Welcome!

I qualified as a Primary teacher over 20 years ago, with a PGCE from the University of Leeds. Before that I studied English and Education and Community Studies at the College of Ripon and York St John, a college of University of Leeds- now a university in its own right. I studied social research methods at London Metropolitan University, which mainly taught me that social research isn’t really my cup of tea, then an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. The MA really excited my interest in an interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature, which has informed my approach to my PhD.

My thesis is that working class children in children’s fantasy have become disempowered, and in some texts have almost become the Red Shirts, as protagonists become more privileged and protected. I intend to investigate whether working class children’s enjoyment of reading is affected by the depiction of working class children in the books that they read. My own reading enjoyment was affected at secondary school by not reading a book in English lessons with a girl in it for 3 years.

I live in Brighton with my wonderful partner (and soon to be husband Steve) and am a step-mum to my gorgeous little boy. The commute to East London is more than compensated for by living 15 mins from the beach.

Advertisements

Increasing engagement and confidence in critical thinking with Level 6 undergraduates

This is a paper I didn’t get to present at a research day at my institution in 2018. My university is inner-city post-92, where many students the first in their families to attend higher education. Most on my course are non-traditional students, many of whom had a break from study. They are wonderful, engaged and committed students, but are often unsure about what critical reading and thinking means. We ask students to be “critical” but we are not always effective in developing these skills. This paper outlines what I do to support Level 6 Early Childhood Studies students in developing criticality.

Critical reading group activities in Level 6 seminars: a work in progress

Alison Baker, Early Childhood Studies

In September 2016, I moved from teaching Primary PGCE to a module leader and lecturer on the Early Childhood Education and Care pathway of BA Hons Early Childhood Studies. My module was Level 6, with 49 students instead of 40 Level 7 students per P group so I had not anticipated a big change to my pedagogy. I had not realised the different needs of students who meet once a week for 3 hours from those who spend most of the week in the same group, when it came to group discussions and critical thinking.

The challenge

It was clear that some students were very uncomfortable with feeding back from group discussions in front of the whole group. The same 6-8 students would feed back every week. When I was circulating around the teaching space, it appeared that some students had not done the reading- some admitted that they had not; some would avoid my eyes and scroll through the reading on their phones or tablets. When students did respond to me in one to one discussions, they often required a lot of scaffolding to make links between readings, and between curriculum and theory. As a result, I felt compelled to over-teach.

Feedback from students

There was recognition from many students that I was over-teaching, and that I had lost faith in group reading discussion, even though module evaluations were very positive:

  • Term 1 evaluation:

“I do feel that there are times where the lecturer delves into a topic too much to the point where they say the same stuff just in different ways”

  • Term 2:

“Engage more on peer activities”

“More opportunities for independent working”

“Seminars to be more organised”

Literature circles

At the UK Literacy Association International Conference in June 2017, I attended a paper presented by Dr Naomi Boakye from University of Pretoria, where she discussed the difficulties many Sociology students had in reading critically, and her use of literature circle roles in developing critical reading with her students. In her 2011 article, Boakye quotes Elley (1996):

Instructional programmes that stress teacher directed drills and skills are less beneficial in raising literacy levels than programs that try to capture students’ interest and encourage them to read independently (Boakye, 2011, p. 116)

Duncan (2014) discusses the pedagogy of teaching adult readers using grouped reading activities, and he summarises features of group reading activities:

  • Non-hierarchical
  • Turn-taking
  • Collaborative, with peer-to-peer teaching
  • Involve discussion.

Levy (2011) discusses her use of literature circles in undergraduate English classes in the United States; a different higher education system where students complete a range of general education courses before specialising, so these students are not English Literature majors. She argues that students who struggle with writing will also struggle with reading; she argues for a “structured methodology of scaffolded, low-stakes and collaborative” approach to reading activities (Levy, 2011, p. 54).

Seminar reading activities 2017-2018

I decided to adapt Boakye’s approach to literature circles. Since I had a group of 39, I wanted to have no more than 7 groups, so I could get around each group in the 35-40 minutes of seminars I intended to give over to discussion groups. I allocated students to groups at random after week 1, except for the only male student in the group, who I asked which group he would be comfortable with. In the week 2 seminar, I gave the students a newspaper article to read with cards outlining the reading group roles:

  • Director- keeps the discussion going and ensures everyone has a chance to speak
  • Clarifier- predicts words and phrases which may be difficult to understand and suggests meanings
  • Connector- makes connections to other readings and to real life experiences
  • Questioner- thinks of some questions related to the reading to ask during the group discussion
  • Summariser- summarises the discussion and feeds back to the seminar group.

