Friday, December 22, 2017

Young Adult Literature in Jamaica

    I am writing this blog post to clarify points made in an article in the Gleaner on Monday, November 27, in relation to questions raised about young adult literature.
Who do you think of when you hear the phrase “Young Adult”?  People in their late teens and early 20’s? These young people read adult literature, so that genre is not for them. The Vic Reid Award accepts manuscripts suitable for readers ages 13-18 years and older. For many authors and publishers it means 12 to 15 year-olds, and includes books such as “The Hunger Games”, The Twilight series and the Harry Potter series. The popularity of subcategories in this genre change rapidly. The popularity of fantasy is taken over by vampire novels and then by dystopian novels. The publishing industry has a hard time knowing what is going to be next.  
Another dilemma is that age is not a good guide when writing and choosing books for children and teenagers, especially in Jamaica.

The ideal transition is as follows:
Parents read picture books to young children, talk about the story and pictures. Toddlers get board books, which are resistant to tearing and chewing.
When children go to Basic School or kindergarten they are introduced to phonics and have more story  books read to them. They have access to simple picture books with few words, which they can read often. Thus, some children begin to read from as young as four years old.
In grade 1, in primary or elementary school, phonics teaching continues, children have graded readers  and hopefully a plentiful supply of reading books appropriate for their age and reading level. By the end of grade 1, at age 7 they should be reading independently. They then move on to simple and later more complex chapter books, and hopefully to a life of enjoying reading.
Unfortunately, for many  Jamaican children one or all of these stages is missing. Some of them remain illiterate, while others are reading below their grade level. So they are not reading young adult books. They also develop a negative attitude to reading. What they need is an abundant supply of multicultural books appropriate for their reading level from grades 1 to 11. There is a pressing need for many more books by Jamaican authors to fill that gap. What is sorely needed are more HiLo - high interest, low difficulty books. Nine-year-old boys would prefer to read about cars and trucks than about teddies and bunnies.
      Because the readership for young adult literature in Jamaica is small, authors of this genre have to target the wider Caribbean and international as well as Jamaican audiences but it’s still hard to get published.
I was asked why I thought none of the entries for the Vic Reid award were of a high enough standard to merit the award. I know nothing about the authors of these entries, but I suspect they, like me when I started writing, thought “anyone can write a book”, not realizing that it is a craft to be learned. I wrote the first draft of “Lost in the Cockpit Country” in 2006. It was rejected by all the publishers I sent it to. In subsequent years, I rewrote sections of it several times and rewrote the last half completely in 2017. (It has still not been published!)

Several activities led to improvement in my writing.
1. I have an online critique group which has been meeting regularly since we took an online course in children’s writing in 2004. There are only three of us now, but what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. Critiquing other’s work teaches one a great deal about one’s own writing.
2. In 2007, “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom” was accepted for publication by Macmillan Caribbean. Working with my editor, Joanne Johnson, I learned more than I had from all the writing books I had read. I rewrote my story, chapter by chapter, some chapters more than once, until it met her stringent requirements. Much of her advice was transferable to my other writing. My only difficulty was to convince her that some of the ways she wanted me to express something were  Trinidadian, not Jamaican. You don’t have to wait to have a book a accepted for publication, to work with an editor, but in that case, you would have to pay the person.
3. Reading out loud to yourself or others reveals flaws which you might not spot otherwise.
4. Reading as many books as possible in the genre you want to write in is also recommended - read once to enjoy the story and a second time to analyze the structure, study the style, characterization, dialogue and description.
5. Reading books on writing. I have found the following books invaluable:
(i) The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall
(ii) The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
(iii) The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
(iv) The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
(v)  20 Master Plots and how to build them by Ronald Tobias
Most authors have websites and blogs where they give tips on writing, but the volume of this information can be overwhelming.

Writing is a somewhat solitary occupation. That is why organizations such as the Jamaican Writers Society (JAWS) are formed, to put writers in touch with each other. They do organize workshops, so perhaps a workshop on writing Young Adult Fiction is timely. I also think that there needs to be more discussion about what exactly is required of works entered for the Vic Reid Award.

