Saturday, 20 December 2014


So... once again, the year is winding down with the usual sighs of relief. Plans are tucked away for next year. Spaces open up, time is taken, There are winding mountain tracks leading up the soft undulating green of the summer mountains. The Drakensberg sky is moody and fickle, rolling weather up and down the Escarpment like some toy. Lesotho feels like the rooftop of Africa. Two tired girls sleeping in the car awaken at the top, eyes glimmering with interest at this mountain kingdom. Sheep are discovered grazing the wind-swept roof of the mountain,  a rainbow graces us after a storm. There's a freedom that comes with the beautiful sense of emptiness that the mountains offer. I wonder what roads lie ahead...

Friday, 5 December 2014

The princess problem

The Sleeper and the Spindle is Neil Gaiman's sort-of retelling of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty but of course, with a twist. Nothing is what it seems. In this fairy tale the princess with her jet-black hair and skin as white as snow, cancels her wedding and sets off to save her kingdom from the plague of sleep which began in the neighbouring kingdom of Dorimar in the tower of a castle long covered by a tangle of deadly rosebushes. It offers a welcome relief from what I call "the princess problem" (a current obsession in our house).

The queen is certainly more contemplative than the Snow White we've come to know through Disney. The ponders her imminent marriage, "It seemed both unlikely and extremely final. She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. She would reign over her people. She would have children. Perhaps she would die in childbirth, perhaps she would die as an old woman, or in battle. But the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable."

And so the quest to release Sleeping Beauty from her enchantment, and through this stop the plague that threatens her kingdom, this fairy tale veers away from being a love story to being a tale of bravery and courage and ultimately about making choices.

Unlike most fairy tales there is no guarantee of "they lived happily ever after". This made me think of the stories that the kid is currently obsessed with. We have been reading (and re-reading and re-re-reading) a whole host of fairy tales that end with the conventional "and they got married and lived happily ever after". I've probably mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of these fairy tales in their shiny pink Disney-coats, so it's  always nice to look at some princess alternatives.

I've never understood why so many children's fairy tale collections only focus on such a limited number of stories (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel etc) when there are so many more interesting and equally entertaining stories that don't necessarily have anything to do with marriage.

For example, there is the Grimms' story of "Clever Gretel", a tale with a questionable moral about the cook, Gretel, who cleverly outwits her master and enjoys two juicy roast chickens she was supposed to be preparing for a guest. Or Gerda's brave adventures to rescue her enchanted friend in the "Snow Queen". Or a sister's determination and perseverance in saving her six brothers from a curse, that has turned them into swans, by suffering through six years of silence and a host of challenges in the story "The Six Swans".

I'm sure I'm not alone in facing the princess problem. It's not that I even mind reading princess stories to the kid, but a bit more balance and variety would be nice. I also have to keep reminding myself that in the end it's not so much about what I want to read as much as it is about letting the kid choose the way in terms of the stories she enjoys. That is after all what reading for pleasure is all about.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The book with a hole

Books are so fantastically diverse; that's what's so great about them! Some books stretch the boundaries of what a book should be to the point where its pages transform into a toy, a prop, a prompt, a springboard into our imagination...

One such book is The book with a hole by Herve Tullet. It is exactly that, a book with a hole right through the middle, but instead of there being something missing, it provides a host of endless possibilities with which to weave our own stories and scenarios. Tullet's black and white illustrations are simple and allow the reader to be as inventive as they like; one minute the hole can be a statue, a scene of what's on a TV set, a face, a plate of food, a scary crocodile that's just waiting to snap off someone's fingers. Questions prompt the reader to begin imagining an answer and so the stories begin...

It's a fantastic book to share with children and the kid and I had some fun with it and her little baby sister the other day. This book is sure to result in an afternoon of giggles and silliness!

"Did she eat too much too?"

"Who lives here?"

Monday, 17 November 2014

The reading divide

Lately I've been reading Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain and she begins by touching on a big socio-cultural divide between those children who were read to before the age of five and those who were not. She calls it a "little-discussed class system" and refers to a study that found a gap of 32 million words between children from print-rich homes and print-poor homes in children of kindergarten age. She's very right of course, it does create a type of class divide which plays itself out in academic achievement and ultimately future opportunities.

