books · People · Reading and Literacy · School & Library Visits

Happy Empathy Day!

Happy Empathy Day? What’s that? Oh no! Not another weird American idea we are going to have to buy greetings cards for?

Today is actually the first Empathy Day. In relation to this post I should be calling it #EmpathyDay because hashtags and social media are one of the main cause for the recent lowering of empathy in society.

I remember when satellite TV came in. I wondered how we would cope with so much choice. We didn’t cope. We just burrowed our way through the dross to settle into our comfortable niches where we only have to watch what pleases us.

The internet and YouTube have had the same effect, while at one moment creating moments of national and international unity, most of the time we choose to burrow ever deeper into our tiny and personal media worlds.

I’ve really noticed it during this past election. In the last couple of years, I’ve actively not unfriended tweeters and face bookers who irritate me with their political views. Because of that choice, I’ve been party to a stream of political promotion from all sides. I wasn’t surprised by the result at all. I like to think I sit pretty much in the centre, and it became obvious that Jeremy Corbyn’s huge crowds had not been rented in but were real, enthusiastic supporters who were using the new media to promote themselves.

Similarly it was obvious that Theresa May was losing ground rapidly.

If I’d isolated myself, into what we now call an echo chamber, I’d have only heard one side of the political argument and would never appreciate or even be aware of anyone else’s position or views. Some I still do not understand, but at least I’m aware of them.

Now, after the result, I’m witness to tweets and messages of those who feel aggrieved, who are locked into their echo chambers and are not listening or being made aware of other forces and views around them. That can only lead to entrenchment and bitterness.

So, Empathy…

Empathy is not about kindness or helping people, it’s about understanding what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. to see the world through other’s eyes. Empathy is the fast route to compromise and peaceful agreement.

So how do you build empathy? Firstly, by getting out of your cave and looking around. Then, talk to people who are not like you – not to argue and fight, but to find common elements of humanity.

What’s the easy way? Read books – not tweets or extracts.

A book takes a long time to write. The author truly considers every word they send to the printers. They’ve written those words several times overs and edited and re-written them many times too. Their editor has helped make sure that what they have said is what they mean.

Reading a book – a whole book, not an extract – is the easiest way to enter another human mind. Extracts can so easily be taken out of context and context is all.

The author may well change their mind after writing – you’ll have to read their next book to find out – but at their moment of writing and your moment of reading, though centuries may have passed, you can be one with their way of thinking.

Humans are hard-wired to love stories and learn from them. That’s why we are hooked by elections – what a great story! But most of all we love a character. This, so presidential election, was all about character.

Through sustained reading, we can become one with a character in a book, and help them carry the Ring to Mordor, or to suffer Tracey Beaker’s childhood with her – to share the fear of the Gruffalo and the wrath of the Minotaur with both mice and men. Through books and characters we can learn what it is like to be almost anyone else facing life-changing, ongoing, grinding every-day situations.

Through books, we can enter the minds of our friends and our enemies, heroes and failures, the great, the good and the unconsidered, un-noticed passer-by.

And the best part? By reading great stories, connecting with the past, the present and other people’s minds, we entertain ourselves, we learn and, most extraordinarily of all, we improve our reading, writing and communication skills along the way!

Reading for pleasure not only entertains, it educates and changes lives.

Try it. Come out of your cave, and you too can have a truly Happy Empathy Day!

To find out more about empathy day and how empathy can help boost reading and wring skills, got to the Empathy Lab website.

books · Drawing · Reading and Literacy · School & Library Visits

Drawing is a writing skill

writing-drawingLiteracy skills in the UK have improved over the last few years, but writing skills have not improved at the same rate.

There is also a divergence between boys and girls – girls doing markedly better than boys when it comes to writing. It goes without saying that poor writing skills are a major hinderance for individuals in modern society, leading to poor life chances and outcomes.

I’ve come to think that it possible that the missing element in the teaching of writing is art and drawing – the teaching and practice of which has been sliding off he curriculum in recent years.

Reading is not the same as writing. The author of a novel, newspaper article or financial report, builds a scaffold upon which the reader overlays images from their experience.

The scaffold is constructed by an experienced practitioner – the writer.

Great writers receive acclaim because they build strong scaffolds for readers to build on.

If the reader does not have the prerequisite experience, then a good writer explains, clarifies and enthuses, filling in the reader’s missing knowledge.

Writing is the transmission of visualised thought.

All writing comes from thought. All thought is visualisation. Writing is an advanced form of creating images from visualised thought. Words are advanced forms of pictograms. Letters are advanced forms of marks made on the walls of caves.