I explained that these roles will circulate weekly. Feedback after the first week was positive. As the weeks progressed, it was interesting to see that no students seemed to be reluctant to take the role of summariser, and that all students were engaging in discussion. As I circulated around the groups, it seemed that although there were always some students who had not done the reading, the peer pressure of the group activity appeared to motivate them to engage in discussion and to be conscious that they were inconveniencing their group.

Outcomes after Term 1.

After marking Assignment 1, a higher proportion of students passed the assignment at above 50% than Assignment 1 last year; 89% 2017 as opposed to 79% in 2016. (Of course, my own improved confidence, and a different group of students, may affect this number). Additionally, these comments from the mid module evaluation demonstrate a positive attitude to the literature circle activities:

  • “When in seminars we had reading groups. They were really helpful”
  • “We should continue with group activities as usual”

Inclusion issues

One student commented in the mid-module evaluation that they did not like group activities, and there are reasons why students may find them difficult. One student asked to move groups in week 3 due to previous conflict with another student. Students with social anxiety or other mental health conditions may find working in a group challenging, as may autistic students. Some dyslexic students may find the role of summariser hard. However, it has been made clear to students the pedagogical reasons why reading group activities are being used, and that both PGCE study and working in education settings are likely to involve group work, and students have accepted that. It should be noted that the most enthusiastic participants have been students with English as an additional language.

In conclusion

There is still another term to go for this academic year, so while outcomes for students appear to be positive so far, end of module evaluations and assignment 2 marking will determine how successful this approach has been. I hope to obtain ethical approval for interviews with students about their experiences of reading group activities and their recommendations for how the approach could be extended or modified in the future.

Reference list

Boakye, N (2011) ‘A Multifaceted model for designing reading programmes for L2 learners at tertiary level’ Per Linguam Vol 27 No 2 p. 114-132

Daniels, H (1994) Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student Centered Classroom Markham: Pembroke

Duncan, S (2014) Reading for Pleasure and Reading Circles for Adult Emergent Readers: Insights in Adult Learning Leicester: NIACE

Levy, R. J (2011) ‘Literature Circles go to College’ Journal of Basic Writing Vol 30 No 2 p. 52-83

Neurodiversity in academia and fan spaces: building in inclusion

This blog post is inspired by my friend and colleague Farah Mendlesohn’s post on the difficulties people with hearing impairments can face accessing conferences, and I’m indebted to her work here as I start planning an academic event and plan for inclusion.

I am only speaking for myself here, as a mature white cis woman with dyspraxia, sensory processing difficulties and language comprehension disorder. I would really appreciate neurodiverse people with different neeeds commenting below.

two girls ice skating

I still can’t skate.

I am dyspraxic. Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder, which used to be categorised as “clumsy child syndrome”- like many people with dyspraxia, I had difficulties with learning physical skills such as doing up buttons, riding a bike, swimming and handwriting. However, dyspraxia is a life long disability which can also impact memory, planning, time management, organisational skills and processing. It is often co-morbid with sensory processing difficulties, language disorders, dyslexia, ASD and ADHD. Coping mechanisms that people with undiagnosed or late-diagnosed dyspraxia can contribute to mental health difficulties and/ or social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. For more information, please see the Dyspraxia Foundation here.

So, I have used my experiences both in fan and academic spaces as a dyspraxic participant to make suggestions for an inclusive approach to event organisation.

  1. Explicit information about the event. Where is it? It’s astonishing how many Calls for Papers and other events don’t make that clear. A link on the event page, and information about transport, would be very useful. Dyspraxic people have difficulties with planning, so supporting us with making the decision whether or not travelling by public transport would be helpful. Did I mention that it took me nearly 3 years to learn to drive? I still prefer not to.
  2. Make the information about the event readable. Bullet points are easier than long paragraphs of text. Is it obvious how to respond and who to respond to? Make sure the email address is both obvious and easy to click through, copy or type. Academic email addresses can be very difficult: a list of letters and numbers can be hard for dyspraxics to process.
  3. Before the event: responding to calls for paper or programme ideas. Make it clear when this will happen. An acknowledgement of receipt can help with anxiety over whether the abstract or idea has been received.
  4. At the event: signage! If your event is on different floors or across difference buildings, this is vital. I can get lost in a building I work in 2 days a week, so I have no chance in a building I’m going to be in for a weekend!
  5. Give time for people to get from one room to another. Some attendees may have mobility issues, need to go to the toilet or get a drink between events. People with dyspraxia may need to decompress between times of intensive listening.
  6. Which leads on to: keeping to time. Dyspraics sometimes find it very uncomfortable to sit still for long periods. Additionally, if we have planned our day, it can provoke anxiety if sessions over-run, especially if we are speaking at the next session and may not have time to get to the toilet, get a drink and centre ourselves.
  7. During Q and A sessions, please ask participants and audience members not to talk over each other. Microphones can help with language processing at keynotes or bigger sessions, particularly later in the day: if I am not struggling to hear what is being said it makes language processing and understanding much easier, and therefore it is easier for me to participate.
  8. Think about lunch and refreshment arangements. It is very hard for dyspraxics to manage plate, cup, cutlery, food, drink and standing up. In fact I spent lunch times at an international congress sitting on the service stairs of a conference centre because there was nowhere for me to sit down and eat. A quiet space would make a big difference.
  9. Finally, a non-judgemental approach to phones. Somehow tablet and laptop users at conferences don’t attract the same disapproval as phone users. My phone is my diary, map, organisational aid and also my social space. I often take notes on my phone. A housekeeping announcement encouraging social media usage can take that feeling of shame away.

