Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year
to my readers.
I hope you all have a
peaceful, productive
and inspirational

Friday, December 23, 2011

JCDC's Poetry, Pudding and Punch with Mervyn Morris

On a balmy, moonlit Sunday evening, December 11, 2011, on the terrace of the Altamont West Hotel in Montego Bay, the St. James Office of the Jamaica Cultural Development Association treated an enthusiastic audience to a selection of readings.

Brian Brown

The MC for the evening was Mr. Brian Brown, who also read some of his poems, written over the course of several years. He reminisced on the diverse states of his mind when he wrote them. My favourite was his poem about his daughter.

Albert Robinson
Mr. Albert Robinson read from his novel Locks and the Cross, which was given an Honourable Mention at the Creative Writing Awards Ceremony, 2011. Mr. Robinson has moved speedily to publish his novel, which is now available as an e-book on Amazon.

Miss Keniesha Lowe and Mrs. Arlene McKenzie, put us in a reflective mood with their thought-provoking poems, while Mrs. Marline Stephenson-Dalley had us all laughing at her pun on the words ‘greater’ and ‘grater’.

Helen Williams

I read a chapter from Delroy and the Marog Princess for which I had won a bronze medal and Best Intermediate Novelist in the Creative Writing Awards Ceremony, 2011. Regrettably, I am unable to say when this novel will be published. I intend to self-publish, and am looking into the feasibility of doing a print-run as well as publishing as an e-book.

Jane Crichton

Mrs. Jane Crichton entertained us with a selection of her poems, some peaceful, some provocative, some hilarious—all read with her emphases, which we miss if we simply read them from her anthology or her calendars.

The highlight of the evening was the reading by Professor Mervyn Morris, poet and professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Prof. Morris was born in Kingston, and studied at the University College of the West Indies (which became UWI) and as Rhodes Scholar at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 1992 he was a UK Arts Council Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the South Bank Centre.

Professor Mervyn Morris

The blurb on the cover of I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems, published by Carcanet in 2006, describes him thus: “Mervyn Morris is one of the most distinctive West Indian poets, his work characterised by economy, wit and humane seriousness. He makes elegant use of Jamaica's linguistic range, with poems in international standard English, Jamaican Creole and mixtures in between. These variations inflect his treatment of love, lust, time, memory, death, religion, politics, commitment, identity, history, art and other concerns. His poems frequently suggest the tension inherent in moments of choice.”

I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems brings together poems from three of his previous collections, Shadowboxing, The Pond and Examination Centre, alongside new work.
              In his delivery of the many poems he selected for us, including the famous ‘Little Boy Crying’ and ‘The Roaches’ from his first collection of poems, The Pond, in spite of a lifetime of achievements, he came across as unassuming, friendly and caring. I am privileged to have shared the evening with him.
             Interspersed among readings by invitees were presentations at the open-mike by members of the audience. Natalie Morris of JCDC, and organiser of this event, read one of her poems. If you are one of the other creative people who plucked up courage to come to the mike, I would love you to give me information about your reading, in a comment which you can make below, and I will edit this post to include  it.                  
            Those in attendance enjoyed pudding and punch, and made a contribution of one thousand Jamaican dollars towards the activities of the St. James Office of the JCDC. I am looking forward to the next poetry evening which they are planning.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

2011 Grade 4 Literacy Test Results

Congratulations to the teachers and students in the schools falling in the top quintile in the Grade 4 Literacy Test, sat in June 2011, results of which were published in The Gleaner on Wednesday November 9, 2011. Special congratulations to three schools in the parish of St. James:

Salter’s Hill All Age, with 3 students in grade 4, all of whom achieved mastery, had a marvelous turnaround from 0% mastery in 2010 to 100% mastery in 2011.

Mount Zion Primary, with 5 students in grade 4, had an equally commendable turnaround from 0% mastery in 2010 to 80% in 2011, with 20% (one student) almost achieving mastery. (The total enrollment at this school has unfortunately fallen from 45 to 30 students.)

Mount Horeb All Age and Infant had only one student sit the exam, but since this student achieved mastery, that gave them 100%.

These were the schools I tracked in my post ‘Class Size and the Teaching of Reading’ on September 6, 2011, when I didn’t name them, because of their poor performance. I am now happy to highlight their good performance. Unlike The Gleaner, Thursday, November 10, 2011, which chose to write about poorly performing schools, under the headline ‘WEAK SCHOOL WATCH’, when they could have given prominence to the fact that there has been an overall 4% improvement in results over last year.

