Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Changing the Rules

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Stupid - coming out this spring

I remember one Girl Guide camp I went to as a leader. It was district camp with a good fifty girls in attendance. One afternoon the girls were given an activity which involved answering questions about the Queen of England in exchange for ribbons they could display proudly on their camp hats. The answers to the questions were in articles displayed on posters around the building. The questions were in a separate room. The girls had to pick a question, memorize it, and find the answer before going to claim their ribbon.

While I was observing all the girls busily running from question to poster to leader I noticed a couple of girls talking on a bunk and ignoring all that was going on around them. When I asked why they weren’t doing the activity, they told me they didn’t want to participate. When I pressed further, they said they would fail, they couldn’t do it, and the activity was too hard. A helpful leader walking past smiled at them and said, “Hard? It’s not hard. All you have to do is try.” and walked off. The girls looked quite distraught at this.

Through a bit more questioning I found out the girls had tried the game at the beginning, but struggled and finally gave up. Their reading level wasn’t great, not to mention the place was full of scurrying children all pushing and jostling around the posters, and to make matters worse, the posters themselves were FULL of information - not just the information the girls needed to find. So all these issues culminated in these two girls feeling defeated, stupid, and left out of a supposedly fun and easy activity.

I told them I understood what they were going through. I explained how I had dyslexia and things that most people found easy were hard for me. But, I continued, this game was supposed to be fun for everyone and since it wasn’t doing that, we would have to change it.

At first they thought this was cheating, changing the game to suit their learning style. I assured them it wasn’t. They were still required to find the answers, I would just read them the part of the poster the answer was in and they had to figure it out from there. I also brought the questions with us so they wouldn’t have to keep the question in their head while trying to focus on finding the answer. These amendments to the activity lead to big smiles and racing from poster to poster. Soon more kids joined us as leaders directed girls who were struggling my way. The original two girls had great fun helping the new girls find the answers and soon everyone in the group became experts at the game. By supper every single girl at camp had all the ribbons, no one had failed, and everyone had participated.

Helping kids who are struggling isn’t about telling them the task is easy, that they should try harder, and then walking away. It’s also not about getting frustrated with them because they don’t know why they are having problems with the task. Sometimes it’s not obvious to a kid what their problem is, they just know that they can’t do it. Instead of being critical, become part of their team. Don’t do the task for them, but alter the activity to work with their skills instead of highlighting their issues. If a kid has trouble reading, read the text for them, they probably don’t have trouble listening – and chances are they will read along with you and practice their reading by accident. If they are having trouble organizing, break the task down into smaller components and help them to do things one at a time until they tell you they don’t need you there anymore. If they are feeling overwhelmed, move the task to a quieter place and work one on one. I honestly don’t think there are any bad students, just teachers who haven’t figured out how to teach them yet. “I can’t”, “I won’t”, “I don’t know how” come from places of fear where failure is looming. Getting over those hurdles gently and with understanding is the key helping kids who need a different set of rules.

I think that’s why I like writing hi/lo books so much. Books like Schizo, Hook Up, Touch, and Stupid change the game of reading. Instead of creating books which only have a grade three appropriate story for a grade three reading level, publishers like Lorimer and Orca put out books with junior high and high school stories written at a grade three to five reading level. These books say, it’s okay if you can’t read well, you can still enjoy a book meant to for your age. They change the rules of the game. They work to the advantage of the kid reading the book allowing him or her to fall into the story and not worry about big words and long chapters. And if a kid is reading, they will get better at it, feel included, and forget about failure as they fall into a great story which lets them play by their rules.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page