Monday, 29 October 2012

Tonight I find how a French uncle was deported

After years of looking, I've just found out tonight something definite about the fate of one of my father's uncles who lived in France. I've already posted here about what happened to Oscar Rosen who I discovered over the last year, lived in Sedan, Ardennes, fled to Niort, Deux-Sevres, was listed by the authorities, seems to have escaped, ended up in Nice, was rounded by Alois Brunner, sent to Drancy and was deported on convoy 62 from Paris-Bobigny to Auschwitz.

But I never knew what happened to his brother Martin. Some years ago I found on the famous Klarsfeld list of deportees a Martin Rozen, with a birthplace Kosnovice. And that's it. One relative had him living in Metz before the war, profession dentist, while Oscar was a clockmender.

Tonight I read this:

Martin Rozen is mentioned on p.12. p.14 and p.15.

Philippe Glanzberg, the survivor who has told his story here seems to have spent some time in Metz before fleeing to Aytré in La Rochelle where along with Martin Rozen there were just 9 Jews. Martin's birthplace is in fact listed here as Krosniewice while my father's father listed his birthplace on his US WW2 registration card as Krochniewiz (that would be the same pronunciation). It's a small village in Poland.

The date of birth of Martin Rozen on Glanzberg's documents is the same as on Serge Klarsfeld's list of deportees where it shows that Martin left France on convoy 68.

On p. 14 it shows that Martin didn't exchange a ration coupon for the yellow stars that he was obliged to wear. On p. 15 it appears to show that Martin had one child. That's news.

Incredibly and coincidentally, M. Glanzberg seems to have been deported on the same convoy as Oscar Rosen, the one who was arrested in Nice. Another Glanzberg was on convoy 68, the same one as Martin's. It seems impossible that one or other of the Glanzbergs did not know one or other of the Rosens. It's also possible that Philippe Glanzberg is still alive.

I should say that my father didn't know either of these uncles. They were names who were mentioned. And then it was assumed, correctly, that they had disappeared, but up until this year no one knew how.

That's tonight's news.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Great British Ash Tree. Not.

In the inner realms of sociology or history lectures and the like, the phrase: 'nation is a construct' is something you can jot down and then use in an indigestible way from then on. I'm sure I've done it many times. And then you hear something on the radio or something that someone says that brings you up sharp to remind you that it isn't a hollow phrase at all.

The news this morning is full of the story about a fungus affecting ash trees. The two main aspects of this story are that in Denmark, 90% of the ash trees have already died because of the fungus and that there is a possibility that the same could happen on some, most or all of the islands (or parts of islands) that make up the UK. There seem to be two main ways in which this can happen: through imports of ash trees and on the wind. The government is about to take action against imports of ash trees by banning them on Monday.

Interviews with experts are happening all the time and I'm not concerned directly with what the scientific content of these other than to say by way of preface that it is quite possible that banning imports will have zero effect (but looks like tough, virile, robust government) as the spores of the fungus can reach the UK's islands carried on the wind. (Surely no coincidence that the first wild woodland where the disease has been found is in Norfolk and Suffolk in direct line from easterly, north-easterly winds from Scandinavia?)

What interests me for the moment is how this disease is being 'constructed' (yes) as a 'national' crisis or 'national' tragedy. Experts have reminded us that the ash is a 'native' tree, that it makes up a large percentage of the woodland 'we' love and 'we' have already lost pretty well all the elm trees through 'Dutch' Elm disease and it could happen to another of 'our' native/national and iconic trees, the ash.

So, even as the facts tell us that this is an international illness/disease (as all illnesses and diseases are), the emotive content of the news items is that it is a national tragedy and that the best way to deal with it is to ban imports. I won't even deal with whether it's a tragedy or not. I don't know if it is or it isn't. I'm bemused by how quickly something like this can be tacked on to the national flag when it is fundamentally and essentially an international matter, an international phenomenon. Because it's being constructed as a national problem, there are certain aspects of the story that are at the very least odd.

Denmark is not an island. To be talking just about Denmark is very strange. If this government is banning imports (thinking that this is a solution) what are other countries doing? Sweden is very near to Denmark, Germany shares a border, the whole of northern Europe is nearby. However we should describe this disease, it must for starters be a north European matter.

Does any of this matter? After all, it's just (or only) a question of how people in the news describe things. No big deal? Perhaps not. But when historians and sociologists use that phrase 'construct nation' and people dispute it, or make the claim that by constructing it verbally they also construct it 'materially'...I wonder. What's more, it may well lead to crap science. We shall see whether banning imports makes any difference. I suspect not.

In the meantime, I'm not going to allow myself to be aroused in some kind of national defence, or national act of sorrow about ash trees. If ash trees are under threat, they're under threat across northern Europe. I live and work and travel in northern Europe. I will have the same feelings about a lack of ash trees whether I'm in London, France, Denmark, Holland, Germany or anywhere. They're not my ash trees. The 'we' or 'our' they belong to are, for the present moment northern European and may well turn out to be (I don't know) world ash trees!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Deficit myth; Debt lies; Tory hoax

This comes from the Huffington Post

Ramesh Patel


Finally! Exposed! The Deficit Myth! So, David Cameron When are you Going to Apologise?

