nameless, faceless victims of whom we read in our newspapers."


Max and the Millions - Ross Montgomery

From my review: "Max loves making models; he’s also deaf. This representation of a ‘minority group’ is important in children’s literature. Montgomery writes sensitively and convincingly about the trials a deaf child might face making this an important lesson in empathy for young readers... [children will] be caused to think about how first impressions don’t always count, how kindness and selflessness are key characteristics to develop in oneself and how forgiveness is an essential ingredient for peace and friendship."

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Guest Post: 'Illegal': Reading For Empathy by Andrew Donkin


Our new graphic novel, ILLEGAL, started life with a desire to make our readers feel empathy for people in a very unusual and terrible situation.

Andrew Donkin
It was about four years ago and my co-writer, Eoin Colfer, and I were following postage stamp-sized reports about the sinking of boats full of would-be migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The reports were short, impersonal, and just carried an approximate number of people thought to be missing or dead. It made for grim reading.

We followed the story and dug deeper. When you read a report that says “It’s believed that 217 people died in the sinking” it’s very easy to get lost in the numbers. What do 217 people look like? How many classrooms would they fill? Or how many double decker buses? It’s easy to forget that each one of those 217 is a person just like me and just like you.

These days, everyone has seen the photographs of the so-called “cathedral boats” where every single inch of deck space is packed with a human being desperate to escape their old life or to begin a new one. As I said, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer numbers, and what we wanted to do with ILLEGAL, was to take one person on that dodgy, unseaworthy boat and tell their story. We figured that if we could make our readers feel empathy for one person in the boat, then that would perhaps change the head-numbing statistics into human beings.

ILLEGAL follows the story of two brothers, Ebo and Kwame, as they leave their home and attempt to travel across the Sahara Desert towards the northern coast of Africa where they eventually put their lives in the hands of people traffickers on a boat to Europe.

From the very beginning we knew that we wanted to tell the story of ILLEGAL as a graphic novel rather than a more traditional prose novel. One of the many reasons for this was that we wanted to avoid telling the readers how our characters felt. We wanted to show our readers the situations that Ebo and Kwame find themselves in and invite our readers to imagine how the brothers might be feeling. We wanted to ask our readers to empathise with them and to imagine how they would feel in their place.

My friend and co-writer, Eoin Colfer wrote recently that “travel broadens the mind, but books broaden the heart.” That’s never been truer of a book than the experience of reading ILLEGAL. Nobody would want to undergo the terrible journey that our characters undertake, but by reading the book in the safety of your own home or school or library, a reader can perhaps take away a small piece, perhaps if we’re really lucky, one-millionth of the real life experience.

Giovanni Rigano
Eoin Colfer
In many ways the job of a writer is feeling empathy for a living. How else could writers get inside the head of their many and varied characters to pen their tales? Writing fiction is a strange alchemy of sometimes transposing your own experiences into the head of other characters, but more often putting your characters in situations you’ve never experienced yourself.

For ILLEGAL, Eoin, myself and our artist Giovanni Rigano did more research than for any other book that we have ever published. Although the story is fictional, every single bit of it is true. Every bit of it happened to someone – usually to many people. Meeting and listening to the survivors of such journeys was a moving and humbling experience as we worked on the book.

The last few years have seen several very divisive political events and movements sweep across the west. It seems to me that books and graphic novels with their ability to transport you not just across time and space, but more importantly into the experiences of another human being are more vital than ever.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Revealed: Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab

Those of you who've been reading my blog and interacting with me on Twitter will know my passion for the transformative power of books. One particularly powerful aspect of books is there ability to develop empathy in the reader.

The new Read For Empathy Guide from EmpathyLab is introduced with these brilliant paragraphs:

"Empathy is a human super-power which helps us all understand each other better. It is also an essential social and emotional skill, crucial if children are to thrive.

"We’re not born with a fixed quantity of empathy – it’s a skill we can learn. Excitingly, new research shows that books are a powerful tool to develop it, because in identifying with book characters, children learn to see things from other points of view. So when you read with children you can build their empathy skills at the same time."

At this year's Reading Rocks conference I ran a workshop entitled 'The More-Ness Of Reading' (click the link for a blog version of it) in which the attendees and I explored how books can help us to become more empathetic. I've also written several blog posts on the matter:

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy
The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

Many of my book reviews focus in on ways that children's books might be used in the classroom to encourage children to develop empathy:

'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson
'All The Things That Could Go Wrong' by Stewart Foster

I'm something of a fan of reading for empathy. So I was excited to find that EmpathyLab have published in their guide a list of 30 books to build children’s empathy and all in good time for Empathy Day on 12th June - we teachers and parents can get reading the selection of books now in time for then.


