Saturday, 31 December 2011

How Genre Theory Saved the World

There's a Walter de la Mare poem that begins: "Slowly, silently, now the moon/Walks the night in her silver shoon...' ('shoon' = shoes). I've often thought it describes rather well how Genre Theory took over school literacy in the UK. 

Without ever having a public debate, without ever even announcing its arrival as a guiding principle, Genre Theory slipped between the pages of the Literacy Strategies and has stayed there ever since. This is not an academic analysis, so please excuse the lack of references, but this is how I see it:

In 1987, I was in Australia and Genre Theory was raging all around the teachers' conferences. Using the linguistics of M.A.K.Halliday, it identified genres of discourse (which means essentially, 'ways of using language') going on in school literacy practice and matched these against genres of discourse in society. It claimed that English teaching of the time was prioritising a kind of literacy work that repeatedly asked children and school students to repeat the same tasks and that these were preoccupied with getting children to write subjective stuff about what they felt or what had happened to them. This, they said, was a form of class oppression because it was depriving working class children of access to those forms of discourse used by people and institutions of power: the law, politics, public debate. Only by consciously and purposefully inserting these genres into English teaching could working class children (usually referred to in educational circles as 'deprived', 'disadvantaged', 'under-achieving' or occasionally 'poor') overcome the 'cycle of deprivation' and the like. 

So, it came with an excellent pedigree, M.A.K.Halliday, who is a grammarian with a fantastic record in turning the study of 'grammar' into something that treats language as if it is attached to real live human beings who are trying to  say and write things that mean something! Unlike most grammar which pretends as if you can treat language as a 'system' detached from meaning, intention and purpose, Halliday's grammar tries to intertwine meaning ('semantics')  with why and how grammar is the way it is. If you like that sort of thing, his 'Introduction to Functional Grammar' is a great read. It even has gags. 

I digress. So Genre Theory built on what Halliday has to say about purpose of language and of course the moment anyone starts on such a job you have to engage at some level or another with the politics of language. Clearly, people in different sectors of society, doing different jobs and indeed at different times in their lives use language in very different ways. Whether you disembody that language from its users and look at it as 'text' or whether you look at its use sociologically and psychologically ('sociolinguistics'/'psycholinguistics'), you will end up with a sense that the words, grammar and meanings going on are very different. 

The question that Genre Theory raised - quite legitimately - was if there is a 'language of power' is there differential access to it? Are some people being deprived of learning it? Was this the secret, invisible way in which class was being perpetuated through education - even by those least wanting to do so. Or, more sinisterly,  were 'progressives' ie those who were advocating 'child-centred' learning, 'personal' writing, the real villains of the piece? They, surely, were the ones who were keeping these 'disadvantaged' children away from the structures of extended prose, the prose of debate, argument, 'recount' (ie re-telling coherently what happened) and the like. 

You can see here that Genre Theory was now drawing on the ideas of people like Bourdieu and his 'habitus' theory and what he calls 'Reproduction in education' (ie how the education and home class morées and dispositions work hand in glove to secure domination for those who are already dominant), and indeed with some of the work of the 1970s around schooling, power and control coming from Michael Young and others. 

Needless to say, Genre Theory started to attract some interesting adherents from both left and right. Some leftists in education thought that they had found the silver bullet: this was clearly the way, they thought, that working class children were failing in schools and, now, teachers could really change things. Some on the right were delighted because it confirmed just what they thought:  that 'progressive' education had eaten away at a fine , purposeful system that really taught, wasn't ashamed to be didactic, and taught children how language is - no ifs, no buts, good, solid, rigorous grammar and language-the-way-it-should-be.

