Introducing Storyville

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more you learn, the more places you’ll go.”— Dr. Seuss – I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

Watching a child learn to read is a fascinating thing. I remember watching my own two kids acquiring the skill of reading for themselves, and seeing what a remarkable difference it made once they were able to pick up any book they wanted, on any topic, and read it. I remember the joy of watching my kids devour literally hundreds and hundreds of books as they got older. It really is quite amazing. And that ability to read – not just for functional understanding of words, but with a fluent and genuine love of literature – opened up vast worlds of learning and imagination and curiosity for them.

I think most educated people understand the value, and importance of reading.

There is a substantial body of evidence to support the idea that reading TO children when they are young has a positive, long term effect on their development, not just in helping them develop as readers themselves, but in even more substantive ways across a whole lot of cognitive domains.

In fact, studies using fMRI have proven that children who are read to when young show a big difference even at the neurological level. One study by Dr John Hutton concluded that “Results showed that greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language). These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.” 

There is a lot of research that all comes to basically the same conclusion – reading to your children when they are young is hugely important and the effects of it can be seen well into their teenage years. The effects can be seen on language acquisition, vocabulary development, imagination and inquisitiveness, reading fluency, listening skills, pronunciation, and so on.

The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research concluded that “Children four to five years old who are read to three to five times a week have the same reading ability as children six months older (who are read to only twice or less a week). Reading to children six to seven days a week puts them almost a year ahead of those who are not being read to. It was also found that reading to small children has a positive effect on the development of numeracy skills.”

Unfortunately, even though the benefits of reading to young children are so well documented (and it is such a simple and enjoyable thing to do with your kids!) there seems to be a obvious divide based on socioeconomics. Lower income families tend not to do it nearly as much as higher income families. Which is kind of sad, because if they did, the research suggests it could be the single most effective thing those families could do to help break the poverty cycle and give their children greater opportunities in the long term.

In fact, a 2012 a study titled Reading to young children: a head-start in life,  by G. Kalb and J.C. van Ours noted that children who get read to more frequently at age 4-5 achieve higher scores on the NAPLAN tests for both Reading and Numeracy in Year 3 (age 8 to 9).  These differences in reading and cognitive skills are not related to the child’s family background or home environment but are the direct result of how frequently they have been read to prior to starting school.” In short, reading to your kids makes a big difference, no matter what background they come from.

The good news is that reading to your kids when they are young is a pretty simple thing to do, and it seems there are more parents than ever making the time to read to their children. That’s awesome. The bad news is that even with the overwhelming evidence that reading to your child might be the single most important thing you can be doing to help them, still only about a half of all parents are actually doing it. (Depending on the study you look at, the figure varies from about 40% to 55%)

So parents, you want to do the best for your kids? Read to them! It’s that simple.

Meet Storyville

Knowing that reading to kids is incredibly important, and acknowledging that for many kids it does not happen nearly enough, let me introduce you to Storyville. Storyville is a project by the Equity Foundation, the professional development arm of Actors Equity, representing Australian actors. Their idea is brilliant and simple. Storyville aims to connect trained actors – many of whom have spare time during school hours – with classrooms around Australia, providing talented readers for children. These actors voluntarily go into schools and read to kids. That’s it. Simple. Brilliant.

Some of the things that trained actors learn to do really well is to play different characters, use their voice effectively, tell stories that engage an audience, and act! So who better to read to children than an actor?

I think it’s a brilliant idea. If you’d like your school to be part of it, and have a talented trained actor come and read to your kids, just fill out this form.

Hat tip to my daughter Kate, a trained actor herself and a graduate from WAAPA, for telling me about this project.

The Ron in Toronto

I’m in Toronto, Canada, at the moment, which is somewhat of a second home for me. My lovely partner Linda is a born and bred Torontonian, and although we both now live in Sydney, Australia, we try to travel back here at least once a year to visit friends and family.  Our current visit was unplanned and not for the usual reasons we like to be here though… Linda’s father Ron passed away a few days ago. He’d had a number of health challenges for quite a while, and although he always maintained a positive outlook and a cheery disposition, things had been getting increasingly difficult for him over the last few months. Early on Wednesday morning Toronto time, the day before his 82nd birthday, Ron decided enough was enough and passed away quietly in his sleep. May he rest in peace.

Although I never got to spend as much time with Ron as I would have liked, he was a lovely gentle man, and every time I met him he was always smiling, always taking an interest in those around him. He was always curious and interested in the world around him – I used to say to Linda he was like an excited little kid trapped in an older person’s body. We spoke on the phone every so often, and apart from always asking about the weather (he was, after all, a Canadian!) he always took a great interest in what was going on with Linda and I, where we were travelling to and what was happening in our world. As we Aussies would say, he was a genuinely good bloke.

I found this timelapse video of Toronto called Toronto Tempo, and I think it’s rather beautiful. I’m posting it here as a bit of a tribute to Ron.  We’ll miss you mate.

Toronto Tempo from Ryan Emond on Vimeo.

A Remarkable Life

Nanna Brown and II know this rather personal post is out of character for this blog, but I felt I wanted to post it anyway…  I hope you don’t mind.