I know that this is an international problem, but in a South African context, the divide is even more stark. We have the double problem of homes where parents (or often grannies who are the primary caregivers) are functionally illiterate and, perhaps more problematic, a population that places little emphasis on the written word; South Africa really lacks a culture of reading. The The South African Book Development Council (2012) estimates that only 1% of South Africans are regular buyers of books and only 14% can be considered "committed" readers (of a literacy rate of 88.7%). 

I strongly believe that this reading gap in the early years perpetuates an already very divided education system. The sad reality is that by the time that a child from a print-poor background enters school (through the now compulsory kindergarten year) it is already too late. They are already at a disadvantage. As Wolf writes: 
"Children who begin kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified, and stored away in their young brains, have the advantage on the playing field of education. Children who never have a story read to them, who never hear words that rhyme, who never imagine fighting with dragons or marrying a prince, have the odds overwhelmingly against them."
 I think part of the problem is that for many, reading is associated with school and learning, and not necessarily fun which adds to a self-perpetuating and downward spiraling cycle of reading. The result is two-fold: firstly because reading isn't viewed as pleasurable, it becomes a chore (for example homework for older kids in the family) and watching TV is what families do to relax. Secondly, while the importance of reading may be acknowledged, it is often seen as belonging in the domain of schools and teachers, which means that for many children their first real interactions with books begin in school. Besides being too late, so many South African schools do not have a functional, let alone inviting, library that will inspire a love of reading.

And so the reading divide continues...

Old work photos I took of various rural and township schools and their libraries in KwaZulu-Natal

Monday, 10 November 2014

Punctuation saves lives

What to do when a bit sleep-deprived and the little one is finally soundly asleep: catch up with the to-do list, right? Well no, my English-teaching brain distracts me from getting ahead with the cooking by seeing vegetables that look like punctuation. 

Never underestimate punctuation! 
Image from here

Friday, 7 November 2014

It's been busy...

Time flies. The new little one is growing and changing almost on a daily basis. Nights and days take on a different rhythm. Sleep slips away elusively. Moving house means not much rest and constantly being on the go, tucking the little one into the sling and getting on with life. Lots of changes and adjustments, finding your footing again. That's life at the moment...

Monday, 20 October 2014

Blurring the boundaries of "screen time"

I seem to have a bit of a soft spot for children's picture books that make a commentary on reading and interaction in the internet age (I wrote about Lane Smith's It's a book here). The newest one to come into my hands is Dot by Randi Zuckerberg and illustrated by Joe Berger. With cheerful illustrations and playful language it tells the story of a little girl called Dot, who "knows a lot". She's an ace with all different types of "screens":

Eventually Dot gets that familiar feeling of screen-time overload. She goes all cross-eyed and disorientated, so that her mom sends her to play outside.

Once outside in the sun, she remembers that she also knows how...

in the real world. The book is charming in it's reminder to leave the virtual world behind sometimes and give ourselves the opportunity to interact and play in the real one.

Having just said that, I have to admit to spending quite a bit of time reading articles via twitter on my phone (very handy with a hungry baby to feed and only one hand free). A New York Times article I recently came across asks the very pertinent question of whether E-Reading to your toddler counts as story time or screen time. The question is of course very relevant as more and more children's books are turned into interactive E-books for tablets, and parents are faced with endless choices of toddler and even baby entertainment for different screens.

According to the article, even the experts aren't sure. What is certain, is that pediatricians and child-development experts advise parents to read to their children regularly from an early age. They also advise no screen time for children under the age of two and less than two hours a day for older children. Where, then, does e-reading fall?

There doesn't seem to be much research out there yet, but the New York Times article points out that a handful of new studies suggest "reading to a child from an electronic device undercuts the dynamic that drives language development". It refers to a 2013 study, Once Upon A Time: Parent-child Dialogue and Storybook Reading in the Electronic Era, which found that 3-5 year olds whose parents read to them using a tablet had lower comprehension rates of the story than those children who were read to using a traditional book. Part of the problem, the researchers explain, was that parents and children using tablets spent more time focusing on the device than on the story. As the stories become more and more interactive in an E-format (which obviously does comes with educational advantages), the focus shifts away from the parent-child dialogue that springs up from the more old-fashioned forms of story time. Researchers have stressed that it is this early conversation around stories that assists language development. The New York Times article quotes Dr Hirsh-Pasek, who sums it up well, "In other words, it's being talked with, not being talked at that teaches children language."

