Youth Review Forum Countdown: Chat with Melissa Keil and Christine Bongers

It’s been almost a week since the CBCA winners announcement, and this year Claire Zorn’s ‘The Protected’ took away the coveted title of CBCA Older Reader Book of the Year. A win well deserved; the title was well-received by the students I have the pleasure of working with.

But although we’re heading towards the end of Book Week activities, there is one event a horde of year 9 students across several schools are holding their breath in anticipation for: YOUTH REVIEW FORUM!

What is Youth Review Forum, you ask? Well, each year, groups of avid year 9 readers from several schools across Sydney take part in an initiative designed to give students a voice regarding the six Older Reader titles short listed by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. The Youth Review Forum fosters discussion and debate about what has been deemed the crème de la crème of Australian Young Adult fiction. To read more about the Youth Review Forum go here.

This year’s Short List offered the following titles:

CBCA collage

With the date for the Youth Review Forum this upcoming Monday, most of my eager year 9 readers have finished all six titles. Their opinions on each of the texts are interesting to say the least, and I’ll unpack their thoughts on the Short List in a blog post to come at a later date. All I’ll say at this point is that, although the group enjoyed ‘The Protected’, it has named The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl and The Intruder as their stand-out favourites. I contacted Melissa Keil and Christine Bongers to line up a twitter chat with my students and the talented writers were happy to oblige.

Click on the images below, to read the storified chats. And keep your eye out for @tlkat’s tweets on Monday morning, August 31, where I’ll be madly tweeting the varied views and heated opinions of young adult readers as they discuss the CBCA Older Reader titles at the Youth Review Forum #yrforum

Christine Bongers Storify

Melissa Keil Storify

Creative Curriculum – A Different PBL Experience

Creative Curriculum Explorations

There are two things the sight of which really excites me in my role as teacher-librarian: students engrossed in a good book (goes without saying, really) and students immersed in an engaging research task. This week I get to be part of the latter because all our year 8 students are taking part in something exciting called Creative Curriculum.

Essentially, Creative Curriculum it is an opportunity for students to be immersed in an independent, inspirational guided enquiry project exploring an interest from the Year 8 curriculum. At its heart, the Creative Curriculum enables students to develop various research, analytical and creative skills through exploration of an area of interest to them, allowing them to widen their knowledge of the world in which they live.

Before Creative Curriculum started, students selected a ‘research exploration’ from a variety of explorations in each of the year 8 curriculum disciplines. Based on their selection, students were placed into groups. In their groups, and with the help of a teacher mentor, students decide how to interpret their chosen exploration and tease out relevant aspects for each group member to research, with the aim of bringing their individual research together as a coherent whole by the end of the week.

Creative Curriculum follows a guided inquiry framework where each stage of the research process is made explicit and supported with scaffolds designed to help students at different stages.


“Thank you for trusting us to work on our own”

The week-long research project is both exciting and challenging for students. For most, this is the first time they’ve been asked to engage in a research task that consumes all their school time for an entire week. That’s a big ask in terms of cognitive load and time organization when they are used to focusing on one subject no more than two lessons at a time. But the tradeoff comes in the form of autonomy; for this one week students are in charge of the direction their learning takes. And comments such as “Thank you for trusting us to work on our own” are testament to the fact that students respond well to a less teacher driven, more project-based learning experience.

This is the first post in a series on Creative Curriculum where I hope to unpack the varying elements of this innovative initiative over the coming weeks.

Is the English Curriculum Killing Kids’ Love of Reading?

