Category Archives: Literacy on the Loose

In The Name Of… (where freedom and abuse possibly cross)

Ever since I found this photo online (at Unsplash), it’s been on my mind. Is there a lot to like or a lot to hate about this photo? Ok, forgive that cheap and nasty dichotomy. Let me put it another way: how do you feel about this photo?  What are your first thoughts? What happens to these first thoughts when you take a closer look at them?

Is that potato with the red hair in the word ‘normal’ Donald Trump?

Girls just wanna have FUN, but do these youngsters want or even know the FUN that is being sung about in that particular song?

Viva the Vulva? Ok, my parents were shy. When I was the age of the girl holding that banner, I didn’t even know the word vulva or have a name at all for that part of my body that was always washed quickly and covered even more quickly.


I’m pretty sure that the words on the banners were not chosen by the girls themselves. What I’m not so sure about is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.


The questions I keep asking myself:

Can these girls read what they are holding up? Have the contents been explained to them? Who wrote these banners? What is the full context of this photo? What has been done for these (and other!) girls’ education regarding their sexual and civil rights? If these girls are not fully aware of what they are holding up, can it be argued that they are being abused?

Now, I know the good intentions being expressed here, but gosh, there’s something about this photo that makes me feel uncomfortable. What about you?


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A Door Can Be Happy: thinking outside of the box and homeschooling with Catelynn

yellow door by Leung Cho Pan on Canva Untitled design

Is this door happy? image by Leung Cho Pan on I’m calling this: unlocking intelligence and creativity.


A few months back I met a woman after my own heart on Facebook. Mother and writer Elizabeth Ann West. Elizabeth decided to homeschool her autistic daughter, Catelynn, and to share this experience on Facebook. Although I am a researcher with years of experience, I am not qualified to make any comments regarding the development of an autistic child, yet there is a lot – and I mean a lot – which we all can learn from Catelynn and her mother. Thank you, Elizabeth, for granting me permission to share your experiences with my readers.


Here is Catelynn, engaged in a typical activity we are also familiar with in the classical classroom context:


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 12.49.24


What is it that Emily likes, we wonder? In our minds we select appropriate verbs (possibly also gendered activities…). Depending on the structure of the worksheet, we may perhaps even go further and add and object and even a location:

Emily likes to eat apples in the garden? Emily likes to skip in the playground?

There are so many things which Emily could like. What do you think Emily likes, Catelynn?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.05.15


That’s pretty original. But why not? This is a writing activity so Catelynn must write down her answer. And when she doesn’t know how to spell a word, she knows where she can get help:

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 13.05.23

The response to Catelynn’s ingenious answer is unanimously positive:


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Why does an Emily swimming in a toilet catch us by surprise? It is a perfectly correct grammatical sentence that reveals to me the limits of my fantasy in comparison to the sheer boundless wealth of a child’s imagination. In between the act of naming things, everything is possible/thinkable. It is the act of pinning words to thoughts that force us to slice up our otherwise untamed imagination. And this reminds me of a quote by Derek Sivers I recently read: “What’s obvious to you is amazing to others.” Way to go, Catelynn!

I go online to see if Elizabeth’s available. She is.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Hi Elizabeth. I loved that post about Emily swimming in the toilet and I’d like to elaborate it a little for my education blog, if I may. A question: you said Catelynn looked up how to spell swim and toilet. Where did she look this up? In a traditional dictionary? Or an online dictionary? In either case, how much did you assist her in this?


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Hi Joan. She uses a picture dictionary. For her reading workbook the question was: “What cannot be happy?” A door? A bird? Children? and with a literal kiddo, she goes: “A Door can be happy if it’s a happy color, right Mommy? Like Yellow?” Another question was: “Where do ants want to live?” A door? A hill? A pond? and again, she’s just analyzing that at a much higher level than the book ever intended: “An ant would like to live in a door, it would be warm. And they like hills, and a pond would give them access to water.”

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Amazing!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   When you have a high-functioning autistic child it can be difficult to explain to them that the workbook is dumber than they are . . .

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11 That’s precisely what I was thinking!


Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   or better phrasing: they are smarter than the person who wrote the workbook because their analytical skills are superior.  I asked her what does she think the person not as smart as her thinks the BEST answer is?

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   In my posts, I want to show how much we stand to learn from children like Catelynn.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   And she was able to pick “the boring” answers. I love the idea of a Happy door. That’s what I would name the post, “A Door Can Be Happy.”

But on the sad side of this, when she writes a word incorrectly before she erases she will hit herself on the head.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11  I love the element of surprise in just about everything I’ve witnessed about Catelynn so far. It leaves me feeling so humble.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Teaching a special needs child is wonderful, but it’s also very exhausting because they can manifest emotions in a physical expression that can hurt them.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   How do you manage to rechannel her frustration?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   I have to sit right next to her and reach out before she hits and I stay calm and remind her it’s okay. We also read a book about our brains and learned that our brains grow when we make mistakes, not when we do things the right way the first time so I will remind her “mistakes make our brain smarter.”

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Why does she think hitting herself is an appropriate response? Did she witness anything like this when she used to go to school? How did the teachers react to ‘wrong’ answers? Or how did the other children react to ‘wrong’ answers?

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   It’s from cartoons. It doesn’t HURT her to hit her head. She has a reduced feeling to pain.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   Ah! Tom & Jerry and the like, I guess…

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   And she doesn’t develop social skills naturally so she copes by mimicking what she sees on TV and sometimes that works!!!! And other times, it’s explaining to her, no, you cannot do dangerous stunts and elimination challenges like on Total Drama.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   I remember when you said she tried to crush a coca cola tin like on tv. Didn’t quite work!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   So her reaction when she makes even an audible mistake is a very dramatic close her eyes and pinch her face and slap it with her hand, like DOH, but even though we redirect, it’s something that is in our culture EVERYWHERE when you think about it… commercials… shows. So in her brain it’s the appropriate reaction to anything, even something as minor as saying “Mommy can we go to the playground, I mean the store, so we can get ice-cream?” Joan, gotta go. I have to get her to playgroup. Oh, and the visual dictionary is a great tool for kids because if they can hear the first letter, they can find the picture and spell it, it’s great for their writing independence.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11 That would be great, Elizabeth. Thank you SO much. Thank you BOTH so much!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   I’m happy to help. More parents are in similar situations with me and maybe they don’t homeschool, but if they help with homework they should know they’re not alone, that with autistic children an assignment that takes a NT kid 5 minutes suddenly can turn into this 30-minute discussion about existential issues: Can a door be happy? How do we KNOW if a bird is happy? They can’t smile by the way.

JBS portrait A(1) zoom 2016-05-11   I’m a great admirer of you both and am honoured to be able to share your experiences with my audience, Elizabeth. It’s so refreshing for me and I think it will be so motivating for others!

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 16.34.22   Thanks. Happy to help!


Chat conversation ends. Thoughts bubbling over in my mind. Definitely more about Catelynn to follow.



Force ripe? Or: reading the right way?

three smileys edit

There I was in the supermarket the other day, minding my own business, squinting at the price of fruit n veg, when along comes this child – she could have been no older than seven – her mother not too far behind. She takes in my shorts, my high heel boots, exclaims:

oh, sexy!

to which everyone within earshot suddenly turns round and, having identified the source of the remark, erupts into unanimous laughter. The girl herself, she had not intended to be funny, laughs too after a while. I wouldn’t call it copying, I think they call it social referencing.

Me? I only smiled, surprised by the fact that a child so young even knew the meaning of the term ‘sexy’. Should I be happy or worried? This child did not only know her abc, or that a yellow M towering above all the buildings around meant this way for a quick, cheap meal (that is, until she learns that it also meant obesity, diabetes and so on). This child had already picked up other social symbols too;

shorts + long legs + high heels = sexy

I was not aware that I was a walking symbol in that respect. All I wanted was to stock up my fridge. Children have their specs on whether we know it or not and possibly whether they know it or not. She too force ripe is what my grandmother would have concluded, her voice thick with disapproval, but in this day and age when around the clock and everywhere your eyes turn, allusions to sex are used to sell just about everything (barring dog food, for now…), is it any wonder?

