Teach your Children Well

Years ago, when I was a proper working person and not a layabout pensioner, I was a teacher. I worked in primary schools, beginning with the oldest children, in a tenement style school in Stockwell, London and finishing with the tiny tots in the reception class in a seaside village.

During the first, pre-career break time there was room for some experimentation in the classroom. There was the freedom to implement such ideas as ‘bay-working’, where the room was split into areas or ‘bays’, each bay being set up for some independent work in a specific curriculum subject.

When I returned to reaching after a ten year career break [having my own children] there was still a culture of freedom and the school where I taught implemented a system called ‘integrated day’, the idea being that a topic was chosen and the learning arose from delving into curriculum areas around that topic.

During the years I worked in the integrated day system I can never remember any of us, children included, feeling stressed, bored or exhausted [although, to be fair I was still relatively young]. The children, no matter what age, were responsible for their own day’s achievements and became independent from not being ‘spoon-fed’ every skill and piece of knowledge. We considered ourselves providers or facilitators and all of us attended school each day with a buzzy feeling of enthusiasm for what the day would bring.

Within the system we used ‘real’ books for reading. We’d quietly withdraw a specific ability group to teach a skill in Maths or English or hear individuals read then filter them back in to practise what they’d learned. Art, science, story writing, technology or play would all be going on simultaneously.

There were many opportunities for children to help each other and enjoy roles and responsibilities. Everyone could say what they were doing and why. The behaviour was mature and sensible, even though sixty or seventy children would be sharing a [large] area.

Within three or four years of this halcyon period the ‘national curriculum’ was introduced. Nine curriculum subjects were identified and separated. There was no more linking up areas into topics. The concept of targets crept in. Appraisal and the beginning of scrutiny began. Some bright, government ambition-seeker invented OFSTED. Fear became a feature of every day teaching life.

There was no more opportunity for integrated day, for children to feel empowered by their independence. The parents no longer trusted us. Testing, in the form of SATS was thought up, a system the parents fixated on and became obsessed with, their children’s ‘level’ being the only thing that mattered-more than motivation, achievement, self-esteem or happiness.

I believe that parents, teachers and anyone who is involved with children’s development should aim to foster a spirit of independence in thought and action, maintain the natural desire to learn and encourage kindness, respect and support of each other, just as we used to. That way we may have a hope of growing and nurturing a kind, caring and intelligent society and not the grasping, selfish and ignorant culture we are stuck with today.

Advertisements

Festival Time

Weather or not [and more often inclement]-it’s festival season. They’ve become bigger and more elaborate over the last fifty years. As a teenager I escaped the parental gaze and attended plenty of concerts, some of which were outside, notably Pink Floyd in Hyde Park on a blazing hot day, July 1970. I was seventeen. The concert, like other Hyde Park gigs, was free.

The mother of all music festivals, Woodstock had been in 1969. It held an alluring, magical quality for us then; we who would never have the option to attend packing instead into the cinema to worship our heroes-Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Ten Years After and the rest.

Festivals began to be a feature of the summer. The Isle of Wight, Glastonbury and Reading became fixtures and were supplemented by a rash of music events as time progressed.

Now it seems there is a festival on somewhere every week during the summer months but the free and easy ethos of the sixties is long past. Most of the larger, well known events carry an eye-watering ticket price, often with facilities to match, for those prepared to pay. Glastonbury offers luxury yurts with en-suites, although those with a thirty pound, pop-up tent are still welcome. There are multiple stages offering a range of entertainments, food from every culture, handy stalls flogging much needed wellies and waterproof capes.

Last weekend we were once again running our own, local, modest music festival on a green stretch by the River Stour. The festival has run for twenty five years, charging a small sum for entry and donating any profits to charity. The performers play free, the staff are unpaid volunteers; but the festival is under threat from council regulations and spiralling costs. Sadly, security has had to be put into place to keep real music lovers, festival goers and families just wanting a happy day out safe from gate-crashers, those wanting to bring their own alcohol rather than using the festival beer tent and other party poopers. They are few but still not welcome.

In addition to all of this, we volunteers are almost all getting on in years. Putting up fencing, constructing a stage, fetching and carrying, bin emptying and litter picking late into the night takes a toll-especially on Husband, who has the added anxiety of responsibility for administrative matters. As a lowly ticket seller and general helper my duties are less imperative, but the role can be varied. This year I undertook tasks ranging from repairing plastic swords [purchased from a toy stall] to retrieving a pair of stray dogs that threatened to run wild inside the compound. Then there are arrogant young men who strut past the ticket booth with a nonchalant swagger and have to be called back, large families who flock in, people for whom complaint is a lifetime goal-especially when it comes to forking out £5 for a day’s music!

But in a quiet moment, when the sun shines and we pause to survey the arena where groups of festival goers are lounging on picnic blankets, children playing, a swarm around the beer tent and a full marquee it feels like a great thing to do.

 

The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!

Failures-of Course.

