Why I bother with libraries.

I am a library campaigner. I have that in my profile descriptions on social media, and I am known for this role. I campaign and write about libraries, and am a familiar face at rallies and events connected to libraries and reading. I was President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and now I am standing for election as a CILIP Trustee and so it is evident that I care a great deal about our libraries. Recently someone asked me that crucial question – why bother? It seems like a lot of work, and you don’t get paid for it, so why bother?

After I had calmed down, I explained that the answer was so huge that I couldn’t do it justice in a few sentences, and so I thought I would share some of my past writings to explain why it matters, and why I bother.

Why do I need libraries in the first place? Well, I want a society where people have intelligence and are informed and creative. That matters to me and that’s what libraries (and in particular school libraries) do. I wrote about that here….

Like many people, I live with an invisible disability. I manage just fine, but one day I won’t and now and again I need more help with information. I need a safe space in my community that will offer me support on an ad hoc basis. It will save my local authority a huge amount of money if I can be supported in this way. I need someone I can trust in my community – I need my librarian. I wrote about that here…

I want our children to grow up as readers and to have the skills to access education with greater ease. I want them to be prepared for life and for the onslaught of fake news and biased reporting. I want children to have empathy for others and greater understanding of the world around them. I want them to have a school librarian. I wrote about that here…. 

I want people to read more. Reading for pleasure makes people happier, more rounded as human beings, and they even earn more. I sit on the Reading Agency’s national steering group looking at the wider impact of reading for pleasure, and the evidence is clear – people who read more benefit hugely. Books are expensive. For everyone to read more, and for society to benefit from it, we need more libraries. I wrote about that here….

The provision of a “comprehensive and efficient” library service is a statutory requirement. I need my librarian, and I need skilled library workers who have signed a commitment to providing an ethical and equitable service. Personally, I want to know that when I am handing over my data in a library it is to someone who has a set of agreed ethical principles. As chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee, I have written about that here…

But here is the big one – I passionately believe that it is vital to protect library workers. We have just had Libraries Week, and I must confess that I was dismayed to discover that many people were sharing things as if the library was some kind of sentient building that was doing all of these amazing things without any human involvement. Masses of people all talking about how astonishing libraries are… but I could count on one hand the number of high-profile media pieces that actually mentioned the library workers who make all these things happen.

Every time we talk about the work that libraries do, what we are really talking about is the work that the library workers do. None of this would happen without them. A library is, after all, just a building – bricks and mortar, cement and glass. It can’t read stories, comfort the lonely, teach digital literacy, support the sick, calm the distressed or find jobs for the jobless – that takes a library worker. Yes, we should protect libraries, but only if they house library workers. It is not right that, as a society, we pay for libraries in our taxes and are then expected to do the work ourselves. I don’t pay for a building, I pay for the people who do the work. Call me old fashioned, but I also want human beings to be fairly paid for the work they do. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work seems like the most basic of rights to me. Why should essential services become a postcode lottery that means that libraries only exist in wealthy areas where people have the time and money to work for free? This is a rot at the heart of our society – that we are blamed for not doing all the work for free, and if we can’t work for free we somehow are less deserving of the service. People should be paid, and they should be trained, protected and they should be accountable. I have written a great deal about this issue, and these have been some of my most read and shared posts. You can read three of them here… and here… and here

This is why I bother, and this is why I can’t stop campaigning for libraries – because the societal value is huge. Libraries save society money, and improve quality of life and opportunities for millions of people. It is sheer idiocy to put them in danger. To even suggest that libraries offer anything less than extraordinary value for money is a lie. Simple as that. A lie. I don’t mind shouting that from the rooftops. Look at the stats if you don’t believe me. Nobody uses libraries? Who are all these nobodies then? 