Monday, November 6, 2017

We are failing our children

Ministry of Education, Youth and Information
Kingston, Jamaica
Have you ever been frustrated by seeing clothing sold as ‘one size fits all’? Obviously this cannot be true, but for manufacturers it may be more cost effective to produce for the average sized person. Larger and smaller people will have to do without. It seems that is also the case in the educational system. Children vary in natural ability, home environment, early stimulation, exposure to reading material, nutrition and quality of sleep, but they are all supposed to fit the same curriculum. We are failing them when we don’t tailor the curriculum to make provisions for every child to learn to read at their grade level.     
      In my blog post of October I expressed my disappointment and alarm about the content of grade 4 science in the New Standard Curriculum. Now I am angry about the whole Grade 4 Curriculum. It seems to be designed for the top 20% of the children, those who are headed for the traditional high schools. It is crammed with content which has to be covered in a specific time frame. There is no latitude to allow teachers to go at a slower pace, or to spend time reviewing, or to give any individual attention. For example, in Social Studies, the first topic is the Tainos. I don’t have a problem with the topic, but the way it is taught and the amount of detail required. To make it more “interesting”, the children are given information in a cryptic form, such as scrambled words, e.g. the translation of the Taino word “maguey” is scrambled as “bnmirtaeou”. They are often directed to the internet, which many of them have no access to. At the end of the topic, they are tested on factual information, about the Taino diet, dwellings, clothing, religion and mode of transport, which they are expected to recall. There is no critical thinking involved.


     Turning to math, to which an hour every day is devoted, the main problem is that the foundation is not there. Teachers in grades 1-3 have to stick to a rigid curriculum. If students haven’t understood a topic, too bad, they must move on to the next topic. In a search for better performance in math, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information turned to Singapore Math. They recently concluded a Mathematics Forum, in conjunction with the Book Merchant, distributors of Scholastic -Prime Mathematics in Jamaica. These expensive books would probably be purchased only by prep schools, but the basis of the method could be used in all schools – that is that all the children in the class should understand the concept being taught before they move on to the next topic. Surely this is more important than racing through the curriculum and leaving half the children behind? Some of the misconceptions which occur are illustrated by the response of a 9 year-old boy to these questions:
“What is 100 take away 1?” Answer – zero. He took away the 1 in the hundreds place to get this answer.
            “Which is more $500 or $278.43?” Answer - $278.43. Why? The latter has more digits!
       Another requirement of Singapore Math is the teachers should be well-trained. Unfortunately, many primary school teachers are themselves deficient in this area, and retraining of teachers would be expensive. But what would it cost to cut the content of the curriculum? It would make more sense to do so, than to have to keep re-teaching. As it is, most of the concepts taught in Grade 6 are repeated in Grade 7.

Reading is an essential requirement for all subjects. Too many children are reading below grade level and have limited vocabularies, partly because they have not been provided with sufficient appropriate reading material in lower grades. They have low self-esteem and motivation, having been already turned off learning by repeatedly failing tests in grades 1-3. They are further frustrated by not being able to do grade 4 assignments and therefore give trouble. Teachers then have to devote much of their energies to disciplining these children. Their task is compounded by having as many as 50 children in a class. 

Granville All Age School, St. James

If I were in a position to do so, I would prune the whole primary school curriculum, and place the main emphasis on ensuring that all children become functionally literate and numerate. I would shift the focus from the top 20% to the lower 40%. For children who master the task at hand before other children, enrichment activities such as supplementary reading, puzzles games and research projects can be given. They could also be called on to assist the weaker children, so developing a spirit of volunteerism.

The mantra of the MOEYI is "Every Child Can Learn - Every Child Must Learn". But every child cannot learn at the same pace and should not be expected to do so. Some Principals, like Mrs. Kandi-Lee Crooks Smith of Allman Town Primary School have had the foresight to abandon the curriculum and introduce innovative ideas. She says "... schools should stop tying themselves to curricula and explore what engages children and use that in order to enhance the teaching and learning process."   The MOEYI should encourage other principals to follow her example. 