It’s official: teens are abandoning reading for pleasure

That’s what a recent roundup of studies by Common Sense Media reports. According to the data gathered by the not-for-profit organization, almost half of 17-year olds say they’re lucky to pick up a book for their reading pleasure in the course of the entire year. Although the cited studies do not claim any direct correlation between teen reading decline and the uptake of digital technologies over the last decade or more, the connection has been drawn. After all, there is now so much more vying for young people’s attention, especially in the digital and online realm, that the connection between low rates of reading and high rates of e-entertainment is inevitable.
In part, I agree. As a teacher and parent I can see that the computer and iPad have a pull the humble, non-interactive bookshelf can’t compete with. But I wonder if there might be something else at play – like the foundations we’re laying in middle and high school, foundations that may well be undermining rather than fostering our children’s development as life-long readers.
Dare I say it? I’m talking about the prescribed texts we make our students read in the English curriculum.
Do I need to duck? Anyone throwing anything yet?

Just hear me out.

In early April, author Keith Cronin posted a thought provoking piece titled How to Make Somebody Hate Reading over on the literary blog Writer Unboxed. Speaking from both a writer’s as well as a parent’s point of view, Cronin argues that the pro-classics biased American high school English curricula is rapidly turning kids off reading and that, in their attempt to teach kids to appreciate literature, schools are killing their enjoyment of it. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that we should aim to have kids first enjoy what they read, Cronin argues, which then may lead them to take an interest in deeper literary analysis and harder to tackle works? Lord Voldemort before Lord of the Flies anyone?

Killing Reading
Cronin isn’t proposing we abandon studying the ‘great’ and ‘important’ texts in our canon, but in his opinion, “anything that gets kids reading is good.” And with the recent research results released by Common Sense Media, I couldn’t agree more.
The harsh reality is, in today’s technology saturated environment, there are many more things vying for our kids’ attention than there were even a decade ago. Reading is already behind the eight ball. If the only experience of it our children have is negative because of the school English curriculum, then it’s no surprise we are producing droves of adult non-readers.

Like Cronin, I’m not suggesting we ditch Dickens. I have an English teaching background and know the value of delving deeper into a challenging text. There is great satisfaction in unearthing and grappling with the many complex layers a well written novel can offer. But just like we would never expect our students to solve lengthy calculus problems early on in their mathematical learning journey, we might want to avoid teaching literary analysis using hundred year old texts kids will struggle to see the relevance of. There is a wealth of well-written, relevant, modern Young Adult literature that allows for plenty of engaging in-depth study.
So where do we stand? Is Australia following in America’s footsteps? Are we already there? What is your school’s English department doing to fire up our kids’ love of reading? I’d rather you weigh in on the argument than throw something.

Wide Reading in the Geography Curriculum

Global Inequalities Book Critique Display

Global Inequalities Book Critique Display

Part of my role as a teacher-librarian is to collaborate with teachers in the development of literature-based reading programs. Usually, this occurs within the English curriculum so when the opportunity arose to do so in the context of the Geography classroom, I jumped at the chance for cross-curricular literature integration.

It all started last year when an innovative Geography teacher on staff approached me a week before the winter holidays, asking if I could put together a book box of fiction titles for her year 8 Geography class. She was after texts that in one way or another touched on the topic of Global Inequalities, a year 8 unit under the syllabus focus area of Global Change. Within this unit, students look at extremes of poverty and wealth, variations in access to essential aspects of life such as education, food, shelter and health care, and different life opportunities and quality of life throughout the world. She wanted to widen her students’ exposure to the topics they’d learned about in Geography and saw fiction as one way of doing this. The aim was for the girls to read their fiction text over the school holidays and be ready to tell the class about it at the start of the following term.

The Geography Wide Reading initiative was so successful that this year all three year 8 Geography classes wanted to take part. In collaboration with Geography staff, we formalised the structure of the activity and incorporated a written book critique to be displayed in the Learning Resources Centre, which functioned as both a showcase of student learning and a book promotion tool.

Here’s how we did it:

1. Compiled a list of book titles relating to the themes / ideas related to the Global Inequalities unit.

2. Used a ‘Speed Dating’ approach for book selection:

  • Provided students only a photocopy of the first page of each book to base their initial selection on (so they didn’t judge the book by its cover!).
  • If students liked their ‘date’ based on these first few minutes of interaction, they were given the book to continue the ‘conversation, which now included reading a few more pages, examining the cover and reading the blurb on the back of the book.
  • Asked students to give their ‘date’ a fair chance by reading pages equaling their age and a page, so for year 8 girls this meant 13-15 pages.
  • Gave students three days after their initial choice to change their minds and borrow another title from the selected list.

