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Contentious picture books in our culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms.

'Malala! I know her!' declared Year 2 student Arzu. 'She's from my country! Can I read the book?'

It was Arzu's turn to join language and literacy coach Ms. Bernie Biss for consolidated reading time. Arzu's eyes were riveted to a book on Bernie's cluttered desk. Bernie had only bought the book the day before, and hadn't even had a chance to read it herself. Yet here it was, its cover alone making a connection in a way that sometimes only books can.

Malala: A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A Brave Boy from Pakistan, a non-fiction picture book by acclaimed author and illustrator Jeanette Winter (2014), had immediately piqued Bernie's thirst for global literature targeting young readers, when she'd spied it in her local independent bookshop. Perhaps, Bernie hoped, Winter's offering would provide opportunities for critical reflection about complex global issues like conflict and exploitation, in the safety of the classroom at Woodridge State School. Maybe it would inspire an ethic of citizenship and activism amongst the school's 696 pupils (Phillips, 2012). After all, Winter's text was said to sensitively bring together the extraordinary stories of two heroic children who had more in common than their native Pakistan. The first is Malala Yousafzai, advocate for female education, co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and survivor of a Taliban shooting. The second is Iqbal Masih, who fought against child labour and bondage, and was shot and killed at age 12.

'So, Arzu tell me about Malala and her story.'

'It's Muh-LAA-la Miss, Muh-LAA-la'.

Bursting with enthusiasm, Arzu shared memories of the homeland she and Malala shared. Fires, exploding buildings, broken glass and the arrival of Daesh--'... they hurt people Miss'--punctuated these memories. Arzu turned the book over and found Iqbal's story. A quick peek at the author's note and Arzu recognised the word 'Lahore', Pakistan's capital. A stream of memories cascaded from this tiny girl's stock of life experiences, which spanned just a handful of years. Without turning a single page Arzu had found on the cover of Winter's (2014) picture book the possibility of connection and validation. Much of the classroom literature consumed by Arzu had given her a vital window into life in her new homeland of Australia. In this moment however, Arzu was finding her old life unexpectedly reflected in a picture book--a long and arduous journey from the Pakistan she had left 18 months earlier.

'Alright Arzu,' Bernie smiled encouragingly, 'how about you come back at lunchtime and we will read Muh-LAA-la's story together?'

As Bernie watched Arzu's tiny frame disappear down the corridor, she began to think. Malala and Iqbal's story might be empowering for Arzu, but would it be appropriate for other Woodridge State School readers? Other students, who have fled countries fractured by the horrors of conflict, may not share Arzu's comfortableness with the content. What if the book triggered unwelcome and debilitating feelings?

A richly diverse community

Woodridge State School, located in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, is a community that deeply reflects the 'unprecedented diversity, complexity and social division of liberal democracies like Australia' (Keddie, 2011, p. 133). Approximately 70 per cent of the 696 students come from a non-English speaking background, representing over 30 different nationalities. Thirty per cent of the students are from a refugee background and approximately ten per cent are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Currently around 78 per cent of the student population sits in the bottom quarter (against an Australian average of 25 per cent) on the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage scale (ICSEA) (2014). Selecting reading books for this richly diverse audience requires a carefully considered, evidence-based approach.

The Woodridge Way to text selection

When Bernie had, the year before, identified the chapter book The No. 1 Car Spotter and the Car Thieves by Atinuke (2012) as a possible resource for her students, she mobilised members of the school community to trial its suitability. To a white middle-class educator the text was an opportunity to more diversely represent the African cultures of students attending the school. One of the school's Community Liaison Officers, Leroy, agreed to test Bernie's chosen book at home. While Leroy had grown up in Africa, his own children had not. It didn't matter: His ten-year-old daughter Adana devoured the book, delighted by its humour and the connection it had to the stories of her father's life in Africa. (Adana is now also a fan of Atinuke's series about the travails of one of her heroines, Anna Hibiscus.)