Monday, October 2, 2017

My picks for Class Libraries Grades 3-4 in Jamaican Schools

This is a continuation of my blog postof September 7, with suggestions for books for grades 3-4. Many of the children in these grades are reading below grade level. 
I’m starting with books by Jamaican authors, most of which are available in Jamaica and on Amazon. 
Published by LMH
By Hazel Campbell:   Juice Box and Scandal   
                                    Tilly Bummie
                                    Ramgoat Dashalong
                                    Goat Boy Never Cries
By Isabel Marvin:       Saving Joe Louis
Published by Carlong in the Sand Pebble Series
            Every Little Thing will be All Right by Diane Browne
            Jenny and the General by Jean D’Costa
            Miss Bettina’s House by Hazel Campbell
Beenybud Stories by Linda Gambrill published by Ian Randle
            Miss Tiny
            A Boy Named Neville
            Croaking Johnny and Dizzy Lizzie
By Cedella Marley
            The Boy from Nine Miles
            One Love
            Every Little Thing
By Everard Palmer published by Macmillan Caribbean
            A Cow Called Boy
            The Sun Salutes You
            My Father Sun-Sun Johnson
            Cloud with the Silver Lining
Books from the wider Caribbean. Many are listed on Anansesem’s website.
Examples:       My Two Grannies by Floella Benjamin
                        My Two Grandads by Floella Benjamin

                        Boysie and the Kiskadee by Britta Rajkumar 

            Sally's Way (Paperback) by Joanne Johnson          
The School that Sank by Sherry North
Sailing Days by Sherry North
The Angry Mountain by Charlotte Megan Adams

Gary the Smartest Gecko by Thalia Bell
Shauna’s Hurricane by Francine Jacobs
and other books in this series.

Books from Africa
See my blog post of April 2015 for suggestions.
I would like to highlight The No 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke. There are 6 books in this series.
Circle Unbroken  by Margo Theis Raven - the story of how the art of basket-making was taken from Africa to the Carolinas. Is there a similar story of the way in which the art of basket-making was brought to Jamaica?
The following books were not listed in that blog post:
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain (Rise and Shine)
by Verna Aardema  
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aareema       There  are many more books by this author.                                                                                                                                                                                                                
Goal! by Mina Javaherbin 

Most of the big publishing houses have series of graded readers.
Harper Collins has “I Can Read” Levels 3 and 4 are suitable for the corresponding grades.
Random House has “Step into Reading
Scholastic has “Readers”. Levels 2 and 3 are recommended for children who are becoming independent readers.
DK Readers cover a wide range of non-fiction topics. Grade 4 children should find some that interest them in levels 2 & 3.

I picked the following books, which are culturally North American, from a list of books enjoyed by children at The Centre for Teaching and Learning. They are all available on Amazon.