That article glossed over the fact that the schools with 0% mastery are all small schools. The statistics (published on Wednesday), and responses from the principals, to the charge of being called ‘weak schools’, published in the Gleaner on Friday, November 11, 2011, reveal the following:

Grades 4,5 and 6 students at Mount Vernon Primary School
 Mount Vernon Primary, St. Thomas: The school enrollment was 13, with only 1 teacher to teach grades 1-6. The number of children in grade 4 was 3. One of them sat the test and obviously didn't attain mastery. The school enrollment increased to 15 this school year, and there are two teachers, one of whom is the acting principal. The school is in a remote location, with no road. More students used to attend this school, but parents prefer to send their children to Trinity Ville Primary.

Rose Hill Primary, Manchester: The Gleaner’s statistics state that the school enrollment was 38, with only 2 teachers to teach grades 1-6. The number of children in grade 4 was 4, two of whom sat the test. However, according to the principal, 8 students were eligible to sit the exam, 2 were absent, 2 had no grade sent for them. Of the other four, one got mastery, 2 non-mastery and one almost mastery. He also stated that they have a serious attendance problem with the students. The current enrollment is 80.

Hamwalk Primary, St. Catherine: The school enrollment was 23, with only 2 teachers to teach grades 1-6. The number of children in grade 4 was 5. Four of them sat the test. A teacher’s comment “The previous principal was the grade 4 teacher and most of the time the students didn’t have any teacher… they were not prepared for the exam.” Where was the principal? He should have been able to do his administrative work after school was dismissed. The present acting principal, on secondment from another school, pledges to improve on this performance. I believe she will.

Juan De Bolas Primary: The school enrollment was 43. Pupil teacher ratio was given as 9:1 indicating 4 teachers to teach grades 1-6. The number of children in grade 4 was given as 5, while 6 sat the test (did one turn up who wasn't enrolled?)

For these 4 schools, the number of children who sat the test, and failed to achieve mastery, adds up to 13. Compare this total with a school with 68% mastery, a population of 1,067, a grade 4 enrollment of 205, and having 184 children sit the test. 32% of 184 means that 58 children didn’t achieve mastery. This school is not on the weak school list but clearly needs help.

However, I still think there’s a case for closing these (and other) very small schools and sending the children to schools where there is at least one teacher per grade, specialized in the curriculum for that grade. The minimum enrollment for a primary school, I think, should be 210—six grades with 35 children in each grade. Despite the challenges of teaching in deep rural areas, it’s really not fair that some teachers have such small classes, while those in urban areas have classes of 50. Furthermore, it's because parents move their children from these deep rural schools, possibly because teachers are not teaching as they should, that the rolls are falling and those in urban areas are increasing.

One other observation from this year’s results: Of the 33,148 students who achieved mastery, 56% were girls and 44% were boys. This highlights the challenge of teaching boys to read. Perhaps there needs to be more appealing reading material for the boys who aren’t achieving mastery.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Jamaican Children's Writers meet at JCDC Awards Ceremony

L to R: Diane Browne, Helen Williams, Hazel Campbell and
Jean Forbes after the JCDC Creative Writing Awards
 My previous post stubbornly refused to upload this photo. It must have wanted a post all to itself, so here it is.
Diane Browne is a multiple gold medal award winner in the JCDC Creative Writing Contests. In 1985, she won a gold medal for her children's story  "Debonair the Donkey". The Commission published this book in 1986 - their first publication.
Diane's most recent book is "Island Princess in Brooklyn" edited by Hazel Campbell, published by Carlong in their Sand Pebble Series.
Diane recently won the Special Prize for a Children's Story in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2011, for her story The Happiness Dress. Congratulations Diane. You can read it by clicking on this link. (I haven't yet discovered how to post a link to a link!)
You can read more about Diane on her blog

Hazel Campbell is a writer and editor of children's stories. She describes herself as a
retired, freelance writer of fiction for children, radio and video scripts, but she doesn't appear to be retired at all. She still teaches a writing class. Her latest books - A Goatboy Never Cries -LMH Publishing Co., Bernie and the Captain's Ghost - Carlong Publishers (Caribbean) Ltd. Bernie and the Captain's Ghost won the BIAJ best children's chapter book award for 2011. Hazel was awarded a Silver Musgrave Medal by the Institute of Jamaica for 2011. Congratulations Hazel. You can read more about Hazel on her blog