Next on Bernie's checklist were the teachers and students of one of the Year 4 classes. For the mostly African, Pasifika, Burmese and Iranian children The No. 1 Car Spotter was a unanimous hit. The entertaining adventures of Number 1--properly known as Oluwalase Babatunde Benson--serve as a mirror to reflect the cultural values, attitudes and behaviour of some of the Year 4 readers, as well as an informative window into the lives of those students (Hadaway & McKenna, 2007). Atinuke also delivers a powerful message about the interdependence of poverty through Number 1's wise grandfather, 'Everybody suffers from poverty. From the loss of teachers and doctors who could have saved lives, leaders and inventors who could have made better lives ... one person's problem is always everybody's problem'. All that was now required to bring Atinuke and her character, Number 1, into the stable of Woodridge reading books was administrative approval. Woodridge administration would need assurance that the text met with community standards in its portrayal of minority groups. It did, and Bernie was given the administrative green light she needed.

The No. 1 Car Spotter was now ready for its second debut as a class text, this time for all the Year 4 students at Woodridge State School.

But The No. 1 Car Spotter's pathway to successful debut required one fewer consideration than was necessary for the adoption of Malala/Iqbal. The No 1 Car Spotter was a fictional comedy, whereas at the centre of Malala and Iqbal's tale was realworld violence. It was necessary to consider the possibility of some Year 4 students reading the picture book and revisiting the horrors they had left behind in parts of the Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

One approach to sensitively reading stories of war and conflict

According to educational psychologist, early years teacher and teacher educator Olwen Goodall (2007), it is not a question of whether we address children's knowledge and experience of violent conflict, but of how we do it. Children know about these horrors either from first-hand experience, like Arzu, or from the media. The job of teachers is to sensitively mediate images and stories of conflict, rather than deny their reality. We risk letting children down, by not taking the opportunity to address conflict rationally and emotionally (Goodall, 2007, p. 38). Teachers should not, however, insist that children participate in discussions. Some students may just want to listen, and others may wish to avoid the topic all together.

When reading an emotive text in the sanctuary of an inclusive classroom, Goodall (2007) suggests a sequential approach. Such an approach allows children to feel supported by adults they trust and who show they too are affected by its content, but not overwhelmed by it. Teachers initially establish the facts of the depicted conflict as much as is possible. Feelings are talked about and explored as they emerge from the story (e.g., Will it happen to me?). Music, art and play may expand upon the messages and illustrations revealed in the text. Phillips' (2012) study of social justice story-telling in the lower primary years also identifies the importance of spaces which allow children to work through 'emotive reactions' to stories like Malala and Iqbal's. Possible futures are considered which feature the safety and security of children participating in the reading. Goodall also identifies a short activity designed for children to gain a sense of control over their futures beyond the reading of the text.

The activity titled Reach for the Stars invites children to create a constellation of their hopes and wishes (Goodall, 2007).

Resources to enable critical reflection and promote active citizenship in a reading of Malala and Iqbal

Brisbane's non-for-profit Global Learning Centre (GLC) has developed a unique library over many years, specialising both in global literature and teaching materials to invoke social justice, human rights and active citizenship themes. The staff at Woodridge State School have utilised the GLC's resources and curriculum expertise on numerous occasions. In the short film Educating for Social Cohesion (GLC, 2015), Woodridge students engage with the picture book A True Person (Marin, 2007), using an empathy strategy promoted by the GLC. Children enter the story via self-portraits drawn on sticky-notes and explore what it feels like, sounds like and looks like alongside the character Zallah, a child in an immigration detention centre. A valuable web resource, and a staple in GLC professional support to schools, is Global Education teacher resources to encourage a global perspective across the curriculum (Quittner & Sturak, 2008). The website hosts a variety of inquiry teaching sequences designed to enable students to deepen their understanding of global citizenship. Malala/Iqbal would make an excellent companion to explore the GLC unit Our Many Identities (GLC, 2012). Aligned with the F-2 Australian Curriculum, the final phase of the inquiry process requires students to identify their own abilities to contribute to their community, and create a plan of action that will support the inclusion of different cultures, religions or genders. For the culturally and linguistically diverse setting at Woodridge State School the themes and concepts explored in these resources become accessible to students.