Posted: 24/10/2012 06:33

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on"
- Winston Churchill
As a Conservative I have no pleasure in exposing David Cameron's deficit claims. However, as long as the party continues to talk down the economy via the blame game, confidence will not be given an opportunity to return. For it is an undeniable and inescapable economic fact: without confidence and certainty there can be no real growth.
Below are the 3 deficit claims - the mess. The evidence comes from the IMF, OECD, OBR, HM Treasury, ONS and even George Osborne. The claims put into context are:
CLAIM 1 The last government left the biggest debt in the developed world.
After continuously stating the UK had the biggest debt in the world George Osborne admits to the Treasury Select Committee that he did not know the UK had the lowest debt in the G7? Watch: Also, confirmed by the OECD Those who use cash terms (instead of percentages) do so to scare, mislead and give half the story.
Its common sense, in cash terms a millionaire's debt would be greater than most people. Therefore, the UK would have a higher debt and deficit than most countries because, we are the sixth largest economy. Hence, its laughable to compare UK's debt and deficit with Tuvalu's who only have a GDP/Income of £24 million whilst, the UK's income is £1.7 Trillion.
Finally, Labour in 1997 inherited a debt of 42% of GDP. By the start of the global banking crises 2008 the debt had fallen to 35% - a near 22% reduction page 6 ONS Surprisingly, a debt of 42% was not seen as a major problem and yet at 35% the sky was falling down?
CLAIM 2 Labour created the biggest deficit in the developed world by overspending.
Firstly, the much banded about 2010 deficit of over 11% is false. This is the PSNB (total borrowings) and not the actual budget deficit which was -7.7% - OBR Economic and Fiscal Outlook March 2012 page 19 table 1.2
Secondly, in 1997 Labour inherited a deficit of 3.9% of GDP (not a balanced budget ) and by 2008 it had fallen to 2.1% - a reduction of a near 50% - Impressive! Hence, it's implausible and ludicrous to claim there was overspending. The deficit was then exacerbated by the global banking crises after 2008. See HM Treasury. Note, the 1994 deficit of near 8% haaaaaah!
Thirdly, the IMF have also concluded the same. They reveal the UK experienced an increase in the deficit as result of a large loss in output/GDP caused by the global banking crisis and not even as result of the bank bailouts, fiscal stimulus and bringing forward of capital spending. It's basic economics: when output falls the deficit increases.
Finally, the large loss in output occurred because the UK like the US have the biggest financial centres and as this was a global banking crises we suffered the most. Hence, the UK had the 2nd highest deficit in the G7 (Not The World) after the US and not as a result of overspending prior to and after 2008- as the IMF concur.
Claim 3 Our borrowing costs are low because the markets have confidence in George Osborne's austerity plan and without it the UK will end up like Greece.
Yes, the markets have confidence in our austerity plan and that's why PIMCO the worlds largest bond holder have been warning against buying UK debt.
The real reason why our borrowing costs have fallen and remained low since 2008 is because, savings have increased. As a result, the demand and price for bonds have increased and as there is inverse relationship between the price of bonds and its yield (interest rate) the rates have fallen. Also, the markets expect the economy to remain stagnate. Which means the price for bonds will remain high and hence, our borrowing costs will also remain low.
Secondly, the UK is considered a safe heaven because, investors are reassured the Bank of England will buy up bonds in an event of any sell off - which increases the price of bonds and reduces the effective rate. Note, how rates fell across the EU recently when the ECB announced its bond buying program. Thirdly, because, we are not in the Euro we can devalue our currency to increase exports. Moreover, UK bonds are attractive because, we haven't defaulted on its debt for over 300 yrs.
David Cameron would like people to believe the markets lend in the same way as retail banks lend to you and I.
Overall, when the facts and figures are put into context these juvenile deficit narratives and sound bites ("mere words and no evidence") simply fail to stand up to the actual facts. The deficit myth is the grosses lie ever enforced upon the people and it has been sold by exploiting people's economic illiteracy.
So, David Cameron when are you going to apologise?
Cameron is playing the blame game to depress confidence and growth to justify austerity. Secondly, to use austerity as justification for a smaller state to gain lower taxes. Thirdly, to paint Labour as a party that can not be trusted with the country's finances again. Therefore, we Conservatives will win a second term because, people vote out of fear. The latter strategy worked the last time in office (18 years) and will work again because, in the end, elections are won and lost on economic credibility. Hence, as people believe Labour created the mess they won't be trusted again.
Finally, as the truth is the greatest enemy of the a lie I urge you to share this on Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, text and email etc etc. So the truth can be discovered by all. Finally, have no doubt, people have been mislead by the use of the following strategy:
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it" Joseph Goebbels

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Gove gets personal with academy hype

Here's a quote from a recent speech by Gove:

" Last year, we announced that 200 of the worst performing primaries – those schools which have delivered the poorest results for the longest time – would be reopened as Academies with strong sponsors to drive improvement.

In fact, we managed to broker Academy solutions for 310 underperforming primaries. 140 of these new primary Academies are already open now, and the rest are well on their way.

In turning round those schools we faced fierce opposition. Not least in the London Borough of Haringey where an alliance including the NUT, other local unions, the Labour MP, the Socialist Workers Party and the SWP’s best-known supporter Michael Rosen, united to defend the right of children to be badly educated under council control. "

Quick thoughts:
1. Gove hasn't proved that being an academy is a certain way to 'improve standards'. Some academies fail.
2. The academy system is not a solution for the whole 'cohort' of a locality. They compete against each other (ie failure is written into the system);  it is clear that there is an unaccountable system of school exclusions;  it is not clear what the policy across a whole area is for special needs children.
3. I would be interested to know what side of 'legal' Gove's statement about me being a 'supporter' of the SWP is. I support some SWP campaigns and activities. I'm not a member.

Here's the speech in full:

Saturday, 20 October 2012

O gawd, here comes 'Cultural Literacy' again.

Journalist Fran Abrams here:

is floating - or re-floating - a boat which, she claims, is Michael Gove's favourite reading. It's the old argument about 'Cultural Literacy' which E.D.Hirsch launched in the US in 1983.

This has all the potential for blowing up into quite a nasty little fight. The harder this government finds it to convince a majority of voters that they should take a cut in living standards, a cut in their social provision and a cut in their income in order to pay for the greed and incompetence of moneymen lying about the debts they sold each other, so they will try to a)blame the victim and b)wave the national flag.

Education is a perfect site for this kind of roguery. Regular doses of talking about illiterate school-leavers and incompetent teachers does the blame-the-victim work and similar doses sniping at multi-culturalism and blowing the trumpet for a 'national' culture or 'core' cultural 'entitlement' will serve the job for flag-waving.

To be clear, on blame-the-victim: this government is building failure into the system. It's doing this by cementing the policy of schools (or 'chains' of schools) competing against each other for customers and by creating an exam system in which a guaranteed percentage will leave school with no qualification. Job done.

