Today I read a Book to Teenagers…

An actual, made out of dead trees, book. With pictures. To 16 and 17 year-old IB Diploma students. And they loved it.

Many, if not all of our students in international schools are stressed and juggling (perhaps too many) commitments as they work towards illusive goals. It’s so important to remind them to stop sometimes and do something different of their own choosing, like reading for pleasure, that they can enjoy.

After my story was done, we all had a blissful twenty minutes together of sitting quietly in the library and reading whatever we felt like.

In case you’re curious, here’s the video version of what I read to them:



The arrival of iBooks Author from Apple is set to herald a new level of democratization in the publishing world. Anyone can now create and sell their own textbook using a very intuitive, yet powerful platform, and then sell their finished product directly through Apple’s iBookstore. Down with the big publishing company monopolies! Or at least, that’s how Apple would like you to see it. The actual reality is that once you create something on iBooks Author, you’re now betrothed to Apple forever. There’s some debate around these terms of use and their ultimate intent, but until Apple offers an alternative option (e.g. pay for the software), using iBooks Author means only being able to sell your book in iBookstore.

Despite this very large obstacle around authors retaining control over their works, I’m still positive about the ability to create professional looking publications using iBooks Author, and the fact that you can still distribute these publications for free outside of iBookstore holds promise. But the larger question is, why are we still so beholden to students using textbooks in the first place?

I dare you to learn how to do this by reading a textbook. Photo © Brian Farrell

I’ll admit it, the students in my class have certainly glanced at a textbook on several occasions, and they do have their time and place. Certain curricula, particularly those based upon weighty final exams, can benefit from a well-structured textbook to ensure that all of the material is adequately covered. They are an easy resource to consult in independently reviewing key material. And in learning fundamental skills or looking at rote analysis of issues, textbooks can definitely be of benefit.

But in my opinion, the majority of learning occurring in our classrooms should not be coming as the result of students reading their textbooks. There are too many other dynamic, more engaging, and just generally more authentic ways for students to learn than simply sitting them in front of a textbook. Students need to be able to express their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate others that they have read. They need to form connections between seemingly disparate topics, not read linearly from chapter to chapter. And they need to make decisions about what information is valid, relevant, and correct, not to just read the opinion of one author deemed worthy enough to write a textbook. In this sense, iBooks Author is a solution addressing a solution rather than fixing the fundamental problem of using textbooks in the first place.

Now, having students use iBooks Author to create their own textbooks, that’s a completely different (and much more empowering and educationally relevant) story!

Some Good Reading

© 2011 Brian Farrell

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately getting things ready here for our school’s launch of the 2012 Sakura Medal reading program. This program sees international school students across Japan reading and sharing about a fantastic range of books, from elementary picture books through to high school fiction in both English and Japanese.

Every year I spend quite a bit of time rebuilding the Sakura Medal review site, which is always a bit of work, but always so worth it, as many of the nominated authors stumble across the site and often leave feedback and responses to our students’ comments (how’s that for authentic learning!). The site’s statistics are on a steady trajectory upwards (now up to about 17,000 views per year), and it’s great to see students from other schools engaging with one another (and about books of all things!).

I’ve managed to get through a few books already, but with our fall break on the horizon, here are the Sakura Medal books on my wishlist to read next:

High School:
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
Annexed by Sharon Dogar

Middle School:
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Trash by Andy Mullligan

Chapter Books:
An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpugo
Born to Fly by Michael Ferrari

Picture Books:
Here Comes the Garbage Barge! by Jonah Winters
Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown

If you happen to read these or any of this year’s Sakura Medal nominated books, please share your thoughts by adding a comment to our site !

Braille as a Text Technology

An example of braille integrated into another assistive device, in this case a handrail at a Japanese train station (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Tokyo, Japan, October 17, 2010).

As part of a culminating course in my masters program, I recently reread this article that I wrote last year, and thought I’d share it again here. I’m sure there is a lot more to this technology than what I’ve simply covered here, but I really enjoyed learning about something (braille) that I knew very little about previously. Enjoy!


In a society that places a high value on the ability to read and write, those with visual disabilities were once at a tremendous educational loss and not able to participate fully in society. The current technology available to those with physical disabilities today is extensive, and means that many more people are now able to access, read, and author written texts. In the course of our history though, this is a change that has only occurred recently, and assistive technologies such as the braille system have been incredibly important in driving this change.

Braille is a standardized and tactile system that was developed by a blind man faced with the inability to view, and therefore read standard texts. In 1829, Louis Braille codified and developed a system of raised dots that would allow blind readers to use touch to discover texts, and while some modifications and additions have occurred, this same system largely remains in use today. Braille was inspired to create his system after learning about a military system using raised dots that would allow soldiers to communicate in the dark and without speaking aloud (Canadian National Institute for the Blind, 2010).

Rather than a distinct language, braille is a system of writing, reading, and transferring knowledge. Based upon the standard roman alphabet, braille also incorporates other written symbology such as punctuation and letter accents, without which the organization of written texts could prove difficult. This is an important distinction of braille from other reading technologies for the visually impaired, as it places an emphasis on the written word as it would be viewed by a sighted person. Where an audio recording may also serve to deliver a written body of work, its absence of explicit punctuation means that this technology may limit the listener’s understanding of standard grammatical structure used in writing.

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Similar to learners of other languages, learners of braille may gain an ability to read and access texts at differing levels. Like any other learners, “…findings show that braille patterns are processed in a variety of different ways by different people and in different conditions” (Millar, 1997, p. 249). It is certainly possible for one to have a learning or other disability in addition to a visual impairment, and so the education of a braille reader needs to be differentiated much in the same way that it may be for a fully sighted learner.