As it happens, (and I think this is a coincidence), Genre Theory was circulating around the teachers' conferences and journals just as in the UK, small cabals were ushered into the Department of Education to formulate 'Strategies' or even 'the Strategy' for what used to be called 'English in Education'. The result was that Genre Theory got mapped on to the 'matrix' of the National Literacy Strategy. It was a staggering coup. One single theory was used as the main prop and justification for how different ways of writing and speaking would take place in every primary (later, in secondary) schools. (I forget for the moment if this was at the time the whole UK or parts of it or how that eventually distributed itself. Either way, it called itself 'National'!)

Teachers, children and, in my case, observer and parent, were suddenly deep in genres - and, let's shorten the story a bit here - we still are. For over ten years now, children spend massive amounts of their 'literacy' time in schools being taught different ways of writing. This is done according to certain schemes which say that this or that way of writing has a name eg 'Recount' or 'Persuasive Writing' and the children learn what Halliday might have called its 'grammar'. The children then do 'recount' or 'persuasive writing' for eg two or three weeks and then move on. These are often called 'units'. 

So, presumably, the disadvantaged are disadvantaged? er...less underachieving? Genre Theory having now run in schools for well over ten years should really have saved the world. 

Well, not. 

But why not? It all added up. 

It didn't uplift the masses and re-possess the dispossessed because it failed to address two key issues:
1. How power works in classrooms and schools.
2. How written language is best acquired

1. Power
The fundamental way in which power works in education is invisibly. That's to say, all the structures within schools are transmitted to children as if they are self-evident. So, if you break 'knowledge' down into two broad categories - the knowledge that the curriculum presents and the knowledge which informed that schools and learning should be structured that way (ie with headteachers, classes, reward and punishment systems, 'lessons' or 'units' etc etc) are both presented to children as 'givens'. There isn't within education as experienced by a child some part of regular practice which discusses and debates this. 

What this means is that for most of every day, you as a pupil are in a 'discourse' in which you have virtually no power - no power to affect it, change it, or indeed, even to be aware that there is a discourse or that there are other ways of going on. 

Now, it can be debated who this affects and how. One argument says that the pupils most affected are those who come from homes whose parents  are similarly locked into discourses over which they have no power ie they have the least possible chance to question or even see how those discourses are working. To my mind, this is very much up for debate. Either way, if you insert into this system of invisible power, a system that is essentially top-down instruction, I think that all you do is reinforce the system of power and control and domination over the pupil. Knowledge is presented as a given, you the pupil either pass or fail to acquire it. You have no means to question it, play with it, 'get behind' it. You just do it. Or you don't do it. If you don't do it, you're crap. Again. The fact that it is supposed to 'liberate' you, is, to my mind irrelevant. It's too busy making you depressed and feel incapable.

2. Acquisition of written language.

Written language can be considered to be a kind of dialect - a way of using language that is clearly part of the mother tongue of those around you but in many ways different from the way people speak. The matter of acquiring it doesn't end (and probably doesn't begin) with simply learning how to decipher words that you can see.  You have to 'get' the way the words stick together (in Halliday's terms: the 'cohesion' of the 'wording'). 

The argument of education for centuries is that teachers have to teach it. They have to get children to do exercises in each and every part of this cohesion getting children to fill in blanks in sentences, answering questions about parts of speech and all the rest. Meanwhile, under our noses, children from homes where there are hundreds of books just seem to 'get' it without all that. How do they do that? How can just hanging about books seem to deliver a child who can write extended prose?

The most obvious way is through 'immersion'. Migratory labour shows that you don't need an education to learn a new language. You just have to go somewhere and engage in everyday tasks and pleasure in the new language. To a certain extent, the business of acquiring the written dialect is the same - or should be. Surround a child with books - (in school, in the classroom and in the home) give them fun things to do with books, the written language is acquired more easily, more fluently, more willingly, more meaningfully than in any other way. 

Combine 1 and 2

Genre theory practice works in the opposite way. It says (without saying it) that 'education' (as exemplified by the large, clever person in the room - the teacher) owns certain kinds of language use. You the pupil do not. The way to acquire these uses is to do exercises. These are in effect rehearsals. They aren't real language use because they don't actually 'do' anything. They mostly end up in 'exercise' books which are in effect 'rehearsal' books not 'real' books where they are covered in red marks which show that Education owns this writing not you the pupil. 