I am standing for election as a CILIP trustee because I’ve always believed that if you are going to say a thing you should say it where people are best placed to hear it. If I don’t like a thing, then I’m prepared to step up and try to get something done about it. I can grumble and moan and shout all I like in the vacuum of social media, but it is in the corridors of power that the silence falls and the selectively deaf walk. Representing an organisation like CILIP allows us as a collective to speak louder and to shake the ivory towers. I do believe that there is strength in the collective. I’m up against some stiff competition in this election, and all of the people standing share my thoughts. Libraries will win no matter who is elected, but I can’t not stand. Making a stand is kind of my thing. I’m in excellent company. If you are a CILIP member I strongly advise you to take part in this democratic process. It’s your vote, your voice, use it! If you’re not a CILIP member, join us! Everyone with an interest in the library and information profession is welcome. 

All in all, I want to look back on my life and know that I did everything I possibly could to make a difference. This is why I bother, because it matters.

Dawn Finch, librarian and children’s author, was president of CILIP in 2016 and is the current chair of CILIP’s Ethics Committee. She is a member of a number of national committees concerned with literacy and libraries, and a member of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee focusing on children’s reading for pleasure, and the rights of authors.

You can read all nomination papers for the all of the people standing in the forthcoming CILIP Trustee elections here… and if you are a CILIP member voting papers will be sent to you on or around 20th October 2017. The election and manifesto site can be found here

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Living History

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Getting up close and personal with ancient history was easier in the 70s (that’s me on the far left)

The new national curriculum expects children as young as six to successfully tackle prehistory, but if you ask them what life was like in prehistoric Britain you’d think they gained most of their knowledge from cartoons. Ask a small child to tell you about prehistory and they will mainly tell of a world that is part roaming dinosaur, and part club-wielding caveman. If you ask a child to draw their idea of what life was like in prehistoric Britain, the picture is generally of something along the lines of a sabre-toothed cat eating a woolly mammoth with Fred Flintstone wandering around in the background. I quickly realised that when I was visiting schools with my books I needed to challenge that perception and show them what life was really like.

I went back to the drawing board as talking about prehistory was simply not going to be enough. I thought back to what made me a history addict – how did I become the kind of person who values the place the ancient past has in my life? My love of history started in childhood and remained with me and my first job as a historical researcher allowed me to wade into even deeper waters of the past. I have contributed to, and supported historical research for decades, and last year my own book on the Neolithic site of Skara Brae was published and is now a bestseller. But what inspired that love of history in the first place?

History has always played a big part in my life. For me and my sister every holiday was another adventure of clambering over ancient ruins or running around stone circles. We didn’t have a lot of money, and travel in the 1970s never involved planes, and so that meant visiting historical sites in the UK. My family valued history, but that was only part of it. My school was not blessed with endless funds, and it had very limited resources, leaking roofs, cold classrooms and huge class sizes – but we were close enough to the Roman museums and sites of Verulamium to have school trips there. When I was eight we visited the museum and I was allowed to hold a Roman lamp. I can remember that moment as clear as if it were yesterday. I’d seen pictures of Roman lamps, and hadn’t really given it much thought, but here it was in my hand, a real lamp, and suddenly everything made sense. I could see exactly how it worked. I could almost smell the oil burning and picture the puddle of flickering light that it would cast as I walked the corridors of my villa. That tiny moment holding a real object gave me a physical link to the past.

I’ve worked in primary schools for over decade and, since the publication of my book, I’ve been invited into schools to talk about prehistory. I talk about the creativity and imagination of prehistoric people and how they used that creativity to add to their lives beyond the basic need to survive. I do this by using my Neolithic hamper. In the hamper I have things that would have been familiar objects to the people living in Skara Brae. I expected that most children would not have stroked deer hide, or handled antlers, but what surprised me was how few children knew what limpets were, or driftwood. The objects in my hamper have inspired some wonderful drawings, stories and poems about life in the Neolithic and it demonstrated just how important handling objects is to embedding higher levels of understanding.

There is something in the human psyche that craves physical contact with historical objects to fully understand them, and to forge a stronger link with them. You have only to stand in the British Museum for a few minutes to see how people can’t resist reaching out to touch the exhibits. It is not enough to look at something on a screen. No matter how glorious the 3D rendering is, it can’t possibly compete with the experience of seeing something come to life in the real world.