Thank you for reading. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Call for Papers: Robert Leeson

reading and righting

I am chairing a symposium on Robert Leeson’s Reading and Righting 34 years after publication. Please do have a look and contact me for any further information.

Call for Papers: Symposium- Robert Leeson’s Reading and Righting: Culture and representation in children’s literature, 34 years on

Date 20th June 2019

Abstracts due 15th January

Location: University of East London, Stratford E15

Confirmed speakers:

  • Michael Rosen, poet and author, former children’s laureate and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmith’s, University of London
  • Farrah Serroukh, Learning Programme Leader, Campaign for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE)

Robert Leeson, the children’s author and literary editor of the socialist newspaper The Morning Star, died on 29th September 2013. 2019 marks 34 years since the publication of Reading and Righting; The past, present and future of fiction for the young, where he called for a more socially and culturally representative children’s literature. However, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s (CLPE) research, Reflecting Realities (2018) indicates that only 1% of children’s books published in 2017 featured a BAME main character.

This symposium seeks papers related but not limited to:

  • Robert Leeson’s fiction
  • Children’s publishing and representation
  • Gender, race/ethnicity, social class, disability, sexuality and/or cultural or religious backgrounds in children’s literature
  • Children’s historical fiction and under-represented groups

This CfP particularly welcomes presentations from scholars from diverse backgrounds, and from school-based colleagues.

It is expected that presentations will be worked into short essays for publication.

Abstracts and any questions should be sent to Alison Baker, LeesonSymposium@gmail.com.

For more information on Robert Leeson, please see here http://www.walker.co.uk/contributors/Robert-Leeson-1649.aspx

For more information about the Teacher Education Research Group, please see here https://www.uel.ac.uk/research/the-teacher-education-research-group

My Little Pony: The Movie review, Vector

I’ve just seen an email about the annual round up for British Science Fiction Association’s  Vector magazine. I was sent it because last year, I wrote two reviews: one on the film Okja (warning- swearing in the trailer) and one on My Little Pony: The Movie.

my little pony

This is my piece. I hope you enjoy it!

My Little Pony: The Movie

2017, Dir: Jayson Thiesson

All is well in the female-centric ponytopia of Equestria, and Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity and Rainbow Dash are helping their friend, Princess Twilight Sparkle, prepare for the Friendship Festival, featuring pop star pegasus Songbird Serenade (played by Sia). However, the festival is interrupted by the arrival of ferocious minions of the Storm King, led by a unicorn with a broken horn, Tempest (Emily Blunt). Tempest captures Twilight Sparkle’s sisters, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, inside obsidian spheres, but before she is petrified, Celestia calls out that her sisters should get help from the “Queen of the Hippo…”. Twilight Sparkle, her friends and her assistant, the dragon Spike, head off on a quest to save her sisters, unaware that the Storm King has charged Tempest with the capture of Twilight Sparkle to complete the spell to activate his staff; in return he will mend her broken horn. On the way the Mane 6 encounter a con artist called Capper, who intended to sell them to pay off a debt until their friendship convinces him to help them, some bird-like former pirates turned delivery airship crew and they discover that the hippos they are looking for are in fact hippogriffs, Queen Novo and Princess Skystar.

This film, aimed at small girls, is no Moana or Despicable Me. Some of the songs are catchy (Rainbow Dash’s It’s Time To Be Awesome is particularly tenacious as an ear worm) but Sia’s Rainbow is rather lacklustre as a finale to an epic quest, facing peril and testing honesty and friendships. So why include it in a round-up of SFF films of 2017? Well, when women’s roles in genre films are still too often Smurfette (Wonder Woman) or Princess Peach, a reward for the hero’s successful quest and persistence (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) it is positive to see a fantasy film where friendships between female characters are prioritised; where they rescue themselves and are resourceful and independent, solving their own problems.  I have not yet seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but I have read that the core friendships and relationships are between women; however it is Rose and Finn (a man and a woman) who go off on the quest.