3. Allowed students a two week timeframe to read their chosen book, including time in class.

Book Critique Template

Book Critique Template

4. Provided students with a Book Critique template to rate aspects of the book and comment on their reading experience in the context of their learning in Geography.

5. Asked the students to use the Book Critique display in the Learning Resources Centre to choose a second book to read over the holidays.

Student Critiques on Display

Student Critiques on Display

Teacher and student feedback voted the project a successful and enjoyable experience, allowing students to examine concepts studied in Geography through a literary lens.

Can’t wait to do it again next year!

Have any of you had experience with Wide Reading initiatives in subjects other than English? I’d love to hear about them.

Fiction Writing in the History Classroom?

Researching Catherine the Great

Researching Catherine the Great

Using historical fiction as an instructional tool in the history classroom is not a new concept. Fiction can offer students a closer, more intimate experience of historical events, which can be a useful contrast to the analytical portrayal of history usually found in textbooks. Many argue historical fiction humanises the study of history by shifting the focus from a series of events in history to the lives of individuals involved in the events as they unfold in history (Nawrot, 1996).

But what if we took this one step further? What if we encouraged our students to construct their own historical fiction narratives to demonstrate their learning?

This question arose while planning a Year 10 Elective History Guided Inquiry unit on Catherine the Great with history staff.

Reading historical fiction to support the history curriculum is one thing, but writing it traditionally occurs in the English classroom. Such is the nature of high school education; it often draws arbitrary dividing lines in the curriculum sandbox, grouping skills and content into either this subject or that. However, evidence exists that the process of historical fiction writing, if  grounded in thorough historical research, can ‘both deepen and communicate knowledge and understanding of the past’ (Brooks & Martin, 2002).

The Catherine the Great Guided Inquiry unit was a perfect opportunity to draw connections between the subject areas of History and English by incorporating fiction writing into the History program as a vehicle for communicating student learning. History staff  and I also felt that providing a creative writing option as a final product might engage those students who struggle with essay or report writing, giving them an opportunity to succeed.

So how did we go about it?

We brought in an expert!

Felicity working with students

Felicity working with students

We enlisted the help of young adult historical fiction author, Felicity Pulman. In a half day research and writing workshop, Felicity explained how she incorporated historical research into her fiction writing and gave students guidance on how to create historically accurate characters and settings.

As well as learning about basic fiction writing elements such as ‘show, don’t tell’, students also discovered that the realm of fiction lends itself well to exploring history from differing viewpoints; an important aspect of historiography.

Students were urged to think about the following:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • How does their account differ from someone of a different class / gender / age?
  • What factors might be responsible for the differences?
  • Which point of view / points of view might be useful to communicate your research findings on your chosen topic?

All important questions when grappling with accounts of history.

Creating historical characters

Creating historical characters

The Catherine the Great Guided Inquiry unit is still underway and our students are currently knee-deep in the information search process. But already some of them are plotting and planning, quietly thinking about how best to bring across their interpretations of history in a fictional way.

Have any of you embarked on a fiction writing journey in the history classroom? What worked? What didn’t? I’d love to hear from you.

Felicity Pulman’s latest young adult historical novel ‘A Ring Through Time’, published by HarperCollins, is set on Australia’s Norfolk Island and delves into an intriguing penal colony past.


Brooks, B. & Martin, D. 2002. Getting personal: making effective use of historical fiction in the history classroom. The Historical Association, [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 27 July 2013].

Nawrot, K, 1996. Making connections with historical fiction. The Clearing House, [Online]. Vol. 69, Nr. 6, pp. 343-345. Available at: [Accessed 27 July 2013].