I think what has happened is that Genre Theory has almost perfectly matched the kind of education I had in the 1950s: repeated exercises of filling in gaps in sentences, writing short, prescribed passages according to this or that rule or to illustrate this or that way of writing. 

Aha, say some, when I say this. Precisely! And that's how you passed the 11-plus, went to Grammar School, got your O-levels, A-levels, BA,. MA and Ph.D. Precisely, they say. You were lucky enough to have got what was in effect Genre Theory 1950s-style.  

Er - no. I came from a home that elevated reading, argument and debate into a secular religion. Not a day went by when my parents didn't concern themselves with what I was reading, talking about reading, talking about talk, talking about what was coming out of the radio, talking about what they read out loud to each other or to us coming out of newspapers, Radio or TV listings mags - any bit of written text. They didn't stop telling stories about their lives, and relating those stories to the values that underlay them - as most people do, when they tell stories, actually!

Now, I hesitate to elevate my personal experience to the status of an educational programme but, and I will return to this - I will ask the question - what are the alternatives to Genre Theory education within schools and schooling? If home literacy is crucial, what does 'Education' do about it? And how?  

Friday, 30 December 2011

'Under the Cranes' - showing at the Renoir

'Under the Cranes' is a film that Emma-Louise Williams made based on a 'play for voices' that I wrote about the people of Hackney and the plans made for them rather than with them. It's been shown at various places like the East End Film Festival, Hackney Film Festival, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Appledore Book Festival and other venues. It's now getting on at the Renoir in London on January 8th - see below for details.

It has its own blogspot:

The London Socialist Film Co-op are putting it on.
Here's their blogspot:

Here's what people have said about 'Under the Cranes':

“ Engaging, gentle, dreamlike – Williams’ Hackney is a layered, shifting place teeming with multiple voices and realities, echoed verbally by Rosen’s collage of reminiscence, characteristically generous poetry and collected urban folksongs.  Rosen’s presence reminds us of east London’s reputation as a place of political upheaval.”
Sight and Sound

“ A marvellous evocation of Hackney – the place, the peoples and their dreams too. It reveals the ruin, disconnection and the frailty of life without giving an inch to literary misanthropy or the voyeuristic perspectives in which east London is exploited for tales of misery, depravity and social failure. “

Patrick Wright, cultural historian

“ This beautifully constructed film urges us to recognise what is already there, at the heart of a diverse and thriving community, while raising the question that perhaps we are all living in the shadow of the cranes. “

Socialist Review

“ A wonderfully life-affirming film-poem of place full of lost time and effacements,  reefs of street-markets and shop fronts, painted in stock-brick yellows, steel shutter greys and silvery monochromes; and full of people, always people, the voices who have passed this way and called this home. As a collage of the city at its most quick, it has the ache and tug of what has been and gone; as a moving study of resourcefulness, resistance and resilience, it collapses time and returns each story to its street. “

Paul Farley, poet

“ For questionable reasons, in the media, the sight in a market of African textile prints and the sound of a Cockney voice selling tomatoes are separated. It’s untruthful. But the truth is there on Ridley Road Market and it is shot through the film too. And I loved it. This film is a rare thing. “

Lemn Sissay, poet

Under the Cranes is an argument to your emotions. Old grainy archive footage seems to invest even the most mundane scenes with a bitter-sweet glow. When these images are paired with sparse piano or traditional Turkish music – and beatboxing and Toumani  Diabeté – you’ve got a guaranteed tearjerker. But this film is not about nostalgia. The film finds beauty in trash-collecting, and places modern scenes next to old. “

Quietus Review

 “ A film-poem that mixes documentary footage and poetry to explore the effect of urban redevelopment on local people.  The film weaves together the history of one small part of London in a wonderfully impressionistic way. “