GET REAL!

How can we make it real in the classroom? Not every child is going to be lucky enough to visit ancient sites, or attend activity workshops, so what can we do in schools? Dr. Tess Machling of the Prehistoric Society has written on my blog before about using archaeology in the classroom. In her post she talked about the importance of being hands-on, and how being able to have physical contact with the processes of archaeology is important to understanding. We are incredibly lucky in the UK in that we have people all over the country working in the field of archaeological reconstruction, and many of these work within schools. It is eminently affordable for schools to find enthusiastic experts who can visit and show how objects were made, and how they were used.

Thanks to the many wonderful makers of replica items in the UK it is possible to create a learning resource box for the school that can be used for many years and adapted to suit different themes, however nothing beats having the expert there with you. I believe that it is not enough to buy the object – to fully engage with the subject you need the skills of the expert too. You need a knowledgeable and passionate expert who can breathe life into the subject.

The extraordinary knowledge and experience of people like Roland Williamson (historian, re-enactor and museum quality replica creator) is worth every penny. Sessions held either in schools or local museums form an essential part of embedding that higher-level understanding of history that all teachers are looking for. Sally Pointer and Gareth Riseborough spend their lives exploring aspects of early technology and then they bring this to life. Their craft demonstrations allow people to see first-hand how people did everything from metalworking to sock making!

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Graham Taylor’s stunning grooved ware pots

Seeing how ostensibly familiar objects are made is a wonderful way to show how creative people in prehistoric societies were. Potter Graham Taylor not only brings the  art of making of ancient pottery to life, but in the process the children themselves are able to create something that is a tangible link to the past. A fragment of a pot, or an illustration of a reconstruction does not even come close to watching a pot emerge from a ruddy lump of clay.

Historian and archaeologist, Kim Biddulph, has the most wonderful website that gathers together the details of a huge number of experienced and qualified people who are able to develop and deliver living history sessions in your area.

The UK is full of people who will bring history to life, from prehistory to the Cold War. If living history in your school means little more than wearing an old bedsheet for the day and calling it Greek Day, maybe it’s time to encourage subject leaders to think again. To really bring history to life, you need an expert.
Dawn Finch is the author of the educational book series Prehistoric Britain, and book one in the series is Skara Brae. Dawn is also President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals and a member of the national committee of the Children’s Writer and Illustrators Group and writer of fiction for older children.

For more information about school visits and talks, contact me on author@dawnfinch.com

Privacy and the young reader.

young girl reading black and whiteLike all good school librarians I was upset to read about the leaking of the school borrowing history of author Huraki Murakami. This has yet again raised the issue of privacy and the discussion has flared in social media and within library communities.

This is something that I have had to deal with many times in my career, both in public and school libraries. I am a strong advocate of the protection of the human right to privacy at any age, and feel that this protection should be guaranteed under law in public libraries, but what about schools and for very young children?

To me the answer is simple – privacy is a human right that belongs to everyone regardless of age. I was based in a primary school and in my library I had a clear policy of free voluntary choice and the pupil’s borrowing record was protected and belonged to the individual. The only exemption to this was if (after discussion with the person responsible for care issues in the school and myself) we felt that there might be an issue that would put the child personally at risk. This would then involve a private discussion with the child in a safe environment.

This was not an easy policy to maintain as there were many times that parents wanted to know what their child was borrowing and my refusal to share that information was often challenged. I stood my ground and the school supported me for one simple reason; I had it written into the library policy document. Having it in black and white meant that I could guarantee that the children were able to make a free voluntary choice of their reading material and were able to do that without judgement or fear of recrimination.

