Spotlight on a speaker - PETAA's 2021 Leading with Literacy Conference: Powerful Practices for All Learners

Dr Helen Adam: Transforming practice/transforming lives through diverse children’s literature

Dr Helen Adam is Senior Lecturer, Course Coordinator and researcher at Edith Cowan University. Helen’s research addresses the role and importance of quality inclusive literature in the social and emotional and educational wellbeing of the child, with a particular focus on the importance of authentic representations and inclusion of cultural diversity in children’s literature. Helen’s work has a particular focus on promoting socially just and equitable education through the promotion of the publication and use of authentically diverse and inclusive literature as one way to break down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding in society. Her work is published in internationally renowned research journals. 

Helen has served as a judge for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards and is frequently called on for expert comment in the media and as a presenter to diverse audiences of educators and academics. Helen is also a Director on the PETAA Board.

Helen will deliver a plenary session at PETAA's 2021 Leading with Literacy Conference: Powerful Practices for All Learners. Read our interview below to find out more about Helen and about her session, and don't forget to register for the Conference, taking place on 15 -16 October both online and in-person at the Aerial UTS Function Centre in Ultimo, NSW.

Hi Helen! You’ll be speaking at our 2021 Conference, ‘Powerful Practices for All Learners’. What does that phrase mean to you?

I think the keyword here is the word ALL. Our classrooms are so diverse today -  we have children from so many different cultural and ethnic minority backgrounds; we have children with many diverse abilities, family structures and so on in our classrooms. Yet our education system still promotes an almost universal view of how to address the teaching of all children. I think what the goal of the speakers and the essence of this conference is, is to not just acknowledge and appreciate the diversity, but to look at powerful practices that experts and expert educators can use and are using that can make education equitable and enable ALL learners to feel they are equal members of society and reach their true potential. More than this, I think that powerful practices for all learners should educate all children in developing their own sense of identity, and their appreciation and respect for those who may be different to them. I think this is the heart of what we need to make a long-term difference in our society. 

Can you tell us what attendees can expect from your keynote session?

In my keynote session I'll share some of my work in investigating the nature of children's literature that is being shared in early learning settings in Australia. My session will encourage or challenge the participants to think about their own implicit beliefs that may be impacting on their selection and use of children's books, including how they use books and discuss books and diversity with children. I will provide some guidance and suggestions on how to select authentic texts for the classroom and how they might use these books and share these books with children to build their understandings of themselves and of others that may be different to themselves, as well as to create equitable educational outcomes for all. I will also encourage participants to become readers of diverse literature themselves because when teachers are readers we know that they can lead children to be readers and consumers of quality texts that can open children's hearts and minds to the diversity in our society. 

Can you tell us about a time that you saw positive change in the classroom from embracing these ideas?

Each year I am contacted by former Pre-service Teachers I have taught or by teachers I have presented to on the importance of diverse literature and its potential for all children. The tell me stories of how they have changed the culture of their classroom by assessing and evaluating the books they use. I love to hear people talking about how their eyes have been opened to see what they did not see before. This even happened to me once at the dentist when I was asked what I do for work – I explained my research and the dentist told me he had heard me on the radio and gone home and re-looked at the children’s books in his house and was shocked to see how narrow and monocultural they were! I love it when people have these 'a-ha' moments because I know from what happens next that good things begin to happen, which I hope will reverberate into the lives of children and on to society.

If you could change one thing about Australian classrooms, what would it be?

I’d like to see major changes in the current push for 'one size fits all' approaches to education – we cannot educate for social justice and equitable outcomes without recognising and addressing the inequities in our society and in educational policies, funding and planning as well as in the resources we use and the assessment regimes and assessment resources. Most of these are currently presented from a majority culture normative perspective which ignores the diversity in our society and therefore informs teaching practices that also overlook that diversity.

I would also like to see greater trust in teachers and support for them as they grapple with addressing the needs of all children– teachers are best placed to know the children in their care and their needs – 'one size fits all' approaches risk overlooking or ignoring or simply excluding  the expertise, knowledge and capabilities of the teachers on the ground. 

You’re an expert on children’s literature – can you recommend a text for the classroom that reflects some the themes we’ll be exploring during the conference? 

I'm sure I could recommend quite a few! But one that comes to mind immediately is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Patchwork Bike . This is a beautiful book that celebrates universal emotions, and the joy of childhood games and creativity, told through the eyes of a child from a minority cultural background. All children will be able to relate to this story while some will also see a reflection of the familiar in the family and community represented, and others will see something of a life that may be different to their own yet with many parallels in the love and exuberance of childhood.

Join Helen and the rest of our brilliant speakers at the PETAA 2021 Leading with Literacy Conference: Powerful Practices for All Learners. Register now to attend online, or join us in-person at the UTS Aerial Function Centre in Sydney on 15-16 October 2021.

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