So I guess, Dot does know a lot; we need to strike a healthy balance between the virtual world and the real one.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

She's here

Am just popping in to say Alice Winter was born at 1:30 am on Saturday. She's perfect. We got back to our (still temporary) home on Sunday and are now getting to know this new little person.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Too many books...

Source: from here

The above poster expresses how I often feel about reading: a kind of desperate clamouring pressure to get through the pile of unread books I have on my bookshelf or the mental list of classic and contemporary literature I feel I should read. Ridiculously, this even gets a bit stressful sometimes, which is why reading the conclusion of John Miedema's book, Slow Reading (I wrote more about it here), is a good reminder that the reason why we get hooked on books in the first place is pleasure, not to prove ourselves or tick off titles on a list. So, I thought that I'd share those insightful words here:
"It is often said that a person can only read about five thousand books in a lifetime. It is a small range of books given the accelerating quantity available to us. This limitation might lead some readers to rush their reading, thereby increasing the number of books. This response turns a reader into a tourist, jumping from experience to experience, noting only the highlights, being able to say he or she has done it, though not entirely sure what was done. Another response is to simply and happily acknowledge that life is indeed short, and that our smaller selection of books represents a unique expression of our character. This second choice removes the needless pressure from reading, and restores it as a great pleasure."

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


A temporary place.
Not quite here.
Not quite there.
Waiting fills the spaces in between.
Time gathers softy like fabric around moments as they edge closer to that unpredictable Beginning. Little things, washed and folded, are placed in make-shift spaces, and become the visible markers of the waiting.
It's the kind of waiting that settles into your body, the way waiting is felt physically in an uncomfortable chair. I wait for him to get back home. I wait for her; her kicks becoming ever more insistent, impatient even, depending on how you look at it.
Each night I wonder what will happen. The thought lies with me as I wake in the dark and wonder and turn and shift. I will the waiting on.
Waiting... so difficult to explain to a four-year old.
"Can't the baby tell us when it's ready?"
"How long will the baby still be?"
I pull her close to me in the bed and feel her little body snuggle up to mine, seeking that comfortable, familiar intertwining of selves; her thin little arm resting over my big belly.
I can't quite believe it: two.
So soon.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The laptop and the lecture

Technology in the classroom always comes with a certain dapper flashiness about it; it’s usually impressive, eye-catching and attention-grabbing… on the surface at least. There are of course, many benefits to not just allowing, but encouraging and integrating devices such as smart phones, laptops and tablets into the class or lecture room.  It’s not the principle that bothers me as such, but rather the practicalities of it.

I can’t help but think back to the more rudimentary, less exciting, perhaps more quaint and old-fashioned skills: listening, concentrating on one topic being discussed in one room, note-taking, feeling the weight of a textbook, of the active shuffling between pages for easy reference. Things that don’t seem to happen very much anymore, as if classes have been overcome with a kind of technology-induced laziness, a reliance that seems to rob the incentive to actively engage at that particular moment. It’s almost as if those devices, such excellent tools to search out information, put up a barrier to the more immediate, real engagement and interaction of learning in a class or lecture room. After all, everything can be googled later or lecture notes downloaded so that it can be justified to check messages, emails, facebook, do a bit of browsing; effectively there is no need to fully “be” in the class at all. I know it’s not meant to be like that, but somehow it just is, and it appears as if these devices rob our already divided attention further instead of enhancing it.

These thoughts have been going through my mind since I read Nicholas Carr’s interesting post on Students and their Devices, which lead me to Hembrooke and Gay’s landmark study, “The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments” (2003). In it, two groups of students receive the same lecture but one group is asked to keep their laptops (and therefore access to the internet) closed. The group who had free access to their laptops did noticeably worse on a test of the content after the lecture than the group who had to keep their laptops closed. It certainly seems to indicate that we are not as good at multitasking as we may think and that it comes with a certain cost to how information is processed from working memory to longer term memory and ultimately how it is transformed into deeper knowledge and understanding.