Jean Forbes is another children's writer who won an award at the JCDC Awards Ceremony, for a short story in the junior category.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

JCDC Jamaica Creative Writing Awards Ceremony

The moment of the long-awaited Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s Creative Writing Awards Ceremony and Exhibition Opening, at the Knutsford Court Hotel, finally arrived on Nov 2, 2011, at 5:30 p.m. We awardees seated in front of the audience anxiously scanned the list for our names in the various categories, and congratulated each other on our accomplishments. I was happy to see that I had been awarded a bronze medal for Delroy and the Marog Princess (sequel to Delroy in the Marog Kingdom). About it the judges—Ms. Cheryl Brown, Dr. Lorna Down and Dr. Kimberly Robinson Walcott—said,

This is a creative and imaginative story with echoes of other myths and legends. It appears too to be a Part 2 to an earlier tale with significant details missing. The fantasy world that is created has a consistency of details allows the reader to willingly suspend disbelief. The writer clearly has a talent for creating memorable characters, with distinguishing features; the plot is fast-paced and holds the reader's attention. Many adolescents should find this tale engaging.

The ceremony started promptly at 6:00 p.m. but we had to wait a little longer to find out if we had won any of the Class or Overall Awards. In the meantime we were entertained by the Vaz Prep Dance Troupe; and readings by the Gold Medal Winners—Stephanie Lloyd, Donna Hall, Fabian Thomas and Seon Lewis.

Bronze Medal and Trophy for
Best Intermediate Novelist
 I am happy to say that, in the Class Awards, I received the trophy for Best Intermediate Novelist for Delroy and the Marog Princess.

Congratulations to Seon Lewis—Best Overall Writer (1st place)—with 2 gold and 1 silver-medal- winning poems; and to Stephanie Lloyd—Outstanding Writer (2nd place) for her gold-medal-winning short story. Congratulations also to Hazel Campbell for having four past students from her writing class, including Stephanie, winning awards at this year’s ceremony.

After the ceremony, the Exhibition of winning entries was launched. It will be on display at Parish Libraries from Nov 8, 2011 to July 23, 2012, after which it will go on a World Tour.

Delroy and the Marog Princess in the Exhibition

Andrew Brodber, Speech, Drama and Literary Arts Specialist of JCDC,  presents me with
 a gift basket, courtesy of Yummy Bakery

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Books for Boys at Bookland Part 2 - Non-Caribbean books

Before the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series, publishers had been unwilling to accept such long books, assuming children would read only short books. We have to thank J.K. Rowling for not only dispelling that myth, but also for making reading all the rage for children and teens.
Since J.K. Rowling, many authors have successfully published fantasy series for children. Not all the books in all the series listed below are on the shelves at Bookland, but they will be able to get them for you.

1. Rick Riordan. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for children, which features a twelve-year-old dyslexic boy who discovers he is the modern-day son of a Greek god.

Books in the series are

i. The Lightning Thief

ii. The Sea of Monsters

iii. The Titan's Curse

iv. The Battle of the Labyrinth

He has a new series—The Kane Chronicles:

i. Book 1: Red Pyramid

ii. Book 2: Throne of Fire

For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private middle schools. He now writes full time. His greatest satisfaction comes, not from being a bestselling author, but hearing from parents that reluctant readers cannot put down his books.

2. Neil Gaiman – “The Graveyard Book” for grades 5-8. The title tells the setting for this fantasy story.

3. Cornelia Funke wrote the Inkheart trilogy, published between 2003 and 2009—more fantasy for 9-12 year olds

i. Book 1 is Inkheart

ii. Book 2 is Inkspell

iii. Book 3 is Inkdeath (which I saw in Bookland.) Next to it on the shelf was“Reckless” published in 2011, at present a stand alone fantasy story, but a sequel may follow.

4. Paul Steward and Chris Riddell: The Edge Chronicles Fantasy Series. 10 books in this series for 9-12 year-olds.

5. Suzanne Collins: The Underland Chronicles (5 books)

i. Gregor the Overlander

ii. Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane

iii. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
iv. Gregor and the Marks of Secret

v. Gregor and the Code of the Claw

6. C.S. Lewis “The Chronicles of Narnia” (7 books) written in the early 1950’s, long before the current spate of fantasy stories, but reprinted and popular.

