Sunday, 19 March 2017

Curriculum-free zones - let's do it!

In the last two or three years I've heard from teachers more and more bitter criticisms of the straitjacket put on reading comprehension, writing, grammar, punctuation and spelling. The 'expected levels' in all this - particularly at Key Stage 2 have gone beyond 'difficult' or 'annoying' to 'crazy' and 'disastrous'.

Several key areas have emerged:
1. Artificial criteria for what makes 'good writing' - that is, having to insert structures such as 'fronted adverbials' or 'embedded relative clauses' as if this is what constitutes 'good writing'.
2. Grammar taken out of context, with questions asked of the children based on artificial sentences that no really writes or speaks.
3. Comprehension questions based on putting together formula answers to do with what supposedly makes a word or phrase 'effective', invented ideas about what the author 'intends'.

I know that teachers are doing their best to teach all this. I know that several people in advisory, consultative and training roles are doing their best to alleviate some of the most rigid and narrow aspects of this - particularly those demonstrated by the kinds of booklets that are turning up everywhere full of exercises and worksheets.

As far as I'm personally concerned, I feel that what's being required has got beyond anything that I could 'help' or alleviate anymore. When I think about writing stories or poems, or if I think about how to run a workshop on stories or poems, I don't want to being with trying to fulfil the criteria of what supposedly makes good writing according to requirements. When I think about reading, I don't want to think of the narrow questioning involved with 'retrieval', 'inference', 'sequence/chronology'. When I think about grammar, I think it's beyond absurd to not consider language in use, language in context, and to reject the idea that we use language in variety of ways, not just one fixed way.

I fully realise that I'm extremely lucky and privileged to be able to think about writing, reading, language and children without having to knuckle under this yoke that the government have imposed.

What positive can I offer or propose, if I think it has all got beyond the point of what I'm calling here 'alleviating' the curriculum requirements? My focus has turned to those moments in a day, a week, a month, a term or the school year when teachers can create curriculum-free zones in writing, reading, and language-use in general.

Teachers will know better than me that there are these pockets of time across a year - in particular in the time after SATs, when the immediate requirements to teach to the test, or to teach to these criteria are less pressing. In these moments - and of course, sometimes this has involved me - where teachers can say to children, 'We don't have to follow the usual rules and requirements' - and we can do something else altogether.


1. My first proposition is organisational. (This is lifted from a school I've visited.) Why not do whole staff planning for the time after SATs, when you can suspend the curriculum and plan whole school language-based activities - drama, poetry, book-writing, poster-making, blogging, book festivals etc - involving the whole school community: teachers, TAs, parents, carers, governors, etc?

2. More specifically, why not consider using a whole-school text? I saw in one school (Ranelagh in Newham, London) they took Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and made it work across the whole school using themes and motifs from the play for every year from Nursery to Year 6. This involved every teacher in planning and sharing ideas to do with the play and what kinds of language and arts work. The themes of the play include islands, storms, magicians, revenge, colonisation, slavery, rebellion, utopias, morality of parents arranging marriage and so on. There's tremendous scope for using language as poetry, story, recount, non-fiction, film scripts, powerpoint and much more along with art, dance, photography, video, drama and so on.

3. Why not consider turning the school over into a publishing-performing house?  So, suspending the curriculum is replaced by producing writing for a purpose and only for a purpose. Instead of writing ending up in exercise books, it goes into books, pamphlets, chap books, booklets, autobiographies, blogs, the school bulletin, newspapers, magazines, drama performances, performance poetry, posters, wall displays etc etc. So, this isn't just 'anything goes' (as we are often caricatured for saying). Quite the opposite, all the criteria for the writing is 'audience' and 'purpose'. Every piece of writing has an intended audience, at a particular time and place and this is what will determine what's said and how it's said. 'Correctness' will be determined by how we think the audience will be able to read what's written - in other words real-life criteria.

4.  At the heart of these ideas is a belief in the value of what we used to call 'language arts'. Practising any art involves the artist changing materials. When it's clay or paint, the material is obvious. But language involves material too. Whenever we use it, we have to use material - print, digital pulses, voice boxes, lungs. When we speak or write poems and stories, we shape the material which embodies language. Writing 'transforms sources' - that's to say, we never start from scratch. Yes, the Romantic poets talked of 'inspiration' as if what we write comes from some kind of magic place, but in reality, all writing and speaking starts with the 'sources' or 'materials' of previous writing. No matter how 'original' we are or hope to be, we work with what we know and what we have. We transform these into things (poems and stories etc) which we hope will be fresh and surprising and interesting. Rather than fight this, and always hope for 'inspiration', I think we help children the best when we say some of this quite openly. We can read a poem or a story and say, 'We can write like that.' What does that mean? It means we can borrow a 'voice', a 'pattern', a 'plot', a character, a setting, a 'motif', a theme from a piece of writing to make something new.

If you're working with very young children,  you can take something like our 'Bear Hunt' and change it into another kind of 'Hunt'. You can change the grass, river, mud, forest and snowstorm into other obstacles - ones that the children come up with. You can take something like my 'Chocolate Cake' and ask about the 'voice'. Who is this? This is a child telling what happened. It's and 'I' way of telling a story and this 'I' enacts a scene. Borrow that. Or you could say, in this story/poem, there are repeated noises. It's as if at each stage, there is a chorus, a repeated 'refrain'. What kind of story or poem could you make up which did something like that? Or you could 'notice' that a poem like that is about someone who 'loves a certain kind of food', or 'someone who is greedy', or 'someone who is naughty' and then invite the children to write something like that from their point of view. When it comes to more elaborate stories, look at my checklist again of voice, pattern, plot, character, setting, motif, theme. These are all aspects which you can 'pull out' of a story and change. You can start to tell the 'same story' but in completely different setting, for example. Famously, Hollywood does this all the time, adapting and changing ready-made stories like the Odyssey, Macbeth, Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' etc etc.

Every poem and every story can be used and adapted like this. What's more, every poem and every story, can be 'used' to create prequels and sequels: 'what happened before?' 'what happened afterwards'. (What was going on in the lives of  Cinderella and Prince Charming ten years after the story?!) You can write poems, stories, skits, plays, based on those two questions. What's more in every story and in many poems too, there are moments (ideally key moments of change or of realisation by characters) when you can invite children to write from the point of view of that character: what is that character thinking or could say? (What did Goldilocks say to her Mum when she got home? a) if it was the 'truth' and b) if she made up something different?).

Of course plenty of these ideas can be used and adapted for within the curriculum. I'm not going to say anything against that. What I would say though, is that if you want to get the most out of them, the best way to do them is when you use them in curriculum-free moments, using the criteria of publishing and performing instead of SATs-readiness!

I'd say something else. By creating these curriculum-free zones, you offer children the chance to 'make literacy their own'. For as long as the criteria for good writing rest entirely with 'the system' - that is, SATs, exams, homework booklets, exercises, marks, grades etc, then literacy belongs to the system outside of the child. If you set up repeated situations where the children are sharing what they read and write based on their sense of audience then at least you fill those writing situations with the possibility that they sense that literacy belongs to them. When you know literacy belongs to you, you can handle language with a sense of your own power and ability. You sense that you can use it to create new possibilities and that as you do so, you change yourself. ('In changing nature [ie reality], we change ourselves.')

The ironic consequence of this is that by creating a rich curriculum-free zone, it will feed back into making the curriculum easier! Children playing with language, story, poetry and drama for a purpose will enable them to use it in all situations with more confidence and control.

Best of luck