For many disaffected young people, books can seem, at best, an irrelevance. Involving them in the Greenaway Medal shadowing scheme might seem ambitious but one exclusion unit decided to go for it. Sue Bastone explains.
For the two years prior to 2002 I worked with a Year 7 special needs class at Ryeish Green School shadowing the Carnegie and Greenaway medals. This was very successful and opened my eyes to the exciting ways in which picture books could be used with older, often more reluctant, readers.
A colleague who had been involved in shadowing with the reading club had recently taken over the management of the school’s new exclusion unit and suggested that we might involve these children in the shadowing process. The unit was opened for pupils who were not coping with the classroom and was very much a last chance. At the end of their specified time, they were gradually re-integrated back into lessons, or, sadly in some cases, excluded permanently from school. They were, inevitably, disaffected, often angry, young people with little or no interest in books. Indeed, any feelings tended to be negative, seeing books as threatening or, at best, boring and irrelevant.
It was very important when planning the project not to condescend to these children in any way. I wanted them to feel that what they were doing was valuable and that their views mattered. I wanted them to understand that picture books were not ‘just for kids’ and, more than anything else, I just wanted them to experience pleasure from a book. Putting it into words, it now seems incredibly optimistic!
I started by altering the review sheet I had used with the special needs groups to suit these more mature children. The review sheet was designed to help them judge each book on a number of criteria: the cover, the style and colours of the illustrations, the story itself, the style and font of the words and the age range of the book.
I approached the first session with some trepidation. Would these children give it a chance? Would they think the shadowing and the books were stupid? I knew my colleague had already made progress with some of the children and would be an enthusiastic support but I was already wondering what I had agreed to.
My overriding memory of that first session was what fun we had. The books, ranging from Sometimes I Like to Curl up in a Ball for two-year olds to the eventual winner Pirate Diary for children of eight and over were all put out on the table. I took pains to explain that although we would read the stories together, we were looking at these books as a whole and judging the format and style of the illustration as well as its relationship to the text. I explained that the national judges wanted their views and that we would be putting their reviews on the national website.
Removing the pressure
I feel sure that by not expecting them to ‘read a book’, pressure was removed and they felt free to enjoy these picture books for what they were. My colleague and I felt it also helped that their teacher was one of the group and that I was an outsider. For children who had no contact with the rest of the school, this was, perhaps, a treat. Some quite serious discussions took place about whether they agreed with the suggested ages for each book. We were surprised by the maturity of their artistic views. They commented on how each artist had used a style of illustration suitable to the subject matter and the age of their readership. They noticed the balance of words to pictures on each page. Each session there was a heated debate as to which book to read. At no time at all was there any resistance.
At regular intervals the group’s comments were entered on our page on the Greenaway Shadowing website and the fact that their views were on the Internet and anyone could read them engendered a great deal of pride. Throughout the school the various shadowing groups displayed their reviews and work and so our children decided to each draw a poster of their favourite book. One of the favourites was Fix-It Duck, a wonderful rhyming story with much appeal. Jamie chose it and produced the most wonderful poster for display. Heaven (or CILIP!*) was smiling on us that year and our school was picked to attend the judging ceremony at the British Library. We were asked to send some work for display in the foyer and Jamie’s poster was chosen as one we would send. I will never forget how proud he was, telling everyone he could that his book poster was displayed in the most famous library in the world – this from a boy who had had no time for books of any sort.
This story does not have a happy ending – Jamie was excluded eventually – but I like to think I made a small difference to his and the other children’s attitude to books. It certainly inspired me to keep trying with every child, no matter how hopeless it seems.
Sue Bastone was formerly Head of Learning Resources at Ryeish Green School, Reading. She is now Learning Resources Manager, Licensed Victuallers’ School, Ascot.
Sometimes I Like to Curl up in a Ball, Vicki Churchill, ill. Charles Fuge, Gullane, 1 86233 396 3, £4.99 pbk
Pirate Diary, Richard Platt, ill Chris Riddell, Walker, 0 7445 9430 8, £6.99 pbk
Fix-It Duck, Jez Alborough, Collins, 0 00 710624 6, £4.99 pbk
Over 1,600 groups in schools and libraries registered with the Carnegie and Greenaway Shadowing scheme in 2004. Further information: www.ckg.org.uk/shadowing
*The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals