I joined a Year 5 class recently (on my weekly treat away from teacher training and in-service work), to explore again the multitude of ways BfK can become a learning resource within the classroom. ‘What’s in your box today then?‘ Gemma asked enthusiastically … The answer: a substantial pile of BfK magazines dating back to 1983 hoarded in teacherlike fashion, well worn, used and fingered in a number of classrooms over the years.
Our Own BfK … Check Out Books
We intended to produce our own BfK-style magazine, reviewing books recently arrived and those written in school, writing articles, information sheets and authorgraphs on our own young writers, as well as getting advertising to cover costs and so on. We had five brief mornings together, a publishing deadline, a talented class teacher, a decent word processor and 33 pockets of enthusiasm in this literature-loving class of nine-year-olds. The children perused, swapped and read my back copies of BfK, then listed the range of contents and common themes, finally agreeing their own aims and the title of their publication: Check Out Books. They then joined teams who took particular responsibilities for sections within our magazine, so the ideas that follow were generated by children and staff and became part of our final book review magazine (which sold out in seven days at the bookshop!).
I wanted to enable the children to take up a variety of ‘expert’ roles within the production process, including reviewers, authors, editors, designers, publicity agents and readers. I then offered them the opportunity to extend and reinforce those roles through drama and writing, thus widening the available learning contexts. For in assuming roles, children are gaining access to linguistic resources which might otherwise never be tapped.
Children as Reviewers
Book reviews can be done to death in the classroom it’s true, but when the books are mostly new to ‘so that parents don’t waste their money in the bookshop, or buy something that’s too hard perhaps‘, as nine-year-old Ian told us. Working on reviews of fiction, non-fiction and class books, the children wrote in pairs having read the book, made some notes, discussed it and read the BfK review of that text (where available). We worked hard on opening lines and collected other texts by the same author (establishing author discussion groups about publishers, illustrators, price and themes, etc. and setting questions for other groups). We found we had teachers, librarians, parents, a headmaster and even publishers reviewing our books, and they clearly took their roles as book reviewers seriously.
In such roles the children began recommending texts and asserting their opinions with confidence.
Their perceptions, insights and ability to summarise styles and capture the essence of a text were remarkable. The review of The Angel and The Soldier Boy above was particularly significant, written by a pair, one of whom is an extremely inexperienced reader who had only recently mastered this wordless picture book. The role of the reviewer had given them the authority to share their views with perspicacity.
Children as Authors
This is not a new role, but how often do we review the children’s own books, interview our young writers on chat shows or radio programmes and write authorgraphs based on this information? The status this gave our own writers was considerable, enabling them to comment upon and revisit their collected works, as well as rediscover their poems and short stories which had appeared over the years in school anthologies and class publications. Some writers took imaginary roles as mothers, performance artistes and in one case an isolate who wrote in his garden shed (à la Dahl?). These roles enabled the children to project character traits and invent careers and families, although many remained themselves.
Unpublished works also became a feature of these interviews, with children listing future publications and ambitions as well as sharing their writer’s notebooks with their interviewer – who often stayed in role as they added their perspective to the authorgraph: ‘I first met Dawn Prender at a book exhibition in Kent several years ago and was struck then by her sense of humour. She enjoys life still and wants her readers to laugh with her.’ And in another example: ‘Ben Williams told me that he prefers writing about animals, perhaps he will follow in the footsteps of Dick King-Smith and specialise in animal tales in the future, we will have to wait and see.’
Children as Designers
‘We’ve two photos, that diagram and then the reviews with sub-titles; do you think we can have the centre page spread, we want to balance the title?‘ Lisa explained patiently to the Editor, as the poetry committee and the news page teams were presenting their planned layouts. The paste-up process was an illuminating one for all concerned, and the advertising team were frequently called upon to fill gaps, until financial restraint came into play. Justifying their designs and promoting their article with the editorial team called for some creative thinking; several groups were even told to resubmit their work when alterations had been made! We also ran a front cover competition and designed logos for book awards and our sponsors; however, the high cost of colour production remained prohibitive.
Children as Publicity Agents
Who would pay to advertise and cover costs? ‘We can’t afford to give it away, you know. Can’t we get sponsors?’ Stefan enquired hopefully. Our publicity team asked us to compose marketing slogans and TV adverts which were fun but – as we agreed – our target audience was schools. So, in role, COB personnel met `teachers’ and attempted to persuade them to purchase the magazine. ‘Many of your local schools have had a subscription with us for years, they’ve certainly found that they enjoy reading it and it’s worth the money‘ . . . ‘But I’ve already spent stacks of money on books‘ . . . ‘Aah, that’s where we can help you spend your money more wisely, and select the very best for your children. We have a special offer on at the moment: if you pay for this edition, the next will arrive free!’ Even subtle forms of flattery were intelligently employed: ‘I can see you’re the kind of teacher who cares about what your children read – well, I’ve got just the thing for you…’ and to a parent, ‘How often have you felt that you’ve wasted your money on books that aren’t any good? Our book reviewers are all experts – teachers and librarians – and let me tell you they know a good book when they read one .’ Posters, sandwich boards and leaflets were also suggested to promote real sales in school. These children as salesfolk were experts indeed.
