Monday, November 14, 2005

Mem Fox in Calgary

At training when we covered Reading Theory - we pulled from a book by Australian author Mem Fox. Turns out she was in Calgary recently for a literacy conference. Story here:

PUBLICATION: Calgary Herald
DATE: 2005.11.14
BYLINE: Joanne Good

Making writing real

To hear famed Australian children's author Mem Fox read one of her stories is to watch adults -- including a couple of university professors -- wriggle in their seats with laughter, anticipation and tears.

The author of the now classic Possum Magic, Time for Bed and the bring-you-to-tears Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge, Fox commands an audience with the voice of a trained actress, the sensibility of a university instructor and the soul of a storytelling parent.

What she is equally famous for is assaulting the endlessly "stupid" ways parents and teachers have tried to pass on the skills of literacy with sorry results.

In a disarmingly funny tirade on truly stupid tactics, Fox targets fill-in-the-blanks worksheets, basal readers and ill-conceived assignments, such as requiring a student to describe an apple to a blind person.

To better understand how a kid -- or anyone -- learns to write better, Fox poses three questions about any writing task:

1. Why do we write? (And not just because a teacher said so or to get grades.)

2. Which situation makes us want to write in the first place?

3. What are the implications of our writing?

The answer to the first question is investment, she offers. People -- big and small -- write to move others to the writer's way of thinking, to earn money, to let off steam, to protest wrongs, to make people laugh and to get much needed groceries at the store.

The answer to the second question is reality. "If it doesn't matter in our real lives, we don't do it.

"No surprise, nothing real comes out of a worksheet."

The answer to the third question is "to create a reaction."

Children learn to talk by talking to someone who responds. "They must, therefore, learn to write by writing to someone who responds," Fox said at the recent Hats Off To Literacy conference in Calgary.

The more important the audience is to us, the greater the investment we have, the better we write, she explains.

Writing tasks that meet this trio of requirements will be a joy to read. These missives will move people and -- whether this matters or not -- they will win a grade that might be useful as a student proceeds through school.

There is one exception, Fox conceded. "Sometimes, the relationship with the teacher is so strong, they love the teacher and want to impress the teacher, they will even do a nutcase assignment to please the teacher."

But only when students write for real reasons do they learn to write for real, says the author.

As a former teacher of literacy studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, Fox says she did her best teaching when she required student-teachers to perform their writing.

"Dreading the imminent and real audience -- such as a nearby classroom of kids -- galvanized them into quite a different sort of action. They ached with caring about the response and rehearsed for hours outside class times."

The more real and important the audience, says Fox, the more a child or adult writer will strive to make that audience laugh, cry, or change their attitudes.

Fox calls it the hope and fear factor.

"Hope and fear is attached to the audience, and without a very good audience in mind, writing is shabby."

So, as teachers assign projects such as posters, invitations to speakers, plays, thank you speeches and poems, they can teach about writing to the audience by making it knee-shaking real, Fox advises.

"You might say, 'Remember Johnny next door. He's a tough critic and we really want to impress him. We don't want to be boring, so let's go over our writing and draft and draft and make it good.' "

When writing is made authentic, it will serve other important purposes, too, says the author of 29 children's picture books.

"Writing, when it is reality based, when students are allowed to discover this and invited to let off steam as therapy, once it becomes a possibility, one or two children, who knows, especially a boy, might be saved from depression or suicide because he can write it out."

When teachers and parents help to develop powerful writing, students begin to take control of their lives, she insists.

"Please give students real world assignments. We have to show them there are other things we can write about -- and lead them far, far away from worksheets."

Reading and Writing Tips From Author Mem Fox

- "Read at least three stories a day. It may be the same story, three times. Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read."

- "Read aloud with animation. Listen to your voice and don't be dull, or flat or boring. Hang loose and be loud, have fun and laugh a lot."

- Never, ever, teach reading or get tense around books.

- Read aloud every day because you just love being with your child, not because it's the right thing to do. This is as important for fathers as it is for mothers.

- Linger and listen to Mem Fox read aloud with tips on how to read with animation at her website, or

- Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud To Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox (Harcourt, 2001) is a primer for parents.

- Mem Fox books are found at independent bookstores such as MonkeyShines in Marda Loop and Owl's Nest Bookstore in Britannia.


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