7. Lemony Snicket: A series of Unfortunate Events. There are 13 books in this series.

8. Jeff Kinney: Diary of the Wimpy Kid—many titles for 8-13 year-olds. These humorous books make a welcome change from the surfeit of fantasy.

Books for 12-15 year-olds, known in the publishing industry as young adult (YA).

9. James Patterson: The Witch and Wizard Series

James Patterson was selected by teens across America as the Children's Choice Book Awards Author of the Year in 2010. He is an internationally bestselling author.

10. Philip Pullman: His fantasy series “His Dark Materials” consists of 3 books:

i. The Golden Compass

ii. The Subtle Knife

iii. The Amber Spyglass

11. D.J.MacHale: The Pendragon Series: 10 books in this series of fantasy, science fiction and time travel.

12. Christopher Paolini: The Inheritance Cycle, starting with Eragon.
Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon at the age of 15. After writing the first draft for a year, he spent a second year rewriting it and fleshing out the story and characters. His parents saw the final manuscript and decided to self-publish Eragon. They spent a year traveling around the United States promoting the novel. He has since written sequels to Eragon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Montego Bay High School Book Club

While at Bookland on October 6, I met the President of the Book Club of Montego Bay High School. Since not many club members had come to my book reading and signing, she invited me to a meeting at her school. On Monday, October 24, I was warmly welcomed by an enthusiastic group of girls. They told me that their favourite books are romance novels and Stephanie Meyers’ titles.

Book signing.
Because of time constraints, I gave them a shortened version of my usual reading from Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, but they heard enough to know that they want to read the book! I signed the copy which they had purchased for members to read, after which they will donate it to the school library. I took the opportunity for a photo with the group.
Book Club members pose with the frog and the pot!
We had very little time for discussion, so I have accepted and invitation to attend another meeting, next term, when we will talk more about the writing process.
In the meantime, girls, please put your comments and questions on my blog. Click where it says ‘comments’ and a box should pop up for you to write in. You will need to identify yourself with an email address. You will also need to copy the strange sequence of letters which comes up. If it doesn’t work, it’s the system’s fault, not yours. Try again the next day! I’d also like to know what you’d like to see on my blog. Would you like competitions, puzzles or writing tips? Or would you like a forum for discussion with other students, in Jamaica and abroad?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Books for boys at Bookland will continue in my next post.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Books for Boys at Bookland, Part 1 - Caribbean Books

Reading at Bookland

Bookland is well-stocked with ‘reading books’ for children, teenagers and adults. They do not sell school text-books. Bookland is located at 34 Union Street, Montego Bay, on the right between the intersections with East Street and King Street. There is extra parking at the rear.

After my book reading and signing there on October 6, 2011, I browsed the shelves in search of books which would appeal to boys.

Caribbean books

I have to start with the Island Fiction Series, a mix of fantasy, folklore and science fiction, set in the Caribbean, written for 10-15 year-olds, but appeal to children as young as 9. The stories move at a fast pace and are easy to read. The series includes my book Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, which is set in an imaginary village in Jamaica, and features River Mumma.

Other books in the series are:

1. The Legend of the Swan Children by Maureen Marks-Mendonca, set in Guyana.

2. The Chalice Project by Lisa Allen-Agostini—science fiction set in Trinidad.

3. Escape from Silk Cotton Forest by Francis Escayg—fantasy and folklore set in Trinidad.

4. Time Swimmer by Gerald Hausman—a boy travels through time on the back of a turtle, throughout the Caribbean.

5. Night of the Indigo by Michael Holgate—science fiction set in Jamaica. This book appeals to older readers who are lovers of science fiction.

Other Caribbean Books

For 9-12 year-olds

6. The Cay by Theodore Taylor—an adventure story set in Curacao and a small island in the Caribbean in 1942, but still relevant today.

7. Blue Mountain Trouble by Martin Mordecai—an adventure story set in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

8. The Boy from Willow Bend by Joanne Hillhouse.

9. Hurricane and Earthquake by Andrew Salkey. Both these books were written in the 1960’s but are still popular.

10. A Cow Called Boy and other books by Everard Palmer. Most Jamaican readers are familiar with these books, set in rural Jamaica.

For younger children, suitable for reading aloud or for them to read by themselves.

11. Mauby’s Big Adventure by Peter Laurie

12. Mauby and the Hurricane by Peter Laurie (I didn’t see this on the shelves but it was used by the Jamaica Library Service in their reading competition so should be available.)