Socialist Worker


Sunday 8 January 2012 at The Renoir Cinema 


The Renoir Cinema, Brunswick Square, London WC1

Nearest London tube: Russell Square
Overground: King’s Cross, Euston
Buses: 7, 17, 45, 46, 59, 68, 91, 168, 188
For updates on disabled access, please call the Renoir on 08717-033 991

Thursday, 29 December 2011

News from my website

Over time I will learn how to divvy up tasks between my website and this blog. What I'm intending is that the website will be primarily for schools, children and school students and this blog will be for articles, thoughts and news. In the meantime, there'll be some overlap. Even a lot of overlap. So, this time round here's the news on past and present stuff from over there:

(Mm. Maybe overlap isn't bad. I could get to like overlap.)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Hell Dorado

One of the more unpleasant items on the TV menu over Christmas was an animated feature film from Dreamworks called 'The Road to El Dorado'. Excuse me if you were unlucky enough to have seen it over a decade ago when it first came out but this week was my first sighting of the beast. Two 'loveable rogues' find themselves stowed away on a conquistadors' boat headed for El Dorado in search of gold. In the company of a clever horse (it is an animation) they find their way to a pre-Columban kingdom. Here they hope to get gold and get out. After a set of adventures involving high priests, a cunning woman, an animated stone jaguar and holy whirlpool, they do get out but without the gold.

As is often the case with such films, the overt morality carried by the two loveable rogues is a kind of jack-the-lad, spirit of enterprise, buddy spirit. The only threat to this comes from a native woman who is shown to be wily, sexy but interested in sex in order to get something else - her escape from her native land. Meanwhile, the native land itself is inhabited by a mix of thugs, crooks, megalomaniacs and idiots. The text book on such crap was written by Edward Said many years ago ('Orientalism') other than that he was writing primarily about the representation of  the inhabitants of the Middle East. Interesting that all that has to be done in US cinema is morph the paradigm, take out Arab, slot in Inca.

Ultimately the purpose of all this kind of entertainment is to sustain hierarchy (either race or class or sex or  combinations of all three, as with this film) which in turn sustains domination.

You can spot an alibi in the presentation of the film in that the chief conquistador 'Cortez' is represented as cruel and greedy but interestingly the desire for gold, the need for gold, the right of people from Europe to go to this place and get it is not questioned.

Quite what an outfit like Dreamworks with nominally liberal intentions was doing peddling this stuff in the year 2000 isn't immediately clear to me. Perhaps in the cultural flotsam brought to the surface by the Iraq War, the makers of films found themselves playing with ghosts, shadows and spectres culled partly from reality, partly from old novels, historical narratives, old movies - and moved them around in ways much influenced by the political discourse and political events unravelling around them. The two jack-the-lad characters are classic 'picaresque' fellows who filled popular European literature between say about 1600 and 1800. At that time, they served a mildly subversive function, more often than not, getting the upper hand in their conflicts with the aristocracy and  the new middle classes though ultimately such rogues might well find themselves marrying a high-born lady. Of course.

In this film, for a moment this old picaresque role looks like being re-run with their relationship with Cortez the Conquistador, but this mild subversion is lost when the unquestioned stuff about native idiots, thugs and megalomaniacs sitting on gold that Europeans are entitled to, kicks in.

Perhaps least acceptable though - and this is where I guess the liberalism crept in - Cortez is defeated! Hooray! Those big bad Spaniards are kept at bay by a cunning plan of pulling down half of El Dorado's carved cliff-face. Hooray! But of course this is a bit of post-hoc false hope,dangled in front of a liberal audience,  rather as if, say, a film-maker wrote a comedy where the slave-trade didn't happen and the silly, sexy, wily, ignorant, megalomaniac natives could carry on as before. Or something.

Dreamworks? Screamworks.