Aside

                For an inexplicable reason which I now fail to recall, I considered, a few months ago, that it would be an inspirational idea to undertake a creative writing course. Of course, anyone who reads Anecdotage regularly will by now be scoffing and sniggering, since they will have acknowledged the necessity for my doing it from the first, but still…

                Above all, the timing could hardly be worse. We seem to be in the throes of a period of mad activity; a deluge of family, home, health and socially related issues.

                This is an online course. Week one arrived to the inbox. ‘I’ll start tomorrow’ was my approach, as I polished shoes, buffed nails, attended the salon and hoovered the carpets.

                During a five minute lull, in between making up beds and cooking lasagne I read one or two pieces of information and watched a couple of videos. Hooray! ‘This will be simple’ I thought.

                I resumed pre house guest preparations with a light[ish] step, given that, as I elaborated in a previous post, I am crippled with annoying foot disease. I mowed the lawn; de-gunked the lavatory. I found time to log back in. I completed a couple of quizzes, even successfully! It would be a slab of creamy gateau to complete this course!

                ‘Whoa! What was this? I had to write something?’ I logged out in disgust and went to scrub the bath and shine the shower screen. I had to keep a notebook.

                I am not against the idea of keeping a notebook, of course. It has been my ambition to keep one ever since setting out on the bumpy journey that is writing. My writing idol, Donna Tartt keeps one. It’s just that proponents of the notebook idea make it seem easy. ‘Take it with you wherever you go!’ they suggest. ‘On the bus, in the café, on the train, in the laundrette, whilst out for a walk…’ OK. How do I write notes whilst driving, in a café with Husband or Offspring, whilst our laundry is whirling in the kitchen or while cycling? [walking has been a no-no for some time].

                Worse-I had to write a paragraph. It must contain three fictions and one fact. For an inveterate liar such as myself, the fictions presented little problem. The fact was I was unable to conjure one single idea. Time was spiralling away down the week’s plughole with an ever louder gurgle. The weekend came-and went. Monday arrived and with it…Week Two. Horrors! The first week had passed without my submission so much as forming an amorphous cloud inside my head.

                On Monday I risked a cursory glance at others’ submissions, where hundreds of paragraphs scrolled down in an interminable roll. In a fever of humiliation I added my short, hasty contribution; an excuse for a piece of writing. I was not the only miscreant. Others had also missed the deadline.

                The end of Week Two is now starting to appear upon the horizon with an inevitability as stark as my enthusiastic intentions. Would that the course was good old paper and post-then at least the dog could have eaten my homework…

                I will keep you posted.

It’s all about the Story

                We have made good our escape from windy, waterlogged England and are making for [hopefully] warmer, drier lands to the South.

                In preparation for this first jaunt of 2014 I loaded up my e-reader with some novels I’ve missed, some I was seduced by, having read reviews [though not Amazon’s-having been fooled more than once before] and some I feel it my duty to read.

                The first book is one that surprised me by its 99pence price tag, since it is the book from which the current blockbusting, award winning, sweep-the-board movie was made from-‘Twelve Years a Slave’.

                Now I have yet to see this film, and I’ve no doubt I will, but in my view films rarely match up to their book form. Although I am less than 25% through the story, ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ has gripped me and held me in its absorbing clutches. Solomon Northup’s account of his capture and subsequent subjection as a slave is both dignified and moving. He recounts the horrors that he and his fellow slaves endure in a measured, matter of fact narrative. Some of his descriptions are particularly moving, such as his account of the people of the Indian village celebrating with their visitors, enjoying a meal and dancing around a camp fire accompanied by music played on a fiddle [Solomon is himself a fiddle player]. He is captivated by the scene, whilst not once pointing out the irony of their freedom against his captivity.

                There is much to be said for personal accounts of horrific events in history. They tug our emotions more than facts. We all know of the dreadful horrors wrought on so many during the war, but Anne Franck’s diary story, documenting her life and including domestic trivia, teenage angst and family squabbles brings to life the awful reality of the events. It is the story of an ordinary family, one that we can relate to. How much more poignant than factual accounts!

                At school we were taught the dry, fusty dates and facts of history; the reigns of Kings and Queens or the politics behind the wars. If we’d have been given the personal stories behind the events I think we’d have been more interested-interested enough, perhaps to have ceased the passing round of a particularly smutty and sexually explicit paperback that some miscreant had purloined and divided into lesson-sized portions.

What would Solomon make of all the Oscar hullabaloo, I wonder. After all, the success of the film relies entirely on his story, whatever the performances and direction were like.

                We have reached the South of France, where the early March weather is already warm enough during the day to bring a blush of heat to the skin, though plummeting sharply at night. We cycled 25 miles up and down the Canal du Midi in glorious, unbridled sunshine without a cloud, the vineyards laid in neat rows ready to come into leaf. Along the side of the canal those who’ve made their houseboat homes in Dutch barges are busy spring cleaning and sprucing up. Spring must surely be the nicest season, with a promise of long, warm days to come.