13. Tales of Immortelles—A Collection of Caribbean Folk Tales by Norma McCartney

14. A Goat Boy Never Cries by Hazel Campbell. Her book Bernie and the Captain's Ghost won the Book Industry Association of Jamaica’s Best Children's Chapter Book Award for 2011. (I didn’t see this book on the shelves, but it should be available.)

Part 2 will focus on non-Caribbean books.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Do you do your children's homework?

   I've edited my original post, in which I confessed to doing an assignment for a seven-year-old 2nd grader, I help from time to time with homework. The assignment was to draw a skeleton. Being given no other information, I assumed this to be a human skeleton. In my thirty plus years of teaching biology, I never attempted to draw a human skeleton, nor did I ask my students up to and including 6th formers to do so. Individual bones, yes. A whole skeleton, no. Drawings and charts of skeletons, seen from different angles sufficed to understand the working of the skeleton. To my shame, I drew one, so the child would get a grade.

However, it turned out that the homework was not to draw a skeleton but to make a model of a skeleton. Experimenting with a ping-pong ball and some straws, I realised that the child could cut the straws, and staple them at the joints and to the rest of the skeleton, so they can move.

I gave 'drawing a skeleton' as an example unmanageable assignments which are given every day. Why did I condone cheating, which is what it is? The assignment was non-negotiable. Teacher set it and it had to be done. The teacher had set it because skeleton is on the syllabus for grade 2 term 1, specifically, the student should draw or make a model of bones… using the material provided. Fortunately, in this case, the assignment was not unmanageable and I was able to provide materials from which the child could make the model. I have also learnt that assignments can be negotiable.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that homework shouldn’t be given. I think it’s important for parents to be involved with children’s school work, and for them to supervise homework is one of the ways this can be achieved. Appropriate homework for parents to supervise include

• committing to memory such things as spellings, definitions, and multiplication tables.

• Doing practice exercises to consolidate what has been taught in the classroom.

• Listening to the child reading.

• Age-appropriate research.

All of these can be supervised by a parent or caregiver who has little or no knowledge of the subject matter. What is important is the interest they show and the attention they give to the child. The homework routine is an opportunity to teach self-discipline. Ideally, homework should be done at the same time every day, in a quiet place, free of distractions. (Certainly no TV on). There is a danger of homework becoming a battleground, so it may be necessary to offer some incentive, such as allowing the child to watch some TV programmes when the homework is satisfactorily completed.

The length of time children spend on homework is another bone of contention. Recommended times are

20 minutes for grades 1and 2;

30 minutes for grades 3 and 4;

a maximum of one hour for grades 5 and 6.

Of course these times will vary, as some children work more quickly than others. The top homework scholar in the U.S.A., Harris Cooper of Duke University, concluded that homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for children in grades 1 to 5. He also found that children in grades 6-8 who do up to 90 minutes, and from 9-11 who do up to 2 hours do better on standardized tests than those who do more.

I put out a call for teachers to give manageable homework assignments, with clear, unambiguous instructions. When somebody other than the child does the homework, it’s sending the wrong message, i.e. that it’s okay to cheat. We have to remember also that unmanageable homework penalizes the many children who are already at a disadvantage because they have nobody to help them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

HiLo Books

Hi Lo books are so called because they have high interest and low difficulty. Typically, the subject matter is suitable for the age-group of the children who are reading it, but the reading level is easier than the usual material for that age-group.

While researching this topic, the author Michael Dahl attracted my attention. He is the Editorial Director for Stone Arch Books based in Minneapolis, where his books have won national design awards and been selected by the Junior Library Guild.

He is the author of more than 200 books for children and young adults. His nonfiction books get kids excited about reading. His fantasy series, The Library of Doom, is the most-read series by hi-lo readers across the US. Some of the titles in that series and the one that followed include The Book that ate my Brother, Sea of Lost Books and Cave of the Bookworms. Mr. Dahl himself lives in a haunted house! (Does that help him to write these scary stories?)

Apart from these, most of the books classified as HiLo are geared towards children described as reluctant readers. They are older children reading at grade 3 level or above. I didn’t find much for beginning readers, particularly for boys living in Jamaica. Do you know of any?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Boys' Reading

I’m following Hazel Campbell and Diane Browne in a discussion on why boys don’t read fiction, sparked by a NY Times essay ‘Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?’ by Robert Lipsyte (August 19, 2011). The article focused on boys who can read but don’t. The bigger problem we have in Jamaica is so many boys not learning to read at all, or reading far below their level.