Easier, well-illustrated books to encourage struggling and reluctant readers.
1.     Bridwell, Norman     The Clifford series – picture books about 30 pages long, more appropriate for grades 1-2 , but could still be of interest.
2.     Charlip, Remy    Fortunately This picture book might appeal to reluctant readers.
3.     Griffiths, Andy   The 13-Story Treehouse (The Treehouse books). These books are longer, but still have lots of illustrations and not so much text.
4.     McMullan, Kate   I’m Dirty; I’m Smart; I’m Fast and other titles all about vehicles. Text in the books varies in size and there are activities such as identifying tools.
5.     Rey, H.A.   The Curious George series – timeless classics about a monkey who gets into trouble – picture books intended for reading aloud.
6.     Willems, Mo     Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs 
Chapter books for average readers.
1.     Osborne, Mary Pope    TheMagic Tree House books take Jack and Annie to times and places other than contemporary U.S.A. They are ideal for children who are starting chapter books.
2.     Abbott, Tony    The Secrets of Droon books. These fantasies are also chapter books, average 90 pages long.
3.     Barrows, Annie    The Ivy and Bean series. These chapter books, about 120 pages long are available in paperback and Kindle editions. They would appeal more to girls, because the two central characters are girls.
4.     Bentley, Sue    The Magic Kitten series: would also appeal more to girls.
5.     Cleary, Beverly is a prolific author popular with children in the USA. Her Ralph S. Mouse books might be popular with boys in Jamaica.
6.     Kimpton, Diana    ThePony-Crazed Princess series – popular with girls who like to read about princesses and horses!
7.     Krulik, Nancy    The Magic Bone series – stories about dogs, for example Be Careful What You Sniff – might appeal to boys.
8.     Miles, Ellen    The Puppy Place Series 100+ pp Gr 4 should be able to read these, but they are somewhat culture bound. At least 45 books.
9.     Roy, Ron    A-Z Mysteries series: Appropriate reading level but culturally North American.
10.  Rylant, Cynthia   Henry and Mudge books, about a white boy and his dog, but I think Jamaican boys can identify with him.
11.  Silverman, Erica    Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa
12.  Wallace, Bill   The Flying Flea, Callie, and Me
1. The Usborne collection of fairy tales, folk tales, fiction, and nonfiction
2. The Kingfisher Treasuries: Many books suitable for this age group
Books for more competent readers.
1.     Applegate, Katherine: I love 2 books of hers, not least because of the poetic language. Home of the Brave written in Kek’s voice, is the story of a refugee boy from Africa, adapting to a new life in the USA. The One and Only Ivan is about a gorilla who was kept in a small cage in a shopping mall. I expect Crenshaw is equally good. 
2.     Brown, Peter     TheWild Robot about how a robot survives in the wilderness.
3.     Dahl, Roald Charlie and the Chocolate Factory;  Giraffe, Pelly, and Me; The BFG; Fantastic Mr. Fox; and The Enormous Crocodile These timeless classics continue to be popular with children. .
4.     King-Smith, Dick  A Mouse Called Wolf, and other books are entertaining stories.
5.     McDonald, Megan    The Judy Moody and Stink series. Lots of titles about a brother and sister, sometimes on their own, other times together. 
6.     Willems, Mo     The Story of Diva and Flea
7.     Watson, Tom   The Stick Dog series – engaging stories and simple illustrations to inspire children who don’t like to draw. 
      Wallace, Bill Trapped in Death Cave


Friday, September 15, 2017

Grade 4 Science Curriculum in Jamaica

Ministry of Education, Jamaica.
 In 1999, the Jamaican Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) replaced the Common Entrance Exam. Because Science and Social Studies had previously been given little emphasis, exams in these subjects, based on topics covered in grades 4, 5 and 6, were introduced in GSAT. The curriculum was overloaded with content, much of which would be taught again at the high school level. Great pressure was exerted on the students to get them to commit to memory a large amount of information.  Therefore a decision was made, as I understood it, to cut down on the content and have tests at the end of each of the grades 4, 5 and 6, to give a Primary Exit Profile (PEP). More emphasis was to be placed on developing critical thinking skills and less on rote learning.
A new National Standards Curriculum, for the grades one to nine levels, was written and should have come into operation at the beginning of the 2016/17 school year, but was delayed by a year. According to JIS:
“The goal of the new Curriculum is to improve the general academic performance, attitude and behaviour of students, which will redound to the positive shaping of the national social and economic fabric.
Under the new system, emphasis will be placed on project-based and problem-solving learning, with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics/ Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEM/STEAM) integrated at all levels.
The approaches will allow the learners to have hands-on experiences that are similar to real-world situations, making the learning experience less abstract and more concrete.
The new curriculum will allow students to utilize their own talents, and experiences in the learning process, while facilitating the increase use of Information Communication Telecommunication (ICT) technologies.”

I was therefore disappointed and alarmed when I perused the Grade 4 Science book: The New Integrated Approach – Science Workbook 4 by G. Harper, M. Dennis and D. Ellis published by Gem Publishers, which adheres strictly to the curriculum  produced by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information. The content is MORE than that in the GSAT curriculum. Several topics previously taught in Grade 6 are now to be taught in Grade 4, namely the eye and the ear; flowering plants – types of plant, root and shoot systems and the flower. Forces and work – types of forces and friction; sinking and floating, previously taught in Grade 5, are now in Grade 4. The other topics previously taught in Grade 4 remain, except for Simple and Complex Machines; and Rocks, Minerals and Soils.  It is also unfair to the teachers of these grades, who are not specialized science teachers, to change the curriculum at such short notice.