Schools: change and variation

I wonder if there is a country that has a more diverse education system than the UK. So, there is variation across the four main parts of the UK - Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, and then within England in particular there is a huge range of types of school depending on how you cut it: you can have privately funded schools, you can have 'voluntary aided' or 'voluntary controlled',  you can have 'faith' schools according to different faiths, you can have mixed or single-sex (in some cases both, where the school becomes mixed post-16), publicly funded schools can be funded directly by the state or indirectly via the local authority; you can have publicly funded schools which are supported in part by private money and so on. Drop in on area as an inquisitive stranger or Martian and you could be forgiven for struggling to get a handle on all this. As you enquire closely into each school's 'admissions policy', you can easily get lost in how or why these vary.

In the past, I've had the most bizarre conversations with the people who sit on the phoneline at the local authority. So, for example, there was a time when schools in the London area used a 'banding' system. Using an unreliable test, children were grouped into three bands with the nominally egalitarian aim of spreading the bands across that authority's secondary schools. Some complicated computer work up at the local town hall tried to shunt children around the schools so that they each got a 'fair share' of bands. Effectively, this meant that each school had three different 'catchment areas' - one for each band. A school, say, with a large number of band 3s nearby but a small number of band 1s nearby would have two different sized areas from which it drew its pupils. Any parent trying to figure out if it was worth applying for a particular school had to do a bit of homework by asking parents of children in the year above whether they had or had not got into this school and what band they were! It was then you'd stand in the playground saying, 'But x got in and she lived further away.' 'Ah yes, but she was a different band...'  When I put this to someone on the phoneline, I was told that this was absolutely not the case. Alternatively, you can be put in the position of being told now that the school operates its own admissions policy but you must not apply for the school through the school, you must apply for it through the local authority.

Anyone writing honestly about education in the UK, ought by rights to tell this story before talking about what does or does not go on 'in schools'. How many times have we seen TV journalists strolling round a school in order to tell us that it's a dump or a raging success without telling us the systems that produce its intake. Even less likely, will  you get a picture of how a school does or does not exclude pupils at any point from year 7 to 11 but prior to sitting GCSEs. There are schools now acting as dumping grounds for the excluded - but no one dares speak about this, and anyhow it's almost impossible to get the stats on it.

Now, within these kinds of variation and segregation, there are of course thousands more variations. Every time I ever write about education as I see it, people will always write to me saying that they don't recognise some aspect I'm talking about because, they say, in our teacher training course we spend a whole term on children's literature, or in our school we use the School Library Service, or in our school we never did follow the National Literacy Strategy and so on. The fact is, that neither I nor they are lying. What is happening is that in spite of the efforts of the National Curriculum, Ofsted, the various 'Strategies', the SATs, schools are operating more and more like small fiefdoms. I may hear of one head who has banned 'real books' from Reception and Year 1 classrooms because, he says, all reading can be done with Synthetic Phonics and immediately someone will say that their Reception and Year 1 classrooms are packed to the ceilings with beautiful picture books which the children take home from school every day. I was quoted in the Guardian saying, (from my own experience) that Ofsted has no requirement to look at the provision of books in a school nor how or where they are read, when lo and behold, an Ofsted spokesperson delivered some homily on how Ofsted is very much concerned with the reading of books.  Not on your checklists, not in your enquiries, not in the report on a school I know very well.

Meanwhile, as we know, certain aspects of the curriculum which are almost 100% compulsory in some parts of the public system are, mysteriously not compulsory in 'free schools' - teaching reading exclusively through synthetic phonics being one of them.