The first thing I had to do was to ensure that the library policy was accepted, agreed and signed off by the senior leadership team of the school and the school governors. I made sure that the right to privacy was guaranteed for every child, and I also made it clear that the library had a policy of stocking books of all types. I have supported many schools in the development of their own library policies and I quote the suggested outlines here…

“Library users of all ages and levels (including both pupils and staff members) are guaranteed the right of privacy. Should the librarian feel at any time that the pupil is at risk, this will be discussed in private with the pupil and the care team of the school, but the specifics of items borrowed from the library will remain within the ownership of the borrower. This information will be permanently deleted once the pupil leaves the school.”

“It is policy to ensure that material deemed sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise offensive or sexually explicit is not accommodated. However, challenging material will not be excluded simply because it is challenging, and the library will offer some material that may be outside the reader’s normal life experience. This will be to broaden and add depth to their studies, knowledge and understanding.”

This sort of clear policy gives a lot of scope for choosing stronger material and, as an unbiased professional, I felt that I was the best qualified person to make this decision. I’m the book expert in the building, it’s my job! However there were times that I would turn to other professionals and to my colleagues to help me make the decision. No matter what I had on my shelves the pupils knew that they would be able to borrow it without anyone else knowing that they had done so. That was very important to me as I felt that the library had an essential role to play in fostering a love of reading for pleasure and that can’t happen if a child feels that someone is breathing over their shoulder.

That’s not to say that there weren’t times when a Rhino Mum (or Rhino Dad!) came storming in to see me in a shortsighted rage demanding to know why their child had brought home a book that they didn’t approve of. It’s part of the job to be honest and we all have our ways of dealing with it. I had a good friend who was a school librarian in a private Catholic girl’s school and he used to keep a separate library card for girls who wanted to borrow books that they knew would be disapproved of. Another friend kept what she called her “junk card” for pupils in a high achieving school who wanted to secretly borrow trashy novels away from the prying eyes of pushy parents and teachers. I must confess that I also had a large number of books that I had ostensibly borrowed myself but had actually been borrowed by children who didn’t want it to go on their library record. Even the promise of privacy was not enough for some children.

A school library has two main functions – to support and develop reading skills, and to encourage and nurture reading for pleasure. In order to develop reading skills it is often necessary to keep a progressive list of books read, but this process should be distinct and separate from reading for pleasure. Learning how to read, and learning to love books are often muddled for younger children and this is a mistake. I personally feel that there should be a separate school library issue system for study books (including books on reading schemes) to those read for pure pleasure and free voluntary choice.

Privacy for pupils and young people is always going to be a thorny issue as we often bring to bear issues of care and responsibility, but I have always felt that it is deceptively simple. In fact, these rights are protected under Article 16 in the UN Convention document – The Rights of The Child. Furthermore there are a number of other articles within this document that ensure children should have unrestricted access to leisure and information. To restrict their privacy is to restrict access.

Every human being of any age deserves the right to privacy. If we restrict that then we also place restrictions on curiosity and understanding. We drive young people to find information though darker sources, and through marginalized means and that is what in turn leads young people to harbour feelings of loneliness, isolation and social disengagement. The right book at the right time can change or save a life – but will the vulnerable and confused young person find that information if they fear their borrowing history will be shared or sold? 

This is not just about children, this is about the right to privacy that is due to us all. As professional librarians we have a duty of care to the sensitive information contained within our records. If that trust is broken then we not only damage the service we offer, but we also put at risk the mental health and wellbeing of library users. I offer as an example the Books on Prescription scheme. This is having great success and as a result is not only saving the NHS a small fortune, but is hugely improving the quality of life for its users. Would that be the same if people feared that their borrowing history would be leaked or sold? Borrowing history could be open to catastrophic misinterpretation that could be permanently damaging to an individual’s life. Take for example student doctor, Yousif Badri, who was recently cleared of terrorism charges. One of the charges against him was that he “owned books on terrorism” when in fact he’d purchased freely available and academic books on Islamic extremism from Amazon. Misinterpretation of the books he read has dragged him to the point where he had to defend himself in court, and this has been hugely damaging to his career.

 Leaking Murakami’s teenage borrowing history might be interesting to his fans, but what it actually does is chip away at a private part of his life that should only ever have belonged to him and that is an erosion of everyone’s right to privacy.