Furthermore, the content of The New Integrated Approach – Science Workbook 4 is sloppily researched and presented. Many experiments are suggested. Did the authors of the book, or the designers of the curriculum, try out the experiments before putting them in the book? Is there scope for the children to design and carry out their own experiments? Have they been taught how to? In First Steps in Science Activity book 6, by Vilma McClenan, Hortense Morgan and R. Dorothy Pottinger published by Carlong, (1999), is the following statement: “The activities that you will do will require you to use the process or inquiry skills which you have been using in science since grade 1. These include : observing, communicating, inferring, predicting, hypothesising, measuring, planning investigations that are “fair tests”, recording and interpreting data, drawing conclusions and looking for patterns and relationships.”
As far as I know, grade 4 students have been using few of these skills. They are more encouraged to learn by rote and regurgitate information they do not understand. Furthermore, primary schools do not have equipped laboratories. Teachers might be able to bring a thermometer, and a scale but, with 50 children in a class, it would be hard to use them as prescribed in The New Integrated Approach – Science Workbook 4.
The illustrations leave much to be desired. Several are clearly not of the Caribbean. Why, when the book is intended for Jamaican children? In the picture on page 36 of people playing musical instruments, most of the performers are white, and the unnecessary, confusing background of trees is the same background as on page 102, showing some people in a park. How were these pictures put together? The one on page 110 is obviously of the English countryside.
For several topics in the book, students are required to research on an electronic device , and in many instances to download and print pictures. For example, on page 41, students are instructed to print pictures of hearing aids and paste them in their books. How many children have access to a printer, and are able to download and print without help? I have to ask, what is the educational value of this activity? The reason “Teacher says you must do it to get a grade.” What critical thinking is involved here? It is a mindless waste of time and resources.
There are seven end-of-unit tests consisting of multiple choice questions many of which are confusing, for example:
Q6. (page 15) Sandy pasted pictures of herself in her scrapbook. She could be showing:
A.    How living things grow and change.
B.    How living things respond to stimuli.
C.    How living things remain the same.
D.    That living things are visible.
This system of testing, while capable of grading large numbers of scripts in a short time, has the effect of encouraging teachers to teach and students to study for that kind of test. It does not encourage critical thinking, analyzing and inquiry skills. If we want our children to become critical thinkers, we need to cut down on the content of the curriculum and devote more time to the development of inquiry skills. Surely it is not beyond the capacity of the MOEYI to do this? 
Additionally, is any public scrutiny of that NSC is being done by Jamaican stakeholders, as had been done with several previous  curricula? It seems to me that far too much emphasis is placed on the content of the curriculum and not enough on the capacity of the teachers and schools to deliver it; and the ability of the students understand it. We end up teaching the curriculum and not the children. Surely, principals, class teachers, parents and the students themselves should be allowed to have some input in the development of curricula.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Class Libraries for Jamaican Schools

One of the joys of life is exploring new worlds through books. Many children in Jamaica are denied this pleasure because the only books they have are their school textbooks, which hold no particular interest for them. They don’t visit the parish library, and few schools have libraries with a qualified librarian able to assist hundreds of children in the school.
I’m therefore making a suggestion that schools have class libraries. The class teachers know their students well and can select books which they think each child would like and be capable of reading. If the class library had sufficient books, children could browse and make their own choices. Children learn to read better by reading books which interest them at their current reading level.
Then there needs to be a set time each day when the children “Drop Everything And Read” (DEAR), one of the unfulfilled objectives of ESTP (the Education System Transformation Programme).
Where can these books come from? They can be donated, parents could be asked to buy one book (a different book for each child to add to the pool) or money could be given to, or raised by the schools to purchase the books. In this and subsequent posts I’m making some suggestions for suitable books to stock class libraries. I'm starting with books for beginners. 
Little Lion at Bat by Kellie Magnus
Although an enormous number of books available, I've tried to narrow it down to a manageable number. Picture books appear to be an obvious choice, but in many of them the text  is intended for reading aloud by a proficient reader and is too complex for emergent readers. Another important consideration is that children see themselves in books from an early age. Ones featuring Jamaican children are listed in my post “Books for Young Children by Jamaican Authors”. 
There is a good selection of books from the wider Caribbean on the Anansesem website and on Amazon. For example: Coconut Mon by Linda Milstein – a counting book.
A coconut's life for me by Jonathan de la Rosa 
Five Birds on a Wire by Melanie Charlene

