Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Racing cars and muddy puddles

Every week, I spend an hour or two at a local primary school listening to kids read.* All the kids are refugees, all from the Horn of Africa. All but one are Muslim. Elsewhere I have reflected that African and Muslim kids, in fact kids from anything other than white middle class backgrounds, are rarely represented in children's story books. Not only are most kids in stories white, but most families have mums AND dads, both parents are around whenever the story takes place, and everyone lives in a house. In contrast, of course, in the world of this school kids are black; families have one parent, two parents, several aunties, or an older sibling in charge; and everyone lives in a flat.

These kids don't look like the kids in storybooks. Not only that, but before I was given a copy of the class roll, I had never seen these kids' names in print. How will it affect these children, I wondered, to never see their own names in stories? Will the lack of familiar names or situations be a stumbling block to those who are struggling to read? Will they see stories as always being about 'other' children, white children with English names? Will it create in them a longing to assimilate, to make their names and their lives more English; or will it create a desire to hold back from the dominant culture?

With these questions and no answers in mind, I wrote a set of (really really bad) rhymes which incorporate the names of all the kids in the class. Two boys go for a ride in a racing car; four girls climb a tree; a group of boys slide and fall in a muddy puddle. I've tested the rhymes on my daughters, who asked me to read them over and again, so that counts as a pass in my book; I only hope they'll meet the classroom test, where the kids can't sit still and don't like to be impressed!

This class in particular is extremely high energy. I feel like I'm in a room with 19 rubber balls, all bouncing randomly. A few weeks ago they had an emergency teacher, and it was like watching a man carrying too many oranges. First one slipped, then the next, and before you knew it there were oranges rolling everywhere. It was total chaos; I found it hilarious. I'm riding the energy of these little kids, even as I set boundaries and demand certain behaviours. And I'm falling in love with the lot of them. One by one, these children have found the cracks in my heart and crept right in.

In this surprise development, this unlooked-for falling in love, I find myself tapping into a whole new source of energy. Bleary exhaustion is my usual state, what with three small children of my own who often ALL wake at night; and yet I have all sorts of small ideas for these kids, nudging my attention and demanding to be heard. Little things, anything, which may get one kid or another stuck into books.

A few weeks ago I took in a teddy dressed up as a character from a story they had read and re-told the story aloud. I fed them cake to congratulate them on their work so far and discovered they know how to be quiet if there's cake involved. One bright boy, slippery as an eel and as hard to draw close, refuses to get out his reader, so I make him read the first paragraph of whatever book is in my bag - Patrick O'Brian, William Gibson, whatever. Last week, to his disgust, he had to read the first paragraph of a book about marriage; this week I suspect he'll bring his own! I'm dreaming up short poems about giggling girls and boys peeking in cupboards; and I'm quietly, gratefully wondering what's next.

You see, the small act of reading with children has led to all sorts of playfulness, a minor blossoming. I get home each Friday and flop in a chair with a cup of tea. With any luck, my 1 and 3 year olds are both resting and I have twenty minutes to doze, and listen for the next prompt, the next nudge. After this story, this cake, these poems, what? I wait. Some new idea, some surprise is just around the corner; my job is simply to recognise it, accept it, however silly it seems, and put it into action.

*If you want to read about how I got myself into this, click here.


  1. Yay!!!!!!!!

    In New Zealand when I was in high school (early 90s), nearly *everyone* in state-provided written material had Maori names. So maths problems would read something like "Hemi had three cakes and cut each of them into four pieces and gave three to Ngaio and two to Tipene - how many did he keep for himself". It always felt artificial, but it was earnestly and consistently done. I don't know if they now have Chinese and African names as well or not. Do Aussie school materials not do this?

    Yours sound more fun than our maths problems, anyway :-)

  2. I'm not a teacher and so I don't know what names are used in educational material here; I'm more concerned about the books these kids get from the library. Judging from their comments on Friday, when I asked each of them to find their own name in the booklet and then read me that poem ('You're kidding, right?!'), most of them had never seen their name in a story or poem before. Almost all of them traced their name with their fingers; most were smiling like they'd seen a magic trick and couldn't quite work out how it was done; and several of them, including some very reluctant readers, quietly slipped out of class to re-read the poems to themselves in the corridor. But then, African migration is relatively new; and we have such a myriad of ethnic groups that it will take a while for those names to percolate into any form of literature.

  3. the Fetzer Institute's Love and Forgiveness site has a list of folktales by geographical region - I wonder if you could order [or get the school to order] some of these books so the children could see kids like them as they read?



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