Children as Readers
Again, nothing new for these children, although reading informational texts such as BfK aimed at teachers was a different experience. The principal function of reviewing and sharing children’s books was easily observed, but the form and purpose of the articles in BfK remained much harder for the children to grasp. If, as Gunther Kress has argued in Learning to Write (Routledge, 1982, o/p), the mark of a mature writer is their control of different genre, then perhaps we need to extend children’s access to a wider range of written prose and include BfK on our classroom shelf. During ERIC (Everyone Reading In Class) time, I have known many children choose BfK to peruse, mostly dipping into the review section and skimming the Authorgraphs for snippets about their favourite writers. That their knowledge of written language is derived from reading was particularly evident in the non-fiction reviews undertaken; the power of imitation is strong and is itself a creative process, as Amy demonstrated clearly.
The National Curriculum
We reviewed our production process against National Curriculum demands; in having a clear sense of purpose and audience, some choice in areas of responsibility and lots of literature available, we were able to work towards and cover many PoS (Programmes of Study). Most notably these centred around the various forms of non-chronological writing, knowledge about language, collaboration in groups, and justifying your views and fiction preferences. Aspects of the Design Technology demands were also experienced.
The Children Reflect …
As teams, the children set themselves challenges and then worked hard to achieve these; presenting plans, writing, redrafting, printing and proof-reading to deadlines. ‘I learnt what it’s like to have a target to aim for. I like it,‘ Rachel wrote in her review, while Michael noted unequivocally, ‘I found out there’s much more to a book than a story.’ Many of their peers were surprised at the complexity of the production process, at the fun that book reviews can be, and significantly several commented still in role: ‘As the Editor you get blamed for everything, but I learnt to cope in hot situations,‘ Victoria reflected. Lisa from the poetry committee commented, ‘I teach poetry and would recommend The Pick of the Poetry section to any colleague.’ The teller and the told indeed.
… on Texts
In this kind of project, BfK can be used to develop the children’s critical and creative powers through close analysis of the text and the production of their own media artefact, in this case a sister publication, Check Out Books. To summarise, we agreed on our audience, and established our values and point of view. We then selected and imitated appropriate styles and conventions, and used a range of techniques to represent our thinking. In doing so, we covered the majority of the areas of knowing and understanding in Media Education as defined by the ‘BFI/DES Working Party in Primary Media Education: A Curriculum Statement (1989)’. More importantly we were focusing on and promoting books, exploring their production, publishers, illustrators and authors, and simultaneously enjoying them too, exactly as BfK does. An exciting venture.
A Regular Role for BfK
Apart from the potential of BfK as a central resource in projects of this nature, I’ve regularly used the magazine for a number of other classroom purposes. Book Ordering, for example – encouraging children to put their initials by books recently reviewed that they’d like to see in the bookshop or in the classroom. Over a month when any book received half-a-dozen votes or so, a BfK-Checker would furnish me with details and photocopy the review with an `on order’ notice for our book corner. I found the children predictably pounced on new Blumes, Byars and Ashleys as well as Ahlberg’s verse, but other less well-known writers were also introduced to them as the front cover, an intriguing review or award whetted their appetites. I’ve used Authorgraphs, articles and reviews too on the computer programme Developing Tray which, based on cloze procedure, provides minimal information and punctuation and leaves the group to predict the text. As it’s built up, the author or book title is identified and all the children’s knowledge of a writer is drawn upon to help create the extract. This often entices readers to the magazine to find out more. Photocopying, enlarging and shredding reviews for Sequencing can also be worthwhile if you have the book alongside to read and refer to. In fact, through encouraging children to peruse BfK, I’ve also been harangued over the years into entering the annual readathon or school library award, sending away for information or purchasing storytelling tapes and videos. Paula coined the phrase ‘Books for Keeps – Keeps You Going for Weeks’, and she was certainly right. Together we proved it’s much more than a book forum for teachers. It’s a resource for children as well.
Why not try it and see?
With thanks to John Yorath and Class 5 of Courtwood County Primary School, Croydon.
Teresa Grainger is Director of the Literacy Unit at Christ Church College, Canterbury, specialising in in-service education. She still teaches half-a-day a week in school.