In addition, there are several graded readers written specifically for Caribbean children. Here are my picks:
Macmillan Caribbean: Reggae Readers (written specifically for Jamaican children.)
                                    Ready, Go  Series
A book in Macmillan Caribbean
 Ready, Go series
Language Tree Reading Scheme by Leonie Bennett
Cambridge Storybooks I wasn't able to look inside any of these titles, but they are designed for English Language Teaching, which would seem to me to be suitable for Jamaican children in Grades 1 and 2.

Ladybird books Penguin continues to publish new titles in the Ladybird imprint. Many of them are relevant to the Caribbean and are available in Jamaican bookshops.

My story in the
Stepping Stone Series

Pearson’s Stepping Stone Series is another set of readers intended for Caribbean children, but it is hard to get hold of in Jamaica.

The Ministry of Education in Jamaica used to supply schools with the 'Literacy 1-2-3" books and the Doctor Bird Readers, but no longer does so.

Usborne  is a leading UK independent publisher of children's books. They have over 2000 titles in their collection which includes fairy tales, folk tales, fiction, and nonfiction. Their website is organized so that you can choose books for a particular aged child, but not their reading level. You cannot 'see inside' the books so it is hard to gauge the reading level.

There are many books and series written for the American market, most of which have a universal appeal. I compiled the selection below, in alphabetical order of authors, from a list of books enjoyed by students at the  Center for Teaching and Learning.

1. Bridwell, Norman     The Clifford series  Each of these books is about 30 pages long. They are available on Kindle as well as paperback for US $2-4.   
2. Dean, James   Pete theCat series Each about 40 pages. Titles in the Harper Collins 'I can read series'. 

3. Krauss, Ruth    The Carrot Seed 
4. Lakin, Patricia Vroom, Zoom, Bud (Penguin Young Readers, Level 1)
5.  Lobel, Arnold    The Frog and Toad books, Mouse Tales,  and other books in Harper Collins ‘I can read books’
6.  Marshall, Edward    Four by the Shore, Three by the Sea and others. (Penguin Young Readers series.) 
7. Marshall, Edward and James    The Fox books (Penguin Young Readers series.)
8.  McMullan, Kate   Fluffy Goes toSchool (Scholastic Reader).
9. Numeroff, Laura   Jelly Bean’s BigDance  a picture book with simple text.
10.  Parish, Herman    Amelia Bedelia books The original books, by Peggy Parish, about a maid who took all instructions literally, causing her to perform incorrect actions, amuse readers with a good command of English. Jamaican students in grades 1 and 2 might not find them amusing. However, Peggy's nephew has continued the series by writing about Amelia Bedelia's childhood.  
11. Portis, Antoinette    Not a Stick, and Not a Box  - Penguin Story picture books with simple text, could be starting point for discussion or writing. 
12. Rylant, Cynthia   Henry and Mudge series, (Ready to read series) Boxed set – 6 books $12 
13. Seeger, Laura Vaccaro   First the Egg (32 pages). This is an easy read for grade 1 and is also suitable for  Basic Schools. 
14. Stevenson, James    The Castaway,  Don’t Make MeLaugh, These books don't appeal to me, but you can never tell what children will like.
15.  Willems, Mo    The Pigeon books, and the Elephant and Piggie series
16. Wilson, Karma    Bear's New Friend and the rest of the Bear books 34pp  These books are actually more appropriate for reading aloud in basic schools and for discussion with a teacher or parent, but the illustrations are delightful and could encourage children to read for themselves.

I hope this list will provide a starting point for those interested in buying books for class libraries or for individual children in Grades 1 & 2 in Jamaican schools.