Katha Pollit first used the term “The Smurfette Principle” in a 1991 essay for the New York Times Magazine, in which she cited April O’ Neill from the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles cartoon as well as Miss Piggy from The Muppets- and indeed, we could include Paw Patrol with its one female puppy; the pink one, of course, as a contemporary Smurfette. By having a mainly female cast of protagonists- and a female antagonist- My Little Pony: The Movie centres female friendships in a SFF film in a way that I have not seen since Ghostbusters (2016).

I told my resident 8-year-old Brony that I was writing about My Little Pony: The Movie. He said “it’s great!” And yes, it is.

Review: Ali Baker

My Nine Worlds schedule

This is me! If you’re coming to Nine Worlds, say hi.

1DDD50F6-33F5-4BC6-A3FB-C66E71D4A88C

I’m lucky enough to be on 5 panel items at Nine Worlds 10th-12th August. A full list is here

On Friday:

1:30- Rodents in children’s fantasy fiction. This is a panel discussion. From Redwall to Ratatouille, from Maurice and his Educated Rodents to The Tale of Despereaux, fantasy for children has a history of mice, rats, rabbits and other rodents going adventuring, escaping peril and saving the day. The panel will explore why rodents, features that make these stories work (and when they don’t) and why they are still so popular.

6:45- Policy and Administration: celebrating the back room in genre. This is a panel discussion. First, follow the correct procurement procedure for your spaceship: Administration and governance in other worlds.
Does the Unseen University have research output targets?
Does the wizarding world have a pre-Hogwarts curriculum?
What kind of risk assessment should be carried out before transporting dragon eggs in a conflict situation?
How can chain of custody and evidentiary laws be followed when policing the undead?
What’s the Net Present Value of Barrayar’s space programme?
If you have asked yourself these kinds of questions, then this panel is for you! Come and listen to us talk about finance, education, justice and armed forces administration in fantasy worlds.

On Saturday:

1.30- Talk. Dangerously attractive witches in children’s fantasy fiction. This is an expanded version of a talk I’ll be giving at IBBY Congress in Athens. I will be discussing the way that foreign witches are characterised in His Dark Materials and Harry Potter as sexy, dangerous and predatory. I really enjoyed writing this paper because I learned a lot about the folklore Veela and Lapland witches were based on. There will of course also be jokes about rigid and flexible wands.

On Sunday:

11:45- panel: Social class in fandom. A panel acknowledging and addressing the specific barriers to participation in fandom due to social class and financial situations, such as assumptions about the social class of fans, the gatekeeping of fandom by some fans to “prove” fandom and how finances may preclude that (e.g. the cost of going to see bands/ attend conventions/ own material goods such as vinyl, books, cinema going vs streaming). My husband is on the panel too!

1:30- panel. What would a female friendly future look like? A panel consisting of female scifi bloggers and authors, in which we discuss what a female friendly future could look like, and books that we think portray a feminist future.

Phew! A busy weekend, but I can’t wait!

 

 

 

 

Review: Emily Knight I am… awakened

Please note: I was sent this book by the author, A. Bello, in return for an honest review.

emily knight I am awakened

A year after the events of the first book, Emily Knight I am, relucant warrior in training Emily Knight returns to her training school, Osaki. The daughter of famous warrior Thomas Knight and sister of missing Lox, Emily has a lot to deal with: the return of the evil Neci, terrifying dreams and intense adolescent feelings affecting friendships and relationships with her class mates. Can Emily learn to control her emotions enough to enable her  to control her powers and help save her school and friends?

It’s fantastic to see the story of Emily expanded, and to learn more about the world of the warriors. The beginning chapter is the back story of a significant character in the world (no spoilers!) which was satisfying. A. Bello has created an enjoyable, ethnically diverse fantasy world, which fans of Japanese martial arts-inspired cartoons such as Pokemon, and of X-Men or Runaways should enjoy- the powers both bind Emily to her follow warriors in training and also separate her from the everyday life of her foster family. It’s wonderful to read about people of colour with privilege, living in luxurious gated community Legends Village. Emily is a Black girl; we need more visible diversity in the fantasy world, especially for young people, and especially in this era where the importance of #ownvoices is being recognised. It is also important for young white people to read about characters of colour that are not just in stories about challenging urban lives- though these books are also important. Maybe the third novel in the series will feature a queer character of colour too.

I have one quibble, however- this book needed another copy edit to catch errors in of/off and in misplaced commas in the final third of the book. Hopefully this will be done before the second edition!