So far, of this list, I've only read 'Grandad’s Island' by Benji Davies, 'My Name is Not Refugee' by Kate Milner, 'Can I Join your Club?' by John Kelly and illustrated by Steph Laberis and 'The Island at the End of Everything' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave although there are a few there I've had my eye on for a while. With having read only 4 out of the 30 so far I've got a lot to be getting on with. I think I will make it my aim to read all the picture books first - hopefully my excellent local library will have them in.

The guide itself contains mini reviews of each of the books, all of which give an idea of how the book might support the development of empathy. The books which have been chosen explore themes of displacement and migration, experiencing and managing emotions and facing challenging circumstances, such as deafness, autism or bereavement.

EmpathyLab Founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: "It’s time to make far more systematic use of books’ power to tackle society’s empathy deficit. This 2018 Read for Empathy Guide is part of an empathy movement to help us understand each other better. We’re seriously delighted to be working with authors, publishers and Peters to launch it in the run up to Empathy Day on 12 June."

Have you read any of the selected books? How would you use them with children to develop empathy?
Which of the selected books are you particularly looking forward to?
I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Going Deeper With Dahl


Recent research shows that many teachers have an over-dependency on Dahl. Indeed, his books are excellent so he is certainly a best-selling children's author, and one who everyone is aware of: it's no surprise that he continues to be well-loved and well-read. And whilst I would be the first to advocate promoting a wider range of authors and books, I don't think we should throw the baby out with the bath water.

We often read Dahl books with young children (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first 'proper' book I remember reading to myself at the age of 7) because the plot lines are easy to follow, the characters are wild and wacky and the stories are exciting and funny.

So, when reading with younger children, we can easily skip over the more horrific details and focus on the heart-warming stories and crazy words. But it is in these details that we have the opportunity to explore so much more: sadness, tolerance, difference, poverty, neglect, bullying, abuse, evil, animal cruelty, safety, unrequited love - all of these in his most-popular children's titles without touching his lesser-known books, or his publications for adults.

With this in mind, anyone who is familiar with Dahl would be able to mentally flick through their library of his books and identify how the stories could be used to help children understand the world and themselves a little better - especially with those trickier issues that we don't always know how to broach with children.

Five ways to go deeper with Dahl:

Family

I've always been fascinated with the fact that so many stories for children are about children with no parents (nearly all Disney films, for example). The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and The BFG all fall into this category. Why do story tellers do this? Do young readers fantasise about having adventures, and if so, do they get the impression they can only have them if parents are out of the picture? That would certainly be an interesting discussion to have with children. These books all provide great opportunities to discuss how many children all over the world are not brought up in a traditional family unit - an opportunity for our young people to empathise with others.

Abuse

Even where parents are present, as is the case in Matilda, relationships might not always be as they should be. Reading as an adult it is quite shocking how the Wormwoods treat their daughter, and indeed how the Trunchbull treats Miss Honey and the children in her school. Work here could go beyond the identification of good and bad characters to discuss right and wrong, looking at human rights for children and what is and isn't safe for children to be exposed to. Opportunities to study intertextuality are available here too: James' aunts’ treatment of him could be studied alongside.

Poverty

Poverty is a recurring theme too - most prevalent in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl paints a bleak picture of Charlie's family's lack of means, and again, this can be used as a starter point to discuss how many people in the world, including in our own country, our own towns, are less fortunate than ourselves. Another opportunity to link texts lies here with the depiction of Miss Honey's simple lifestyle in Matilda. In both stories we actually see the nicest characters being the poorest - perhaps a good debate topic can be derived here: Is it better to be rich and unkind, or poor and kind? Or something along those lines to help children to assess what the most important things in life are.

Difference and Diversity

What Dahl book doesn't deal with difference in some shape or form? The BFG's a friendly, vegetarian giant in a world full of vicious, human-eating brutes, and when he's not in giant country he's still a giant, making him very different to the humans he meets. Willy Wonka is quite something else, as are his Oompa Loompas, not to mention how different each one of the children are. Matilda has special powers. Danny lives in a caravan and poaches pheasants. The bugs inside the peach are a very diverse bunch. It might seem contrived to use these characters to explore difference and diversity but actually, to children, these things matter, and make sense - in the context of these stories they will be able to explore ideas that they would find difficult to begin to understand from real-world examples.

Consequences of Choices

Finally, Dahl's books provide fertile ground for discussing choices and how consequences can affect us. Again, in the safe space of fiction children can discuss the negative effects of meddling with prescription drugs (George's Marvellous Medicine), the possible outcomes of contravening safety rules and not listening to adults (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) or the potential results of being unkind (The Twits). Whilst discussing the actual events of the books (which are quite ridiculous), it would be easy enough to open up more general discussions that relate more to real-life scenarios that children might encounter.

