From the playground

By Vita Forest


“Does my hair look good like this?”  Tash flips her head forward and stares up at me, her eyes glinting through the thick strands that cover her entire face.

I am not convinced.

“How about this?”  She tosses the long mess to the right so her left eye and her crooked smile can be seen.

“Much better!” I answer and she runs off to climb up the slide.

Every week I have very interesting conversations on playground duty.  Some of them are non-verbal.  There are a bunch of Kindy girls who know what it means when I look in their direction and pat the top of my head.  “Put your hat back on!”  (The new style of hats at our school are not good at remaining on the head, they can usually be found swinging behind a tiny person, like a large backwards necklace).

I hear a lot about teeth too.  I am shown their wobbly teeth  “ish un is obbly oo!”  (It’s hard to say consonants with your hand in your mouth), and presented with freshly-fallen-out-fangs, their eyes wide with wonder.  “Wow!  You better take that up to the office.”  The office staff have a collection of tiny zip-lock bags, I’m not sure if they are used for anything else but taking home baby teeth.  The children update me how many teeth they have lost, and sometimes the tally for their siblings too.

The Year 2 kids often carry out tests to see if they are still not allowed on the high monkey bars.  (This rule was put in place after one of their classmates fell and broke her arm).  I go and stand in front of them, hands on hips in mock outrage.  They give me a cheeky smirk and drop down.  Instead, they take turns leaping off a low horizontal bar, grabbing hold of a vertical bar and spinning around it with their legs flying.

Five Year 2 girls who were in my class last year, start a circular route.  Down the slide at great speed (often crashing into the person in front), running around to the ladder, dashing up to the top of the equipment, then repeating.  This is the first time that I have been at the same school for longer than a year, and I am enjoying seeing my “old” kids advancing through another grade.  Some of them have become a bit shy with me, but others not so much.  “HAALLLOOOOOOOOOO!!” bellows Mischa and Tash, every time I walk through the playground.  Makoto gives me book reviews on his latest read.  He is never in the playground without a book.  Kenny gives me a quiet smile as he sits down to lunch.  Alan’s jokes have not improved with the passing of time…

Then there are those that another teacher calls “the Lost Boys”.  They much prefer to talk to adults than other children, who they find quite puzzling and unsettling.  The Lost Boys can often be found standing around a garden bed and staring intently into it.  As I walk by on one of my circuits, they give me updates on the spiders and beetles that inhabit the space.

I also learn interesting facts:  “Did you know,” says Bastian.  “That sometimes chocolate is healthy?  It is!  I had chocolate once with no sugar in it.  It tasted like dirt but it was still chocolate.”

and settle soccer disputes: “Pedro said it was in but it was NOT!”

and squat down to check out scrapes and bloodied knees.

It’s never dull.




Danny Griggs, I’m watching you…

By Vita Forest

My Marchetta shelf

My Marchetta shelf

Some of my friends will groan when they realise that this post is about a Melina Marchetta book.  You see, in the last year, I have become something of a Marchetta fanatic, zealously preaching to anyone who will listen about how wonderful her books are.

Like many people in Australia, I knew and loved Looking for Alibrandi, but didn’t realise there were more and even better offerings from this Aussie author.  By chance, I read Finnikin of the Rock and then I was hooked. I read her whole canon in quick succession and started pressing copies onto family and friends. How is it that her other books are not so well known in this country?

Anyway, how exciting it was to discover that as well as her Young Adult novels (whatever that means – a topic for another time), Melina Marchetta had written a book for “younger readers”.  Perfect.  I could do my bit by introducing her to some younger readers I knew – my class.

The Gorgon in the Gully tells the story of Danny Griggs, a boy in fourth grade at a school in Sydney.  (“Sydney!” One of my students gasped, “That’s where we live!”)  When the soccer team’s lucky ball is lost in the gully beyond the schoolyard, Danny agrees to retrieve it, despite his fear of the Gorgon rumoured to live in that very place.  This is a story about an unlikely group of friends who work together to reach a seemingly unachievable goal.  It is set in a primary school, which caused great joy in my class as they recognised so many familiar elements.  How important it is to be able to recognise ourselves in stories.