Hembrooke and Gay point out, “the ubiquity, pervasiveness and mobility of new technologies encourage a simultaneity of activities that goes beyond anything our culture has heretofore ever known. Indeed, the ability to engage in multiple tasks concurrently seems to be the very essence or core motivation for the development of such technologies…Of course, distraction in the lecture hall or classroom is nothing new; note passing, doodling, talking, completing other class assignments, and even taking notes on the current lecture are all familiar forms of low-tech distraction. However, mobile devices and wireless access in the classroom have the potential to bring distraction to new heights; especially as the study of their effects and benefits is in its relative infancy and schools and universities grapple with issues concerning boundary setting and high-tech classroom etiquette.”

These are certainly words that still hold true today.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Story time

I fall into story time with you like into a cushy dream. My tiredness cuts off the world so that all that exists is the bed, you cuddled up to me and the pages of a book. Quietly you listen, every now and again your little body shifts, but your attention is fully absorbed in those shared pages between us. We reach the end and I put out the light but I'm too tired to leave, to go wake from the dreamy state of story time. Instead, I lie there in the darkness and we whisper special messages into each other's ears. Your voice so present, as you lean over to me to whisper your thoughts, your hair tickling my face, the stories lingering softly on your breath. And momentarily the whole world disappears into your softly spoken little words.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Slowing down

It strikes me as kind of ironic that I've been writing so much about slow reading and been trying to keep up a rather frenetic pace myself. My attention flits from page to page, from task to task, from to-do list to to-do list; work, home, work, home with a frantic, repetitive rhythm like pages flipping faster and faster through a book.  When I finally stop to breathe I start to worry that this baby will be born before we can move back into our home and I get desperate to find the kid's old baby clothes that have been sealed away from the dust and mess and at least put together a pretense at being ready.

Perhaps I haven't fully registered that in just six short weeks I'll be a mother again, that I actually have to slow down, that physically I can't keep it up... not until this last week anyway, when it took a scare to remind me of this fact. So, it looks like slowing down is the path that lies ahead of me for now.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Timeless advice about reading

Seeing as I've been writing about reading recently, I have to share this timeless advice from Lewis Carroll about how to read, found via Brainpickings. It touches on a number of points I've discussed here before, namely that to truly engage with and understand more complex content, one needs to slow down and read in depth (the type of reading that is best done in print).

In this short extract from his book A Random Walk in Science, Carroll advises readers how to read critically and plunge on in spite of challenges and difficulties encountered in the text. It insightfully and charmingly shows how reading has to adapt to purpose (for example we read texts for work or study differently from how we go about reading a novel). While this book was published in 1973 (in that case well before the flood of online text and social media distractions) the advice he gives under "How to learn" still holds true for today.

"The Learner, who wishes to try the question fairly, whether this little book does, or does not, supply the materials for a most interesting mental recreation, is earnestly advised to adopt the following Rules:
  1. Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!", and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights. This Rule (of not dipping) is very desirable with other kinds of books—-such as novels, for instance, where you may easily spoil much of the enjoyment you would otherwise get from the story, by dipping into it further on, so that what the author meant to be a pleasant surprise comes to you as a matter of course. Some people, I know, make a practice of looking into Vol. III first, just to see how the story ends: and perhaps it is as well just to know that all ends happily—that the much-persecuted lovers do marry after all, that he is proved to be quite innocent of the murder, that the wicked cousin is completely foiled in his plot and gets the punishment he deserves, and that the rich uncle in India (Qu. Why in India? Ans. Because, somehow, uncles never can get rich anywhere else) dies at exactly the right moment—-before taking the trouble to read Vol. I.
    This, I say, is just permissible with a novel, where Vol. III has a meaning, even for those who have not read the earlier part of the story; but, with a scientific book, it is sheer insanity: you will find the latter part hopelessly unintelligible, if you read it before reaching it in regular course.
  2. Don’t begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point, and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set. So long as you are conscious that all the land you have passed through is absolutely conquered, and that you are leaving no unsolved difficulties behind you, which will be sure to turn up again later on, your triumphal progress will be easy and delightful. Otherwise, you will find your state of puzzlement get worse and worse as you proceed, till you give up the whole thing in utter disgust.
  3. When you come to any passage you don’t understand, read it again: if you still don’t understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired. In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
  4. If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything—in Logic or in any other hard subject—that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one’s self! And then, you know, one is so patient with one’s self: one never gets irritated at one’s own stupidity!
If, dear Reader, you will faithfully observe these Rules, and so give my little book a really fair trail, I promise you, most confidently, that you will find Symbolic Logic to be one of the most, if not the most, fascinating of mental recreations!"