And I wonder whether, instead of simply chastising, it would not be far more effective for us, the grown-up chaperones, to steer children’s visual intelligence to a more critical understanding of societal values/cultural symbols. Oh, and to practise what we preach.

Vive le mix, vive le bodytalk: language and kinesthetics in multicultural identities

Watching a video by Carrington-Brown this morning –  feeling slightly guilty as it has been a while since I posted here – yet enthralled by their take on cultural identities, I did a quick scroll down to fly over public opinion.  Found this comment by Roxy J:

You’re really incredibly funny and your facial expressions and impressions are on point. I could relate to a lot of them since my grandmother does Scottish dancing (she’s English, but her great-grandmother is Spanish ), my father is part Indian and most of my family who are French and English, have made me listen to Edith Piaf. While I was born in the Caribbean and my grandad is Moroccan. Lol, quite a mix.

Without reading the text again, how many nationalities can you remember across the generations listed here by Roxy J? That’s quite a mix indeed! I wonder which languages are dominant and how language maintenance works in such a complex context.

The other thing that I picked up  –  and which I haven’t given any real attention to so far in my research  –   is the correlation between language and body. Body either in the form of dance, but especially in the form of facial expressions. We know you need to ‘use’ your mouth differently according to the language spoken. German comes more from the back of my throat whilst French is formed in the nose and on the lips. But what about the rest of the face in its capacity to generate cultural identity? I know there are certain things I do with my face only when speaking a specific language: Jamaican English, for example. The ability to get the body language right – to combine the kinesthetic elements with linguistic ones – is also a marker of proficiency. Think about hands!

In France and in Germany, when learning to count to ten using their fingers, children are taught the same combination of fingers to make the number three (and therefore the number eight) :

09-08 number 3  A (4)

SDC10065 katja VIIII seem to remember making the number three by tucking my little finger down behind my thumb. In any case, it’s easier to move from my three to making a four by hiding my thumb, as the French and German and I suppose most others do. Try it!

What about you? Which facial expressions and/or other aspects of body language come to mind in your particular case? Do you have any photos/stories you would like to share? We often don’t even notice such bodytalk because it has become so natural to us, but a look through your family photo album could be quite revealing. So open those albums and get your scanners ready!

Living multilingualism in France: insider perspectives

Testimony 1

We arrived in France in 1973 & nobody at the State primary school where my then 9-year-old daughter was enrolled had any idea how to cope with her. Now 40 odd years later I could write a book about how I would solve the problem. Back in those days I was very young & naive. Now, with years of English teaching behind me, I would act completely differently.

Lokales Zentrum

a parent reading a trilingual book to her child

Testimony 2

This subject both fascinates and worries me. We have a 3 month old baby girl who hears daily 5 languages, in order of frequency:
1. Romanian, my mother tongue,
2. Russian, my husband’s mother tongue,
3. English, the language we two speak most often between us,
4. French, on the street, with friends, in the shops, with doctors, etc.,
5. Hebrew, the language of the previous country we lived in and of many of our friends and relatives.

Our “private” English is sprinkled with more than a bit of all other languages, enough for friends and family to remark that the non-English content is substantive enough for them not to easily understand what we tell each other. This comes naturally to us, we do not notice it anymore. In Israel we knew of many children who grew up bilingual and trilingual with no adverse effects on their speech, but I worry that five languages are too much for our baby, since we do not maintain a clear context for each language. Especially here in France where multilingualism is not considered an asset, to say the least.


happy co-existence

Testimony 3

When in France and people ask me what my native language is, I say German so they forgive my mistakes in French and are even impressed by my level of proficiency. And when In Germany, I do the same but the other way round. You’re always putting yourself in a box, in the outside box, cos you know you’re not really in the inside box, cela ne sert à rien de dire je fais partie car tu sais très bien tu ne fais pas partie (there’s no point claiming to belong cos you know all too well that you don’t).

man april 05a

Can I go outside there is a man in our house. Written by a child who speaks English but has never been taught to write it.