Marchetta assembles a fabulous cast of characters who soon became favourites with my class. Without fuss or fanfare, she includes characters from a range of cultural backgrounds (including an Indigenous Australian) and living in a range of family structures.  It’s not an “issue” book, but by the mere inclusion of minorities, it is refreshing, but also normal.  There ARE kids in my class who weren’t born in Australia, who don’t live in nuclear families, and who struggle sometimes due to problems in their family lives.

For fellow Marchetta-tragics, you have probably already noticed that Danny shares the same surname as Jonah Griggs, the brooding cadet from On the Jellicoe Road. Indeed, they are brothers, and Gorgon takes place at the same time as Jellicoe, with Danny receiving advice from Jonah (when he can get mobile coverage at Jellicoe, of course).

Danny and his friends come up with a highly ingenious plan to divert their teacher’s attention and allow him to escape into the gully to find the lucky soccer ball.  It involves a strategically aimed meat pie thrown by Akbar the Fast Bowler (or Akbar TFB).  Akbar has a signature move where he points at his own eyes with two fingers then points at someone else.  My class and I practised this, and every time Akbar did it in the story, we did it too.  In fact, they loved it so much that they started a new class ritual.  Every morning when they arrived at school, a procession of children knocked on the classroom window to get my attention, gave me the “I’m watching you” action, waited for me to reciprocate, then ran off to play.

Term 3 is half over and it’s still happening.  So Melina, thanks for the fantastic stories and I hope my kids will go on to read your other books when they get a little bit older.




Why the Wild Things Are

By Vita Forest

Wild Thing

Wild Thing

My class has just finished examining Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  Although it’s a short book of not many words, it is a book of big ideas which took us many sessions to explore.  The plot could be described as being about a mischievous boy called Max, who after being sent to his room in disgrace by his mother, has an adventure, then decides to return home.  But of course, there is much more to it than that.

We started by doing a class brainstorm on a few key words.  Before the children even knew which book they were going to read, they thought about “Wolves” (nocturnal, wild, predators, teeth), “Mothers” (loving, kind, cuddles, but also bossy, mean, strict) and “Night” (dark, moon, scary, sleep, dreams).  You can see how interesting this is already.

We noticed how the Wild Things were made up of parts of many creatures.  Max himself is part human, part wolf.  We made our own Wild Things by folding paper into three sections and having a different person draw the head, the body and the legs.  These were given interesting names like Hipp-octo-snake or Echid-fish-bug.

We thought about how our eyes moved across the pages, noticing the “vectors” (six year olds are experts at this).  They traced their fingers across the pictures and drew invisible lines from the Wild Things eyes across to Max (there was only one of him, but he had their attention!)

We examined each picture and each word and noticed many strange and unusual things.

  • The pictures went from being small neatly contained images, to ones that devoured entire pages or two, with no white space left and no words at all…
  • A crowd of large monstrous Wild Things were frightened by a small solitary child and made him their king…
  • It became important to notice if Max’s eyes were open or shut.  What was happening when his eyes were closed?
  • There were no pictures of the mother…
  • Some of the small snippets of dialogue were repeated by different characters…

Books like this one fill a primal need.  In the real world, children are small helpless beings, forever at the mercy of giant grown-ups who make the rules and control every aspect of their lives.  There is something thrilling about a story in which the child protagonist is somehow able to subvert the normal way of the world, and become an all-powerful being, exerting absolute control over all the other characters and the environment.  Perhaps this is why this story remains so potent and so loved despite being over sixty years old.  (In a similar vein, my class has enjoyed Roald Dahl’s Matilda).

Perhaps there is also something really compelling about an angry young boy finding a means within himself to let go of some of his rage.  When we looked at the last image of Max returning to his room and finding his supper, I asked why they thought he was shown with his wolf hood pushed away from his face.  One of my own complex little people put up his hand.

“It’s because he isn’t angry anymore,” he informed the class.

Books are important.