Boys find the early stages of reading to be a chore, not enjoyable activity because of the circumstances in which they are taught. Classrooms are often overcrowded, boys are punished for making mistakes and are hardly praised for effort. Not liking to read, they don’t try, so get stuck in the slow lane.

The content of reading material for children is geared to a reading age which corresponds to chronological age, so is too childish for boys who learn to read late.

Their role models are not reading, so reading is considered by boys to be a ‘girl thing’. Boys would prefer to be outside playing football, or if they are inside, playing video games, computer games, or watching TV, but they do like to read comic books.

As long as boys are reading something, I don’t see that preferring non-fiction to fiction should be frowned on. They often step up from comic books to computer magazines or other magazines suited to their interests.

A more fundamental question to be answered is whether boys are uncomfortable with the feelings which reading fiction arouses. It’s okay for girls to have these feelings, but not boys. Is the inability to deal with these feelings a reason for antisocial behavior? Robert Lipsyte explained that discussing fictional character allowed freedom to express feelings the way girls do. If they can’t read, should we read to them and discuss?

Useful stories for discussion, especially ‘Slater Minnifie and the Beat Boy Machine’, and ‘The Man Who Loved Flowers’ are in FLYING WITH ICARUS by Curdella Forbes. Two other Caribbean boy’s books are LEGEND OF ST ANN’S FLOOD by Debbie Jacob and THE BOY FROM WILLOW BEND by Joanne Hillhouse.

Link to Hazel Campbell's blog:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Celebrating International Literacy Day

      I celebrated International Literacy Day on Thursday, September 8, by reading to students at Chetwood Memorial Primary School.
 To each of 4 grade 1 classes, I read 'Beautiful Blackbird' by Ashley Bryan. This delightful story, with its rhythmic prose and adequate repetition, is adapted from a tale from 'The Ila-speaking peoples from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)' by Edwin Smith and Andrew Dale, (1920). The bold illustrations could be seen by the children at the back of the class. (Thanks to Pam Witte for sending me this book.) Several children asked me to read the story again, and I got a big hug from some of them as I was leaving.

       To a grade 5 and a grade 6 class (all boys!), I read excerpts from 'Delroy in the Marog Kingdom' preceded by my usual introduction with the frog and the pot. As usual, the students listened attentively.
Chetwood Memorial Primary School, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Class Size and the Teaching of Reading

There is a common misperception in Jamaica that the high pupil teacher ratio is the main reason why some children don’t learn to read. I too was of that opinion until I read the results of the Grade 4 Literacy Test published in The Daily Gleaner, in 2010, when I was surprised to see that the average ratio for Region 4 (St. James, Hanover and Westmoreland) was 31:1. A closer inspection of the data revealed that the ratio in St. James varied from a high of 37:1 in urban schools to a low of 13:1 in deep rural areas. The latter would seem to be ideal. Which teacher would not want a class of 13? Each child would be able to get individual attention and excellent performance should be expected.

However, this was not the case. In that particular school, out of an enrollment of 7 children in Grade 4, only 4 sat the test and none achieved mastery. The total enrolment of the school was 40, indicating that there were 3 teachers, each teaching 3 grade levels, as this was an All Age school.

In another All-Age school, with a ratio of 15:1 the total enrolment was 45, indicating 3 teachers for grades 1-9. In that school, 11 children were enrolled in grade 4, but only 6 sat the literacy test, and only one achieved mastery.

At the other end of the scale was a school in the heart of an urban area, with a total enrollment of 1,720 and a ratio of 37:1. This school has a 6-stream entry, with about 48 children per class, for which 36 teachers would be required. With the stated ratio of 37:1, the school could employ 46 teachers. Why not a 7-stream entry? Because there is no space—all the classrooms are occupied. 268 of the 277 students enrolled in grade 4, sat the literacy test and 62% of them achieved mastery in 2010 (down from 86% in 2009), meaning that more than 100 children had not achieved mastery.

In contrast to these, there are schools in which 100% of the students in grade 4 sat the literacy test and achieved mastery. These schools are not limited to either urban or rural areas, they vary in size and in pupil: teacher ratio. Perhaps we should focus on these schools and follow their best practices.