So what is going on here? One theory might say that it is some kind of benign cock-up, just that funny old Brit way of muddling through. I prefer to think it's all much nastier than that. Put crudely, the job of education  in the modern state is concerned much less in ensuring that everyone gets a wide-ranging education than to ensure that each generation of 16 year olds is graded. Each country finds a different way of doing this. Most, for example, create elite schools so that there is a direct channel from such schools to the ruling positions in government, the professions and business. It is vital for the system that this isn't based on ability but on money and 'breeding' (ie the pedigree of the parents). At one point, in 1944, those in government thought they had pulled off a real smart trick by dividing the intake to secondary schools up according to pass or failure at 11. The idea was the exam at 11 could predict failure a few years later (ie when they left without qualifications) and so you could have failure schools ('Sec Mods') to do failure-type education - PE and Technical Drawing,and Cooking. The system fell apart when some of the failures didn't fail (some of them did better than those who had passed at 11 and gone to Grammar Schools) and when not-quite-well-enough-off middle class parents found that they couldn't get their kids out of the failure schools.

Part of the strategy of the last 20 years or so has been to lament the passing of this useless system, lament the coming of the comprehensive system but - and this is crucial to the strategy - avoid bringing back that old system universally across the UK because everyone in power knew that it was unworkable. But engrained into our leaders' idea of what education must be is segregation, segregation, segregation. After all, most of them have been through schools they were 'selected' for - mostly by money. They also know that they daren't bring in a universally segregating exam at 11 because it doesn't work. Instead, they fiddle. And in the present context, they're fiddling more and more and more. What we are getting through all this stuff about choice, and diversity are in effect micro-segregations - so micro that it will be almost impossible to prove: the mysterious exclusions that some Academies impose on pupils who don't fit in: the mysterious top-slicing of the bands ensuring that this or that school gets the top of each band whilst claiming that it isn't selecting; the mysterious non-use of 'faith' as a criterion of entry in some 'faith' schools but not in others...and so on.

Politically, there is a tragedy here: in the name of equality and opportunity for all, New Labour introduced a set of strategies . I can only speak about the Literacy one but it was one of the worst examples of a national government trying to stamp a practice of any kind on any profession (and its 'client group') in recent times. It was dull, brutal, mechanistic and educationally utterly misconceived. It was and still is almost impossible to find out who was responsible for the damn thing as it was delivered anonymously at vast expense and then, again without explanation, abolished. However, off the back of it is a range of practices going on in schools  (yes, in piecemeal, highly variegated ways, different from school to school), which has no intellectual justification (or evidence from research) other than that this or that practice was given some kind of seal of approval from the National Literacy Strategy.

So New Labour weakened the Comprehensive system by introducing Academies, doing nothing about private education, encouraging faith schools, whilst at the same time insisting on its dictatorial 'Strategies'. The New Labour period represents a major set-back in the quest for a fair and equitable education system. Now the Tories have been able to leap on New Labour's back and hasten the procession towards what will be one of the world's most uneven, most segregated most selective systems.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Reading in schools

