Monday, January 2, 2012

Con-Nerd by Oliver Phommavanh

There are some very funny moments in Con-nerd by Oliver Phommavanh :

I sit down and serve myself a bowl of bran thingies. Mama only bought them because the box said they have vitamins to make you smarter. You don’t have to be smart to know that they taste like cardboard sprinkled with wood chips. My brain’s craving Coco Pops.”

Connor’s brain is at the heart of this story. His brain wants to draw cartoons his mother wants his brain to study for the Selective High School entrance test. His coaching clinic tutor wants his brain to answer multiple choice questions quickly. His friends want Connor to use his brains to impress a special girl in his class. This creates, as you can imagine, some huge clashes and dilemmas for Connor or Con-nerd as he is nicknamed by a neighbour. Will Connor be able to draw his cartoons? Will he honor his family and become a doctor? Can he ever be happy, have friends and please his demanding mother at the same time?

I did enjoy Con-nerd but perhaps for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed all the little insights into schools and teachers and the subtle and no subtle way Oliver Phommavanah (who is himself a teacher) pokes fun at this. In a moment I will quote a few examples. There were two parts of this book that frustrated me. I wanted to see the cartoons that Connor was creating and I had some problems understanding why one of the ‘cool’ kids, a major school trouble maker, wanted so badly to be friends with Connor – especially since he is or was a major nerd! Proof of this comes from his awards from school such as quite achiever, best library borrower of the year four years in a row, and more.

Here are some of the scenes to make teachers laugh:

Last year, Ms Fermanis had a ‘fast finishers’ folder full of brain teasers and exercises. I finished the whole folder in a month. After that Ms was just happy letting me read and draw.”

The selective schools also look at our reports. I’ve got no problems there. The teachers cut and paste the same comments. ‘Connor is a focused student who excels in all his subjects ..’ ‘Focused means extra-nerdy and is another way of saying I have no friends.

We’re saved from a boring afternoon by a Year Six meeting at the undercover sails. These meetings are a great bludge because the teachers always run out of things to say and they just let us talk until the home bell rings.”

I usually go to home sport and wait for the rejects to arrive. Home sport teachers are rejects too. They take us outside for a game until we’re hot and tired, which is usually about three minutes. Then we head into a classroom and I get to draw until home time.”

I often talk in my blog about life imitating art or perhaps art imitating life. I recently read the newsletter from a Primary school like the one Connor is attending and the Principal wrote something very profound about after school coaching and extra home work :

I will not name the school or the Principal but here are two paragraphs from the school newsletter

I am also aware that in recent times there has been an explosion in coaching clinics for students and cannot accept that a student could not do his school homework because he had not finished his coaching clinic homework. The coaching industry is not regulated and in my opinion the educational outcomes and value of many of these companies may be questioned. …

That being the case I have decided that from 1st December there will be no homework given to students at our school. It will give the students, parents and teachers a well-deserved break from “homework”. (Parents could also consider giving their child a break from coaching as well!)

You may consider this decision an early Christmas or Birthday present or forty years of educational experience speaking on behalf of children. However, if you really feel the need to give your own child your own “homework” you could try reading or listening to them.

The last sentence is quite curious. Does this Principal mean listening to the children when they talk to their parents or does he mean listening to them read?

If you enjoyed Thai-riffic look for Con-nerd and follow this with The Punjabi Pappadam by Robert Newton and Nips XI by Ruth Starke. You can read heaps more about this book at the author's site. When you look deeply into the internet you can see Oliver Phommavanh has had quite a lot of media exposure with this book. On ABC radio (Life Matters), Sydney Morning Herald, Channel 9 and Penguin kids tv.

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