I love the way these four rules, in a way that is slow and deliberate without becoming pedantic, point out a pathway to understanding that is linear, measured and ultimately honest, in that it doesn't offer a shortcut or quick solution to a task, that by its nature, just takes time.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Slow reading in an information ecology

My interest in how our reading habits are influenced and changed by the digital age lead me to John Miedema’s book Slow Reading. It’s about how we as readers make choices about how much attention we give a text, from skimming and scanning online articles or headlines to deep reading a novel for example. The point being that whatever tool we use to read does, on some level, influence how we read and think. What I like about his book is that it looks at digital and print reading as two complementary and necessary parts, that it sees a symbiotic relationship between the two and rather than the one spelling doom for the other.

In his chapter, Slow Reading in an Information Ecology, Miedema states:
“Digital technology is often preferable for searching and scanning short snippets. However, print has endured because it is still the superior technology for reading anything of length, quality or substance. While digital technology lends itself to discovering and remixing ideas in novel ways, slow reading of books is still essential for nurturing literacy and the capacity for extended linear thought.”
I couldn’t agree more. The two media have different functions and we begin to run into problems if this is not recognised and if they are seen as completely interchangeable. Engaging with an extended text in detail is something I always want to do in print, but I realise that for others this might not be the same. My concern, however, is particularly within education, where the drive towards embracing all things digital can happen at the expense of more fundamental literacy skills. Children need the skills both of quick scanning in order to manage the volumes of information available online and the ability to slow down and read in depth. Miedema says of print’s enduring prominence in a digital age: 
“Our casual information needs are served very well by the web, but our reading requirements run deeper than that. Sometimes we must slow down and read at a reflective pace and print facilitates that. Print and slowness have a close relationship. Print is fixed; the ideas will not change during a reading. A book is linear and long, encouraging the reader to recreate the author’s original sequence of thought. Print persists because it is a superior technology for integrating information of any length, complexity or richness; it is better suited to slow reading.”
I often find that this understanding of the different purposes of reading is what separates a successful student from an unsuccessful one; the casual skills used during skimming of information on the internet are not sufficient for academic success. It is for this reason I strongly believe that print and digital reading need to go hand-in-hand in order to teach these different reading skills. Digital and print reading need to be seen, not as mutually interchangeable, but as necessary, complementary elements of our thinking process.

So far I've enjoyed dipping into this little book for valuable insights about a subject I'm very interested in, so I'm hoping to have a bit more time to explore some of these ideas here. A friend of mine recently also pointed me in the direction of Maria Konnikova's New Yorker article Being a better online reader which underlines many of Miedema's points that I've discussed here. So to end off, I'd like to leave you with the following thoughts from the article:

"The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analysing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen's (a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, Norway) research focuses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy by broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book - its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages - may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object iself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. 'Anecdotally, I've heard some say it's like they haven't read anything properly if they've read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,' she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn't have the same tangibility."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The normal everyday

Just popping in to share some quotes that have been inspiring me since getting back from the holidays. It's back to work this week, time for normal, everyday routines, time for finding the magical in the mundane.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Winter journeying

There's nothing like winter in the Drakensberg; harsh and dry and freezing. The landscape all barren and bare, just patiently waiting browns and burnt blacks and dust, with the mountains gathered bluish-grey like old sages waiting in the background. No snow yet, everything just stark and dry.

It's a time for family, for recovery, for reading, for quiet, for just being. It's what I'm grateful for. Be back soon...



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