The cultural entitlement argument is more complex.

Here are my thoughts:

1. The moment a government makes statements about some kind of core culture we are entitled to ask, how was this core decided on? Who decided it? On what basis?

These questions have to be asked because 9 times out of 10, these choices are made by tiny self-appointed or government appointed elites who have their own special reasons for wanting to impose a set of cultural choices on teachers and pupils.

2. A country and its 'state' are not the same thing. A country is where we live and work. The state is the machine or apparatus which runs the country. People in a country live, express and consume culture in many different ways. By and large this is not coercive in the way that schooling has become. That's to say, within the choices afforded us by society, we choose what music, films, TV, live entertainment etc we are going to consume. Of course these choices are constrained or even 'constructed' by how the entertainment business is run and by the ideas that dominate at any given time. However, this is not the same kind of domination as the state demanding and enforcing that teachers teach and pupils consume specific items of 'culture'.

In effect, the Hirsch argument is that a tiny elite of clever people know better than teachers and better than pupils or their families what should constitute a cultural diet. It is not usually expressed that way. The claim is that what is being put on offer are core texts which are in some way or another essential for taking part in the state and/or achieving success within the education system.

This is a self-serving argument. Clearly, any set of texts defined as 'core' which must be read, learnt, studied and tested will by necessity, be those necessary for succeeding within the system.

3. I'm of the view that any attempt to define a country (ie not the state) in terms of a handful of texts is not much more than a fib.It's a fib in at least two ways: 1) it will fall short in terms of diversity either by virtue of being so small, or by virtue of the cultural composition of the elite who chose the list 2)any attempt to define a country or a nation will create a false sense that a 'country' is some kind of homogenous unity.

In fact, it is this latter point which is at the heart of the politics here. It takes as read, (or assumes) that there is a universal agreement that we should all be trying to get behind a national culture and that this national culture can be or should be defined by people like Michael Gove, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and the rest.

Clearly, there is a massive irony in that there is every possibility that Gove would be the person pushing this through at the very moment his country of origin and background may well depart from the nation of the UK.  Or, put another way, even as a Scots minister of education is trying to impose a cultural core on England (not a nation state) in the name of the UK (which is the nation state) Scotland may well be departing from that nation state.

Again, there are big choices coming up for anyone ruling this country in the present set-up concerning the extent to which 'we' are European. There is a strong coherent argument for saying that most of the texts which influenced people in this country up until the First World War were really a result of European cultural movements, ideas and tendencies rather than English or British. Since that time, there has been the added effect of how the US has had an impact. The British state has of course ruled over the territory of the UK, but the peoples of the UK have never limited themselves to their locality in terms of what they've produced and consumed culturally. To take one obvious example: Shakespeare - his plays are at their very heart European, whether in terms of language, story, imagery, tone or whatever.

So the Hirsch argument if applied rationally and logically would select many hundreds of texts and these would be acknowledge, welcome and celebrate this Euro-Americano mingling.

4. However, what I've said here isn't sufficient either. A country is a place where population exchange takes place: people arrive, people leave. The usual, conventional model for this is that a 'host' culture receives a 'migrant' culture. I don't think that this describes what really happens any more - or indeed if it ever did.

Whoever is here doing the receiving in this model is not some unchanging, homogenous bloc. It is itself full of change, flux and diversity - sometimes even as it proclaims itself as being the essence of the nation, a defining characteristic of Britishness. The monarchy is a good example of this: a quick scan of the personnel of the present monarchy and it's clear that it's an anglo-German-Greek mixture and the long, supposedly continuous line is full of people from all over Europe.

Then again, when people arrive, of course they adapt and change according to what they find but even as they do so, they start to affect people around them. A good example of this is language. The UK is full of many accents and dialects each of which is a product of certain streams or strands. So, for a while in the post-war period there was a style of upper class male speech that was deeply affected by the tiny group of men who flew aeroplanes during the Second World War. The various styles of speech of Liverpool have been affected by the presence of Ireland and Wales. London speech of young people in many areas is greatly affected by the influence of Caribbean settlement.

All this requires a much more complex model than 'host' and 'immigrant' as a description. We need to have something much more in flux, much more mixed but also one which involves battles and contests. What I mean by that is precisely around the kinds of things that Abrams, Hirsch and Gove appear to be talking about. That's to say, culture isn't neutral. Apart from anything else, any example you might think of involves many kinds of assertion, canvassing, lobbying, recruiting and ultimately finance to survive. For opera to survive in its present form requires an agreement by the state to spend millions on it. For Irish traditional music to survive in London, it requires enough people to work at keeping venues and rehearsal going - often with virtually no financial support. Some cultural forms are invited into the heart of schools and public ceremonies and others aren't.

5. What I've written above is often dubbed 'cultural relativism' or 'anything goes' by the Hirsch-Gove school, and, it's claimed, involves a certain kind of duplicity. That's to say, the claim is made that 1) I'm ducking the issue of 'value' or 'worth' and 2) I received and absorbed what is in effect a national cultural core and that's what has enabled me to succeed.

re 1) - no, I would say that the question of value and worth is one that has to be fought out in debate, discussion and action. Culture that is enforced is rather like 'our'  liberals who think they can bomb countries into 'democracy' when in fact they are trying to enforce a rule that favours us and our requirements for strategic or economic control. Questions of what culture, what texts should be taught in schools should be a matter of constant debate and flux between practising teachers, pupils and their families.

re 2) the main reason why and how I could access the core texts of my time going through education was much more to do with what kind of parents I had, rather than what was on offer. That's to say, my highly literate parents were not only teachers, they were also very combative, curious people who themselves were very assertive about many aspects of culture which were precisely not of the dominant culture of the time. In other words, I never received culture as neutral or the norm or the core without it being exposed to questioning and/or a perspective from the outside and from an understanding that there are many other cultures 'out there' including whatever 'ours' was.

(I'm intending to elaborate on this last personal point in a future blog).