Next time you pick up a Dahl book, think twice before you pass over it and decide to use something else. Consider the themes mentioned above; even if you don't use the whole book (many children are familiar with the stories anyway), consider how you might link a Dahl novel to another story you are reading. And next time you read Roald Dahl remember that there are opportunities to go deep with the content - perhaps you'll find further ways to get children thinking and empathising as they read the magical and wonderful adventures of Dahl's colourful characters.

And if you're a Roald Dahl fan, look out for ReadingWise's free Roald Dahl pack in July. It includes extracts from The Witches and George’s Marvellous Medicine and will focus on teaching 12 ‘mini-skills’ comprehension strategies allowing the children to explore the extracts and make meaning – great for struggling readers. It also includes a SATs-style ‘challenge test’ for each extract. This will be followed by an available-to-buy pack including extracts from a further eight Roald Dahl stories.

http://readingwise.com/dahl

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

The last day of half term: business as usual. I always start the day off with a reading 'session' (somehow can't bring myself to call it a lesson) and that Friday was no exception. Continuing with our reading of Sandi Toksvig's 'Hitler's Canary' and with a focus on linking non-fiction with fiction, I had prepared a text about Judaism.

The skills focus that lesson was scanning the text for answers. The children underlined what they thought would be key words in the questions and, before being allowed to read the text thoroughly ("Sir, what does 'thoroughly' mean?"), had to answer 7 simple retrieval questions about Judaism. They were then allowed to read the text properly to check their answers. A pretty useful exercise. 

I also asked the children to write down three new facts they had learned whilst reading. Sometimes I require them to write down three questions the text makes them ask instead. Either way, it certainly promotes deeper engagement with the text and is an approach that is encouraged for 'EAL' learners (most of the children in my class are 'categorised' as such).

That engagement became apparent when the children began to ask me (font of all knowledge, obviously) questions about what they had read. The text had mentioned Abraham as a figure whom the Jewish people could trace their heritage back to - one boy asked who Abraham was. Thankfully my Old Testament  knowledge isn't too shabby (I am currently reading through Genesis, so that helped) and I was able to give a bit of background information. 

At some point during my explanation (possibly when I (intentionally) mentioned Abraham's first son Ishmael) light bulbs began to blink on - a look of realisation crossed several children's faces. You see, my class - who, bar one pupil (who happened to be absent that day) are from a Muslim background - began to put two and two together: the Abraham of the Torah and the Bible is the Islamic prophet Ibrahim and Ishmael is Ismael, patriarch of Islam! They also recognised the name of Isaac, Abraham's second son, to be one and the same as prophet Ishaq. Although the conversation was entirely unplanned, these were the links that, once the discussion had begun, I hoped they'd make.

So there I was, a Christian, teaching a reading lesson to a class of children from a Muslim background using a text about Judasim, and getting more interest and engagement than any RE lesson I've ever taught before. Without explicitly pushing it at all I could tell some children began to understand the three faiths more as they recognised for themselves the commonalities that exist in their shared heritage. Children were becoming, due to learning about the three faiths in this context, more empathetic.

Not content with one story from Jewish history they then asked about Moses (who has been mentioned as the founder of Judaism). Some of them had seen the film 'The Prince of Egypt' so we're able to contribute; others of them were thrilled to be hearing about the events of Moses' life for the first time ("Oh, so that's why we call it a Moses basket!"). Some children immediately made connections between pharaoh's treatment of the Hebrews and Hitler's treatment of the Jews, and even Trump's very recent 'Muslim ban'. This, as I'm sure you can imagine, was music to my ears: our school deliberately aims to engage children in these issues through the books and texts we read, so - job done!

If by then I wasn't sure that they had engaged fully with the text and the basics of Judaism, all was confirmed with the third main question: "Why's it called the Star of David? Who's David?" Cue the third Jewish history story of the morning - from shepherd boy to king of Israel (via giant slaying episode).

And then we actually got round to reading 'Hitler's Canary'. We read of Rabbi Marcus Melchior and his warning to the Danish Jews and saw his picture in a recent BBC news article. We heard of how the Christians and Jews worked together to remove the Jewish artefacts  from the synagogue so that they wouldn't be destroyed by the Nazis and we all understood very clearly that due to the shared heritage both parties would be interested in preserving these items - that and the fact that religious harmony was in full effect. Just as I had hoped, the reading of the non-fiction text enhanced  their reading of the novel and their understanding of the historical events it is based on. 

We then revelled in the fact that, by working together, Jewish and non-Jewish, the Danes managed to disappear 7000 Jews so effectively that the Nazis actually claimed that it was they who had disappeared them. The children in my class had total empathy having spent the previous 30 minutes being totally engaged in the best RE lesson I've ever taught.

So, and very briefly, a message: a reading lesson is the perfect opportunity to teach any lesson you want. Indeed, any lesson is the perfect opportunity to reinforce and use reading skills. Simple. But just prepare for it to be so much more than just another lesson.