My grandmother died this week. The funeral was today, and it was a tough day to get through.  I was brave on the outside because my mum needed me to be, but on the inside, I cried a lot.

I really loved my Nanna Brown. She was an extraordinary woman who, at nearly 98, lived through most of the past century.  I had never really stopped to think about it, but when I looked at the list of world events she’d lived through it was astonishing.  I know we talk a lot about change, and the pace of change, and how important it is to deal with the changing world we live in, but in my nan’s lifetime she lived through both World Wars, as well as an assortment of other wars and a Great Depression.

She was just over 1 year old when the first transatlantic flight was made, 15 years old when Penicillin was discovered, 24 when construction started on the Golden Gate Bridge, and just a few months older when the Hindenburg disaster happened.

At 32 she saw the Atomic Bomb drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she was 39 when the world’s first jet airliner went into commercial use, and 48 when the first human went into space.

At 50 years old, she watched the construction of the Berlin Wall, and at 77, she watched it come down again.  When she was 80 the European Union was founded, and she was 88 when New York’s Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11.

She grew up before television, before radio, before cars, before the Internet. While she was alive, so was Gustav Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Sigmund Freud, Walt Disney and Henry Ford. She was born before, and died after, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Benito Mussolini.

What a remarkable period of history to have lived through!

The last few conferences I’ve been to all had keynote speakers who repeated the same basic message… the world is changing and we better get good at dealing with change.  As much as we edtech types like to carry on about adaptability and the need to learn to deal with dramatic changes in our world, we sometimes tend to forget just how much the world can change in one person’s lifetime even if that person grew up before the invention of the Internet, Social Networking and the rise of China.

I was really close to my nan, and I’m glad I was with her just a few days before she died. She was a truly remarkable lady.

If you’re interested, this is the eulogy that I wrote and read at the church today…

A couple of days ago, I was asked what I remembered most about Nan.  There are lots of memories of course, and although I’d not really thought about it before, I’m starting to realise that many of these memories have profoundly affected who I am as a person, the way I see the world and the way I’ve grown up.

  • When I was very young – before I started school – I remember waking up one morning to be told by Nan “we’re going to Japan this morning” and finding a little low table in the middle of the dining room floor.  Nan had set a Japanese breakfast on the floor and we had to sit on cushions and eat with chopsticks.  Nan taught us to have a sense of the whimsical, a sense of the unexpected, a sense of curiosity about the world.
  • When we were young, my cousins and I used to put on plays in Nan’s house.  We were often short of a character, so Nan would volunteer to dress up as an extra character in these childhood plays. The one that I think we all remember the best – because even to this day we still talk about it – was our production of Robinson Crusoe, and we can still see Nan playing the part of the savage boy, Man Friday, dressed in a leopard skin stole, her hair all messed up and her face painted black with boot polish.  Nan taught us how to have a sense of humour, a sense of fun and to never take ourselves too seriously.
  • When I was quite young, I remember going with Nan to the African Lion Safari in Sydney. There was a rather long, high swinging rope bridge there and as I walked across it with Nan it started to swing dramatically.  I was petrified and started to cry and scream. Nan calmed me down by explaining that it was ok, it was safe. That the people who built it obviously didn’t build it to fall down, so why would it fall down?  As she unfolded the logic of why the bridge was safe, my worry started to disappear and suddenly everything seemed ok.  Nan taught us how to have a sense of bravery, a sense of calm, and most of all, a sense of commonsense.
  • A couple of years ago, we took Nan for a drive down to Denman and Yarrawa, where she grew up as a child. She loved going for drives, and would always be pointing things out, telling stories, admiring the Hunter Valley landscape which she loved so much. She managed to find the house in which she was born and as we drove around the area she told us lots of stores from her childhood.  Nan taught us how to have a sense of history, a sense of self, a sense of heritage.
  • I remember sitting down at a family dinner one day, with the whole family there, and realising that there was one too many plates set at the table.  When I told Nan that she’d miscounted, she replied that, no, she just likes to set an extra place in case somebody unexpectedly dropped by… she wantedl them to feel welcome and to be able to join us without feeling like they were intruding.  Nan taught us to have a sense of welcome, a sense of pride, and sense of giving.
  • And that’s the thing that stands out the most about Nan to me… her love of people. In all the years I knew Nan, I never once heard her talk poorly about anybody.  She always seemed to find  the good side of other people, and always managed to find something nice to say about them.  Nan taught us how to have a sense of goodness, a sense of the positive.  A sense of humanity.

There are so many things that Nan taught us all. When we lose someone we love, it’s hard to not feel sad and upset and to grieve about the loss of what we no longer have. But I know that everyone in this room could come up with a list of their favourite “Nan moments”… those treasured times when she made you laugh, or made you think, or made you see the world a little bit differently to the way you’d seen it before.  Although Nan isn’t with us anymore, if we can remember back to those special moments she created with each of us, I’m sure we’ll find that there are ways in which they’ve touched our lives that will live on for a very long time.

I’d like to think that it’s those moments that are the real legacy Nanna Brown leaves with us.