6. So, in the spirit of being forearmed, I'm offering the above as part of what will, it seems, be yet another initiative that Michael Gove will try to foist on us. To repeat, I think he will try to claim this is an educational question to do with 'entitlement'. I think that part of our job is to show how it is a way to forge some kind of national unity at a time when 'nation' in their sense is in many ways very weak. We are a multicultural society .. The present UK may well divide. The UK is in Europe (and culturally always has been). The UK is linked very strongly in a cultural sense to the US. Britain's past is inextricably linked to world trade and Empire. At a time of economic crisis at home and the dominant class's nervousness about its competitors abroad, they will try to dig out local and parochial examples (or so they think) in order to proclaim 'nation'.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Curious Incident and Coram Boy

I've managed to catch up with two great pieces of literature for young people: 'Coram Boy' by Jamila Gavin and the stage version (at the National) of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'. I had read the latter but inexcusably had missed out on 'Coram Boy'.

Get this out of the way first: I was utterly absorbed, engaged and deeply moved by both. These days, when this happens, I'm uninclined to go in for any kind of nitpicking. They both did their job. I cared about what was being played out. I brought many different kinds of experiences and voices from my own life to the play and the book and the result was in both cases a kind of revelation. I felt I was making discoveries or that discoveries were being made for me, or both.

One theme that binds the two pieces together is the question of 'agency'. By and large children's books ensure that children are the people who make things happen. Put it this way, if you take the totality of children's books as against the totality of children in real life, then it would be fair to say that this child-agency happens vastly more often in the books than it does in real life. However, it does happen and I suppose you could say that children's books are a place where this kind of thing is given pride of place. In fact, this is one of the reasons why children enjoy them. It offers those children and young people who read them, a glimpse of how people like them in some kind of a broad way, could bring about change to their circumstances. So, being involved with these two pieces, at the very moment there is a discussion in the press about whether 16 year olds are fit to vote or not, offers a clash of views.

With these two pieces, there is an added dimension to the usual issue of agency: the young people involved are precisely those who are constructed by society as people who have not, and should not have agency or control over their own lives. So in 'The Curious Incident', it's a boy marked out as 'disabled' or 'autistic' and more often than not defined in terms of what he can't do rather than what he can. One line or theme in the book tells of how he forces those around him (and, by implication, us) to consider him in terms of what he can do. In 'Coram Boy', the view spreads wider to looking at 'children' as a caste of people who, if they are poor and/or black are frequently sold, enslaved, brutalised and  massacred. Within that and within the mechanism of the story, three different children are the motors for change and redemption: a boy who is in some undefined way 'disabled', described by others as 'stupid' and constructed within the book as being part of his natural surroundings; an African boy who has been plucked from slavery in order to be made into a kind of pet doll for high society; an illegitimate boy who has been saved from death or (if he had survived in 'society') constant vilification for having been born in sin.

Neither piece offers a uniform view of adults as stupid, evil and wrong. But nor does it show them as people who are universally right, moral or in control. Interestingly, both hold out the prospect of the 'good adult', the teacher, the benefactor, the self-sacrificing, caring professional, middle- or upper-class adult who indirectly enables the despised children and young people to survive.

This figure hovers over a lot of fiction for children and, you could argue, is the ghost of the writer, creating the terrain on which the 'true' potential of the child can show itself and overcome the problems. In some ways, this is the hidden drama that goes on in books or plays like this: will their viewpoint and/or sense of understanding or sensitive responses win out in a society or culture that is causing such oppression, hurt and death to young people?

I'm not sure how much of that hidden drama is obvious to young readers. Thinking back to my own reading, I can remember that once I was inside a book and, let's say, 'in trouble' alongside and on behalf of, or in league with the book's main child protagonist, like that child or young person I would look around to see who was the most likely person I could trust and who might help me. That's a slightly different perspective than the one that says the book is a place where differing views of how my hero (and, by implication, me) could be helped or hurt by adults in the real world.

As an experiment, you could line up, say, some hundred or so books for children and young people and grade them in terms of the 'agency' afforded to the young people. So, up one end (high percentage of agency (!)) you might have 'Emil and the Detectives' and  'Where the Wild Things Are' and up the other, with a low percentage of agency you could have, let's say, 'A Wind in the Willows' where the two most child-like of the creatures (Mole and Toad) can't really solve anything.

This is not to say that 'high' equals 'good' and 'low' equals 'bad'. I just think they do different kinds of work in different kinds of ways.

Anyway, thanks to all concerned for 'Coram Boy' and 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' including of course Jamila Gavin and Mark Haddon!

Monday, 15 October 2012

Nearly 4 million 'views' of my videos - wow.

I don't want to boast....OK, start again, I do want to boast....but...tomorrow or the day after, the total number of 'views' that my website videos are going to get is 4 million. As I write this I'm on 3,996,432 views. To be honest, I'm really dead chuffed that so many people have wanted to see them. I suppose it's already passed 4 million 'views' because teachers have been showing them to whole classes too, but I'm going by the counter in the corner of the screen.

So, now I've got over the boasting bit, can I say thank you very much for watching them and I'm really glad that most people have enjoyed them.


Now the facts (!):

These are the 92 videos that I put on my website

(click on 'Videos' on the bar on the front page to find your way to them.) They're all there,

care of artificedesign

Following that link is the best way to view the 92 videos because they are all there in one 'room' and you can order them according to 'most viewed' etc.

Teachers who would like to show the videos in class but find that their server blocks them, the easiest thing to do is upload them to an intermediary file of some sort on your laptop and use that in school. Or put them on to a DVD.

All the vids were shot and directed by my son Joe Rosen whose website is here:

At some point in the coming months I'll make some more with Joe.

One of the reasons I made them was to encourage schools to make vids with the children and students. My way is one of the simplest. If you want to use artwork, the simplest way is to hold a picture (or pictures) up in front of the camera with the poem written on the back. Fill the screen with the picture and the child reads the poem from behind the picture. Remember to choose somewhere quiet, because background noise is quite distracting when you come to view the video.