Making the language of English visible at Woodridge State School

Since 2010, Woodridge State School (through Bernie's coordination) has developed a pedagogical framework, which grew out of Education Queensland's Break It Down, Build It Up (BID) (Department of Education and Training (DET), 2010) framework for ESL learners in whole-class contexts. The success of this program is found in students explicitly learning and rehearsing the language of schools and key learning areas. Students come to appreciate that they are capable of performing academically alongside their English-speaking peers. This has a significant positive impact on the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing for all students at Woodridge State School. To ensure a meaningful reading of Malala/Iqbal, the BID framework requires students to spend an initial period orally exploring new concepts and vocabulary. Once they can talk about a concept or topic, students are then able to write confidently about it. Depending on the curriculum context for the reading of the text, further elements of the BID process may follow. These include learning and writing about grammar elements and sentence construction, and finally the generic structure of assessment tasks.


The lunch bell rings, and soon the sounds of exuberant voices and running feet from the school's 30 plus nationalities will fill the corridor outside Bernie's office. One of those children will be Arzu, desperate to learn ways of fitting in to her new world in Australia, and excited now to sit and read about her home country. This is why Bernie does what she does, and she's confident that not only will Malala/ Iqbal be nurturing for Arzu, but it will help all students recognise that though the global contexts may change, courage in the face of adversity is a universally human experience.

Written by Alisa Cleary, Global Citizenship Mentor, Woodridge State School and Global Learning Centre Education Consultant, with contributions from Bernie Biss, Language and Literacy Coach, Woodridge State School.


Atinuke. (2012). The no. 1 car spotter and the car thieves. London: Walker Books.

Department of Education and Training (DET). (2010). Break it Down, Build it Up. Framework for working with ESL learners in whole class contexts. Retrieved from SiteCollectionDocuments/schools-educators/break-itdown-framework-poster.pdf

Global Learning Centre. (2015). Educating for Social Cohesion. Retrieved from

Global Education Project. (2012). Global Education--teacher resources to encourage a global perspective across the curriculum. Retrieved from http://www.globaleducation.

Goodall, O. (2007). War and peace with young children. In H. Claire, & C. Holden (Eds.), The challenge of teaching controversial issues (pp. 27-65). Staffordshire: Trentham Books.

Hadaway N., & M. McKenna. (2007). Breaking boundaries with global literature: Celebrating diversity in K-12 classrooms. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA). (2014). Student Background. In ACARA, My School 2016. Retrieved from www. WoodridgeStateSchool/46857/2014

Keddie, A. (2011). Supporting minority students through a reflexive approach to empowerment. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32 (2), 221-238.

Marin, G. (2007). A true person. Frenchs Forest: New Frontier Publishing.

Phillips, L.G. (2012). Retribution and rebellion: Children's meaning making of justice through storytelling. International Journal of Early Childhood, 44 (2), 141-156.

Quittner, K., & Sturak, K. (2008). Global perspectives: a framework for global education in Australian schools. Melbourne: Curriculum Corporation.

Winter, J. (2014). Malala: A brave girl from Pakistan/Iqbal: A brave boy from Pakistan. New York: Beach Lane Books.

Alisa Cleary Is an Education Consultant with the Global Learning Centre. ALEA's review of literacy resources Is an Important port of call for Alisa as she assists educators to bring a global perspective to their classroom. Alisa is currently working at Woodridge State School piloting 'Educating for Social Cohesion', a DET and GLC initiative. Email:
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Author:Cleary, Alisa
Publication:Practically Primary
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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