I’ve sometimes said that reading books in schools is a subversive activity. This seems counter-intuitive. Schools are surely places which foster the idea that the written text is one of the best means of carrying ideas and knowledge. On close examination, it’s possible to see that a) one kind of written text dominates the scene and b) one kind of reading dominates. That’s to say, the texts are predominantly instructive, didactic full of closed-ended – or at best – Socratic questions which tie the learner to answering exactly as the apparent author of the texts (text-book author, teacher, examiner ?) demands. So, right from the earliest years, children are confronted with texts that are, say, supposedly teaching the child how to read (synthetic phonics and reading schemes), moving on remarkably soon to ‘comprehension’ texts and worksheets, in which children are asked factual questions about supposed facts in the text they have just read, moving on to many variations of this, right the way to GCSE.
Of course, the purpose and function of reading in society is much more than this. In one sense, we can say that the world’s wisdom has up until fairly recently been captured in books. Of course, there are other sources for ideas – the electronic media in all their complexity, and that traditional means – talk and, more importantly, we shouldn’t think of one part of the inter-mediate world as excluding another. Books aren’t in contradiction with the internet, say. However, if we exclude the reading of whole books from the reading diet of someone – or whole groups of people – a serious deprivation is taking place.
At one level, this deprivation is about specifity and the other about heterodoxy. That’s to say, on account of the economics of book-publishing over many centuries, it is nearly always true to say that whatever a person’s specific needs and curiosities, it’s possible to find a book that fits it. What’s more, on account of that publishing history, the world of books contains thousands of texts which defy the dominant ideas of the day.
At another level, it’s possible to say that there is something significant about browsing. What is browsing? It’s the scanning of texts in order to find out what you want. Browsing involves comparing, contrasting, selecting – and most importantly – the setting up of informal and formal ‘sets’. Children given regular opportunities to browse and sort piles of books, magazine, comics and the like will do these things. And what are they? The very processes that thousands of tedious worksheets try to ‘teach’: compare, contrast, select and group. It could be argued that most of education is based around these practices. I’ve seen six year olds sorting their comics or books over and over again, doing just this. It’s a crucial textual practice which schools try to teach but which takes place in certain kinds of homes (ie the ones with many books) every day.
We also know that when I say ‘certain homes’, the implication is that I mean ‘middle class’ or ‘educated’ or ‘professional’. True, mostly, but not entirely so. There are some specific instances where homes where the parent or parents have reason to provide many books, magazines and comics for their children or for themselves or both – politics being one of them. My father came from a working-class ‘vertical’ family home with mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles (and no father) present. Two or three of them were highly politicised, filling the house with pamphlets, newspapers, books (and talk about those books) and took full advantage of the local library in a systematic, regular way. A vast longitudinal study from the University of Nevada, involving tens of thousands of children across 27 countries has discovered the same thing. That’s to say, independent of class/income and education, the presence of many books (eg 500) in a home has an add-on effect of 3 years more take-up of schooling by the child(ren) from such a home.
This sort of thing has been known informally and formally by teachers for decades. In the days when every big school in a working-class area would have at least one child whose parent or parents were active in, say, trade unions, the Labour Party or other left parties, teachers knew that that child was being exposed to something significant in the way of literacy, language and thought. Politicians have known it and have been told it many times over – some of them by me! But, significantly, they do nothing about it.
Why is that? Because they work to a different model of literacy, knowledge and education. For them, it must be instructional, instrumental (that’s to say there must be evidence that what’s being taught must ‘do’ something), and functional (that’s to say the thing that it’s ‘doing’ must be seen to have a ‘use’ ). Reading for pleasure in this scheme of things is an extra, a suitable leisure activity, or even something too complicated for the lower orders – even though the evidence I’m citing shows precisely the opposite. If you like it’s more instructional, more instrumental, more functional – and a lot more besides – than the stuff that is dished up in the name of literacy, knowledge and education: the worksheets, reading schemes, exercises, text books and the like that dominate education.
When I say – ‘and a lot more besides’ – what do I mean? This is where we confront the issue of ‘literature’ which I’ll broadly define as ‘figurative writing’ – that’s to say kinds of writing in which the main beings/creatures/humans in the piece along with many of the objects and aspects of ‘nature’ are there in unreal, metaphorical, allegorical, representational ways. They are ‘acting out’ scenes and ideas. These processes, which we find in poems, stories, plays, films and the like, combine ideas with feelings – their own and the readers’/viewers’/listeners’. And these ideas and feelings appear to be attached to the beings in the literature as they ‘act out’ the events in their existence.
The business of combining ideas and feelings is crucial. This is how we are affected by what happens. We say we are ‘touched’ even as we evaluate the rightness/wrongness, fairness/unfairness etc of how the beings are behaving. What’s really interesting from an educational point of view is that at any given moment (I’ll come back to that moment), that evaluating act can suddenly dominate and the audience (let’s say a class of young people) will want to discuss values and ethics of what’s going on. This is crucial. One of the fundamental tenets underlying education is that it will enable children to generalise about themselves, events and the world in order to spot patterns or even to give names to phenomena so that they can be seen as not random one-off events. So we might imagine that education will enable young people to think and talk about, let’s say, injustice, envy, power, anger and the like. Open-ended engagement with literature is one of the ways in which we can all get handles on these difficult and important ideas. In fact, it’s the easiest, most accessible way in which we can do it. Anyone who has sat with young children reading and talking will find that inevitably, one arrives at these moments where the ideas about the feelings (but also with the feelings) become important.
So, drawing all these thoughts together, I come to the conclusion that schools should be places that should strain every part of themselves to foster reading for pleasure: in class, in break-times, after school and in the children’s/students’ homes. This involves some very practical work: asking the parents to set up some kind of reading committee which has the job of getting books into the hands of children of all backgrounds; creating a relationship with local libraries that goes beyond the tokenistic nod eg arranging to issue tickets to reception and year 1 children; creating regular ‘book events’ with authors,talks, films, music; making the connection between all school activities and books that relate to them eg in relation to trips, sports, projects, changes in the school; involving all school-workers and staff in this book project – eg caretakers, dinner and cleaning staff particularly as many of them will be parents or ex-parents of pupils; re-thinking ‘literacy’ as ‘many literacies’ ie involving all languages, different means of ‘delivery’ eg newspapers, phone apps, computer screens, graphic design and therefore on the back of that, engaging practitioners, especially parents, in all those fields to come into schools in order to share with the children/students what they’re doing.; thinking of everything that children write as potential scripts for publishing or performing with outlets such as school websites, informal magazines, classroom ‘sketches’, plays, cabarets, parent-child book-making etc etc central to literacy for all.
Put all that together and we have a theory and practice of universal literacy in schools. This is an urgent part of our demands for emancipation and liberation for all.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Collecting language

