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Graham Crawshaw, educator

27 Feb 2010 02:46 pm

crawshaw-mug.jpgAs news reports all too frequently remind us, an increasing number of boys are being referred to health professional by their parents and teachers because of their disruptive behaviour and poor literacy rates. It’s a message that comes as no surprise to Graham Crawshaw, 76, who runs a camp for boys at Windy Ridge, south of Warkworth. For decades, Graham and his wife Joan have devoted themselves to giving boys back their boyhood. His efforts were recognised in 2003 when he received a Queens Service Medal for community service. Here he shares his passion to see literacy rates improve in NZ and his vision for the future ….

I had a privileged childhood. I was born in Leamington, Cambridge, where my father was the school principal. The only cup I ever won was for being the first baby born in the school house there. We shifted to Thames in the early 1930s and then later moved to Mt Eden, in Auckland. At that time, Mt Eden was a boy’s paradise – it was like a mini farm and we had pets, huts, trees to climb, trolleys to race and all the other things boys love to do.

There was a real sense of community, whether you were mixing with family or friends, neighbours or just the local butcher. People socialised a lot more and I think we under-estimate how much we learn from this everyday contact with one another. Contact through technology is artificial.

I’m a compulsive learner and I’m certain it is my upbringing that fostered that. My parents, shared my upbringing with many others, who were more than just teachers or sports coaches to me. They really listened to me and understood my need for adventure and activity.

From the age of seven or eight, I started visiting farms owned by family friends in the Waikato and Northland. I would catch the bus or train by myself and spend the school holidays with them. Being able to make these farm visits had a huge effect on my education.

At 17, I headed to university, undertaking first a medical intermediate course in Auckland and then moving to the dental school in Dunedin. But during my dentistry training I realised I wanted to be a farmer. I think it was the happy memories of my childhood farm visits which convinced me that that’s where I wanted to raise my future family. At secondary school, I’d always been criticised for changing courses but my parents were more understanding. They said “go for it”. I think we do boys a disservice when we put them in a straitjacket so that they feel they can’t change their minds. My advice to them has always been not to be afraid to make a change in direction, because dreams and ambitions are much more valuable than NCEA marks.

I started working on a farm in Rangiora and then moved to my uncle’s farm in Dargaville. I then leased-to-purchase a 162 hectare sheep and dairy farm at Arapohue, a little south of Dargaville, which I converted to sheep and cattle. Joan and I married in 1959 and had three daughters and a son, Richard. We encouraged all our children to be independent and when Richard was nine, we sent him to an uncle’s farm in Gisborne. It was a chance for him to experience the farm life I’d enjoyed when I was a boy.

About this time I decided to establish the Arapohue Bush Camp concept. Joan shared my vision, which was to provide boys with the experiences they were missing from their home environments. We held our first camp in 1962, with nine boys camping in our house. Two more camps were held that year, utilising a woolshed, where a loft was constructed for the sleeping quarters. The boys loved it. Later on, they helped us build 10 rough cabins – it was this hands-on approach, as well as our focus on activities designed particularly with boys in mind, that made us different from the many other camps that were around.

The boys came to us from the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle – some were very hard cases. We could see the camps were making some radical changes in them. You could see the delight in their faces when they were doing things they enjoyed. Camps were held regularly from 1962 through to 1991. We also set up an alternative school for boys and girls from 1978 to 1982, with 87 children attending over the four years, but this stopped due to the difficulty of staffing the school.

The year 1991 was a key time. We had 42 boys at a camp and I decided to test their reading ability. We were appalled at some of the results. The problem cut right across wealth and ethnic boundaries. Although I knew nothing about teaching reading, except my memories of the good primers we had had at school which taught phonics, I decided to try to do something to help the boys who had such low reading ability. It was a case of trial and error.

We started with the 10 poorest readers. Then, in 1995, we held our first reading adventure camp in Titirangi, which was attended by about 30 boys. Girls didn’t seem to need the camps as much as boys - they seem to have been better at surviving the whole language (look and guess) methods used by schools. I realised that conversation is an integral part of literacy learning and there is a marked absence of conversation in many boys’ lives. We hear of boys disrupting the school, but I sometimes wonder if it is the school system disrupting the boys’ learning style. Since then we have held 70 reading camps, now called Farmstays. I still believe the level of illiteracy in our nation is a national scandal. No boy should pass his seventh birthday without being able to read. If there is a problem, such as dyslexia, Irhlen or Asperger syndrome, then they need to be diagnosed early so teaching can be adjusted accordingly.

We bought the Windy Ridge Bush Camp, now called Windy Ridge Boy’s Farm, south of Warkworth, 12 years ago. It’s a 14 hectare bush property and we have added ‘boy friendly’ buildings with no electricity, long drops and bunkrooms with minimal furnishings. It’s a 1900s zone. The boys we see come with a lot of ‘baggage’. They are often very angry so we spend time with them trying to work through their issues. We give them alternatives to angry behaviour, offering them activities involving the three key elements boys love – mud, fire, and water. After awhile, they forget to be angry. Fairness and justice are also an integral part of what we teach.

We’ve held five programmes at Windy Ridge, one of which was filmed by Maori TV, but there are still many challenges ahead. We hope to eventually have available a manual for tutors to help standardise our programmes. We are looking for new tutors, people with a real heart for boys.

Funding is also needed to help run the camps and other services we plan in the future, such as free reading tests, an 0800 literacy hotline, training courses for parents, tutors and teachers, special programmes for those who have dyslexia and other syndromes and adult literacy programmes. The environment we raise boys in is crucial in determining the young men they will become. Camps like ours are helping to give at least some boys the chance to get back on track so that they can lead happy and useful lives.