Just so that everyone knows. I make no money from putting the videos on YouTube. Joe and I made them out of our own work and costs. One set come from a book that is out of print - 'The Hypnotiser'. All the rest come from different sources:

 'Quick Let's Get Out of Here',
 'Centrally Heated Knickers',
'No Breathing in Class',
'You Wait Till I'm Older Than You' ,
'Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things'
'Michael Rosen's Book of Silly Poems'
(all published by Puffin Books and in print);

 'Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy' (with CD included)
'Even My Ears Are Smiling' (with CD included)
(both by Bloomsbury Publishing and in print);

'Sonsense Nongs'
(published by A and C Black and in print)
(CD available from Abbey Media)

'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'
'Bananas in My Ears'
(both by Walker Books and in print)

'You Tell Me' (with Roger McGough)
(Puffin but out of print)

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Poetry is doing and playing: 20 ideas for you

This is a set of suggestions for poetry work in schools.

The reason why I'm putting it here is that I'm getting quite a few letters from people asking me how they should teach poetry or how they should teach a specific poetry lesson. 

As you'll see from below, I think the best route to enjoy and learn from poetry is to get to know it in a whole variety of ways. So, perhaps rather than thinking of teaching poetry,  we should think more of 'playing poetry.'    So that's where I'm beginning: imagining that I've been asked the question, 'how should we play poetry?' The points below are directed mostly at primary school teachers but of course anyone take any of them and run with them. 

1. Find a poem for yourself. Forget that you're a teacher. Just find a poem for  yourself. Read it. And put the book, or newspaper where you found it where you can find it again quickly. Perhaps photocopy the poem so that  you can carry it with  you. This is just for you. If you want to share it with anyone, you'll be able to if you're carrying it with you. But if not, no matter. It's yours.

2. In class, while the children are working, get the largest piece of paper you can find; on the paper write out a poem; pin it up where every child in the class can read it. See what happens. After about a fortnight, do it again. Keep doing it every fortnight through the terms. Remember, you don't have to say anything about it. You don't have to ask anyone anything about it.

3. Do the same and put some post-its next to the poem and say that the children can write anything they think about the whole poem or bits of the poem and stick the post-its up around the poem

4. Invite tables in class to choose a poem to write out and put up on the wall too. After a fortnight, change tables and get the next table to choose a poem. Suggest that they might like to do some artwork around the poem or with the poem. Put the poem up where everyone can read it.

5.. Do 'the poetry show'. You dish out a pile of poetry books on each table and invite the children in pairs or threes to choose a poem to perform in ten minutes time. Then you have a poetry show. The first time, you model being MC, making quite a fuss of each pair or threesome and making sure that everyone's listening.

After the poetry show, sit down and do a circle time, where you discuss what different kinds of things you can do with poems to make them sound more interesting:

after they've suggested things, you can try suggesting and demonstrating any of the following:

working out ways in which  you can do solos, duets, trios and all-class unison in different places in a poem
doing 'echo effects' by repeating words or repeating them with a whisper
doing a kind of 'rhythm and bass' by picking a couple of words of the poem and repeating them 'under' the poem while it's being recited
using your body as percussion in between verses or phrases (eg banging your chest, or your legs or side)
treating each verse or specific images in the poem as an opportunity to do a tableau or 'freeze frame' of a moment in a poem.
using pictures on powerpoint

6. Creating a poetry corner in the classroom. Fill it with poetry books, and whatever systems of playing audio and video at your disposal. Whenever the class make a poetry book (more on that in a moment), put one copy in the poetry corner.

7. Make poetry books and posters as often as  you can. The books can be of original poems by the children and/or anthologies of favourite poems, or both mixed up. Encourage the children to make poem posters to put up in class or on their walls at home in their bedrooms or in the school corridors. Discuss what is the best way to make a poetry poster.

8. Read a poem a day. Just read it. No need to ask questions. Just read it. And see what happens.

9. Create a word-and-phrase collection wall. Encourage the children to collect interesting-sounding words, phrases, sayings and put them up on the wall. Make sure that everyone can read them. Often refer to them, look at them. Play games with what's there, asking the children how they might begin a poem with a phrase. Put up things that you find, showing them what you mean eg lines from songs, something you overheard on the bus, a funny saying that your parents or grandparents used to say, a line from a story or something you heard on TV the night before. Keep it fresh, keep replenishing it. Keep encouraging children to add to it. Hold writing sessions based on the word-and-phrase collection wall. Use newspaper headlines, found funny or interesting phrases from articles, stories, or other poems.

10. Use modern technologies and poetry - blogs, powerpoints, digi camera films as vehicles for poetry or places to put poetry.

11. Find ways to put poems into other art forms, eg in clay tablets, stop-frame animations, as lines to be said to inspire dance, as key points in drama or starting points for improvisations etc, to set to music.

12. Explore a poet. Pick a poet and do a project on that poet's work. Get different tables in the class to devise a set of questions about the poet and then distribute the questions around everyone, go off and research the poet - poems, books, life etc.

13. Explore a kind of poem: do a project exploring a kind of poem eg the ballad, or the haiku, or narrative verse...Distribute a set of these poems. Get the children to devise a set of questions about them. Divide them up into research teams. Come back and share what you've found out. Write up the results and display what's been discovered where everyone can read it.

14. Integrate poetry in to topics and trips. Whatever your topic or outing that you're doing,  you'll find poems that will relate to it. Use google to find the poems. Don't worry if you find things that seem very hard. Just copy one out and put it up on the wall. It doesn't have to be a perfect match. Make a priority of finding poems that come from the place or time that you're studying ie an Elizabethan poem if you're doing the Elizabethans, an American poem if you're doing America.

15. Any poem can be a starting point for another poem. Don't expect or ask the children to follow a poem slavishly. Simply say that if whenever you hear or read a poem and you get the idea that you would like to 'write a poem like that' - then let's do it. You write with them. But also be inventive and ask questions like, I wonder if we can imagine a poem that comes 'before' this poem, or 'after' this poem? Or is there a poem that someone or something in the poem says? Write something for and with the children as an example.

Any collection of poems can be a starting point.

Any little group of themed poems can be a starting point.