Dawn Finch is a prominent UK school library and literacy consultant, and a children’s and YA writer.

Useful documents

UN – Rights of the Child – full document

UN – Rights of the Child – summary

UN – Rights of the Child – summary for children

CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) – User Privacy in Libraries – full document

Data Protection Act – UK – search for law pertaining to personal privacy

Facts and First Readers

small child reading image

I have been teaching children to read for around fifteen years and in that time I have seen a huge leap in the quality of reading schemes for children and young people. We have moved from tedious and formulaic material, to extraordinary schemes filled with beautiful imagery and content that is designed to engage developing readers. Sadly these schemes can be expensive and I am often asked by teachers and parents how they can use the books that they already have to support and develop young readers. As a non-fiction writer myself I also spend time thinking how I can use my books for creativity, and if they are accessible for the children who will use them.

As a children’s librarian I know that there are some children who only want to read non-fiction, but this represents a challenge to those teaching the mechanics of reading as these books do not always lend themselves to a progressive reading scheme. It is actually quite simple to choose non-fiction for teaching reading, but it takes careful selection and consideration.

So what are we looking for in a good non-fiction book for this purpose?

To successfully use a non-fiction book to teach reading we need these boxes ticked

  • Clean and uncluttered fonts

Many fonts act as a blockage to developing readers and confuse the child

  • Sharp and clear images with labels that link and explain

Those blurry and arty photos and illustrations are all very well in adult books, but can a child actually recognise what the picture is? This might be the first time the child has “met” this concept and the picture is an essential part of understanding what the words are saying, don’t leave them guessing.

  • Good use of different colours and well sectioned

Paragraphs and sections in different colours or boxes can help a child feel a sense of achievement. If they can’t tackle the whole page, they can do one section at a time.

  • A concise and readable contents, glossary and index

These are all essential parts of a great non-fiction book as it is the key to successfully navigating the text. To a child understanding these parts of a book is like being shown the secret to finding your way around a book without reading the whole thing, or asking for help.

  • A good mix of language using higher level vocabulary in context

Great non-fiction isn’t afraid of adding in higher level vocabulary to drop new words and concepts into a child’s life. This should be embedded in contextualisation and surrounded by solid visual prompts. When we are teaching reading we need the child to not just struggle through a whole bunch of hard words, and so a good mix is ideal.

  • Tells us something new

So many non-fiction books for children cover the same ground. I know that this is not thanks to the writers who would love to drop exciting new gems into the text, but publishers often err on the side of caution and cover familiar ground. Don’t! Each book on a subject should endeavor to tell us something that we didn’t know before.

  • Is not just there to look pretty!

There is space for books that simply look beautiful and are a joy to own, but if you are trying to use them to teach reading you need a little bit more.

When we’ve chosen the books we want to use to teach reading, we need to remember a few more things to make it work.

  • The child must choose the subject matter

Ownership of the task is important and enjoyment is the key to success

  • Start by exploring the index, contents and glossary

Help the child to first browse what’s in the book. Show them that the contents page is a bit like a tv guide, and they can quickly see what might interest them.

  • Only start reading the main body text at the very beginning if that’s where the child wants to start

Dip in and out, flick back and forth and stop at pages that catch their eye.

  • Don’t quiz!

Okay, so I know that this will probably get many teachers angry here, but I hate quizzing. It works for some children, but for many it is a dreaded task and it ruins the natural flow. Use it with great care, and informally chat instead. Tell them what you have discovered, and let them tell you what they liked and discovered. Make it a two-way process.

I have mainly used non-fiction with children who are not engaging with the process of reading and who do not like fiction. These children have often decided that reading is not for them, and so I have to be extra careful how I handle them and to make sure that I first tackle their dislike, and then tackle the skills.

Let’s look a case study….