My own opinion is that the system is capable of performing much better even with existing limited resources. The teaching of reading should be the priority. For children who have problems with reading at the end of grade 1, the emphasis in grade 2 should be on basic literacy and numeracy skills, until they are sufficiently competent to embark on the grade 2 curriculum.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nipping Illiteracy in the Bud

Parents who read story books to their children, have books in their homes, and themselves read, ensure that their children have the best chance to learn to read. Once their children begin to read, they listen to them and assist them, opening the doors to a world of books and information. Parents who can’t read do few of these things, so their children are among the 70% of Jamaican children who aren’t ready to learn to read when they enter grade 1.

What happens in grade 1? Often, classes are too big. How can a teacher possibly give individual attention to any of 50 children in her class, especially when many of them exhibit behaviour problems? Learning to read is supplemented by endless spelling lists, but some children don’t even know their alphabet and can make nothing of a spelling list. Children who’ve never been turned on to reading must certainly be turned off in these circumstances. Many of them never learn to read at all, so are denied access to a world of information. In turn, they become parents. On the whole, parents who cannot read have more children than literate parents, compounding the problem.

What is the Ministry of Education’s response? In his International Literacy Day Message¹, September 8, 2009, the Honourable Minister of Education Hon. Andrew Holness, M.P. stated “The Ministry’s National Literacy Programme for the 2009 – 2010 school year will see fifty (50) new cluster-based Literacy Specialists being deployed across the island. Twelve (12) of the literacy specialists will be assigned specifically to provide support at the secondary level… The Ministry of Education has budgeted $500 million dollars this year to bring the number of literacy specialists up to 90…” How far can these specialists reach in 800 schools at the primary level? These disadvantaged children need individual attention on a daily basis.

The Minister of Education has also made pronouncements about giving a book to every child at birth, but will that solve the problem? Not if the parents cannot read and have little respect for books. Along with books, children need caring adults—I will call them ‘Reading Aunts and Uncles, or Reading Big Brothers and Sisters’—who love books and are willing to spend 15 to 20 minutes a day reading to a small group of 3 to 5-year-olds; or listening to an older child reading. This is where every literate person can help, one child at a time. The challenge is to find these children and make a start. In future blogs, I will make suggestions about games which prepare children for reading and methods of teaching of reading. Let’s get a discussion going. Please click on the word ‘comments’ which will take you to a different page. Enter what you have to say in the box. Looking forward to hearing from you.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Textbook List Mania in Jamaica

In these days of austerity, unemployment, recession, high light bills and IMF, parents should not be asked to buy, for their children, books they cannot afford, do not need and probably will not use. Where are the voices of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association and the PTA’s in this matter? The Minister of Educatio, has commented with concern, but my internet search for the Ministry of Education’s endorsed list drew a blank.

Below is a Textbook List for Grade 2 in a government primary school. The total cost for these books is $10,160.00. ( Ja $85 = U.S. $1; so that is about U.S.$ 120). Furthermore, they weigh 8lb 4oz, which a child has to carry every day on her back, since the teacher cannot say which books will be used.

In addition to the books listed below, each student is supplied with 6 Integrated Studies books (2 per term), one math book and an anthology, by the Ministry of Education.

Oxford Primary Dictionary $690.00

Worship in Words (hymn book) $325.00 (These should serve the student through grade 6.)

What a Fright and other stories by Maciver, Baker, Down and Down (Hodder Gibson) $995.00 198 pages. 45 stories each followed by comprehension questions and exercises.

Creative English for Caribbean Primary Schools by Clifford Narinesingh (Royards) $1,147.00 148 pages. 22 units with reading, talking and writing activities.

Practising Comprehension by Clifford Narinesingh (Royards) ($801.00) Instructions for Recalling facts, Selecting the Main Idea, Sequencing followed by 48 practice exercises.

New Caribbean Junior English by Haydn Richards (Ginn) $1,250.00 This is not called a workbook, but the student is expected to write in it, making it unusable to another student. 122 pages: Parts of Speech, Sentence structure, readings, comprehension questions etc.

Integrated Reader 2 by McLean and Fearon (Mid-Island Educators) $1020.00 155 pages. 38 reading passages on a variety of science and social studies topics, followed by activities.

There is a great deal of overlap in the content of these five books, and a total of 275 ‘lessons’—far more than can be completed in one school year. One of these five books, together with teaching, would cover everything in the syllabus.

Integrated Phonics Workbook by McLean and Fearon (Mid-Island Educators) $976.00 If the child needs a phonics workbook, he would not be able to read much in the books listed above!

Grade 2 Integrated Mathematics Workbook by Miles, Campbell, McLean and Fearon (Mid-Island Educators) $976.00.