So, you could choose a little group of, say, 'family' poems, or poems about eating in order to get the children generating 'poems like that'.

Or you could choose ten poems by one poet and say, can we write some poems like that poet?

Or you could choose a single poem and get the children talking about what bits of the poem would they like to imitate.

You can take poems and change words around in a poem, or swap one word for another and see what happens.

Below, (at 19)  I give some examples of the kind of talk you can generate around poems if you ask open-ended questions. After such talk sessions, it might be a good time to say, 'Well, if anything occurred to  you that you want to write about, let's do it. Or, if  there's a way of writing that you liked, we can do that too.'

16. All stories offer places for poems. The principle is similar to what happens in Shakespeare plays, musicals and opera. That's to say, the plot or drama unfolds till it gets to a kind of 'crunch' moment, at which point there is the potential for a big 'thinks bubble'. If you're doing some acting or making tableaux of scenes then you can hotseat people in the scene as a starting point for a monologue or dialogue poem. Two of my favourites are the moment that Icarus is falling out of the sky and the moment that Hansel and Gretel realise that they have been abandoned. Hotseat asking questions like:
What can you see around you?
What are  you afraid of?
What do you hope for?
What do you remember?
What are you saying?
(use these questions flexibly for different moments in different stories. Invent other questions like, say, what are you jealous of? Or what is making you angry? etc etc)
You might want to experiment with more metaphorical language by asking
what are certain things 'like'?

The answers to these questions from individuals, pairs, groups or the whole class can be made into poems by 'harvesting'...collecting them together, writing them up on big sheets of paper and picking bits of them, repeating bits of them, inventing 'refrains' (ie parts that are repeated at regular intervals) or you encourage the children to write their answers on strips of paper.

Then  you lay the strips out on the ground as if it's a 'ladder'. Then you stand alongside the ladder and shout out the lines...

Remembering what you do in the poetry show, start to make echoes, or choruses, going loud and quiet. Shuffle the strips around to see if it makes different kinds of poems...

17. Collect pictures. Laminate stuff from newspapers and magazines. Download pictures from art gallery sites and google images, laminate them.

Ask the children to choose a picture.
Ask them to choose somebody or something in the picture.
Ask them to be that person or thing.
Ask these kinds of questions:

What do you want most of all?
What are you most afraid of?
What makes you angry?
What makes you happy?
what do you think will happen next?
What do you more remember?
What piece of advice do you have for us?
What's  your favourite saying?

Ask the children to look at the answers and see what happens if you repeat some of the answers or parts of the answers.
Ask them to see what happens if you think of some kind of refrain or 'frame' (ie a beginning and ending that is quite similar).
See what happens if you change things around?
See what happens if you cut things out that seem to be not as interesting as other parts.

18. Collecting and making montages and lists.
A lot of poetry is made up of collections of pictures (images) or sayings, or thoughts and such poems don't worry about making a story.

i)You can go out and be very simple and make 'seeing' poems.
Ask groups of children to quickly say that they can see.
Everytime someone says something, the group repeat it.
Think of a phrase which expresses where you are:
'in the playground' or 'on the bus' or some such.
And use that as a refrain, repeating it regularly.

ii) You can make very simple 'saying' poems by collecting what people say
about things or what they say in certain situations eg
what do parents say when they're angry:
Get the children to really act being their parent when they say it.
Run these one after the other very quickly.
Perhaps pick one of these to be the chorus and slot that in every four 'sayings'.

iii) following this 'montage' system, you can do the same for certain emotions
in a specific situation or something quite abstract.
This is like the Adrian Henri 'Love is...' poem
But you could do eg
'Hope is...'
'Anger is...'

You could tie this into what things you can 'see', things you 'feel', things that the emotion feels 'like'.

19. When you read poems together, you should aim to ask questions that you don't know the answers to.
Get them discussing these things in pairs,

eg Does the poem - or anything in the poem - remind you of anything?
why? how?
remind you of anything that has ever happened to you?
why? how?
remind you of anything that has ever happened to anyone you know?
why? how?

Does the poem - or anything in the poem - remind you of anything you've ever read,
seen on TV, in a film? In any other entertainment? A song?
Why? How?

If you could ask anyone or any thing in the poem a question, what would you ask?
If you could ask the person who wrote the poem a question, what would you ask?

Is there anyone who would like to answer any of the questions that the class have
come up with?
Can we come up with any more interesting answers?

20. Poems are ways of sticking words together ie creating links or 'strings' between different parts of a poem.

They use all kinds of tricks to do this:
eg repeating sounds (rhyme, alliteration, assonance)
eg repeating rhythms
eg using the same words in different ways eg repeating an image or colour or feeling
eg creating opposites and contrasts

We can call these 'secret strings'. Poems don't usually announce these strings,
they just do them.

Let's all be 'poem detectives' and see what 'secret strings' we can find in a poem.
Wherever we find one, put a loop round one end, run a line to the other one and loop round that.
So long as you can convince  yourself or someone else that there really is a secret string, it is one!

So, demonstrate this once on a big piece of paper in front of them all, scribbling all over the poem, finding secret strings. Encourage them to find some too.
Then give them some more poems to be 'poem detectives' with.

If you do this regularly, never telling them they're wrong, they will acquire the tools necessary to describe how poets put poems together and how they try to create effects.
They will also realise that what they have to say about this is important and good.


If you do all these things, with particular emphasis on doing things regularly and often, with maximum amount of autonomy and choice for the children, you will start to see the children building up a repertoire of poems they know, they want to learn, they want to write, ways of describing poems that they have developed, a sense of what they want to write about.

This means that you don't have to worry so much about running the perfect poetry lesson. What counts most is the continuity and variety.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Poetry does...some thoughts

Poetry does....

We are often asked 'what is poetry?' What happens if we ask instead, 'what does poetry do?'

I ask because we have reached a point in the history of literature where poetry isn't defined by a universally agreed set of rules. Poetry is what, say, a writer, a publisher and a reader think is poetry. Or perhaps it's someone standing up in a public place and speaking certain kinds of things and everyone in the room is agreed that what's going on is poetry.