I had great success with two non-reading Autistic boys by using only the books that they loved, not an easy task as they were really only passionate about maps. They both said that they “hated” books and refused to even try to read. One angrily told me that fiction was “rubbish” and both would not even sit and look at fiction book. Using an atlas to teach reading is not exactly easy, and it took a while to find atlases that ticked all of the above boxes, but when I did it made a world of difference (no pun intended!)

I constructed a long list of place names that contained other words, and I printed off visual prompts for the words that were “hiding” in the different countries (Germany has germ, and man, and many, and any for example). We looked at the kind of things that grew in the countries (“where does your favourite food come from?”), and the dates the countries were discovered (great for showing how long numbers look when written in words). We found out about the people who discovered the countries and the ships that they sailed in. We even looked at the languages of all of the other countries and I found foreign words that were the same root origin as ours, and many strange ones that we’d never heard of before (this was great for embedding phonetic skills rather than using confusing nonsense words). I had a huge National Geographic World map that we spread out on the floor and we found the places that we’d read about in our Atlases. We “explored” the globe and the boys learnt how to read almost by accident. They were so invested in unlocking the mysteries of the text around the maps that they almost forgot they were having reading lessons.

I knew that I would probably never create in them the kind of people who would sit and read War and Peace out of choice, but that didn’t matter to me. My aim was to give them a skill that would make the rest of their lives easier and better, and we achieved that together in a way that was hugely enjoyable for all of us.

In November I was invited to hand out the awards for the ISG Reference Book of the Year and I wanted to share with you the three books that were shortlisted for the award for the best information resource for young people. These three books represent perfect examples of great books to engage children not only in the mechanics of reading, but also in the joy of reading for pleasure.

tinyTiny, the Invisible World Of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton explains some high-end and complex concepts with exactly the right balance of commonplace and new words. The illustrations are beautifully pitched and support the text in a way that the child can easily identify with. There is a familiarity in the friendliness of the illustrations that allows a sense of ownership over some ideas that will be very new for the developing reader.

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Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill takes the reader on an extraordinary journey through a subject matter that has not traditionally been covered for this age group. The stunning illustrations blend effortlessly with text that has been perfectly pitched for the developing reader. The balance of words and pictures is just right, and there is more than enough visual stimulation to keep the eye on the page whilst we tackle the text.

animalium

Animalium by Jenny Broom and Katie Scott (the winner of the ISG Information Resource for Children Award 2015) is a glorious trip to a Natural History Museum in book form. Its large format allows the reader to tumble into its remarkable illustrations and the accompanying text, though challenging, is great for the developing reader. The descriptive paragraphs are short, but to the point, and introduce us to all sorts of new things including Latin names.

These three books represent a small section of the very best non-fiction books for children, and they also demonstrate that some publishers are willing to take a risk and publish books that will both engage and delight.  When all is said and done, one of the most important things that we need to remember is that teaching the mechanics of reading is completely different to creating an ethos of reading for pleasure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pleasurable. If a child is not enjoying the process, they are far less likely to become passionate lifelong readers and that’s a long term aim that matters to all of us.

Dawn Finch

Vice President CILIP

Children’s author and literacy consultant 

CWIG Committee Member

http://www.dawnfinch.com

@dawnafinch

This post was written in support of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups as part of their celebration for National Non-Fiction Month. To find out more about the excellent work of the Federation, and to support their work, please click the link below.

Federation of Children's Book Groups

Shakespeare Week and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

This week I’m celebrating the work of Pupil Library Assistants, and also Shakespeare Week.

I am a member of the judging panel for the Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. The competition for the prize was very fierce and, sadly, not everyone could make it to the final seven. However, these pupils clearly all had a great passion for books and reading and took this beyond the walls of their schools. Almost all of the pupils not only worked in their school libraries, but they had also had the opportunity to take part in other schemes connected to books and literacy. One of the longlist nominees, Miranda, described a little about her volunteer work at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I was so intrigued by this that I invited her to write a blog post in more detail so that she could explain what Shakespeare and the Birthplace Trust means to her and other pupils.  This is published here to take a closer look at the Birthplace Trust, and to encourage schools to sign up for Shakespeare Week. This runs from 16 -22 March 2015 and encourages everyone to take another look at the world’s most famous writer. So from a writer of the past…to a writer of the future!