Second Year Assessment Tests English by Hyacinth Bennett (Carlong) $990.00

Second Year Assessment Tests Mental Ability by Hyacinth Bennett (Carlong) $990.00

At this same primary school last year, a student in grade 1 was required to purchase two workbooks which were hardly used. One of the books had 200 pages—only 20 pages were used.

This booklist mania is not in the interest of parents, students or Jamaica. Many of these books are published overseas; publishers here have to buy paper and ink abroad, both using up valuable foreign exchange.

Let us make 2011 the last year of inflated booklist madness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Old Primary School

This photo is of the primary school I attended 60 years ago, which in itself would make it old, but the building is much older than that. I had hoped to make a presentation in that building, but the school population having grown from a 1-stream entry to a 3-stream entry can no longer be accommodated there. Instead I went to the new Hampden Road school, where I presented Delroy to all three streams of year 6. They filed in and sat on the floor for assembly, as I had done as a child. Apart from that, they were a world away from where I am now, in time and space. Even so, they were able to connect with Delroy.

Visit to a primary school in Birmingham England

My second school visit while in the UK was to a primary school in Birmingham. I visited two classes, neither of which knew anything about Delroy. Both were captivated by my presentation. The second group had a report to write about my visit, so busied themselves making notes. They had plenty of questions to ask, too.

Visit to St. Mary's Music School, Edinburgh

While on a visit to the UK in April, I had the privilege of speaking to two classes at St. Mary's Music School. The first was a group of 15-16 year olds in which we discussed the challenges presented by writing. Their teacher was happy that I emphasized the importance of planning. The second was a class of primaries, who had already seen my book trailer and my interview on CVM. Their teacher had read excerpts from Delroy to them. They were armed with questions, including "What is your favourite animal?" (cat) and "What is your favourite colour?" (aqua). They were curious about Jamaica and were amazed that the temperature rarely drops below 20 degrees Celsius.

Thank you.

Thanks to all of you who voted for me online. Delroy in the Marog Kingdom won that section of the Book Industry of Jamaica's contest for the best children's chapter book.

Blogger's block

I have had blogger's block (a variation of writer's block) for the past 6 months, but am back again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vote for Delroy in the Marog Kingdom

The 11th Biennial Book Industry Association of Jamaica Publishing and Writing Awards 2011 will take place on March 24, 2011.
In the meantime, you can vote for Delroy, in the children's chapter book category, on the BIAJ website:

Reading at St. Peter & St. Paul Prep. Jan 12, 2011

I was warmly welcomed by the drama teachers at St Peter & Paul Prep, who gave up their drama classes to allow me to read. The first was a grade 2 class - too young to read Delroy, but nonetheless appreciative of my presentation. The grade 6 class which followed also gave me an enthusiastic response. Four students subsequently bought copies of the book, and the school bought one for the library. Students, have you read Delroy yet? If you have, post your questions and comments on this blog.

Reading at Bookophilia Nov 27, 2010

Expecting to read to 9-12 year-olds from Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, I was surprised to have an audience of six under 6's. I read instead the 'River Mumma' story from Tanya Bateson Savage's Pumpkin Belly and Little Lion Goes for Gold by Kellie Magnus.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Diane Browne, who has a wealth of information about writing and publishing for children.

LIAJ Symposium Nov 26, 2010

I was honoured to participate in the Library and Information Association of Jamaica's Reading Symposium in the Joyce Robinson Hall, 2, Redcam Drive. Students from Holmwood High, Hope Valley Experimental and McIntosh Primary Schools read from A Time for Evron by Brian Smillie and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. They also took part in quizzes based on the two books.
My reading from Delroy in the Marog Kingdom gave them an appetite for reading the book - now available in parish libraries. We were all entertained by Elkanah Rule's lively reading from one of his stories. Talking with him afterwards gave me an insight into the world of self-publishing.
My thanks to Dr. Paulette Stewart for inviting me to the symposium. What a pleasure it is to meet someone in person, following phone calls and emails. She introduced me to Mrs. Patricia Roberts, Director General JLS, and Mrs. Karen Barton, Senior Director, whom I'd also spoken to on the phone.

Friday, January 14, 2011

JCDC Award

To my surprise, I was awarded Best Junior Fiction Writer, in the JCDC Creative Writing Contest 2010, for my short story "Flash" written for 8-12 year-olds. See my photo taken with my trophy, silver medal and a gift basket, at the JCDC office on Nov 26.