It is of course possible to pull together a few elements that most (never all) poems seem to conform to but such definitions will either fall apart because of exceptions, or the opposite: other kinds of writing or speaking will be found to use those elements too. So if we say, for example, that poems are pithy and musical. Well, some are, some aren't. And anyway, so are proverbs. If we say poems say things using the best words in the best order, we can say, so does a really good play, a really good novel, a proverb and a brilliant speech. And so on.

So, I suggest that we can move on from that by looking at what poetry does.

Of course, it 'does' different things in different places. A lot (but not all) of my work is in schools so the list below is about what poetry does (or 'can do' or 'could do') in a school setting. It's really about a set of possibilities rather than a set of closed functions.

If you're a teacher and you need to justify why you're doing poetry then perhaps this list will help you do that.  On the other hand you might wonder yourself what the point of it is, particularly if you were told at some point in your life that you didn't understand a poem or were made to think you weren't good enough to enjoy poetry.

What follows is about enjoying poetry and living with it and in it - in school or out.

1. Participatory - solo

Poetry offers groups, classes and whole schools the possibility of doing stuff in a participatory way. Just as we enjoy sport and music in a collaborative way, so can we enjoy poetry using rhythms, choruses, echo-effects, duets, trios, call and response etc and where this feels non-coercive it can help us feel joined to other people in a good way.

It also offers something almost opposite: we can go solo with poetry. We can, at other times, hunker down in a corner and express something that feels personal, feels as if it just belongs to me, comes from something that 'only I' have experienced. Then, it's up to us whether we share it or not. The benefits of sharing it are that we discover something about ourselves in the reactions of others - maybe it's very strange, (they seem to be saying) or they may be saying that they experienced or thought something similar. The benefits of not sharing it are that it feels as if it's something to do with feeling a bit good or a bit strong about doing something on our own.

2. Puts chunks of language in children's ears

I don't subscribe to 'cultural deficit theory' or 'linguistic deficit theory' which says that there are millions of children who have 'no culture' or 'no language' and variations on that theme. However, when poetry works with children, they will adopt poems and they become part of their linguistic and cultural 'repertoire'. Of course, in certain circumstances, this could be no better than a load of old totalitarian crap about how great  your nation is and how rubbish everyone else is. In other circumstances, where a range of poems from different viewpoints, different cultures are being read and heard, then that's not the issue.

A good deal of poetry is a kind of 'portable philosophy'. That's to say it expresses quite difficult or challenging ideas in ways that can be carried around in your head. Usually, that's because of the musicality of the poem.

3. Suggests as well as tells...

Much of education is about 'telling'. It's about certainties, facts, knowledge etc. However, part of who we are as humans is that we exist with each other through suggestion. We imply, infer, allude to things. We use tone of voice, volume, expression and gesture to indicate what we think. A lot (not all) of poetry occupies this space too. A good deal of it suggests that things are being thought, said or felt without tying it down completely. In an ideal world, we would think and talk about these things without having to tie them down to tests with specific answers to what this or that word of phrase suggested.

4. Doesn't have to tie up a story - leave it hanging

Narrative poems don't have to have endings. Most teaching of story-writing is aimed at children includes ways of winding up, closing and concluding stories. Sometimes this results in forced endings that don't work. I believe that nothing ends in real life. The whole point about life is that it's lived socially which means that when anything ends, something carries on - as carried by other people. So, satisfying as stories are, they don't express that notion. Poems can. They can hang in the air, leaving us as readers to 'carry on', imagine what is implied, or what might have happened next. Or indeed, we are part of the 'carrying on'.

5. It can be about a state of mind, how you feel.

Many poems for the last century are not really narrative in the usual sense of the word. They express a state of being. Famously, Adrian Henri wrote 'Love is...' which was a list rather than a narrative. Yes, you could claim each of the 'Love is...' lines is itself a kernel of a narrative but overall, it's about a notion, 'love'. But poems can also be about how you (singly or collectively) might be feeling at a particular moment in a particular place, a fragment of consciousness - a notion in itself first elaborated by Henry James's brother!

6. Can make a statement of belief

Many poems can be statements of what 'I' or what 'we' believe. They can be declamations, or declarations. Think 'Howl' by Ginsberg. So the kind of space that the phrase 'let's write a poem' gives you is also one that can be 'let's write down what we believe about...'. One of the great 'poems' of the 20th century, I believe, is Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech or Pastor Niemoeller's statement 'First they came for...' .

7. It borrows language from everywhere else, so good for
a sense of parody, fun, use of language for many purposes
not just one.

I think many or most poems have been produced by crows. Crows are scavengers and improvisers. They go about hunting for stuff that may well be edible. Poets are like that with language-in-use. It's not just that poets  collect words. I think that's misleading. I think poets keep spotting words-in-use in the signs, notices, cliches, conversations, observations that people make...or also in particular professions' use of language, or 'types' like eg grandmothers. And poets also scavenge all previous poems for shapes and forms of poems to use, sonnets, call and response, question and answer, montage, haiku etc. These are shapes and sounds that can be scavenged and used.

This can make the process of making poetry in schools a way of using, collecting and critiquing the language-use that children and students find around them. This makes it different from most other kinds of language-use in schools which is mostly about learning how to use language in prescribed and received ways eg this is how you write up an experiment, this is how you write an essay, this is how you write a 'recount'. Poetry-writing can be the opposite: look at how that language-use is saying its can we use that, parody it, alter it, change it, criticize it?

8 . Great for giving concentrated activity in story, recount, events...

Life, stories, films, plays, games pass by very quickly. Poems can freeze moments. If we think it's valuable or useful to reflect on life, storeis, films, plays, games etc, then poems can help you do that. They can freeze-frame a moment and ask or tell us things about that moment: what am I thinking? why am I thinking that? what else could I be thinking that would help me get out of that moment? And so on. The most famous 'moment' in action is Shakespeare's 'To be or not to be...' and we can all write poems (musicals do it with songs) which freeze the moment like that. Perhaps it's a way of concentrating thought in the midst of action.