My guest blogger is…..Miranda K. Gleaves – Alcester Grammar School

Shakespeare Week: the wonderful world of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I’m lucky that I’m at a school where being a Pupil Librarian isn’t regarded as a bit bizarre.  Everyone accepts my love of books (I was the first ever Year 7 to get the school’s Gold Reading Challenge Award) and, definitely, my admiration of the playwright, William Shakespeare.

I was seven when I saw my first Shakespeare play (The Comedy of Errors) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. My mum explained that I wouldn’t understand every word of it, but that it wouldn’t matter.  She was right – and had to shush me as I was laughing so loudly at the almost-pantomime on stage. No-one should think Shakespeare is incomprehensible, scary or “not for them”.

Thanks to our School Librarian, Mrs Beeson, I was invited, with the other Pupil Library Assistants, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shakespeare Birthplace archives and instantly felt that it was the most amazing place.

Since then, I have completed a week of formal Work Experience with the SBT and two weeks with them as a volunteer.  I’ve already arranged to go back!

I’ve helped with conservation work in the archives and at the Shakespeare Houses (having also volunteered with the National Trust for four years, my conservation cleaning experience came in very handy).  I learned how to use the SBT’s unique library system to carry out research, and this enabled me to create a display for the Public Reading Room.  I should also say that the SBT archives are vast – and aren’t just about Shakespeare.  They have masses of information on the local area and my display was on the arrival of Belgian refugees in Stratford at the start of WWI.

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My display.

I’m looking very carefully at the Wolf Hall adaptation on television at the moment, having spent time as a costumed interpreter at Mary Arden’s Farm, one of the Shakespeare Houses. Here, I dressed and behaved as a Tudor, helping to prepare authentic meals to eat in front of the public and discovering the customs of the time (for example, napkins are draped over the left shoulder, those wearing red are ranked more highly than those in blue, and all meals are eaten only with your personal spoon). So far, it looks as though Mark Rylance and his colleagues have got it about right.

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While immersed in Tudor life and language it was fascinating to see at first hand just how engaged visiting school children – also in SBT Tudor costumes – were by the whole experience and how much they learned from it.

I think that Shakespeare Week is a fantastic initiative, and I only wish that I could have participated back when I was at primary school. If I could say one thing to all the pupils and teachers involved, it would have to be “don’t be scared of Shakespeare – he tells great stories”!

With thanks to Miranda Gleaves and her librarian – Louise Beeson – from Alcester Grammar School

You can find out a lot more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust using this link.

Take part in Shakespeare Week too! Follow the link for more information and how to join in.

The winner of the 2015 Pupil Library Assistant Award will be announced by 4pm on Thursday 12th March.

Can they dig it?

My guest post this month is from archaeologist and researcher, Dr Tess Machling. Tess has not only worked on many excavations, but has done some inspiring work with young children bringing the past to life through archaeology.

In this wonderful article she shows us how to bring archaeology to life in the primary classroom.

Finding Their Voice

Ask any archaeologist when they first got interested in archaeology and most will immediately become misty eyed and regale you with a tale of their first garden find, the place they visited that made them say ‘wow’ or that odd museum artefact that they returned to time and time again as a youngster. We all have a favourite memory – mine is poking about in the veggie patch at the bottom of our garden for bits of pottery and old glass. Mostly we will tell you about how our favourite find felt in our hands, what it looked like, where our favourite place was. Not many will immediately mention books.

Archaeology (as well as being harder to spell) is unlike its sister discipline history and is all about stuff and things. Dirt and toil. Forget tiny paintbrushes and painstaking care: it is much more hands on than that. It is not about words, the written page, the beauty of language, etc, although of course, like any discipline, its means of conveying itself to the world is often via the written word.