Unfortunately, the adoption of braille has not been incredibly widespread. Other assistive technologies such as audio recordings of written texts are often preferred, as they do not require the listener to have any special knowledge of the unique braille reading system. Braille requires an upfront commitment to learn and understand a formulaic system of communication, and in the case of someone who is born blind, this development occurs when a learner is also trying to gain a grasp of a language in its audio or spoken form. While this is realistically similar to the effort required of a sighted learner who is first learning to decode our written structures, the fact that there are other audio alternatives available for visually impaired learners can often mean that braille is not fully pursued. Indeed it has been estimated that braille readers constitute, “…fewer than 10 percent of the estimated number of persons who are legally blind in the United States and slightly fewer than 40 percent of the estimated number who are ‘functionally blind’ (defined as those whose ability to see is light perception or less).” (National Federation of the Blind, n.d.) This can easily create a vicious cycle, as fewer users of an assistive technology such as braille mean a corresponding decrease in those able to teach and transfer this knowledge to a new generation.

Braille incorporated alongside typed text (photo by Brian Farrell of Eric Hill's "Where's Spot", Ventura Publishing Ltd., London, 1988).

Like other writing systems, braille does have its limitations in functionality. Legibility can often become a problem, as a text can easily become altered by a reader who presses too hard on the pages on which it is transcribed, creating changes in the level of braille dots on the page (Millar, 1997, p. 138). Similar alterations can occur if a braille text becomes worn or otherwise damaged, and these frustrations are compounded by the fact that a blind reader, obviously unable to visually inspect a paper book, will not discover these deficiencies until he or she attempts to access the text.

Further, the requirement to indicate each letter of a word separately can mean that braille texts are many pages longer than their roman alphabet written counterparts. This challenge has meant that several systems, or ‘grades’ of braille have emerged, each with different characteristics. Grade one braille is a system that replicates only the 26 letters of the alphabet and punctuation, grade two braille, the most common system in use, incorporates contractions to shorten words, and grade three braille goes even further in shortening entire words to serve as a sort of shorthand (Omniglot, 2010).

Due to its historical era of creation, braille has been a pioneer system in advancing the abilities and education of previously disadvantaged and disabled people. While many more advanced and technical systems have emerged since the advent of braille, the idea of creating a system that would allow the blind to read the same texts as sighted people meant that an enormous gap in understanding and education for the blind could be bridged. Of course, the functionality of such a system can often depend on the assistance of those without a visual disability, and the limited portability of large braille texts has meant that digital audio solutions for the blind have thrived as an alternative.

The implementation of braille has meant a heightened awareness of the needs of those with disabilities, and the system has served as a model for further developments. The very idea of non verbal communicating by touch and feel has been applied to a variety of applications. Sidewalk strips using raised plastic guides of different levels that can be felt underfoot, braille-like dots on paper currency, and employing a variety of different edging, shapes, and sizes of coins are all similar applications. While many of these advancements are primarily intended to benefit the visually impaired, they can often prove useful to a sighted individual, and they do serve to heighten an awareness of the needs of others.

The future of printed text appears to be in flux with the advent of more and more advanced digital technologies, and braille is undergoing a similar period of questioning and transition. Still, braille remains an incredible enabler in breaking down traditional barriers, and its highly codified and touch-based foundations have served to expand the possibilities of non verbal communication for us all.

Highly visible and physically raised plastic panels along a walkway (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Yokohama, Japan, October 17, 2010).


Canadian Braille Authority. (2010). About Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Biography of Louis Braille. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Braille Literacy. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Millar, S. (1997). Reading by Touch. London, UK: Routledge.

National Federation of the Blind. (n.d.). Estimated Number of Adult Braille Readers in the United States. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Omniglot. (2010). Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from

The Latest ebook Frustration

I’ve mentioned a few times here my frustration with ebooks and their lack of functionality in libraries. The saga continues:

“HarperCollins—citing the explosive growth of e-book sales—announced a new e-book lending policy beginning March 7 that will limit the length of its library licenses to a maximum of 26 loans per e-title.” (Calvin Read – Publishers Weekly, March 2, 2011)

Eiffel Girders ©Brian Farrell

The irony in this for me is that I have just this week been in contact again with OverDrive about possibly starting a subscription to their library ebook service now that they support the iPad and iPhone. OverDrive is the very company that is bowing to HarperCollins’ demands of limiting the number of circulations of each ebook to 26 loans per title, and so I now have to face the moral issue of whether we should support them or not.

Author and blogger Cory Doctorow has been writing for years about how awful any sort of Digital Rights Management (DRM) is, and I’m starting to understand why. Publishers like HarperCollins are now starting to realize their power given these tools, and are lashing out in a bid to keep themselves relevant. Not surprising, given that authors are realizing that in the ebook game, publishers are irrelevant and they can do just fine on their own, thank you very much.

Google Book Search

So the news is now a little old, but I’ve been thinking about Google’s recent settlement with the publishing industry.  It looks like more and more content will soon be accessible, and I couldn’t be happier.  Right now they only have very preliminary information available, but I hope that sooner rather than later we will be able to sign up as an institution and begin contributing our own collection to the larger project.  Space is definitely at a premium here, so I think it would be fantastic to be able to archive all of our physical copies with an eye to eliminating them alltogether.

As a preK-12 school though, I already see some problems for us with Google’s system.  There’s no easy way to search for age-appropriate material, although I get the impression that there really isn’t a lot of elementary or middle school level stuff available anyway.  Still, it’s a step in the right direction.  Come on Google, keep it rolling – show me where to sign!