9. Can open up possibilities of other worlds - leading to nonsense
Nonsense is new sense, experiment with things, environments,
state of mind,

Probably all the arts open up possibilites. Nonsense worlds are like alternative worlds, alternative uses of language. This offers up the possibility of experiment, and of not treating the known world as fixed and unchangeable. Nonsense suggests to me that we can shift things around. It's probably an illusion but it's a provocative and interesting place to live in in short bursts. Unpredictability feels good in the midst of highly predictable circumstances like, let's say, in the midst of timetables or itineraries.

10. Can be personal while you're thinking you're talking about someone
or something else. (it 'deflects' while it 'reflects')

A psychological process thought by some as being valuable is to allow ourselves to reflect on things about ourselves even as we think we're not. So, if I reflect on the abandonment of Hansel and Gretel, I might well think I'm exploring those feelings in 'them' and not in 'me'. But really what's happened is that I've been 'deflected' in order that I might 'reflect' freely with less inhibition than if I was asked to reflect on my own feelings. ie 'deflect to reflect'. Poetry reading and writing can help people do this.

That said, it can also offer the opposite, the space to 'confess'. We can use poetry to say the unsayable, the things I can't or won't say or wished I had said, or would say if I could etc.

11. It can be a carrier of culture, the thing that identifies you.
Great for cross-cultural sharing, discovering about others.

All poetry is an expression of who we are culturally. It does this by means of the language it's expressed in and the forms of the poems. They all belong within specific cultures and mixtures of cultures. These can be traced, they have histories. The 'sonnet' has a history and if I write one in a certain way, I'm saying something about the cultures I have inherited and the ones I'm part of.

Because the elite culture  of, say, Britain, is invisible to those who participate in it, it's become customary to treat eg Caribbean poetry as if it alone carries culture, while poems of the elite in Britain are just poems or 'literature'. This is really just a con.

Poetry offers us the possibility of sharing cultures in quite explicit and co-operative ways. Poems often draw attention to this through specific uses of language or mention of beloved objects, descriptions of places, memories of historical events.

12. With 'figurative language' (metaphors, similes, personification etc)
it can invite children to think what things in the world around them
are 'like' each other, even when  you think they're not.

Metaphors and the rest are really a form of philosophy. They are each invitations to find similarities and differences in things. Part of the struggle of being human is to find and understand what is similar what is different in the things and people around us. Human beings are constantly trying to spot, understand and learn from patterns. Making metaphors (similes and the rest) is one way we do that. I read the opening of 'Dulce et Decorum est'  ('Bent double like old beggars...') as a plea by Wilfred Owen to get us to see the degradation being experienced by the men in the trenches. He seems to be saying to me, 'Look, the young men you saw leave Britain have been turned into old men, and instead of being feisty guys with guns, they are now begging, stooped, pleading...'  You can say that in a speech but metaphorical language can be a plea that you see things in a particular kind of way, because this or that is 'similar' or 'different' from what you thought it was.

13. Makes familiar things unfamiliar, unfamiliar things familiar
(shakes up the world as you know it, challenges, surprises)

These are sometimes taken as the essence of poetry. Poets make the things we know unfamiliar (often but not always through metaphor, simile, personification etc). Poets also find unfamiliar things and tell us about them in ways that we come to know them, feel them or understand them.

You could argue that if education just did this, it would have done a good job.

14. Offers great talking points...(but must have open-ended questions or no questions!)
a mini-circle time.

I can't speak for all poets, but I know that the main reason why I write poems is that I would hope that for many readers any poem I write offers readers something to think and talk about. They are a way of opening a conversation. If a teacher is looking for ways of helping children talk about things then poems are as good a way as any of starting conversations. However, this will only happen if teachers don't ask questions they already know answers to.

15. Great for 'sampling' or 'anthologising' or 'displaying' and diy dealing with texts.
Making it your own, investigating, collecting, browsing.

Poems are great for doing all of the above - chopping up, collecting, sampling, quoting, performing in sequences, in contrast with each other and so on. This can be a very free sort of activity. Again, if education is to do important things, I can think of nothing more important than passing on the talent of good browsing. Browsing, after all, is the business of scanning and surfing, choosing and ordering 'text', passages, pages, chapters, books, so that you can use them for your own purposes. Poems offer very pleasurable ways of doing this.

16. Mysterious eg in its musicality, evocation of other worlds.
Not everything in the world is obvious.

Most of education is concerned with certainties. However, behind a lot of the certainties are uncertainties. So we can describe scientifically how and why leaves fall off deciduous trees and how and why evergreen trees do that differently but it's much harder to explain why there are deciduous and evergreen trees. We can of course just say, 'well there just are' and that's part of 'variation' in the universe. But there is an element of mystery to it. Because poems don't have to be certain (they can be) then they're good at mystery. Sometimes this is an interesting place to be.

17. Poems often work by placing one picture or image or event next to another without giving cause and effect. In, say, a historical account, we tend to do the opposite. One picture of event is linked by causal words like 'because' or 'the reason why' or 'the consequence' and so on. In poetry, you don't  have to do that. You can leave that to readers to speculate about. This grants a lot of power to readers, provided we give readers (children, students) the space to do the speculating without worrying that they've got the right answer.

18. Though we often talk about poetry being dense, difficult, full of conundrums etc. It can also be amazingly accessible, not daunting. It can offer ready access to the written language, to complex ideas in very accessible ways. This is the proverbial, populist side of poetry expressed through eg folk poetry, folk song, proverb and those poets how inherit those traditions.

Interesting review re interesting book re 'intelligence'

A History of Intelligence and ‘Intellectual Disability’: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern EuropePrinter-friendly versionPDF version

A History of Intelligence and ‘Intellectual Disability’: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe
C. F. Goodey
Farnham, Ashgate, 2011, ISBN: 9781409420217; 388pp.; Price: £35.00
Professor James W. Trent
Gordon College
Professor James W. Trent, review of A History of Intelligence and ‘Intellectual Disability’: The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe, (review no. 1140)
Date accessed: 11 October, 2012