However, for me, the beauty of archaeology is that the whole discipline begins with what we find below our feet: the weightiest archaeological thesis and the most impenetrable work of archaeological theory all started life as things in the ground. And the long and the short of it is that anyone can find something: anyone can dig a hole.

I think this is why the interest of so many archaeologists starts in their youth: when you are young it is natural to scrabble around in the dirt. Children have unjaded magpie eyes which see the world as brand new, constantly seeking out anything shiny, smooth, patterned, or just plain ordinary, as a keepsake. If it can be discovered in a muddy patch of ground, then so much the better. This, in microcosm, is the world of the archaeologist!

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Also, at this stage in their lives children are untroubled by the correct terminology for something, they can just like how it feels, what it looks like or how heavy it is. They will collect things according to what fascinates them, with no reference to adult values of worth or importance. They don’t need to quantify it, describe it or validate it. But I can guarantee they will want to know more about it. What it is and where it came from. How old it is and how it got where it is now. And this love of things dug up is in itself a way into literacy and the spoken word.

In 2014, Prehistory was added to the English National Curriculum and, to help with the topic, I carried out a week long archaeological dig with sixty 7 to 9 year olds at my daughter’s primary school in Hertfordshire.  After all, with a mind boggling one million years of human history to cover in just 11 weeks, we thought it might be an idea to give them a taster of the basics first!

To understand archaeological time you really have to understand -our second long word of the day –  ‘stratigraphy’, which is the order and position of layers in  the ground. The best way for very small children to grasp this concept is to go and dig: generally, the lower you go, the older the things you find are. At our school, we started on the surface with 21st century Lego bricks and plastic pen lids and as we got lower came up with early 20th century marbles and pen nibs. Within a day or so they had got the idea to the point that, when someone said they might find dinosaur bones, one 7 year old girl piped up with the blistering retort ‘No, you won’t! They will be much, MUCH, further down as they are very old’.

Although the concept of almost one million years was never going to be easy for a young child (let’s face it, how many adults can actually relate to time periods on that scale…I’m not sure I can) they had the idea of depth equals old.

They also then grasped the idea that each period of ‘old’ had a different name: if ‘archaeologist’ and ‘stratigraphy’ were  big enough words, then ‘Palaeolithic’, ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’ were going to take a bit of doing. But, by relating them to technology – these were all ‘lithic’ or ‘stone’ ages which were followed by the ‘Bronze’ age and then the ‘Iron’ age – they all started to use the terms frequently and, what was more amazing, accurately!

In addition, they desperately wanted to know about what they had found with each child identifying strongly with whichever artefact they had discovered. They all wanted to know what their find was made of and how old it was. They got online and typed in search terms and they looked things up in –specialist, I should add- archaeology books I had brought in. All this from children who had often shown no interest in the written word. The children added written labels and descriptions to these finds as they created their class museum: not once did a child have to be told twice what their find was and each eagerly showed their peers and parents which find was ‘theirs’.

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Some of our “finds”

The aspect that stood out most strongly to me (I am a volunteer reader at the school and know the children well) was how much the children who were not traditionally ‘academic’ related to the topic. The disengagement so often seen in children with little cultural capital was replaced by a newly unleashed knowledge and a feeling of empowerment: an ability to tell their peers exactly what they had found and a pride in their achievement. Words that would baffle the average adult tripped lightly off the tongues of children who struggled with CVC words on the page. Some four months on, little bags of finds, sometimes also contained in home-made and labelled egg-box museums, still arrive at school for me to examine.

Their aspirations also changed: several now decided that they would like to be archaeologists when they grew up with a few deciding that they wanted to be a Dr of Archaeology, ‘…like Dr Tess’. During a visit to Stonehenge, one little lad stood gazing absentmindedly at the stones and recited his new title over and over in a whisper ‘Dr. Hussein, Dr Hussein, Dr Hussein. I’m going to be Dr Hussein’.

For that one moment alone it was all worthwhile…..

Article written by Dr Tess Machling

Archaeologist and researcher