If I look at my notebooks, I can see that they're made up of fragments: words and phrases I've heard, things I've seen, moments I've remembered - that sort of thing. The writing is messy and there is no organising principle. It's chaotic.

But it's also a seed-bed or nursery. In amongst it are the starting points for writing. Now, I'm a bit of an old hand at this. Most children aren't. So if a) I'm right about thinking that this is a good way to make writing pleasurable and purposeful and b) teachers are people who can take children to this way of working, how can it be done?

I often go into classrooms where there are boards called 'The Literacy Wall' or 'The Word Wall'. I see lists of 'useful words'. Here's a suggestion: why not expand these or even replace them with an alcove, board or wall with words, phrases, quotes, thoughts and ideas from the children. Why not suggest to them that they are word hunters or detectives and it's their job to remember or jot down anything interesting they hear - be that something someone has said, or line they've heard in a poem or song, a TV programme or film - or from wherever; anything interesting they see; anything interesting they've been thinking - and then find ways in which these can be put up in this space?

This first has the purpose of showing children that language is like anything else around them: food, leaves, cars or whatever: it can be investigated and examples of it can be collected, specimens if you like.

Then it has the purpose of giving children the chance to share these 'specimens' and, importantly, to talk about them, ask questions about them.

Then, it can provide the platform for writing. If the children and the teacher start to collect intriguing and odd things, then these will be fine ways to start various kinds of writing. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem that begins: 'I heard a fly buzz when I died...' I jotted it down. I've often thought about it. It intrigued me. In a moment of daydreaming, I connected the line to a time when I was in trouble at school and was standing in the head teacher's study...and a fly was buzzing. I borrowed 'I heard a fly buzz when...' and from then on I was on my own writing a poem about listening to a fly instead of listening to what the head was telling me. At the end of the poem, I acknowledged (of course) that I had borrowed those 6 words from Emily Dickinson. The poem is in 'Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things' (Puffin).

Because I let myself swim around in the sea of words, expressions, lines from poems and songs, sayings, 'fluffs', mistakes and the rest, I have a resource that I can use and mix up.

I hope this is useful for anyone working with others in a regular way and looking for ways to generate ideas about writing.
I thought I'd start putting up occasional thoughts and ideas. I haven't enabled comments. For news of what I've been doing and upcoming events, the best place to go is