Reducing time for drawing, art and visual interpretation in the curriculum, leaves children without the visualisation skills needed to “dream up” what they are being asked to write.

Visualisation skills are immediately transferable to all other subjects as well as being the foundation of self-confidence and ambition in life.

castle-3Children in school are in the process of becoming experienced practitioners of writing. Some, however, are pure visual thinkers – others think in dance movement or mathematical equations – words are not the natural medium of choice for all children.

Almost every child comes to school with the ability to hold a pencil in their hand and make some sort of image. If not, they usually have a cultural or family background which is not probably supportive of education anyway. Books and drawing materials may not have figured in the early lives of those children so they don’t have the experience.

It is a joy to watch young children given a piece of paper and a pencil. With little direction they are off, creating worlds – transmitting their visualisations – writing with pictures!

Very often children’s drawings turn into stories, with added characters, scenery and situations – they are putting their visualisations onto paper, rehearsing the story they might go on to write as text.

As children get older, drawing becomes confused with “Art”. Children say they cannot draw, comparing themselves with famous adult artists. Quite often children are told by teachers that they can’t draw – the teacher, willingly admitting that they can’t draw either, does not take drawing seriously.

dino-1Drawing is a skill that can be learned – exactly the same way that the alphabet is learned and used to create words. Drawing has it’s own alphabet of shapes that can be combined to make images. Art is something that builds upon those skills. Drawing and Art are not the same.

Drawing is like writing. A little practice every day, learning shapes – like we learned letter shapes – will improve drawing skills. A little practice every day – putting those shapes together, the same way that in literacy children learn to put words together – will reap rewards and provide children with a parallel method of transmitting their visualised thoughts.

In real life, most text is accompanied by pictures. Newspapers, magazines, websites are all heavily illustrated. Often an article is built around a great picture. Very few people read blocks of text, that are unaccompanied by pictures, in their day to day lives.

It takes time to learn how to read a novel from beginning to end – to learn how to clothe that enormous scaffold. Children learn to read novels with training books – books with pictures. The number of pictures reduce as they get older and build their reading skills and stamina.

Similarly, children need to draw pictures to help them organise their visualisation skills to help them become confident writers.

Over the years, they will need to draw fewer images as they learn to rely on the pictures in their head.

“A picture speaks a thousand words,” as the saying goes.

You can start learning to draw with my free YouTube video course – Everyone can draw  – my book is also available at Amazon

books · Reading and Literacy

Do children need to learn to read anymore?

magna cartaI obviously think learning to read is a great idea. I earn my living writing children’s books. Children’s hard labour keeps me busy with honest toil.

I wouldn’t want children to grow up without recourse to the wonderful worlds of fantasy that I was able to explore in my youth. Narnia was not just a collection of words, to me it was a real place where, in complete safety, I learned long-lasting lessons about bravery, treachery, politics, sword -fighting and alternative religious ideas.

The wonderful stories I read, pulled me along the path of improving my reading skills. I didn’t know that was what I was doing, I just knew I wanted to read the next in the series. But, back then, there was no question that being able to read and write was a passport to grown-up society, where everything revolved around the written word.

But in a connected world of screens, retina scans, video, text to speech and speech to text, do children still really have to go through that painful, laborious process of learning to read? You just have to watch a pre-school child to see how they deal with technology – it’s as if the instructions were genetically imprinted.

I wouldn’t want children to miss out on all the wonderful characters who inhabited my childhood or my children’s childhoods. But those stories would still be available in apps and movies, videos and t-shirts.

Today is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.

If you could not read its contents, and have read enough to have learned how to interpret and read between the lines, you would have to accept what you were being told about it by the machine that was explaining it to you.

With words, unless they have been burned by a frightened authority, you can always go back to the source. Screens are a cut and paste world where every bit, every byte and every pixel can be carelessly modified by algorithms created by nameless drones working for unaccountable organisations.

Yes, children do still need to learn to read and to learn to read well, to be able to question and interpret. As they grow up into a world we can hardly begin to imagine, they must be able to return to the source codes of honesty, integrity, compromise and law. Those are the real lessons learned in children’s books.

It is the the stories that provide the pleasure that masks the pain and hard labour of learning to read, that make the process an exciting adventure that develops a thirst for knowledge and a dawning understanding of how others view the world. Reading a book is the closet you can get to reading someone else mind.

So I will gladly carry on writing – It’s my duty to try and help the next generation save itself from itself.